What I remember of each of the presidential elections in my lifetime.
1956, Eisenhower vs. Stevenson. I was 5. Like all Jews, my parents loved Stevenson because he was practically one of us — given to tortured, guilt-drenched soliloquies, such as, “The hardest thing about any political campaign is how to win without proving that you are unworthy of winning.” He was trounced, of course.
1960, Kennedy vs. Nixon. I remember noticing that Mrs. Kennedy was very attractive. This was not my first crush on a girl, but it was my first crush on a grown-up girl, with an actual shape. I resembled a worm, with glasses. It was all very confusing.
1964, Johnson vs. Goldwater.My parents believed that if Goldwater won, everyone would get blown up by the hydrogen bomb that my friends and I had been practicing avoiding by crouching under our desks and trying to look up the skirts of the crouching girls. (The girl confusion was beginning to resolve itself in a healthy, if shameful, way.)
1968, Nixon vs. Humphrey. This one’s a little hazy. Mostly, I remember that you could get a whole lid of marijuana for 15 bucks.
1972, Nixon vs. McGovern. It was my first time voting, and I took it very seriously. I thought the fate of humanity hung in the balance. It was only years later, as a humor columnist, that I realized the true tragedy of this pivotal election: Had McGovern somehow won, we would have had the most appropriate last name ever for a president.
1976, Carter vs. Ford.In an interview with Playboy, Carter revealed that he had known “lust in my heart.” For some reason, this became huge news. I remember noting that “heart” was a particularly amusing euphemism.
1980, Reagan vs. Carter. Carter campaigned on a platform of austerity, on the theory that sometimes people need to hear the cold, hard, unvarnished truth. No one will ever make that mistake again.
1984, Reagan vs. Mondale.I remember this one largely because of the emergence and eventual, spectacular dissolution of Gary “Hart.” (See “euphemism,” 1976.)
1988, Bush vs. Dukakis. New York magazine was so sure of a Dukakis victory that it ran a cover illustration of his impending inauguration. This embarrassment should have warned me about the danger of journalistic prognostication, but it did not. (See next item.)
1992, Clinton vs. Bush. After the first Gulf War, the likelihood of a Bush defeat seemed so remote that I proposed running twinned stories in The Washington Post under the headline “What If?” The first would seriously speculate on what would happen if a Democrat won the presidency. The second would seriously speculate on what would happen if googly-eyed aliens landed in Washington and opened a deep-dish pizzeria. I was talked out of this by a more cautious editor, to whom I sent flowers on the morning after the election.
1996, Clinton vs. Dole. Remember this one? Me, either.
2000, Bush vs. Gore. This was the first election in which I had a national column. Demographically analyzing county-by-county election returns, I reported my scientific conclusion that this was a “hicktory,” or a victory for the hicks. There wasn’t even a single sputtering letter of outrage — in some parallel universe in the fourth dimension, where I am deeply respected as a giant of American satire.
2004, Bush vs. Kerry. This was the election in which exit polls famously misinformed editors all across the country, at midday, that Kerry had won decisively. There was absolutely no gloating in any newsroom anywhere, because, contrary to conventional wisdom, journalists do not lean left — in that same parallel universe place.
2008, Obama vs. McCain. In this election, America broke a barrier once thought insurmountable, as people from all walks of life transcended their differences and came together to elect a president who has dunked a basketball.