As I watched Al Gore accept the nomination for president of the United States at the Democratic Convention of 2000, it brought back some intense personal memories. In 1970, I ran for Congress as the Democratic Party nominee from Tennessee’s 9th District. I shared the speaking platform many times with Gore’s father, Senator Albert Gore Sr., who had the fight of his life running for re-election as a dove on the Vietnam War.
There was no sane reason for me to run for Congress, but 1970 was an insane year. Six months before election day, I was stepping down as interim chair of the Department of Speech and Drama at Memphis State University without any thought of running for office. It had been an eventful year in which we’d put on the first college production of the anti-war musical Hair and had somehow survived the clamor over that remarkable show. I had also served a term as president of the West Tennessee chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.
These were not exactly sterling credentials in the eyes of many Shelby County voters, but kismet beckoned, and there I was. One of my better reasons for running was to try to help Senator Gore by tying down Republican resources in West Tennessee that might otherwise be free to concentrate on his defeat. Even though I had little idea of what I was doing, I decided to run hard and try to be a serious candidate. When one is young, all things seem possible.
In particular, I remember hot late-summer nights and open-air rallies where hundreds of working people gathered — with me sitting there mesmerized by Senator Gore’s thunderous oratory, knowing I would be next to speak and somehow must rise to the moment of following him. I was a rhetorical rookie, of course, and he was a seasoned master of the old-fashioned art of Southern stump-speakin’. No doubt the contrast was seldom kind.
A third Democrat often present at those rallies was John Jay Hooker, candidate for governor. Our slogan, shouted and echoed by the audience, was: “Vote the whole HOG: Hooker, Osborn, and Gore!” Those moments could be electrifying, and they even convinced me that I might have a chance.
Late at night after the sound and fury subsided and the sweat cooled, Gore and I might unwind with a barbecue and a drink or two. We’d share a laugh and a little campaign gossip. It was all heady stuff.
Another memory that sticks in my mind is going door-to-door with Gore in the housing developments. This campaigning was not easy for me, but Gore loved it. One hot afternoon I was plodding along, shaking hands and asking for votes, while Gore stormed on ahead. As I came over a little rise, I beheld an incredible spectacle. Here were about 50 children lined up at one end of a courtyard. At the other end was the white-haired Gore. “Go!” he yelled, and all the children, screaming and laughing, took off running. The several hundred adult onlookers — all of whom were no doubt voters — applauded the impromptu sporting event as Gore awarded a $5 bill to the winner. It was an incredible example of successful improvisational campaigning, and Gore excelled at it.
In many ways this was a hard season in my life, but I will never forget the people who came forward to help me. After the race was over, and the “whole hog” had been barbecued — all three of us lost — I was glad and proud that I had answered what was, for me, a unique call to participate in the political life of our nation. On election day my advisers had decided I should visit as many polling places as possible in my Shelby County district — there must have been several hundred of them.
By the end of the day I was literally stumbling to the final location near the Mississippi River, and a heavy thunderstorm had come up. As we arrived, I could see a long line of people standing in the darkness, enduring the rain while waiting to vote. The sight was inspiring and I caught new life. I leaped out of the car and shook every hand in that line, exchanging laughter and asking once more for their support as the water poured down our faces and backs. I am most grateful to those voters for the picture they would leave in my mind of the meaning and value of democracy.
Whenever I hear cynical people say that our system is hardly worth saving, I remember those voters, standing in a hard rain after a hard day’s work, waiting to vote for candidates and causes they believed in. I guess 1970 was not so bad a year after all.
Copyright (c) 2020 by Michael Osborn. All rights reserved. Mike Osborn served as chair of the Department of Communication at the University of Memphis, as president of the National Communication Association, and as chair of the board of Humanities Tennessee. He co-authored a best-selling collegiate textbook on public speaking and won national honors for his research in rhetorical metaphor.