In the fall of 1969, my mom and dad were newly married. They were home one night, no doubt staring lovingly into each other’s eyes when the phone rang. It was my grandfather, Mom’s dad, and he needed a ride.
My Grandfather was a retired Navy man, and after he retired, he went to work for a munitions company. This was at the height of the Vietnam War, so business was booming, no pun intended.
He was an executive of some sort and often had to “entertain” people after work. And he sometimes drank too much at these meetings, as he had on this night. And on those nights, he called Mom to come to get him.
It would be a quick 20-minute trip these days, what with the new interstates and all, but in those days it was two lanes and traffic lights all the way, so it was an hour’s drive, easy.
Mom and Dad set off through the hot sticky night to pick up my grandfather and drive him and his car home.
My grandfather was six feet tall and had long ropy muscles that looked like the metal cables that ships tie to the dock with. His cheekbones were prominent, and he had eyes that would stare a hole in you. He had been a Frogman in WWII, and then was shot down over Korea during that war and was lost behind enemy lines for more than a week with a broken arm before he fought his way out to the DMZ and was found. He did not suffer fools, and he had not wanted my mom to marry my dad.
But this night was different. The business meeting must have been a good one, as my grandfather was in a good mood, and apparently felt generous.
He was a social drunk. When in his cups, he was always full of advice, and this night was no different. He wanted to stop at a diner and get some coffee and food, to “settle his stomach”. After they ordered, Mom went to the bathroom, and my grandfather began to hold forth on Dad, giving my newly married, 18-year-old father life and business advice.
He watched Mom’s back as she walked to the back of the diner and disappeared into the bathroom, then leaned back in his chair, holding his cigarette between his fingers, and turned to Dad.
“Young Feller, let me give you some advice. If you ever want to get anywhere in this life, you got to get noticed. People need to know your name. Hopefully, it’s because of something good, but it’s even OK sometimes if it’s for something bad. But if you are gonna get ahead, you have to get noticed. They have to know your name. People can’t help you if they don’t know your name.”
When Dad told me this story, he laughed at this point, because he said that about then, Mom was coming back from the bathroom, and my grandfather suddenly straightened up and changed the subject, as if they had been swapping dirty jokes unfit for mixed company.
* * *
One Saturday in August of 2013, I, along with some other volunteers from a local church, was threatened with arrest for giving food to hungry people on a sidewalk in Raleigh, NC. It’s a long story, and one I’m tired of telling, but I got a lot of media attention really fast – Time, Newsweek, NPR, and Fox were all blowing my phone up, and the city got a lot of negative attention. The week before, Forbes had named Raleigh, NC the most hospitable city in the nation, and then this happened.
The city made a few missteps, strategically, and one of them was when the Mayor called me and asked me, point blank, what I wanted. Up until then, I had not realized we were negotiating. I just wanted to be left alone, so we could keep giving hungry people food. Had they apologized and told us to carry on, we would have. But, I figured, if they were asking what I wanted? Well, I had a list.
Eventually, much of that list got implemented. It cost the city more than $5 million dollars. Policies got changed. Programs got funded. Buildings were built and people got hired. But all of that was later.
There were endless meetings in those days – I made the rounds, meeting City Council folks, the mayor, police officials, the talk shows, and reporters. It was my first real immersion into political life. Baptism by fire.
My Dad was back in Mississippi, where he worked for the county as their Emergency Management Director. His whole life was politics – he had to get budgets passed, and he had to advocate for Federal dollars – both to the Feds to give them to his county and to the politicians in his county to accept them. He had to work with people who were different than him and thought differently from him.
“You can’t always control who you have to work with, but you have to find a way to work with them just the same. In both poker and life, Son, you have to play the cards you are dealt, not the cards you wish you had.”
The weeks this fight with the city was going on was one of the times I felt closest to my Dad. We talked on the phone often. He was my coach through this world of politics and relationships, my wartime consigliere.
My notes from those conversations are filled with soundbites.
“You have to let them think they won. That doesn’t mean you can’t get what you want, but they can’t think they lost.”
“You have to give something up, so they are happy. So ask for things that will never get approved, so when you give them up, they think they beat you.”
“They have to justify whatever happens to the people who elected them. So make sure they have a story that makes them look good.”
“If you are going to keep living there, you have to be able to look these people in the eye when this is over and work together on the next thing.”
“This stuff affects people personally, but these folks don’t treat it as personal. It’s just another day at the office for them. Next month they will be working on other things that people feel just as strongly about as you do this. Their lack of involvement emotionally in this is an advantage for them. Your passion is an advantage for you. But make sure your passion doesn’t eat you because you don’t win a war by dying for your country.”
But my favorite conversation, and the one that stuck with me the most, was the night before the big Council meeting deciding if the $5 million dollar package would go through. I was on the rocking chair on my front porch. It was an unseasonably warm night in late fall. We were months into this campaign. I was on my phone to Dad, while watching my inner-city neighborhood come to life as it often did around dusk. I was nervous.
It was then that he told me the story about my grandfather and the advice he had given him.
“I think he was right, in one regard. Folks can’t help you if they don’t know who you are. Nobody’s gonna speak up for the redheaded guy with the nice smile. One day, bad things will happen, and when that happens, you will need friends and people who know your name.
He chuckled at this point. “I’ve seen the news stories. You have that part covered, it seems.”
“But I’m older now than your grandfather was back then, and I would say that while it’s important that people know who you are and what you can do. I think that if you work hard to be good at your job then you don’t have to rub it in people’s faces. They will know.
“Work hard to be indispensable to the work, and invisible to the process. These politicians aren’t going to tell their people how awesome you are, because then their people will start thinking maybe they should elect you instead of this politician. But they will know. And they will remember.
“Some work needs doing. And it’s easier to get it done if your name doesn’t have to be attached to it. You can accomplish great things if you don’t have to be the one to get credit for it. The people who need to know will know, and if they don’t, the people who know your name will tell them.
“So let them have the headlines, and while they are flashing those around, you get your $5 million dollar package passed.”
* * *
I’m an organizer these days. I am the invisible man, off to the side in the group photos. If the press prints my name, that’s a failure, because this work is not about me, but the people I work with. My work is to find out what issues are important to the people I work with, and then we develop strategies for them to get what they want.
I hold press conferences where I’m not in front of cameras – I’m the guy with a clipboard writing down what media responded to the press releases I sent out. I draft op-eds that get published under other people’s names. And when our people ask me what we should do, I ask them, instead, “What do you think we should do?”
Because some work needs doing, and it’s easier to get it done if it doesn’t matter who gets the credit.