“Ms. Rohler?” I spun around at a speed I didn’t know I could. I was supposed to be alone in the house.
“What the hell are you doing in my house?” I demanded. A dapper man with a receding hairline held up a hand in apology. “I’m sorry, I wasn’t trying to scare you.”
“What the hell are you doing in my house?” I demanded again, this time a bit more menacingly (I hoped).
“Forgive me, I’m Adlai Stevenson,” he held out a hand to shake. “Your dad sent me.”
There are moments when you start to struggle with the last shreds of your sanity, and then there are moments you just surrender with head in hands and accept you’ve lost your mind. “Daddy sent you? To me? Why?”
“Well, we watched with great delight your interviews with Presidents Tyler, Polk, Johnson, and Wilson … though I think you did miss a couple of key opportunities—especially with Wilson. Given the turn of events in the last few weeks and your general demeanor, well, your dad thought perhaps I could share some insights with you.”
“Why didn’t he come himself?” Yes, I really just asked the former governor of Illinois’ ghost why my father wasn’t haunting me from beyond the grave.
“Well, he did point out you were never very good at listening to him or taking his advice while he was alive, so he didn’t really think you would have suddenly become receptive to his opinions after death.” I looked away from the apparition in embarrassment. “Or have you?”
I shook my head, took a deep breath. “He’s right. I’m sorry I’m not very good at listening. The truth is we are—were—probably too alike to hear each other. Please, give him my apologies when you see him.”
Stevenson nodded. “I will. What you said just now, that’s probably true of more people than most of us realize…”
I smiled at him. “Alright, let’s talk sense to the American people, or to Gwenyfar. I guess I’m willing to listen, but Mr. Stevenson, or would you prefer Governor? Or Mr. Ambassador?”
“Adlai is fine.”
“Adlai,” I nodded. “Well, I’m not so certain the American people want to talk sense right now.”
“Does anyone seriously think that a real traitor will hesitate to sign a loyalty oath? Of course not. Really dangerous subversives and saboteurs will be caught by careful, constant, professional investigation, not by pieces of paper. The whole notion of loyalty inquisitions is a natural characteristic of the police state, not of democracy.” —Adlai Stevenson
“It always feels that way after an election; emotions are high.” He paused. “Perhaps I’m not the right person for you to talk to, I mean I never really mastered the soundbite or the media … I was too long-winded and thoughtful for modern politics.”
“Yes, substance really is not the name of the game in that arena. I guess I’m a little surprised to hear you say that. I mean, you came from a newspaper family, you wrote for the newspaper. I would have thought manipulating the press would be second nature for you—a skill from the family dinner table.”
“Fair enough. But you work as a writer; how good are you at sound bites? Social media and instant celebrity? Choose substance or style and I can guess which camp you are in.”
“Guilty.” I nodded. “Is that why you lost the presidency repeatedly?” I blushed with embarrassment at what had tumbled out of my mouth.
“Partly,” he conceded. “I mean, running against Dwight after the war was a poor choice. Everyone wanted a war hero and ‘The Strong Man’ image played up more easily than I guess my long-winded, thoughtful addresses. Some things don’t change, do they?” He gave me a rueful grin.
“So, how did it feel to make three tries for it and lose every time?”
“How do you think?”
“Sorry.” I apologized. “But you seemed to enjoy being ambassador to the UN.”
“I was well-suited for that role,” he smiled. “But I’m not here to discuss the UN. I’m here to talk about my failed candidacy.” My face must have looked a bit stricken because he reassured, “It’s OK. I’ve had over 50 years to come to terms with it. It’s kind of like the death of a loved one: It doesn’t heal, you just learn to live with it differently.”
I nodded and let my glance stray upward to the shelf of his bound collected papers, a mulit-volume set. Seriously, my dad was one of Stevenson’s biggest fans.
“But I’ll tell you the truth: Meeting anger with anger will get you nowhere.”
His voice brought my gaze back to him. “Yes, there is hurt, but rather than stew in it, take it and use it to work toward something better. I know you are not a fan of the Internet—you write often enough about your qualms—but the ability to share a work of art, to use that as a tool for raising awareness, that tool has more power and reach now than it ever did before. Having discourse, discussion, disagreement, and sharing—that is essential to community and to growth. You want to talk about political organizing? That doesn’t happen around an election or a candidate. That happens around life, daily.”
“Sort of what we talk about in the Live Local column: It’s about the daily decisions that add up to make a difference?”
“Exactly. Don’t wait until the issue comes along that makes you mad. Live the life of purpose that works daily toward a just, equitable world. I think part of the problem is we don’t teach civics experientially. It seems to be a class about memorization, not about daily life. But that’s what civics is: daily life in America.”
“Yes, I rather hoped ‘Hamilton’ would spark an interest in history and constitutional studies. But, I have to say, we have not seen a spike in sales of the Federalist and Anti-Federalist papers or even the Constitution.”
“You are on the frontlines, too. You would see the spike, if it happened.” He sighed.
“Access to knowledge … it’s is one the greatest rights of the American people and yet so few…” He stopped himself. “But that is what you have to do. Continue to make all information available, however obscure. Somehow the lines of news reporting have blurred and people don’t have the same tools for understanding that.”
He paused. “Think about it: Everyday you get a chance to talk with kids in high school, community college and even adults, who are poised to learn about attributing sources, documentation and the foundations of our society. Those are the things that add up, that make a difference.”
I heaved a great sigh. “It is easier to talk about it than to get up and do it.”
“Of course it is. It is even harder to face the ups and downs of life with reason, grace and class. Do you think facing Joe McCarthy was fun? But sinking to his level was out of the question. In the long run, yes, history will exonerate you, but in the short run, you will be able to look yourself in the mirror.”
“OK, now you are sounding like my father! But, yes, I get the idea. Out of curiosity, has Daddy met up with George Wallace in the afterlife?”
I’ve never seen a ghost look embarrassed until then. “Uhm, yes. That didn’t go as well as everyone hoped. Apparently, Wallace disagreed with some things your dad wrote about him in his book. And though Lloyd liked the idea of how Wallace … well, we considered asking George to come talk to you. He was always better at working the media. Somehow, we thought you might not be as receptive to his message and uhm… well, it is a more problematic relationship than I think Lloyd was prepared for. Let’s just leave it at that.”
“Uhm, OK. I think ‘problematic’ is a good adjective for Wallace, sure.”
We nodded at each other. The George Wallace biography had been a sticking point in our family life and my parents’ marriage, so somehow it didn’t surprise me it was still an issue in the afterlife.
“So, you’re done wallowing in self pity and grief, right? Pay attention, speak up, ask questions, challenge, push the envelope, and make Democracy a participation sport. Your job is not to make people comfortable; your job as a writer and bookseller is to ask questions of yourself and others.”
“Yes, I try … I try. Somedays I lose hope and perspective, but you are right, especially with what I have chosen for a living. It is about access and discourse and information and building something larger than one person. Yes.”
“Good,” he nodded. “I was hoping to meet Hilda, I’ve heard so much about her. Please, tell her I send my regards.”
“I will, and would you tell my dad—”
Adlai held up a hand to interrupt me. “He already knows.”