July 11, 2004

Campaign Memories from 20 Years Ago

May 16, 1984 – Seven months ago I quit my public relations job and left the Loop to work on an election campaign in northern Illinois, a congressional race in Midwest, middle-class, middle-of-the-road America. My candidate was defeated in the recent primary and now friends ask whether it was worth it – whether leaving a promising job, taking a steep pay cut and spending 16-hour days on the campaign trail was worthwhile.

I think before answering. I remember.

I was barroom politicking in a VFW hall, sharing beers and cheers with a tableful of blue-collar workers. One started a story about a “colored” guy at work and was interrupted by his pal: “’Black,” he’s ‘black.’” The storyteller apologized to us at the table, corrected his terminology and finished telling the story. I was reminded that progress comes slowly.

Another working man in a different beer hall had another story to tell. He works with his hands and told me how he was worried that he was slowly losing his job. The year before last he only worked 112 days, he explained, this past year he only worked 93 days and now even his sturdy wife was scared because this year looked no better. The man could see it coming – no work, no paycheck, unemployment lines – and all he could do was shrug. The best I could offer was a sort of intellectual shrug. “Keep the faith,” I told him.

I spent one night cornered in a small living room crowded with men and women who sipped champagne, nibbled shrimp goodies and interviewed candidates who were called on the carpet before them. The group chastised a particular candidate when the politician revealed how he would prefer to be notified when his teen-age daughter purchased contraceptives. Between sips and bites, one woman interviewer leaned forward and flashed a phony smile. “But don’t you think that’s a grossly middle-class attitude?” she scolded. “Maybe it is,” the candidate mumbled, fumbled. I kept quiet.

At a distant, more relaxed occasion I shared dinner with a young woman who discussed the prides and pressures of farm life and commiserated that modern machinery made farming easier but detracted from that earthy feeling of working the soil with your hands.

During a political rally sometime later, I got to talking with a woman and her son. I rattled off the statistic that there are 34.4 million Americans who pass their days in poverty only to have the mother nod her head and say softly, “I know. I’m one of them.”

Along the campaign trail, I watched politicians make plays at breakfast gatherings of senior citizens by talking about the past. While throughout it all, most senior citizens in the room wanted to hear about the future. What’s to become of Social Security? What’s stopping the next world war from starting? What’s in store for our grandchildren? I wondered if the future is not cherished more by those who expected fewer days ahead.

I observed politicians scramble to grab Page 1 coverage for their position favoring the completion of a local freeway project – a project that had so many election-time supporters it became increasingly difficult to ascertain just where the opposition to the freeway was coming from. I spent too many lone, late nights listening to self-proclaimed politicos blabber on with big-shot talk about friends known and deals cut. I witnessed a more graceful politician tiptoe along the political fence by discussing two opposing candidates from within the same party, calling one candidate “nice,” but referring to the other as “super nice.”

And I saw other, better politicians.

I mean the kind who listened to a man talk about the humiliation of waiting in line for a chunk of government-handout cheese – and truly heard what was being said. I mean the kind who begged away from joining a protest demonstration because he knew he really had no reason to participate but to gain needed newspaper fanfare. I mean the kind who realized a public official’s life is, indeed, a public life, which amounts to no life at all.

“I wanted to help out because I thought it’d be a great way to get to know some people,” a campaign recruit explained when she volunteered. Ever so simply, that’s what the past seven months come down to for me. This past half year, I have developed a deeper appreciation of people and the way people operate: how they fear, how they hope, why they keep slugging away. I have learned that the campaign trail is a winding road to the heart of America – to the dreams, pains and promises that are the soul of America.

Now, is it a road worth walking? Damn right.

“Was the campaign worth it? Take a look” was first published by the Chicago Sun-Times on Wednesday, May 16, 1984.


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