washingtonpost.com  > Opinion > Columnists > Ellen Goodman

The GrannyVoters, Getting Out the Vote

By Ellen Goodman
Saturday, September 11, 2004; Page A21

BOSTON -- Maybe it's because I spent the summer on alternating currents, switching back and forth from party politics to grandchildren. The Democratic convention was followed by a visit from my grandson. The Republicans were followed by my granddaughter.

Chunks of red meat were followed by handfuls of Goldfish crackers. Sonorous speeches in cavernous halls were followed by gleeful cries of little kids in plastic pools.

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Somewhere between the political doldrums and toddler fatigue syndrome, I was thinking about the connections between grandchildren and politics. And about the disconnect between grandparents and politicians.

For most of my friends, joining the grandparent 'hood is one of those turning points in life when you are again projected into the future. Yet politicians deal with the new generation of grandparents as if all we cared about were Social Security, prescription drugs and Medicare. As if the only time we think about our legacy is when we make out a will.

These musings will lead one decidedly unsentimental and non-Hallmark-card kind of woman to the grassy Ellipse behind the White House tomorrow, where I will spend National Grandparents Day picnicking with a band of grandparents and grandchildren who are launching a movement called GrannyVoter.

You know that bumper sticker, "Ask me about my grandchildren"? Well, the GrannyVoter is challenging politicians to "talk to me about my grandchildren." The founders are initiating a new, un-special-interest group of older voters who are pledging their vote to their grandchildren.

The GrannyVoter project grew out of the meetings of a small group of women of a certain age who got together to do some soul-searching and thinking about the next stage of life. I've been part of the group, which includes anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson, writer Nancy Berkley, higher-ed consultant Rita Bornstein, former vice presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro, foundation president Ruth Massinga, psychotherapist Rosemary Masters, author Patricia O'Brien, historian Nell Painter, writer Letty Cottin Pogrebin and former representative Patricia Schroeder.

Together we've talked about everything from getting rid of the clutter in our basements to transforming the image of older women in America. Among us we have 34 grandchildren -- plus one on the way -- and enough honorary grandchildren to make up a precinct.

Last spring, in the midst of our musings, we started to talk politics as well. It was Cathy Bateson who asked: How come Americans are living longer and thinking shorter-term? Another asked: How come politicians appeal to the grandparent generation as if we were a disconnected, self-interested, single-issue pod?

The GrannyVoter project was conceived in a kind of spontaneous combustion. What if we encourage grandparents to think of ourselves as a political power and challenge politicians to think less about "greedy geezers" and more about grandparents?

There are currently 70 million grandparents in the United States, one-third of all American adults. The average age of a first-time grandparent is 48, and 6 percent of American children live with their grandparents. It's not that this older generation doesn't care about its own security, it's that we also care intensely about our children's children. And we vote.

Yet the only time a grandkid appears in politics is as a photo op. The AARP presidential questionnaire homes in on the usual seniors issues. And I have yet to find a pollster who combs popular opinion for the grandparent factor.

As a journalist, I've been a half-step removed from this nonpartisan effort, but over the past few months, this band has set down a plan to begin shifting the dialogue to long-term goals. It took back the label and the image of a "granny," set up a Web site -- www.grannyvoter.org -- and adopted a logo with an energizing rocking chair. It chose issues from the environment to security.

It didn't escape anyone planning the kickoff that National Grandparents Day comes right after the third anniversary of the terrorist attacks. Sept. 11 has come to symbolize everything we fear for the future of our grandchildren. On Sept. 12, we can talk about what we hope for their future.

National Grandparents Day was the idea of a West Virginia woman named Marian Lucille Herndon McQuade, who wanted to encourage grandchildren to honor their elders. The date was set by Jimmy Carter for the first Sunday after Labor Day to signify the "autumn years" of life.

But the new generation of grandparents, who are not ready to sing "September Song," are creating an alternative tradition of grandparents honoring their young. The GrannyVoters are going to bring a picnic, a grandchild and a vote to the party.

The official flower for National Grandparents Day has a rather plaintive name: forget-me-not. But the official bouquet from GrannyVoters to politicians has a much better handle: better-not-forget-us.

ellengoodman@globe.com


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