Forty-nine years ago on this very day I cast my first vote for president.
Within minutes of the networks opening their election-night broadcasts, my heart broke into a million little pieces.
Sen. George McGovern ran for president in 1972 against Richard Nixon, the incumbent who sought re-election amid the Vietnam War (which was drawing to a close, even as protesters marched on our streets) and a burgeoning scandal, Watergate, that eventually would bring Nixon’s presidency to a premature close.
I was a young college student. I had just returned from that war, confused and as uncertain about our mission in Vietnam as I was when I landed in-country in March 1969.
I was newly married, too. The first of our sons would be born in just a few weeks, but I had gotten totally involved in politics. I worked to register college students to vote in that election at the college I attended in East Multnomah County, Ore. I was looking for budding Democrats to help defeat President Nixon.
I was a flaming lefty back then. I have moderated my views since then, but at the age of 23 I thought I knew all there was to know.
Well, Nov. 7 dawned that day and I actually had a thought in my noggin that we might be able to pull off a miracle, that Sen. McGovern somehow would prevail in his fight against President Nixon.
What in the world was I thinking? The polls wouldn’t close until 8 p.m. in Oregon. Wouldn’t you know it? Sometime shortly after the polls closed on the East Coast the networks called it: Nixon would win re-election.
Boy, did he ever. He finished with a 40-state landslide, a 23-percentage point victory in the balloting; the Electoral College total ended up 520 for the president, 17 for the senator (with one of the electors voting for a third candidate).
I was — to put it plainly — crushed! That would be the final election in which I ever would become an active participant. I had started my journalism career in 1976, so volunteering for voter-registration drives was out of the question.
Hey, but here’s a bit of cheer: Sen. McGovern carried Multnomah County, Ore., by just a little; he would lose Oregon to the president by double digits.
It was a game-changer for me. It whetted my appetite for covering and commenting on politics and politicians throughout my journalism career.
I am happy to report that my eternal optimism perhaps flickered a bit that evening, but it didn’t die.