Baltimore County

Kind of looking forward to another election year [Column]


Way back when I was a kid, I enjoyed visiting my mother's family home for a variety of reasons. My grandfather kept a massive drawer in a bureau in the formal dining room filled with ink pads, stamps, old buttons, spools of thread and plenty of other things that would count as treasures to people in the single-digit age category.

In a time when electronic toys were things like battery-powered cars that broke after two or three uses, and there were only three to five channels on TV, depending on the weather, the drawer was a wonderful place to play. Probably still would be, now that I think of it.

Being among the oldest of 13 grandchildren, a line for the drawer began to form just about the time I was growing bored with it, so, as part of a group of older cousins, I graduated to the kitchen where the adults held court.

Invariably, the floor was occupied by one of two subjects: politics or religion.

Come to think of it, the religion discussions could well have been classified as political discussions as they dealt not so much with matters of theology but rather they were focused on the changes brought about by the Second Vatican Council convened in Rome in 1963 and commonly referred to by those familiar with the comings and goings of the Catholic church as Vatican II. The biggest change came shortly after the council concluded, that being the elimination of the centuries old Latin Mass during which the priest faced away from the congregation. This came about long before I had any meaningful memory of attending a service in Latin, but there were plenty of other things for my aunts, uncles – two of whom had considered the priesthood seriously enough to have enrolled in seminaries – and grandparents to discuss.

Then came the discussions of politics. Sometimes they were the usual parlor fare relating to what was going on in Washington, D.C., but often as not they related to the comings and goings a few blocks up the street at the Pennsylvania state government complex. Curiously, the dome of Pennsylvania's capital building was inspired by, and bears a striking resemblance to, the Basilica of St. Peter in the Vatican, an architectural oddity that, combined with those discussions in my grandparents' kitchen, had me confused until I was well into my 20s.

So anyway, getting to the heart of the matter is the discussion of politics, and the tangentially related matter of public policy. Sometimes the kitchen discussions were about policy questions like, is Urban Renewal, a series of state, federal and local efforts to improve city life, good for Harrisburg? Was it even needed? And what about those murals being painted on the walls of old buildings? Did they make the city look better or worse?

The adult relatives had a lot to say, and even some of us older kids would end up joining in from time to time in later years. When we cousins get together, we often talk about how this seemed very normal to us, even as it is largely foreign to most of our spouses.

Politics was a subject of particular interest to my grandfather, who had long aspired to elected office but never managed to get elected. Even so, he was well connected enough that he was able to get state jobs, and during the election seasons he would essentially serve as a ward boss.

Turns out he had picked up some fairly impressive organizational skills while serving near the trenches and the front during World War I. An aunt and uncle who visited the old battlefield where he served, and who have found some old letters, report he was for his unit something of a Radar O'Reilly from the TV show "M*A*S*H*." I imagine such skills are as valuable in managing military campaigns as they are in organizing political campaigns.

Prior to 1932, those skills could have been put to use for either party, but in 1932 he ran as a Republican for a supposedly guaranteed safe GOP seat, losing because Franklin Roosevelt and the Democrats were swept into office at all levels. After that, he was a staunch Republican. Though well-versed in policy, this was personal.

To me, my grandfather was not a politician. He was a jovial old man who always had a 50-cent roll of pennies and a pinch on the cheek for whatever grandchildren happened to be visiting. He was active in his parish church, which happened to be St. Patrick's Cathedral in Harrisburg, which was a block closer to his house than the state capitol.

And he was a friendly fellow. It was not possible to walk more than four or five blocks with him without running into some similarly well-dressed fellow of advanced years. Invariably, he would stop, show off his grandchildren and chat for a few minutes about something or other.

As a result of having grown up with a front row seat to a kind of politics I found sometimes fascinating and sometimes deadly dull, I suspect I have a special place in my heart for politicians. In my line of work, I have had occasion to meet, at this point, probably a few hundred of them. Some have managed to leave meaningful marks, others have left what would be better described as stains. Still others, like my grandfather, failed to get to square one, despite trying.

There's something of a belief among people who don't pay particularly close attention to politics that the people in politics have ulterior motives and say one thing then do something else. From what I've seen, there's a fair amount of such foolishness that transpires. Then again, an awful lot of elected officials do exactly what they say they're going to do, or worse yet, never say they're going to do anything, and then people are surprised when they get into office and do exactly that: nothing.

On the whole, the ones I've seen, starting with my grandfather and extending right on through to this election year, are mainly well-intentioned folks. Sometimes they've got good ideas. Sometimes they just don't like they way things are and want to make changes. Sometimes they succeed. Usually they fall short. And sometimes they do things that get them into serious trouble. Good intentions, after all, only take you so far.

I'd have to say, though I'm not necessarily looking forward to some of the foolishness that can be expected this election year, part of me is looking forward to some fascinating, though largely meaningless discussions that I hear as echoes from my grandparents' kitchen.

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