Both sides in this presidential campaign want you to believe that this is the most important vote you'll ever cast.
But when I sat down with a group of people who could look back and say where this election ranks over nearly a century of votes, I kept hearing about a different year: 1932.
"To me, the most crucial election was in 1932," said George Gilbertson, who will turn 95 next month. "It changed the tenor of the whole society. It humanized politics." Growing up in a Republican home in Republican South Dakota, Gilbertson was nonetheless energized by Franklin Roosevelt's appeal to young Americans to stand up against the rich and the powerful and their candidate, Herbert Hoover.
"That's the moment the country really changed. This election today seems crucial now, but it really doesn't matter. We will survive either way. Politics and the country have become much more complicated since '32, with the result that very little can be changed, and presidents don't have nearly as much impact."
"Thirty-two was much more important than this," said Loren Pope, 94, a retired Washington Star copy editor, Loudoun County farmer and college counselor. "The country was in severe depression, and Roosevelt gave the people a crutch." (Pope, by the way, is the man who wrote the most impressive letter of persuasion I've ever read. In 1939, Pope, a $50-a-week headline writer, wrote to the most famous architect in the land, Frank Lloyd Wright: "There are certain things a man wants during life, and, of life. Material things and things of the spirit. The writer has one fervent wish that includes both. It is a house created by you." Amazingly, Wright agreed to build what is now known as the Pope-Leighey House, near Mount Vernon.)
Some of these veterans of the voting booth whom I met at Goodwin House Bailey's Crossroads, a retirement home in Fairfax County, do see next week's election as especially important, and they tend to be the Kerry supporters.
"The world situation seems to me so serious -- so serious that I'm sorry I lived this long," said Mary Jenkins. Although she is 92, Jenkins has been voting only since 1964 because, she said, "when I was growing up in Mississippi, I didn't know anyone who voted, and then I moved to D.C., where we couldn't vote for president. So I didn't vote until we moved to Virginia, and I voted for Lyndon Johnson because I knew Lady Bird, and she was so lovely. I always admired that the cookies she served were in the shape of Texas."
In 1968 and 1972, Elizabeth Weihe voted against her Republican upbringing because her sons were fighting in Vietnam and she wanted them home. Those, she said, were crucial elections, just as this one is. She's making the same choice again Tuesday, this time because she has a granddaughter who is training to fly Black Hawk choppers for the Army. "You cannot carry on a war unless you have a modicum of a backing in the public, and we don't have that," said Weihe, who is 89.
After 18 or 19 presidential elections, these voters are most proud not of the winners they chose, but of the times when they made a statement and cast a vote for Norman Thomas, the socialist; or when their idealism impelled them to vote for the likes of Adlai Stevenson -- twice. "I wept bitterly when those returns were coming in," said Peggy Fisher, 83, a longtime activist whose late husband, Joe, represented Northern Virginia in Congress.
A lifetime of watching politics has persuaded these people that most of us start out liberal, get more conservative in middle age and swing back toward the left again in the late years.
Call it skepticism or realism, but the folks at Goodwin House have come to believe that every politician thinks that our collective survival rests on his election. "This time," Richard Nixon's slogan urged in 1968, "vote like your whole world depended on it." Johnson told voters in 1964 that "the stakes are too high for you to stay at home."
Those who have voted in elections that were about the Depression, war, civil unrest and nuclear nightmare take a longer view. "In 100 years, this will not be of consequence," Gilbertson said.
"There's a lot of hatred around politics right now," Pope said, "but the election isn't crucial. The world has always been going to hell in a handbasket."
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