Sunday, October 26, 2008
When Elections Really Were Fun
I can hardly wait until Election Night. After the most exciting election race in memory, we'll finally have a winner.
But oh, how I miss Nelson Polsby. It would be so much more fun if he were still here.
Nelson died Feb. 6, 2007. As director of UC Berkeley's Institute of Governmental Studies from 1988 to 1999, he probably knew more about American politics than anyone else in the world.
He didn't waste his time speculating about how politics ought to be; he was fascinated by politics as they are. His special delight was skewering conventional wisdom with unconventional ideas.
Take his final book, "How Congress Evolves" (2004), which argued that today's polarized politics were caused by air conditioning.
The theory goes like this: When air conditioning became common after World War II, the South suddenly became habitable. And Northerners - half of them Republicans - started moving there.
As a result, there were now enough Republicans in the South that being one was no longer political suicide. So the Dixiecrats switched parties en masse, making the national Republican Party more conservative (by addition) and the Democrats more liberal (by subtraction).
Anyway, since Nelson isn't here, I'll say it for him: Presidential elections aren't as much fun they used to be.
Where are the great campaign songs of yesteryear, like "Sidewalks of New York" (Al Smith 1928), "Happy Days Are Here Again" (FDR 1932) and "High Hopes" (JFK 1960)?
Where are the great slogans, like "Tippecanoe and Tyler too" (Harrison 1840), "Don't Swap Horses in the Middle of the Stream" (Lincoln 1864) and "Keep Cool With Coolidge" (Coolidge 1924)?
My favorite slogan was "I Like Ike" (Eisenhower 1952) - short, simple and much snapper than opponent Adlai Stevenson's "I'm Madly For Adlai" and "We Need Adlai Badly."
But Stevenson redeemed himself with a great concession speech: "I feel like the boy who stubbed his toe. He said it hurt too much to laugh, but he was too old to cry."
I also miss paper ballots.
The best thing was that they took a long time to count. So the East Coast returns didn't come in until about 8 p.m. Pacific Time, obviating the risk of the election being decided before the polls closed on the West Coast, which actually happened in 1980.
And I loved the delicious suspense of watching the tension mount through the evening as the returns slowly rolled in across the country.
Elections often weren't decided until the wee small hours of the morning. In 1916 Republican Charles Evans Hughes went to bed convinced he had been elected president. But late overnight returns from California gave the nod to Democrat Woodrow Wilson, instead.
The next morning a reporter phoned the Hughes home.
"The president is asleep," said Hughes' son.
"Well," said the reporter, "when he wakes up, tell him he isn't president."
But nowadays the networks announce the winner as soon as the polls close. And the rest of the night is one long anti-climax, like opening all your Christmas presents in the first five minutes and having nothing to do for the rest of the day.
But whatever happens on Tuesday, the East Bay's best-known power couple, Tom Bates and Loni Hancock, will finally be able to settle a long-standing argument.
He's running for re-election as mayor of Berkeley (a job she once held), and she's running for the state senate (a job he once held).
"We got married on the Sunday after I was first elected mayor in 1986, which was Nov. 9," said Hancock. "Tom thinks we should celebrate our anniversary on Nov. 9, and I think we should celebrate on the first Sunday after Election Day."
Bates added, "We've always compromised by celebrating on her date in odd years and on my date in even years. But this year the two dates coincide, for the first time since we got married. So we can finally agree on which day to celebrate."