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NOTIONS: Close encounters of the human, political kind

August 27, 2007

Long ago, on a muggy Hoosier morning, my wife, Pam, and I packed the car, coaxed our reluctant sons into the back seat and drove three hours north from Indianapolis. Our destination was a summer camp in the far reaches of the state-a place where Austin and Zach would spend their first extended time away from home.

When we walked into the camp's registration area, we found two people we knew: Indianapolis Mayor Bart Peterson and his wife, Amy. They introduced us to their daughter, Meg, who also was attending the camp.

As the kids got acclimated to their new environment, the four of us talked for a few moments about our children, their apprehension about being away from home and our anxiety over leaving them with new people in a new place. And we talked about what it would be like to spend a week without them.

That afternoon, as we neared Indianapolis on our drive home, Pam and I switched on the radio news. A reporter said the stakes were high for Mayor Peterson that evening, because he had to deliver a major budget address to the City-County Council.

When the news was over, we switched off the radio, and talked about how admirable it was that even on such a highpressure day, the mayor had taken the six hours to drive his daughter to camp.

A few years later, Austin and Zach were accepted into the Indiana Repertory Theatre's Summer Youth Conservatory-a drama camp. So was Meg Peterson. The program's denouement was a performance of theatrical scenes by the students.

Pam and I found some seats in IRT's Upperstage theater. A few minutes later, I felt a tap on my shoulder from the row behind. It was Amy and the mayor, the latter's hand and wrist bound in a cast.

The mayor smiled, told us what had happened, and quipped, "This is a really bad injury for a politician, don't you think?"

Then we sat back and watched our kids perform.

Last week, I ran into the mayor at a fundraiser. The room was crowded and noisy. When he spotted me, he wrapped up his conversation with some other folks, pulled me aside, and said, "When are the boys leaving?"

I said that Zach and I would depart two days hence for California, and that Austin and his girlfriend would leave for New York the next morning.

The mayor said that he and Amy were driving Meg to school the following Monday.

Amid the hubbub, we talked about our kids being in college, and how they were feeling and the prospect of being emptynesters.

And then the mayor was called away from our dad-to-dad moment to be a mayor.

The next morning, I read an online story on The New York Times Web site. It said that the 83-year old father of New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer had received a vindictive, anonymous, middle-of-the-night voice-mail message. The call had been linked by private investigators to a political consultant who does work for Spitzer's opponents.

The anonymous caller said the elder Spitzer was going to be subpoenaed about a loan he made to his son's unsuccessful campaign for attorney general 13 years ago.

According to the Times, the caller said, "There is not a Goddamn thing your phony, psycho, piece-of-shit son can do about it ... You will be forced to tell the truth and the fact that your son's a pathological liar will be known to all."

The consultant denied making the call.

As a college senior, I worked as an intern for Fort Wayne's mayor, Bob Armstrong. Before being elected, "Mayor Bob" had been my high school's athletic director. His wife Nila, a kindergarten teacher, had taught my brother and sister.

A year later, as I began my professional career, I served Fort Wayne's next mayor, Win Moses, as press secretary, a four-year stint during which I got to know him, his wife and his children as human beings-not just public figures.

Since then, I've known and served lots of public officials, elected and appointed, Republican and Democrat, many of whom work harder, earn less and sacrifice more time with their families than they would in private-sector roles.

I've also seen them agonize aplenty over the occasional nastiness heaped upon them and their loved ones by mean-mouthed operatives and vindictive constituents who can't seem to make a policy point without resorting to personal invectives.

Now, the mighty sword of Web-based blogging, talk-back features and other avenues of anonymous commentary has also handed hurtfulness a bullhorn.

In wielding these powerful new tools of democracy, if we'd remember that public officials and their families are, like the rest of us, human beings, then the debate might be more civil and the outcomes more effective for all.



Hetrick is chairman and CEO of Hetrick Communications Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears twice a month.To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to bhetrick@ibj.com.
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