A father's political insights

By , Godfrey Sperling Jr. is chief of the Monitor's Washington bureau.

Columnist Ellen Goodman's remini-scences of her father as a campaigner bring back memories of my own father's long involvement in the political world.

Ms. Goodman's father in his valiant but losing effort to make it to Congress is, in my view, almost a heroic figure.

My father never really wanted to be in politics. He was a civil engineer who thought it sheer nonsense that to remain on as county surveyor he had to be elected every four years. He was embarrassed by the posturing and the bloated rhetoric that was expected of all candidates in those days. Instead, he would walk rather apologetically up to the microphone and in a quiet, friendly way say something like this:

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''I know most of you here. You know me and my work. I'd like to think you would want me to remain on as your official surveyor.''

After one such performance one of the other candidates said to him: ''You've got to speak up more. You aren't helping yourself or the ticket by being so self-effacing.''

Dad never changed, but he proved, at least to my satisfaction, that a candidate can be effective by just being himself - and that the voters really are not looking for a lot of shouting and promising.

When Dad was born, Grant was still President. Dad cast his first vote in 1896 , for Bryan, not McKinley. But soon he became a Teddy Roosevelt enthusiast. He told of hearing Roosevelt speak in Chicago and how he was surprised by the ''high, squeaky voice.''

Dad liked Wilson, thought it was good that such an intelligent man should run the country.

Dad's hero was William Borah. He had gotten to know Borah well in Boise, Idaho, in the late 1890s when both young men were just beginning their careers, my dad as city engineer and Borah as a young attorney. Dad always thought Borah, a commanding figure and a symbol of integrity, would one day become president.

''The other Roosevelt,'' as my dad would refer to FDR, was never to his liking. He worked hard for a Willkie victory over Roosevelt. But he was less than happy with Dewey. He liked Ike, a lot. But he was cool on Nixon.

On his 104th birthday Dad received a phone call from President Ford, who was campaigning nearby. Dad had said before the call that he had been having difficulty in understanding precisely where Ford stood on the issues. Afterward, he said the President had answered his questions satisfactorily and that he intended to vote for him that fall.

Recently, I've been wondering what Dad would have thought of this political year.

He was especially unhappy when one person got elected simply because his wealth enabled him to win office. ''Buy the election'' is the way Dad put it. After this fall's campaign, he would certainly want to see some more limitations put on election spending, by individuals and groups campaigning for individuals.

He would also have disapproved of the abundance of negative campaigns being carried on by so many candidates this fall. But more than anything else he believed in the people, in their ability to sift through the campaign rhetoric and campaign propaganda and somehow make good choices.

Thus, while he wouldn't have liked to hear so many candidates trying to discredit their opponents, he would no doubt have been convinced that those who used that approach would, more often than not, have hurt themselves with what he regarded as a fair-minded electorate.

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