When I was five, I lent my bedroom clock to Lyndon Johnson’s presidential campaign. My mother was a volunteer in the Cleveland headquarters on Lee Road; she worked in the mornings while I was in kindergarten, then came home in time to greet me as I walked home from school. She asked me very seriously for the clock, making it clear it was my decision, but that it would be a great help to an important cause. Occasionally she took me to the campaign offices, and I remember being proud to see my little black clock there, knowing it was helping get Lyndon Johnson reelected.
My parents worked on both of Adlai Stevenson’s presidential campaigns early in their marriage. I don’t know if they had time to work for Kennedy in 1960, with four children under the age of seven, but an apocryphal story has me as a toddling one-year-old going up to the TV when Jack Kennedy’s face appeared and kissing the screen. In 1968 Hubert Humphrey grazed my hand as I held it out for a shake; he shook someone else’s, but I felt a thrill nonetheless. In 1972 I wore a rainbow McGovern patch on my bell bottom jeans.
Politics were one of my mother’s passions, and I watched her weep over the assassinations of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King, Jr. Yet she retained her optimism, and her conviction that political action was useful and productive, despite its misuse and corruption. I found a letter she wrote to the editor of the New York Times in 1948 about disarmament. An appeal to the better instincts of private individuals and those in government. Naïve, perhaps, but characteristically hopeful.
It was easy to pick presidential candidates in the general election—the Democrat, of course—but in the primaries and on ballot questions the whole family relied on my mother for guidance. In 2008, we wondered who she would have chosen. We thought not Hillary—too much baggage and a bad Iraq War vote, and we were sure Mom’s perspective on having a viable female candidate would not have been clouded by sentiment. Joe Biden, perhaps, or Bill Richardson. When the field narrowed to two, we were fairly sure she’d have gone with Obama, as we all did, and when I helped my father fill out his absentee ballot in the nursing home, he accepted our judgment, as he had always accepted hers on these matters over the years. He enjoyed the fact that he was casting a vote for a black candidate (African American is not in his parlance), and was also impressed that the other viable candidate was a woman. We were left perplexed over the ballot questions, without our mother’s comprehensive research.
My Lyndon Johnson clock ended up back in my bedroom. One day I put a large rubber tarantula on it for decoration. The clock’s black face and glowing orange numbers matched the spider’s striped markings. The tarantula was a fearsome toy, very lifelike, with its furry legs hanging over the clock face. To my surprise, it melted its way onto the top of the clock, and was fixed there permanently for several years, till my mother decided to cut it off. But it was too late—the top of the clock was permanently misshapen by the spider’s torso, with a fan of eight leg grooves all around. Hunks of tarantula clung to the clock and it had to be thrown away. It took a lot for my mother to throw away something functional, but she seemed disgusted by my clock. I was sad to see it go—I had grown fond of its tarantula top. I can’t help but think that the demise of my Lyndon Johnson clock corresponded with the election of Richard Nixon in 1968, that year of trauma and turmoil, and that my mother’s hacking away at my tarantula was emblematic of her desire to return something—her daughter’s alarm clock—back to the way things ought to be. A clean alarm clock, a Democrat in the White House. She did what she could.