I was not surprised to hear that President Trump brought a cheering section of paid staffers to his January 10 press conference, and may have done so again today when speaking at CIA headquarters. The news prompted me to share a story about my first foray into politics, when I ran for Student Council Treasurer my junior year of high school.
I decided to run for Treasurer because I had a pretty clear perception of where I ranked in popularity among my classmates. There were some truly outstanding students in my class and I was certain I didn’t have a shot at President or VP. Secretary sounded like too much work, so I threw my hat in for Treasurer.
The process was to have a primary election to narrow the field to three candidates for each office. This consisted of ballot voting in each homeroom, and was truly a popularity contest because we were allowed very little time to campaign beforehand (it involved getting permission to cut class). Afterward, there would be a rally in the school gym with all students in attendance to hear campaign speeches from each of the twelve finalists.
In the primary, I finished fourth, and my friend Gerry Hammarlund was a handful of votes behind in fifth place. But there had been a voting irregularity (I think one of the teachers forgot to turn in his ballots) that had cost Gerry several votes from his fellow football players. So Gerry protested the results and was reinstated. Since I had finished slightly ahead of him, I was placed on the final ballot as well. We now had five Treasurer candidates.
The next step was the rally. I always had a knack for public speaking and knew I could deliver a good speech now that I had the chance, but I was still up against some strong candidates. John Kelly had placed first in the primary by a large margin, and was one of those guys that just carried himself well and looked like a sure bet to be a success in adult life. I found out that I would be speaking fourth and Kelly had the last slot, so I felt I needed something extra to pull this off.
I didn’t know Tom Wnukowski all that well, but he was in my English class and was certifiably insane in an entertaining way. He struck me as a really smart kid that was terribly bored with the whole concept of education and lived for finding ways to cause trouble. I also knew that he was no fan of John Kelly. I caught up to him in the hallway and said, “Hey, Nuke, I need a favor and I think it’ll be fun for you.”
That got his attention. I laid out my plan and he had a huge delighted smile on his face. “You’re right,” he said. “It will be fun.”
The gym/auditorium/basketball court at St. Laurence High School had folding wooden bleachers surrounding the gym floor on three sides with a stage along the front wall. At the back of the gym was a balcony level with additional bleachers. As the start of the rally approached, we candidates were milling around the podium at the center of the court. Most were studying their speech notes and lip-reading. I, on the other hand, was seated and watching the leftmost section of the balcony as the students filed in. Nuke appeared, took a seat at the end of the top row where I’d asked him to go, and flashed me the high sign.
I knew the other candidates would be reading from fully-written scripts and I wanted my speech to sound extemporaneous by comparison. Therefore, I had written down only a basic outline and practiced off it for two days. (I was pretty sure I had saved my original notes, so I went looking in my memorabilia file and found them. They are a bit more basic than I remembered.)
By the time I approached the podium, the students had sat through enough speeches that they were understandably bored to tears. I unfolded my notes, introduced myself, and acknowledged the elephant in the room. “You’re having to listen to a lot of speeches today,” I said, to the best of my increasingly dim memory, “and I’m sure this all seems like really dull stuff.”
The audience perked up noticeably. “So let me tell you about the position of Treasurer,” I continued, “and why you should care.”
I went on to explain the responsibilities of the office and why they were important. And then, I paused.
From the top of the balcony, Nuke let out a whoop and the dozen or so guys he had assembled started clapping and cheering. I listened carefully, gauging whether it sounded spontaneous or staged. Satisfied, I continued with the next list item.
“There are four other candidates here running for the office of Treasurer,” I said, gesturing disdainfully behind me. “And I’m sure every one of them can do an adequate job. Is that good enough for you? I don’t think so, because we all know adequate means mediocre!” And I pounded the podium for emphasis.
Another roar went up from Nuke and his boys. And it began to spread to a wider section of the balcony as other students took it up.
A huge grin went across my face, and then I just went for it. I remember nothing of the rest of the speech – I have no idea what I meant by “UC representation,” and I cannot remember how I managed to make “No promises” an applause line. But I found myself adopting a cadence as I spoke, and it began to feel like a musical performance with a rest at the end of each phrase. And I watched and listened as the cheering spread further through the gym with each pause, like the Wave traveling through a sports stadium. By the end of the speech the entire student body was hollering and stamping their feet, and Wnukowski and his fellow plants were indistinguishable from the rest of the din.
I concluded the speech, repeating my name and ballot number and thanking the crowd. I remember the applause being thunderous and I don’t think I’m giving myself too much credit in retrospect. I know the speech was garbage, pure high school-level political drivel. With the audience reaction padding, I had squeezed nearly three minutes of oratory out of fifteen handwritten words.
As I turned away from the podium, I was momentarily face-to-face with John Kelly as he was approaching to follow me. Kelly didn’t say anything. He didn’t have to. His facial expression conveyed a message that could not have been more clear if he had written “You dick” on his forehead with a Sharpie. He gamely delivered his speech to the sound of literal crickets and concluded to polite applause, as though he had just addressed the Ladies’ Auxiliary over tea. And I was elected Student Council Treasurer.
In the grown-up world, speechwriters like William Safire and Hendrik Hertzberg were penning masterful prose at the same time I was writing my wretched little spiel. Now our current President has demonstrated that you can achieve the highest office in the land by spewing childish nonsense before sycophantic shills. Apparently at seventeen I was a political visionary.