Ronald and Nancy Reagan
President Reagan with Nancy Reagan, who holds up a "Just Say No" sign for press photographers while riding horses at Rancho Del Cielo on Sept. 6, 1986. (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)
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“You say, ‘Yes,’ I say, ‘No’
“You say, ‘Stop’ and I say, ‘Go, go, go’
“Oh no”

— The Beatles, “Hello Goodbye”

Language is an eternal master with words as powerful subjects.

Not to make light, but it took a long time for the words “No means no” to become embedded in the collective consciousness about date rape or rape in general.

Natalie LaddSimilarly, throughout the 1980s and early ’90s, Nancy Reagan, the wife of movie star and President Ronald Reagan, championed the war on drugs with the three words “Just say no.” 

According to landmarkrecovery.com, the latter started innocently enough. The phrase was first uttered when the first lady was doing a speaking tour and visited an elementary school. During the visit, she took questions from students. The Reagan Foundation describes Mrs. Reagan’s account of the moment: 

“A little girl raised her hand .. and said, ‘Mrs. Reagan, what do you do if somebody offers you drugs?’ And I said, ’well, you just say no.’”

That seems simple enough and crystal clear. Right? Wrong.

Mrs. Reagan’s campaign was vague and didn’t focus on education or the dangers that come from chronic drug use. It lumped dad’s martini, your brother’s pot, mom’s Valium, and tainted street heroin in the same candy dish. It soon led to harsh mandatory prison sentencing for first-time drug offenders who would have benefited more from a 12-Step Narcotics Anonymous program. Worst of all, awareness of the campaign message had little to do with the results.

“The most effective PSAs provided information about the negative consequences of drug use, whereas the least effective tended to focus on avoidance behaviors and on ‘just saying no,’” the landmarkrecovery.com study concluded. 

But Mrs. Reagan’s efforts were not wasted altogether: the message had good intentions, became social media meme material decades later, and inspired late-80s Halloween costumes complete with coiffed, blond-frosted wigs and tailored, preppy look. The sign I carried as part of my own Nancy Reagan costume had a red circle with a diagonal line over the word drugs. I think my ride-or-die friend Bruce was Cheech, or maybe Chong, that same year. And if he wasn’t, he should have been. 

What this leads to is the Question 1 conundrum on the Central Maine Power Co. corridor. I’m not suggesting we should all spark up recreational marijuana to deal with this, but isn’t it the earnest desire of all (well, most) Mainers to understand exactly what we’re voting for and why? In this case, yes means no, no means yes, and each option is layered with consequences that offset the main goal. 

Not that anyone asked, but personally I want to protect the environment, the native brook trout, and respect the sacred land of the Penobscot Nation. But I also want to help create good jobs and work toward clean energy on land already owned or controlled by CMP. But retroactive laws? Foreign interests? I just don’t know. 

Earlier this fall, I came home to a Question 1 door hanger supporting “Yes on 1 to Ban CMP’s Corridor.” A week later, I received another door hanger with a ”No on 1” focus. The kicker is that both hangers looked exactly alike. Same colors, same font, even the same graphic. If the intent was to confuse me, they succeeded. Both sides also succeeded in word manipulation, omitting facts, and frustration. But such is the job of advertising agencies working on behalf of politicians, political action committees, and vested interests.

It really is enough to make people throw up their hands and say, “who cares?” 

But please, don’t do that.

What I can tell you about Question 1 is concise, accessible information exists out there that clearly explains both sides, and the subtexts they come with. Look for articles from local energy journalists and nonaffiliated resources who stake their reputations on not taking sides. Yes, the effort takes time, but not voting and not caring is the worst thing we can do. We have to push past face-value campaign messages, look to experts we respect, weigh our decisions, and act accordingly. 

The hardest thing to remember is sometimes we have to take actions that don’t fully align with our personal, here-and-now, day-to-day lives. I don’t have kids in public school anymore but I always vote to increase the education budget. The same is true with many social programs that put me in the bleeding-heart category. It is about the “common good,” which may have a different meaning for me than for you. 

Halloween is two days before Election Day. So gather your superhero costumes, be careful out there, and find smoking-fun reasons to say yes to full-sized candy bars. When Nov. 2 rolls around, put the costumes back on, say no to deceptive campaigning, and vote yes for the common good.

Natalie Ladd is a Portland restaurant veteran, freelance writer, and connoisseur of all things Bruce Springsteen. She loves Boston sports, chewy red wine, and has never sampled a cheese she didn’t like. She can be reached at [email protected]