HE HAD DONE LITTLE because there was probably little he could do and he had said little because there was probably few who would listen. On election night he deferred to his age and stayed home. He sat under portraits of ancestral Lees and Blairs and watched the dream of a lifetime exceed his grasp. He was an old man, 86 years old and heavy with history - his hearing gone bad, his legs a touch shaky, and by the end of the evening, his big heart just plain broken.
In the living room of the big farmhouse, the old man's wife began to sob. On the television set, Blair Lee III had come before the cameras to concede the election that was once considered his birthright. His father watched. He sat on a green leather chair, his arm flopped over his bulging stomach, and listened to his son admit defeat. The son said his words in Baltimore andin the farmhouse, Nina Lee sobbed, and on the chair the old man said nothing, giving nothing away, telling you nothing in words or in expression.
Nina Lee set you straight. "I'm not worried about Blair," she said. "It's him. He's the one with the broken heart."
It was not supposed to be like this. It was supposed to be a night of victory, a seak dinner and the results on television. It would be a wonderful column. People would call the farm and they would congratulate Brooke Lee and he would bask in his victory. It had taken a long time, too long maybe, but it was there. His son, as he had always intended, was governor and the man who had done so much - who had raised his own unit of soldiers to fight in Europe, who has been speaker of the Maryland House and political boss of Montgomery County, self-made millionaire and developer of Silver Spring - would have his final and sweetest triumph.
There had been a steak dinner, a fine red wine, fresh figs from the farm garden and fresh corn from a nearby stand. The phone rang from time to time - sometimes relatives checking in, sometimes friends, sometimes, later, old political associates with precinct reports.Sometimes Nina Lee would explain what was happening, identify the caller, tell you his place in the family, and sometimes she would simply tell what this election meant to her husband. She told you that defat would break his heart, and how he himself should have been the governor. Blair would set that straight. This night was a long time coming.
The old man was in and out if the conversation. His hearing is bad, sometimes nonexistent. He was dressed in a blue shirt, khaki pants and brown leather boots. Later, when he moved over to the television set to take the results, he worked on a yellow pad with a green felt-tip pen.
Once, in the old days, I had spent some time with him - walked the farm and talked family history and found him to be, as they say, the genuine article. He is walking history, a man with the sort of name they put on a high school, a blunt and honest man, devoid of sham who even his worst political enemies grew to admire. Frank Sinaatra sang the song, but E. Brooke Lee lived the life. He lived it his way. You would like him.
So he made his way over to the chair before the television set and we took our chairs, too. The phone rang with precinct results and the television reported the numbers and early on there were signs trouble. Sometimes, Brooke Lee would talk back to the TV, and when he answered the phone, he insisted that things would come out in the end. "I think it's going to ger better for Blair," he told one caller. "I think Hughes will start to drop."
Soon, through, it became apparent that something was wrong. The television set was reporting nothing but bad news. His expression never changed. His wife said he had been largely excluded from the campaign. His wife said that the younger generation wanted to do this one the way they saw fit. You got the feeling that the older generation saw some things wrong in this, that they would have run things differently - better.
You got the feeling, too, that all this had come too late. There is no Lee organization to help Blair any more and there is no way a father can do something like this for a son. One here is 86 and the other is 62, but there is something about it all that reminds you of any father and any son - how you try and figure a way to save him the hurt, the bruises and then realize it cannot be done. This is an election and Blair Lee III is a man in his own right, but he was out there on some kind of bike, weaving and losing his balance and doing it all badly, but doing it himself. There is no way a father can take the handlebars and avert the fall.
Outside the rain was coming down hard, and inside Nina Lee offered some brandy. "I'll take mine when we get into better territory," her husband said. The results were coming in steadily now, the lead of Harry Hughes bulging all the time. At 10:40, the television called the race, but Col. lee looked the tube straight in the eye and said, "I'm not in agreement with that projection mathematically." It takes a 19th century man to talk back to a computer.
Around midnight, the television showed his son coming to the microphone to make his concession speech. The old man relaxed his pen and listened, Blair Lee III said the he had lost. He was gracious and he was eloquent in defeat. While he talked Nina Lee began to cry. She looked back at her husband concerned for him, and then looked back at the set and cried some more. When Blair Lee III had finished, his father turned and said proudly, "I thought he handled that real well."
"I think he did as well as he could," Nina Lee agreed.
Outside the rain had stopped and a mist had come down on the hills. The phone was quiet and the farm itself was still and Brooke Lee walked me to my car. He stood in the midst, a big man, a grand man, and I would be guessing, a proud man. All his life had shown the boy how to win.
And now the boy had shown him how to lose.