Certain events stand out over the span of a lifetime and stay with you.
My first vote for president was in 1976. The Bicentennial, Dorothy Hamill, "All the President’s Men," "Welcome Back Kotter" and the Andrea True Connection.
Three chums from the Wichita Heights class of 1975, sharing a two-bedroom second-floor swinging bachelor pad overlooking the pool in a brand-new apartment complex on the east side of the city.
Long hair, bell-bottoms and parties.
Three 18-year-old guys living away from home for the first time and enjoying every ounce of freedom to which we were constitutionally entitled and a few grams of some that we weren’t.
One roommate didn’t have a job but always had plenty of dough. As a kid, he had entrepreneured his way into a pile of cash by painting address numbers on street curbs all over Wichita and wisely pocketed and invested the earnings. He later went on to success managing global pipeline projects for the Koch brothers.
We had him pegged back in 6th grade. In the junior achievement curb-painting years.
In the summer and fall of ’76, he spent most of his time in a beanbag chair in the middle of our living room, a cold Olympia in his fist, proselytizing about free enterprise.
He would drain a beer and bang the empty can on the nearest hard surface. That was the cue for his girlfriend to fetch him a fresh one. The fact that she did it willingly, almost Pavlovian, did not prevent those of us who thought it crass and demeaning from pointing out the obvious flaw in this relationship.
Beanbag beer boy was all Ronald Reagan. This was 1976, when Reagan ran a fire-breathing conservative insurgency campaign against the GOP mainstream and came within a handful of delegates of capturing the nomination at the Republican convention in Kansas City.
Roommate No. 2 was for Jimmy Carter. His agenda was pretty narrow. Operating solely from the assumption that a vote for Carter got him one step closer to more lenient pot laws.
That left me.
Forget ideology. Forget that we were only two years out from a scandal-infested president resigning in disgrace. In ’76, I couldn’t get past Reagan’s pompadour or Bedtime for Bonzo. My generation had already suffered entirely too much parental pushback to grow and wear our hair long for me to support Mr. Vitalis.
Carter’s shtick seemed contrived. With hair down over his ears, he struck me as some middle-aged dude trying too hard to relate to my generation.
Gerald Ford was my man.
Right down the middle. He was the anti-Nixon, Bob Dole was his running mate, and his 19-year-old daughter, in the vernacular of the times, was a stone-cold fox. I needed look no further for my candidate for president. For the times, for me, for 1976, Ford was just right.
The country had washed its hands of Vietnam. The women’s movement was bringing new voice and power to half the population. Only three years removed from Roe, the prospect of legal choice had real meaning in the lives of 18-year old Bicentennial freedom exercisers. President Ford’s wife, Betty, said all the right things.
One roommate in the Ford camp, one roommate solidly for Reagan. The third roommate one toke over the line and oblivious to politics. And the law, as it later turned out.
On Election Day, I eagerly jumped into my 1971 forest green MGB ragtop and motored to the polls. A half dozen hulking gray manual voting machines in a church dining hall. Push down the levers corresponding to your choices then pull the big red handle, which simultaneously cast your votes with a loud mechanical kuh-THUNK and opened the curtain.
Pay no attention to that long-haired young man behind the curtain. He’s just exercising his civic responsibility, casting his first ever vote for president.
Ford and Dole lost, of course, to Carter and Mondale. Reagan came roaring back four years later.
In each of the eleven presidential elections since 1976, I have invested time, energy, intellect and emotion into my nation’s presidential elections.
I am not sure a vote for president has had more deep meaning to me, than that first one, at age 18, in 1976.
Until this year.
That pesky time, intellect, energy and emotion never goes away. It just evolves.
Mike Matson’s column appears every other Sunday in The Mercury. Follow his blog at mikematson.com.