Telling Tales Of Politicians' First Campaigns

Getting politicians to talk about their past and most vulnerable moments is a difficult task. But one man has managed to get more than 60 prominent politicians to talk about their first campaigns. Host Michel Martin speaks with Columbia University oral historian Jeffrey Brodsky, who wrote about this project for the Washington Post Magazine.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Later, we'll tell you about a young man who's trying to make it easier to save lives in this country and in West Africa. We'll tell you about his innovative but surprisingly simple idea in a few minutes.

But first, it's time to open up the pages of the Washington Post Magazine. That's something we do just about every week for interesting stories about the way we live now, and one thing we're all living through right now is an election year. And whether you love or hate the people who are running, one thing they all have in common is that they started somewhere.

They got themselves in position to run for the White House or the U.S. Senate or Congress, but most politicians started at places a little less glamorous, like the school board or the village council, where campaign activities aren't things like practicing before a teleprompter but rather shaking hands at a laundromat or driving around on a golf cart in 100-degree heat.

Our next guest has talked to more than 60 prominent politicians from the U.S. and abroad about their very first campaigns, and he's going to tell us more now.

Jeffrey Brodsky is a researcher and oral historian at Columbia University. Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

JEFFREY BRODSKY: Delighted to be here, Michel.

MARTIN: So what gave you the idea for this project, which is fascinating?

BRODSKY: Oh, thank you. Well, the idea actually came about two years ago. I've been working on it for a full two years now, and I was taking a class with David Dinkins, the former mayor of New York City and very prominent first and only African-American mayor of New York City. And we arranged to do an oral history interview about his life, and he talked about his first campaign, and then he said, and then I won the borough presidency and then he continued, and then I won the mayorship. And I said, well, let's go back to the first campaign. And he said, well, why do you want to talk about that?

And I thought that moment there was interesting because it sort of struck me that these guys didn't necessarily want to talk about their first campaign because it wasn't necessarily their greatest moment of glory. It wasn't their biggest success. It's not what gave them the prominence. So I liked it that it was sort of an unexplored issue.

MARTIN: But you did get people to open up. I mean, you did somehow get people to be very candid about some of their, you know, feelings about this. I mean, some really funny moments, like the former mayor of Washington, D.C., the so-called mayor for life, Marion Barry, talking about wearing a dashiki during his first campaign, despite his campaign manager's pleas. And then one of my personal favorites, George McGovern, who just celebrated a big 90th birthday - you want to tell his story? He goes right there.

BRODSKY: Yeah. George McGovern was actually fascinating because he was so candid. I think there's a difference, actually, between the current politicians who are still in office and the ones who can sort of look back and kick their feet up and just sort of reflect about the good old days.

And so George McGovern obviously fits in the latter category. He doesn't have to worry about polls or getting reelected, and he was just comfortable just to talk about the way things were. And one of the things that really bothered him on the campaign trail was when people would come up to him and say, I bet you don't know who I am, you know, which is a typical thing. Politicians are approached all the time, and his gut instinct was to say, no, you son of a gun. You know, and he actually used a stronger word.

MARTIN: (Unintelligible) it's one of those things we've always wondered, you know - is that really what they're thinking when they're trying to be nice to everybody, because they kind of have to be? And then, you know, there's another story along those lines, and this one I have some of your tape for.

This is the former governor of Massachusetts and the one-time presidential nominee, Michael Dukakis, talking about campaigning to become a member of the Brookline, Massachusetts Town Meeting in 1959. He said, back then the town was about 60 percent Jewish, 30 percent Irish, and he was in the 10 percent other category. Here it is.

MICHAEL DUKAKIS: Here was this elderly woman with a heavy Eastern European accent walking down the street and I greeted her, so forth(ph), introduced myself. She said, so don't worry, I always vote for the Jewish candidates. So I said, well, I'm not Jewish, actually. I'm Greek, but my wife is Jewish. She looked at me. She is? So I got home, I talked to Kitty about it and she said, so what did you do? I said, I figured I'd better get out of there before she asked me what we were going to do about the kids.

BRODSKY: That was a terrific moment.

MARTIN: Right. Well, how about that? Right? You sort of wonder, how do they handle these awkward moments? Well, what was one of the most interesting stories that you heard?

BRODSKY: Donald Rumsfeld was fascinating because here he is, you know, a former secretary of defense, former White House chief of staff, very, very prominent, very established. I talked to him about a time in his life when he was sort of very vulnerable, and that was the key thing with all these moments with these people, when they didn't quite know how to do things.

So he was talking about a time when he was first running for Congress in 1962 and he had a campaign manager who was just his college friend, and his wife, who was actually very - turned out to be very important in that campaign because he was very concerned about the fact that he was only 29 years old. So he said whenever he would go out on the campaign trail, he made sure to have his wife with him so it would give him a sense of credibility and sort of establish himself as a family man.

And what they did is they actually rented a hall and he would stand behind the podium and his campaign manager and his wife would be in the back of the room and they would scream at him and say, don't pop the mic, stand up straight. Do this, do that. Don't do this. And just the image of Donald Rumsfeld sort of taking direction from people, because he didn't know. You know, he said, back then I just didn't know how to do things.

MARTIN: All of these people kind of came to prominence before social media became the big force that it is now. And, you know, you have to wonder, with everything that people - it's almost like every moment that people take, every breath they take is now sort of documented by somebody. You wonder whether that's having an effect on people and the way they campaign. I don't know. What do you think? I'm asking you to speculate, but I am...

BRODSKY: I think it is. I think, you know, like you said, all the people I talked to, their first race was generally before 2000, so there was no Internet. There was definitely no YouTube and there was no Twitter, so they felt free to sort of get out there and make mistakes. And they didn't have to worry that someone was going to capture a moment and it could've, in theory, ended their career or could've ended their race. So as a result of that, as a result of not having all the social media and all the technology, they really had to become master retail politicians. They knew how to shake a hand. They knew how to smile. They forced themselves to learn how to do that. And today, I'm not saying you don't need that skill set, but you can leverage the technology, so you can make a video and send it out on YouTube or put it on Facebook and they don't necessarily have to develop the skill set to greet each individual voter that they did back then.

MARTIN: Jeffrey Brodsky is a researcher and oral historian at Columbia University. For his latest project, he's interviewed more that 60 politicians about their first campaign. He wrote a piece in this Sunday's Washington Post Magazine titled, appropriately enough, "My First Campaign." And he was kind enough to join us from our bureau in New York.

Jeffrey Brodsky, thank you so much for speaking with us.

BRODSKY: Delighted to be with you, Michel.

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