“The Journal I Never Kept” is a new column feature on DaveUrsillo.com that details true stories from my past in a storytelling style, as if from a journal of only memory.
In early 2009, I moved back to my home-state of Rhode Island from Washington D.C. to take a job working alongside a prominent and rising state officeholder poised to run for governor.
By mid-spring, a personal crisis of identity had me questioning… everything. Weeks before ultimately quitting that job to pursue my dream of becoming a career author, I was in attendance at a small, private fundraiser with some national figures on behalf of a campaigning politician from Virginia…
It was the time of year that every New Englander was hoping for the long winter to finally begin to thaw.
But the cold was still biting, and Mother Nature was holding to the old adage, “April showers bring May flowers.” The unwelcome winter weather kept clinging on, dampening the warmth and making this spring a truly dreary one.
Like the seasons themselves, the lively and fun-loving part of me that used to characterize my spirit was dangling by a thread, holding on for dear life, as weeks passed while working long, unappreciative hours for a cause in which I found no soulful purpose or value. Should I have stayed in D.C.? I’d often ponder to myself. Do I regret moving back home? In this recession, I had to take this job… right?
Expressionless, I stared out the window of my idling car for minutes and hours on end, cold fingers curling in angst and wonder through black leather gloves around the humming steering wheel. This job gave me too much time to think. Far too much time to think. These were my days as a Body Man.
Players and Drones… Which Are You?
In the game of politics, you’re one of two types of people: a player or a drone. Players are cunning, conniving, contriving: they think years in advance, plot out scenarios en masse, and for their true intelligence and keen abilities are largely successful. Players are the movers and shakers of their world.
They operate within sets of established and often unspoken rules and governing laws that create stability and order. Drones are head-nodders and hand-shakers, smilers and complimenters (or, ass-kissers). They are underlings looking for opportunities, and largely just follow the pack. Drones love to be surrounded by players — those who they perceive to be the uppermost echelon of the establishment. Drones want to be players, themselves.
Drones exist in every career field, especially aspects of business and politics and large organizations wherein a very deliberate and fear-induced culture of rules and boundaries and limitations exists to:
(1) maintain the status quo;
(2) retain power for those on top of the power structure; and,
(3) minimize, marginalize, and make outcasts of those who act or speak outside of the group.
Being a drone means paying your dues and making lots of sacrifices — like sitting in wait in your car, staring blankly out the window. For me, my biggest problem working in politics was also my only possible saving-grace: I simply wasn’t a drone, and refused to ever become one.
A Player Called “Hustler“
That overcast spring afternoon, I drove my boss across Rhode Island as I always did: to a list of obscure, barely-described meetings at vague location points, often only realizing the destination upon our arrival.
This evening, I accompanied several of my bosses into a private law office for what turned out to be an intimate and exclusive a congregation of those so-called “players” — a small fundraising event for former Democratic National Committee (DNC) chairman Terry McAuliffe, who was running for Governor in the state of Virginia.
McAuliffe is a prototypical political player in the United States of America. A self-described “hustler,” he has spent a lifetime as a mover and shaker in his political party, alternating between dozens of high-profile positions of influence and dabbling in the prospect of elected office. In 2009, fundraising efforts on behalf of his gubernatorial campaign took him to the notoriously “blue” state of Rhode Island — for, whether blue or red, the most important color to a campaigning politician is the color green.
When we entered the law office where the gathering was taking place, I stood off in the corner of the room — quietly, by myself, assessing the landscape and watching the seconds tick on the nearest clock. There were less than two dozen men and women in attendance.
Of them, were three members of the United States Congress; a nationally-revered party fundraiser and his wife; a very influential and very controversial Rhode Island attorney; a small handful of members of the Rhode Island General Assembly; and two candidates for governor in Rhode Island, along with their campaign managers and confidants. And then there was me.
A Fire, Extinguished
McAuliffe weaved his way through the room, shaking hands and chit-chatting between the sparse circles of suits. Observing him in person, rather than on TV, I noticed my heart rate begin to jump. My passion for politics had long since buried under a combination of political indifference and a new-found “loathing” of all things political Nevertheless, memories of McAuliffe’s partisan venom waged against former President George W. Bush — under whose Administration I was an intern just the year prior — flared to the forefront of my mind.
The flames were quickly extinguished.
What the hell do I care? I said to myself. This was the uncharacteristic indifference that began to become who I was, rather than a passing bad mood. This was the only mood.
The fire within me was dying: the passion-driven character that I relied on to overcome natural shortcomings in all aspects of my life, whether in sports or academics or simple social settings, was changing. I could feel it disappearing, and without my convictions, passions, and ideals to guide me in this life, I feared who I might become.
McAuliffe approached me and my bosses. His lanky build created some illusion of towering height — he looked upwards of 6’5″ to me, or taller. Watching him work the room, I was surprised to say he actually appeared to be a pretty genuine guy. He never broke his smile. He seemed positive to the extreme, bubbly even, and very charismatic.
Within arm-shot of the man, McAuliffe didn’t seem to terrible. Such is often the case in politics: You wonder what is smoke and mirrors, what angles and portrayals are media slants or misrepresentations. You question if your own natural tendency to be partisan and demonize the opposition glosses over your ability to see opponents as human beings, no different than you.
Then you wonder if the excuses you make — your “want” to be liked and accepted by a player like McAuliffe — is some part of you becoming… a head-nodder, a hand-shaker, a drone.
Was I becoming one?
McAuliffe and his entourage finally arrived at our small huddle in the corner. He was introduced by the evening’s fundraiser to my bosses who shook hands with him and chitchatted about Rhode Island, his visit, his race for governor in Virginia, and so on. I stepped back quietly with my hands folded behind my back, looking off into nowhere.
As the chitchat tailed off into that awkward pause of silence, McAuliffe motioned towards me to prolong his exchange with the group a few moments. “And how are YOU young man?!” his voice boomed with enthusiasm, accompanied by a huge smile as he pushed an open hand in my direction. My reluctant hand met his and I could only muster a bland but truthful answer of, “Alright.”
The unenthusiasm and utter indifference with which I met his boisterous and jovial attitude was like a tropical storm hitting a cold-front in the Atlantic: a sudden fizzle. His big smile pulled back just a bit, receding with curiosity. “Just alright?” he chuckled, looking to my bosses around him as he tried to pry a crack of a smile or laugh from me.
“Just alright,” I coldly replied.
Our handshake broke, and silence settled over the group. “Well,” McAuliffe remarked, now smiling again, as he shook hands once more with my bosses, exchanging pleasantries, before moving to the next huddle of suits.
Full Circle, and a Beer
Looking back, I now realize that describing myself as “just alright” to McAuliffe was a lot less about that day, or a bad mood, or our exchange, or anything else, other than a verbalized admission to myself: I was admitting that I was merely “just alright.”
My mindset, my fire, my passion… they were certainly not improving but rapidly deteriorating to a bland dullness. I didn’t want to be “just alright.” I wanted my life, my attitude, my career, everything to be far better than “just alright.” Some weeks later, I finally quit, determined to tread my own path and find something greater than “just alright.”
More than a year after the exchange, I was in an entirely different world. What was once “just alright” had become something far more ambitious, more positive. I had learned a world about myself and others as I embarked upon an uncertain but joyful journey of writing, self-exploration, and inner discovery — and began to recruit readers across the Internet to do the same for the sake of benefiting others around them.
It was the summer of 2010 now, and I found myself far removed from the world of politics, of players and drones, and exclusive fundraisers.
One Saturday afternoon, some close friends and I stood in a local South Boston bar among dozens of other patrons, watching the 2010 World Cup as the United States’ national team vied to compete on a global stage. During this match, the camera panned to the stands to show former President Bill Clinton, who was in attendance as a spectator in the South African arena in a show of support for the American side. Sitting next to Clinton was a very familiar face — none other than Terry McAuliffe himself. He had lost his election bid in 2009.
“Huh,” I remarked quietly. Eyes still fixed to the screen, I hunched down to meet my cold beer, lifting it to my mouth. “I met that guy once.”
Flickr photo credit: Max Westby (bee photo), Paula Bailey (candle photo).