First Person Singular

First Person Singular
(Benjamin C. Tankersley)
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By Cathy Areu
Sunday, November 8, 2009

I volunteered in the office of Don Rumsfeld as he ran for Congress. And his office was situated across the street from my high school. Then my dad ran for governor of Illinois, from 1962 till 1964. And he lost that office, and he ran for the Senate in 1966. I was always considered very free and cheap child labor. We had five children in our family, and I would say the burden and opportunity fell on the oldest three.

From the age of almost 15 or 16 on, I would sit with my dad's advisers, and there were very candid assessments of various individuals and game plans and strategies. It just gave me an insight into the real world. I sort of stopped being a child and got involved, whether I wanted to or not, really -- every vacation and every summer. I didn't seem to have had much of a choice. But I think I did like it. I liked overhearing what all of these adults said.

When I was an intern at Stanford and Washington, Jay [Rockefeller] and I met, and as soon as we married he started to run for state office in West Virginia. I think I know too much about politics. One person in elected office in a given family unit is about all that family can tolerate. So between 1962 and 1966 in Illinois, then in West Virginia: 1968, 1972, 1976, 1980, 1984, 1990, '96, 2002, 2008, those are my husband's elections. And my father was running almost co-terminously through 1984 in Illinois. So a lot of my time was spent campaigning for both of them.

Politics really took me to a lot of different places -- first in Illinois, then in West Virginia. I almost always had to speak. I remember the terror when I first had to. They chartered little planes for each child, and we had about 10 counties to cover right before the election, and then every time you'd land, you'd have to get out and address a group of people. And I had absolutely no idea what to say.

My mother died when I was 2, almost 3. And my father was running a camera company in Chicago. My sister and younger brother, who was 1, would go every Christmas, and we met all the employees, every single one, in a receiving line, and shook their hands. And that was the first receiving line I remember. I guess I barely remember any year without a receiving line ever since.

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