Reading Voters

Tagging along on Operation Ohio in pursuit of the college vote

So it maybe wasn't all that surprising that on a campus of 50,000, only about 300 showed up for the opening salvo of Operation Ohio. The event should have been bigger. There was plenty of local press, and it was co-sponsored by 40 campus departments and clubs. Entry was free and offered a killer lineup—the kind of literary pantheon that would pack Royce Hall at $50 a head. Readers the first night included Rick Moody, Dave Eggers, Anthony Swofford, Vendela Vida, Julie Orringer, and Jim Shepard. It was hard to know if the weak turnout had to do with political apathy or that other old campus bugaboo, the Decline of Literature—especially since, when Steve and I spoke earlier to an English class and asked about the students' favorite writers, we were at first greeted with a long silence, and that was broken only by a timid offer of "John Grisham?"

I noticed that many of those students did find their way into the audience that night, where they got to hear Eggers bring down the house with a new piece where a father, making nachos with his daughter, tells her stories about the days when he and her mother solved the worlds' problems, literally solved them, as in changing the entire world to renewable energy sources and sending all the lobbyists to Greenland, and how such global altruism made her mother horny. Orringer shared some surprisingly lucid letters that her sister's eighth-grade students in east L.A. had written to the president: "Your leadership was a mistake"; "You use the same words over and over again"; "seriously—get out of that business." Shepard sampled several stories told by different narrators including—and perhaps these were chosen for an inferred relation—the Creature From the Black Lagoon and John Ashcroft. Vendela Vida and Rick Moody both read from the Future Dictionary of America, a satirical anthology that was a fund-raising collaboration between MoveOn, McSweeney's and Jonathan Safran Foer.

It was all political, and swung hard left, perhaps further than some in the audience were accustomed to. Among the less liberally inclined, Swofford's essay, written for the occasion, seemed the most effective. It touched on his career as a veteran of the first Gulf War with the Marines, how his first vote went for George H. W. Bush, and his eventual transformation to a Democrat. As persuasive as he was, Swofford didn't keep some people from walking out.

That surprised me at first, until I spent the intermission with some of the students I'd met earlier and discovered that all of them were backing Bush. Kristen Meiers and her roommate Amber Lipscolmb, both leaning toward Bush but "keeping an open mind," expressed surprise at the event's "partisanship." Lipscolmb said there should have been more Republicans speaking. I pointed out that this was a literary program, and, unfortunately, there are virtually no contemporary authors who would support Bush. Or, as Stephen had phrased it earlier, "Thinking people are not Republicans." Which I did not repeat, instead listening to them long enough to realize that, like many Bush supporters, they knew very little about either candidate. "It's hard to keep up," Meiers said. "But I want to be educated before I do vote." She asked me where she could find out more about the candidates, good information beyond the television ads. I made some suggestions, and she thanked me, adding, "I guess I'm glad I'm here to listen to other perspectives." Lipscolmb nodded along, but I saw her sneak out just after the lights dimmed for the second half.

There were no dissenters at Oberlin, the second stop on the tour, probably because Oberlin is not so much a part of Ohio as it is a tiny East Coast liberal-arts enclave carved out of the woods east of Cleveland. To get there from Columbus, you drive through Amish country and the kind of rural outposts dominated by monstrous hunting outfitters like Fur, Feather and Fin, where there were only American trucks with Bush-Cheney stickers in the parking lot, and where, for $10.99, one could buy a Premium Predator Wildlife Call tape entitled "Distressed Chickens," and with the right series of turns you'll eventually happen across a charming little college town with vegan cafés and a political fault line that runs between Kerry and Nader and where Bush is nowhere to be found.

Although most Oberlin students come from elsewhere, they all have an Ohio address and can vote in the state, which was all that mattered to Stephen. One hundred fifty students arrived at the second event, less than the night before but a much larger percentage of the 3,000-member student body. The lineup had changed, with Ryan Harty, Dan Chaon, and Jonathan Ames substituting for Swofford, Eggers, and Moody. Ames headlined with his tale of hubris and humility, "I Shit My Pants in the South of France." It was a lively close, inspiring others to share their scatological stories the rest of the night at Feve, a bar where the Operation Ohio crew and the students mingled until closing time. I told a story about a friend who, by an extraordinary series of circumstances, accidentally crapped on his iPod. Stephen ordered two grasshoppers, and we shared them with interlocking arms. Spirits were good. "I'm glad you guys came," one of the students said. "If we register twice, can we get you to come back?"

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