AuH20 By Bill Vaughn
What I admired most about the Senator from Arizona was the look of disgust that passed over my old man’s face at the mere mention of Barry Goldwater's name.
C.C. Goldwater's riveting documentary about her grandfather reveals not just a compelling, charismatic and singular character who lived his life at a hundred miles an hour, it also brings home what an intellectually stunted parlor game American electoral politics has become. Watching the film, I suddenly recalled with a whoosh of vertigo my Happy Days serving as a campaign soldier for the Senator from Arizona.
When I saw people’s horror during the 1964 presidential campaign at Barry Goldwater's pronouncement that the U.S. ought to invade Cuba, abolish the Social Security system, and use nuclear weapons to bring the war in Vietnam to a halt by broiling the Ho Chi Minh Trail, I knew that politics would be my main source of entertainment for a very long time. Although I was only a sophomore at Central High in Grand Forks, North Dakota, and five years too young to vote, I marched to Republican headquarters one vibrant autumn day and promptly volunteered. The guy behind the desk, who looked like Elmer Fudd’s kid brother, noticed me ogling the coeds unpacking bumper stickers that said AuH20.
“Aren’t you too young to smoke?” he said.
“There’s no such thing,” I said, taking a deep drag on my Camel. “What do you want me to do?”
“Not so fast, my friend. What is it you like about the Senator?”
What I liked was the disgust on my old man’s face at the simple mention of Goldwater’s name. I stalled by faking deep thought. “His book,” I said at last, tapping the stack of skinny paperbacks on Fudd the Younger’s desk.
“You read The Conscience of a Conservative? What did you like about it?”
God, what was wrong with this dork? Here I was, free labor, and he’s grilling me like I was a purveyor of kiddie porn. If these campaign girls weren’t having so much fun I would have walked right out.
Casting around for an answer I recalled the Disney version of electoral politics I’d been suffering through in civics. About how the Democrats believe that government should be a net to catch people when they fall, and how the Republicans thought that the bastards deserved what they got.
“You know, that part about how people can take care of themselves,” I guessed.
Fudd inspected me for fakery.
“So,” he said at last. “We need help with yard signs. Where do you live?”
“Presidents Trailer Park.”
“Jesus, that’s no good,” he whined. “You can’t put campaign stuff on Federal property.”
“Maybe there’s something around here I could do.”
I spent every day that fall hanging with the young Republicans, loitering at headquarters, going to the rallies. What attracted me was the sexual energy, and the sense of attachment to something exciting, something that tasted dangerous. Plus, I had a lot of time on my hands. Central High had swollen to twice its capacity after a horde of military and government workers like my old man descended on Grand Forks Air Force Base to plant the prairies with Minuteman missiles. We went to school in shifts. Study halls and the cafeteria were eliminated. When you weren’t stuffed into some overcrowded classroom you were supposed to hit the streets.
Consequently, the downtown was choked with gangs of slouching, smoking teens milling around the burger joints, dancing in the day clubs to the Beatles and the Beach Boys (“Help me, Ronda, help, help me, Ronda”), and cruising around aimlessly in their cars.
I also started killing time at the city library across the street from school, reading all the apocalyptic and dystopic fiction I could find. After Fahrenheit 451, I read Brave New World and 1984 and A Canticle for Leibowitz and Animal Farm and On the Beach, then Lord of the Flies and William Golding’s forgotten novel, The Inheritors. What I absorbed from this body of conjecture, besides all its indelible imagery, was that at the core of man’s institutions glowered a force that resembled pure evil. In the atmosphere of hysteria and paranoia following the Cuban Missile Crisis and America’s discovery that it had lagged behind the Soviets in the arms race, this was a fair assumption, especially when I considered how close I lived to all that thermonuclear mayhem.
When I finally ran out of this sort of fiction I reluctantly opened The Conscience of Conservative, which I’d been carrying around for show. And there, too, was government portrayed as a sort of vicious mastiff necessary for limited unpleasant tasks, but so dangerous it must be kept in a cage when not employed. Based on all this reading, and misreading, I decided that I must have been a far-right zealot all along.
Back at Presidents Trailer Park I covered the walls of my tiny bedroom with buttons and posters, creating artful arrangements of the heads of Barry and his running mate, William E. Miller, the obscure Congressman from New York, festooning them with campaign shibboleths such as “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice” and “Moderation in the support of liberty is no virtue.” My father warned me that if any of this wacko trash found its way outside my room he’d burn it.
“In your heart you know he’s right, Dad.”
“In your guts you know he’s nuts, son.”
That was the beginning of the only political dialogue about Barry I would ever be able to draw my old man into. He saw immediately that this had nothing to do with ideology, and everything to do with my love of offending people off just for the fun of it. Still, on one level I found my father’s political views contradictory. After all, Goldwater was simply suggesting that the taxpayers get some value from all those expensive rockets my father spent his stressful working days installing under the corn. To me, it seemed an incredible waste of money not to fire up a few of these babies to teach Khrushchev a lesson he would not soon forget.
But Ben Vaughn had been raised on an unpromising East Texas cotton farm during the Depression only 300 miles from LBJ’s boyhood home. He talked like LBJ, and my grandfather, William Pleasant Vaughn, actually looked like LBJ, especially in the area of his enormous chimp-like ears. To the Vaughns, who knew the same families the Johnsons did, LBJ’s occupation of the White House was living proof that The Almighty had big plans for Texas. Not only that, my old man revealed, Goldwater was a Jew.
“His grandfather was Jewish,” I said.
“Someday you’ll understand what I’m talking about, sonny. These are junk people. They won’t ever be real Americans.” (. . . won’ ever be ray-ul Mare-kins.)
“He’s got Navaho tattoos.”
“And I’ve got Jap shrapnel in my butt.”
“What about that electric thingy that raises the stars and bars at his ranch every morning?”
The old man turned away to draw a beer from the mini-keg of Hamm’s he kept in the fridge. “Ansty Pants,” he said, ending the discussion by ridiculing the boxer shorts decorated with big red ants Goldwater had designed and marketed while running his family’s department store in Phoenix.
I dismissed the widespread predictions of a Johnson landslide. Voters lie, in order to look like conformists, I reasoned, but when they actually step inside the booth they’ll do the right thing. And I didn’t pay much attention to the frosty reception I got on people’s doorsteps. Especially after a Central High junior named Maggie Benson joined the campaign.
As we stood shivering on some citizen’s porch the night before Halloween she plucked the cigarette from my lips, and, with a deft and subtle gesture, flicked it into the yard. Then she put her tongue in my mouth.
“Vote for Barry?” I said when a housewife came to the door.
“Go neck somewhere else,” the housewife said.
Later that night, in her dad’s den, Maggie Benson would dispel the rumors I’d heard around school that her bra was stuffed with gym socks.
On Election Day I was behind the wheel of the driver’s ed car, cruising south on Belmont Road beside the Red River, when I heard the first returns on the radio. All seven voters in Dixville Notch, New Hampshire, had voted for Goldwater. I pounded the dashboard in triumph. This was going to be a wipeout! The instructor beside me, and my two classmates in the back seat, stared in bewilderment.
By the end of the day, of course, LBJ had captured 16 million more votes than Goldwater, better than 61 percent of the turnout, an even higher margin of victory than FDR’s supposedly untoppable triumph in 1936.
After a while a curious sort of pride replaced my shock. I began to see myself as a dark, romantic figure, a lonely crusader striding across the Plains bearing my steely message, a purist who took the extreme position and defended it because that’s what real men do. How was the cause of free speech served by babbling the same vacuous sheepspeak that everyone else did? Who cares if the weather sucks? Who pays attention to the fan who stands up in Wrigley and declares his love for the Cubs? What good is an egg without Tabasco?
LBJ went back on his word, of course, escalating the war in Vietnam and abandoning his Great Society promises to the poor. But by late 1966 I was too preoccupied to say I told you so. Now on the verge of graduating from Charley Russell High in Great Falls, Montana, I was busy skipping class to hunt pheasants and drive around the back roads with my pals drinking beer and exploring caves, making sure everyone saw the working class chip on my shoulder. I was trying to take my mind off the question of the age—army or college? I didn’t want to spend any more time in a classroom, but who wanted to sacrifice his butt in a war nobody liked? If only Barry were in the White House, I thought, I wouldn’t have to choose between these muddy forks. A simple push of a button, and bingo! No more commies.
Five years later I was a commie. But that's another story.
Copyright © 2006 Bill Vaughn