Michael T. McPhearson, 02-21-2010
I had a strange and disappointing encounter with my Congressional Representative William Lacy Clay Jr., Democrat of Saint Louis Missouri’s 1st District. I was in the Ronald Reagan National Airport in DC, still known by many only as Washington National, returning to Saint Louis from a meeting about U.S. foreign policy. I was sitting waiting for my plane when he walked by. I was surprised when I saw him, taking a moment to gather my luggage to pursue him. When I stepped out on the walkway he was a good distance ahead of me so I called out, “Representative Clay.” I used the volume level we all attempt when we want to get someone’s attention, but we do not want to embarrass ourselves screaming. I hoped to those around me my voice would sound like background noise, but that Clay would hear his name. He kept walking. I think I may have called out again. He slowed down, tilting his head a little. Then he stopped and turned. I did not expect him to recognize me. I think we met briefly once sometime ago. I was in a trot towards him, so it quickly became apparent I was calling out to him. He said, “What?” in what seemed to me an irritated voiced.
“I would like to talk to you for a moment.”
“About what? I’m trying to get out of here, man.”
“Well if you are in a hurry that’s OK. I’m from Saint Louis,” I answered with some trepidation.
“You can call my office. I don’t have a card,” he said with visible impatience.
I replied, “If you are in a hurry, I understand.” He turned. “Thanks,” I said to his back as he departed.
I was thrown off by his reaction. So much so that I claimed to be from Saint Louis, which is something I never say. Usually when asked, “Where are you from?” I reply with extreme intention, “I’m from Fayetteville, North Carolina, but I live in Saint Louis.” I wanted to quickly introduce myself as the Executive Director of Veterans For Peace. Let him know I am stepping down and moving to New Jersey but would like to talk to him sometime in the near future about Congress and the wars. I am pretty sure I will be spending more time in DC since I will be much closer. I also wanted to inform him that my successor, Dennis Lane lives in his district and may contact him soon.
I really do understand that he did not have time to talk and I can contact his office. But I am one of his constituents and he made me feel like I was a nuisance. He made no attempt to acknowledge his job as a public servant. Of course I do not expect deference to me. But I do expect good manners. A pleasant way of saying, “Sorry I’m in a hurry. I apologize for not having time. Give my office a call.”
My encounter with Representative Clay was disappointing but illustrative end to my trip. I was returning from a modest sized meeting with citizens from across the political spectrum described by Voters for Peace Director Kevin Zeese as coming together,”…unified by our opposition to the militarism and war of the United States.” The gathering was historic in its diversity and objectives. To give you an idea, the participants included Libertarians, Independents, Republicans, Democrats, Greens, College Park Students for a Democratic Society, The American Conservative, The Nation, Young Americans For Liberty, Voters For Peace, Peace Action, a former organizer for Pat Buchanan’s 1992 presidential bid, The Black Agenda Report, a conservative gentleman who I had a little ideological tussle with over the use of words, and of course Veterans For Peace. During a time when the government is polarized and many citizens are not willing to work towards a common goal, these citizens who oppose each other on many issues came together in an effort to find common ground to make a positive difference in our country; specifically to end the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq in the short term and to change our foreign policy away from empire and our culture of militarism in the long term. To do this we know we need responsive elected officials.
Representative Clay’s response to me is an example of at least part the of the problem. Washington has become so out of touch with the average person, that a man like Clay, who is known to be close to the people and respected by many in Saint Louis, including progressive activists, finds himself slipping into a comfortable state in which he thinks it is OK to dismiss a voter and go so far as to call me “man,” as if we know each other or we are Bros on the street. Who represents the common person in D.C? Do I have to be a big money donor or wear an expensive suit to appear to be worth his time by? These are the questions that ran through my mind as I returned to my seat. I was reminded of the enormous challenge to be heard and seen above the din of corporate money and partisan politics. Rep. Clay may have been having a bad day, not feeling well or simply not aware of his actions. I am familiar with rushing to get somewhere only to be stopped to talk by someone I do not know. As Executive Director of Veterans For Peace I have to address many concerns and spend time with people when I have to meet a deadline or short on time. But it is my job to remember that it is our members who pay my salary and make VFP the great organization it is today. VFP would be nothing without its members. There is a way to treat people with respect and dignity and still meet my deadlines. When I forget this either for a moment or all together, I do a disservice to the organization and myself as a leader. I become part of the problem and have to gain control of myself to merge back into being part of the solution. We as citizens must gain control of our government. If we want to put our country on a path away from war and towards diplomacy, justice and peace; we have little choice.