The guy arguing with me at the party in Manhattan in 1960 was sure he was right. "You're putting me on. Don't try to tell me you 'can't' vote in the Kennedy-Nixon election. People in Washington can vote for president of the United States the same as any other American citizens."
Ha. That's only part of the reason that people from the District of Columbia -- and here we're talking about people really, really from this city -- get so pumped up at the mention of something called "home rule." Forget nostalgia. The good old days of votelessness weren't that good at all. As they say when a bad joke bombs, you had to be there. As for presidential elections, it took several years after that New Yorker flunked elementary civics for the 23d Amendment to make it. That's the one that finally let the locals here join in picking presidents, starting in 1964.
But that's only part of an awful long crawl toward home rule and away from the Colonial Rule of Thumb -- under which people here were misgoverned for generations. How long, for example, could a dog's leash legally be in this city? You petitioned the Congress of the United States for this cosmic policy decision. There, a bunch of lawmakers -- under the leadership of some Old South members who reveled in pushing around a city of another color -- conspired regularly and gleefully to frustrate every local attempt to exercise anything resembling the municipal authority they took for granted in their own towns and cities.
So while school kids in other places might have been attending local get- out-the-vote rallies and singing the praises of electoral democracy in the land, many of us were riding floats in home rule rallies downtown. The guy in the stockade was always a good visual. And while people back in the states would praise, criticize, reelect or replace their mayors, governors, county or city council members and their senators and congressmen, here you sort of shrugged and, on Election Days elsewhere, thanked nobody in particular for letting the bars stay open.
Covering "city hall" for this newspaper was something else too. The big difference between home rule and no home rule, we would learn in real terms, is people; they didn't visit the District Building much back in the days when three presidentially appointed commissioners were "in charge." Why bother? If you wanted anything done, the best way was to get somebody from the board of trade or the police department to go over the heads of the commissioners to the third floor of the Longworth Building on Capitol Hill. That's where the good ole boys from the House District Committee had their own one- on-one versions of public hearings.
At the District Building, the high point of the day for the two reporters from The Post and The Star who stayed past 2 p.m., when the Daily News packed it in, was to sit at a big table in Commissioner President Walter N. Tobriner's office and watch him open the mail. He would read the pick of the litter out loud, often adding a quote from Shakespeare or a pun from Tobriner. Most of the petitions didn't require action on the commissioners' part, which was just about right, anyway.
But this afternoon, as we celebrate the tenth anniversary of electing mayors and members of the council, there will be people all over the District Building. They will be marching right into the offices of their elected lawmakers -- by invitation: a blanket invitation to the public for a birthday party/open house. And some school kids will receive cash prizes and other awards for the best posters and essays about home rule.
And if that guy from Manhattan happens to show up, he'll probably insist that people here can vote for senators and representatives the same as any other American citizens.
He's wrong again. We're waiting for the day.