Everything was red, white, and blue in 1976, and I mean everything. America was manic, even after the Fourth of July had come and gone.
But it was an altogether crazy year—besides the bicentennial and a Presidential election in the U.S.A., the Summer Olympics were held in Montréal, and it was a leap year.
America's spirits had never been higher; Congress declared it 'the Year of the Flag'.
This was the first election I'd really paid any attention too. I couldn't vote, of course, but I could influence the votes of others, including my parents.
Daddy was a wavering Democrat and Mother was a Republican from a long line of Republicans. Needless to say, our home was a political battleground.
Daddy always tried to be clever, but he was simply outclassed by Mother. He had a technical mind—full of axioms and predictable results—and couldn't see that politics was all about popularity and personability.
Mother was a certified paralegal and had cut her teeth among the wolf packs of law school and then moved on to the shark tank also known as private practice. There was a reason lawyers so often called their opponents 'chum'.
She was also where we kids got our best political education. Civics was taught to all of us in school, but it was rather anemic compared to what we learned from her. Her specialty was Constitutional Law.
The Federal government has made a lot of heavy-handed mistakes, but I can't believe that the XXV Amendment was among them. A lot of states, mostly Southern, decried it as unfair, or even unlawful, but it had been passed after the World War, when most of those same states had risen in rebellion—a second Civil War, if you will.
It was the Forties and the country was in bad shape. The World War had ground to a halt in the wake of the largest depression the world had ever known, and then everything just collapsed.
Many of the forty-eight states broke away—for various reasons—and in their absence, the ones that remained loyal to the Union were now the whole of Congress; they passed whatever laws they wanted and even amended the Constitution.
That amendment did a great deal to fix the broken electorate. In my grandparent's day, you had to either vote for one candidate or the other—Democrat of Republican—there was rarely a third choice. There were a few other candidates, but the ones who did exist were on the ballot only in their own localities.
To vote for a third candidate was to throw your vote away.
But the XXV Amendment changed that. It declared that you could vote for one candidate, or against another. That way, if you didn't like someone, you could vote against them, and not affect the chances for a third- or even fourth-party candidate to win. You could also write in a candidate in any jurisdiction anywhere in the US.
The establishment didn't like any of that, especially since it applied to all elections. But that was okay, because another clause in that same amendment allowed citizens to remove any official, elected or appointed, by popular referendum.
Kennedy—John F., not Robert—was the first to grasp the new political realities and win against both the Democrats and Republicans. He ran on an Independent ticket and beat the pants off of Nixon and Johnson in the 1960 election. Since that time, Independents stood a reasonable chance, and it was not uncommon to see five or more parties in high-profile elections.
Mother always served a big Sunday dinner, and we were all expected to attend. I remembered the last election and how Daddy used our captivity to cause political trouble; I think he was trying to rally us to his side. I'd taken to joining him as November Second approached.
Newspapers weren't allowed at the table, but Daddy had hit upon the infallible tactic of asking us about social studies. If you learnt it in school, it was fit for supper talk.
But he was never very subtle about it; he'd just ask whichever of us he thought might be studying the topic he wanted to discuss.
"So, Robbie," Daddy asked my brother innocently one Sunday evening three weeks before the election, "how are you going to vote in your school election?"
Mother had caught on quickly to his stratagems and thought they were dirty pool. She wanted domestic tranquility at the table; she gave them both the Look.
Robbie dug into his mashed potatoes and sat there chewing while the rest of us looked on. When he took a second bite, we all looked back to our plates.
The tension was as thick as the gravy.
"Secretly," he finally said rather timidly, but beamed at us all when we all laughed. I have to admit, it was clever.
But I had my opening.
"School elections don't mean anything. They're just reflections of the parent's demographics."
"True," Daddy answered, "but they are an exercise in good citizenship and can provide a bell-weather for the real results."
He sounded like Ward Cleaver, but he was walking a thin line. I felt sorry for him for what I was about to do. But it was for his own good.
"Are you gonna vote for Dr. Spock, Daddy?"
"What? No way, punkin'. He's a loose cannon. We don't need some free-love dope-smoking hippie for president."
"At least he doesn't hate women," my sister said under her breath.
She rarely said anything controversial, especially at the dinner table. She was our foundling child, as she was quiet, polite, and deferential.
She was missing the finer qualities of Yerdley women—namely sarcasm, obstinacy, and a vicious biting wit. But she did have the twin qualities of iron will and an indomitable sense of self.
"What was that Gina," my father asked. He was at the head of the table and farthest from her.
"Nothing," she said meekly.
"That's not fair, honey," my mother countered. I knew she didn't like the People's Party, but she might benefit if Daddy didn't vote his own party line. "Benjamin Spock is a brilliant man. Lord knows what kind of parents we'd have been without his books."
"True, but that doesn't make him qualified for the presidency."
"Oh?" Her eyebrows shot up and she gave him her crooked frown. "And I suppose Wallace is qualified?"
"He is a governor."
"He's a hate monger! I can't stand him. If you vote for him, you'll sleep on the couch for the next four years."
"Secretly," he reminded her, obviously thinking he'd played the highest trump card. But he didn't know when to quit. "Maybe I'll just vote against Ford."
"What's wrong with President Ford? He's been good for the country."
"Good for bid'ness," Gina quipped, just barely audible. I don't even think Mother heard that one.
"Well, besides being a crook," Daddy pointed out, "he's a war monger."
"He is not a crook! Honey, I think you're tarring him with President Nixon's brush."
"Don't forget President Agnew. They both resigned in disgrace. Don't you think for a minute that Ford wasn't up to his neck in Watergate."
"He wasn't involved in that. He was still in Congress."
Daddy stopped. There was nothing he could say; Mother was right about that, and he wouldn't push it any further. It didn't pay to struggle after you'd been bitten.
"Secretly," he said meekly, and went back to his plate.
After dinner, I volunteered to do Gina's chores and helped Mother clear the table and wash the dishes.
"So you're gonna vote for Ford," I asked her after we'd finished the plates.
"Of course, dear. He's the front runner and incumbent. I always vote with my party."
"But why mom? You don't have to vote how your party says. He can still win if you vote against another candidate."
"Like George Wallace? Mother, if he wins, we'll all be in trouble. That man hates everybody who's not exactly like him."
"We're white, dear."
"We are, but not all of our friends are. What about the Woolseys, or José Martinez? Or Ms. Brixton, my music teacher? She's a lesbian you know. They won't benefit from his administration, that's for sure."
"Honey, you're being obtuse."
"Am I? Mom, I'm not like you...I'm not like anybody. What if that maniac decides that I'm not even a person?"
"Don't you think you're being a little melodramatic?"
"No, I don't. Look, there are tens of thousands of black folks in his state who suffer under him every day. Alabama is still segregated. Do you know how many people have been lynched in Birmingham alone?"
I didn't either; I hadn't had time to look it up. I just hoped she didn't ask.
"No," she said, and looked away.
"Even one is too many. Mother, we can't unleash that madman on the United States. He'd be as bad as the Stalin."
"Nobody is as bad as Stalin, dear."
"Are you sure?"
She looked at me and frowned, but before she could answer I pressed on.
"Because if you're not, your children may live to regret your mistake. Mother, you've got to vote against him. Promise me you'll vote against him!"
I let the pan I was drying slip from my hands. It clattered noisily, but harmlessly, to the floor and I started crying.
Mother stopped washing and put her arms around me.
"I promise, dear," she consoled me. "You will be safe. I promise."
I sniffed and dried my eyes, smiling faintly.
"Thanks," I said and bent to pick up the dropped pan.
"No, dear," she said, putting her hand on my shoulder. "You go up to your room. I'll finish here."
I sniffled again, just for good measure, and snatched up a Kleenex. I could hear her rattling the pans as I made my way up the stairs.