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Why I'm a Writer (and Not in Politics)

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Grassroots, the entertaining film about politics -- yes, it's possible -- is coming to New York this Friday. The day before it arrives, I'll be at The Strand here in New York, reading from my book Grassroots before sitting down with director Stephen Gyllenhaal and producer Peggy Rajski to talk about how they adapted the book to film. One topic that I am sure will come up will be how they portrayed me. It should be pretty interesting, especially because Gyllenhaal wants people to think I was a lot better at politics than I really was.

It's a nice thought. A more realistic answer is that some people are just not cut out for politics. Some of us just don't have the mindset for it. Here's a story about a car accident to illustrate my point.

I was lost in steamy Philadelphia looking for Please Touch, a popular children's museum, with my son in the back seat. We were driving through downtown and I didn't have the faintest clue where we were or where the museum was. I didn't have GPS in my rental and my son is too young to be consulting a map and giving instructions from his booster seat.

So as I grew increasingly irritated with Philadelphia's unfamiliar streets, I consulted my smartphone's mapping program. I put the phone on my lap and kept checking street names against the phone's tiny, digital lines, which didn't always conform to the road before us. And I started getting sloppy with my driving.

Until, that is, I hit someone. With my car.

I was taking a left onto a major road (whatever its name was; does it matter?), and as I looked up I saw a man's body roll off the right side of my hood. The thump against the car was a distinct smack of flesh against metal. The thump against the pavement was more muted. The man's grimace and shout registered later, somehow.

Horrified, I stopped. A crushing fear and guilt overwhelmed me, and I got out to see if my victim was OK. The man shouted and cursed and staggered and clutched his knee. He picked up his cell phone and called 911. He screamed for an ambulance.

Good Lord. What happens now? Was he OK? The man ignored me. The guy had the right of way. What's the penalty for causing injury like this? I didn't even know if it was civil or criminal. It wasn't hit-and-run, at least, it was a hit-but-pulled-over.

I looked inside the car at my son in his booster seat. Don't ever hit people with your car, son. Another Teaching Moment, coming up!

Finally, the man hobbled over to me. He favored one leg over the other. I confessed to him that I hadn't been paying attention because I had been looking at my phone.

A middle-aged man with a high voice and piercing, calculating eyes, he looked at me for several seconds. Then he demanded money. "How much do you have on you?" he said icily. Gone was any talk of an ambulance. He wanted forty-eight dollars. How he calculated that amount I have no idea.

I reached into my pocket, confused. Adrenaline was fueling us both. I gave him what I had, thirty-four dollars in smudgy ones and tens, not quite what he had wanted. He snatched the money and left. Still staring, I watched him trudge off, behind an old warehouse of some sort.

I rewound the entire scene in my mind. Things didn't add up. I had been driving pretty slowly. Was he even injured at all? Maybe he was. Had he played up his injury? Maybe, maybe not. Is it possible that he jumped onto the hood of the car, for theatrics? Yes. Would that have made me blameless? No.

I liked it better when I just felt guilty. That's a purer emotion, at least, and it's always easier when you know exactly whom to blame. I was left instead with a mixture of guilt, anger, and adrenaline.

I find it impossible to tell that story in any way but the way I just told it. I honestly don't know what happened in that Philadelphia intersection. I have to tell it like I just told it, with just the right amount of human detail and ambivalence, my mistakes included, but also the shift in storyline when the man suddenly demands cash. That's the mark of a writer.

It's also why, in the final analysis, I am no good at politics. During my one actual local campaign experience -- which resulted in the book and film Grassroots -- I made many basic mistakes about the mechanics of running a political campaign. That's not the point; with practice, I could learn those. The point is the underlying way politicians and their campaign managers shape narratives. In politics, you have to tailor all your stories, all of them, in ways that make you look good.

An accident story like the one I just told doesn't make anybody look good.

We all deal in a little narrative jiujitsu to give meaning to life and to explain the things that happen to us, but politicians are the ones who are constantly talking as if they're on a job interview, even after they're in office, because, well, they want to get re-elected, don't they? That includes the politicians who go into politics in an honest attempt to try to improve people's lives through their public service.

And the bad politicians... well, the bad ones would have driven off without stopping, wouldn't they?