One Small Step
Richmond is about seventy miles from my home in Virginia. Although the day was clear and promised no weather difficulties, I started on the trip about three hours before the noon meeting. And although I was reasonably rested, I thought it best not to drive myself; instead a friend piloted the Mercedes down Interstate 64 at speeds cautiously below the posted limits.
I was a presidential elector, chosen as one of twelve on the Republican ticket in November, 1972. The meeting was the convocation of Electors in the State Capitol, required by the U.S. Constitution; there we were to cast Virginia's official vote for President and Vice-President of the United States. I had decided not to cast my vote (as by custom I was supposed to do) for Spiro Agnew and Richard Nixon, but for the candidates of the fledgling Libertarian Party. The news was out that I intended to do so, and I was doing my best to avoid interference or chicanery which might prevent my casting that ballot.
I had wanted this action to appear, not as the quixotic act of some kook, but as a calculated statement on behalf of the millions of Americans who found the presidential choices offered them odious, and who had in the words of a Virginia Republican, held their noses and voted for Nixon in order to avoid the greater menace of McGovern. I wanted the publicity about that statement to focus on the libertarian philosophy. Since the Libertarian Party had offered candidates for national office that year it seemed to me that voting for them was highly appropriate.
To try to get the message as widely spread as possible, and as accurately understood as possible, I had several weeks before given an exclusive interview to Nicholas von Hoffman, syndicated columnist for the Washington Post. Over dinner in a restaurant just outside Washington I gave him the whole story, from which he created an article sent out across the country but embargoed for printing until the morning of December 18—the day of the Vote. I was very much worried about premature release of the news. The Little Caesars of the White House were riding high, and I thought it extremely likely that I would be pressured by them or their minions before the event or harassed via the IRS. I knew they wouldn't hesitate to harass me, and I thought it quite likely that they would in fact do so in order to avoid the marring of President Nixon's overwhelming victory.
Nick however assured me that the press would not leak the story, and in the event he proved absolutely accurate. He did warn me that while the story would not reach outside of news organizations the fact that AP and UPI had access to it meant that television and radio personnel would be alerted to what would happen.
And in fact when I walked up to the State Capitol, there were half a dozen television trucks parked outside. Since practically all meetings of electors in this century have been social-occasion, rubber-stamp affairs rating a routine mention on page 18 of the capital newspaper, I knew very well why they were there.
Inside the richly paneled legislative committee room scheduled for the electors' use, three or four separate camera crews were setting up and aligning their television equipment. Several radio reporters were affixing microphones to the dais. I was early, of course, and a sixty-year-old gentleman came up to me and introduced himself as one of the electors; I replied in kind. His first item of conversation was the news that somebody on the Electoral College didn't plan to vote for Nixon! I politely said I was he. He did an absolutely classical double-take, chatting amicably on for twenty or thirty seconds before the news sank in. His conversation faltered, he excused himself, and hurried across the room to speak with a gentleman who I later learned was 90 years old and had served Virginia as an elector on four separate occasions. Presently that gentleman's face swiveled towards me, his mouth fell open in the stereotyped picture of incredulity, and he stared at me with unbelieving eyes for what seemed to be nearly a full minute.
The television people seized me and insisted that I take a seat to the right of the chairman in the center of the dais, so that their cameras could get the best angle. To get that seat I had to go and sit before anyone else. Presently the seats on either side were occupied by the Chairman, an upstate legislator with whom I was acquainted, and by a pleasant gentleman for whom ideology was meaningless, party all. That of course was true of all of them; electorhood is commonly awarded on the basis of service or contributions to the party which nominates them.
I had been nominated by the Republican State Convention as one of two state-wide electors at least in part based on the fact that I had years before written a book called The American Electoral College (Caxton Printers, Ltd., Caldwell, ID). In that book I analyzed the intention of the writers of the Constitution that electors use their best informed judgment in selecting the president and vice-president of the United States; I pointed out the intention that they act as independently as Congressmen or members of the Judiciary. Over the years the crystalization of the party apparati and the use of the general-ticket system of electing them had eroded that function. And in the book I advocated a reform of the method of electing electors which might lead to a resumption at least in part of such a function.
I had taken the precaution of sending an inscribed copy of this book to each of my fellow electors about ten days before the meeting, so that all of them would be well aware of the fact that I was a scholar on the subject and knew that what I was doing was constitutionally and legally proper. I wanted to forestall in advance having my action boil down to a legal and procedural wrangle on the spot, which would obscure or obliterate the purpose of what I intended to do. I hoped that having received and at least looked at the book, none of the electors would feel able or qualified to issue a challenge. It worked.
The State Chairman, Dick Obenshain, a conservative (and at this writing vice chairman of the Republican National Committee), came in to the spectator seats and waved his appreciation of the fact that I had notified him that morning of what I intended to do. After all the electors were seated Governor Linwood Holton entered. Lin was a liberal-collectivist Republican in whose side I had been the very tiniest of thorns for two or three years. He came in shaking hands with this one and that one in the by-now considerable audience, and boomed out heartily, "I hear there's someone here who needs instruction in how to vote!" Lin had been Richard Nixon's Southern campaign manager in 1968, and when his term ended next year was appointed by Mr. Nixon to a minor liaison job on the White House staff. Lin came down the row of electors, shaking hands with one after another and pausing while the cameras clicked; when he clapped his hands on my shoulders, I turned around, looked up at him, and said, "You don't want your picture taken with me, do you Lin?" He removed his hands and said rather hastily, "Oh no!"
The chairman rather ostentatiously shifted his chair a couple of inches farther away from me and began the proceedings with a proclamation and various legal formalities. Came the time to cast the ballot; we each were handed a printed slip of paper about the size of a file card with this legend printed thereon: "Richard M. Nixon of California for President of the United States". We were to initial these and pass them back to the chairman who would count them. As I reached for mine to cross out Nixon and write in John Hospers, the kleig lights came on at the far side of the room and four television cameras began to whir simultaneously. They caught a long distance shot of what I was doing, of the action at all places on the dais, and swiveled to cover the audience. As we passed the ballots in the lights went off and the room returned to normal. The chairman announced, "Eleven votes for Richard M. Nixon, and one for John Hospers".
Next came the ballots for vice-president; these were printed "Spiro T. Agnew of Maryland for Vice-President". As I reached for the blue felt-tip pen to cross out all but the last three words, the lights came on again, the cameras whirred, but this time they all extended their zoom lenses. As I saw it on television later that night they enlarged my writing hand steadily until it filled the entire screen; they were preserving for posterity the historical moment when a woman received the first electoral vote in the history of the United States!
The deed done, the chairman read off eleven votes for Spiro Agnew and one vote for "Theodore" Nathan. I corrected this to "Theodora," and he gave me a look of cool indifference as he corrected himself publicly. My other fellow electors treated me with icy correctness before, during, and after the meeting. After all, the Republican team had won a landslide victory; though regrettable, of what importance could this individualistic action be in the short or long run?
The formalities were wrapped up with all deliberate speed, and then the dash to poke microphones in front of me began. I stood at my place in the blazing lights surrounded by hubbub and excitement, while each network, followed by local TV stations present, stood in line filming questions and answers about my action. When they'd finished, about five radio stations one by one needed to tape the same thing.
My fellow electors, having done their duty faithfully and properly as they saw it, received no attention whatsoever. I could sense their bewildered resentment that the one who got it all was, by their lights, the Benedict Arnold of the day.
It had been a day to remember.
Why had I done this at some very real risk to my own affairs? When I was sixteen, my father condensed for The Reader's Digest, of which he was editor, Rose Wilder Lane's famous pioneering novel Let The Hurricane Roar. In the course of so doing he became fascinated with the author and wanted his children to meet her. We did. She was in her late fifties at the time, and the cause of individualism was perhaps at its all-time nadir in terms of thinkers and doers. Rose had concluded that the cause would never recover unless the young were recruited, and she more or less consciously set out to recruit me. As she was one of the most intelligent and engaging people this century has known, she had little difficulty! We soon became fast personal friends; she came at my invitation to address a philosophical group at my school, and I corresponded with her at great length, asking all the naive questions an adolescent would and getting her very patient and detailed responses. (I still have that correspondence and want someday to edit it into a libertarian primer for teenagers.)
When old and schooled enough I became Rose's lawyer and business manager, and she adopted me informally as her grandson, having had no children of her own. Nearly twenty-five years after I first met her, she passed away and I became her heir and literary executor. Anyone who has read her Discovery of Freedom, or Give Me Liberty, or the posthumous The Lady and the Tycoon, will have a flavor of what an enormous influence she was on my life. I became an individualist libertarian early in our acquaintance, and the roots in me go deep. Because of Rose's convictions, and mine, that the ultimate happiness of the human race lies in the triumph of individualism, and that the cause must now be pressed with the greatest vigor lest the human race pass through another Dark Age of collectivism, I felt a great need to carry out in the world of action all I could to forward that end. I had been doing so for many years in various ways, but in 1972 the opportunity seemed ripe to attempt the coup which had such an enormously greater aftereffect than I ever dreamed.
PAYING THE PRICE
I knew the potential costs: vilification, IRS investigation, economic reprisals, and so on. Fortunately my daughter, on whose third birthday I cast that electoral vote, was too small to be taunted in school by those children whose base parents would instruct them so to do. However, those Little Caesars Haldeman and Ehrlichman, whose harshly vindictive tendencies were known to me, were nearly all-powerful, and the likelihood that they would sic the IRS on me was reasonably high. Still, I had done the best I could to forestall that by discussing it with Nick von Hoffman, who wrote about it in turn in his column. I hoped that would serve as warning of exposure in headlines of improper harassment. And as the event turned out, if there was such an inclination, Nick's publicity probably quashed it in embryo.
At home, fortunately my business interests did not depend on the favor or withdrawal of it by local Virginians. Had that been the case I might have faced the usual problem of lost clients, both directly and through whispering campaigns, the withdrawal of economic privileges such as borrowing ability, and so on. But my principal business activities were then centered in the province of Nova Scotia and in the development of what later became a successful NBC television production (Little House on the Prairie). I figured that neither the Canadian lobstermen nor the Beverly Hills set would plan reprisals. Nor did they.
And so by good fortune and judicious planning I avoided any real harm.
As for the Republican Party, the Biggies, such as Linwood Holton and Dick Obenshain, were casually friendly if not understanding. And the men and women in the streets of Charlottesville and Albemarle County were ecstatically happy with what I had done—by the dozen they came up to shake my hand and say that I had struck a blow, however small, for the kinds of things in which they believed. The critics were the third-rate political hacks: the Albemarle County GOP chairman, a vice president of a local bank, a choleric lawyer from Roanoke, a dyspeptic state representative from the Shenandoah Valley, the liberal-collectivist Republican state chairman whom Dick Obenshain had beat for that office a few months earlier. The first two mounted a local vilification campaign, and tried to prevent me from speaking to any groups locally over which they had any influence. Neither their campaign or their efforts succeeded; since approval for my action extended, as I found out, even into the offices of our Republican congressmen, these hacks wound up largely talking to each other. The other three wrote letters of the sort no one likes to receive, but since I was conscious of the rectitude of my action, I could feel only sadness for them.
I thought it would end there; I thought the excitement, the interest, and the cameras would focus on John Hospers and Theodora Nathan and the leaders of the Libertarian Party. I thought I could go back to my farm and live there happily ever after writing, raising my daughter, and involving myself in television. I wish with all my heart that that were to be, but it is not; that action which had so many consequences for others has utterly unforeseen ones for me as well.
Roger MacBride was nominated in September as the 1976 presidential candidate of the Libertarian Party. An earlier version of this article has appeared in the Liberty Book.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "One Small Step".