July 12, 2012


A forgotten law of politics, small and large: pay attention to people and answer your mail.

When I was a kid, one of my teachers – I’m pretty sure it was Helen Doughty Lester — urged us to write a letter to Someone Important about some Important Matter. I wound up writing to the President of the University of Illinois, urging that Hull House be preserved when Chicago Circle Campus was built on its site. (Miss Doughty was a second grade teacher who played the guitar and, if you did well on your math problems, drew little shovels on your paper to show that she really did dig it.)

The point is, I did receive a prompt response, neatly typed, thanking me and saying that they’d do their best.

A few years passed. Pretty soon, I was 12 or 13 and I was writing to Senator Yates and Congressman Mikva and LBJ with my sage advice on Vietnam. And they were busy as hell, but every one of them sent a neatly typed letter of thanks, with at least one sentence to show that they’d read what I sent.

This is, I think, a forgotten rule of civil politics: you pay attention, you acknowledge effort, you locate common ground. If you can’t give the fellow what he wants, you express regret and explain why you simply cannot manage it. People don’t do this anymore, even though computers make this much easier to do than it used to be.

A few years ago, I emailed my councillor and my state rep and state senator about a local matter. None of them replied. That state senator, though a Republican, actually agreed with me and wound up doing exactly what I’d asked, but he never wrote back. Nor did the councillor, who lived right down the block. I actually can vote for these guys, their constituency is not very large, and this was an issue right up their alley – not the policy recommendations of the 9th grader.

I recently asked the Warren people for a few favors for a local event. Some were a reach, some should have been completely routine. They took forever to answer, and their answer was simply, “No.” No thanks, no regret, no white lie about how the candidate would have loved to do what I had suggested but simply had to be somewhere miles away. Just “sorry, we can’t do it.”

This is bad for the campaign, and it’s bad for democracy. Attention should be paid. It doesn’t take much: a few seconds for someone to read the email, a minute or two to plug in a sensible response. It’s all staff time, though there ought to be some brief check with the boss, some chance for a personal word or two.