In one of those sobering moments I dread I realized this week that I watched my first National Political convention 64 years ago this week! I have no idea how that’s possible, but I do have at least one vivid memory of the Democratic convention in 1956. That was shortly after my parents bought our first TV. It was also back when the conventions really mattered because they weren’t the choreographed pep rallies they have become in recent years. The conventions were actually the places where nominees for President and Vice President were chosen after much bargaining and compromise among state delegations. There was real drama because often we did not know what the outcome of the convention would be.
In 1956 the Republican convention was a slam dunk as the incumbents, Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon were renominated. My memory is a little foggy after all these years, but I am pretty sure there was a much more competitive environment at the Democratic gathering. What I do remember clearly is that a young senator from Massachusetts made his first appearance on the national stage in a surprising but failed run to be the Vice Presidential nominee on the ticket led by Adlai Stevenson. I certainly had no idea then who this upstart was or that the same John Kennedy would emerge four years later as the Presidential nominee and eventual winner.
You may wonder how weird it is that an 8 year old would be watching a political convention in the summer when I could have been out playing ball with my friends, and I suppose it is. But I have always been interested in history and politics. Even at that tender age I knew that what happened in the political arena was important, even though I had little comprehension of what it all meant. I have watched at least some of all 30 conventions since that summer of 1956 but none like the conventions of 2020.
Everything about 2020 has been strange; so of course the virtual conventions are no different. I’m starting this post on the first night of the Democratic convention, and so far I like what I’m seeing. There’s more content and less rah rah. More common folks from our diverse population are being given a voice. It’s biased of course as all conventions are, and in many ways it’s a two-hour political ad. I fear many in our badly polarized nation will only watch the convention that reinforces their political viewpoint. That will only widen the chasm between us.
I confess I already know I will not be able to watch 8 hours of the GOP convention next week. The lies that continually fall from President Trump’s lips make me too angry to consume very much of what he will have to say. But even more disturbing to me are the multitude of Republican officials who have refused to do their Constitutional duty and provide checks and balances on a man who is clearly dangerously incompetent and unstable. If just a few of those Republican senators had shown the courage in the pre-COVID days of early 2020 to vote for honesty, integrity and justice and remove Trump from office our nation would not be in as much trouble today as we are. The people who have put party loyalty over the good of the nation, those who value personal power and prestige over true patriotism are the real villains of this tragedy.
That 8 year-old kid watching this new invention called television in the summer of 1956 proudly identified as a Republican, the party of my hero Abe Lincoln. I liked Ike because everyone I knew was Republican; so I understand life-long devotion to the values and ideals we are taught as children. But the party of Trump is no longer the party of Lincoln or Eisenhower. Do you know that the divisions between our two major parties in 1952 were so small that both parties wanted war hero Eisenhower to be their candidate! Can you imagine such a scenario in 2020?
Of course we all know that America in 1956 was far more complicated than my naive self could imagine back then. The political universe was so different then that the “Solid South” was the stronghold then of the Democrats, the party of segregation from pre-Civil War days until Lyndon Johnson’s famous prediction that in signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that he had lost the South for a generation. How about a half century and counting? That political flip paved the way for Nixon’s evil “Southern Strategy” and the GOP has not been the same since.
In the ‘50’s women were still mostly seen as only homemakers and baby factories; we actually believed that separate but equal was true and just, and oh yes, we were just beginning to get involved in the politics of a place none of us had ever heard of, Vietnam. So I am not nostalgic for the days of my 8 year-old self. We were a long way from living up to America’s ideals in 1956, and we still are. But I’ve been around a long time, and I am very proud of the progress we have made for women’s rights, LGBTQ rights and Civil Rights or at least I was until 2016. In the words of an old Kenny Roger’s song, “I’ve seen some bad times, lived through some sad times:” the Cuban Missile Crisis, the nuclear arms race, the assassinations of 1968 and the burning American cities that followed, the violent Democratic convention of 1968, Kent State, the protests against the war in Vietnam that drove LBJ out of office, Watergate, the My Lai massacre, the impeachment of two presidents, 9/11, unending Middle East wars, way too many mass school shootings, immigrant children locked in cages, climate change, the on-going crisis of COVID-19, and now zoom calls, distance education, and virtual political conventions .
But I have also lived through some good times: the passage of civil rights act and voting rights acts, the establishment of Medicare, multiple lunar landings by American astronauts, including the very first one who was from my home town. I have witnessed the first women on the Supreme Court and increasing numbers of women in leadership positions. I was inspired by Dr. King’s dream and rejoiced when we elected our first black president and legalized same sex marriage.
We may differ on my list of good and bad things, but I hope we can agree that through all the ups and downs of our history the American Dream may in dark days be hidden behind clouds, but it never disappears. It rises and shines as faithfully as our daily sunrises. This political season like many before it is unique. But the process of selecting a president every four years has continued through Civil War, World Wars, the Great Depression, hanging chads, and the recession of 2008 to name a few. We still have a dream even in this weird suspended animation of 2020. That dream is stronger and truer than any challenge because it is a vision of liberty and justice for all people in this great diverse nation.
That dream is only as strong in our generation today as those of us who participate in the democratic process to become informed and responsible citizens. Voting this year like these conventions will look different than any election in our history, but not even a pandemic can stop us from letting our voices and votes determine the future of this great experiment we call American democracy.