Mark Ellis looks back on elections of the past, taking note of the convention that changed him from a Democrat to a Republican.
I was a Democrat then, in 1968, having been weaned on and traumatized by the presidency of John F. Kennedy. I was sixteen, and the man I had wanted to be the next president, Robert F. Kennedy, was dead eighty-four days.
I wasn’t for anybody that year, but I was paying attention. I’d been watching the night RFK was assassinated, and watched all the nights of the Democratic National Convention, when Hubert Humphrey brought the Democrats to Chicago. It is hard to explain how diminished a candidate Humphrey seemed to my teenage mind, after Robert.
I’d watched the day Lyndon Johnson bailed on a second term, but it was a meaningless withdrawal for me. I was not sophisticated enough to discern any difference between the outgoing Johnson and the possibility of Nixon.
I did know one thing for sure, as had been driven home since childhood, since crawling under my desk at Hillview Crest Elementary: I didn’t like Communists.
The adversarial duality of the major party conventions appealed to my adolescent grasp of politics, and the Democrat gathering in the Windy City was the first one I ever watched. I was beginning to take a real interest in politics, and I probably would have stuck with the coverage even if the convention had not devolved into chaos.
I remember thinking, why? I lived in Napa California, was a junior at Napa Senior High. That time of my life was a giant progressive party in which I somehow kept it together enough to pass on to my senior year at a different school. Everyone around me seemed Democrat on the West Coast in 1968, even my Nebraska-born conservative-minded father.
I couldn’t figure out why the demonstrators were protesting at what I believed was their own party’s convention. Of course, it was the Vietnam War, but I was a “good” Democrat, and never questioned the decisions made by Kennedy, Johnson, and Humphrey regarding that conflict.
Why raise hell at the Democrat convention, I thought, Christ, go disrupt the Republicans. But Nixon’s show in Miami came off without a hitch; I would never know the stasis of a Humphrey/Muskie administration. Instead, I got thirteen years of disengagement.
Through the Nixon years, then Ford and Carter, I cared more about the next Bad Company album, the next Midnight Cowboy, and, in keeping with the vernacular, my next piece of ass, than I did about politics. I became one of those eligible voters who never votes, who has opted out of the paradigm.
Like with so many men of my generation, including millions of Democrats, I came back for Ronald Reagan. It was ethereal, almost magic, what the Gipper returned to guys like me. But if you start rattling off reasons the mythopoetics lose their power. So you leave it alone.
2012, and there’s talk about protests disrupting the major party conventions again. This time I’ll be watching as a Romney/Ryan conservative.
In 1968, I worried that what came to be known as the Chicago Riots would hurt the Democrat’s chances, and they did. There was this inescapable sense that the left could not control their own, and that the gruesome street theater was a glimpse at what awaited the country if liberal policies were taken to their logical conclusions.
By owning that year’s dissent much more than the GOP, my young mind reasoned, the Democrats were somehow complicit in what happened. I didn’t vote, but secretly, without telling my hipster friends, I understood why the nation had brought Nixon in to regain control.
If there is violence in Tampa, it won’t be like Chicago. Though Republicans allegedly own most of the reasons for civil disobedience, they own no part of the people who will commit the violence. But it seems to me that the Democrat Party, if not fully owning Occupy Wall Street, certainly did not disown the group that has been responsible for much of the destructive protest leading up to this election.
So I prepare to watch my party’s convention, wondering if I will bear witness as violent protest helps the Republicans again.
Or will it just be Hurricane Isaac, a different message altogether, cosmological, open to interpretation, raining whatever it is we choose to believe down upon us.
Photo: Jeff Taylor/AP File