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(Image courtesy of the Anaheim Public Library)

So, I was on my way to East Harlem from DC to go to Steve Gilliard’s funeral, feeling rather somber and disinclined to chatter. My shoes looked like crap, and I felt the need to clean them up, out of respect for Steve’s family (I don’t think Steve would have cared too much). Fortunately, the Amtrack station in DC has a shoe shine stand.

Picture a shoe shine stand in a major east coast commuter and travel hub near Capitol Hill, DC’s Union Station.

Nevermind, I’ll paint the picture for you. I stood before a three seat shoe shine stand, each seat occupied by a blue suited white guy over fifty, and the one in the center seat, quite a bit older than that. Each of the guys working the stand was African American. I wanted to snap a shot with my cell phone, but thought better of it. Still, it felt as if I’d stumbled upon the ultimate portrait of our nation’s capitol.

Waiting there, I had this vision of each of the seated lords as old albino silverbacks in Brooks Brothers suits, hands around their heads, see no evil, speak no evil, hear no evil. My reverie broke when I was summoned to the seat on the left.

In situations like this, I tend to chat people up, but the guy trying to rescue my shoes was the silent type, glancing sidelong here and there at the more attractive women passing by. Ah, an old campaigner. Fine by me. I’ll stay mum.

The guy working the stand in the center was a talkative type, though, and the grey eminence in the middle, just to my left, loved having an audience.

“So, who do you like for president?,” asked the shoe shine guy.

“In my own party, I like Hagel, though I know he could never get nominated. On the other side, I like Richardson and Gore.”

The shoe shine guy offered that he also liked Gore, and began to ask his customer what he thought about green issues, green products, even green weddings. I’d never heard of those, but by now I was listening, curious.

“Oh, I think Gore is right about those things. I give speeches and talk about his. Heck, when I speak in Florida, they like Gore. They elected him once, as people say, after all. I think he’d win there again. It’s totally false that good environmental policy is bad for business. I tell people this all the time. It’s good for business, could open open a lot of opportunity and innovation. I tell my Republican friends they’re too greedy. I tell them – and this drives them nuts – that Adam Smith, their hero, said that free market capitalism only really works if people don’t get greedy, they have to think about the common good.”

Now, I have to tell you, my bullshit meter works kind of like our smoke alarm back home. A little smoke doesn’t set me off. But once there’s enough smoke, well, silence is no longer an option. While I didn’t get lathered up, I felt it was time to enter the conversation.

In person, I make a pretty establishment looking presentation. My hair is short, I speak well, and I carry off a suit and tie well, (I was in a sport coat and tie to travel to the wake . . . blue jacket and rust orange patterned tie. . . New York Mets colors for Steve). My tone was matter of fact, congenial, just two guys chatting.

“Wait a minute,” I said. “The fact of the matter is, Republicans made any talk about the common good into a taboo when they ran on ‘personal responsibility.’ It was Republicans who changed the direction of the country on things like this.”

Turning to me, he introduced himself, and said to me, “You’re right.” He told me he’d been a Republican congressman, had done work with the national committee, and now he was teaching somewhere. He shook my hand, giving me the old grip and grin, and continued to describe his travels and speeches to the guy shining his shoes. I confess I was surprised to hear him acknowledge I was right, as I never hear Republicans admit what he’d just admitted, but something didn’t feel quite right. I decided I wasn’t quite done, and thought I should up the ante a bit. So, in the same conversational tone, I offered:

“Well the thing is, the current immigration debate shows us something that’s been true for a long time, and it fits with that whole ‘personal responsibility’ thing. See, ‘personal responsibility’ was always just a thin veneer to cover a whole lot of hard core racism at the core of the party. It was never about ‘personal responsibility’, but all about something else.”

If the shoe shine guys had become any more alert, I missed it. I was watching his reaction. He turned to me offhandedly, once again admitting,” You’re right.” Then he went on to explain how the immigration bill was the one thing Bush was trying to do that was right, and the party won’t even let him do it. By now his shoe shine was done, and moving quickly, he paid and tipped the attendant, hopped off the stand and bidding me goodbye.

If I’d been surprised by his first admission about “personal responsibility,” the second frank admission about the naked racism of the GOP surprised me even more. Now it’s true, I’d boxed him in before the African American shoe shine guys, so maybe he felt he had no choice. He did seem pretty eager to get away by the time he headed for the taxi line. But had the shoe shine guys even been listening?

As it happened, there was no one else on line for a shine at the moment, so the talkative guy who’d shined the ex-congressman’s shoes ambled over to me, leaning on the side of the stand, while his buddy kept looking alternately at my shoes, at me, and at the ladies passing by.

“He’s one of my regular customers,” said the talkative guy. “He’s alright. He’s a nice guy.”

It’s true; he did seem like a nice guy. But it all happened so fast, something about it still felt not quite right to me. Then I put my finger on it.

“Yeah, he does seem like a nice guy. But he’s been at this stuff a long time, and he’s been part of creating all these policies and problems that we have to deal with now. It’s all been adding up since at least the 1980′s. He may be a nice guy, but he doesn’t get a pass,” I said.

The talkative shoe shine guy, whose name I learned but won’t disclose, looked thoughtful a moment, and then said, “That’s true. He doesn’t get a pass. But I can tell you there’s some real assholes in the Democrats, too.”

“You bet there are,” I said. “Heh, I can name names. That’s why I like to work from the outside, adding pressure, stuff like that.” He didn’t hear me, though, because at precisely that moment, one of the more attractive women who works there at Union Station passed by. The two shoe shine guys gave her a friendly holler, and she replied in kind. Another minute later and my shoes were done, looking great, so I paid and tipped out to get me on my way.

Waiting for my train, I decided to google the ex-congressman on my Treo. Turns out he’d served three terms during the rise of the “Reagan revolution” before losing a reelection bid for having too close a relationship with a nubile young lobbyist who allegedly gained special access by offering. . . well, special access.

He’d come up before that as an activist lawyer in the Goldwater era. While he’s probably no neocon, he is a corporatist insider, and try though he might to act nice and distance himself from the very people whose shoes he’s effectively shined for fifty years and counting, he doesn’t get a pass. Before reconciliation, there has to be truth. It’s to his credit he admitted I was right on both counts I laid at his feet, but he bolted before risking acknowledgment of his own role in all that history. And I can’t help but wonder, would he admit the same things he admitted to me privately in public? Will any Republicans?

I really don’t want to say much about Steve’s wake and funeral. That’s for the family to talk about if they like, and I suspect, they wouldn’t want to. I sure wouldn’t in their shoes. I miss Steve like all hell but I’m glad I didn’t keep my mouth shut at the shoe shine stand. I didn’t hand the guy his nuts in a mason jar the way Steve might have in his writing, though Steve was famously gentle of demeanor in person.

Anyway, I just thought I’d tell the story, and I’ll close by encouraging people to hit paypal for Steve’s family and funeral expenses by heading over to here.