Saturday, December 5, 2009

An Explanation: A Politcal History of Me

I have a clear recollection of the days around JFK’s assassination, I was 4 years old. I do not remember the events but I remember there was a lot commotion around the Flad household. I loved cooking shows during my preschool years and I would pull out my mother’s pots, pans and wooden spoons and cook along with Julia and Graham, maybe I learned how to drink from Graham. While watching one of my shows I remember my mother screaming out and just sobbing and I remember running to the kitchen to get a dish towel because she was crying too hard for a Kleenex. I remember the family sitting glued around the TV for the next few days and what we watched made no one laugh and often made the adults sad. This is my earliest recollection of world events and I think somehow this was where my passion for politics and current affairs stems from. As a family we always watched the news from Philadelphia, New York, Scranton and the network newscasts, the Lehigh Valley did not have a local broadcast at the time. My parents would get a morning and evening newspaper delivered every day and on Sundays my father would buy the New York Daily News as well. I was surrounded by news all the time. Clearly it affected me because now by choice I am surrounded by news constantly.

Flash forward to 1968 and I am in the third grade and I am following closely the events of Vietnam, Martin Luther King and the Democratic primaries. Our household again came to a complete stop during those awful days of March when MLK was put to rest and then again in June when Bobby Kennedy was killed. I remember my parents getting a phone call from an old friend early in the morning telling them about RFK. We all sat at the TV in shock, I got ready for school and ended up in a foot race with Joanie Morello to be the first one to tell our teacher the horrible news, as if she did not already know. I remember the service at St. Patrick’s, the train ride to DC with all the people standing along the tracks with flags and the night time burial next to his brother. I was transfixed by the events and forever changed, I do not remember who my family supported but I was clearly a Kennedy boy. During the summer I begged my parents to let me watch the conventions and they relented to a point. I do not remember watching the violence of Chicago but I do remember Walter Cronkite telling me about it the next day. My father was working at Ingersoll Rand at the time and we went to the union hall to get something and I grabbed up all the Humphrey buttons I could find and wore one every chance I got. By this point my parents had been taking us to Sunday evening prayer services to end the war. Something tells me that my folks voted for Nixon because he had a plan to end Vietnam, I don’t think I ever asked them in all these years, I don’t know why either. Now in the fourth grade on Election Day I gathered some of my pals and we walked from Centennial School to the polling place at the Junior High chanting “Humphrey Humphrey he’s our man, Nixon belongs in the garbage can”. I am pretty sure Humphrey won our ward because of my efforts that day. My first campaign ended in defeat but I was undaunted.

Over the next few years I discovered a WWII war hero named George McGovern who was a Senator from South Dakota. I remember sitting at our vacation house reading the Sunday New York Times Magazine cover story about him, this was the summer of 1971 and I was 12. I was allowed to watch the more of the conventions that summer. By the time the fall campaign came around so into the McGovern campaign that I quit the Boy Scouts because I was not allowed to wear my campaign pin on my uniform. In truth, I was not really cut out to be a Boy Scout I never fit in. During the fall campaign I met someone who would become my lifelong friend and one the people I admire in life, Easton’s State Rep. Bob Freeman, he was 15 I was 13. We spent many weekends and after school hours trying to elect Sen. McGovern President. Bob and I became closer friends throughout the years with one minor bump in the road. Bob was the first person I came out to some 30 years ago. He was supportive and enlightened in a time when few people were.

McGovern of course lost the election and the nation was worse off for it.

During this time I met a man who taught me more than I needed to know about local politics and how to really work a grassroots effort, Max Rosenbloom. Max was an old time district leader and controlled the votes in Easton’s 8th Ward West with an iron fist. His influence ran into other parts of the area but in this voting precinct he was king of all he saw. I learned how to knock on doors, I learned how to talk real politics and I learned and how to cajole. Max was the master, his word was gold and he never went back on a promise. Max could have benefited from his power but he did not instead he secured his power and influence by assisting people in his ward. When my father was on strike Max found odd jobs to help keep food on our table and always hired my mother to be a poll watcher on election days. As I got older Max never minded that I would strike out on my own and not support his candidate, it did not matter because he would always win the ward. I remember one local election I decided to take Max on and I really worked the ward for my candidate, we knocked on every door some twice, I went back on my own to follow up and I set up a strong get out the vote effort on primary day, just like Max had shown me. He put his big arm around me and told me that I did a good job but it would not matter because he undid all of my hard work, but I could tell he was proud of me. After the polls closed we went in to watch the vote count. On the machines that day my candidate won, I did it I beat the old man; I just sat there with a very cocky expression that only someone in his early twenties could have all smug and know-it-all. Then we counted the absentee votes. Oops, I neglected to cross all my T’s, we got crushed and my candidate lost the ward and I was humbled beyond belief. I got home after the election party, we lost, vowing never to get involved again and threatened to support the Republican in the fall. After a few weeks I was back on it working for Gene Hartzell, the Democrat who went on to be the most effective County Executive our county has ever had, my candidate in the primary my former high school teacher now State Rep. Rich Grucela. I think of Max Rosenbloom often. About a week ago I ran into his grandson and as we were speaking he started to smile and got this kind of wistful look and said “You know my Grandfather loved you” I told him that I loved his grandfather also and that he was great man and one of the best people to have ever touched my life. After an awkward silence we wished each other well and parted company. Max Rosenbloom may have been a king maker but he was a better man and more of a giant then many of the kings he created.

In 1975 my friend Bob enlisted me in another quixotic campaign; Alice “Tinker” Vitelli was running for Mayor of Easton. This really was a campaign destined to fail but it was fun and thrilling along the way. We were the left of the left in this field; we were the hippies, the tree huggers, the intellectual elite. We were running against two candidates that had the support of the machine and one really odd gadfly. Our only hope of winning was to squeak though if the two machine candidates split the establishment vote and gadfly would take the far right wacko vote and we would be secure with the liberal activists. We had it all mapped out but of course races for Mayor of very small cities really do not break down on ideology, they are based on relationships and experience. We lost the primary and I decided to abandon the Democratic Party and worked tirelessly for the GOP nominee in the fall, we lost. I returned home to the Democrats and discovered Jimmy Carter. No one had heard of him yet. I sent a letter to the campaign and offered to head the effort here; fortunately for them they were able to find someone other than an 11th grader to lead the campaign, lucky for me they found my next door neighbor Debbie. Here I was ready to tilt at windmills again. Bob and I parted company here, he supported Mo Udall.

I am not sure I can clearly say what Jimmy Carter means to me, the right words never really come to mind but there is no national political figure who has affected me the way President Carter has. I think his was my first really grown up campaign effort and I came of age during his presidency. I began to formulate my life views during that time, I started to figure out the various aspects for my life and come to terms with who I was as a person. I don’t want to get to psycho babble here but I was becoming a man at this time and because politics was how I defined myself in those days, Jimmy & Roslyn Carter and Walter Mondale & Joan Mondale are as important to me as Jack, Bobby and Teddy Kennedy. I fully admit Jimmy Carter was not the most successful President that’s just being a realist, Jimmy Carter is a good man and forever will be an inspiration to me and someone I will always adhere the tag of greatness to. On this fact there is no room for discussion and it is not something that is even open to debate. You want to discuss policies, effectiveness fine but the content of his character no.

My senior year in high school I was working full time for the Carter campaign I was so sure of myself and this man from Georgia that I invited the chairman of the county Republican Party to debate me at a high school assembly. Looking back on it now I am sure I was lucky to be saved from this event by a teacher strike. Jimmy Carter was my first winner and boy was it sweet, we were going to change the world we were going to heal America. After the horror of the Nixon years and the shame he brought on this nation the American people had the wisdom during our bicentennial year to elect my choice for President. I will save my Watergate memories for another time. I was now the 17/18 year old wonder kid of the local Democratic Party. Candidates were calling me up and asking for my support, the future was so bright I needed shades, I was going to make Richard Daily look like a rank amateur.

There was on big problem, politics was the only part of my life that was really working. I was not a great student, I could not find a way to replicate the energy and drive I put into politics in the class room. I did well in what I liked but struggled mightily in subjects I did not see a use for and could not find the energy to overcome my difficulties. All of my SAT points were on the verbal side and my score was painfully low, Yale was not going to be my next stop in life. I went to community college and pretty much failed there. I was not ready for college; the only thing I was ready for was running campaigns. I took time off put some money in the bank and grew up a little went back got my Associates Degree and took some more time off because I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life and I knew that a future in public office was out of the question and no one was going to hire a chief of staff without a full college degree but as much as I loved learning I hated school, so I learned retail.

Also during this time my hormones were on fire and I had no idea how to channel that energy and it really affected many other aspects of my life. I don’t think I was confused as to who I was sexually I was just confused how to deal with it, I had my orientation figured out in the fourth grade but how to deal with it was a whole different issue.
But, politics was there to comfort and nurture me and to give me comfort and an outlet for a lot of pent up energy.

1980 came along and we had to face Teddy Kennedy in the primaries, no easy task. I ran for alternate delegate to the convention. In that year neither campaign could afford to turn away any supporters so they did not select a slate, I was one of 27 people running for the 3 slots. I was ninth on the ballot and that is where I ended up on Election Day. I campaigned tirelessly I was out giving speeches most nights and knocking on doors. I went back to school and oddly enough my grades did not suffer during this time. I ended becoming the chief speech maker on behalf of Jimmy Carter. I was passionate, sarcastic and full of fury, all this despite a rather pronounced stutter. I attended an event and some of Bobby Kennedy’s sons were going to be there to speak on behalf of their uncle. The young Kennedy staffers did all they could to keep me away from the Kennedy boys. After all the speeches were made and we were socializing I really wanted to meet these famous sons of this great Democratic family but I had to do an end run around the Kennedy staff. I wanted to shake their hands and express my admiration to Bobby Jr and Max Kennedy. I finally got my chance and Bobby joked about his protectors by saying I was not as rough on his uncle that he had heard I was going to be, he told me they thought I was going to try to start a fight or something. I apologized and Bobby assured me that I was fine; he put his arm around me and escorted me to meet his brother and some other folks from the national Kennedy campaign. It was such a high for me that Bobby Kennedy Jr would be so kind to me. After they left I could not help but gloat about my few minutes of basking in the Kennedy glow to the Kennedy staffers for the rest of the primary season, I have to admit that after that night they were a little friendlier.

The Carter people offered me an internship at the White House that summer and I split my time between the White House and the campaign headquarters. It was truly one of the best summers of my life. I was turning 21 and on my own for three months. This would be my opportunity to finally come to terms with myself. It never happened and I’m really not sure why either. I had full White House access and VIP volunteer status at the convention later that summer. I was in the hall the night of the best speech Teddy Kennedy ever gave and despite the fact that I was head to toe in Carter gear it was a remarkable moment and there was not a dry eye in the house including mine.

That year I was also helping to run the congressional race of Jeanette Reibman and the state house race for Bob Freeman. We all lost badly, Bob’s race was much closer and that set us up for a rematch two years later, we won. I was beyond crushed after that election. I cried every time I saw Jimmy Carter on TV and I pouted for a long time. Most people were very kind to me during this time but I was in a world of hurt and lost as to what to do next. I graduated from NCC that December and not sure of my next steps but I was not ready for school. Back to retail and campaigning.

I also decided to face that other issue. I did so quite successfully and I became a different person some of my sharp edged intensity was a little softer and I started enjoy my life a little more. I fell in love and had my heart broken and decided I was ready for school. I had my mind made up and set my course to go to Penn State in the fall, the Mondale campaign offered me a job and much to my surprise I turned it down. I was ready to go to college and then move to Washington DC and find a way to work my way up to Chief of Staff of The White House. I was set as of January 1984. In February 1984 my life changed again, I met him and I never looked back. I went on with my plans for getting my degree and instead of moving to DC, I moved to Bethlehem and we began to build a life together. So it was back to retail and politics. I excelled at both and worked on campaigns big and small. I was on the losing end more than the winning end except for my old friend Bob. I signed on early for the Clinton campaign and felt the same sense of euphoria and hope I did in 1976. I was a Democratic Committeeman, I was on the executive committee of both the city and county parties, TJ Rooney called me the “Moral Voice of the Party”, I headed dinners and fundraiser, I designed brochures and posters, ran volunteer efforts and was a chief surrogate speaker in the area for many campaigns.

In 1994 I ran for State Committee, managed a campaign for state house and was an advisor for Bob’s Senate race. The state race was a train wreck, the candidate was having a midlife crisis and was melting down before his family and friends and was so occupied with his personal issues he did not have the energy to campaign. I was the odds on favorite to be elected to state committee, I lost and I was unemployed. I looked for work and worked full time for Bob Freeman. 1994 was a very bad year to be a Democrat and the results here matched the results around the nation. Bob lost by a handful of votes to a person so inferior in every way and at the end of that campaign I was as the British would say Gutted. I had no job, no real prospect and the thing I have cared about since I was eight years old had let me down for the last time. I was appointed to a term on State Committee but all the passion had left me. I served my term and then I just walked away from active participation in electoral politics. In 2004 Bob had an opponent and I worked the polls for him but that’s it.

I am still very much interested in politics; I study it and follow it as closely as ever. I still talk about it constantly and have kept my friendships so I have kept up on the gossip and behind the scenes action. I will put a bumper sticker on my car and wear campaign buttons. I will attend fundraisers and even mail letters and cards to my friends and neighbors asking them to support my endorsed candidates but I doubt that I will ever get involved in a campaign again. I just don’t have it in me anymore and my life has moved on. Having said all that I am feeling the old tug to assist our excellent young mayor become our excellent young congressman. If Bob Freeman has a real race this year I may have to get involved but I am never ever going to give my heart and soul to it again.

1 comment:

  1. Donald - I totally agree with your assessment of President Carter - he is indeed a good man.

    I would go further and state my humble opinion that of all the ex presidents alive today - he is by far the most dignified!