So began an e-mail from my son, Sam, right after he arrived in Baghdad in mid-March. A decade ago, after graduating from college, Sam was writing stories about local zoning board meetings for The Camden Herald, a weekly paper in the coastal Maine town where he grew up and went to high school. I knew his interest in government would lead him back to the larger world, but to find him fighting for democracy in Iraq I must confess has come rather as a surprise.
Sam was born in 1971 in Washington, D.C. He is the first of our three children. We moved to Maine when he was eight and I became the publisher of several weekly papers along the coast. A few years later Sam started his own paper, The Daily Planet, and made his younger sister Eliza a reporter until her stories became "boring" and he fired her. He and his friend Eli also ran the "Patten Detective Agency," which specialized in recovery of lost bikes and divorce spying--a potentially lucrative business in the cute little town where Peyton Place had been filmed.
We used to laugh indulgently at his innocent dreams to save the world. Today it is harder to laugh. Sam is now working for the United States in Baghdad as part of a professional team trying to bring democracy to that country. He is the "Resident Political Director" of the International Republican Institute, a government-subsidized agency aimed at fostering democracy around the world. Sam has been working for IRI in Russia over the past three years and was recently assigned to Iraq.
How Sam became a Republican and ended up in Baghdad is a long story with no single explanation. On the most primal level, I feel it's healthy that a son should try to challenge and surpass his dad. Growing up under the shadow of Dad's columns and editorials certainly offered a vivid reality to reconstruct. But then was it chance that he started working for Senator Bill Cohen, Republican from Maine, in college and later helped Senator Susan Collins, also a Republican, fill his seat?
When George W. Bush came to Portland during the 2000 presidential campaign I remember Sam telling me how moved he had been by overhearing the candidate express his love for his father in response to a journalist's question. Sam went on to head the Maine campaign for Bush, and felt crushed when his home state didnt come through for George W. I tried to console him, but how sincere could I sound?
Sam knows that I never could share his support of Bush, and has probably guessed that I am revolted by the stupidity of his invasion of Iraq. But each week I receive updates on what is happening to him and his coworkers, Arabs and Americans, and these I cherish far more than our ideological differences. He knows that his parents are concerned about his safety and that we love him regardless of the quagmire he finds himself in.
It's easy, especially with Bush's overwhelmingly pro-business world agenda, to overlook the passionate idealism that underlies Sam's thinking. It's tempting to forget Sam's initiatives at Georgetown University to start a date-rape prevention center, his summer spent working in a legal aid clinic in D.C., and later his work in Bosnia in the international refugee mission. In fact, Sam's own lack of interest in business or moneymaking seems ironic to say the least when one reflects on whom he is working for.
I was talking to a real estate man not long ago who reminded me that we all construct our own realities. He had been raised Roman Catholic and sings in his church choir with his son. As I'm a part-time Unitarian Universalist minister, we had a wonderful conversation. He explained that he is about to leave his church and I gave him some information about the UU tradition, realizing it would be a long shot for him to make such a radical theological leap.
It would also be a long shot to expect my son Sam and his colleagues, despite their workshops and seminars on democracy with the Iraqis, to solve all the problems and clean up the mess that our impetuous president has led our nation into. Still, I respect the harsh dilemmas he faces on a daily basis, and I believe that he will have learned some invaluable human lessons in the process.
What I cherish is the genuine connection we have today, the conversations and sometimes the moments of laughter. Do I expect him to become a Democrat? Of course not; truth is, I might be secretly disappointed if he did. Our conversations would be much less interesting. I admire his sense of humor and the zest that fueled his youthful creation of The Daily Planet. That we do not on some level share the same political realities is little different than if he decided to become a Roman Catholic. What matters, whether Republican or Democrat, is that he learn to wear his garments loosely.
During the frenzy of the Easter Rebellion of 1916 in Ireland, W. B. Yeats was moved to lament "the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity." Indeed, as I read and hear the news coming out of Iraq and elsewhere, rarely have I felt so alienated by our nation's leadership; but when I read Sam's e-mail dispatches from Baghdad, never have I felt prouder of my own son.
Bill Patten of Worcester, Mass., worked until recently with the MRC's Men Overcoming Violence program and is a founder of the new Men's Resource Center of Central Massachusetts.