Monday, June 02, 2008

Interview with Mike Mansfield

I just found the following journal entry that I wrote on February 4, 1996 about my visit with Senator Mike Mansfield.

I have just passed my 23rd birthday and this is my first entry of this new year.
On Friday, I traveled to Washington D.C. to meet Mike Mansfield. It was a one-day trip--I left Sarah Lawrence College at 4:30 am to arrive in D.C. by 11:00 am. Perhaps it was all of this travel time that lead me to expect a great "meeting of the minds" for my trip to be worthwhile, but of course I would have expected this anyway.
What I really expected to find (or maybe to get) was some sort of great wisdom from a man who has spent his lifetime in politics, shares my love of Montana, and has nine toes in the grave, as they say. I expected him to be willing to pass on the baton, in whatever capacity, to a younger person.
In retrospect, maybe he did--but it wasn't the answer I wanted to hear.
We sat down, he offered me some Sanka with creamer and sugar, and his secretary brought in some chocolate chip cookies. I presented him with a copy of We Are Missoula which he thumbed through and then set aside. He seemed to be expecting a question from me and I had one ready for him:
"You have helped me a great deal, through your Foundation, to produce this book. With our shared love of Montana, is there anything that I can do for you for Montana?"
I suppose this is a difficult question to answer on the spot, but what surprised me was that he really didn't address me at all. He talked about Montana and then when he had finished, said "next." As in, next question.
He did this at the end of every question, as if I were a reporter. He even asked me where my tape recorder was. We really didn't have a conversation except at one point when I had asked him what parallels he noticed between the cultures of Japan and Montana. He said he didn't really see any parallels, only comparisons.
Then he asked me what parallels I saw, and I mentioned that I found it interesting that Japan and Montana share a similar chronology. Japan started "Westernizing" in the Meiji period beginning in 1865, about the time that Montana was first being settled and developed. I suggested that although the cultures are quite different, as are the economies, attitudes of the people, etc., I felt that they are both experiencing periods in their history where their identities are being challenged by outside influences.
"But Montanans have a strong identity," he argued, and we left it there.
Before I left, I asked him if he had seen the Vermeer show at the National Gallery, thinking that he might like to go with me. "I'm not much of a Veneer man," he said. "I'm a Charlie Russell man, myself," adding that he used to deliver groceries to Charlie Russell.
A veneer man.
I thanked him again for his help on my project, adding that if he ever needs my assistance in any capacity, and especially where Montana is concerned, I am at his service.
His last words--and maybe the only words of the kind of wisdom I was looking for--were, in effect, "It's up to you. You and your generation are responsible for the future."
He walked me to the elevator and as I entered, he said, "I am going to give you a Japanese farewell." He took a deep bow with his arm outstretched above his forehead as the elevator doors closed.

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