I swore that I’d not post any politically oriented blogs. After all, I want you as readers of my books and do not want anything to taint your inclination to consider reading them. But I will overcome my squeamishness to talk about politics in public, if you’ll forgive me. As a naturalized citizen it really bugs me to see our democratic privilege of voting so underused.
Once again in my voting history I voted for a loser. Well, not a loser if you care about the popular vote, but a loser nevertheless. Why is my vote important anyway? Because I did vote. I chose to participate, to engage with the electoral process as all citizens should, but about 117 million people eligible to vote did not. We are one of the least engaged democracies in the world because we take our democracy for granted. As the election results clearly show, we shouldn’t. Yes, even though I (we) lost, I’m glad to have done my part. I was happy to read that just in the first two quarters of 2016 naturalization rates increased by twenty one percent, the highest level in four years. And if these new Americans voted, as I suspect they had, I am proud to have stood with them in discharging the number one citizenship duty.
And while I am on the subject of citizenship and democracy, allow me an aside. I am actually only partly a citizen, not quite three fifths, but certainly not 100 %. Why? Because as a naturalized species of citizen I am not eligible to run for the country’s highest office. Check it out. It’s true, but I still vote.
Ever since I heard John F. Kennedy speak and met him in person on the corner of the Grand Concourse and East Fordham Road in front of Alexander’s Department store in the Bronx, I was smitten. And it wasn’t his words alone. It was the sincerity he exuded in his smile and the warmth of his handshake. It was that encounter that convinced me that with his stewardship America would have a wonderful future. I was 17 and my only regret was that I was not yet a citizen. I desperately wanted to cast a vote for a man whose words had so inspired me, but it was only my first year in America. I knew it would take another presidential election before I could cast my vote proudly as an American citizen.
As luck would have it, my naturalization hearing did not take place until December of 1964 so here was another voting opportunity I’d have to miss. Though I wasn’t happy that I couldn’t participate in the long awaited exercise of my citizenship duty, I was not crushed. The 1964 election in which Lyndon B. Johnson succeeded the martyred president still held the aura of grief for the man who preceded him. Kennedy was the youngest president ever elected and one whose 1,036 days of stewardship of America and exhorting the citizens to ask what they can do for their country, not the other way around, still resonates with many Americans as a time of Camelot. For me, the 1964 election was further soured by Johnson’s opponent, the ultra conservative Barry Goldwater, who like his comrade- at- arms Trump, suffered from a lack of support by many Republicans. Johnson won by a landslide.
My first experience voting for an American president finally came in 1968 and it was less than thrilling. By then I had a college degree, a husband and two children and was no longer the dewy eyed teen that idolized president Kennedy. Despite personal happiness that came from mothering two beautiful children, life in America had lost some of its shine. The Vietnam war, violent anti-war protests, and assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were national and personal traumas. The climate of that presidential election was extremely tense. John Kennedy’s brother, Robert, ran in the Democratic primaries when an assassin’s bullet ended his candidacy. The final contest between Hubert Humphrey and Richard Nixon resulted in disappointment. Tricky Dick had won the election. To my great chagrin, I voted for the loser, Hubert Humphrey, a champion of civil rights.
The 1972 election was another bust. Richard Nixon was reelected. My letdown deepened, but I still vowed never to miss an election. And I never did. I attribute much of my attitude toward participation in the electoral process to my father. If one could get grades for citizenship, he’d have earned an A+. He was deeply knowledgeable about the issues and candidates. And not only in the presidential elections. He took as much interest in races down ballot. Even in his seventies and eighties when he was hospitalized he insisted on requesting absentee ballots. “Free elections is what makes America great,” he’d say time and again.
Often he reminded me of elections in communist dominated Poland where our family lived until 1957. There, everyone was required to vote for the one candidate on the ballot. They needed to show 100% support by the populace. If one had the temerity to not show up to vote, there’d be stiff fines, or worse. It was that travesty of elections that motivated my father to do his utmost to participate freely in his adopted country. He railed at citizens who dismiss the importance of voting. “Let them live under communism for a while, then they’d understand what a precious right they are throwing away,” he’d say.
Being my father’s daughter I haven’t thrown away that precious right and voted in every single election despite my disappointing start in 1968.