Rolling Stone – October 21, 1976
When America votes on November 2nd, I will have been running in California’s 12th district for a year and a half. In those 18 months, I will have recruited close to a thousand volunteers, raised more than $100,000, walked somewhere in the neighborhood of 750 miles, delivered at least 800 speeches, placed 2500 phone calls and shaken enough hands to equip an army of octopi.
There’s at least a 50-50 chance I will lose.
If you are thinking about getting into politics, you should understand there are arguments on both sides of the question.
Ten Reasons Not to Run for Congress
- If you aren’t rich you will be at a constant disadvantage
One of my problems has been that I make my living with a typewriter. Magazine journalism is one of the few professions where a person can rise to the top ten percent of the business and still make less than a street sweeper. When I spend my time campaigning, I have no income. I campaign all the time. As a result, I’m much deeper in debt than when I started – which is only half of the disadvantage.
- Political campaigns are a bottomless pit.
There are no limits to the work that must be accomplished. No one in a campaign ever does enough. The game demands that you do everything you can from the time you start until the whistle blows and everybody is told to go vote. A significant addiction to work comes in very handy but it’s not enough. The extra energy you need is best provided by a staff that treats you like meat, and an obsessive fear of losing and humiliation.
- If you love someone, are married or have children, you risk it all when you run for office.
Time has a lot to do with it. Relationships flourish because of the attention paid to them and the relationship’s capacity to provide equally for all those involved. A candidate doesn’t have time. Being single and trained in the priesthood is one of Jerry Brown’s strongest suits as an office runner. It’s not one of mine. I have a woman I’m in love with and a son by my first marriage who lives with me half the time. By virtue of a swarm of baby sitters, an hour squeezed in between Kiwanis Club and junior college, and 80 minutes between precinct walking, my son still knows my name. It’s even harder on a couple. Politics attacks the balance in relationships. My schedule defines our life together. If we go to a reception, I, the candidate, am spoken to. She, “the woman with the candidate,” a very special person and widely known in her own right, is ignored. When I see her, the day’s over and I have little interest left in talking. I want to unhitch my mind and she wants to relate. When you run for office, it hurts the people you’re with more than you, especially if they don’t seek or want the political rewards that tide you over.
- You will become a product.
You’re supposed to. It’s the best technique to convince 100,000 people spread along 25 miles of freeway off ramps. The candidate is packaged and sold. Three months after I started, I no longer needed to be convinced I was a commodity. I believe I’m a good product in a market where those are few and far between, but I am a product. I am also chief salesman. In a six-day week of 16-hour days, that combination of roles begins to feel like a contender in the same league as incest and Arizona real estate transactions.
- In your product-hood you will feel judged.
At times, the feeling is overwhelming. My name and someone else’s will end up side by side with numbers next to them. The ego risks are potentially catastrophic. Election night in the primary was a gauntlet for me. My areas of strength on the north end of the district were counted last and it was 2 a. m. before I edged up toward 60% where I should have been. One TV station made a mistake offstage, reversed vote totals and signed off the air with me losing. “So much Mr. Joan Baez,” the commentator shrugged. UPI woke me up at 7 a.m. for a comment on my “clear” victory.
- You can never take a break from being the candidate.
I have no choice about running for Congress whenever I step out my front door. It’s the sign of a good campaign. I am recognized and people want to talk to me. When I don’t want to campaign, I stay home. Even at home I get a lot of phone calls since I’m listed in the book. My favorite is Mrs. Hill. She called the first time with a lot of questions about whether I was a communist. In successive calls we’ve discussed the care and breeding of Samoyed dogs and how she helped run the “reds” out of Palo Alto Democratic Club. Twice she’s called when she was drunk. She says she likes me.
- You will ruin your body.
Politics is full of coffee, cigarettes, alcohol, tension, chocolate chip cookies and very little sleep. As you make your way toward election day, your body will slowly unravel into a running set of aches, twinges and occasional disorders. One of the strangest I’ve run into was a prolonged attack of gas. My digestion system went through a two-week collapse. While awaiting a cure, I concentrated on standing straight and clenching my buttocks while discussing the budget. It disappeared after I began swallowing whole cloves of garlic to balance my system.
- Politics is a shallow business.
It’s full of two-minute hypes, camera angles and ten-second exposures. The majority of people going to the polls will remember six words about a name on the ballot. If you have a need for expression and recognition as a whole person, you won’t find much of it running for office. I often feel unseen and unknown in the midst of waves of attention.
- Politics is full of treating people badly and being treated the same way in return.
You will have to make a lot of decisions that disappoint or antagonize people you work with every day. Decisions are made according to the single criteria of what’s good for the campaign. A lot of time is spent either maneuvering to keep catastrophe from breaking out or patching up after it has occurred. People have been known to hate each other in such situations and friendships rise and fall like the stock market.
- It may not make any difference, even if you win.
There is a lot of debate about whether a seat in Congress has much, if anything, to do with what goes on in America. Some have called the House of Representatives an institution with all the dimensions of a big-league Rotary International. Just enough power to be crooked and not enough votes to be honest. The House has a long history of being ruled by dinosaurs and shellfish. Change comes slowly. It’s an easy swamp to disappear in and leave no trace.
Ten Reasons Why You Ought to Run for Congress
- We need good government desperately.
The future could very well have bad things in store for America. We represent six percent of the world’s population and 60% of its wealth, and we consume 40% of its resources. That will change. As resources diminish, population spirals, cartels multiply, pollution compounds itself and money changes hands over and over again, our margin of fat will shrink. The assumptions of national policy must change accordingly. We must get more out of what we have. Being the biggest, mightiest and wealthiest got us this far but won’t get us much further. We must become the most compassionate, the most efficient, the most farsighted and the most genuine. It is necessary if we are going to survive. We’re a nation drifting without a sense of ourselves and a common course to pursue. Our capacity to live in a new and scarcer world will be anchored in Washington D.C. New leadership is essential. It is possible to make good and sensible policy but not with leaders who have lost touch either with themselves or the people they represent. Like it or not, our future is at stake in the laws Congress approves and the budgets it initiates.
- You will grow as a person.
Running for office is meeting strangers. The only way to do it well is to confront the limitations in yourself that get in the way. When I was 14, I had a paper route. Part of me was so shy, I would be seized with fits of terror at the thought of approaching a stranger and asking for money. I paid more than a few monthly bills out of my own earnings to take myself off the hook. Now I spend most of my afternoons walking neighborhoods and approaching strange doors. I knock. A voter answers.”Hi,” I say. “Hope I’m not bothering you but I wanted to introduce myself. My name’s David Harris. I’m the Democrat running for Congress in this district.For the past 18 months I have been walking precincts, meeting groups of people in living rooms, leafletting the town dump, shaking hands at the county fair, speaking after dinners, eating hot dogs and getting my picture in the paper. Your character develops as it responds to the challenges it faces.
- You will meet many kind and generous people if you’re lucky.
Without help from people who are willing to spend more time than they have, more money than they can afford and more worry than makes sense, there would be no political campaigns. Folks who were once strangers will say yes when you ask them to help.
- You will receive a huge amount of attention.
One of the nicest feelings I’ve had comes from people clapping after I say something. There is an overwhelming sense of satisfaction. I like talking and being listened to. It’s a rare commodity in the world. Most people spend their lives in public anonymity, known only by their friends. Candidates are elevated to a very special plane and they become part of a much larger reality than themselves. That pays a lot of dividends in self-esteem.
- You will do more than you imagined you could.
One of the essential parts of living is testing your limits. Politics is a big mountain to climb. It’s a task that lets me throw myself into activity. The more ground covered, the more my sense of accomplishment grows. I’m proud to have started with nothing and built what a representative of.the Democratic National Committee calls one of the best organized campaigns in the country. I’m proud to walk into the campaign office and see all the phone lines lit, a crowd stuffing envelopes and 20 staff members running about pursuing all brands of craziness.
- You will become very good at standing.
I stand all day long. I’ve learned to relax and hold my weight so my feet don’t begin to hurt until the sun goes down. In order to deal with all that vertical time, I’ve variously tried standing like a soldier, adopting a loose slouch, and pretending I’m a penguin. I picked a penguin because I couldn’t imagine a penguin with sore feet. The penguin works best.
- You will help other people come to grips with themselves.
Campaigns are a very genuine and quite rare form of human interaction. They give a lot of people looking for more meaning in their existence something to do and someone to share it with. Win or lose, that’s a social service. You have a key role to play in making sure that it is done decently.
- You will meet your neighbors and everyone else’s.
America is an anonymous place where neighborhoods disappear and families break up. Isolation is a common affliction that candidates slide in and out of. During my campaign I’ve gotten a better sense of the San Francisco peninsula than I’ve had in all the 13 years I’ve lived here. I know that most homes in Sunnyvale have their contents engraved with special markings to catch burglars, that there is a fee charged for putting up signs in Mountain View, and I know where all the housing tracts in Santa Clara join with each other like a stucco quilt. That knowledge makes me comfortable in my environment.
- You will have a good reason to talk to people.
There is important information to deliver. Being a candidate is a good way to deliver it. A lot of people view an election as a reason to listen.
- Strangers will go out of their way to be nice to you.I remember walking a precinct one afternoon in Sunnyvale. It was August, better than 90°, and I’d been walking for more than two hours. I was walking with Nick, my aide, and the rest of the advance team was up ahead and around the corner. We were walking past what used to be an orchard. Now it was just mounds of dirt connected by tractor prints. There was no sidewalk. We were in the gutter. Across the street, the new shopping center was swarming, selling a lot of Wonder Bread and high-octane electric knives. My knees felt like oatmeal. I was leaning forward trying to figure out how many more precincts I had to finish that month to cover all the Democratic ones as well as the swing vote. A new Ford turned the corner. The driver was almost leaning out his window and waving his fist. I’d never seen him before. “Go get em, David,” he yelled. “Yahooo.” He sped off honking. I looked up toward the next tract and felt like O.J. Simpson breaking clear of the cornerback with the goal line in sight.