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Posts Tagged ‘election’

Everywhere you turn in an election year, you’ll hear people saying that every vote counts … and our brave forefathers died to give us the right to vote … and you can’t complain about politics if you can’t vote.

(This last claim has always chafed me. As if logic built on superior smugness has ever stopped anyone from complaining. As if anything has ever convinced somebody not to complain.)

Even the most loyal patriot occasionally gets tired of doing his civic duty, though.

That seems to be where my grandfather was, more than 50 years ago:

November 6, 1962.

November 6, 1962. Wonder what the numbers signified?

Some Election Days are more gripping than others. This one does not seem to have engaged my grandpa very much — though my aunt seemed quite cheerful about getting the day off from school.

In retrospect, I’m hard put to understand why my grandpa seemed so nonchalant. The November 1962 elections were plenty eventful for residents of southwestern Connecticut, who had two Congressional seats to weigh in on:

– The retirement of Prescott Bush left one of the state’s two U.S. Senate seats open. The seat switched parties, as Democrat Abe Ribicoff beat Republican Horace Seely-Brown in a close race (51 percent to 49 percent).

– In Connecticut’s 4th Congressional District, incumbent Republican Rep. Abner Sibal held off Democratic challenger Francis X. Lennon Jr. in another close race, 52 percent to 48 percent.

Those races look interesting enough to me. Could be they weren’t as close as the numbers and the distance of time make them seem.

Or, maybe my grandpa was more motivated by municipal races, and there just weren’t many of those to pique his interest. For instance, there was no mayoral election that November.

(There would be mayoral upheaval in Stamford the following year, as Hizzoner J. Walter Kennedy left town to take an unusual new job — commissioner of the National Basketball Association. But that didn’t have anything to do with the 1962 election.)

Of course there was no presidential election in 1962, since the election that year fell at the midterm (or what would have been the midterm) of John F. Kennedy’s only term.

There won’t be a presidential election this year either, but there should be plenty of other activity across the country. Here in Pennsylvania, for instance, we’ll be choosing a governor — a new governor, quite likely.

So do get out and vote in tomorrow’s “election,” won’t you?

Even if it doesn’t excite you.

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Close to 15 years after it happened, it remains the finest political moment I have ever witnessed in person.

I was in Providence, Rhode Island, part of a big crowd milling around after commencement ceremonies at the Rhode Island School of Design.

Providence’s charismatic mayor, Buddy Cianci, had spoken at the ceremony. Or, more accurately, he had appeared at the ceremony — swooping onstage just long enough to waive the graduating seniors’ parking tickets, present the honorary doctorate recipients with jars of his marinara sauce, and play to the back rows with his own infectious brand of political prosciutto.

I think everyone in the crowd after the ceremony figured Buddy had blown in, blown out, and gone back to running the city or something.

But then a pair of state troopers began pacing deliberately through the crowd, pushing politely but firmly, and calling in thick southern New England accents: “Cleah a pahth for the mayah! Cleah a pahth for the mayah!”

And in their wake followed a massive black stretch limousine, with two or three boomerang antennas sprouting arrogantly from the trunk lid, and Rhode Island state plates with the numeral “1.”

In Nineties Rhode Island, the governor didn’t get Plate #1. Buddy Cianci, mayor of Providence, got Plate #1.

And this was Buddy’s limo inching through the crowd, making the most conspicuous getaway possible, reminding thousands of newly minted grads and their relatives that underneath the civic-minded glad-handing was a man who truly savored the perks and muscle of being Boss.

It was pretty damn impressive.

Yes, there’s something about a mayor that makes people sit up and take notice. Even a low-key, man-of-the-people sort of mayor draws attention when he mingles with the common people or turns out to support a civic cause.

That’s what was going on during this week’s calendar entry, imported directly from Halloween Week 1973:

October 30-31, 1973.

The mayah — er, mayor — in question has shown up in this space before.

Julius M. Wilensky was elected Stamford’s mayor in a three-man race in 1969, earning my grandfather’s vote. He was re-elected two years later, in a race that did not earn special notice on my grandpa’s calendar.

On Tuesday, Oct. 30, 1973, Republican Wilensky would presumably have shown up at the Springdale Methodist Church to press the flesh and ask for the people’s support in the upcoming municipal election exactly a week later.

(I do not know for sure whether my grandpa met Wilensky in person that night. But if he did, I know he had freshly cleaned teeth.)

Wilensky’s campaign gambit did not work. Nov. 6, 1973, was a big day for Democratic candidates across the country, as voters voiced their Watergate-era displeasure with Republicans.

Democratic winners that night included New Jersey Gov. and future arena namesake Brendan Byrne; Abraham Beame, New York City’s first Jewish mayor; Coleman Young, Detroit’s first black mayor; and Frederick Lenz Jr., Wilensky’s opponent for mayor of Stamford.

Lenz served one term and was replaced by Louis Clapes, a popular Republican who earned four terms.

Clapes was replaced in turn by ambitious young Democrat Thom Serrani, the last of 13 mayors of Stamford to have William, Corine and Pauline Blumenau as subjects. It was early in the Serrani administration that my grandparents and great-grandma pulled up stakes, leaving Stamford for western New York after 40-plus years.

I do not think my grandpa was particularly attached to any of the men who ran his adopted home city during his years there. While he was a regular voter, he was not a diehard political animal by any measure.

But the all-caps treatment on his calendar — “MAYOR in church” — suggests he viewed a visit from Hizzoner as something special. Something to get dressed up for, and make a point of attending.

Mayoral visits can be that way. Even without stretch limos and jars of marinara sauce.

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Before there were Tea Partiers or soccer moms, there was another grass-roots political force at large in our nation.

And my grandfather was part of it, even though he never hoisted a sign or attended a rally.

He might have been somewhat better educated than others in his group. He might have brought home a little more in his pay packet than some of them. And his mailing address happened to be a couple hundred miles east of many of theirs.

But in the larger scheme of things, he fit right in with millions of other Americans who skewed slightly older in the fall of 1968; did not regularly participate in political affairs outside Election Day; took a conservative political tack; and were concerned about the nation’s social and cultural upheaval.

On Tuesday, Nov. 5, 1968, my grandfather joined 31,783,782 other Americans in voting for a man who galvanized that voting bloc like no other.

Nov. 5, 1968. Nixon's the one.

And almost exactly a year later, Richard Nixon would reward his faithful by christening them with one of the great political identities in American history.  In a speech on his Vietnam policy, Nixon would call for the support of “the great silent majority of my fellow Americans.”

“For almost 200 years, the policy of this nation has been made under our Constitution by those leaders in the Congress and the White House elected by all of the people. If a vocal minority, however fervent its cause, prevails over reason and the will of the majority, this Nation has no future as a free society.”

Richard Nixon, Nov. 3, 1969

No membership card or voter registration ever tracked the formal membership of Nixon’s Silent Majority.

But in a single evocative phrase, Nixon at once offered haven (you need not speak; we’ll speak for you) and reassurance (we are the majority; we will win out) to a massive slab of the American electorate. They had already responded to him in 1968, and they would respond in overwhelming numbers four autumns later.

Of course, Nixon’s catchphrase made no concession to the presence of dissent in the American DNA. One suspects that the silent majority of colonists in 1775-76 favored the English, and the U.S. only broke away because of the gall and vision of those relative few who marched in the streets. (Paul Revere and John Adams were in nobody’s silent majority. Maybe that explains why Massachusetts cocked a snook at Nixon in ’72.)

Still, while Nixon’s label may have been founded on shaky historical ground, it resonated in the late ’60s and early ’70s.

October 1968.

I scanned in this picture from my grandfather’s collection a year or two ago. And for some reason, as soon as I saw it, I thought of Nixon’s Silent Majority.

Just as the John McCain campaign in 2008 co-opted Plumber Joe (or whatever that guy was called), I could easily imagine the Nixon campaign co-opting a fiftysomething man in a plain brown suit, standing proudly on the neat back steps of a home he worked to buy, as the face of their own distinct vision of America.

How do I know my grandfather was a Nixon supporter? In 15 years of calendar entries, my grandpa only wrote the names of two candidates on his calendar on Election Day. Nixon was one of them. I’m interpreting that as a pretty solid endorsement. (Who was the other? Come back tomorrow to find out.)

I spent some time in the writing of this post trying to imagine what life among the Silent Majority felt like on Nov. 5, 1968.

I never lived in a world in which Richard Nixon was anything other than a disgraced leader, and perhaps even something of a joke.

The front page of the Stamford Advocate on the day I was born carried a wire story about Nixon’s family members urging him not to resign — more than a year before he finally did.

And when I went to college in the early ’90s, I met a young woman who grew up in the New Jersey suburb where Nixon made his final home. She said gangs of kids used to gather as close as they could get to his house, yell “Watergate!”, and then disappear into the surrounding streets — leaving the old man, perhaps, to wonder what he had done to deserve such calumny.

But on that Tuesday in November — before any foreshadowing of Watergate, and the Enemies List, and the drawn-out death fight of 1974 — it must have seemed to the nascent Silent Majority that the political tide had finally come around to meet them.

As with all new Presidential administrations, the future was bright. Anything was possible.

And Nixon was the one.

PS: This may be among the greatest presidential pictures ever taken; I would give several internal organs for an unedited transcript of this conversation. And no, it’s not Nixon and Elvis.

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