Dear Congressman Synar,
I've never written to a dead man before. But there's something I always meant to tell you, and I'm not going to let a little fatal cancer stop me. You probably won't remember me. My mother used to do your mother's hair in Muskogee in the '60s. My parents still have one of her paintings, by the way, a brownish still life with flowers. When you were running for the House that first time, in 1978, I handed out some pamphlets for you at my town's rodeo. I'm from Braggs. I was eight. I live in New York City now, and it's been a long time since I've been to a rodeo in Oklahoma (or anywhere else).
At the Braggs rodeo, you shook my hand and gave me the "Synar for Congress" button off your own lapel which I still have and told me it was the last one off the printing presses. You'd think Elvis was handing me his sweaty scarf or something, I was so excited. I realize now how young you were. You were twenty-seven then, younger than I am now.
There's this letter you sent me right after your election. I've kept it with me all these years. It's written on House of Representatives letterhead marked "Mike Synar, Member-Elect, 2nd District, Oklahoma." It reads:
Thank you so much for your help during our campaign. Don't forget that when you become 18 you should get registered to vote. Get involved in government and our government will be better.
Thank you again Sarah
Lord knows you probably mailed hundreds of these notes during your sixteen years in the House. It's even possible an aide wrote it, but in my heart of hearts I believe it came from your own pen. I must have pulled it out of the envelope and re-read it a thousand times, dreaming. Some day, I thought.
How I pined to vote. In 1985, the movie "The Breakfast Club" came out. In my teen world, it was a really big deal. Every kid who saw it was supposed to identify with one of the stereotype characters the rebel, the weird girl, the jock, the nerd, the princess. I identified with Anthony Michael Hall's nerd, Brian. (Though I was only about nine months away from turning into black-clad, anti-social Ally Sheedy.) There was this one scene, my favorite, in which Ally Sheedy has just stolen Anthony Michael Hall's wallet. Jock Emilio Estevez is looking at nerd Hall's phony driver's license, pointing out that it says the nerd, who looks like he's twelve, is sixty-eight years old. Clearly, the kid's no barfly, so the jock's suspicious.
Jock: "What do you need a fake I.D. for?"
Nerd: "So I can vote."
I cast my first vote in 1988, in the Montana Democratic primary, for Jesse Jackson. I handed out pamphlets for him too hope you don't mind that I started seeing other candidates. My love for Jackson was pure, was unconditional and real. I rode my bike eight miles on a highway shoulder, swerving around road kill, to hear him speak at the airport.
As you know, he lost. I'm sure you can relate. (Sorry about '94, by the way. Some tough year for Democrats, especially those who campaigned so hard for the President. When your friend Bill Clinton delivered your eulogy in 1996 he said this about you, "When he was defeated in 1994, there was probably no person in America more responsible for it than me.")
Now it's that time again. On Tuesday, I'll be going over to the housing project on 24th Street to vote. I think of you every time I draw the voting booth curtain behind me, every time I pull the lever. I love it in there. I drag it out, leisurely punching the names I want as if sipping whiskey in front of a fire. I mean, how many times in a life does an average person get to make history?
I sometimes look at the appendix in an American history reference book I have that lists the vital statistics of all the presidential elections. For example, during Andrew Jackson's successful reelection campaign of 1832, William Wirt of the Anti-Masonic party garnered 101,051 votes. Eight percent of the voters went for Wirt and I like to think that if you put the chart under a microscope, you can see all their rotting white male faces crammed inside that number, chanting, "Not him! Him!"
On Monday, September 25, I was watching the David Letterman show and something happened I'll remember for the rest of my life. The day before, the Sunday New York Times Magazine ran a story about how television comics are influencing the coming election. The article quoted a former Letterman writer who called Letterman a "non-voting Republican." To me, that phrase stuck out, for three reasons. The first reason is that I am extremely partisan, a capital D Democrat, and I'm always on the lookout for which of my heroes might be Republican. (Though I would say of Letterman what I always say about Frank Sinatra his work doesn't make you FEEL like a Republican.) Secondly, as a regular Letterman viewer, I knew that earlier this year, he was called for jury duty in Connecticut because he talked about jury duty every damn night for weeks. And how do you get called for jury duty? By registering to vote! So "non-voting Republican" sounded fishy, but scoffing at the New York Times's mistakes is a morning ritual, like oatmeal. Just ask Wen Ho Lee. Finally, the phrase "non-voting Republican" stuck out because that is how one might describe Dick Cheney, who responded to press attacks that he didn't vote in local elections by saying he was more focused on "global concerns." Which I think is a polite way of saying he was out of town on the corporate payroll sticking it to foreigners and couldn't be bothered with what his running mate might rhapsodize as "local control."
Anyway, Letterman. I wish you could have seen him. This presidential election has been so weirdly down to earth, so issue-oriented, that Letterman's tirade was maybe the only moment of true over-the-top grandeur of the whole campaign. Letterman brought up the Times Magazine article and stated that it characterized him as a non-voting Republican. "When I heard this," he said, "frankly, I was insulted." He recalled voting in 1968: "That was my first election. We had an ugly, awful war going on. It's not an election about who's banging interns." He mentioned he also voted in 1972 and then spent the rest of the '70s abstaining, because those were his "cocktail waitress days." For this he was embarrassed, confessing, "I realize that that was an irresponsible way to live. I straightened myself up. I come here, I'm living in New Canaan, Connecticut, so I registered to vote." To corroborate this, he called up the registrar of voters in New Canaan, a man named George, who confirmed that Letterman has voted in every election since at least 1988. "Prior to 1988, they don't know," Letterman continued, because previous records are kept in a vault somewhere and "they're scared. They don't want to go down there." He laid out his evidence as though testifying, concluding, "So I think I've established, Your Honor, I do vote."
I don't know if I'm capturing the intensity of this, the sheer civic thrill of watching someone so clearly offended by being called a non-voter, as if "non-voter" is some kind of curse word, a slanderous insult he couldn't not refute. His outrage was so there's no other word for it righteous. I was touched. The litany closed like an old fashioned oration. Thus saith the talk show host, "I believe I have voted for both Democrats and Republicans. Am I either one? Absolutely not. Ladies and gentleman, I am an American." At which point, I, in my living room, clapped.
One of the items on Green Party candidate Ralph Nader's platform is election-day voter registration. Theoretically, I support anything that increases voter turnout. On the other hand, what's easier than filling out a card with your address on it four weeks before the election? Christ, this thing's been going on for over a year now. Who are these lazy idiots who can't pay attention more than five minutes before they cast their votes? Isn't voting called "suffrage," a word that sounds like doing it should hurt a little?
Speaking of suffrage, I'll end this on the following thought. The protagonist in a recent movie called "The Contender," about the confirmation hearings of a vice-presidential replacement, admits that she's an atheist but says that she has a religion. Her faith is the idea of American democracy itself. It's what she believes, believes IN. I was struck by that, because that's how I feel too. During the New Hampshire primary I got in a screaming fight with candidate Gary Bauer okay, I screamed, he didn't who had just whipped out a little paperback copy of the Declaration of Independence and Constitution out of his pocket and said that anyone who doesn't believe in God, doesn't believe in those documents because of the phrase "endowed by their Creator." I told him that, on the contrary, those documents for me have superceded God, that they are my Bible.
All of which to say, look up the word "suffrage" in the dictionary. In mine, after noting the main meanings the privilege of voting, the "exercise of such a right," the third interpretation of suffrage is this: "A short intercessory prayer." Isn't that beautiful? And true? For what is voting if not a prayer, and what are prayers if not declarations of hope and desire?
I guess I'll end my letter to you the way you ended yours to me.
Thank you again Mike.