The Heart of a Politician

04/05/2011 09:00 am ET | Updated Jun 05, 2011

Yesterday I got a text from my sister with a note that former NJ Congressman John Adler had died. I had known him as "Senator" Adler because for 17 years he had served as a member of the NJ State Senate. I met him as a 17 year-old high school student, when he conducted my Harvard admissions interview.

The news of his passing came as quite a shock, particularly because I've recently moved to Washington DC and since I've yet to install a TV or internet in my new place, and have been largely consumed with tracking down lost luggage and missing movers, I haven't been as connected to current events as I typically like to be. If not for a text from my sister, I might not have heard the news at all.

DC, I'm discovering, is a city with an almost irresistible momentum. On my second day in town I found myself at the Congressional Correspondents Dinner where I heard speeches from the likes of Senator Rand Paul, the Daily Show's Larry Wilmore and perhaps most memorably Congressman Anthony Weiner, who is shockingly hilarious in a very Brooklyn way.

I hadn't known about the Correspondents dinner until I received a generous impromptu invitation from some of my new colleagues in town and having just arrived from Los Angeles "sans luggage," I had to make swift moves in order to find a same-day tux rental and get geared up in time to make my first DC event. Within minutes of arriving I found myself speaking with one of Secretary Clinton's deputies at the State Department about some of their Public Diplomacy initiatives. I then saw Senator Susan Collins (R-Maine) to whom I promptly introduced myself and asked her thoughts on whether the GOP's outreach to young voters would be better matched with Democratic efforts in the 2012 presidential cycle than it was in 2008. She shared some gracious thoughts about encouraging youth involvement in electoral politics, and before she had finished her comments I nearly bumped into Ben Nelson (D-Nebraska), who is both shorter and friendlier than he looks on TV.

I remembered how a number of my friends had been upset with Senator Collins' perceived equivocations on stimulus and health care votes, and how ALL of them had been upset with Senator Nelson's recalcitrance on the Affordable Care Act. Standing there speaking with them both in person, I couldn't help but think "they don't seem so bad..."

The highlight of the event though was sitting next to Congressman Jim McDermott (D-Washington), who introduced himself as representing the people of Seattle. I, like a proper genius, asked him if he was mayor and he laughingly set me straight with a minimum of public humiliation. A friend and I then spent much of the rest of the night being regaled with stories of Congressman McDermott's travels around the world and his experiences as a physician long before he came to DC, and in many cases long before we were born. I left the DC Convention Center that night with a feeling that despite all my "healthy skepticism" and prerequisite intellectual dissatisfaction with the present functioning of our political system, perhaps some of our public servants were in fact truly interested in serving the public... or at the very least weren't nearly as bad as they seemed on Hardball.

The first American politician I met, after years of living and traveling in countries with less-than-democratic systems of governance, was State Senator John Adler. He was not only a major factor in my getting to go to Harvard, but in my jumping headlong into Gov tutorials, Institute of Politics events and political debates while there. My little sister would later work for him, and in November of 2008 as she and I watched election results together, we celebrated not only the election of Barack Obama to the Presidency, but of John Adler to Congress.

Senator Adler in the short time I knew him inspired me to believe that at their best, politicians could help define the difference between societies that reflect the interests of their people, and those who are immune to them. For those of us who have memories of going to school carrying gas masks, it's hard to over-emphasize the value of this belief. It's the difference between living in a world where freedom means you can choose your leaders, and one where your oppression is so stoic you'd count yourself lucky to have a choice of chains...

A week after moving to DC I find myself struggling for words to say goodbye to someone who I am only now realizing is a big part of the reason I'm here at all. So I'll just say thank you John, and may God rest your soul and protect your family. You gave people like me a reason to believe in people like you.