Mom has lived in South Carolina since the early 1970’s. She’s taught in public schools that are mostly black. She’s seen the world change, but she knows how ingrained prejudice is. And she really didn’t like the way the Clintons—Bill especially—seemed determined to make race an issue. A lot of people like her appeared to feel the same way.
On the walk to Rosewood Elementary School, her polling place, Mom ran into her friend Carol, who was wearing a sticker that said, “I voted.” At Christmas, Carol had told me she was inclined to vote for Hillary, but she’d ended up switching to Edwards at the last moment. Carol didn’t like the way Bill seemed to have taken over his wife’s campaign, as if she couldn’t stand on her own, and she didn’t like hearing him use all those old Southern code words to talk about a black opponent.
Later that night, at Barack Obama’s victory party at Columbia’s convention center, I asked David Axelrod, the candidate’s chief strategist, if he thought that Bill Clinton’s apparent assertion of dominance might have turned off some of Hillary’s core supporters. “They decided to make him into the surrogate,” Axelrod replied. “Whether it was a mistake or not I think is a good question to conjecture about now. I don’t think the returns are particularly encouraging for them in this regard.”
In one small corner of the electorate, at least, the issue was decisive. “I don’t want Bill and Hillary,” Mom said, as we walked on toward the polls. “I just want one president.”
Outside Rosewood, the red brick school I attended as a boy, a reporter from a Japanese wire service was trolling for real South Carolinians to interview. Mom voted, got her sticker and put it on the lapel of her jacket. She was cheerful as she walked home, but also a little sad that she couldn’t bring herself to vote for the woman in the race. When we got back to the house, the answering machine light was blinking. “Hi, this is Hillary Clinton,” said a familiar recorded voice. �
��Let’s go out and make history together.”
Mom frowned. “Awwwwww,” she said. “I feel bad already.”
My mother’s neighbor Marianne stopped by the house. She’d been pushing my mom toward Obama for months. “I’m not sure she didn’t go in there and vote for Hillary and not tell anybody,” Marianne said. Mom just giggled. Marianne said she’d supported Obama because she liked his message of unity and renewal. “He has that Kennedy thing,” my mom chipped in.
At one point, she noticed I was scribbling in my notebook. “Why are you taking notes?” she asked. I told her I might be writing something.
“About my dilemma?” she said, smiling. “I’ve had a really, really hard time. I think South Carolina should stop doing this to us.” Mom was just kidding about that. She was actually overjoyed to feel like her vote counted for something. Living in a heavily Republican state, it had been years since she’d voted for anyone with the slightest hope.
“We don’t ever get to decide anything else,” Mom said. “This is my only time to actually mean something.”