Like many teenagers, I didn’t take much interest in politics. It seemed a boring subject that only adults wanted anything to do with. That all changed my sophomore year when I had a slight political awakening. Even though I took more interest after that, it still wasn’t much interest and a lot about politics completely escaped me. That changed about a year and a half after my political awakening when I got a political education.
It was the Summer of 1990, the summer between my junior and senior year of high school. I won an essay contest which entitled me to an all expense paid trip to Washington, D.C. On one day of the trip, we got to personally meet with a Senator and Congressman who represented us. We mat them on the steps of the Capitol Building and even though I was young and not very interested in politics, I understood that this was a Big Deal.
Our large group was split in half and each got to meet with one of the two Senators for Tennessee. The group I was in met with the one and only Senator Al Gore, Jr. two years before he became Vice-President of the U.S. (not that we had any that would happen). We gathered around him and listened as he expounded on all the work he did when he first got to Congress nearly 15 years previous. He was especially proud of his work with the environment and waxed eloquently on many things he accomplished when he first came to office. When he finished, he asked if there were any questions. I raised my hand.
Now, you have to understand that I honestly had no agenda whatsoever. I didn’t have anything remotely resembling some type of political party loyalty at the time, nor did I care to question him in an adversarial way. I simply had (and still have) an abounding curiosity that could not be quelled by a canned speech.
The Senator pointed to me (in quite probably my first and last time being singled out by one) and I said, “Senator, you’ve spoken eloquently about what you accomplished when you first came to Congress, but I was wondering what you’ve done recently.”
“Oh, I’m so glad you asked that,” he said. He then launched in to another speech along the lines of, “I’m working on this,” and, “I have that waiting in the wings,” and,” We’re planning on…” Oddly, he didn’t mention that Internet thing he must have been working on at the time, but you get the idea about what he said.
Again, I had no agenda, just that curiosity and an annoyance that he wasn’t actually, you know, answering my question. Showing a complete lack of understand How Things Work, I interrupted him. Yes, as a seventeen year old kid, I interrupted a Senator as he “answered” a question I asked.
“Excuse me, Senator,” I said, “But I don’t think you understand my question. I mean what have you done lately that’s been productive. Not what you have planned, but what you’ve recently accomplished.” Abruptly, there was no more time available for questions.
Believe me, I wish I could claim that I wanted to show up a Senator that was avoiding my question, but the truth is that I naively thought he really misunderstood me. He looked at me oddly (probably because this just wasn’t done), and I could tell I upset him. He was the consummate politician and didn’t completely show it, of course.
Even though there wasn’t time for any more questions, there was time for photo ops. I jumped up and got my picture taken with him first. I’m not really sure he was happy about that. Or maybe that’s just the way he smiles.
My naiveté about politics didn’t completely shatter (that would come later in the evening), but it did crack a bit. I was actually disappointed at how things went, mainly because I didn’t realize that’s how they always went.
After our meet and greet with the Senator, we were further divided into groups based on our Congressional district. Our handful met with Representative Don Sundquist, five years before he became governor of Tennessee. (By the way, I’m not implying that meeting with me will advance your political career, but it looks as if it doesn’t hurt.)
We had a similar experience, except there was no questions an answer section. Maybe they warned him. After our photo-op, the Representative let us through a back door in the Capitol Building and led us to a tour guide who just happened to be standing there. He asked her to take care of us before he slipped away.
I was impressed that he took such a personal interest in us. At least I was until I compared notes with my roommates for the week. Apparently, their Representatives had done almost exactly the same thing. Suddenly I went from being treated specially to being part of a PR stunt. Okay, to be fair, it was less of a stunt that just good marketing, but it still left me a little empty inside.
I learned an important lesson that week. When it comes to politics, and especially politicians, perception is more important that reality or results. It doesn’t matter what a politician accomplishes or not, it matters how he or she is perceived. Poll results are more important than doing the right thing. Getting re-elected is more important that doing the job they were elected for in the first place.
This shattering of my naiveté armored me for the opportunities I’ve had to meet with famous politicians, which I won’t detail here (though I will say I met Hillary Clinton when she was “just” First Lady and now she’s Secretary of State, draw your own conclusions). I still treasure my pictures with Al Gore and Don Sundquist, though (Mr. Sundquist even autographed my picture with him when he was running for Governor). They are still special to me even if I might look at them with more jaded eyes. It’s hard not to. After all, Don refers to me as his friend in his autograph, but he never calls or invites me to barbecues.