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Backyard Politics


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As a kid, I used to wonder what was meant by the old political saw “All politics is local.” The saying is attributed to former Speaker of the House, Tip O’Neill. The first time I remember hearing it was from my dad.

He was trying to explain why I was going to spend yet another Saturday walking around some strange neighborhood in my hometown of Independence, Missouri, handing out leaflets for his college roommate who was running for congress. Dad was trying to impress upon my 14-year-old brain that getting Ike Skelton elected required this kind of micro campaigning.

At the time, my failure to understand the meaning of “All politics is local” stemmed from having no clue what politics was. I thought it was all about parties and winning elections; I was missing the people part. I figured this out a few years later, asking about a photo—one of dozens—on the wall of my grandfather’s law office.

It’s a black and white group shot of three dozen men—my grandfather and his brother among them—sitting around a U-shape banquet table, covered in white tablecloths. They are about to eat lunch at the Rock Wood Country Club in Independence on Election Day, 1948.

In addition to the mayor and city council, the typed list of attendees under the photo includes various Jackson County officials, the postmaster, the editor of the local paper, the police chief, a ranking church leader and the manager of the Gas Service Company.

These local leaders, friends and family wouldn’t warrant a blip on the national political radar, but eating lunch with President Truman on the eve of his historic election sent a clear message to the local politicos:

These men had clout.

My grandfather told me that the lunch was about President Truman saying thank you to his old friends—many of whom, my grandfather included, were fellow veterans—and acknowledging their hard work and support over the years.

In the case of my grandfather, it started in 1922 when, as a precinct captain, he helped get out the vote for Truman in his bid for county judge. He reminded his fellow voters about how Truman would see to it that the county’s roads would get the attention they so badly needed—a big issue at the time—and made sure they showed up on election day.

What I came to understand is that in politics, it’s all about the people and getting government to do for them what they can’t do for themselves, like build roads. That’s why getting involved politically—be it taking part in your party caucus, writing a letter to the editor, stuffing envelopes for your favorite candidate or just sending him or her $20—does make a difference.

When it comes to politics, only a few get a chance to affect the big picture, but that’s only because someone back home made it possible.

Take the primaries we’re being dragged through now. As the media’s months-long binge on presidential primaries winds down (hopefully), it has struck me that the coverage has become increasingly personal in focus. The war in Iraq has taken a back seat to the price of gas, the cost of food and how to pay for health care.

That being the case, Hilary, John and Barack have looked for campaign traction the best way possible, by organizing the locals and personally asking for their support. Seems they’ve learned the same lesson I did from my dad and grandfather.

Sure, it may not have been because of the brochures I handed out or the yard signs I put up, but Ike Skelton did get elected in 1976 and today serves as Chair of the Armed Services Committee.

For those old guys in the Rock Wood photo, they had worked in their hometown for someone and something that they believed in. Doing so landed them a free lunch with their friend, Harry Truman, who also became President of the United States.

When it comes to politics, you can’t get more local than that.

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