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The Voters Choice

The polling data tells us that Americans are caught between a rock and a hard place when it comes to choosing who they will vote for in the coming presidential election. Both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have record high negatives in the view of potential voters, some saying it’s a choice between the devil you know and the devil you don’t. Those who are yet to make a choice will no doubt do so in the hours before they vote. My father and I dealt with a similar situation in the 1972 presidential election when the choice was between Richard Nixon and George McGovern. I explain how we resolved that conundrum in "1972 Voting Standoff," a story from my 2014 book, "Moments of Truth."

1972 Voting Standoff

In November 1972, though a Maryland resident for almost a year, I still considered New York my official domicile and continued to vote there, and would until the fall of 1976.

Mary-Margaret and I spent a good deal of time in France in the summer of 1972, as we did each summer before children entered the picture. Though we were far from U.S. politics, the Nixon-McGovern race was the talk of Europe. Europeans constantly asked why the Democrats had nominated a Socialist like Senator George McGovern (D-SD). Mind you, these questions were coming from European Socialists.

We considered ourselves liberal Democrats at the time. While we felt a little uneasy about McGovern, our uneasy feelings about Nixon were off the charts. The guy had obvious character flaws that were clearly visible in my view. There came a point in the 1960 campaign rhetoric when the question was raised, “Would you buy a used car from this man?” I wasn’t sure what was missing, but, as the Watergate tapes would soon reveal, there was a lot missing.

Nixon had Daniel Patrick Moynihan, later to serve with distinction as a Democratic senator from New York, in charge of domestic policy in the White House. As a result, Nixon’s record on domestic issues was credible. His visit to China, however, was a significant foreign policy achievement that had eclipsed everything, including the United States being mired in Vietnam. Simply put, Nixon’s political standing at the time was better than McGovern’s. But he was still Nixon, so we were plenty wary.

A few weeks after the Watergate break-in, and just before we left for France, Don Zeifang, a former housemate from Georgetown Law School, hosted a Fourth of July party at his stellar Arlington duplex apartment overlooking the Iwo Jima Memorial. Pat Buchanan, a Nixon staffer, was holding court during the party and responding to questions about the Watergate break-in. Pat, like many other White House staffers, had no prior knowledge of the break-in, but was sharing speculation he had heard from reporters covering the White House that it was possibly a Howard Hughes or Drew Pearson operation. Hughes was an eccentric billionaire holed up in a Las Vegas penthouse who wanted to stop the atom bomb testing in the Nevada desert, and Pearson was a feared Washington columnist with an uncanny ability to break sensational stories. What either of them could be looking for at the offices of the Democratic National Committee was beyond my imagination.

Mary-Margaret and I left for France unaware, like everyone else, of who was behind the break-in that would undo Nixon’s presidency within two years.

Upon our return from Europe, bit by bit, news items appeared suggesting the break-in was politically motivated. McGovern began pointing his finger at the White House, but nothing had surfaced implicating either the Republican campaign operation or the White House. That’s the way things stood on Election Day, when I found myself getting ready to vote with my father.

Dad was very proud of his son the lawyer and his daughter-in-law the lawyer. He was happy about my presence that day and anxious to show me off to his friends. Voting in New York was always a fun day for me. I got to see old friends along with the older people in the
neighborhood who had watched me grow up and who were pleasantly surprised that I was practicing the law and not being pursued by it.

The bars being closed while the polls were open, the neighborhood men set out for the Jackson Social & Field Club on Northern Boulevard, where Mulligan stew simmered all day, a roast pig sat on the bar to pick at, and the beer, rye whiskey, and scotch flowed freely. Everyone had a great time, and surprisingly little politics was discussed. The men were more interested in what the Giants and Jets were doing in November, discussing the recently concluded baseball World Series, their jobs and families. Since it was a Democratic neighborhood with heavy union membership, the people usually voted a straight ticket.

Late that morning, as we walked down the hill on 31st Avenue toward our polling place at P.S. 151, Dad was uncharacteristically quiet. In fact he was mute. I sensed that something was wrong. That he was fighting inwardly about going against his long-held union beliefs. At the bottom of the hill I stopped.

“What’s wrong, son?”

“I can see it in your body language, Dad. You’re going to vote for Nixon.”

He looked skyward as he pursed his lips. He chuckled. “God will forgive me.”

“But I won’t.”

“Are you going to vote for that commie, McGovern?” I should note that Dad and many from my Woodside neighborhood were still ardent supporters of the late Senator Joseph McCarthy (R-WI). In their view, anyone who disagreed with them was a commie.

“Well, I haven’t made up my mind. I really came up to vote for Jim Delaney (our Congressman).”

We stood there in silence both shaking our heads back and forth until I broke the ice. “I’ll agree not to vote for McGovern if you’ll agree not to vote for Nixon.”

“How do I know that you’ll keep your word?” he asked.

“We’ll go into the voting booth together.”

“Can we do that?”

“We can try.” I held out my hand to shake on it. “Deal?”

He smiled. “Deal.” We shook hands and walked to P.S. 151.

The voting machines had a curtain that closed when you pulled a handle that unlocked the voting levers. Standing alongside each booth was a uniformed police officer. Dad had lost an eye in the early 1950s as the result of an old boxing injury. What Dad didn’t know was that I intended to tell the police officer that he was disabled and needed assistance in the voting booth, which, of course, he didn’t.

When we finished greeting the many people we knew outside the school and in the school, we made our way to the table where our voter registration cards were checked by the clerk and a notation made in the registration book that we had voted.
“Come on, Dad. I’ll go first. You can come with me.”

Surprised, he looked at me. “Okay, sure.”

I edged up to the police officer. “He’s coming in with me. He can’t see that well. He needs help reading the machine labels.”

The officer smiled. “Sure. No problem.”

“Come on, Dad. Let’s vote.”

I kept my word and didn’t vote for president. When I finished voting for the candidates for Congress, the State Senate, the Assembly, and the judges, I pulled down the lever and the curtain opened. Then the moment of truth arrived. I pulled the curtain closed again.

“Hey, what are you trying to do?”

“I’m trying to help you vote.”

“Everything all right in there?” the police officer asked.

“Yeah, everything’s fine,” I said.

When Dad went to flip the little switch over Nixon’s name, I put my hand on top of his. He looked at me angrily. “We have an agreement, Dad. I kept my end,” I said in a low voice.

“You guys all right in there?” the officer asked.

“Yeah, we’re fine,” I said.

“You son of a bitch.

“You’re talking about your wife, Dad – my mother.”

He looked at me with a wry smile. “I won’t forget this.”

I laughed. “Neither will I.”

We left P.S. 151 and walked toward the Jackson Club in silence. We arrived there to more silence. People were eating and drinking, but they were not their usual selves. It took a few hours before the alcohol took hold and people began to come out of their shells. In the time that I was there not a word was said about Nixon or McGovern. It was obvious that they had all taken a new political direction, and some would never return to their old habits.

The only other Republican to carry that neighborhood, and by a narrow margin, was Dwight D. Eisenhower. Nixon won by a surprisingly large margin. Things would never be the same in Woodside when people voted for president. They had permanently unleashed themselves from a long-held tradition.  Read More 
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