Tuesday, October 07, 2008

From Nixonian to "Bleeding Heart Liberal"

If you read this blog regularly, you know I lean politically pretty hard to the left. But what you may not know is that this wasn't always so. A combination of my evolving views and life experiences, along with a takeover of the GOP by more radical right elements resulted in a shift in my views. You may ask yourself how does a Reagan Republican become a Democrat? There are probably stories how people have done this. For anyone interested, this is mine.

Early Years

I was politically-aware at an early age. I was seven years old during the 1960 election campaign, and vividly remember that my parents supporting Vice President Richard Nixon for the Presidency. Since Mom & Dad were backing Nixon, in my young mind, that was the obvious and only rational choice, right? When I found out from the kids next door that their family was for Kennedy, it actually caused some playtime ill-will, since they had the same view of their parents’ choice as I had of mine. Yet none of us were smart enough to tell you a single issue in the campaign. Like any other children, our views on politics, religion, morality, and how the world should be, was inherited from the environment of our respective homes.

When my parents went to cast their ballot for Nixon in 1960, my younger sisters and I had to stand with them in what seemed to be an infinitely long line of people waiting to vote. When we finally got to the front of the line, a poll tax had to be paid in order to cast a ballot. Poll taxes were instituted shortly after Reconstruction in 11 southern states as a way to keep blacks and poor whites from voting. The growing civil rights movement had brought the issue to the forefront, and by 1962, Congress sent a proposed constitutional amendment that would abolish the poll tax, to the states for ratification. This became the 24th Amendment upon ratification on January 23, 1964. The impact on national elections was felt in the five states that still had poll taxes, one of them being Texas, the state where we lived at the time.

In 1964, since my parents were for Barry Goldwater, so was I (not that it mattered who an eleven year old child was for). The political leanings I was taught at home were so ingrained, that I never really questioned them growing up. Even during my teen years, and with the dark specter of possibly being drafted to fight in Viet Nam, I unquestioningly assimilated the Republican mindset.

The events of 1968 were compelling, and I was a bit put off by Nixon’s “secret plan” to end the Vietnam War if he were elected. It turns out there was no secret plan, and the war dragged on during his first term. The assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King and Democratic Presidential candidate, Senator Robert F. Kennedy; along with the protests on college campuses across the country, coupled with the riots at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago showed that the nation was experiencing a time of major unrest and political upheaval. The incumbent President Lyndon Johnson declined to run for a second term, as the war took its political toll on him. The Democratic mantle fell to Vice President Hubert Humphrey. Between Humphrey and Nixon, neither one got me really excited, but alas, I was still too young for any of it to matter.

When the Ohio National Guard opened fire on protesting students at Kent State University in 1970, it horrified me. Four students were killed, and nine others wounded. You cannot ignore something like that. I see it all quite differently now, but at the time, I was either too young or too apathetic to really dig into what happened. Had I known then what I know now, I would never have supported the President for re-election.

Young Adulthood, The Draft, and The Rise & Fall of Nixon

The 1972 elections were the first to be held after ratification of the 26th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, which granted the vote to citizens who were at least 18 years old. As 19-year-old college student, I was ready and eager to participate in the political process. I was one of the few lonely campaigners on my campus for the re-election of President Nixon. I recall telling my dad that if the upcoming election were decided by my fellow students, Senator McGovern would win overwhelmingly. His reply was something like, “Well, those students won’t be deciding the election.” As it turned out, he was right, as Nixon won re-election in a landslide, only to resign a short time into his second term in the disgrace of the Watergate scandal.

At the time, I was not a fan of Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern , and given the Nixon landslide of 1972, neither were very many others. His early gaffes surrounding the abortive selection of Senator Thomas Eagleton as running mate, and his hasty replacement with Sargent Shriver won him few fans. Then his promise to immediately withdraw from Viet Nam within 90 days of his inauguration as President, and a promise to travel to Hanoi to beg for the release of our prisoners of war, did him in. At least it did for me. Despite my strong desire for an end to the war, I felt (and still do) that it was beneath the President of the United States to effect an immediate surrender, and then to travel to the “enemy” capital to grovel at the feet of Ho Chi Minh.

A rite of passage for young men when they reached age 18 was registering with the draft board. How well I remember the day I went in. The war was largely executed by reluctant recruits drafted into service. As I came of age, the Selective Service System started using a lottery system to determine the order of call up into coercive induction. It was a lottery you definitely didn't want to win. Prior to the lottery, men were called up by local draft boards, starting with the oldest eligible men first. They started with the 25 year olds and worked down from there.

The lottery changed all that, including the scrapping of the policy of starting with the older guys first. The initial lottery was held in December 1969 to cover all men born between 1944 and 1950. Subsequent lotteries were conducted for the next three years, which were for a single year only. As I was born in 1953, I was in the fourth, and final, lottery for the Vietnam-era draft. It was held in February of 1972 at the start of my second freshman semester in college. My birthday came up about one-third of the way down the list, effectively meaning I was not very likely to be drafted, but it was still possible. As it turned out, the year my age group would have been called up was 1973, the year the draft was finally eliminated and the United States transitioned to an all volunteer military. While I am sure I would have submitted to the draft had things worked out differently, today I have a very different view of what was going on at the time, and have a deep respect for both those who fought, and for those who protested against the unjust war in south-east Asia.

At the time, I bought into the Nixon administration's assertion of the “domino theory”. Simply stated, the idea was that if we were to leave Viet Nam, the Communist Chinese Army and their North Vietnamese proxies, would continue to take over nation after nation until we would be battling them in downtown Los Angeles. (We hear the same rhetoric from George W. Bush today, with lines such as “We are fighting them over there, so that we don’t have to fight them here.”) Over time, I came to the realization that the Vietnam War was a tragic mistake and a horrible foreign policy blunder which cost this nation dearly in resources and in lives needlessly cut short.

On the political front, I was happy at the re-election of President Nixon. I think my little 1963 Rambler was the only car on my university campus to sport a bumper sticker proclaiming “Re-Elect The President.” I was likewise sadly disappointed as the misdeeds of Watergate eventually led to the Oval Office itself. As the walls were closing in on the President, my dad wrote him a letter strongly urging him to fight the charges and not to resign. After the revelations of the White House tapes and the passage of Articles of Impeachment, the inevitable happened. I will always remember that while visiting my grandparents in Oklahoma, I watched the President of the United States resign his office, and depart for California the following day.

Skipping an Election

Despite the resignation of Richard Nixon, I still believed that the Republican Party was the party that anyone with any sense would support. Surely Nixon had just been caught up in his own “Imperial Presidency”. So when America's bicentennial year brought the 1976 elections, I was pulling for President Ford to legitimize his claim to the office of President by actually being elected to it. Even so, I was not an enthusiastic Ford supporter, and that blasé attitude, led to my sitting out the actual election. I had a busy day at work on election day, and somehow in my mind believed that there was no way that Georgia Democrat Jimmy Carter, would win anyway. So for the first (and only) time, I didn't go to vote. Much to my dismay, I felt somewhat responsible when later that night, the television networks declared that the Georgia governor had beaten America's first unelected President. I wondered how many others did what I did, resulting in this outcome.

As it turns out, years later I would meet former President Gerald Ford when I had the chance to ask him a few questions while covering a GOP fund raiser in Houston when I was a political reporter at KTRH Radio. The Secret Service agents thoroughly searched me and my tape recorder before letting me in. I didn't tell him that I felt somewhat responsible for his defeat in his bid to be elected.

1980 and the Reagan Revolution

The 1980 election was my chance to redeem my sitting out in 1976. I was not just voting against President Carter. I was energized by Ronald Reagan. As a child, I remembered Reagan as the host of one of my favorite television programs, Death Valley Days, sponsored by 20-Mule Team Borax. Reagan took over the program from the original host, Stanley Andrews as “The Old Ranger”, following Andrews' departure in 1965.

I had also noticed Reagan in the '76 Republican primary season, and was leaning toward supporting him, but in the final analysis, felt the incumbent Ford would have a better chance of winning. In the interim, Reagan hosted a talk radio program which kept him in the forefront of political discussion, and I ended up enthusiastically backing him when he gained the GOP nomination in 1980.

Reagan was a great speaker who clearly laid out his vision of America, and I bought it all. Even the whole “trickle down” Reaganomics” seemed like it just might work. Unfortunately, the trickle down became a stream of bubble up, giving tax breaks to the wealthiest Americans, resulting in a redistribution of wealth that continues to the present. If only I knew then what I know now!

I voted for Reagan in both 1980 and 1984, and seriously wished in 1988 that he could run for a third term in office. I would have voted for him. I was not that impressed with the whiny-sounding Vice President, George Herbert Walker Bush. Still he ended up as the GOP nominee, so I voted for him, hoping he would continue the Reagan policies, even if he were not made of the same Presidential timber as President Reagan. I voted for him again in 1992. It would be the last time to date that I gave my vote to a Republican for President of the United States.

When Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton won the 1992 election, I was very worried about the future of the nation. While President Clinton largely won me over during his eight years in office, I never voted for him. By the time he ran for re-election in 1996, I had undergone an epiphany of sorts, but it wasn't the Democratic Party that garnered my support.

The Libertarian Years: 1996 – 2000

After developing an intense interest in studying the Constitution, I became convinced that the government that governs best is the one that governs least. By 1996, I decided to back the Libertarian Party. I was (and still am) drawn toward their ideas of liberty. Where the Constitution is silent, leave matters up to the state. Why should the government outlaw personal behaviors where no one else is harmed. Why are “victimless crimes” deemed to be crimes at all?

I still hold to many, if not most, Libertarian Party ideals. I don't believe the government has any business regulating things legal adults may decide for themselves, like marriage, prostitution, pornography, seat belts, motorcycle helmets, or executing the so-called “War on Drugs”. Let me be clear; I have never been paid for the services of a prostitute. I have never used illicit drugs, even as a teen coming of age in the late 1960s and early 1970s. This is not a pat on the back for me. These things just never held any interest for me, and I knew they were something I didn't want to have in my life. I also am only speaking of consenting adults of legal age. Children who are not of majority age should always be protected by the state where their parents and guardians are lax or negligent.

In both 1996 and 2000, I voted for the late Libertarian, Harry Browne. I went to a Browne rally at a hotel in Englewood, Colorado. I gave to his campaign. Yes, I knew Harry wouldn't win. But that wasn't the point. Third party candidates have virtually no chance of winning the White House. However, I don't consider those votes “wasted”. Third parties succeed not so much by winning elections. They make their mark by garnering enough votes to push their ideals into the mainstream where they may be adopted by one of the two major parties.

The Shift Continues – On to the Democratic Party

As mentioned, in 2000 I voted for neither Texas governor George W. Bush, nor for Vice President Gore. But given the ignorance and corruption that I perceived in the second President Bush and his team, I knew that the only way to make a difference in 2004 was to vote for the only party with a chance of unseating him. Starting with his father’s political machine steering the system to award “W” the White House, to his misguided invasion and occupation of Iraq, to the no-bid contracts for his cronies, to the torture and detainment of prisoners, to the falsely-named USA PATRIOT Act which legitimized the government spying on American citizens, this was easily the worst administration in my lifetime; and quickly moving toward the absolute bottom of the heap. Watching the Republican National Convention in 2004, I was particularly sick to my stomach over how the horrific attacks of September 11, 2001 were used for political purposes. I was incensed at how some widows of those attacks were trotted out as stage props for the GOP’s political propaganda machine.

Top it all off with the vitriol and absolute lies continually churned out by the GOP, and they lost me for good. I cannot support the type of political tactics that the late Lee Atwater renounced on his death bed, the tactics employed by the likes of Karl Rove, the tactics that have destroyed rational political discourse in this country.

Are the Democrats perfect? Absolutely they are not. But I find that the GOP is the party of pure greed. The attitude of “I got mine, so screw you” doesn’t cut it with me. America has to work for all. We have to be a compassionate society. George W. Bush claimed he was a “compassionate conservative”. He is not. Is it compassion to deny children healthcare while spending hundreds of billions on an invasion and occupation? Is it compassion to watch our elderly making choices between food and medicine, while giving our taxes to your buddies via “no-bid” contracts?

Call it socialism if you like, but as I often say, some things are better done collectively than individually. I don’t have my own fire department. I don’t have my own air force. Yes, we will always have the poor, but do we have to continue to ignore their plight? Compassion dictates that we use the resources of this nation to the betterment of all, not just those whose life circumstances have put them in positions of great wealth and power. This is one other contributing factor to my parting with the Libertarian Party. They embrace too much to the idea that you are on your own.

Until we get rid of the “Me first, screw you, I don’t want my money to be helping you” attitude that has taken over the Republican party, we will continue our decline toward becoming a second-rate nation. I hope that historians don’t look back on these times as the beginning of the end of America’s greatness. We are better than that.

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