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Bobby Knew

By Tim Hayes

The alarm went off at 5:15 a.m.  Rarely a pleasant or welcome sign.  But this day, I let it slide.  This day, I had work to do.  A mission to fulfill.

I lumbered out of bed, crawled into the shower, let the hot water and foamy sudsy soap spur the brain cells into a semblance of order, got dressed, and headed out the door to the nearby elementary school – which this day would double as a polling place.

My mission – from 6:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., with a break for lunch – consisted of handing out hundreds of “slate cards” showing all of the candidates for my party, to voters arriving to perform their civic duty.

The morning began in pitch darkness, a steady rain falling amid an air temperature in the mid-40s.  Layered up, wearing a baseball cap and covered in a waterproof hooded windbreaker, I remained remarkably dry and just warm enough to function.

So many people had arrived by 6:30 a.m. to vote, that the Judge of Elections opened the polls early, and scores of my neighbors and friends began entering the grade school gym.

The Norman Rockwell-ishness of the whole scene filled me with genuine pride.  This is how it’s supposed to work, I mused internally.  Civil, reasonable citizens arriving to play their role in the great pageant, with everyone prepared and ready to live with the results, regardless of which way they pointed.

Lost in this patriotic revelry, I soon also came to realize that I had the “market,” as it were, all to myself.  No one from the other party had arrived at our little corner of democracy to pass out their literature.  I had the floor and could filibuster freely for the first two hours of voting.

Around 9 a.m., though, another fellow arrived and took his spot on the other side of the sidewalk, distributing brochures on behalf of a candidate from the opposite party running for the state Senate.  I introduced myself, and we shook hands.  He never impeded my efforts, nor did I to his.

From the minute he came onto the scene, however, something kept tagging the back of my brain.  Do I know this guy?  In the down moments in between voters arriving at the polls, I thought I spotted him looking at me the same way.  As the morning wore on, we talked and talked – not about politics at all, but about each other’s jobs, families, interests.  I felt as though we had become friends in a very short period of time.

When he asked me what I did for a living, I explained that I provided writing services for business clients.  Suddenly, the light went on in his eyes.  He asked what my name was, my full name, then exclaimed, “You wrote my website about 10 years ago!”

Turns out, a regional incubator working with young companies spun off from research done at Carnegie Mellon and Pitt had engaged me to work with this guy and his partner – who was the candidate for state Senate he was supporting – to write copy for their website and other materials as they got their enterprise off the ground.  It succeeded and got bought out a few years later, freeing my new friend to provide consulting services nationwide, and his buddy to enter politics.

Fact is, I disagreed with just about every position his old business partner espoused as a candidate, but that had no bearing on the fact that this fellow and I spent most of a very enjoyable day together.  Respecting each other’s views and freedom to promote the candidates we supported, safe in the knowledge that the outcome would advance the story of our town, our state, and our nation in ways that couldn’t always be predicted, but that could always be corrected down the line if needed.

Robert Kennedy, 50 years ago, knew the priceless value of mutual respect and reasonable expectations, in pursuit of the common good that lifts all Americans, when he said:

“What we do need, and what 1968 must bring, is a better liberalism and a better conservatism.  We need a liberalism and its wish to do good, yet that recognizes the limits to rhetoric and American power abroad; that knows the answers to all problems is not spending money.  And we need a conservatism in its wish to preserve the enduring values of the American society, that yet recognizes the urgent need to bring opportunity to all citizens, that is willing to take action to meet the needs of the people.”

Here we are, a half-century later, still searching for this type of balance.

I’m fearful in one way that my experience standing outside my local polling place this past week was nothing more than an anomaly.  An exception to the larger, deeper, more brutal rule of conflict and everlasting political fighting.

But in another way, I prefer to see a day spent with someone from the opposition – who actually turned out to be an old client and who quickly became a new friend – as an encouraging sign.  A metaphor of civility, friendship, respectful disagreement, and a willingness to compromise, that can lead us out of this dark period into a new time of progress and hope.

Bobby knew it could happen.  That it should happen.  That it can happen.  And, deep down, so do we.  Let’s make that vision real this time, so that 50 years from now, they’ll look back with pride and gratitude at what we accomplished.

Copyright 2018 Timothy P. Hayes