Patrick B. McGuigan
OKLAHOMA CITY -- Scores of conservative activists from Oklahoma – for decades, a secure “red state” in presidential elections – recently traveled to battleground Colorado, for old-fashioned door-knocking and live calls in Denver and Colorado Springs. Today, a van-full of activists organized by Americans for Prosperity – Oklahoma headed to Ohio to help with Mitt Romney’s final push in the Buckeye State.
While Romney supporters from here work the streets in Cleveland these next few days, on the east side of Oklahoma City, African-American preachers will hold a Saturday morning rally. It will draw registered voters -- most or all in support of Barack Obama -- who will march to the Oklahoma County Election Board to cast ballots on the second day of the Sooner State’s early voting.
This political activism rooted in my hometown provokes memories yet green, most of them fond.
In 1988, I supported the long-shot presidential campaign of Pete du Pont. Pete had established a strong record as governor of Delaware. That winter, I took a leave of absence from my work in research and journalism to spend three idealistic months as his deputy political director.
Most of that time I spent working in New Hampshire in advance of the first-in-the-nation primary. Drawn to Pete because of ideas, I wasn’t a great operative. Still, for the first time in my life, as I traveled to small towns in the Granite State throughout December and January, I learned the meaning of the term “bone-chilling cold.”
My oldest son, Josef, spent the last few days of the campaign with me. As we prepared to leave Washington, D.C.’s National Airport the Thursday before the primary, a massive snowstorm, stretching from Virginia to Maine, blanketed the East Coast. The airline where I had booked tickets insisted they would fly early that evening, but I had my doubts.
As a backup plan, I booked the last sleeper room on the train from D.C. to Boston, figuring if I could get north I could work my way through the snow back to Manchester. Sure enough, they shut down the D.C. airport, but Josef and I managed to get to Union Station, onto the Amtrak train and through the night to the northeast.
I concentrated those final days on the area in and around Manchester, doing my best to fulfill the original mission for du Pont -- appealing to conservatives on behalf of a guy who had been a moderate in Congress, but a budget- and tax-cutting libertarian conservative as chief executive.
Josef carried signs, handed out literature and sat quietly and thoughtfully through meetings, then watched and listened to me debate and trade stories over late-night drinks at the hotel with operatives for other campaigns. Those were guys and gals doing their best for candidates as diverse as George H.W. Bush, Pat Robertson, Bob Dole, Paul Simon and Jesse Jackson, Sr., then making his second run for the Democratic nomination.
On primary day, after I’d helped assign volunteers elsewhere, by default Josef and I were the du Pont staffers outside of an inner city precinct voting place located at a Manchester public school. No political literature could be handed out inside the building, but literature distribution and sign-holding were allowed, so long as we stood a requisite number of feet away from the polling station.
Activists for the swarm of candidates came and went, but only two campaigns had the same people there all day – me and Josef for du Pont, and a long-haired young college student, a white man, gamely holding a sign boosting Rev. Jackson. Jesse was a friend back in D.C., actually, despite our differences.
Josef and I had pleasant chit-chat with the fellow. It was cold, but not bone-chilling. Thanks to the sun, temperatures reached the 30s, downright balmy for February in the frozen north. Josef helped, but played with kids from the surrounding neighborhood for a couple of hours in the parking lot atop a plow-created snow mountain.
Voter turnout was moderately high, but there were some “quiet” gaps. Whenever I needed to take a bathroom break or to avail myself of the homemade snacks precinct workers inside offered us, Josef held my du Pont sign and literature.
The hours passed, and early afternoon came. The Jackson volunteer was shifting back and forth across the sidewalk from us. Internally, I slapped myself, and asked, “Man, do you need to go to the john?” He said, “Yeah, but I can’t put down this sign. I’ve got to stay here for Jesse.”
I looked over at Josef, who was smiling at me. I thought of Jackson’s son, -- Jesse, Jr. whom I had watched grow up in the early 1980s, including his time at St. Albans School.
“Son,” I said, “could you hold that man’s sign so he can take a break?” I encouraged him to get some of the donuts, juice or coffee inside. The guy returned a little later, obviously relieved and grinning. He just nodded his head and said, “Thanks.”
Although we did better in Manchester than in the rest of the state, Pete got thumped in New Hampshire, just as he had been a week before in the Iowa Caucus. He withdrew from the race the day after the primary. When du Pont descended from the stage where his campaign ended, Josef was the first person he spoke with – thanking him for helping.
My political director days, deputy or otherwise, were at an end.
Josef has turned out to be a fine conservative gentleman who thinks a lot like I do, but not identically. Back home in Oklahoma, he paged for a liberal state Senator.
Even now, in this deeply polarized and cynical time in American politics, there’s this idea that people can disagree, even passionately, on issues that matter, remaining civil and even, in certain ways, supportive of one another.
As the years pass, the political professionals are not those to whom I look, year-in and year-out, in coverage of political news. I try to understand the people who give a damn, who believe in elections, the American process, and possibilities.
People like the preachers in east Oklahoma City, and folks who jumped on a bus to Colorado, then boarded a van to Ohio.
Not in the voting booth, necessarily, but in the game of life, as neighbors and friends, I endorse them all.