Bullshit Sincerity & Politics Go Hand In Hand
I apologize beforehand for the length of this piece. Several attempts were made to shorten it...but the tale always suffered for the editing. I decided to leave it as it is and trust that someone might be interested in reading it in its entirety.
For those that do...thank you!
In less than a month, the United States will elect a new president.
Whether it's John McCain or Barrack Obama, I am comforted by the fact that it will no longer be George Bush. And let's face it...whoever wins, will just become the new scapegoat for every terrible decision made by our government over the next four years anyway. What a great job!
I love election night coverage. It's one of the few nights of the year that I will remain glued to my television set as the results for each state come in. Or as I told the boss...if the results are late coming in, I will be too. He's from Philadelphia...east coast...so he sort of understands. Anyone who has lived in New Hampshire for any length of time cannot avoid being bitten by the political bug. We...I still say "we" even after having been in Arizona for two years now...take our politics very seriously.
When it takes you twenty-five years to finally earn the trust and respect of a New Hampshire native, and earn the right to say "I'm from New Hampshire, ayuh", you tend to not want to relinquish that title easily. I still have my favorite, cotton flannel shirt...and I wear it with pride! Of course...well, not in the summer, you understand. And it's rather hot even for the spring or the fall. But I tell ya...for that minute or two around 3 a.m. in the middle of January...I wear it with pride.
But I digress...
NH State Seal
Politics in New Hampshire is so important that it's ingrained in their youth. They get ‘em while they're young, folks.
Each year, in New Hampshire, one hundred girls and one hundred boys are nominated for the privilege of attending a summer program called Girls State and Boys State. This program, run by the American Legion Auxiliary, is according to their website, "a practical application of Americanism and good citizenship accomplished through non-political attempts to teach and inculcate in our youth a love of America and a sense of individual obligation to their community, state and nation." While attending Girls State or Boys State, students learn and enact town, city, county and state government using a two-party system.
Participants have a caucus, primary elections, a convention rally and subsequent general elections. Once elected, these young women learn the duties, functions, limitations and powers of various public offices, develop their own legislature and bills. Doesn't that sound like politics to you ...or is it just me?
In the summer of 1980, I was fortunate to be able to attend a session of this program. I learned a lot about the actual political process in that grueling week. While I'm not sure it was the exact lesson that the American Auxiliary had in mind for me...I feel that I really did capture the essence of what it means to be a politician.
Not quite "Stars Upon Thars" ... but close.
The Nomination -
My high school, like most, had a social hierarchy. The cream of the student body, "the Preps," came from the most influential families, lived in the best part of town and usually went by names like Muffy and Kip. They were easily identified by the little IZOD alligator plastered to their tit. Next in the food chain came "the Jocks." I was always confused as to why the knuckle draggers were higher on the schools social evolutionary ladder than say..."the Geeks." Sure, they were charming and usually easy on the eyes, but most were dumber than a hot pocket. I guess they were favored sons and daughters simply because their athletic prowess shone a bright light of school pride upon us all. Now, "the Geeks" were next in the chain of command. They never seemed to mind or even acknowledge a social structure that existed around them. Their world was a mix of chess club, math club, debate club...and keeping themselves chaste...just not on purpose. At the bottom of the food chain we have "the Slums." Nice name, huh? They were the leftovers of the school...a motley mix of rebels, artists, kids from underprivileged and poor families, psychopaths and the occasional homeless person that had snuck in just to have a warm place to hang out. The best part about the school hierarchy though, was that each "group" was convinced theirs was the best.
I had made a lot of enemies amongst "the Preps" the first day I moved here. When asked, "So...what are you...a Prep or a Slum?" I blinked at the offensively cocky boy with the ridiculous alligator and replied, "I always thought I was normal. What about you?" From that day on, I could have plastered alligators all over myself and I would never have been accepted into their fold.
But what was I? I wasn't a jock...definitely too clumsy and uncoordinated for anything more complicated than badminton. I was smart...damn smart...but I wasn't going to hang around with boys that still told fart jokes and broke out into a clammy sweat if I talked to them. Did that make me a leftover then? There was only one other person in my grade, whose father had retired from the military and settled here...and he'd gone to the Geek Side.
I decided I didn't want to be a leftover...well at least not all the time. Instead, I became a chameleon. The Jocks loved me because I helped them to write their papers and when I got older, I gave them free food at the end of the night when I worked at Burger King. The Geeks thought I was one of them because I was on the math team and the only female member of the chess team. You want to win a chess tournament? I didn't play as well as some members...but the president, Burton, thought it would be a perfect secret weapon to have a girl on his team. He was right...a smile, a flirtatious suggestion, perhaps a little cleavage...and my hormonal little opponent never stood a chance.
The Slums were fun to be around sometimes too. We were step-sitters...lounging around as if we had nowhere to go, smoking cigarettes and acting all tough. It was our job to sneer at things...and we did it pretty well. We were talented, wise beyond our years, chanting "Hey Teacher! Leave those kids alone!!" Yes...we were very cool. So it was okay to be artistic, just not smart...not in that school way.
So there I sat on the steps, next to Frank who was doodling in his art book and looking like he was a million miles away. In my hands was the letter that every Prep had been brown-nosing to get for the past nine months...and I had no idea what it meant.
"Frank...so what is this Girls State?" I asked him.
"Oh...just some snooty political thing they have every summer. Usually the only ones that get to go are the alligators. I think their Mummies and Daddies use their influence because it's supposed to look good on a college resume," he replied, continuing to sketch.
I thrust the letter between his nose and the pad of paper. Frank read it and then looked at me in a reappraising fashion. "So...are you saying you are smart?"
Evidently, I'd done a pretty good job of pretending that I wasn't. I knew I should have joined the drama class!
During a free period, I decided to confront the teacher that had nominated me for this program. Don't misunderstand...I wasn't upset with being selectd...I just wanted to know why. Already I was being snubbed by the upper echelon for stealing one of their most coveted positions. If I had to suffer their irritation, it was only reasonable to want to completely understand what I had stolen.
Mr. Lord was one half of the teaching team for the advanced placement course called American Studies. Half of the two hour class was devoted to history, covered by Mr. Lord while the second half of the class fell under the domain of Mrs. Reade teaching literature. I found him sitting in his usual chair, his long gangly legs crossed and his chair leaning precariously too far back for his own good.
"Did you nominate me to piss off Mrs. Reade?" I asked him point blank. He lifted his hand to his chin and thoughtfully rubbed his beard before breaking out into a grin. "Well," he drawled, "I have to admit it is an added benefit."
"You know she nominated Kevin," he added. My eyes narrowed. If there was one person in this school that had made it his life's work to humiliate me, it was Kevin. He was obnoxious, he was mean, he was a Prep...and he was Mrs. Reade's pet. "I just figured you'd want the opportunity..."
He was right. Did I forget to mention that I was Mr. Lord's pet?
"Besides, Laurie," he added, "you are a natural politician. I've seen you wriggle out of some pretty tight situations and come out smelling like the proverbial rose. I think you can figure out how to take advantage of this opportunity."
I had the good grace to blush, knowing exactly what he was referring to. For some reason, Mr. Lord always seemed to see right through me. Lucky for me...we seemed to have a similar sense of humor.
I like a good book just as much as the next person. It's my opinion that high school English teachers are there merely to suck all of the joy they can out of a book by forcing you to analyze and dissect everything, looking for potential symbolism. Mrs. Reade was no exception. What that woman did to Moby Dick should have been a crime.
As a result, I simply refused to read certain books. To be honest, there was a lot of reading and studying that I refused to do in high school. So how did I get into so many high level courses? Simple. Regurgitation. You aren't really expected to have a unique idea in high school. You just cram it all in and then spew it back out at the right time. If, like me...you have a photographic and an aural memory...you shouldn't have to open very many books at all.
The most recent example, and the one to which Mr. Lord was referring, involved a discussion about a novel we were reading for the literature portion of the class. It was probably something written by Nathaniel Hawthorne, but it could have been any one of a few dozen dreary, depressing books. I yawned, flipping forward a few pages, making a mental note of a few paragraphs before riffling deeper into the book. Sue, a quiet and rather prim girl sitting to my right, leaned over and whispered, "So, what do you think of the book so far?"
I grinned at her before answering. "Haven't read it at all...is it any good?" Sue wasn't the judgemental type. As far as she was concerned, it was my funeral.
Almost as if she had heard my confession to Sue, Mrs. Reade's glacial blue eyes homed in on me.
"So...Laurie...you look rather deep in thought there or are you perhaps bored with our conversation? Would you like to share the amazing knowledge you gleaned from this book?" Mrs. Reade asked with that haughty, "I caught you finally" look on her face. Kevin, of course, sniggered in anticipation of the kill.
I hadn't survived an entire year of this class by being unprepared for these moments. It was inevitable once Mr. Lord had humiliated Kevin, Mrs. Reade would attempt to even the score. I often wondered if, after class, they continued their little game of one up-manship in the teacher's lounge.
From the corner of my eye I could see Sue cringe in sympathy. Solemnly I closed the book and gave a dramatic sigh, shrugging. "Well...I'm not sure about knowledge gained, but I couldn't help but notice the author's continuous use of symbolism in regard to masks. For example here on page..."
The moment was priceless. Mr. Lord covered his mouth with his hand to hide the grin. Mrs. Reade was stunned into silence for a moment...teetering between calling my bluff and taking advantage of the opportunity I had given her to go off on one of her favorite subjects. Kevin glared at me and Sue just sat there open-mouthed wondering how I'd managed to pull that one out of my ass.
"Very GOOD, Laurie!" Mrs. Reade said deciding to take the high road, "let's all talk about this important symbolism that Laurie has pointed out to us."
So yes...if that's what it meant to be a politician. I think I could handle it.
Friendly Mr. Banker
The Financial Backing
Financial Backing -
There was just one stumbling block on my path to academic notoriety. Financing. There was a clause in the application that stated under no circumstances would the fee, required to attend the program, be contributed by the participant's family or the participant. Well the alligator crowd had that problem solved instantly. If their father was a lawyer, the law firm wrote the check. A doctor? No problem...the hospital or practice would be happy to sponsor their young political prodigy. My Mom was a mom and my Dad happened to be the most anti-social, "I don't want to know you outside of work" type of guy. I had a feeling he wouldn't be encouraging me to hit up his employer for a donation.
That left it up to me. So I thought...hmmm...where does one go to get money? A bank! They always have money. Well, I guess that means I'll have to meet the president.
So there I sat all squirmy and uncomfortable in my best clothes, rehearsing my speech over and over again as I waited on the twentieth floor of the biggest bank in Manchester. As it turned out...I really shouldn't have worried so much. All it took was saying the words Girls State and Boys State and doors opened magically.
I hadn't realized that every business loved the bragging rights a small donation bought...not to mention the boon in advertisement if you happened to back a winner.
I would have made a great sheriff...
Good Friends Willing To Do The Dirty Work
Sometimes you get lucky. At least, that's how I felt when upon arriving at Girls State that summer I had the good fortune to share a room with Theresa, aka "Mouse." She was a perpetually cheerful sort that managed to be happy without sounding manic. Mouse was always willing to pull a prank and was just as forgiving when a prank was played on her. But more importantly, Mouse had no political ambition whatsoever. She was perfectly happy drawing posters, concocting assorted schemes and helping me to write speeches. In short, she was the perfect friend and slave labor.
Our first attempt met with dismal failure. I had decided to run for the office of county sheriff. It sounded rather cool wearing a star, toting a pistol and being THE LAW! Our posters were rather catchy, I thought...but in the end, they just didn't work the magic I thought they were capable of.
"Well, you tried your best," Mouse said, trying to cheer me up. "Now we can just relax and have some fun. Right?"
I shook my head. "No Mouse...I can't. It wasn't my money that got me here. I know it sounds really silly, but I sort of feel obligated to try one more time."
"So, what office?" she asked.
"Governor's Council," I replied seriously.
"Holy SHIT, Laurie...why not just run for governor! You can't be serious? We got our asses handed to us just running for sheriff...I don't know if we can do this."
I shrugged. It didn't matter if I won or I lost...just that I had tried. Sure, it would be neat to win...who wouldn't want that? Mouse was right though...I was aiming rather high. Next to the governor's position, the council of five members was as high as you could go.
"Well," she said thoughtfully, "we're going to need more help."
Vote for me! I have BEER!
This is where Moe's Daddy worked
Friends In High Places
"That's Moe over there," said Mouse, pointing her finger to a girl whose pants were currently pulled down past her ass, while said ass was firmly planted against the window glass of the basement recreation room. To my amusement, from my perspective I could also see the shocked expression on the face of our one-armed ancient chaperone as she stood outside looking in.
I didn't blame Moe one bit. We all felt the same way about the unfairness at being treated like the world's last surviving virgins. They guys over at Boys State had a small contingent of virile young men to act more like big brothers. Girls State went into lockdown as soon as the sun set and the grounds were constantly patrolled by the Women of WWI. We had tried many times to breech their security...only to be discovered lurking in the shrubbery, revealed in the glare of one of those over-powerful flashlights. Mouse was pretty sure they had night vision goggles. I preferred to think of them as a coven...
Moe pulled up her pants and sauntered over with a cheerful wave. "So, I hear you want to run for Governor's Council. I'm running too...different district, but same party. So it's cool. Mouse said she'll be happy to do posters for us...help us with speeches, I could use that help. I'm pretty sure I can help you too..."
Having a good friend that will stick with you no matter what insane idea you come up with is priceless, but in order to really get anywhere you need friends that know how to play the game and are willing to use their vast resources to assist your cause. Moe's father was a current senator in New Hampshire and as Daddy's little girl she had learned a lot of his tricks. It also helped that Moe's Dad was smuggling beer into us whenever he came to visit. What can I say...he was a liberal Democrat. Besides...he wanted his little girl to win and nothing says "vote for me" like "here...have a beer" to a sixteen year old.
Budweiser pretty much clinched my party nomination for me.
That was the easy part though. When I finally had an opportunity to see my competition in the opposing party, I wasn't holding out much hope for actually winning the final vote. If you are old enough to remember a show called "Little House on the Prairie" you might recall a particular character named Nellie Olsen? That was who I was running against...complete with bouncy blonde ringlets, guileless blue eyes and immaculate frocks. I remember turning to Moe and saying, "I'm so screwed." She had laughed and said, "Have a little faith would ya?" I didn't...but I wasn't about to Nellie win. Halfpint wouldn't have given up...and neither would I!
Moe taught me how to meet people. Believe it or not, there is an art form to it. I was rather socially awkward when it came to meeting new people. I'm just not very good at small talk. During our recreational time, Moe had me circulating through the swimming pool like a political shark, intruding gracefully into small groups of young women, sharing a joke, shaking a hand, promising to catch up with them later. I stayed long enough to be remembered, but never so long as to appear desperate. Likewise, at meals, we never dined with the same people twice. Moe said this was important...learning how to make people feel important without showing favoritism.
Still, when it all came down to it, I don't think all of that glad handing and socializing would have meant anything if it hadn't been for David.
Frisbee is good, clean, wholesome fun...and also artistic.
A Minor Scandal
Mouse and I happened to be crossing the parking lot one afternoon when out of nowhere a Frisbee flew past my head, missing me by inches. I vaguely remembered passing a couple of boys a few steps back, so they were the likely source. Without hesitation, I scooped up the Frisbee, cocked it and launched it back at them in one fluid motion. Ha! Take that I thought...a perfect throw, right into the hands of one of the boys.
He caught it deftly and smiled at me. I couldn't help but smile back...he was so darned cute...sort of like a young version of Sting, all boyish charm and light blue eyes that sparkled with humor above his pugnacious nose. He strolled over with his friend and introduced himself as David. The two of them had decided to take a break from Boys State, grab the Frisbee and head on over to the girl's side, perhaps bean a couple of them and drag them back caveman style. Okay, so perhaps there was no dragging involved...but they definitely thought it was a great way to meet girls. It worked like a charm.
We hung out with them for a bit, swapped dorm phone numbers and agreed that perhaps later we might be able to give the patrol the slip and maybe meet up with them. Of course, that wishful thought failed to materialize and on every attempt afterward, we were busted. This, however, didn't keep David from calling to talk to me in the evenings. Since the only phone available was a pay phone in the hallway, word spread rapidly amongst the female populace. I'd be hanging out in the common room and suddenly I'd hear, "Ooooh Laurie...it's your BOYfriend..." in that annoying giggle that girls have when something just sounds sooooo romantic.
I was willing to put up with it. Being known as the one girl who had managed the impossible feat of snaring a boy while under heavy guard had earned me a lot of respect...and the notoriety came in handy as well.
A Good Speech?
I'm not sure whose bright idea it was to hold the final rally right after a combination Boys State/Girls State cook out, but I'm sure this person is a sadist. I was supposed to be writing a speech. I was supposed to be primping for the crowds. Instead I was barefoot, wearing cut-off jeans and a faded t-shirt, playing Frisbee with David. How was I supposed to prioritize? With Girls and Boys State rapidly coming to a close, David would be returning to his home town nearly twenty miles away. I wasn't going to ever see him again.
Still, to mollify Mouse, I folded up a piece of paper and stuck it next to the pen in my back pocket. See? I would find time to write the speech...don't you be worryin', Miss Mousie. And I'll be back in time from the cookout to brush my teeth, brush my hair and put on girlie wear. I promise!
And I fully intended to keep that promise right up until Mouse grabbed my arm and told me that everyone was waiting for me...on the stage. Aw...crap! Self-consciously, I ran my fingers through my dark curls trying to push them out of my face. I used my t-shirt to mop some of the sweat from my forehead, noticing as I did so the grimace of distaste on the Nellie clone's face. She inched away from me. I couldn't imagine how badly I must smell compared to the cloying fragrance of her Sweet Honesty cologne.
Okay so I didn't have a speech. No big deal. I was pretty sure I could listen to a few speeches, remember pieces of a few of my own...reorganize them a bit and come up with a fairly decent speech on the fly. What's a little plagiarism between politicians? It wasn't like I would go first...I was district number two, so even if they started at five and worked backwards, I still was relatively safe.
Fate however decided to have a little fun at my expense...and I was "randomly selected" to go first.
I didn't have a lot of time to reformulate an entirely new strategy as I took the few agonizing steps to the microphone. Clinging to the only idea I had, I reached into my back pocket, slowly unfolded the creased paper and trembling with a bad case of stage fright began to make up a speech. I looked down once to see Mouse gazing up at me with sympathetic eyes.
Instinctively, I knew going first was a bad position. With eleven more speeches to follow mine, the likelihood of being entirely forgotten was very real. It wasn't enough to just give a speech...I had to be...memorable. But how?
And then it came to me, in pretty much the same fashion that the idea to steal Christmas had entered the Grinch's mind. "Then she had an idea. An awful idea. The Laurie had a wonderful awful idea."
Not a moment too soon it seemed. The crowd was nodding off on me, bored to tears. I was losing them.
I stopped speaking. For a few moments there was silence, interrupted by an occasional shuffle of feet and a muffled cough. I waited. Eventually they began to murmur amongst each other, softly at first and then a bit louder. Why had I stopped...
Looking out at the crowd, beyond it...not focusing on just one person but on the mass as a single body, I stood there and then shook my head slightly. "I can't do this," I said softly into the microphone.
"What does she mean? Why can't she do this? Is she okay?" were a sample of the reactions.
As if making a sudden decision, I spoke louder...more confidently.
"I want to show you all something."
With that, I slowly turned the paper around in a way that would have had Vanna White pea green with envy. Again I waited, allowing the blankness of the piece of paper to speak for itself.
"There's nothing here...I've written absolutely nothing. Now I'd like to tell you why..."
Hundreds of eyes were curious...yes...yes...tell us why. Even Mouse, looking at me the same way Sue did in American Studies class, was eagerly waiting to hear why.
"I was going to write a speech...hopefully a great speech, just as my honorable colleagues standing up on this stage with me have done. You'll hear a lot of promises here tonight. One by one, each of them will stand where I am standing now and read you a list of promises."
I paused for a moment as if to collect my thoughts.
"But it just feels wrong somehow. If you are going to promise something...shouldn't you mean it? And if you mean it, don't you have to know it here (touching my head) and feel it here (touching the approximate location of my heart)? I don't know...perhaps that's just how I judge sincerity. Well, with that said....being mindful of the responsibilities of the office of governor's council and with your best interests carried in my heart...let me tell you what I would like to do for you if elected."
I then folded the piece of paper and jammed it into a pocket as the crowd cheered. A few even wiped a tear or two from their eyes. The rest was cake. I simply regurgitated everything I'd ever heard during my time at Girls State...just as I had in high school.
Afterward, Moe said that her father would have been proud of me, which I considered high praise indeed. Mouse, of course, being my true friend, told me that my heavy breathing over the microphone had reminded her of a bull moose in heat.
NH State Capitol
Nobody, however, was more surprised than I was when I actually won. In fact, my first reaction was one of incredulous disbelief followed by a complete and utter melt down into rather undignified sobbing. All I needed was a cheap tiara, a bouquet of roses and somebody struggling to drape a sash over my body for the moment to be really pathetic.
It was a double celebration that night as Moe's father arrived with a couple of six packs tucked beneath his arm. His little girl had won her seat as well. But even better? Kevin was never elected to a single office...and Mr. Lord never let him or Mrs. Reade forget that fact...ever.
So as I watch this year's presidential campaign unfold, I just remember my own experience with politics and although the stakes are higher, it's really not that different. I still know bullshit sincerity when I hear it...