In praise of a party warhorse
We're a funny country because we may be as polarized as we have ever been across partisan lines, yet we don't give much respect to the hard-working loyalists in either party, the people who are dedicated to politics when politics is fashionable and when it's not. They show up at the meetings no one else wants to attend, do the work no one else wants to do, stay engaged when everyone else drops out of sight. They actually are the lifeblood of our electoral democracy.
These thoughts come to mind because I am saddened by the death of one such party warhorse who hails from the part of the world where I grew up. Sylvester Sylvia (wonderful name, isn't it?) passed away on Monday at the age of 87. I loved Sylvester because he never lost a bit of his energy for politics, his passion for old-fashioned Kennedy liberalism, or his deeply intelligent engagement with everything that was going on around him, both locally and nationally. Every year, I looked forward to exchanging ideas and pure political gossip with him at my sister's party after Christmas. It wasn't just a liberal lovefest, by the way. The conservative side was faithfully represented by another friend, Navy Capt. Pete Hewett, who retired after 28 years of service to his country. I don't think Pete ever agreed with Sylvester on anything (or with me, either), but he enjoyed Sylvester as much I did.
I respected Sylvester as someone who kept at it, whether he won or lost. He ran for Mayor of New Bedford, Mass. three times, all of his efforts unsuccessful. But he eventually won election to the Bristol County Commission, where he served for 14 years. In the meantime, he served governors and mayors in a variety of jobs, all the while staying active in state and local Democratic committees -- and taking real joy in all of it. Happy Warrior may be an overused phrase (it is one of my personal favorites), but it definitely applied to Sylvester.
I regret I never gave Sylvester a copy of the political philosopher Nancy L. Rosenblum's great book, "On the Side of the Angels: An Appreciation of Parties and Politics." He did not have to read it to know, as Rosenblum noted, that "partisanship is the political identity of American democracy." He would have agreed with her that the parties' "positive contributions to regulating political conflict, governing, exciting political participation and deliberating go mostly unacknowledged." He didn't require the ratification of a distinguished Harvard professor for how he had chosen to dedicate his energies. But he'd have gotten a kick out of the fact that there was one who saw things just as he did from the wards of New Bedford.
And here is a lovely thing: This loyalist contributed to his party's cause right to the end of his life. When Rep. Barney Frank found himself engaged in his first tough race for reelection in decades, he enlisted Sylvester to star in one of his television ads -- if you look at it, Sylvester is the guy chatting with Barney at the diner. Frank won in the end, and I'll now always think of his reelection as Sylvester's last victory.
| November 24, 2010; 5:07 PM ET
Categories: Dionne | Tags: E.J. Dionne
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