by Hank Phillippi Ryan
Super Tuesday. No, this is not about this year’s election. But it got me thinking about politics, and how my career started there. And how what I learned as a campaign staffer at age, oh, 20 or so, has taught me so much.
Blazing out of college, I was all about changing the world, and decided politics was the place to start. I worked in several political campaigns back home in Indiana, beginning as a low-level lackey.
One of my first tasks, I remember, was to fold, stuff and seal about fifty million envelopes. I began by folding one, and stuffing it, and licking then envelope flap, and sealing it. Forty-nine million, nine hundred ninety nine to go.
I could not face it. This was changing the world? But I had to do it. How could I—thinking about Tom Sawyer and the fence—convince someone else to do it? But there was no one. Then I decided the only way to handle it was to make it easier.
What if, I thought, I folded more than one at a time? After experimenting, I learned it was faster to fold about ten letters at a time, then separate them. Okay. Done.
Then I saw I could, by using two hands and keeping the envelopes in the box, insert the letters into the envelopes without taking them out of the box. Stuff stuff stuff. Okay, done.
Then I smoothed out all the stickum-ed flaps, ran them over with a damp sponge, and zoop zoop zoop, they were all sealed. What a triumph, figuring out how to do it more efficiently, faster, and perfectly. And be done so quickly! They campaign got their folded, stuffed and sealed envelopes, in record time, and I became obsessed with making things work.
It sounds like a little thing, but now, 46 years later? I still remember my satisfaction.
One of the candidates, a many-term US Senator, taught me something else I always use. Senator Hartke’s three rules were:
Always use the bathroom whenever you have a chance
Always keep food handy, you never know when you’ll be stranded and starving
Always keep the car filled with gas.
That certainly still works for me. As a reporter, and in my other life on book tour, its practically gospel.
Senator Hartke had a pretty great way of handling the press, which I noticed and tucked away years before I began working the other side of the microphone. When he was asked a difficult question in a news conference, he’d nod, smile, point to he reporter as if they were a genius, and say “I’m all right on that! Next question. “ Worked every time. That’s where I learned the value, too, of the journalist’s followup question. Senator Hartke never took those.
And I really think those political campaigns were where I started to earn the value of persuasive writing. And, certainly, the power of an editor. And the writers’ pride of authorship.
I had wrangled my way into the press office ,finally, and kept asking to write press releases. Finally they let me write the Daily, a handout the campaign issued at the end of each day. Deadlines were a lot different back then, and so was reporting, and in Indiana, often the Dailys were reprinted word for word in little newspapers. (There was no internet, of course.)
So with much delight, I summarized Governor Welsh’s week, trying to (subtly) emphasize his energy and enthusiasm. I remember—so clearly—the campaign’s visit to the Indiana State Fair.
On my manual typewriter, I happily banged out my closing paragraph: “With barely time for a quick corn dog, Governor Welsh jumped into Campaign One as the engines revved, and he flew off to greet his next crowd of cheering Hoosiers.” Well, I forget the rest.
But when Jim Greene, the press secretary, read that line, he bellowed across the campaign office: “Hank!”
And I dashed over, ready for my atta girl and certain promotion.
“’With just time for a quick corn dog’?” He actually sneered. “What kind of writing is that?”
“I thought it kind gave the flavor,” I said. “Wrong,” he said. I forget what happened next, except I still remember that interaction, and I still think he was wrong.
Still, sadly, not one candidate I ever worked for actually won the election. When the last guy entered the loser’s circle, I was out of a job. And went to apply at the local radio station for my first job as a reporter.
And I have politics to thank for that. And hey, if you can vote today, you’ll do it, right?