Exile on Main Street
Park Record columnist
Looking back, I took the process of voting in my first presidential election quite seriously — much more serious than I did my three-year hitch in the Army if the truth be known.
Only a few months shy of a discharge by the time I shipped off my absentee ballot, it became somewhat difficult to retain focus on my unit’s mission. Basically, as near as I could tell at the time, our electronic maintenance platoon, while alternating between playing war games and pinochle, was charged with self-medication logistics.
Without getting too intricate in laying out the strategies involved, suffice to say that, in order to stay awake at night pondering my ballot, especially following a long shift manipulating a deck of cards, modifications in body chemistry were often required.
And whom, you might ask, were the Sugar-Plum Fairies dancing in my head as I lay there on my hand-hewn bunk with the weight of the nation on my shoulders? Why, the incumbent President Lyndon B. Johnson and his dancing partner in what had become a most interesting pas de deux, the honorable Senator Barry Goldwater of the great state of Arizona.
Now LBJ, whom you history buffs might recall assumed the office of the Presidency aboard Air Force One at Love Field in Dallas following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963, presented himself as the “peace” candidate (Try to keep this in mind as the narrative unfolds).
Considering the red-scare bluster emanating from his challenger, it was an obvious tact. Mr. Goldwater and his minions wanted their country back, wanted to make it great again, and wanted the rest of us to “love it or leave it.” You get my drift.
The mantra most closely associated with the Goldwater campaign of 1964 had the ring of profundity: “Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice. Moderation in pursuit of justice is no virtue.”
Punctuated by clenched fist and gritted teeth, you might say it arrived with emphasis. LBJ countered by subtly running TV ads showing an innocent waif holding a flower in front of an expanding mushroom cloud.
I didn’t necessarily like or trust either of them, but after long hours laying wide-eyed in my bunk considering the various issues that a disengaged political naïveté such as myself could muster on somewhat short notice, I voted for LBJ, “the lesser of two evils.” Stop me if you’ve seen this movie before.
Like I mentioned previously, I treated the entire process with the utmost respect. I almost put on my “Class-A” uniform and marched over to the mail drop. Almost! I did salute the envelope, however. And later that evening, I believe I may have hoisted a J&B Scotch or two with a few fellow cynics.
I should have seen it coming and maybe I did. It wasn’t like I couldn’t stick my head in the sand if undue levels of anxiety were involved. Previous to my sending in the ballot, news broke that North Vietnamese gunships had fired upon U.S. Navy vessels in the Gulf of Tonkin.
Congress responded by giving Johnson a “blank check” to defend our way of life from undue aggression by the unholy Viet Cong. I wasn’t too concerned, however. At least it wasn’t Goldwater with the nuclear codes. LBJ was the “peace” candidate, after all. Plus, at this point in time, military personnel had to volunteer to go to Vietnam. That would quickly change.
In February of 1965, one month after I regained civilian status, carpet-bombing of the north ensued with, first, military targets and as months became years, civilian targets as well. An escalation of ground troops that would reach 500,000 soon followed. Terms such as Napalm and Agent Orange entered the lexicon.
It wouldn’t be until about 58,000 American “body-bags” later that it would come to light that the incident in the Gulf of Tonkin was a fabrication blown totally out of proportion. Similar revelations would soon cause many of us to become willing exiles in our own land. Main Street became our home. The times they were a-changin’.
Although I would never miss an election, it would be decades before I would again vote for a Democrat or Republican. I did finally come around, though, once again casting my ballot for candidates who had earned my trust. Admittedly, I’ve gotten suckered back in. Later today, I will mail in a ballot for this election. We’ll see where that gets me.
Jay Meehan is a culture junkie and has been an observer, participant, and chronicler of the Park City and Wasatch County social and political scenes for more than 40 years.
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