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My Campaign

Charlie Schroeder

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Charlie Schroeder senior year
(Courtesy Charlie Schroeder)
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At the beginning of the presidential campaign season, both McCain and Obama vowed that things were going to be different this time -- neither man was going to run a negative campaign. But as Election Day approaches, both campaigns have taken a more combative turn. At last week's debate, the candidates explained that the negative ads were the result of a "tough" campaign. Weekend America's Charlie Schroeder has been watching those negative ads. For Charlie, they're a little traumatic. They take him right back to his tough campaign in high school.


This story is about me and a high school classmate of mine named Dave. Dave didn't respond to my interview requests for this story, and I understand why. When I was in high school, Dave and I both ran for vice president of our class, and in my campaign I went negative. Why did I do that? The best way to answer that is to tell you a little bit about who I was in high school.

I went to high school in the late 80s, and while most of my peers had mullets and wore Guns N' Roses t-shirts, I was like a living, breathing version of Alex P. Keaton from "Family Ties;" seersucker suit, bow tie and all.

"You were a young government person and 'Mr. Republican,'" my mom says. "You wanted to be president."

She used to call me "Mr. Peepers." (Apparently Mr. Peepers was some sort of character from the 1950's who wore these big, round tortoise shell glasses and a bow tie.) "That's who you were in high school," my mom says.

And all this in the heart of rural Pennsylvania - Amish country, to be exact.

Being the Alex P. Keaton type, I knew I had to start in student government. For our freshman and sophomore elections, I didn't have to give a speech. I just threw my name in a hat for vice president and was elected. But for my junior year, one of our teachers had this brilliant idea that all the candidates should address the class in our auditorium.

"The people in the audience were thrilled," my class president Nate Althouse says. "They were elated that they didn't have to go to class. This was an out. This was an assembly during class time."

My opponent Dave wasn't like me. He didn't have grand political ambitions. He was kind of the class clown, or, rather, the runner-up to the class clown. He hung out with kids who smoked before school, and he always wore an oversized army jacket. People called him Alf because he had a tuft of hair that stuck up on top of his head.

"When he spoke, it seemed like he was out of his element a little bit," Nate recalls. "And the audience, even though he might have struggled through part of his speech, respected the fact that he'd taken the chance--that he'd gone up against a political juggernaut such as yourself."

I wrote my speech on a piece of notebook paper and stood in front of my class and read it. I have a hard time remembering exactly what I said, but my brother does - even though he wasn't in the room (that's how quickly word spread).

"I remember people saying that you said 'My opponent has no experience, he has nothing to run on, and he couldn't do this if he tried,'" he says.

On paper, that doesn't really sound all that bad. But it was. Because I delivered those words with so much venom that my jowls went into spasms. Halfway through my speech, kids started to boo me. Even Nate couldn't believe that I was picking on poor Dave. "I remember folding my arms and rubbing my eyes thinking 'why?'" Nate says.

Me, I was shocked. I'd seen Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale say much worse things to each other and nobody seemed to care.

According to Larry Sabato, the director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, the mistake I made in going negative was that I was in a group environment where everyone "knew one another." He suggests that the "humility route… would have been much more appropriate, much more effective."

Presidential elections, Sabato tells me, are different. They take place on a wide playing field. "With the anonymity that comes with a large electorate of a state or a nation," Sabato says, "also comes the ability to go on the attack, because people will believe almost anything about candidates they do not know."

But I wasn't anonymous. In high school, everyone pretty much knows everyone. And according to class president Nate Althouse, I had a pretty good reputation - at least with those who knew me.

"Most people knew you as a grounded, venerable guy," he tells me. "But for those who might not have been as familiar with you as your inner circle, hearing that from you and considering the image you had as being this preppy, educated, worldly scholar, it probably shifted those people to thinking 'this guy is…he is obnoxious.'"

Shortly after my botched speech, I went to health class, where the future salutatorian practically spit on me. Over the next few days, I lost friends. Dave gained many. For the next couple of weeks, I repeatedly apologized to anyone who'd speak to me and tried to regain my classmates' confidence. When the election results were announced over the PA system, I was shocked and relieved. I'd won.

"People are willing to forgive family and friends almost anything," Larry Sabato tells me. "They know them fairly well, and you had time to make up that lost ground; you had time to personally apologize. In a broader electorate, apology adds work, sometimes candidates who've been in deep trouble come on and say 'I screwed up, I'm sorry, I hope you'll forgive me.' Well, most people say 'yes.'"

After graduation I retired from politics. What did the election do for Dave? No telling. In my quest to track down Dave, I came across his Myspace page. When it loads, a Red Hot Chili Peppers song plays. He doesn't log in for months at a time, and he hasn't responded to my interview requests. His friends tell me they lose track of him and that they worry about his health. He's a proud father of three. His hometown is listed as "The Road."

While I was goofing off in college, I discovered that Dave was doing something I always thought I'd do: serving our country. Now Dave's a disabled Gulf War vet. He can't walk more than a block or two without the aid of a wheelchair. He writes that the government should come clean about Gulf War syndrome. A few years ago, he went back to college and got an associates degree in history. While he was there he was active in student government.

Me? Well, I gave my bow ties to Goodwill a long time ago, but I still own a pair of seersucker pants that I wear every now and then to remind myself of who I once was, a clueless high school student who thought money and power were everything.


  • Comment | Refresh

  • By Bonnie Ashworth

    From Columbia, PA, 10/25/2008

    Charlie: Noel forwarded your story. What great memories to share. And, for those of us who know you, it's a lovely gift.

    Bonnie Ashworth

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