Sunday, November 2, 2008

Elections on Campus

I took a stroll down the local university the other day, and lost count of how many Barack Obama signs I saw. There were a few defiant McCain/Palin posters, but they were the equivalent of a neon O’Doul’s non-alcoholic beer sign at a bar – a futile attempt to advertise a product where it doesn’t stand a chance.

Elections are rambunctiously felt in college campuses. However, I always get the impression that despite all the hype, on Election Day most college students forget to vote. Or they realize too late that they were supposed to register to vote; you can’t just show up and do it. Or they have no idea where their precinct is; they thought you could vote online. Or they realize too late that you’re supposed to vote in your home state, not the state where you go to college and by then, it’s too late to request an absentee ballot. So I don’t know just how reliable the college student vote is, but I do know that a university campus is an exciting place to be during an election. It’s like downtown Chicago around Christmas time, all the decorations, the aura, and the atmosphere really put you in the spirit of the season.

During my tenure at law school, I saw two exciting elections. The first one was the ridiculously entertaining gubernatorial recall election, starring Gray Davis (played by himself), the Governator (played by Arnold Schwarzenegger), and with cameo appearances by Gary Coleman and Larry Flynt. The recall election happened a few months after I moved to California, and I couldn’t believe how absurd the State actually was in real life. A few months before, I had met the governor of Indiana (the late Frank O’Bannon) and I remember being taken aback by how unremarkable he was. He looked and sounded like someone’s senile grandfather. Quite fitting for such an unremarkable State. On the other hand, the new governor of California would be the guy whom I had watched fanatically as a kid blowing people up in all my favorite action movies. I remember when Terminator 2 came out, I thought it was too much of a stretch that Schwarzenegger, after playing the evil Terminator in the original, would now play the good Terminator. Apparently, the majority of Californians did not think it was too much of a stretch for the man who had played any sort of Terminator – not to mention Danny Devito’s long lost twin – to hold the top executive position in the biggest, richest State in the Union.

The other election I witnessed as a law student was George W. Bush’s re-election. The campus obviously showed a general preference for John Kerry, though there were sufficient pockets of support for the incumbent. The same students who had flown “Join Arnold” flags during the recall were now sporting “W” t-shirts to class. You might normally refer to them as young republicans, or junior conservatives, but in California, we call them “kids from Orange County.”

But the politician who received the staunchest support on campus that year was neither of the two presidential candidates. It was actually former Vermont governor, Howard Dean, who made an impressive, though ultimately unsuccessful run for the Democratic nomination during the primaries. For months, the slogan, “Dean for America” was displayed everywhere on posters, buttons, bumper stickers, t-shirts, you name it. Anyone confined to the boundaries of the campus would have thought the primaries were no contest, and that Bush would stand little chance for re-election. But when it came time for the actual voting, all those college kids in Iowa apparently stayed at home for the caucuses, because Howard Dean got crushed, not only by winner John Kerry, but also by the Southern trial lawyer turned senator, John Edwards.

And then came the tragically defining moment of Howard Dean’s political career. During an attempt to rally his troops and move on to New Hampshire, someone stuck a mouse trap into his pants and it shut violently on his testicles. He let out a high-pitched squeal of a scream, which all the news networks found to be hilarious and played on a loop pretty much until Dean dropped out of the race. And just like that, Howard Dean’s run at the presidency was over.

Back on campus, the Dean supporters had no idea what had happened. They didn’t understand what was so bad about a feverish, inarticulate scream during a public speech. What was the big deal? The only ones who understood the magnitude of his screw-up were law students. We had seen it happen on several occasions to our classmates on call. A slight slip of the tongue, or a minimal misunderstanding of a concept, vocalized in front of the whole class is the academic equivalent of the Dean Scream. It’s no wonder so many politicians are law grads. Getting grilled by a law professor is good preparation for running for office. Howard Dean went to med school.

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