After the disgrace of Florida 2000, when advocates of "states' rights" ran to the U.S. Supreme Court and got a highly politicized SCOTUS to decide a matter that rightfully belonged to the courts of the state of Florida, I vowed I would never sit out another big election. Thus, I blocked out most of September and all of October for shows and picked my safe-state Californian butt up and went to Florida to work on the Kerry state campaign in '04. I reprised that trip in '08 for the current President. I'll again be spending this September/October in either Ohio or Florida or both, thank you very much.
Being what I call a "semi-famous television and music personality," in campaigns I do my share of "celebrity" surrogate appearances. But my favorite political activity by far is called canvassing, which means actually knocking on doors to get out the vote. Admittedly, being "Bowzer" is part of the fun of canvassing for me. I usually do the slicked-back "Bowzer" hair because it gives me a leg up trying to convince persuadable voters, and also just to see what kind of reaction I'll get showing up at someone's house.
Some truly memorable experiences have come from canvassing. Like late on election day in '08 when my Floridian friend and canvass partner Lois and I were having trouble convincing a very depressed sounding lady in her late 40s to vote, even though she liked candidate Obama. She claimed she had never voted and wasn't even registered. We explained that the latter was certainly not true, since she was on a list of registered voters which sent us to her door. But she still insisted that "her vote didn't count," "no one listened to or cared about her anyway," and went through a whole litany of reasons why she was disgusted with the country and how the process gave no real voice to the average person but was just geared to the super-rich. Finally, she got so down and morose that Lois bristled: "Do you know who you're talking to? This is 'Bowzer' from Sha Na Na!"
This could easily have elicited the reaction: "Who?" but in this case the woman's eyes started to well up, and she whispered "Oh my God! When I was a kid, I used to watch your show every weekend with my Dad. He just passed away a few months ago." I had some "Bowzer" pictures in the car, so I offered her a personalized, autographed one for her good memories. She asked for another made out to her Dad. She then, to our surprise, blurted: "I want to go vote now!" We offered to give her a ride to the local high school polling place, but she said her neighbor across the street had just voted for Obama, and she was sure he would take her. We said, OK, we'll keep canvassing, but come back to us if you need a ride to the polls. A few minutes later, when Lois and I were a couple of houses down, the woman and a gentleman we took to be the neighbor came striding across the street towards us, so we figured there was some sort of problem. Instead, the neighbor said "Hey! Can I have one of those pictures?"
About a half hour later, we were still canvassing the neighborhood when the two drove up to us again, and this time the woman was shedding full-fledged buckets of tears. "I just voted for the first time in my life," she sobbed. "Thank you!" Apparently she had registered, but never actually exercised the privilege. Between that very personal experience and the Obama victory just hours later, it was quite a night.
But at this crucial moment in our nation's history, I want to revisit some of our earlier canvassing adventures on behalf of Obama in '08. For the better part of two months, in between my campaign appearances, Lois and I had canvassed Century Village in Boca, a hotbed of Democratic votes of Jews of eastern European descent, people just like our grandparents, people whom Lois and I may soon kind of become should we live long enough, T'anks God. Jewish outreach was one of my primary campaign assignments. Our objective here was to make sure every single pro-Obama resident of Century Village would exercise their Florida early vote right, to make sure they got to the polls if they wanted to go, overcoming age and infirmity, even if we had to take them there ourselves. Lois was a veteran of Florida 2000, and knew all too well how much every vote counted.
Century Village yielded the usual run of great canvassing moments. To understand my favorite, you need to know that at that time I had hosted a Time-Life "infomercial" for a '50s CD package, and the half-hour program was running on TV at all hours of the day and night. My canvassing list read, "Florence Schwartz, Apt. 101, D (for registered Democrat), 78 years old." So I knocked on the door of 101, a woman in her late seventies opened it, and, without missing a beat and with virtually no affect, looked at me and said: "Oh. I was just watching you on TV." I responded, in as reciprocal a monotone as I could muster: "And don't you think it's kind of strange that now I'm knocking on your door?" She mused in return: "Well, yes, I guess that would be somewhat peculiar." One of the truly great deadpan exchanges. Jack Benny, for those old enough to remember him, would have been deeply proud. Anyway, Florence went on to glance at my Obama button and added: "Oh, I already voted early for him. You don't have to bother with me. Go on to the next one."
But, as I left her doorway, Florence Schwartz remembered something she wanted to add. It was something we'd heard quite a few times in Century Village, from widows and widowers who'd come to America, often as children, to escape the horrors in store for the Jews of eastern Europe. Florence had virtually no accent, but many of the Century Villagers offered the thought Florence was about to speak in the thick Yiddishe cadence of my Aunt Fanny, and my Grandpa Izzy. Every time I heard this idea echo in the apartments and hallways of Century Village, I took pride. Pride in the value that was put on education in our Jewish culture, because that had to be what made these people so damn smart. They may talk with an accent, I thought, but they sure know American civics better than most! If only everyone got it as well as they did, what a different country we would live in right now.
Yes, Florence Schwartz called after me to add a thought about elections, about what should motivate our vote, a thought that resonates this week perhaps more than any week in our lifetime.
"There's a lot of reasons I voted for Obama," she shouted, for the first time showing passion. "But the real thing is the Supreme Court."