For Want of Power

News & Politics

Scene from Phil Rhudy's campaign brochure

Three weeks before the election, we stop watching TV. My mother and I sit by the fire, sometimes reading, sometimes watching movies. My father is gone, to cocktail parties and "beef and beers" or sometimes just to the Republican headquarters, reviewing direct-mail pieces or doing interviews. "There are only three weeks left," I think, and it has only been four weeks so far, and somehow it feels as though it has been much longer than that, as if all of this cannot possibly have happened since my return to school and the start of my senior year.

In school, people stop me in the halls and say they didn't know how evil my father is. They are joking. They stretch it out, say "eeee-vil," and I run to class. Teachers are slower to realize. Then they bring it up in class, talk to me about the latest newspaper article. I have mostly given up on reading them, but I tell my father to save them, because someday I will want to read them, when I no longer mind seeing the same facts again and again and again.

Politics is a part of the American landscape. It is a part of our democracy, to have these two political parties, and it works well when you look past the special-interest groups and the soft money and the excessive campaigning and all the other discrepancies in the system -- donations that should probably be illegal but are not, parties and fundraisers, corporate sponsors. And as Americans, it is our duty to vote, to keep the system going, to make sure that despite all the problems in the system, we participate and are ruled by people we support and like, perhaps even love in some strange, disconnected way.

I hear this from my parents. I have just told it to you. But there are problems with this theory. It assumes that voters have an idea of who they are voting for, when in fact they do not. This year, my first election, I voted for my father because I knew that it was the right thing. I know him and who he is and I am confident that he would have done his best to help South Jersey, which would have been his job had he been elected to the state Senate.

campaignBut having such a close view of the electoral process, something that should have stimulated my interest in politics and encouraged me to vote each year, has in fact dampened my desire to vote.

Political ads, the very things that drove my mother and me to shut off the TV, ran for nearly two months prior to the election. Politicians have learned to be clever when it comes to any sort of advertisement: They never lie� not quite. When I saw ads accusing my father of raising taxes he had no control over, I wondered, "How do any of us know who we are voting for when all our information comes from biased parties, when even the newspapers endorse candidates?"

It all began the day after my father returned from vacation, just a few days before I returned to school. He received a phone call. The Republican candidate for the state Senate had dropped out of the race; would he fill in?

He attended several breakfast meetings, he was told he would receive at least one million dollars in campaign funds, and then his photo appeared at the top of the front page of the local paper. One of his running mates, a woman who had never returned a single one of his phone calls and who had been openly rude to him, called to congratulate him and to say how happy she was to have him as a running mate.

I can think of no better example of how politics work. There are few true friendships in politics; it is simply based on power, and in order to reach the top, a politician must become infected by that power -- so he needs a higher office, then a higher one, and higher, until he has reached his pinnacle and can only stumble down, back to the level of the mortal. A politician is always positioning himself for another election; my own father debates whether he should send Christmas cards to all the residents of the town so they will know his name for the next election. My house, for years a home to political discussion, now overflows with it, leaks it from the doors and the windows, as my father and my mother discuss which politician should be on hand when my father is sworn in as mayor, which he will be if three of the committee members vote for him. (And they do, and he is.) Mayorship of a small town on the southern end of New Jersey is hardly a powerful position, but what is always there is the idea of more power, of greater opportunities.

These offices are not all about power; I believe that politicians step in with a desire to do good and help their community. As much as my house is consumed by political talk, it is also consumed by talk of what is going on in the town, what the merchants and the farmers and the homeowners are worried about.

Most politicians, while power-hungry and sometimes in the pocket of special interests, are in essence good people. But television ads and direct mail portray politicians in only one way. According to his own party, my father is a man above men, a near-saint who has never once accepted questionable funds or fallen under the lure of his own power; according to the other party, he is an embezzling, tax-raising, special- interests supporter, a subhuman. Neither of these portrayals is true. Neither is close. But they are all that we, as voters, receive, and when bombarded with masses of negative ads, most of us draw the conclusion that no candidate deserves our vote.

campaignI want to vote for someone who is perfect and will know how to improve our world and keep everyone happy, but that person doesn't exist. The most we can ask of our honest politicians -- the ones who have not been corrupted by ideas of power -- is that they do the best they can, that they make the best decisions for their people and that they do not hesitate to admit and correct their mistakes. This is why I still vote: I believe we all need to make our feelings known. I believe we all need to be able to say, "Maybe this man won't govern as well as I hope, and maybe he'll be corrupt, but maybe he'll be the one and will fulfill his promises, if they're best for us." And without my vote, without your vote, that one man may never make it into office.

I am sometimes disappointed with my father: that he can consider asking a certain politician to attend his swearing-in ceremony because she may be the state's next governor, but he is only a township committeeman. In the end, what is he doing it for, this $3,000-a-year job that consumes his time and his energy and is the passion of his life? I suspect it is not so much the opportunities it may bring him as it is the chance to do something to help his town.

The day before the election, my father says to me, "I don't care about the Senate, Ellen. I know I'm going to lose. But I don't know what I'll do if I lose Township Committee."

He would rather lose the Senate race and keep the Township Committee seat, he says. And he does, and the day after the election, he sits at the breakfast table reading the paper, and he is smiling. I think that perhaps as much as I complain about his political views and his goals and his plans, this is what it is all about. He is happy to keep his $3,000 seat and lose the $50,000 one. He can relax now. He is simply what so many other small-town politicians are across America: men and women.

Ellen Rhudy is a high school senior in New Jersey. She reads too much, writes too much and edits the literary zine Frothing at the Mouth � more information on that thrilling project is available at (she senses your excitement).

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