Forgive Me, Father, for I have Sinned, but…

Kevin O'Toole, former senator from the 40th Legislative District, advises current and future politicians to have the courage to surround yourself with strong staff that are willing to stand up and tell you when you are wrong. Otherwise, they risk becoming disconnected from reality.

In politics we hear the phrase my word is my bond and I keep my word – that is usually true until it isn’t. Things change, shifting sands of political allegiances, deals get recut and all too often in politics – there’s a justification for breaking a promise. 

I have long lived my political life, and my real life, by the code that a word given and promise made is a word and promise kept. This can be confirmed by friends and foes alike. My word is my word and you can bank on it. Now I’m no saint and I’ve taken part in a few political deals, and plotted some scary political operations – (forgive me, Father, for I have sinned), but at the end of the day — you keep your word. 

In Trenton I can’t tell you how many times the handshake deal or promise has been broken- Ask any Assembly Speaker or Senate President and they will tell you they stopped counting the broken commitments a week on the job. 

Success in politics is a little luck, a lot of preparation, and sometimes some science, science that traces its roots throughAncestry.com or 23andme.com (and I don’t mean coming from a lineage of the ruling political class).  

A recent interaction with my parents got me thinking about what shapes a person and how that relates to our “world.” My theory: To learn about a political animal and understand their “political DNA,” maybe you need to understand their “DNA. 

I recently took my parents to breakfast to our regular diner and my dad was in good spirits and was regaling me with his history in the Army and his nearly 36 months stationed in Korea. My dad told me the story that he and my mom left Korea on January 17th, 1958, (his birthday), they left my mom’s distraught family behind crying as their child/sister was leaving to a foreign country. Imagine how horrifying the prospect of a young adult packing up and heading to a new country – not really knowing the language or what challenges lie ahead.  

As my dad was leaving, he turned to my grandmother and promised to take care of her daughter for life – pretty powerful and reassuring at that critical moment. 

As the story goes, they touched down in California on January 29th (their first wedding anniversary) and were scheduled to head to Fort Benning, Georgia.  As they gathered the necessary paperwork to move on to Georgia, a concerned sergeant told my dad Fort Benning was a nonstarter. Why? They don’t recognize interracial marriages. A quick change of travel papers and off to Fort Reilly, Kansas.  Living in nearby Manhattan, my dad said that they never felt more accepted and comfortable. To this day, some of my father’s fondest memories from that time in his life center around their time in Kansas. 

Where is all this going?  

In politics, we often fancy ourselves forecasters of outcomes and behavior to justify the next steps we are about to take.  

I’ve written in other columns that one barometer used to predict the behavior of a political being is looking at the history of actions taken. I have used the borrowed phrase know where a person is going by finding out where he or she has been.” Another useful tool is to help predict outcomes – find out what is in the best interests of that politician. Most of the time that’s pretty easy to figure out.  

A useful, and often overlooked, tool in politics is to “learn” about someone.  Learn who they are by learning what their family is like, what environment did they come from, what socioeconomic background shaped them, what community formed their value system. Someone from California who came of age in the shadow of Silicon Valley investment bankers is not going to share the same political values as someone who worked odd jobs to pay their way through college. It’s just not in their DNA.  

Politics is often referred to as a blood sport where friends routinely become enemies and participants are commonly driven by blind ambition, but the making of a truly GREAT politician requires an intangible that can’t be taught or learned. Your either have “it” or you don’t – it’s in your DNA.  

The Greatest Generation describes those who fought in WWII, and those who fought in the Korean War are referred to as The Silent Generation or The Lucky Few – the generation that is often crediting for comprising the leadership of the Civil Rights Movement. While the Baby Boomers are known for their civil disobedience and protests during the Vietnam War, the Greatest and Silent Generations built our modern society quietly – it was in their DNA. 

My dad finished his story as he helped my mom out of the car. My mom struggles remembering these days, as the cruelty of age has stolen much from her beautiful mind. As my father was closing the passenger door, I remarked to my dad that he had in fact kept the promise to his motherinlaw from over 62 years ago. My dad quickly responded, and as he put his arm around her shoulders, and as only he could said my word is my word, and this was an easy promise to keep. 

I sat in my truck, a little awestruck and a little taken aback. I watched for a moment as the two of them held hands as they walked in the same house we called home for the last 53 years. 

As I pulled out of the driveway, this was one of those rare moments when the phone wasn’t ringing, or I didn’t have a call to return and a song I’ve heard a hundred times came on the radioBoxes by the Goo Goo Dolls: 

Cause I’ve got your back and you’ve got mine… 

We’ll have tiny boxes for memories… 

Open them up and we’ll set them free… 

There’ll be bad days and some hard days… 

But I’ll keep your secrets, if you keep mine… 

You are the love that will never lapse… 

It was a great morning.  

Port Authority of New York and New Jersey Chairman Kevin O’Toole is the former senator from the 40th District.

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