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I have come to recognize a few simple truths in politics, one being that running for office and holding elected office must be a virus or sickness. The magnetic pull is amazingly and punishingly strong. Why else would anyone discard the otherwise comfortable anonymity of everyday life to have a spotlight shone on every crevice of his or her world? For many, a lifetime of elected office is a life sentence on public judgments, media criticism, and opposition prodding and rumormongering. In some instances, it leads to a very public embarrassment or even a criminal conviction. Just saying.
Growing up, I remember vividly watching “On the Road” on CBS, hosted by the late Charles Kuralt. This award-winning show won two Peabody Awards, started in 1967 as a feature on The CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite, and soon became a series. The show ran for 25 years and was the most unique show that I ever watched. The premise was that the television host, the ever affable, gentlemanly, Charles Kuralt, would take his camper and travel throughout the United States and find the most unusual and heartwarming stories and bring them into our living rooms. The magic of this show was that it always centered around a charitable person or family.
The stories were compelling and the dialogue was folksy and heart-warming. The manner in which Charles would introduce America to these individuals and circumstances was an easy and digestible bite. It was welcoming and warm, and there was no trace of snark or negativity — yes there was once a time that TV shows had these qualities. This was a program that highlighted the very best of America – it showed our greatness, our compassion, our love and our great potential.
By way of example, I remember the episode of the “Bicycle Man.” Jethro Mann was a retired minister who was living on a fixed income. Jethro was known as the “bike man” because he lived his retirement years spending his money and time buying and repairing bikes to give away to needy children. He made sure that every child in Belmont Abbey, North Carolina had a bicycle. Who does that? Charles had the ability to find such special people and he showcased them for the rest of America to see.
Another touching episode dealt with the Chandler family, who lived in Mississippi, and consisted of 9 children. They were extraordinarily poor, yet they managed to put ALL 9 kids through college. The show happened to catch the Chandlers as they celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in a new home that all the children had built to replace the dilapidated one they grew up in. As the family gathered for a meal, Mr. Chandler asked them all to join him in prayer and give thanks and he began to cry. This instant and genuine human emotion was too much for the narrator (Charles Kuralt) and cameraman to take, they both joined in and openly wept. When Charles was later asked why he had such an emotional reaction, he simply responded by saying “the American Dream – this notion that if you really want to in this country, you can start from nothing and make a success of yourself.” I imagine we would agree that the Chandlers were in deed honorable people who made a success of their family. Moreover, I assume all would agree with his sentiment regarding the American Dream.
What does this have to do with the subject of this column—Double (Secret) lives of Politicians? Good question.
Well, while America looked upon Charles Kuralt as the prototypical husband and father – often talking glowingly of his wife and kids living in New York, it would not be until his death that all of that would change. When he unexpectedly died, a woman, Patricia Shannon, from Montana, asserted that she had a decades long affair with Charles and she and her children considered Charles a husband and father. WHAT?!?!
Ms. Shannon knew about his legal wife, but hoped one day he would carry out on his promise to sever that relationship and marry her. Somehow, Charles managed to conceal his double secret life from the prying eyes of the public, all the while providing both families with homes, college tuitions, and financial resources – all while he was one of the most recognizable men in America.
These things never end well.
A lawsuit or two was needed to straighten out who owns what and who had the rightful claim to his assets. The answer: BOTH women and BOTH families!
Coming back to politics; when an individual takes that oath of office and transforms into a public official, a strange metamorphosis occurs. The now public official has public persona and private one, which I have often observed consists of a serious divide and two distinct personalities take root. The private one is perhaps more forth right, open, honest, playful and authentic. The public rarely sees this protected side. The private side allows the official to be goofy, generous, and selfless to their family. They can be a hard-working employee that tells an off-color joke to a friend without worrying about the correctness of their humor. The public would be well served to catch a glimpse of this honest and earnest private person. But the fear of public perception doesn’t afford much space or opportunity for this human side. The press and public do not have much interest in this “normal” person – unless click-bait headlines can be generated. As this world of politics becomes ever crazier, wouldn’t it be so refreshing to catch a view of the fun loving sincerity that resides deep inside the casing of that public official? Wouldn’t the public be well served to see the elected as he or she really is? Whether it is having a beer with friends, watching the Yankees or hammering away on an iPhone as your child is participating in some forgettable activity on some ballfield. Would the public be better informed if we saw the real individual?
I submit that the public should see how you treat your spouse, children, parents, coworkers or random strangers—isn’t that the real test to the character of a person—when the camera isn’t on and the public isn’t watching?
It is with over 30 years of participating in political staging and watching the collision of these two worlds, that allows me to have some perspective and with it, some lessons learned.
Hit the lights—microphone is live and camera is on, rolling—read rehearsed bits, smile and wave, exit stage left—microphone is off—totally synthetic portrait is complete .
Whether it be handling an interview on NJN or Channel 12, the average public official is nervous, practiced, controlled and, for the most parts, insincere. Wouldn’t it be cool to see the authentic you?
I tried it once as we made a 30-second commercial for my last senate run in 2013. I said let’s junk all the perfected lines and just do something real—so I had my dog, Ollie, “direct” my 30 second video. One take and it was off to the races. (Ollie commercial). While my so-called advisors hated it, I felt it was as real as it gets.
Back to my point, for those not aware of it, the public official is always ON. He or she must be engaged and always welcoming of the questions, criticisms, while cognizant of the public’s thirst for a “gotcha moment,” and therefore the guarded side is always on display. This less authentic self (phony or manufactured come to mind) is noticeably different than the fearless and fun-loving private citizen. The politically correct official who appears to be working hard, really concerned about fixing that pothole or chasing down that denied health benefit for a constituent. The public official is cautious about issuing free flowing opinions; every word is measured and vetted for that YouTube moment. What a way to live!
The life of Charles Kuralt is certainly an outlier when talking about what is hidden from the public eye – unless of course it isn’t, in which case let’s hope it doesn’t come out until your dead. Many politicians don’t want their private self to be on display because to truly know them might mean to not like them. In the dark world of politics, many lead secret lives because the “power” and “fame” of their office has led to spoils the world would frown upon. Whether it be meals and drinks with lobbyists and influencers their home-district constituents might not understand, fact-finding missions or fund-raising junkets where behavior their spouses would certainly not condone.
I recall in 2001 sitting around a conference table in the statehouse as many senior legislators were regaling this relative newcomer with stories of the “good old days,” stories that Trenton’s favorite tabloid newspaper The Trentonian never caught wind of. One legislator was bragging that in the “good old days,” late night budget negotiations would take place at Diamond’s or Lorenzo’s or other Chambersburg haunts. As this particular story went, the meeting moved from one of those restaurants, with a couple of members and their dinner companion, to a nearby hotel where activities took place that would make Chuck Rhoades from Billions blush. Some might say these were stories of old men embellished for a “cool factor,” but they named names. To those reading with fear of seeing their name – not to worry, I’m not going there. To those hoping for names – sorry but I am not going there.
I wrote this column to make a point about encouraging public officials to be more real, as the public deserves to know the true character of their elected official, and if you need more motivation – it is in your own best interest.
Former LD40 Senator Kevin O’Toole is the chair of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.