Friday, September 5, 2008

Politics on a gurney

There I was, flat on my back on a gurney at the doctor’s office, talking politics.

It felt really strange, as if I’d walked into the wrong movie and couldn’t read the subtitles.

Physicians usually shy away from conversational minefields such as politics — presumably for fear of scaring away a patient whose leanings and opinions are profoundly different. Other wise professionals also avoid discussing their opinions with clients: beauticians, sales people, motel clerks, contractors, mechanics. Reporters. Heck, even babysitters. As business people, we’re much better off keeping our traps shut and our preferences to ourselves.

Silence is golden.

The same thing is true in discussions with family members and friends. It’s a waste of time to argue when it can’t accomplish anything and could cause hard feelings. If you know your brother is a rabid fan of a candidate you hate, and you’re not ever, ever going to change your brother’s mind, it’s much better to talk about his work, his kids, the weather or, “Say, how about those 49ers?”

I’m sure the doctor knows all that. But he was intrigued by my job as a reporter, and that seemed to override his normal caution. He said, “I imagine this will be a really interesting year for you.”

“Every year is interesting in Cambria,” I said.

He replied, “No, I mean because the presidential election is this fall.”

I told him that, while I certainly follow national politics, I’m a community reporter and, as such, I cover localized issues. I leave Washington coverage to McClatchy’s national reporters.

As he examined my aching limb, the doctor asked me for my thoughts on presidential politics. It seemed rude to ignore him, not to mention risky. While my errant body part may not function perfectly, I’m fond of it, I need it and I don’t want it tweaked just because the rest of me seems to be impolite somehow.

However, reporters have to be even more careful than physicians about publicly stating their opinions. So I spoke in generalities: “I think we hire a president or any other candidate for public office to be our spokesperson, to speak for us when we cannot or talk to people we’d never have the chance to meet or confront.

“I feel the best candidates are people who speak well in all circumstances … one-on-one, in a group, in a debate or in front of an audience of thousands.”

The doctor said, “We haven’t had that for a while in Washington, have we?”

I mumbled and waffled a little, still not wanting to show my own preferences even though I thought I’d figured out pretty quickly where his loyalties lie.

I said, “For me, the right candidate is one who can take a bunch of people who disagree, talk with them until they reach some sort of consensus, and have everybody leave that room feeling as if they’ve won something.”

Without batting an eyelash, the doctor emphatically said, “No s—t!” Immediately, he caught his slip of the tongue, blushed scarlet and spent the next 10 minutes apologizing. I kept reassuring him that I share his passion about the topic, and not to worry about a minor mis-speak.

But the conversation seemed to underscore the intensity with which many voters are approaching this election season, whether on a national or local level.

Well, isn’t it about time? Isn’t it refreshing?

It’s so discouraging when voters don’t give a hoot, when they say they’d rather cast their ballots for “none of the above” and few people can name the candidates or what they stand for.

It’s so much healthier for us as a country and a community to care passionately about issues and candidates, and be willing to put our time, money and enthusiasm on the line to back up our mouths and our opinions.

Commitment of the electorate is the spine of the body politic. It’s what keeps politicians honest, or trips up those who are not. It’s what makes us different than a monarchy or a dictatorship.

We are the difference. We can make a difference. We must make a difference.

Just maybe not on a doctor’s gurney …

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