Mr. Riordan announced in the paper that he was going to run for Congress, and the news shot through my high school.
Mr. Riordan did not teach political science. He taught Spanish, and since I was in the midst of four years of French, I wasn’t even in any of his classes.
But lots of us were excited about working on his campaign, which, as it happened, was the point as far Mr. Riordan was concerned. He would be running against an entrenched (as in about 20 years) Republican incumbent. He had no money, and the Dems were not about to waste a lot of dough on a quixotic race. But it would be a great opportunity for young people to learn what working on a political campaign was like. (Before anyone has apoplexy about students being “recruited” for political purposes on campus, let me note his campaign was never mentioned in his classes, according to Spanish-taking classmates, and all political activities took place off-campus and were completely voluntary.)
Learn we did. We stuffed envelopes and answered phones in the campaign office. We walked the precincts, knocking on doors and handing out literature about the utterly unknown candidate. We manned the booth at the county fair wearing “Riordan for Congress” buttons.
Being in high school and already a smart-ass, I wrote a parody of “Yankee Doodle Dandy” dedicated to the sitting congressman: I am steady Burtie Talcott/Leader of the GOP/A real live champion of anything/Good for the country—or me/I’m a veteran campaigner/Max once said I was his boy/I won’t debate and stand up for those “little yellow people”/I am my party’s pride and joy.
(Max was another very well known Republican politician, and Mr. Talcott had made a well-publicized comment about the growing Asian community in his district.)
My friends and I thought this was hilarious. But Mr. Riordan did not agree. We were not allowed to sing this publicly. Mr. Riordan was a stickler for respect.
When, of course, our candidate lost by a huge landslide, we were sad but philosophical. There was always next time, and for us, the times really were a’changin’. Burt L. Talcott was defeated by none other than Leon Panetta in 1976 and no Republican has won the district since.
My point in telling this story is, however, to pay tribute to Mr. Riordan’s style of teaching us about politics. He did not demonize his opponent, even when, showing remarkable prescience about the future of politics, Mr. Talcott refused to debate him. We were told, “I want you to tell people what I stand for, and what I will work for if elected.”
Many times over the years I’ve had to remind myself about that thought. “Us and them” is the very essence of politics in so many ways, and there’s no denying the thrill when your candidate wins. Yet I still believe there is a line that publicly should not be crossed, and those of us in the media cope with this daily.
Last week, we had an example of what happens when someone allows partisan passion to get the better of them. On the day of President Obama’s visit, I opened my copy of the daily paper and my jaw dropped in shock at the headline topping the “right” side of editorial pages. The subsequent uproar and firing of the editor involved have been the buzz of the media community since.
“What about the First Amendment?” some ask. No one’s a bigger supporter of the First Amendment than I am, but in this, I confess, I am old school and will remain so. Whatever my private opinions about Mr. Obama’s predecessor, I would not have dreamed of writing a headline so insulting and disrespectful to the office as well as the man.
In honesty, do I often comment privately that “so-and-so is an idiot?” Yes. Will I continue to do so? Yes, because I feel passionately about what is right (and wrong) for my country. But will I do my best to honor the memory of one of my earliest political teachers by showing respect in print? Yes.
It’s the least I can do for you, Mr. Riordan, wherever you are.