When I was 11 years old, I lived in Schenectady, New York. I was in Catholic school. I was an altar boy (nothing bad happened). I was in the Boy Scouts (nothing bad happened). I built model airplanes and huffed model airplane glue (I don’t think anything bad happened, but I never got tested or anything). I liked collecting baseball cards and comic books and bumper stickers and buttons. Future disgraced Ex-President of the United States Richard Milhous Nixon was then solidly and securely President of the United States of America, and the United States of America was at war in Vietnam. The Commies were the bad guys. Nixon was running for re-election. As an 11-year-old raised on World War II movies, my understanding of the United States at War was that we were the Good Guys and if We didn’t win, then Hitler and the Commies would, so anybody who was running against the President was probably a Commie and probably also a Hitler. George McGovern was running against Nixon.
I used to wander around after school downtown (nothing bad happened), going in and out of various stores, and during election season, I would stop in at the Democratic and Republican campaign headquarters to mooch buttons and bumper stickers. That was how, at the age of 11, I became a volunteer for the Campaign to Re-Elect the President (CREEP), and ultimately part of a tiny conspiracy to break in to the Democratic campaign headquarters.
My job at CREEP’s Schenectady headquarters was working the phones. They had books full of lists of registered voters, and we had a very short script and simple questions: “Hello, Sir or Madam, I am calling from the Campaign to Re-Elect the President. Are you a registered voter? Can the President count on your vote in the upcoming election?” Then we’d mark it down in the book. I guess we only called Republicans, because if I got an answer from the person on the other end of the line, it was always “yes.”
The difference between the Democratic campaign and the Republican campaign offices was obvious to an 11-year old child: money. The Republicans had a large, busy storefront, tables full of telephones for making polling calls, a full setup for coffee and soda pop, stacks of posters and bumper stickers, piles of buttons, all for the taking. The peacenik hippies sitting around the tiny McGovern office had a small amount of MCGOVERN buttons on a table next to a big jar, and if you wanted a button or a sticker you had to put money in the jar, and they sat right there and watched you to make sure you did. I figured the hippies at McGovern HQ were the same hippies who would accost people out on the city streets for spare change, man, so I concluded they were running a scam and pocketing the collection. To put it in today’s mindset, it’s as if the same Crust Punks you saw at the intersection this morning, with the dog and the cardboard EVEN A SMILE HELPS sign, were now at the counter at the campaign HQ telling you to put a quarter in the jar if you want a button, man.
Another thing, the deli spread on election night at the Republican HQ was lavish, so much more food than was necessary, a tremendous array of meats and cheeses and various salads, potato, macaroni, tuna, and so forth, big bowls of pretzels and chips, rows of cans of soda. That evening my mom stopped in to pick me up. My mom, who put up BOYCOTT GRAPES posters for Caesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers of America, my mom, whose friend Herman the construction worker used to take out his wallet and show people his membership card for the Communist Party of the United States of America, my mom, who voted for McGovern, came to pick me up at Republican headquarters because she was a good mom and I was 11 years old and she knew I just wanted the bumper stickers. And because she was my mom, we ended up carting out a lot of leftover deli items. Sure, Republicans, I’ll take your potato salad!
In the midst of all this, for no real reason except the weird energy of wanting stuff, which may be a more essential political force than is generally acknowledged, a friend of mine and I hatched a plan that we figured would give us access to a vast supply of campaign buttons and stickers. I can’t remember having a specific discussion, or making a plan, or whose idea it was, or what time it was, or what day it was—maybe the day after Election Day—but the Democratic campaign office was closed, and my pal [REDACTED] and I were circling it on foot looking for a clever way in, and [REDACTED], a big, rawboned kid, found a boarded-over window in the back of the rundown building, kicked it in, and we proceeded to loot the joint. We never got busted for it, but the caper was a failure. Those dirty hippies had pretty much emptied the office and all we got were a few buttons. Nixon, a war-time president (war-time presidents always get re-elected), was re-elected by a landslide.
Here’s my mostly legitimately-obtained political button collection: