When I was 16 years old, my family took the classic summer vacation, driving from our home in West Texas to Alabama to see relatives, then continuing east to Atlanta, up the coast through the Carolinas and into Virginia. We drove the Blue Ridge Parkway, saw Thomas Jefferson’s home and went to Washington, D.C., where we visited monuments, federal buildings and museums.On the way home we caught ballgames in Cincinnati and St. Louis. I saw Johnny Bench throw a guy out trying to steal second.
But the highlight of the trip was still the Capitol.
Our Congressman was George Mahon, who at that time was second in seniority in the House. My dad had called in advance to arrange a tour of the Capitol, and Congressman Mahon himself was our guide.
The House was not in session, so after we traveled from his office to the Capitol basement via subway, he escorted us out onto the floor of the chamber. The tall, stately old gentleman, who was first elected in 1935, walked up the stairs onto the platform and called me to come to him, behind the podium.
He took my hands and placed them on the worn wood of the Speaker’s stand. “Franklin Roosevelt’s hands rested right there on Dec. 8, 1941, as he declared war on Japan, the day after Pearl Harbor was bombed,” he said. I still get chill-bumps when I think about it.
That veteran politician knew exactly what he was doing. I had grown up with Vietnam, assassinations and riots on the news every night. As we visited, the scandal and corruption of Watergate was just beginning to dawn on the public. Washington, D.C., was a troubled city and had been for as long as I could remember.
But my perception of government was never the same after that.
That’s when government became personal for me.
That was the day I got a flash of awareness that those are real people, in real time, making decisions and taking actions that turn the course of history. They’re people who have flaws and failures, weaknesses and problems just like the rest of us. Some are worthy of those pivotal moments in history, and some are not.
This Tuesday, Americans have an opportunity to vote for various county and state officials, Congressmen and women, Senators and of course, the next President. The people we put in those offices are there to represent us, to vote our will and their conscience on the matters before them.
When you vote, you make government personal. You buy in, and take upon yourself the responsibility to help guide your nation, your state, your city or county or school district. You become a stakeholder. You exercise a freedom that was given by God but has been secured and preserved by the blood of patriotic Americans for more than two centuries.
Looking back in that light, maybe the most impressive stop on that trip wasn’t the Capitol.
We also went to Arlington National Cemetery and saw those crosses, row upon row, stretching out in every direction in crisp, military precision. Most of them adorn the graves of boys who were scarcely older than I was when they made the ultimate sacrifice for our nation’s freedom.
When you vote, you validate their sacrifice. And thinking about it that way elevates voting beyond a mere civic duty to a privilege, an honor, a sacred trust.
Because if you even think you’re too busy to vote, if you think you have too many other things to do, just remember – so did they.