A tenured friendship

FOR me the daily congressional routine is a series of private events, taking place far from the public eye. At times I examine why I'm still in the political game and not somewhere else, like on a fishing dock, or driving a truck, or directing research for a consulting company on the Beltway. A host of noble motivations cross my mind, most of them having to do with my commitment to public service. But they don't ring true. They're self-serving and far removed from my friendship with the senator I work for -- a friendship that always comes back as a primary reason for hanging around.

Last November, my friend won a second term in the Senate, but I seldom think of him as a national figure. I continue to see him as a pal whose short pants and scruffy US Keds are part of my own experience. We grew up together in Arkansas. Our mothers grew up together, too, and our fathers were both involved in local politics for many years.

I have worked for this friend since he was first elected governor of the state in 1974. Even earlier than that, I wrote occasional speeches for him during his time in the House, and if you really went back you'd find me reporting for his newspaper in the late '50s, when he was struggling to establish a political base.

I came to his office from a university English department. (The transition from teaching fiction to writing political speeches was easier than it should have been.) My colleagues thought I was crazy to give up academic tenure for the vagaries of a political job, but I argued that if you have tenure in a place you don't like, you don't have anything.

Some of those colleagues assumed that I had political ambitions of my own. Why else would anyone enter politics? Yet in my wildest fantasy I have never imagined running for office myself. I like working for my friend. We know what the other one is thinking on any subject, and in drafting a speech for him I'm usually sure what he will say or not say, and how and in what terms he will say it. The relationship is, well, something like the one between our fathers 40 years ago.

I can still see the two of them riding in a red pickup truck, wide panama hat brims bouncing, his father the county sheriff and mine the mayor. They could smell out a case of voting fraud like a couple of bird dogs, and when elections drew near they poised themselves for action. Both were successful in ways their children never thought possible.

His father died when my friend was starting his political career, and for a year or so he floundered, trying to find someone to take his place. Finally, in his early races for the state legislature, it was my father who filled in as political adviser. I remember the two of them sitting for hours discussing the county town by town, making predictions on how Smead or Eagle Mills would go. My father was usually right.

That's not quite true. As we saw him then, he was always right. He was The Big Man. What he said went. So it was a privilege for me to be included now and then on their agenda, a tagalong during the weeks before the vote. We regularly called the leaders of Ward 3B and checked the Cullendale boxes to make sure nobody was voting more than once.

On election night the whole town gathered in front of the newspaper office to watch the tabulations posted on a board. Our state primary was in July, which meant the air was thick and breezeless. Hot elections seemed even hotter in the sultry night.

Since there were no voting machines, and certainly no computerized results, it was possible for us to be there until long after 12 o'clock. We had radios at home, but they were distant and impersonal. The ritual called for us to congregate in the center of town and study the figures together. Despite the crowds and the milling around, it always came down to my father, the candidate, and me.

Then, somewhere in the midst of all our growing up, my father died and left us politically on our own. I recall the first big election after his death. It was in 1964, and my friend was running for his third term in the legislature. We had worked hard on his campaign. I rushed downtown to wait for the tallies to go up. Only a few of us bothered to make the trip. By 1964, the crowds were staying at home to watch television. I stood in the street feeling a rudderless uncertainty, a sense that things might never again turn out the way they should.

Things have generally turned out all right, the last election included. Still, I sometimes wonder why I'm here. Maybe staying with my friend has something to do with those hot election nights. Maybe I'm making sure that even if this election doesn't go right for us, there is still something solid that survives. Something like a lasting friendship.

Which brings me back to tenure, an academic topic I no longer think about, even after another election when the ethereal nature of my job seems especially clear. I just looked up the meaning of the word. I knew that tenure comes from the Latin tenere, meaning to hold, but I wanted to see if the definition included a guarantee that whatever is held is held forever. My dictionary fails to mention permanence, so I feel better about giving up a safe academic job for a risky political one. Nothing lasts forever.

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