And so it is Monday afternoon, at the chilly end of a glorious fall day, and Brian Meshkin is standing in a short-sleeve knit shirt with two other men at a busy intersection near Columbia, as he has so many times this year, waving a blue sign with two words: "DOLE" and "KEMP."
Meshkin, the 20-year-old state director of the youth effort in former Senator Bob Dole's bid for president, is getting a fairly decent response. Some drivers honk in support, although a few give a sarcastic thumbs down. Clean-shaven with an easy smile, Meshkin's casual look and 6-foot-3-inch frame add a few years to his age.
Then three young adults, probably teen-agers, speed by the intersection leaning from the windows of a faded black Ford Escort. One, a young woman, briefly extends an isolated middle finger skyward from an otherwise clenched fist. Another, a young man with a Mohawk haircut and a nose ring, shouts, "Anarchy!"
"That's my generation," Meshkin says, shaking his head, smiling, hoisting his sign higher.
Everybody his age, from his fraternity brothers to his dates, asks: How can a 20-year-old guy work so hard for Bob Dole, a man more than five decades older? Meshkin's age group seems to have written off the World War Two veteran.
There's a simple answer: Above all, Meshkin appears to be a young man who believes fervently that The System works. His brief life seems to prove the cliches: If you play by the rules, work hard, keep your head down and fight for what you believe, you'll succeed. While canny enough to work the system, it's little wonder that Meshkin believes in it.
A typical week
And he labors ardently on behalf of Dole, an establishment figure if ever there were one, a conservative icon of that system. The typical week involves giving a few speeches, meeting with members of civic groups and arranging to pick up and parcel out as much campaign literature, leaflets, bumper stickers, buttons and lawn signs as he can get his hands on, typically from strip mall offices where volunteers listen to Rush Limbaugh on the radio. He's in the trenches carrying out the grunt work of statewide campaign.
Meshkin is a junior at the University of Maryland College Park -- the home of Gov. Parris N. Glendening, don't forget -- but he lives with his mother and father and younger brother, Alex, and he has shoehorned his five classes into Tuesdays and Thursdays so that he can spend three days a week with his primary love: politics.
Meshkin doesn't disagree with the conventional wisdom that people his age are congenitally apathetic. When he addressed a crowd of Generation X-ers on the Washington Mall last week, the event, scheduled for thousands, attracted a scant few hundred souls, many of whom were tourists who wandered over after hearing a band play.
Born in the nation's bicentennial year, Meshkin considers himself very much of his generation. He belongs to a popular campus fraternity, listens to WHFS and holds aside Friday nights for partying.
Make no mistake, though. Meshkin is different from his classmates. He's a Mormon (he converted at 17) and he doesn't drink at those fraternity parties -- not alcohol, and not, if he can help it, caffeine. He's also quite the entrepreneur. He has risen in a telephone pyramid franchising venture worked out of his family's Glenwood home. He's such a good salesman that his mother, Mary Ann Meshkin, bought a franchise through him.
Meshkin turns to that salesmanship as he talks up the seemingly flagging prospects of his candidate.
"I feel a tremendous amount of respect and gratitude when I'm around [Dole] for his service," says Meshkin, as he whisks in his red Mustang to an appointment in Annapolis. "He's been in politics for 45 years. I don't see the government as a bad thing . . . I don't think there's anybody more qualified than Bob Dole, anybody who can work well with both Democrats and Republicans."
That's exactly how Meshkin presents himself -- the reasonable Republican, someone who can work well with people with whom he disagrees.
At times, he sounds almost, well, liberal, as he talks about the importance of energy and vigor and idealism and the charisma of the Kennedys. Meshkin's first venture into politics, at the age of 13, followed the death of a young friend who was struck by a car and killed while cycling. He successfully pushed a county measure to require that bicycle riders wear helmets, which he believes save lives. For him, the system worked.
Meshkin maintained his belief in the system, he says, in high school. His faith did not waver even at the time of the Gulf War in the winter of 1991, when tensions flared. A rumor whipped around Glenelg High School that Meshkin, whose father is Iranian, was Iraqi. Other students scrawled anti-Arab epithets on his locker. (A double mistake: Iranians are not only not Iraqi, they are not Arabs, either.)
So he feels he knows a bit about identity and race and alienation. But the system, he feels, works. By senior year he was captain of the basketball team (despite flat feet), president of the student government and editor of the student newspaper. At 19, he was head of the Howard County Republican Club.
Knows the issues
By now, he talks about election issues with the ease of a practiced politician. He's looked at the math of the electoral college: Dole can win if he takes Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa, even if he loses an important state like Florida. He's looked at divisions in the Republican Party: He says they're a greater threat than the Democrats. He's looked at balancing the budget: He's less worried about spending on welfare than middle-class entitlements.
And he distances himself from some positions of the more conservative branch of his party. For example, he supports affirmative action, although he's against quotas. And Meshkin values the pluck of recent immigrants. He believes his father, Shahram, who came to America with $200 in his pocket and is a product specialist for Johnson & Johnson, proves the American dream.
Sometimes, however, Meshkin lapses into the campaignese of talking points: Americans want a president they can trust. The scandals of the Clinton administration are far worse than Watergate. The American people should be trusted to spend their own money instead of handing it over to Washington bureaucrats. Sometimes the government solution is worse than the problem.
Meshkin displays an utter lack of self-consciousness. In his heart, to paraphrase Barry Goldwater, he knows he's right. He's been called arrogant by others -- "He still needs to do some growing up," one campaign staffer volunteered in an aside -- but he makes no apologies.
"If I can fight and die for my country, I can debate and argue the terms under which I do so," Meshkin says. "That's the way I see it. If some people consider that precociousness, fine."
Two years from now, he intends to run for the state House of Delegates from Howard County. He already has the documents in hand and intends to file them soon.
"In 10 years, you're going to see an entirely different Maryland [Republican] party," Walter E. Nichols, a 26-year-old regional field director for the Dole/Kemp state effort, tells Meshkin. "We've skipped a generation, and it's young people like you and me that are the future."
After an hour-long lunch Monday at an Annapolis restaurant during which Meshkin talks extensively about his personal and political beliefs, a man in his 40s or 50s darts outside the restaurant and stops Meshkin.
"Excuse me," the man starts, then stops. "If you ever run for public office, I'll vote for you. I couldn't help overhearing your conversation, and I agree with every word you said."
"Thank you," Meshkin says, his voice steady, his smile broad. He extends his right hand to the man, placing his left hand on the man's arm in the double clasp favored by politicians from coast to coast. Meshkin nods to him, then turns up Market Space to head home.
He's forgotten only one thing: To tell the man his name.
Pub Date: 10/24/96