I’ve been “interested” in politics for as long as I can remember. Then again, a lot of people are “interested” in politics. I can pinpoint the moment when “interest” turned into “love;” when my casual observation of our democratic institutions turned into the kind of deep fascination and appreciation that sustains political junkies inside and out of the system, from Robert Byrd to Bob Woodward.
It was July 26, 2004, the night of President Bill Clinton’s speech in support of Senator John Kerry as our nominee for President at the Democratic National Convention. I was 12 years old at the time, and idolized President Clinton, at that point the only Democratic President that served during my lifetime. It had been public knowledge among Bostonians and convention-goers that Clinton was staying at the Charles Hotel in Cambridge, so I, mother in tow, decided to attempt a glimpse at him.
Seeing throngs of supporters outside, I walked with gusto into the front lobby of the hotel, into an elevator, out onto the ninth floor, and right up to a Secret Service Agent. “I’d like to meet the President,” I said. With bemusement in his voice but not a trace of harshness, the agent said “O.K.” Three hours passed, with me on the floor of the hallway, surrounded by armed guards. I met Chelsea briefly; then Hillary; then James Carville; and finally, Bill.
I’d dare to say he seemed impressed with my constitution. He spent about ten minutes with me, as I recall it, talking about politics and my interest in it, and the tough election ahead. They were ten of the greatest minutes of my young life. He and his detail left me with a personalized autograph and a pin I take with me everywhere I go. On it is a picture of a saxophone over the image of our Capitol, with the words “Clinton Protective Division” on the outer ring.
That a Former President would spend that time and pay that attention to me is inspiring, and many have similar stories to share. It is that kind of attention to people and their lives that I’ve since wanted to replicate, I see public service as the way to replicate it. Sans meeting with Clinton, my love of politics and policy might have taken longer to develop, and I would have not had such an early start pursuing opportunities to get involved.
I think about that moment of personal conversation with a political leader, as I think of what transpired in Arizona today. I think about how valuable that moment was and is to me, and I worry about whether violence like this – and the fear of an increase in it – may all but spell an end to that quality of contact with our politicians. I hope for the full recovery of Congresswoman Giffords and the others involved, and I also hope for the continued health of the uniquely-American accessibility to our leaders we so often take for granted.
I can think of many similar moments that have sustained my love of politics, from the big (meeting and talking with the late Senator Ted Kennedy in the hallway of the Longworth House Office Building just weeks before his diagnosis of brain cancer) to the small (walking up the steps of the Supreme Court on an early Monday morning in the District). Fear of violent attack has already made it impossible for others to replicate many of my experiences, like that stroll up the steps of the Supreme Court or that walk into the Senate gallery through the old side entrance overlooking the National Mall. Many of these moments, one might argue, have value that lies in the eye of the beholder. I can’t dispute that. However, what I also think most would say is indisputable is that the most inspiring way to witness the majesty of our government, and those working in it, is up close and personal. We must preserve that part of our system, the close encounters with the both the people and the trappings of our most valuable national institutions, for our children and grandchildren. We must do what many past generations have done with such dignity and resolve: stand up to fear.
When President Abraham Lincoln faced a divided nation, marred by violence on and off of the Civil War battlefield, some in Washington, D.C. suggested it might be best to postpone the holy grail of American democracy: the election. In a fierce rebuke that echoes poignantly to his day, Lincoln said:
We cannot have free government without free elections. If the rebellion could force us to forgo or postpone a national election, it might fairly be claimed to have already conquered and ruined us.
Today, if fanatics like Jared Loughner, fanatics who seek to undermine our political system, succeed in forcing political leaders out of neighborhoods and schools and into armored cars and controlled private events, they have already won. We must continue the same work Congresswoman Giffords was doing Saturday morning in Tuscon: striving to make politics accessible and engaging for an ever-increasing number of Americans. It is in her honor and in honor of the many public servants who came before and the many who will come after, that we must resist the urge to give in to fear.
In three days, I’ll be 19 years old. In just two weeks, I’ll start the second semester of my freshman year in college. Twenty years from now, as I walk the National Mall with my own children, I want them to be able to take the same path I did; see the same places, and meet the same people. In short, I want them to have the same opportunity to be inspired, the same opportunity to feel within them “a spark of hope amidst the fierce urgency of now,” that witnessing the machinations of the world’s longest living democracy so often provides. In an era of decreasing participation and increasing disenfranchisement, we simply cannot afford it any other way.