Just For the Sake of Debate
ON a blue-skied afternoon I jogged toward home, scattering leaf piles with triumphant kicks. I swung open the front door and bounded into my mother's study. "Mom, guess what?" She wheeled around in her swivel chair.
"There's going to be a mock election at school, and I'm a candidate!"
"That's marvelous. Are you Carter?"
My mother stared at me until I grew uncomfortable. "Mom?" She rose from her chair and walked out the door. When my father arrived home from work, he slumped down at the kitchen table next to my mother. After a few minutes of conversation in low tones and an over-the-shoulder glance in my direction, I knew something was wrong.
My parents were Democrats living in a Democratic neighborhood. I had heard my mother say that Reagan was an elitist and a warmonger, that he would roll back all the reforms of the civil rights movement. As far as I was concerned, I was just excited to have a role in a school-wide event.
That evening my father sat down on my bed next to me as I finished my math homework. "Your mother tells me you're going to be Ronald Reagan." I said yes. My father stared ahead for a few moments, nodding. "Did you want that part?"
"Not really, but I wanted to be in the election and the other candidates were already taken."
My father loosened his tie and turned to look at me. "If you don't really like Ronald Reagan, are you sure you want to represent his point of view?"
At school the next day, the candidates met with the principal, Dr. Nesmith. She said parents would be encouraged to attend the debate. I squirmed in my chair. Then she said the debate would be taped and played on a local television channel. I pictured an angry mob of neighbors outside my house, hurling rotten vegetables. Dr. Nesmith pulled me aside. She told me Reagan would never win and she could run the debate without him. She asked me if I wanted to back down.
After soccer practice I rode home the long way, mulling over my decision. On a side street I noticed an old brick storefront with a blue placard in the window. I parked my bike and peered in.
The office was crowded with flags, bunting, and Reagan-Bush banners. I felt a tap on my shoulder. It was a big, burly man with a thick gray beard. He carried a half-eaten sandwich in one hand and a box of pamphlets in the other. "Come on in, son. Bumper stickers are on the house." Inside, my soccer cleats clicked against the wooden floor. The man asked me why I had come. I told him my dilemma.
The Reagan man shook his head, leaned back in his chair, and lit a cigar. He told me what keeps a democracy strong is the free exchange of ideas, and anyone who would suppress one side of a political argument is a tyrant. He explained that if enough people got together and silenced everybody they didn't agree with, we would no longer be living in a free country. I pedaled away from that office with a garbage bag full of Reagan paraphernalia on my handlebars, and a new determination to promote the freedom
I read everything I could find about Ronald Reagan. I questioned my grandfather, my gym teacher, my barber, and anyone else who said they were Republicans. My parents clipped newspaper articles and piled them on my dresser.
The day of the debate arrived and I was introduced to a chorus of jeers. Hissing almost drowned out my response to the first question. Dr. Nesmith raised a finger to her lips, but said nothing.
I challenged the other candidates with catchy slogans and fast statistics, pounding my fist on the podium and pausing intermittently for dramatic effect. My second response silenced the hecklers, and the third evoked clapping in the back row of the auditorium. It was my parents.
Still, as my histrionics continued, the crowd crept slowly toward my favor. I delivered the last line of my speech at top volume, sweat cascading down my forehead. "A vote for Ronald Reagan is a vote for progress, prosperity, and pride in the United States of America." The crowd came to its feet.
The next day was the election. I arrived at school to find the campaign posters I had plastered along the hallways gone, the boxes of pamphlets and buttons confiscated, and the copy of my closing speech removed from the bulletin board. Even the bumper sticker on my locker door had disappeared.
The public address system crackled to life. Dr. Nesmith announced that a photographer was visiting from the newspaper to cover the election. She urged everyone to vote not for the student they thought performed best in the debate, but for the presidential candidate they preferred. She said that because our votes were representing the school, they were very, very important.
In the newspaper the next morning, there was a picture of my rival candidate above the caption: "Carter wins big at elementary school."
My classmates told me they would have voted for me if it weren't for real. My parents tousled my hair and told me that 64 votes was amazing. Dr. Nesmith sent me a note that said I could pick up all my props at her ofice.
I didn't really mind the outcome of the election; I knew I had swayed a few people. Neither did I regret the hours I spent preparing for the debate; I had learned a lot about a different point of view. What really bothered me was that the first vote I ever cast in a presidential election was never counted. No doubt my ballot, marked hastily in pencil, was unceremoniously wadded up and dumped into a wastebasket full of coffee grinds.
If they had reported it right, the final tally of my elementary school mock election of 1980 would have been: 224 votes for Carter, 64 for Reagan, 26 for Anderson, and 1 for "Hey, Dr. Nesmith, what about the freedom of speech?"