Jim Jenkins

Picking a president — for them

Oh, I was pretty pumped up that day, yes indeed. Couldn’t wait to get to Aldert Root Elementary here in Raleigh to make the boast of all time.

I walked into Miss Vann’s third-grade classroom and to the first kid I saw exclaimed, “My Daddy picked the president today!”

Yes, we’d gone to the polls that morning, when it still was dark (the old man liked to get there at 6:30), and I watched him go into the booth and cast one for a fellow named John F. Kennedy, like him a World War II veteran, a man ahead of his time on civil rights, early 40s, young family, Democrat.

All that I wouldn’t really understand until years later, when I came of age and my father and I could sit down and talk about grown-up matters such as politics. (Which included, it turned out, his own meetings with Kennedy during that campaign.)

But on this day, in 1960, I just knew that my old man was the one picking the president by going in the booth and casting that ballot.

Come Tuesday, when I go in, more than the names of the combatants will be different. In that first election I remember, there didn’t seem to be a lot of virulent animosity between Kennedy and Richard Nixon. Both were moderates on many things, and Nixon had been vice president. Kennedy’s disgraceful philandering was a well-kept secret, and Nixon’s dark paranoia had not yet surfaced. The televised debates were said to give the nod to the telegenic Kennedy, while radio listeners believed Nixon the victor.

And the outcome reflected that, with a difference of about 100,000 votes, some of which would be questioned decades later when there would be claims that Kennedy patriarch Joe Kennedy demanded the election for his boy by any means, and he meant it.

This Tuesday, the stakes are the same — the presidency, Congress, direction of the economy, civil rights — but the campaign has been marred by a lack of enthusiasm for the Democratic candidate on the part of many people who will vote for her mainly in what they see as self-defense for their country. Then there’s the virulent, take-our-country-back anger on the part of some of those — some — supporting a Republican nominee wholly unsuited to the business of politics and, many fear, unsuited as well to leading the free world and that world’s most powerful military.

There’s another difference among a number of us I suppose in that 1960 election and this one. I’ll go in the booth an unaffliliated voter and split my ticket as I almost always do. In 1960, people were Democrats and Republicans and most I knew seemed to vote straight tickets. Many left the polls together having canceled their friends’ votes, but they adjourned to a restaurant for breakfast and talked about a lot of things beyond politics.

That’s not going to happen much Tuesday. A campaign defined on the part of one candidate by a hatred for the other candidate is a way to divide people, deeply so. And a country so divided will be hard to govern for anyone, at a time when that country needs to be able to come together more than ever.

So I kind of boiled down what my own vote’s about not with the intent of endorsement but with the thought of that vote, in the early morning, of more than half a century ago, and how that vote really did wind up making a difference. And not because of one person but because of what he started, good (civil rights) and bad (Vietnam) but perhaps more important, because of those he inspired to enter public service. They did good work, and still do.

My Daddy picked a good president. And perhaps the best guidance for us all today is the hope that 50 years from now, the children and the grandchildren who this morning will go to school bragging about how we cast our votes ... will be able to say the same.

Deputy editorial page editor Jim Jenkins can be reached at 919-829-4513 or at jjenkins@newsobserver.com