Something Happened to Us Yesterday, Something We Can’t Speak of Right Away

Nicholas E. Hollis

Thirty years ago this week, amidst the Independence Day preparations and summer heat, Washington was jolted by a political tremor many pundits thought would rumble into a major earthquake.  It wasn’t Daniel Ellsberg’s confession on leaking the Pentagon Papers or Muhammed Ali’s Supreme Court victory over the draft – although those events snared the headlines.  Rather it was the approval of the constitutional amendment to lower the voting age from 21 to 18.  Ohio became the 38th state to ratify just before its legislature adjourned on June 30 – only three months and one week after the amendment cleared Congress.  President Richard Nixon held a ceremonial signing on July 6 with some youth group representatives and U.S. Senator Jennings Randolph (D-WV), the acknowledged “Father of the 26th Amendment,” smiling in the background.

The uphill struggle for youth suffrage had actually begun much earlier.  Randolph, as a junior congressman during President Franklin Roosevelt’s first 100 days in 1933, toured Capitol Hill guided by Representative Ruth Bryan Owen (D-Florida), daughter of his namesake, William Jennings Bryan -- perennial, three-time Democratic presidential candidate around the turn of the twentieth century.  “The Great Commoner” had been a tireless campaigner for international peacekeeping, farmers and workers rights and women’s suffrage.  Randolph picked up the banner.  At age twelve, Randolph had watched his hero, then secretary of state in Wilson’s first administration, battle to keep the United States out of the growing European war. After Bryan’s principled resignation in 1915, following the sinking of the Lusitania, the country gradually slipped away from neutrality and into the war.  Randolph watched doughboys lining up at the train station in Salem, West Virginia heading for the fields of France. As a young reporter, Randolph saw Wilson’s dream of American participation in the League of Nations -- aimed at international peacekeeping along lines advocated by Bryan -- collapse.

By 1942, Randolph, a five-term representative, was recognized as a leader for aviation (he had opposed the battleship lobby in favor of aircraft carriers long before Pearl Harbor) and peacekeeping.  As the de facto mayor of Washington, Randolph was chairman of the House Committee on the District of Columbia, the gentleman from the hills began his crusade for the youth vote.  Randolph had cast the decisive vote approving Roosevelt’s war preparations draft (1940), and now he wanted those young people provided with voting rights as the country was asking them to possibly make the supreme sacrifice on the alter of freedom.  But young people were considered anti-war, and the measure floundered.

Ten more attempts and twenty-nine years later (1971).  The perseverance of the senior US Senator from West Virginia paid off. The nation had barely stomached Korea and was thoroughly sickened and shattered by the ongoing Vietnam War. Nixon’s “plan” for ending the conflict seemed like a charade, spiraling the country to new lows of apathy and disillusionment.

For Nixon, who was to face the voters in 1972, the 26th amendment must have added to his insomnia.  The “newly eligible” voters had watched their older brothers and sisters, “Children of the Sixties,” pummeled and bent out of shape by societal pliers administered by an older generation which seemed somehow responsible for prolonging, if not actively abetting the Vietnam conflict, high-profile political assassinations, and resistance to the civil rights crusade.  For those interested in history, it seemed the “Greatest Generation,” after surviving the Depression and winning the war, had ingested too many lessons watching totalitarian leaders of the 1930s determined at hold power at all costs.

But the youth voting bloc envisioned by some political observers did not materialize. As Nixon welcomed the young voters, he was also about to showcase Watergate for the Nation with all its attendant “dirty tricks” – which have only grown more tolerated as the coarsening of political dialogue accelerated into a “realpolitik steamroller of negativity” fueled by torrents of campaign contributions, legal and otherwise.  Remember that money in Nixon’s secretary’s safe?  Nixon may be gone, but the corrupter who gave him those funds never got prosecuted, and is still actively poisoning the system./1

In his later years, Randolph agonized over the growing apathy among voters, particularly youth. While never yielding on principle, he was always unfailingly courteous and maintained a high standard of civility and decorum for his Senate colleagues. During his last term in the U.S. Senate, Randolph hurled himself into the creation of an international peacekeeping effort bringing OPEC and western nations together for balanced energy and agricultural development resulting in the formation of the Agri-Energy Roundtable (AER) and the U.S. Institute of Peace.  Randolph chaired the AER from 1984 to 1990 and helped that nonprofit association to achieve United Nations accreditation, while spawning a network of indigenous counterpart associations around the world focused on food security and farm issues. Things seem to move in full circle. Randolph had always supported rural development and even pioneered important “back to farm” projects with Eleanor Roosevelt in the depths of the Depression. Near the end of his active years, in a remarkable life of achievement which bookends the twentieth century, Randolph was closer in spirit to the Great Commoner, his peacekeeper and suffrage crusader namesake, urging “battalions for the ballot” among youth and renewed devotion to values that made this Nation great. As we celebrate another July 4th – especially in the aftermath of Election 2000, let us resolve to “Recall Randolph” and be vigilant.  Out on the edge of darkness, with their noble lives obscured by the politics of negativity, Randolph, Bryan, and other American unheralded giants rode on the Peace Train.  So can we, if we but remember.


/1 See Abuse of Power, Stanley Kutler, (1997) pp. 119-121  and An American Life, Jeb Stuart Magruder, (1974) p.222

Nicholas E. Hollis is director of the Jennings Randolph Recognition Project (JRRP).
Adopted from a speech delivered before the Ohio-West Virginia YMCA (June 22, 2001).