(Occasionally I’m posting first draft excerpts from the alleged book I’m writing, “Too Smart for God.” Here’s one about politics. I used an abbreviated version to open my sermon yesterday …)
I used to think politics was the way to save the world.
I’ve always been something of a political junkie. Even in high school I devoured newspaper reporting about politics, and read my dad’s copies of TIME after he was done with them. As the 1980 presidential election approached, and I was eligible to vote for the first time, I had to get involved. I was a senior in high school when the primaries were contested that spring, and I decided that I was going to support George Bush – that’s George H. W. Bush, the father of George W. Bush. The basis for that decision wasn’t any real issue(s), but rather Bush’s experience. He was known then as “Mr. Resume” – former congressman, CIA Director, Ambassador to China, and so on – “A President We Won’t Have to Train.” That seemed as good a basis to pick a president on as any.
Also, and probably more importantly, I just plain didn’t like Ronald Reagan, who was also running for the Republican nomination. As teenagers, my friends and I saw him as an old actor who was out of touch with anything in our world. We called him “Bonzo” after his monkey movie co-star. George Bush seemed the best bet to defeat Reagan for the nomination. I liked how Bush referred to Reagan’s fiscal plans as “voodoo economics;” even then I didn’t trust the myth of trickle-down.
I put my time (I didn’t have any money) where my mouth was and I signed up to volunteer at Bush’s Jacksonville campaign headquarters. I made lots of phone calls that spring. The calls were mostly disguised polls asking people which candidate they supported (some of the answers were interesting, like the guy who told me he’d been assigned who he was going to vote for but he hadn’t opened up the envelope yet). Then we had a script of what to say to push them toward supporting Bush depending on a person’s answer to the “poll.”
Bush ultimately lost the Republican nomination to Reagan. I was quite disappointed when he accepted Reagan’s offer to be his Vice Presidential nominee. What about all those things he had said about “voodoo economics?” Was politics just about expediency, not principle? (Please give me a break, I was young and naïve.)
As I moved on to college, there were lots of other priorities that put elections on the back burner.
But by the 1984 election, I had become a Democrat. That February, I had finished college and was working in my first real, full-time job in Montgomery, Alabama. Walter Mondale was the front-runner for the Democratic nomination, but the more I read and heard about Colorado Senator Gary Hart the more I became convinced that he should be the next president. He was the candidate of “New Ideas.” I showed up a few weeks before the primary at the Hart Alabama Headquarters and offered to volunteer there. My first job was making copies, and I became something of an office hero when I figured out how to make two-sided copies on the rented copy machine.
Apparently, that qualified me for a quick promotion. There really weren’t many folks volunteering – Hart hadn’t won the New Hampshire Primary yet and was barely registering on polls in Alabama. Someone was needed to start calling political leaders around the state and ask for their support and since I knew how to make two-sided copies, I was the guy! So I started calling Democrats from School Board Members to Congressmen and making the case for Senator Hart.
That must have gone pretty well because within a week I had become the State Press Liaison. What fun that was! It started pretty slow, but after that win in New Hampshire the national media got interested in the campaign and since Alabama’s primary was on Super Tuesday we were in the epicenter . I showed up on TV and radio all over the place – I did a local talk show, got interviewed by Cokie Roberts when she was with NPR, and was on all three (at the time there were only three) networks news programs. I even got interviewed by Japanese and Swedish TV reporters, but can’t tell you if those conversations ever aired.
The highlight, though, was the day I went with another Hart worker to meet with Alabama Governor George Wallace to ask for his support. An expected 5 to 10 minute audience in his Governor’s Mansion office turned into over an hour of his political reminiscences and philosophy. His explanations for his vigorous support of segregation were populist bs – “I was only doing what the people who elected me wanted me to do,” but his memory of people and election numbers as he spun tales there behind his desk while squirming for comfort in his wheelchair was mesmerizing. I still count him as one of the two most fascinating people I ever met (the other was a 90-something-year old swami in India who ran a residential children’s school for over 3000 boys . . . but that’s a subject for another post). Note that by fascinating – at least in Governor Wallace’s case – I don’t mean “admired” or “respected.”
It was all pretty heady stuff for a 21-year old who had finished college less than a year before. Sitting around discussing campaign strategy (really listening to those who knew what they were doing discuss it, although in at least one article I was quoted as a “campaign strategist” – ha!), coordinating with the national campaign HQ in DC, doing those interviews . . . and I was doing it all for a good cause. Or more exactly, a good person, a person who was going to turn the country around if he got the chance. As I grew more and more adept in promoting Senator Hart, my devotion to the campaign – and to him – grew and grew.
We didn’t win Alabama, but we did go from a * in the polls that meant “less than two percent support” to a strong 21% – second in the primary. I remember how great it felt to read the thank-you telegram we got from national headquarters to the assembled workers in the Alabama Office. Maybe some of that good feeling was due to the already half-empty bottle of champagne I’m holding in my other hand in the only picture I have of that night. And I was ready for more. Campaigning, not champagne. Okay, maybe both.
It took a month or two, but the campaign folks arranged for me and a buddy to go to Texas to work on the primary campaign there. I quit my job and went.
Things didn’t go that well in Texas because of some logistical problems (the highlight was escorting Hart’s daughter for a part of a day of campaigning), but nothing dimmed my enthusiasm for the campaign and for Gary Hart.
Of course Senator Hart didn’t win the nomination for president in 1984, and Walter Mondale, who did, was pretty soundly trounced by Ronald Reagan in the general election in 1984. Wait until 1988, I thought. We’ll be back!
Gary Hart did start off the Democratic nomination process in 1988 as the front-runner. You may remember how that turned out. That campaign ended before it really began. I remember standing in the electronics section of a Sears store in Winston-Salem, North Carolina on May 8, 1987, watching a wall of televised Gary Harts announced their withdrawal from the race because of their exploits with Donna Rice on the good ship Monkey Business.
He had let the campaign down. He had let me down.
(End of book excerpt)
Here’s the thing – all politicians and leaders are not going to crash and burn as spectacularly as Gary Hart. But they are all human. If we put too much trust in them – even trusting them to SAVE US from whatever it is we think we need to be saved from, we are going to be ultimately disappointed when they don’t do what they say they are going to do (perhaps through no fault of their own – “The System” can be pretty intractable) or when they leave office or are asked to leave office or when they die.
Ultimately, leaders, no matter how noble or powerful or compassionate they are, are mortal.
The title song from Coldplay’s “Viva la Vida” album sums up the transitory nature of human power. It’s written from the perspective of a former ruler:
“I used to rule the world, seas would rise when I gave the word / now in the morning I sleep alone, sweep the streets I used to own.” Later he adds, “One minute I held the key, next the walls were closed on me / and I discovered that my castles stand, upon pillars of salt and pillars of sand.”
Or, in the words of Psalm 146, verse 3:
“Do not put your trust in princes, in mortal men, who cannot save.”
I used to think politics was going to save the world.
Then I met Jesus, and found out He already had (saved the world).