I just happened to turn my eyes in the right direction at just the right time–and there he was. My old high school friend Eric was on his way out the door of a Barnes & Noble in Roanoke, Virginia on Christmas Eve, but I managed to wave him down before he slipped away. We had not seen each other in about 8 years, and I thought that it might take him a few seconds to recognize me. But it actually only took him about two. He had the firm, well-practiced handshake of a politician, which he was–or, at least, had wanted to be.
Eric had recently finished his third campaign for the Ninth District House of Delegates seat and, unfortunately, endured his third defeat. It had been another close one. Eric lost by around 600 votes, carrying areas he never thought he would, but losing precious votes to a third independent candidate whom his main opponent had apparently talked into running.
I consoled Eric, telling him that at least he could always say that it took not one, but two opponents to finish him off. He smiled and thanked me, seemingly moved. His graying temples, ample paunch-made all the larger by a few too many racetrack barbecues and Kiwanis fish fries–and the sad, saggy bags under his eyes silently testified to the long, hard road he had traveled.
His first campaign had been fairly civil in tone, but the second one more muddy and the third dirtier still. I recalled talking with him about this years ago, asking him if it would ever be possible to win a political race without Going Negative. His reply: “Absolutely not.”
I reminded him of that conversation, and he said, “People say that they don’t want politicians to Go Negative, but don’t believe that for a second. They love a good mud-slinging contest.” He went on to tell me that all the things that he had said about his opponent had been true, but that 80% of the things that his opponent had said about him were false.
I remember thinking: I guess that other 20% must have really stuck. But I didn’t say it. He spoke those words very sincerely and with a straight face. I kept waiting for the wink, the wry smile, for any sign of irony whatsoever, but none ever came.
He went on to say, “Mike, you’d be surprised the things people will say when they want something really, really bad.”
I recalled a recent situation when a person in my own circle, faced with a reality that did not comform with his version of the truth, had Gone Negative in a very large way–and won. “Actually, Eric,” I replied, “I wouldn’t.”
He told me that he was done running for political office, that it was time to return to his legal practice full-time and become “that million dollar trial lawyer” that his opponent had frequently called him. We talked about how it was a good thing to pursue your dreams, even if you’re unsuccessful, and how that might put you in a position later in life to look back and say, with at least some satisfaction, “No regrets.”
As fate would have it, John happened by about that time. He had been our A.P. History teacher back in 1978. John, of course, knew who Eric was, and after introductions, he seemed to remember me–or at least said he did.
John was in his 42nd year of teaching high school history with plans to retire at the end of the year. He looked great; tall, slender–same laid back John–just a little grayer than I remembered, that’s all. He asked me where I had been and what I was doing and I told him. He listened attentively, taking it all in, and he seemed pleased–even a little proud–to be standing there with two former students. Perhaps, remembering our lack of polish, adolescent foibles and self–destructive tendencies, he thought, Thank God, at least two of them turned out okay.
I congratulated him for going such a long distance and reminded him how rare it was for someone to stay in one place for that long, serving in the trenches year after year. He shrugged and thanked me– “It’s what I was meant to do, and I’ve enjoyed it. I’ve been blessed.”
A moment later, Number One Son, who had been shopping for a last minute Christmas gift, wandered by. I proudly introduced him to all, pointing out to John that he had a love for history–a veritable chip off the old block!–and might minor in it at Bama. He told them about his first semester at school, that things had gone well (except for football), but that he still had some things to figure out, like what teachers to take and what teachers to avoid. Eric and John both smiled and told him to hang in there, that eventually he would figure that out, as well as a few other things.
The four of us talked for a few more moments and then parted ways. I felt blessed, and I thanked God for such happy circumstances. In those sublime moments of reminiscence and good will, far away from the extraordinary world of politics-as-usual, there had been no Going Negative–only three generations meeting at a happenstance crossroads, swapping notes and encouraging each other, hoping, as we went on our separate ways, to make some kind of lasting difference in the few days that we had left under the sun.