One could point to any number of factors to explain the stunning victory by the Democrats last Tuesday. A disastrous war, corruption, Rumsfield not resigning two months age, were all important. Doubtless it was a combination of these factors and more.
But in my mind, and in my house, it was the contributions of one 19-year-old that was the difference.
Lillie never took to college, neither her three semesters at Bennington College in Vermont, nor her semester at the University Massachusetts in Amherst. She was restless, like there was something else she had to do.
I certainly had no problem with her decision to take a year off. I quit college in 1972 to work for George McGovern. She was determined to spend the year on a series of adventures that would expand her world. First she spent the summer living with her boyfriend in Connecticut, no doubt an adventure for both of them. Next she went on a family vacation with me, my wife and her brother. After that the plan was to do something totally out of her element. She began planning to spend a few months in Ecuador, working as a volunteer to preserve the rain forest. That would combine the fantastic with her academic interest, biology and nutrition.
One day, as the summer was coming to an end, I was explaining her Ecuador plans to a friend of mine, the former Mayor of Nashua, New Hampshire in fact. Suddenly I realized there was no way my first born, a knockout about to turn twenty, was, by herself, going to spend a week in Quito, then take a bus five hours to the Amazon to an outpost without electricity or telephone, much less internet access. What, was I crazy?
What about, I suggested to Lillie the next day, volunteering on a political campaign? The timing was right. There would be about two months between when we returned from Italy and Election Day. The midterm elections were shaping up to be important, and there would be plenty of time afterwards for her next adventure, either a more prudent trip to South America or her other idea, working on an organic farm in the U.S. southwest.
Lillie jumped at the idea, as long as she could go somewhere she had never been before so it qualified as a real adventure. She too, no doubt, had begun to have second thoughts about traveling alone in a Third World country.
It wasn’t difficult to find a list of contested Senate seats. Remarkably, almost all of them were in the East or Midwest. Only one, Montana, qualified as “big sky” country, somewhere quite different than New York and New England where Lil had spent her life.
With the help of an old friend my wife and I had worked with thirty years ago on Capitol Hill, Lili found the right person to call in the Montanans for Jon Tester campaign. Suddenly she was being told that they needed all the help they could get. Come right away, they said. She could sleep on a blowup bed in a house the campaign had rented and they could pay her $100 per week.
So, in early September Lillie stuffed her belongings into her 1999 Toyota Corrola and set out for Helena, Montana, 2354 miles away. Together we plotted a route so she could stay with friends her first three nights -- Columbus, Ohio; Davenport, Iowa; Minneapolis. Miles City, Montana was the only place she had to stay at a hotel. Although I booked her in the best one in town (a $72 Best Western), that was the only part of the trip that made my wife really nervous.
Seven weeks later, working twenty-hour days like you do in campaigns, Tester’s campaign manager was hugging Lillie telling her they couldn’t have done it without her.
I agree. Tester won by less than 3,000 votes and without his victory the Senate would still be controlled by the Republicans. One hard-working teenager, doing everything from writing checks, to making a giant calendar so the candidate’s last month could be organized, to distributing the mail and email every morning, to organizing GOTV, can make a difference.
I always kidded Lillie and her high school friends that they shouldn’t go to college but should do like I did – drop out and stop the war. Lillie actually might have done it.