My first grown-up (sort of) job was as a teacher at a boarding school in Pennsylvania. A cozy little enclave in a—well, not cozy, actually, rather hard-bitten but small town, where people took note of new arrivals. There was a teacher at the school named Bill, a middle-aged man, absent-minded and rumpled, with crumbs of food in his mustache, Mr. Chips in the early stages of senility. But a very sweet man. Bill was active in the local Democratic Party. The first time we met he inquired politely about my politics and was pleased to hear that I intended to register Democrat. The next evening I got a knock on my apartment door, and was surprised to see Bill there, holding the voter registration forms in his hand. He came in, sat down on my awful Salvation Army couch, and filled out the forms FOR me, which was a little embarrassing. But it was an intimate and human moment. I definitely felt I was being ushered into something, with Bill as my guide.
My memory of Bill has a strange coda: Months later, Bill took me aside in the hallway of the school and told me, solemnly, that the party had been suckered and one of the Democrats on the ballot was a ringer, a Lyndon Larouche follower. Bill was very sorry to have to take the highly irregular step of urging me to vote for the Republican in this particular race. I followed his advice. That was one of the last times I talked to him before I moved away.
I mentioned earlier that I was traveling last week. I didn’t get online much from the road. What little news I got came largely from catching snippets of CNN or glimpsing the front page of USA Today. Looking at the campaign news through that prism, I was left with the feeling that Bush was unbeatable. Whatever Bush does on a given day is above the fold, while Kerry is always below the fold. What a relief to get back home and apply the comforting filter of my favorite blogs, reporting all the bad news for the GOP and all the reasons why Democrats should be energized.
But which filter is truer? The one with integrity or the one with market share? It’s an incredibly complex political culture we confront, a Rorschach inkblot we try to make sense of. And the act of voting this year feels to me like an urgent prayer—or if you prefer, a coin tossed into a fountain for luck, by someone who desperately needs for his luck to turn. An inarticulate plunk into a chaotic abyss, a gigantic input-output system that collects impulses from a hundred million directions, processes them and yields what? Wisdom, justice, vice, voodoo?
Doing my homework on the candidates then presenting myself to vote is keeping faith. Faith in what, I'm not sure. There's been a lot of disgusting news about mucking around with the voter rolls, and even if my candidates squeak through, it won't soothe all my qualms about our alienated system.