At Kerry-Edwards headquarters last week, the seniors were sadly shaking their heads because an absentee ballot had not reached the man in hospice care in time. His dying wish was to cast a vote against President Bush, and if only he had signed the ballot before he died, it would have counted.
God forbid that should happen to one of them.
So they stream by the hundreds into the office here, volunteers in their seventies and eighties, die-hard Democrats, many of them Jewish, still irritated about the famous Palm Beach County butterfly ballot of 2000. Some estimate that the confusing ballot caused a couple thousand of their comrades to vote for Pat Buchanan when they meant to support their Joey, vice presidential candidate Joe Lieberman, and they are out to avenge all that has happened since. They tick off the war, the economy, Social Security, prescription drug benefits, homeland security, education and the man in the Oval Office, whom they regard with suspicion for a perceived lack of intellectual rigor. They don't talk that much about John Kerry.
Victor Villandre, 65, a retired high school physics teacher from Long Island, is the office's volunteer coordinator. "Those people," he says, waving a hand at the dozens of gray heads huddled over television tray tables, making calls, "are the patriots. They really love their country, and they are afraid that this is their last chance to take it back."
It's a last dance for the children of the New Deal. Their Florida was supposed to be a retirement heaven of palm trees and golf courses and early-bird specials. And now here they are, nearly frantic with passion and purpose, canvassing hours each day in the hot sun, bunions and all.
Shirley Zarwan, 79, has just come back to the office after standing in front of a dollar store, buttonholing shoppers. She has given up tennis and bridge. "We have two weeks to go," she says, "and I would give up anything."
She sets aside a little money each week and doles it out to various Democratic pleas for money, "Hillary, Bill, Carville, Terry, they're all asking." She does not worry that she is spending her children's inheritance. "That's why I'm doing this!" she says. "It's their future. They have to pay down this debt!"
The most dedicated of the seniors show up seven days a week, 10 and 12 hours a day. Already they have collected more than 60,000 absentee ballots countywide, distributed more than 65,000 campaign buttons, according to the paid Kerry staffers, who are all in their twenties. From this office, one of five in Palm Beach County, the volunteers make 8,000 calls a day, contacting likely voters, asking them if they need a ride to the polls, explaining the new early voting rules. The large cardboard sheet on the wall asking for Election Day drivers had 150 slots. It's full, and the new goal is 300.
This is a cohort using activism to defy the disillusionment and loss of control that can accompany aging. Gerontologists long have linked physical and mental engagement with a fulfilling retired life. And with 537 votes being all that divided a sea of nearly 6 million votes cast in Florida in 2000, both presidential campaigns have found it easy to recruit volunteers.
Particularly feverish is the activity at this Kerry-Edwards office, inside the converted Lady of America fitness center, where people are warned to watch their step on the bouncy aerobics floor.
"They're so passionate," says Lale Mamaux, the campaign's local press secretary. "We run out of signs, they make their own signs. They are really informed, and they have all the time to do this."
Elayne Maidy, 76, spent nearly 20 years as property manager for a Silver Spring apartment building. Now she stands in her tennis shoes at the front desk, tapping her coral acrylic nails, peering over her rhinestone-studded reading glasses at people who come through the door every few minutes.
"We're out of buttons again," she says. "Want a sticker? How about a sign? You could put it in your car."
"Been here before? You signed up to drive? That's wonderful! Are you a veteran, by any chance? That's wonderful! Hon, come with me, and I'll put you on the phone for the veterans." She takes a man by the hand and leads him away.
When she returns, she says proudly, "The other day I had a 98-year-old man; he hadn't voted in years."
Four years ago, between rounds of canasta, she did some work for Al Gore. This time, she's here every day. "This is the most important election of our lifetime," she says, "and let me tell you, honey, I have seen a lot of elections. It's my grandchildren I'm worried sick about. At my age, what difference does it make to me? Can we go to any place and get into a war? This bothers me terrible."
There's a fight on for the Jewish vote in Palm Beach County, where the Democrats have a solid registration edge, and the campaign button with "Kerry-Edwards" written in Hebrew is a popular item. The Republican chair, Sid Dinerstein, is fond of saying that the county's Jews are so old, "they still think Roosevelt is on the ticket."
"I wish he were!" says Zarwan. "I wish Clinton were." She may not be as enthusiastic about Kerry, but, she says, Jews are predominantly Democrats "because of the teachings of the Torah," which commands Jews to reach beyond themselves to help others.
Rosalie Weiss, 79, has five grandchildren, "all of whom are the age to be conscripted," she says. Bush's assertions that he will not reinstate the draft and a decisive House vote against such a bill "do not reassure me at all," she says. Her late husband, an engineer, was an executive for the company that did all the heating and air-conditioning work for the World Trade Center. He regarded the towers as his "crowning achievement," she says, and feels grateful that he wasn't alive to see them fall.
"I was 12 years old when Hitler marched into Vienna," she says, as she steers her car carefully toward a large retirement complex where she will canvass. "I remember cowering in a corner, when they marched in and just ravaged my parents' home. I see so many parallels today -- the sneak-and-peek aspect of the Patriot Act, the disdain for the intellectual and the academic that this administration has."
She knocks on 78 doors, carefully recording each contact on her sheet of registered voters. It takes a long time because the old folks who cautiously open the shades then want to discuss politics. It can be a lonely life here in the modest bungalows, and residents crave the social contact of voting. Casper Garber, 98, refuses Weiss's offer of an absentee ballot application and says he will take the bus to the community's clubhouse to vote on Election Day.
Florence Brenner, 80, says, "I'm with you 100 percent, no, 150 percent. But how are we going to protect the vote?" Robert Liptzer, also 80, is a registered Republican. "I'm certainly not happy with Bush," he says. He takes 10 drugs, and some of them cost more on the president's prescription drug plan than they did before he bought the card.
An 87-year-old man who lives alone pushes his walker to the door and invites Weiss inside. On his bulletin board is a hand-printed note that reads: "If I should die, please let Rubin Memorial pick up the body. I am all paid up." Weiss, who is widowed, helps him fill out his application. He flirts with her, and tells her she must come back to help him with the ballot.
Back at headquarters, Maidy gets a broad smile when asked if Democratic fervor helps her get a date. Widowed for 32 years, Maidy has been gently fending off a persistent suitor who keeps calling her for dinner. "I have to be honest with you," she recalls telling him, "this is my passion right now."
And then, after more calls, she relented. "I told him, 'You have a beautiful speaking voice,' " her voice husky and sexy. "Why don't you come on over here and let me" -- and here she pauses, smiling slyly -- "put you on the phone bank!"