The cold, gray drizzle of November finally found central Illinois on Election Day. No one complained, however, because the warm, dry harvest season had ended weeks before.
Fifty or more years ago, that was never the case on the southern Illinois dairy farm of my youth. In fact, if we were half-done with harvest on Election Day, we were very lucky. Done by Election Day? No one we knew was ever that lucky.
Back then, in the 1960s, Election Day was like a Sunday. My mother, a poll judge, would put on a church dress to earn, maybe, $10 over the 13- or 14-hour day. (The polling place, in fact, was a church.) And like Sunday, work stopped long enough for you to do your sacred duty.
Moreover, in Illinois then, when the polls were open the taverns were closed. That was a minor distraction to a local deputy, who was the Democratic precinct boss as well as the owner of a well-known local watering hole. Officially, it was always closed on Election Day; unofficially, its back door was always open to anyone “who voted right.”
Not surprisingly, most everyone, either out of blind loyalty or blind thirst, did vote right and the precinct never went Republican while that deputy (later sheriff) wore a badge, a gun, and a knowing smile.
It took little convincing; most southern Illinois farm folks had been Democrats since the election of Franklin Roosevelt in 1932. It was Roosevelt, after all, whose hopeful words carried them through the Depression; Roosevelt who brought electricity to their dark corner of nowhere; and, praise heaven, Roosevelt who delivered a monthly pension check so a lifetime of hard work left no one broken and broke.
That loyalty, like America itself, began to crack in 1968, the worst election year ever. The Tet offensive came that February, then Martin Luther King’s murder in April, and Bobby’s in June. (My mother woke my siblings and me that awful morning with the shocked cry, “They shot another Kennedy! They shot another Kennedy!”)
Summer ended in clouds of teargas and pools of blood at the Democratic convention in Chicago.
The ugly emptiness of the 2016 election might have been a bad dream but, by comparison, 1968 was a bloody nightmare. My father, a thoughtful, informed voter for almost 70 years, backed Richard Nixon in 1968 because Nixon had promised to raise milk price supports, a key ingredient in our farm’s main enterprise.
“You have to vote for a man who understands farming,” offered my father.
Nixon kept his word; he increased milk price supports before announcing his re-election bid in 1972. Shortly thereafter, Watergate investigators discovered he had done so only after pocketing at least $1 million in unreported campaign cash from the dairy lobby.
My father never commented on Nixon’s criminal deeds or the dairy lobby’s dirty schemes. I suspect, however, that their corruption deeply offended him because he was a rules person.
Rules, like fences, mattered. To him, breaking the rules to win wasn’t winning. It was, in fact, losing because it meant you had first lost your dignity, then your honor.
Republicans didn’t have the corner on the corruption market in the southern Illinois of my youth. Two years before Watergate, a well-known Illinois Democrat, Secretary of State Paul Powell, died after a brief illness. Within weeks, his executor discovered several shoeboxes filled with $800,000 in cash in Powell’s Springfield hotel room, as well as 49 cases of whiskey, 14 transistor radios, and two cases of canned corn. That was quite a haul for a southern Illinois boy who never made more than $30,000 a year as an elected official.
Powell, like Nixon and the “vote right” sheriff, weren’t — aren’t — the only scoundrels to hold public office. In fact, it’s quite likely we elected more than a few crooks, cheaters, and knuckleheads this Election Day. We usually do.
These folks, however, come and go. We, the people, however, always persevere.
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