Carter vs. Ford, 1976


1976 was the nation’s bicentennial and it was also the year that Jimmy Carter was nominated as an “outsider” democratic candidate for the presidency. I was in second grade, and that fall the neighborhood kids and I walked the half mile down Beacon and 6th St in Lowell to school, taking sides in an election we understood only through the overheard conversations of the adults in our lives. Vietnam had ended, but badly, and Watergate had happened only two years before, and although this upheaval was all that we knew, our parents were shaken by it and dealt with the impact in different ways. My best friend’s dad, a police officer, was voting for Ford, because he represented stability. My parents were voting for Carter, because they were lifelong Democrats (and still are) and he represented change.

It was such a different time, I don’t need to tell you: we got our news from newspapers and magazines and our black-and-white TV, with the 60 minutes clock ticking every Sunday to remind us that someone was minding the store. Archie Bunker was a character on TV, but no one would have considered having him run for office. Even at that age, I understood that the views he spouted were funny because the power of people like him was fading, and because those he ridiculed and railed against had suddenly outpaced him. And even then, you could understand how, as a working class union loading dock worker, he needed a scapegoat, because, if he didn’t have it, it meant that the American Dream that he had been promised was a lie–or worse, that it was something that could happen for some, and his day had passed.

Probably I didn’t understand all of this then, but I do remember the arguments that we had as second graders very clearly. “Peanut farmer!” the Ford kids yelled, and “Nixon’s best friend!” the Carter kids yelled back, and then the jokes about Billy Carter and Jimmy being stupid and backwoods and also from the south, which, in Massachusetts, was always suspect. There was even a national “Anybody but Carter” movement (I remember seeing an ABC pin and wondering what it meant.)

What I don’t remember: that the results weren’t in until around 3:30 AM on the day after election, and that Jimmy Carter not only won in an upset but that he actually won both Massachusetts AND Texas (he was, in fact, the last Democrat to win Texas’ electoral votes to date) and that the surprise win was, for all of us, even the Ford voters, something to celebrate (at least in part, for some). It was 1976, and things were changing, and I was about the same age as my daughter is now, but I can’t help but wonder what story she will someday tell about Trump vs. Clinton, 2016, forty years and a lifetime later.

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