THE REAL LEGISLATIVE PROCESS
THE REAL LEGISLATIVE PROCESS is the first story in the serialization of Neil Rolde’s Political Tales: Stories from a Veteran Politician.
Mr. Rolde is a Maine renowned historian, former politician and, philanthropist. His many years of public service include being an assistant to Governor Kenneth M. Curtis for six years and 16 years as Representative in the Legislature.
The book is published by Polar Bear & Company.
THE REAL LEGISLATIVE PROCESS
So far, it looked as if the House would end its afternoon session on time that balmy day in early June. There hadn’t been much debate. The members had breezed through the Calendar and were already at “enactors.” Of seven items up for a final vote, five had already been acted upon, but before the clerk could announce the sixth, the speaker unexpectedly brought down the gavel, declared a recess until “the sound of the bell,” and bolted from the chamber to his office.
“The little man on the wedding cake”—they called him because he was short and martinet-like, and tradition in the state dictated he wear formal clothes when presiding—had disappeared from view before the legislators themselves started to empty out; some went to the capitol building’s balconies to smoke; others headed for their nonsmoking Retiring Room, in which they resumed card games, made phone calls, read newspapers, or chatted.
Even prior to dispersal, Representative Matthew X. Drew, a seasoned veteran, had dispensed his theory of why Mr. Speaker had acted so mysteriously. “Call of nature,” he loudly asserted. “Bowels or bladder, take your pick. I like the former.” In such phraseology, Matt Drew made these points as he circulated among his peers. He was a large man, immense, some would say, as much as three hundred pounds, yet he moved with ease and grace. He was a backslapper, quite literally, except for women members, whom he would call “dear,” even if they objected. Strolling through the Retiring Room, a great “florid-faced Hibernian bear,” his own words, he prattled away. Like certain kinds of actors or comedians, he was always “on.”
One elderly male member, silvery-haired and handsome, sat by himself in a leather armchair, staring into space, while holding a newspaper on his lap. His pale blue eyes had a perturbed cast to them. When Matt Drew half leaned over him, he barely reacted.
“Got you another vote, Stanley,” the big man announced. “Don’t worry. You’ll still beat ’em. What a pain he recessed us. We had momentum. I know when they’re in a killing mood. But you’ll be fine. They’ll love your speech.”
Across the old gentleman’s fine features spread an air of slight incredulity. “My speech?” he said dubiously. “You wrote it.”
“A sure-fire winner, then,” said Matt with a twinkle in his own blue eyes.
“No, a sort of fraud,” said the Honorable Stanley W. Arrow.
The bell loudly rang.
Matt checked his watch. “Bowels, I knew it,” he commented to several members nearby.
They nodded, smiling. Matt slapped Stan Arrow on the shoulder once the old man had risen lithely out of his comfortable chair. “Okay. Go get ’em, tiger. Remember, I’ll be down in front, quietly rooting for you.”
The prestigious location of Matt’s seat, it should be noted, befitted a House member with his seniority. It was Stanley W. Arrow, almost in his seventies, who as a freshman had to sit in a back row. To date, Stan had stuck to an unspoken tradition that first-timers should be seen and not heard. This was his maiden speech.
Spring had come, June warmth, the scent of lilacs. The full six-month session was almost over, and Stan still felt uneasy in his elected position. Having Matt as a friend, a mentor, a rather constant companion (they both occupied rooms in the same bed and breakfast) had certainly helped the transition for him. Until this present crisis, the old fellow had rather been enjoying himself. Coasting. Now, suddenly, as legislators liked to say, he was “between a rock and a hard place.” Some of his strongest backers were angry with him because he had let a certain bill get to the enacting stage. Sorry, I never read the thing, was not an excuse he could use. Shooting it down was his only choice (Matt’s advice). Worst of all, they would be present, judging him, the entire Allston County Civic Society, led by his own cousin’s wife, the redoubtable Margaret Walcott.
Yes, the whole gang was in the gallery today. He had met them before the opening of the morning session, shown them around the Statehouse, escorted them upstairs to the visitors’ seats. Their faith in him was worse than doubt would have been, an unbearable pressure.
With his arm around Stan’s shoulder, Matt walked him to the Members Entrance. “Remember,” he said, “sluicing an enactor’s no piece of cake, but you’ve got two advantages. Everyone’ll wonder, Why is a sweet guy like old Stan so opposed? Something’s rotten, they’ll think, and also, Stan’s first time on his feet. I’ll listen.
Great, Stan thought, suppose I make a total fool of myself!
He had seen it happen to others, even experienced legislators. Like a bullet between the eyes, an unanswerable, hostile question would demolish the argument just advanced, leave its champion stuttering. Or you’d forget the correct motion to insert. The speaker would be on you like a hawk, telling you to study the rules. Laughter—frequently it broke from the ranks and often from the gallery, too.
A dread of such humiliation was common. Consequently, there were members who never spoke but whose constituents still returned them to office term after term. As he walked back into the House chamber, following behind Matt’s slightly waddling bulk, Stan wondered, Why didn’t I put my foot down and say no to running? The silent answer reached him before he slid behind his desk. Because you’re a stubborn, proud, numb, stiff-necked Yankee.
Within moments, the speaker was gaveling for order. “Item number . . .” the Clerk’s voice rang out through the cavernous hall. Stan had a crib sheet in front of him that Matt had prepared: when to stand and raise his microphone, when to declare “Mr. Speaker,” when to offer a motion using the language printed in block letters by Matt: “MR. SPEAKER, I MOVE THIS BILL AND ALL ITS AMENDMENTS BE INDEFINITELY POSTPONED.”
Once he was standing and those words uttered, a hush accompanied the curiosity of the members, most of whom had now turned in their swivel chairs. The speaker asked the formulaic, “Does the gentleman wish to speak to his motion?”
Matt had even scripted a response, “I do, Mr. Speaker.” The presiding officer then said, “The gentleman may proceed.”
Controlling his shaky fingers. Stan lifted another piece of paper. He had rehearsed reading this speech a dozen times. Take your time, he remembered Matt’s coaching.
Having developed his argument against the offending bill, the old fellow’s voice and manner grew more confident. He even threw in a few adlib thoughts of his own. The whole diatribe, in any event, had been carefully constructed of phrases natural to Stan, to his quiet, dry, homespun style.
Any applause was frowned on. So when Stan finished, the lack of reaction did not disconcert him. Indeed, before long, he had a note, delivered to him by one of the pages. “I’m with you, Stan,” was scrawled on that representative’s stationery. Another soon followed. “Good job, Stan.” A few members, primed by Matt, jumped up and ended their speeches against the measure by urging everyone to follow the “green light” of the gentleman from Center Allston, Mr. Arrow—“green” meaning yes, for indefinite postponement, the quaint expression they used in killing a bill.
Trying to save her legislation, the sponsor, a middle-aged woman, made a serious mistake. Instead of rebutting Stan, she defended the proposed law, point by point. In effect, she bored them all, droning on and on. Knowing the tide had turned, one of her allies attempted a desperate countermeasure.
He addressed the most complicated, cutting question possible to the Gentleman from Center Allston.
Just as Stan feared. Matt had told him, “If that happens, don’t answer.” But as the seconds ticked by, and he didn’t rise to respond, he could almost palpably feel momentum slipping away.
His mind in turmoil, Stan swore to himself, Goddamnit, I absolutely won’t run again—never get in another mess like this!
He was slow to recognize that Matt, down front, was lumbering up from his seat, requesting to be recognized.
This was surprising. Was Matt coming to the rescue? Stan’s fat friend had led him to believe he couldn’t get involved in this debate. The simple reason: he had supported the measure, cosponsored it, lent his name and prestige to it.
Playing a double game wasn’t foreign to Matt. Nor was his doing so openly, drawing the curse of “traitor” or “double-crosser.” In the final analysis, though, it was conceded around the Statehouse that no one was more effective at passing or defeating legislation than the Honorable Matthew X. Drew.
Vainly had a number of rural legislators warned Stan against him, including members of the same Democratic party to which Stan and Matt both belonged. “One of these days, wait and see, he’ll use you badly,” Stan was cautioned. But the two of them continued to breakfast together almost every morning when in session, and frequently they had supper together, too. “The Bobbsey Twins,” a Statehouse wit had dubbed them. Others, less old-fashioned but also less original, referred to the unalike pair as “The Odd Couple.”
Despite their five-plus-months friendship that amused the capital crowd, Stan wasn’t quite sure how Matt would handle himself now. Trying to help out a poor, befuddled and aging freshman. Nice image—Stan caught his own cynicism and felt almost corrupted.
To be honest, Matt put on a masterful performance. Mea culpa. My fault, was his opening theme. Signing on to a bill without reading it. An inexcusable instance of inattention. “Or else I would have discovered this!” With a dramatic flourish, he held up the proposed law and pointed to a certain paragraph in the printed document. “Section 36A. Listen!”
The way he enunciated those words, his voice full of horror and shock, you could tell that not only the state but the entire republic, from Maine to California, would be in peril, if such language entered the statute books. His hyperbole, rather than sounding ridiculous, had the essence of a genuine revelation, hints of a dark conspiracy. He was “letting light into the forest,” Matt declared, while he picked apart other elements of the proposed act. And speaking of light, he closed with an old cliché. It had, he said, been attributed to Voltaire or Shakespeare or Jefferson. Who knew? But there was no more perfect simile for this artfully disguised, counterfeit, Trojan Horse-like piece of legislative legerdemain. “There it lies,” Matt thundered in truly stentorian tones, “like a dead mackerel under moonlight. It gleams, it glistens, it shines, and it stinks at the same time.”
Whatever tricky question Stan had been posed vanished after Matt sat down. The questioner never spoke again. The poor sponsor made her last plea. Soon, they were voting.
In the front of the chamber hung two enormous electronic tote boards. On each legislator’s desk, buttons could be pressed, green or red, yes or no. During a roll call, if you were in your seat, you had to be recorded publicly. Next to your name, a bulb would flash. You had about a minute and a half to decide before the speaker would announce, “Have all voted? The chair will close the vote.”
The first tally showed green winning by a decisive margin. The latecomers also mostly voted to kill the bill. Consulting his crib sheet again, Stan got up after his majority was announced and read off a technical motion to prevent the matter from being reconsidered. One more enactor was then left for consideration and passed without discussion. That terminated their official business for the day. A few remarks were offered off the record, and moments later the House stood adjourned until nine o’clock the following morning.
They’d had a long, full day. In some respects, it wasn’t quite yet over, as they mingled outside in the rotunda beneath the Statehouse dome and continued to talk shop among themselves, with lobbyists, staffers, and some guests now down from the gallery upstairs.
Stan, having Matt beside him, stayed at least an extra fifteen minutes, entertaining the contingent from Allston County, a happy bunch of folks at the moment. It mattered not that the defeated bill still had to go to the Senate and conceivably could be resurrected. Matt assured everyone they had the votes in the House to “adhere,” to stick to their decision to kill the measure. “It’s a gone goose,” he declared, before launching into an impromptu speech that was a hymn of praise to their own Stanley W. Arrow. It embarrassed Stan that he was so fulsomely lauded—and not only by Matt. Cousin Margaret Walcott also chimed in, so did others, several of them his neighbors. All the credit didn’t belong to him, he knew he could argue. But why spoil the party? There was a celebratory air as they chatted excitedly. He was like a movie star being mobbed.
Good ol’ Stan. For forty-odd years, he had stood behind the counter of the Center Allston post office. Knew everyone in town. Hell, in the whole county! Heckuva baseball player as a kid. Actually played shortstop professionally in the Minor Leagues. As nice a fellow as you’d ever meet. Never married. Last of the Allston Arrows. Straight Arrow—which they used as his campaign slogan. Who’d’ve thought old Stan’d turn politician once he retired? The way he explained it, the party got him the postmaster’s job. He’d owed them that favor when they begged him to run.
Maybe just this once, though. It was a thought he’d been pondering more and more lately, because in the past few weeks Matt had begun harping on the theme of reelection. “We’ll be out of here in about three weeks,” the veteran lawmaker had calculated. “Then we’re back next January for another six months. The following September’s the primary; November, the election. You have no idea how fast it creeps up on you.” Variations on this message seemed to have arrived with the May lilacs. Stan listened to a lot of talk about the “real legislative process,” which for Matt meant getting and staying elected.
Love of baseball was a great bond between the two men. Likewise, love of good food. Matt and his family had several times been invited to Stan’s farmhouse for elegant meals cooked by the gentleman from Center Allston, himself. “Damn your metabolism!” Matt would joke, usually in restaurants, when seeing his skinny friend guiltlessly devour bigger helpings than his own.
That particular June evening, after bidding goodbye to Stan’s constituents, they agreed to celebrate further by trying a new dinner place downtown. Both had heard of it. The portions were huge, home-cooked Italian dishes, good wines, but the location was a rough working-class neighborhood. “We’re men of the people, aren’t we?” Matt jested. “What do we have to fear?”
They drove to Mario’s Grill in Matt’s car, reducing any exposure from the seamier side of the city to half a block beyond their parking space. It was quite dark by the time they arrived. No streetlights. Just the twinkle of pink and green neon from the restaurant’s front windows showed signs of life in an area composed mostly of warehouses. “Well, it’s going to be an adventure, old buddy,” Matt said as they headed down the deserted sidewalk.
Yet the establishment was far from empty. Aside from Mario, the rotund owner and bartender, a dozen diners were at vinyl red-and-white checkerboard-covered tables, and half a dozen or so men sat on bar stools. Toward the back was an electronic bowling machine, where a further knot of men were engaged in fierce, noisy competition. Piped-in music, familiar Italian songs, added to the din, a lot of cigarette smoking as well.
The two legislators stood out as soon as they entered and waited inside the door. Matt, because of his girth, was a spectacle anywhere, although it was his commanding presence, not his size, which drew attention. Stan’s sole distinction seemed to be the bright blue plastic nametag still pinned to his suit coat, worn by most freshmen in the Statehouse to identify them as lawmakers.
“Gentlemen!” Portly, muscular Mario wasn’t long in rushing over to greet the newcomers. “I’m Mario, your host. Welcome. It’s always a pleasure to entertain esteemed members of our governing assembly.”
“And we thought we were incognito,” Matt quipped.
“Actually, Representative Drew, I recognized you,” Mario said. “I heard you speak at a hearing against a bill to ban smoking in restaurants. I want to thank you, sir. As you can see, such a bill could have wrecked my business.”
Beaming, Matt replied, “Hell, I didn’t see any need for it. I like a cigarette or two with my meal. Plus, no one’s forcing me into a restaurant.”
“I appreciate that Representative. I certainly do.” Then, after peering at Stan’s jacket, Mario said, “Welcome to you, too, Representative Arrow. We have some wonderful dishes to serve you both tonight. My wife’s the cook. You can’t find any better food in the whole city.”
“So we’ve been told,” Matt said. “I’m sure we won’t be disappointed.”
Once seated, the two representatives were swiftly turned from suspicious strangers into honored patrons. Their first bottle of wine, a raffia-wrapped Chianti, was on the house. Selected persons were brought to the table by a doting Mario to meet “our great benefactor, Representative Drew,” and also “the very distinguished Representative Arrow.” Mrs. Mario, tugging shyly at her spaghetti-sauce-spattered apron, was enticed from the kitchen to be introduced. Finally, Mario interrupted the conviviality, breaking through with a tray of antipasto and loudly announcing, “Okay, let these fellas eat.”
That, they did. With each course, the superlatives flowed. “Mario, this prosciutto— Mario, the sauce on this veal— Mario, this gnocchi!” Nor was Matt the only one complimenting. After two glasses of wine and heaps of antipasto, Stan was exulting, too. “We’ll be back, Mario. You can bet we’ll be back.”
Matt agreed. During their last three weeks in the capital, they’d have plenty of opportunities.
Once a beaming Mario was out of earshot, the fat man suddenly interjected, “Speaking of the future, I have a proposition for you, Stan.”
Zooping up several strands of scarlet-stained pasta, Stan chewed them before commenting facetiously, “Oh, oh, here it comes.”
“Okay, in a sense, I did set you up,” Matt went on sardonically. “You needed help today. I was glad to do it, although I broke my word to a few people—no matter. But you did good. You made a great showing, and now you can help me. Pay me back, so to speak.”
Around the two of them, the bar and grill noise broke in waves—people talking at the top of their voices, dishes banging, the clashing clangor of metal disks knocking over pins on the bowling machine, piped-in loud music, Mario’s yelling. It was a strange backdrop for the discussion going on at the table where both politicians chatted on, “doing business,” as Matt said.
Matt’s deal was this. Next January, in the second session, the governor intended to submit a major piece of legislation and needed a chief sponsor for it. “He’s asked me to do it,” Matt said. “But, I suspect you’d be much better.”
“Me!” Stan replied in genuine disbelief. “You’re crazy.”
“It’s the Golden Age Bill, absolutely the most important bill ever for senior citizens in our state. Who better than a real senior citizen to sponsor it?”
The wine had loosened Stan’s tongue, so he no longer spoke as cautiously as he might have. Aside from confessing his terror of handling a “big bill,” he had the temerity to wonder aloud, “Why should I want to do it, though?”
Matt’s rejoinder was no surprise. “You get a bill like that passed, with your name on it, you’re set for a lifetime up here.”
They were on their dessert. Stan, eating cannoli, responded, “What makes you think I want to come back after this one term?”
“Huh!” Despite the racket, Matt’s bellow could be heard. He stood up, shouting, “You’re drunk, Stanley Arrow, you’re drunk,” then sat down again.
Mario was bringing them some espresso coffee. He paused in his tracks. The two politicians were continuing their spirited discussion, in which the words “senior citizens” were audible several times. This fact produced another bit of theatrics. Detaching himself from the bar was a young man in dirty work clothes, visibly unsteady, his fists clenched, making his way over to Matt and Stan. He slipped right past Mario and said to the two legislators, “You’re damn right. Why don’t you help senior citizens? Do you know Mrs. Tracy? She’s an old woman who lives in my building. Know what she lives on? Popcorn and Coca Cola, while you guys feed your faces.”
Putting down the coffee cups immediately, Mario grabbed the swaying figure nearby. “Okay, Charlie, you’ve had enough, you’re going out!”
Matt was on his feet, holding up his hand. “No, no, Mario, back off. The guy has a good point. Let me speak to it.” Whereupon, Matt gave an impromptu speech, vintage Matthew X. Drew, and the whole establishment listened, including the kitchen staff. His theme was “the real legislative process.” He talked about rumors, misconceptions, people’s hostility to people they elected. Oftentimes, voters were disappointed. They didn’t see improvements right away. They suspected graft and money-wasting. Yet the folks “up on the hill,” the legislators most of all, were just citizens like everyone else. Here was Stanley Arrow, almost seventy years old, after a lifetime of work, not retiring but going to bat for the senior citizens of the state—a second career for him, after running a rural post office. Doesn’t have enough confidence yet. Matt came to the crescendo of his declamation, waving his hands like a cheerleader. “So tell Stan he can do it! Tell him he can help Mrs. Tracy get off her Coke and popcorn. Tell him to sponsor the Golden Age Bill! Yell, ‘Stan do it! Stan do it!’” And they yelled, the crowd following his lead, until Stan stood and waved to them, as if in acquiescence, and they cheered him.
Finally Matt added, “As for ‘feeding our faces,’ hell, you can see in my own case, I’m feeding all of me all of the time, and a special treat tonight with this wonderful food of Mario’s and Mrs. Mario’s!” and he clapped a pudgy arm about the restaurateur’s shoulder and kissed his wife’s cheek and ended with more roars of approval reverberating in the smoky interior.
Does the real legislative process include waking up with a hangover? Stan Arrow asked himself first thing the morning after. It was immediately followed by another silent query, How did we get home last night? Rather, back to the bed and breakfast, where he and Matt had their rooms. One thing Stan knew—he didn’t drive. And then a faint image grew in his dim, throbbing mind of Matt at the wheel, singing Irish songs drunkenly with the window open.
It was a wonder they hadn’t been pulled over. Was it only in a dream that he saw Matt waving to some state cops? To be sure, having legislative license plates on Matt’s car helped—up to a point, anyway. Arguably, Matt must have felt competent enough to drive and not risk a career-ending headline, or so Stan reasoned. When he went downstairs for breakfast, he found Matt had preceded him and was gone. But left behind was a note at Stan’s place, scribbled on legislative stationery.
“Assuming you are conscious,” Matt had written, “do not dawdle with your food. We are summoned to the office of His Excellency the Governor for a nine-thirty meeting, and he’s always delayed. Our House session, you most assuredly know, begins at ten.”
Another example of the real legislative process. More than once, they’d been called to see the governor at a certain exact time, only to be kept waiting. Well, if they weren’t in the chamber at the very start, so what? There was always a prayer, a salute to the flag, housekeeping stuff, before serious business began.
Considering why Matt was hauling him before the governor this morning, Stan thought, Too bad, I could use that prayer, which I’m probably going to miss.
Sure enough, the governor was fifteen minutes late, and the discussion was precisely what Stan had feared it would be. The chief executive obviously had been coached by Matt. No one, but absolutely no one, in the entire Legislature, was more suited to sponsor the Golden Age Bill. Seated beneath a replica of the state seal, flanked by state and American flags, the governor, a heavy-set, middle-aged man, exhibited an owlish shrewdness. He didn’t try to bully Stan, as Matt might have. Nor did he overly flatter him. His emphasis was on the good the new law would do and the iniquity of the forces opposed to it.
There was never any question but that Stan would accept. By the time he and Matt departed, that much was agreed upon. Still, tardy as they were, Stan insisted they not take their seats yet, because he had a burning question to ask.
They had just left the elevator bringing them up from the Governor’s Office. Until then, Stan had been silent. Now suddenly he stopped in front of Matt and said, “Okay, before we go in, you owe me at least an explanation.”
“Politically, you are Mr. Golden Age,” was Matt’s smart-aleck rejoinder. “How much else do you need?”
“You’ve got something up your sleeve,” Stan shot back. “Some political shenanigan too subtle for an old fart like me, why don’t you wanta be out front.”
“Yeah, old age, I suppose,” Matt said snappishly and then abruptly walked off toward the House chamber doors.
Admittedly, Stan, who watched him move away, was “pissed,” as he put it. Had he not been, he might have followed right behind his Odd-Couple, Bobbsey Twin, into the session. But what happened next would sooner or later have happened anyway. Behind him, someone was calling his name. “Stan, have you got a minute. There’s a person I want you to meet.”
He knew the voice and wasn’t surprised to see that Peter Warner III, a lawyer-lobbyist and state Democratic Party activist, was advancing toward him across the marble floor. Elegant in a pin-striped suit, “Pete” was accompanied by a handsome woman, obviously much older than he was, also very well dressed and offering a dazzling, friendly smile when introduced to Stan.
Thus do the tentacles of the real legislative process wrap themselves around an unwary newcomer doing the people’s business. Innocent old Stanley Arrow was about to be sucked into the Belmont Road fiasco.
The attractive if matronly lady was Roberta Belmont, a large-scale real estate developer who, it was explained by Warner, had a project planned for one of the towns in Stan’s district. Stan was told to call her “Bobbi,” and their meeting in the corridor was little more than an extended handshake, but long enough for a promise from Stan to have lunch with them once today’s morning session recessed. Given his present pique toward Matt, he did not bother to inform his mentor of the invitation, neither by note during the debates nor in their departure from the chamber when their paths briefly crossed. “I’m going for a smoke,” Matt muttered, which meant he would have to leave the building.
Stan met those others in the Statehouse cafeteria and learned how he could be helpful to them over a ham-and-cheese sandwich and a Pepsi.
If you check the record, you will find that Rep. Arrow himself paid for his skimpy repast. He knew enough by then never to let a lobbyist pick up his meal tab. But his experience was still too limited, after more than five months, to cope with what happened next.
In Pete Warner’s hands, without Matt around, Stan became a sort of willing piece of putty. The fatal event took place that very afternoon. It concerned a road that Bobbi Belmont wanted relocated to be closer to her project in South Allston. What Stan’s newfound companions wanted was for him to put his name on a piece of emergency legislation that would do just that. “I’ll take care of getting leadership to allow it in this late,” Pete Warner told him. “All you need to do is go to the Drafter’s Office, submit this—he handed Stan a typed copy—and sign the bill.”
Like a veteran legislator, Stan read through the one-page document, which seemed simple enough, innocuous enough. That he easily agreed, although he wouldn’t admit so right then, might have had to do with Bobbi Belmont’s winsomely pleading tone of how much this meant to her and what a dear he’d be to help out.
Later, he was to declare, internally as well as to colleagues, “There is no fool like an old fool.”
Why had he acted so incautiously? Well, a secret about Stan’s life was how it had been haunted by failure. His baseball career, for example. He’d gotten as far as Class B in the Minors. His fielding as a shortstop was superb, his hitting atrocious. A dead end there. Love life? Women? He’d had a fiancée. But she’d ditched him for a more promising guy. Postmaster in Central Allston wasn’t a bad job. Except it led nowhere. Still trying, you might say, in retirement, he’d put his name on the ballot as a favor to the party, and wonder of wonders, he’d been elected. In his new career, maybe now he could really shine.
Or was he really in his dotage?
Matt made him think so, once the last-minute bill he’d signed became public knowledge. That is, contrary to Stan’s expectation, his friend wouldn’t comment on this initiative he’d taken on his own. No words like, “You’re catching on. Attaboy, satisfying constituents.” Silence at the breakfast table. A kind of unstated coolness between them.
When it all exploded, this was also at the breakfast table. Matt shoved a local morning newspaper at Stan, drawing his attention to a front page article. Its headline: State Highway Dept opposes reroute measure.
“Do they have the name of the sponsor correct?” the oldest freshman was archly asked.
Matt rolled his eyes. “Good luck, buster,” he said.
This was the first dose of panic. A second came not long afterward, when Stan got to his desk in the House chamber and saw all the messages he’d already received that morning. The scariest had been sent by cousin-in-law Margaret Walcott, the doughty head of the Greater Allston Civic Society, who simply stated, “Stanley, how could you!”
She, herself, was speaking for the hundreds of her members who had been such devoted supporters of Stan during the election. But lots more within his district, he could tell, were registering their dismay over his action. Even a few communications from outside the state were in the mix, and the first of these he read tipped him off—inducing panic number three—that he had no idea where this new, relocated thoroughfare called for in the bill was supposed to go.
While rather frantically rummaging among the mess of papers on his desk, seeking his copy of what he’d signed, he became aware that Matt was regarding him intently with a smirk on his beefy red face.
At least it was a smirk to begin with, but Matt’s hint of amusement was soon supplanted by an expression of almost fatherly pity, translated as, my child, what an elemental mess you’ve made of things.
Then the veteran scolded him, “I’ve just found out, and I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt you didn’t know—about the cemetery.”
“Oh, my God, the cemetery!” exclaimed Stan.
“Yes, the graveyard where your own grandparents are buried and through which your new pals Warner and Belmont would have you bulldoze their road.”
“God, I had no idea,” Stan bemoaned.
“It’s not just that the highway guys are bullshit and the goody-goodies in your territory, too, but you are now eligible to be a laughing stock for everyone.” Matt’s condemnation did not for a moment spare his friend. “Ridicule, you can’t fight. Kiss your reelection goodbye.”
“Who says I care?” Stan defiantly responded.
“We’ll argue about that later,” Matt said. “Right now, we’ve got to staunch the bleeding. Act fast.”
“Do what, for example?”
“Sluice the bill. Withdraw it. Do it today.”
“Can I? Aren’t I breaking my word?”
“What the hell do you owe Pete Warner? He’s milking the real estate broad, and they’ve both milked you.”
“I don’t know. I have to think about this.”
“‘Do bad things quickly.’ That’s an axiom around this place.”
“Between a rock and a hard place,” was now exquisitely demonstrated to Stan—how such a hopeless situation could make you writhe. Damned if you do and damned if you don’t. From the hard-eyed view of an old-timer like Matt Drew, there could be no hesitation about deep-sixing the measure. Face up to a screaming match with Pete Warner and possibly Bobbi Belmont, too. Don’t even think of being a sucker for them any longer. They’re decidedly in the minority.
The technical part would be easy enough. Matt would help him with Senator William Trowbridge, chair of the Roads and Highways Committee. Before he could schedule a hearing, tell him the bill had to be withdrawn because of further information. Besides, Matt said, “Billy Trowbridge will be glad to have one less thing to do.”
The deed, consequently, was accomplished quickly. Before the day was out, the attempted end run had been relegated to the “legislative files”—that is, the morgue for failed would-be laws. Stan braced for the angry response he expected from Peter Warner III.
Had Warner been smart, he would have had Bobbi Belmont speak to Stan. Her inevitable tears would have cut through him like a knife. He might actually have promised her something rash. Of course, had she screamed at him like a banshee, he would have gotten his back up, as he did when Pete laced into him over the phone. They had a prolonged shouting match, complete with threats. “You just wait Rep. Arrow,” Warner warned. “See what happens to you in the primary election.”
“If I enter it,” Stan replied.
“If you do, you’ll have brutal opposition. I’ll make sure of that.”
When Stan eventually related this heated conversation to Matt Drew, the latter smiled knowingly. “That’s vintage Pete Warner. Notice he doesn’t offer to switch and support your Republican opponent if you win our primary. Looking out for himself in the party.”
“Well, I don’t think he’ll have to worry about me,” said Stan. “It’s more and more likely that I’m not going to run.”
“We’ll see,” was all Matt said. They were in the Members’ Retiring Room when this conversation took place. Once upon a time you could smoke there. Now, the Statehouse interior on all floors was tobacco free. Matt would need to go out of the building or onto a balcony in order to have one of his cigarillos—little brown-wrapped cigars, which he inhaled—and presently he excused himself, leaving Stan to sit and stew more about this misadventure. It seemed far from over, and he found himself angry again at Matt, this time for his arrogance in saying, “We’ll see.” Stan thought, He’s not taking me seriously, goddamn it. I won’t run! That’s final.
Five minutes later, Matt returned. He’d been out on the third floor balcony. Stan noticed that he seemed a bit out of breath. His complexion was always florid, so no alarm bells went off. Yet suddenly there was an inkling in Stan’s mind that his friend did not live a very healthy life. And he had to admit, friend was the right word for Matt, no matter how many people told him to watch out for the big guy. How he’d throw you to the wolves without a moment’s remorse. No, Matt—aside from his annoying manner in doing so—had really saved his buns in this instance. Moreover, Stan felt he could understand Matt’s disbelief that his protégé might not share his enthusiasm for participating in the legislative process. That career had been and still was Matt’s whole life. “It should be everyone’s,” he was fond of preaching.
Pondering this notion, Stan heard Matt say, “Okay, how about some supper tonight, Mr. Postmaster?”
In his affirmative reply, Stan echoed Matt’s hint of cheeriness. “Okay, but you name the place, Mr. Gourmet.”
“Remind me, Stanley,” Matt said with mock sententiousness, once they were on their way to the parking lot, “to explain the difference between a gourmet and a gourmand, which is what I am.”
“How about half a side o’ beef,” Stan shot back, and he drew an actual laugh, something extremely rare, from his overfed companion.
From that moment on in the Retiring Room, their relationship seemed back on an even footing. Within three weeks, by the beginning of June, the first session was over. It was like the end of a school year, with everyone dispersing for the summer.
Stan, as essentially a neophyte, had few official duties during the off-season. He knew that Mat would be in the capital from time to time, and he issued another open-ended invitation to his city friend and family to visit him at his farm in Center Allston.
Several months went by, and busy with his truck-garden produce that he sold from a roadside stand on his property, he realized he hadn’t received any answer from his legislative buddy. This led, the first week in September, to a phone call he made one evening. It turned out to be a perfect example of how the unexpected figures so prominently in public life.
“No good deed ever goes unpunished” was the gallows humor frequently uttered around the Statehouse. This would go round and round in Stan’s mind after he finished his talk with Matt.
Initially, the “oldest freshman” repeated his invitation to the Drew family. The response was an expression of appreciation from the veteran lawmaker, the news that his wife and kids were “at the lake,” and that he had been busy with a host of things to do, including some political stuff, such as rounding up party candidates for the election coming up a little more than a year away.
“Speaking of which,” Matt continued. “I’ve been meaning to call you.”
Instead of protesting again his earlier reluctance, Stan merely asked, “When do I have to declare myself?”
“The primary will be next June,” Matt answered. “Speaking of which—”
Stan interrupted him. “You mean, right after we get finished with the second session? And after I do your Golden Age Bill?”
“No, yours,” Matt corrected him. “And it looks like you’re going to need it. That’s why I’m glad you called. Have you heard the rumor? You’re going to have a primary opponent.”
Admitting that he knew absolutely nothing, Stan tried to sound unperturbed. And he really did feel indifferent, until Matt went on. “The story I’ve been told is that it’s going to be a relative of yours, no less, your cousin’s wife.”
“You’re kidding. Who? Margaret Walcott!”
“That’s the name. Yeah.”
“Oh, my God.”
Immediately in Stan’s mind there was a reprise of the message Margaret had sent him about the Belmont Road fiasco—Stanley, how could you! It occurred to him he hadn’t heard from her at all since he’d come home from the state capital. Strangely enough, no one local he’d seen all summer had so much as mentioned his embarrassing flip-flop. Who’d put Margaret up to this? Pete Warner, no doubt, following through on his threats. Or, to add a touch of paranoia, maybe Matt, in order to light a fire under him. Plus, he recalled, Margaret herself was pretty much of an egoist, a domineering battle-axe. Now an opportunist.
In the silence following Stan’s gulped reaction, Matt at the other end of the line took it to mean his friend was worried. So he said, “Don’t panic, old buddy. You’ll beat her easily—” To which he added a moment later the word, “provided—”
Stan found his tongue finally. “Provided what? There’s a catch, isn’t there? There always is, isn’t there?”
“No big deal,” Matt replied. “You just have to win your fight for the Golden Age Bill. You do that, and every white-haired being in your district and the whole state t’ boot will be in your corner.”
There was no further discussion at the time. The next chance the two friends had to converse was in late November. They’d been summoned to a morning meeting in the Governor’s office. The discussion topic was the Golden Age Bill. Merely by showing up, Stan was signifying his willingness to fill in for Matt as the prime sponsor. There was no question about it, as the chief executive and key staff went over strategies and tactics with Matt and Stan and a few other interested legislators.
It had been more than five months since Stan had seen Matt Drew. It struck him that Matt didn’t quite look the same. His weight was still tremendous, but was there a bit of a gimp to his walk, or a slight slowness not noticeable before. The florid complexion seemed a tad darker, approaching wine purplish. Matt’s breathing was on occasion partially audible, although as soon as they broke, he had a cigarillo back in his mouth, puffing away, and ye gods, inhaling as always.
Stan didn’t dare to ask his friend about his health. When they went to have lunch together, Matt ate as much as ever, was his effusive self, and the subject was never raised.
Except it did come up in January, when they were back at the Statehouse for the second session of the term and back at the same bed and breakfast.
In the early weeks before the machinery for legislating revved up, they had a lot of downtime. Bills had to be prepared and parceled out to appropriate committees. Behind the scenes, Matt and Stan and the governor’s people worked at finishing touches on the Golden Age legislation. It was during this period that Matt, unbidden, answered a question that Stan had long mulled in his mind.
An offhand remark by Matt had set the stage for a revelation. Introducing Stan to an acquaintance, Matt referred to his almost septuagenarian friend as the “man who saved my life.” Not until they were having supper together that night did Stan, after a couple of beers, ask him what he meant.
“Just that,” Matt said. Then, he measured his words carefully. “If you hadn’t been around and willing, perhaps reluctantly, to be the sponsor of our big bill, I might have taken it up, and the strain—ask my doctor—might have done me in. Stanley W. Arrow, lifesaver.”
Was Matt exaggerating or not? By now, Stan knew enough not to take the younger man’s words at face value, no matter how sincere he sounded. Oh well, the best thing was to say nothing and wait.
A week went by. They began in the House to attend to business, morning sessions that started at ten a.m. and lasted almost to noon. Some work got done.
A considerable amount of vapid speechifying also took place, mostly off the record. A few members told jokes. Matt was particularly funny one snowy day and drew many laughs. He seemed particularly exuberant when he met Stan in the corridor once they’d adjourned.
“I’m sick of cafeteria sandwiches,” was how he greeted his elderly sidekick. “What do you say we drive downtown and go to Mario’s for a real spread. He does lunch. I called him. Promised us a huge antipasto.”
“Let’s do it,” Stan said. “My committee’s meeting, but not until two.”
“Okay, I’ll pick you up by the front entrance. I need to do a little errand first.”
Having anticipated that Matt was planning to sneak in a smoke, Stan didn’t stay around on the third floor. After precisely fifteen minutes, he had his overcoat on and was waiting outside in the cold.
That Matt was late did not bother him for at least ten minutes. But then he began to feel a bit antsy, because of his impending meeting back here at the Statehouse. Not always, but most often Matt was punctual.
About to turn angry, ready to start cursing Matt under his breath, Stan noticed that he’d been joined at the entrance by another legislator. It was a man he didn’t know well, last name Rutherford, opposite party, from upstate. The two of them had nothing in common, except that they had been elected and Charles Rutherford was serving his third term, Stan believed, and he barely spoke on the floor and only then to echo someone else’s conservative sentiments.
“Hi,” Stan said.
The other man stared at him in a sort of quizzical way. “You’re Mr. Arrow, right?” he finally replied. “You’re the friend of Matthew Drew.”
“Yes, I’m waiting for him. We’re supposed to go to lunch together.”
“Oh,” said Charles Rutherford. There was a long pause before he added, “Then, you don’t know.”
“That he’s dead.”
In the welter of emotions that accompanied these shocking words, questions may have popped out that were only later considered by Stan. There was too much detail that had to be absorbed first. What had happened? Apparently, since Matt was alone smoking on the third floor balcony, no one had seen exactly how he’d keeled over. How long had he lain there before his breathing stopped? Who had found him? Charles Rutherford supplied some information. He’d been upstairs. Soon, though, the other man’s wife came for him by car, and Stan found himself back inside the Statehouse and on an elevator to the third floor. On the way, he remembered when, not many months before, Matt had stopped using the stairs to reach their usual destination. Another sign of something he hadn’t asked the big man about.
The third floor was literally deserted. Nothing blocked Stan from going out onto the balcony where Matt had collapsed. The 911 guys had come up on the service elevator and been very efficient in clearing the area. Where had they brought Matt’s body? Stan didn’t want to know and wouldn’t go into any nearby office to ask. Numb all over, he also dreaded returning to their B&B.
Unsurprisingly, at the funeral, Stan was asked to sit in the front row with the immediate family. In the pew behind them were the governor and other dignitaries. The bishop himself conducted the Mass, and the cathedral in Matt’s home city was filled to overflowing. Taking leave of Matt’s widow following the graveside service, Stan was told something he also never forgot. “Your friendship with him was brief, Stan,” Marie Drew, swathed in black, remarked, “but he once said to me it was the only real friendship he’d enjoyed in all those years.”
Had anyone else said so, Stan would have taken it cynically as more of Matt’s usual hyperbole, but coming from Marie, these words of his friend somehow exuded a pure sense of sincerity. The silvery haired old gentleman accepted them as truth and was humbled.
One could say that his zeal for working on the Golden Age Bill was that of a convert with a personal motive driving him. Also, it began to appear, this task was not the slam dunk Matt and others had blithely insisted. Overlooked was blind partisanship. The opposing party’s leaders had quietly told their troops the governor’s proposal should not pass. While defections from their policy occurred, not enough of them could be counted on. And among Democrats, Mat’s legacy was a two-edged sword. Sentimentality won Stan some easy support; yet other fellow Ds had scores to settle with the big man, even in death.
For example, the gal whose bill he’d defeated with Matt’s help in his maiden speech. This honorable gentlelady made it plain she didn’t blame Stan. No, it was “double-crossing Matthew Drew” who had scuttled her hopes, a turncoat cosponsor shooting her down. “Unforgivable,” she said. “Sorry, Stanley.”
An earlier Representative Arrow would have let the matter rest there. He wasn’t missing any chances now. Of this adamant female member he’d learned that her eighty-six-year-old mother was in a nursing home. On that basis, a dialogue had been established between the two of them—on her part, mostly complaints about the treatment her loved one was receiving; on his part, subtle hints about how his bill would make a difference in this case. He never asked for her vote. Nor was he really surprised by her green light on the tote board, accepting a crucial motion.
Such sheer persistence accounted for Stan’s eventual victory. That, and a summing-up speech he ad-libbed from a few notes, a sincere outpouring of his own heart, with a tasteful rendering of homage to his deceased friend and to the meaning and importance of the real legislative process. It’s not often that speakers in a body which produces thousands of words each day receive, themselves, a compliment. More than several members told Stan he’d brought tears to their eyes.
Triumph! The bill signing was covered by every television station in the state, and Stan’s picture, standing behind the pen-wielding chief executive, was on the front page of most of the major and even minor newspapers. But the hoopla and praise had no effect in scaring off Margaret Walcott from entering the primary against Stan that same spring.
The day after her announcement, Pete Warner phoned Stan, who decided on the spot to listen and not slam down the receiver upon hearing the lawyer-lobbyist’s “Benedict Arnold voice” (Stan’s own words).
“I swear to God,” Pete protested. “I spent five hours with that woman on Thursday, trying to talk her out of it. I admit, when I was so mad at you, I suggested the idea to her. But she’s one stubborn, high-horse bitch, full of herself and her so-called ideals, and she wants, as she insisted, ‘to teach you a lesson.’”
“I may teach her a thing or two,” answered Stan.
“Oh, you’ll cream her, I’m sure. But if in the general, she takes her crew over to Eddie Rodgers, it could make the difference in a close race.”
“You want me to do something, right?”
“Call Margaret. Schmooze with her. Apologize. Romance her.”
“She’s never been my type,” he responded.
In June, as predicted, Stan won easily. Margaret never bothered to concede. Neither did she congratulate him nor pledge any party unity. On the other hand, there was no open indication she was supporting Stan’s Republican opponent. The race was being billed as “youth against age.” Eddie Rodgers showed surprising political strength, actually twisting Stan’s success against him. The argument was: “The old gent’s good for getting help for the old folks, but what about the rest of us? It’s a young man’s job.”
With the election coming down to the final weeks, an increasingly nervous Pete Warner kept pestering Stan. “Call Margaret,” he insisted. “Call Margaret.”
“I’ll think about it,” was the most Stan would concede.
It happened that one bright October morning, he did consider the matter. It was cider-and-pumpkin time at his farm stand. Business had been slow. Of course these interludes as Farmer Stan combined both business and politics. Vehicles on the road, even if they didn’t stop, might bring him a friendly wave. Now and then, one in passing would reveal a crimson-and-white sticker on the bumper or the rear window, always teasing a smile out of Stan. His posters, dotted on his fields and lawn, bore the same color combination, which was that of the Consolidated Allston High School. So too with those of his signs he’d designed himself, reading, Vote for Stan. He’s a straight arrow.
“Too corny,” Pete Warner had advised him. But he had salvaged them from the first campaign and used them along with new ones that added simply, Re-elect Representative Stanley Walcott Arrow.
In the latter case, Stan had given in to Pete Warner, the so-called pro, and accepted Walcott in full, instead of a mere W, emphasizing his ties to that important family in the district.
This particular autumn morning, with approximately two weeks to go until Election Day, Stan was sitting at the counter of his stand and only looking up when he heard a motor. Otherwise, he was signing campaign postcards, stacks of which were on either side of him, the higher one of the unsigned on his left, and the slowly accumulating pile of finished pleas for votes on his right. It was slow going, because he penned a personal message on just about every card.
Such rote work was a welcome escape from every candidate’s bane—constant worrying about the election outcome. If he lifted his head at the sound of a motor and saw a smear of orange and black on a car—Eddie Rodgers’ bumper sticker—his stomach began churning. In an hour and a half, it seemed that orange-and-black signs were at least equal to crimson and white among the local traffic. At last, he forced himself really to think about Margaret Walcott.
What did she want? Was it worth a phone call? What would Matt advise him? Well, he knew that answer. Ignore the bitch. Which he had done.
It was about ten minutes later that the most extraordinary thing happened. Stan had gone back to his postcards. Hearing a car on the road, he decided to ignore it and stop counting bumper stickers—that is, until the vehicle could be heard slowing down and then pulling into his driveway.
A paying customer, he concluded, before looking up.
Astounding him instead was the sight of Margaret Walcott’s Buick and the doughty lady’s stout figure as she exited and approached the farm stand.
Was Stan anticipating what happened next? Surely, she wasn’t coming to buy vegetables.
No, Margaret, in a sense, had come to surrender.
It would take far too long to reproduce her reasons. She was a “gabby old gal,” Stan had told others who didn’t know her. Some folks in the Allstons called her “motor-mouth.” During her present performance, she hardly left a moment for the state rep to get a word in edgewise. But he remembered ever afterward those words of hers: “Therefore, Stanley, I have decided to support your reelection. I have come for some of your stickers and lawn signs.”
Providing these materials for her, Stan couldn’t help but exult to himself, It means she’s positive I’m going to win. But he cut her no slack. I’ll bet she’s thinking, “I’ll stay on his good side, since I want to run after he retires or dies.”
On the other hand, her openly stated motivation was, “We all make mistakes, Stanley. I’m now convinced you were hoodwinked on that road business. Most of my members at the Civic Improvement Society feel the same.”
Yeah right, Stan thought cynically.
Alter she drove off, he returned to his postcards. And he had to laugh aloud, when a few minutes later the next postcard he drew was addressed to Charles and Margaret Walcott in West Allston.
It took him the longest while to hit upon what to write. “Dearest cousins,” he finally scrawled, “I’m pleased I can count on you to send me back, where I will learn ever more about the real legislative process.”