16 October 2011

Hosting the Senator

At some point during the Presidential election of 1976, United States Senator Fred R. Harris, Democrat from Oklahoma, slept at our house in Milwaukee.  He was on his second run for President that year and was running a people's style campaign, passing over hotels for the the hospitality of private citizens.  My mom was a party activist in local, state, Congressional and Presidential races, so somehow the request came through to us to host Senator Harris. 

I was just getting ready to turn thirteen, was still aspiring to a career in the N.B.A. (the growth spurt that never arrived) and developing a fascination for politics and service.  Throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s, there were direct linkages made in my mind from the funerals of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy which I watched on television; to the America POW and MIA bracelets for soldiers in Vietnam which we all kept close; to being teased mercilessly for being a Humphrey family and then a McGovern family; to a grandma who held me close whenever Milwaukee native Golda Meir was in the news, enforcing my connection to Israel; and to the times I spent in my dad's place, spreading pictures of his service in the Second World War all over the living room floor, recounting stories and adventures of a romantic, black and white era of stark choices, national sacrifice, duty and identity.

A nascent narrative emerged that one simply served as a matter of course; and that while the suburbs grew up around us, as the children and grandchildren of immigrants grew more affluent, it was vitally important to remember that our privilege of citizenship was part of a greater whole to which we pledged our loyalty.  Both my parents grew up during the Depression and came of age during the Second World War, searing the historical realities of these two momentous events forever into their worldview and by oral tradition, my own. 

It was therefore a profound honor to host a United States Senator running for the White House--an honor that felt far removed from the glamor and celebrity and handling of today's politics and more rooted in the simple, humble values of what citizens ought to do.  There is in my mind, these thirty-five years later, the memory of a veil of duty, like the patriotic bunting in a baseball stadium, that surrounded our home.

I remember the Senator's entrance; I remember him kindly meeting us; I remember him eating a small meal and then asking to sleep.  Early in the morning we arose to see him off.  Like his run for office in 1972, his candidacy in 1976 never really progressed and according to what I read, the Senator is retired and teaches in Oklahoma. 

He remains all these years later a kind of conjured Shoeless Joe Jackson figure from W.P. Kinsella's mind, who showed up one day in our home for a catch.  No pictures by the mantle.  I don't even know if there's a campaign-generated thank-you note in a box somewhere at Mom's place.  It hardly matters.

What remains are the lessons of citizenship, duty, and hospitality that inform my ideas to this day.


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