I VOLUNTEERED ON MY first political campaign in 1994. Mario Cuomo, running for governor of New York for a fourth time, was facing a tough race against George Pataki, a Republican state senator who, unlike Cuomo, favored the death penalty. I called the Cuomo campaign and expressed my desire to help, explaining that I had a better than average education in the hope that I would be given an interesting assignment. My offer was enthusiastically received. I was asked to report to an office in Garden City, Long Island, near where I was working as a lawyer at the time.
There I was locked in a small room to seal envelopes and make telephone calls. No one could have been less suited for the task than I. Even with a script provided by the campaign, my phone manner was extraordinarily bad. I began each call with a string of profuse apologies for bothering people at home. People often hung up before I could state the reason for my call. I wasn't very good at sealing envelopes either.
My colleagues were passionate and vibrant and all over seventy years old. They fed me constantly. Pizza. Cookies. Chips. I hardly had time to be hung up on before someone offered me more food. After work we would go out to a diner where my new friends would feed me more. They liked that I was Jewish. Mostly, I think, they liked that I was less than seventy. It felt much more like visiting my grandparents in Florida than working on a political campaign. I know now that I was part of a systematic process to stimulate voter turnout—a pull operation to be precise—but the work had only slightly more appeal to me than the game of mah-jongg to which my colleagues retired after dinner. I left the Cuomo campaign disenchanted. I had imagined politics to be so much more.
My second political experience was vastly different. As the research director on Ruth Messinger's 1997 New York City mayoral campaign against Rudy Giuliani, I was part of a universe of consultants and advisers who sat in think tanks and plotted strategic courses through the labyrinth of politics. They ate lots of food too, but in every other respect this world was everything the other was not. It was vibrant, fast-paced, and filled with