For six years on the School Board I've been expected to protect every budget line item by some advocate or increase it by yet another. I don't imagine it will be much different if I get myself elected to the state legislature. For the past month organizations representing dozens of worthy causes have inundated me with packets explaining their priorities. So far the stack of requests is five inches thick. Long ago I learned the importance of saying the word "No." The story I am about to tell has very little to do with this lesson.
It was January 1973, and the Blue Earth County Republicans had palmed off organizing the Lincoln Day Dinner on Mankato State's College Republicans. There weren't many CR's on campus because the war protests had thinned our ranks. Even the politics of the remaining CR's was a little squishy. I was no exception. A few months earlier I had happily cast my vote for the Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern rather than Richard Nixon.
Curiously, ironically, contrarily, I had become a Republican shortly after returning from Washington, DC in 1971. I had gone to the Nation's Capital that summer to intern for our local Republican Congressman Ancher Nelson. Family loyalty played a big part in my decision but so did my annoyance with the silly stereotype that Republicans were country club war mongers. I had grown up listening to my Republican father cuss out the Democrat LBJ every time another American troop shipment to Vietnam was announced. Even so, I had marched off to college a determined Independent unsullied by any association with a crass political party.
What tipped the scale was the rude treatment that Senator Barry Goldwater received at the hands of my fellow summer interns when he came to talk with us. The militant and cantankerous Goldwater was no hero of mine or my father but he was a hero to my revered Grandfather. I firmly agreed with Voltaire's admonition that "I disapprove of what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it." Apparently, however, my fellow students were too enamored of dissent to tolerate it themselves.
So, I volunteered to help organize the Lincoln Day Dinner. Never having organized anything in my life I was a bit daunted. We would have to find speakers, find a locale and caterer, plan a menu, establish a dinner fee, issue invitations, and cross our fingers that we'd make enough money to cover expenses.
One Sunday, well beforehand, I sat down in my folk's dining room and began calling the College Republicans to assign them jobs. They all brushed me off. They all had pressing concerns. They didn't have time.
Being a Minnesotan, I was unfailingly polite to my faithless associates. As my frustration mounted my Father sat listening to my unproductive phone calls in the adjoining room. The final "No" came from Sherri, the person I'd most counted on to help me. She too had pressing business. Suddenly it was up to me alone to put on an event for the local poobahs of the Republican Party. I felt trapped.
Chagrined, I walked into the living room where my Dad looked up at me from his comfortable captain's chair. He was about to do a very "Dad" thing at the worst possible moment. He was going to lecture me.
"Harry," he said helpfully, "you need to learn one of the most important words in the English language - No."
Why obviously, I now realized, my present difficulties had been caused by my foolish "Yes" when I was asked to take on the Lincoln Day Dinner. It was equally obvious that my fellow College Republicans were much better prepared for life having demonstrated their clear knowledge of the utility of the word "No."
Unlike other friends who had champed at the bit to get out of their parents' homes after high school I'd never felt any particular need to escape. My folks were very reasonable. But perhaps three years of living at home after high school had finally caught up with me. As I turned my father's sage counsel over in my head something malignant welled up inside of me. I turned to the wall where a ten inch oak beam supported the upper stories of our house. I doubled up my fist and drove it into the wall with all my might. (Until my mother sold the house fifteen years later you could still see a small ovular depression in the plaster coating the beam.) My fury spent I pulled a numbed hand back and stared at it. Where knuckles had once formed a mountain chain on the crest of my fist there now stood a plateau.
"Dad, I think I broke my hand," I marveled. My father looked up in dismay at how badly I had taken his gratuitous advice. (By the way, I strongly advise you not to damage yourself on a Sunday when all the Doctors are off-duty. Had I crushed my hand on any other day of the week they would have been available to pull it back into shape without an overnight hospital stay).
Of course, my Dad was absolutely right about the importance of the word "No." Without resort to it we would all drown in a sea of unfulfilled promises.
Oh yeah, about the Lincoln Day Dinner. It went off without a hitch.
* * *
week the three of us, two Republicans and one DFLer, who are vying to become
east Duluth's representative to the State Capitol were shepherded into the
AFL-CIO screening committee. There we faced twenty-five union reps who
interviewed us prior to giving the DFLer the automatic thumbs up. It was my
sixth trip to the Labor Temple and I joshed that while I'd never received their
endorsement I was always looking forward to my first. They handed us a laundry
list of demands and my young Republican challenger borrowed my red pen and
unhesitatingly affixed his signature to them. I demurred explaining that I had
misgivings about a couple of provisions on their list. I was surprised when my
fellow Republican explained that he was against our Edison schools being
"for profit." It seemed a novel position for a would-be Republican to
espouse but then, this was a labor crowd.