Monday, November 03, 2008

Election Day 1968

Forty years ago I was in New York City on election day. I had graduated from college the previous spring and was hired by my college sorority (Alpha Omicron Pi) as one of two "Traveling Secretaries" who visited chapters on college campuses across the United States and Canada. I would spend a few days meeting with the chapter and officers, sharing information from the national officers and reporting on their activities and the state of the chapter, then fly to another city and do it all over again. I did this for a year and it was a year that was transforming. I saw my country from coast to coast and north to south during one of the most challenging times in our history.

During that first week of November I was visiting the chapter at Wagner College on Staten Island. I had never been to New York and I could see the skyline of Manhattan in the distance. When several of the sorority members asked if I would like to go to the city for the day I jumped at the chance. We took the Staten Island Ferry and arrived to a festive atmosphere. Street vendors were distributing political buttons, selling small flags, T-shirts and plastic hats with red, white and blue ribbons. Someone dressed like Uncle Sam thrust something into my hand as I passed and I looked down to see that it was a sample sized tube of toothpaste attached to a card that read, "vote for a brighter smile!"

This was a great adventure for a girl from Idaho. What I knew of New York City I knew from the movies. We rode the elevator to the top of the Empire State Building, we walked down Fifth Avenue and stopped to look in the windows of Tiffany's. We hurried through Times Square, a much seedier and grim area than it is these days. Strange as it may seem, one of the highlights of the day was visiting Macy's. This was long before Macy's owned every department store in America. There was only one Macy's and it was legendary and it was New York City in my mind.

I truly had never seen any store quite like it and I made a small purchase, mostly so I would have one of their printed paper bags as a souvenir for my scrapbook. I told my companions that I was keeping my "Macy's sack" and they all hooted. First because I'm sure it was so ludicrous to them that such a thing would have any value, and second because I called it a sack. I learned another language difference between East and West, having conquered the Pop vs. Soda divide earlier in the week. One said, "that's not a sack, a sack is made of cloth—it's a bag!" Except she said it more like "behhg" and "cloth" sounded more like "clo-auth". We entertained each other for the rest of the day with our language and pronunciation differences.

It was a beautiful fall day and the city was all I had hoped for. I think there was such a sense of relief to finally reach that election day. The campaign had been tragic and brutal, going back to the assassination of Bobby Kennedy in the spring and the riots in Chicago during the Democratic Convention in the summer. The war in Vietnam raged and the country was deeply divided, so even as we watched election news on TVs in store windows, picketers and protestors passed with anti-war signs.

By the time we got back to campus that night Nixon had been projected as the winner. I called my Dad, a Nixon supporter, from a pay phone in the dorm. It was late in New York, but still pretty early in Idaho. "Congratulations, Dad. It looks like your guy won." Dad wasn't jubilant. He was pretty quiet. "Yeahhhh," he said slowly, "I hope he doesn't let us down."


I was sharing my memories of the election 40 years ago with Ray this morning and he pointed me to Leonard Pitts' column in today's paper. He references that election and the sad legacy of the '60s that has somehow shadowed this campaign. He's a wonderful writer. It's worth reading.


  1. That was our first election. I had forgotten you were in New York at the time.

    Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson also writes today of the importance of 1968.

    btw, this is wierd, my word verification was "macis" today.

  2. Anonymous10:06 AM

    I have been voting since before the Original Flood, it seems. And I've heard about CHANGE and HOPE so many times the words have lost meaning for me.

    But I realized the other day, that my ethnicity (caucasian), my age (66) and my gender (f) all made me indifferent to words that perhaps mean a whole different thing to African-Americans -- this Change and Hope is real, not just hot air.

    At least those are my thoughts today. If tonight's movie has a happy ending, I'm thinking of the biggest American flag you've ever seen, draped across our front porch, with a sign, "Welcome to the real America!" And my neighbors are looking for fireworks left over from the 4th of July. But right now, I'm just waiting, waiting, waiting -- it's 10 AM in the Pacific North West and too early to call......

  3. Anonymous10:10 AM

    Terry, this is a wonderful post! It's funny to think that while there were riots in the streets, you were Susie Sorority! (DD#2 was an AOPi, BTW.) But what a grand opportunity for you to see your country and hear other accents, literally and figuratively. My own first trip to NYC was only a couple of years later, and it dazzled me in the same ways it did you. Nice memory.

    The Pitts column is astounding. The 60's were awful and so fearful. Reconciliation has been much on my mind lately, both personally and patriotically. I hope, if Obama wins, it will be seen as less a victory of color and far more a victory for the return of civility, decency, and intelligence in the leadership of our nation.

    (And my word verification was "taxist"!)

  4. I voted for the first time in '68, the year I turned 21. Still have my Gene McCarthy buttons from the primaries. After Bobby Kennedy was killed and Humphrey got the nomination, I just couldn't stomach voting for such a mainstream politician (perfectly decent, progressive guy that he turned out to be). So my first vote in a national election was a write-in for Dick Gregory, running on the Peace and Freedom party ticket. What a little rad I was back then. It was the equivalent of voting for Nader in 2000.