I never get through this season, the political season, entirely untouched. To this day I cannot walk past the poll workers, watch the returns, see the candidates' families on television, or read the morning-afters without thinking of my father.
You see, I come from a political family. I still have the campaign brochures to prove it. I am the daughter on the left in the smiling photograph of the candidate's family. I also have a few buttons and leftover bumper stickers. My father would be amused. He used to call them my inheritance.
My father ran for Congress when I was a teen-ager. It would be foolish to pretend that I can write objectively about him or his campaign, but it had a touch of the crusade. You could see it in the newspaper clippings of 1956. A liberal Democrat had taken on the incumbent in a conservative Republican district, and almost made it. Almost.
If you have not been in politics, it is difficult to explain the psychology of a campaign, a race, what we in Boston call a "fight." There is some kind of irrational energy, some natural amphetamine rush to the finish. There is often a passion about running for office, a focus as narrow and intense as ambition, a desire as great and yawning as a love affair.
My father wanted it. To this day I can recite lines from his speech at the dozens of coffee hours and meetings along the way to Election Day. "I want to be your congressman." I can also remember his spirit, his irrepressible humor, the times when he went for the joke and lost the vote. I remember his ego and the way he kept it in check with generosity, with a touch of irony and a core of privacy.
But most of all I remember what I learned, watching my father, the candidate.
It is popular now, I know, to feel sorry for political families, to think of them as long- suffering and neglected. It didn't feel that way to me. Licking stamps, taking the day off from school to work the polls, staying up late for the returns, hearing the issues and the strategy in the living room, I knew that we were in a family business. Together.
My father was a lawyer in real life and I never saw him at work. But for six months at a time, I had a chance that few children have: to view their parents in public, in performance, in controversy, and in complexity.
I heard my father make people laugh and think, but I also heard him, bone-tired, tell the same joke twice in one speech. I heard people come up to him in adulation, but I also heard the man who threw the campaign literature back at me: "I wouldn't vote for him if he was the last man on Earth." I saw him elated and exhausted. I also saw him in defeat.
In 1956, before there were exit polls and television, my sister and I were able to read precincts and do our own projections as quickly as any computer. We knew early in the evening that my father would ride Adlai Stevenson's coattails to a loss. But we hung in there together at the "victory celebration" that ran way past midnight.
The next morning, defeated and deeply in debt, my father put on his suit and his tie and his optimism and went to the office.
It was this last gesture that was imprinted on my psyche more than perhaps any other. I learned from my father, the candidate, that this is what you do, this is what a grown-up does. When life disappoints you, when the world takes a whack at you, you still get up, get dressed and go back to work.
I wonder sometimes if my father knew how much more I learned from observing him than from listening to him. He was a man of great warmth and energy and control. I am not sure any more that the control was all good. He never allowed himself much time to mourn, much time to run through the directory of emotions: anger, disappointment, depression.
Ten years later, at 57, when cancer infiltrated his life, he was unwilling to talk about death. At the end, malignancy struck at the words of this most articulate man, and he was unable to speak at all. But at hard moments in my own life, I still hear: "Get up, get dressed, go back to work."
I think of my father most during his peak season of politics, because this is when I got to know him in a hundred ways. We were a political family, yes, but put the emphasis on "family."