There was every reason to be focused today on the current presidential election as Air Force One landed at the Dane County Airport. Thousands of enthusiastic people stood in line at UW-Madison to get a chance to get close to the staging area where President Obama pumped them up with stirring oratory, and important reasons to vote.
As all this played out today my mind kept bouncing back over the years since I moved to Madison over a quarter-century ago, and started to attend political rallies. My interest in how the candidates operate, handle themselves, stage events, and construct their arguments never grows old. Working at the Capitol allowed me to be near the events that took place as candidates came to make friends and seek votes.
But before I landed in Madison I was working at WDOR in Sturgeon Bay where I was dispatched to cover the Walter Mondale and Geraldine Ferraro rally in Merrill, Wisconsin.
On Labor Day 1984 I was attending what would be the first major political rally of my life, and the first such large news story I would report on for WDOR news. The second one was when President Reagan visited Oshkosh.
In 1984 I was young, eager, and so excited that I could barely contain myself. Days before the event I had gone through a background check to gain press credentials which allowed me onto the risers with the national press. Knowing I was going to stand alongside some of the journalists I had deep respect for was as electrifying to me as being at my first major political rally with a presidential nominee.
Once at the rally site I climbed to stand with the press and was truly pleased to be about three feet from Lynn Sherr and Brit Hume, both from ABC. I smiled to myself when Sherr asked Hume how to pronounce “La Follette” and I then laughed out loud later than night when she mispronounced it on the national news. Everyone has on-air slips, and it was comforting to see it play out in front of me.
To be honest being on the risers with the press could have been the culmination of the day and I would have been totally content.
When the music ramped up and Mondale and Ferraro took the simple outdoor platform and gave punchy dramatic stump speeches I knew at once that my political infection was for real. Never before had I felt so alive. So in the moment.
Over and over during the past decades I have been one fortunate man to be close to the ones that fascinate me.
From that list I have grabbed a few that stood out, and made me smile today.
In 1988 one of the nicest and most sincere of candidates ran for the presidency.
Illinois Senator Paul Simon was perhaps the most approachable politician I have ever met. It was as if he worked on the Capitol Square and had just wandered over for an afternoon stroll with state workers. He chatted and bantered as if he had known the folks who came to see him for many years. Simon was an editor-publisher of a newspaper, and had liberal ideas. Is there a better combination? There were many reasons I gravitated towards his candidacy.
I did not only attend Democratic events, but also wanted to witness the movers and shakers in the Republican Party. I was very delighted to be able to get close to Vice-President Bush as he campaigned in the spring of 1988 in Madison.
It was a Saturday morning and I was standing along staunch Republicans while having the time of my life. I had never before been so close to such a powerful figure. I still recall, and there is no partisanship in this additional thought, but he had the softest hands on a man I have ever felt.
Of all the politicians I have seen over the years the one I saw most often was Bush 41. My nephew Troy and I were able to shake hands with both President Bush and Barbara in Waukesha after a rally as we moved up to the rope line in 1992.
But the most politically romantic event was yet to come….
October 31, 1992, was a cold and blustery day across Wisconsin. Light snow flurries swirled through the air as many thousands stood for hours at the old train depot in Stevens Point, Wisconsin. The presidential campaign that year was winding down, and even though President Bush was campaigning with David McCullough’s latest book “Truman ” in his hand while reminding voters that he too could win the election as Harry did in 1948, the polls were all indicating the opposite. In later news accounts and books all would discover that it was that frigid day in Wisconsin when President Bush was told of his fate by his internal pollsters. In spite of that there were still campaign stops to be made, as Bush was traveling Wisconsin by train, while working over-time at trying to making his Truman moment come true.
I had secured enough tickets from a Republican friend at the Capitol for most of my entire family to be able to stand in the very front of the staging area at the Plover train depot.
My Mom and Dad surely had doubts about standing in line for several hours to see the event, but I also know they loved it. They talked about that day for the rest of their lives.
In 1992 I attended a rally at the statehouse for Bill Clinton and Al Gore. Months after the election the photographer for the Assembly Democratic Caucus came to my office and told me he had finally developed all the pictures he had taken the evening of the rally—and thought I might be interested in the one he then handed to me.
I treasure this picture very much. I have outlined it for this post, and it shows me with my hand at the bottom of the blue line reaching up for Clinton’s hand. I had the handshake of both Clinton and Gore that night.
In 2004 I was able to meet two of the candidates I much respected, and thought to be worthy of attaining the presidency.
For pure passion I felt Howard Dean was the best at presenting the feisty Democratic argument for why Bush 43 had to be defeated, but for the long-term race that was required from a nominee it was John Kerry that I placed my hopes in.
There is no way for me not to get rather nostalgic tonight as I think back to all the fun times and smiling faces of those I stood with as we watched and listened to the candidates. There is something about the fall leaves and chill in the air every four years as candidates ask for our votes for the White House that lets me know how fortunate I have been to be able to see and hear so many of the contenders.
More importantly I am constantly reminded of the ones who put themselves in front of their fellow citizens with their candidacies in an attempt to make our country a better place to live.
For them and their service to this country I say thank you.
From 2010 at UW-Madison, Library Mall.