This column was published November 12, 2022 in the Manhattan Mercury.
Early in my career, I got used to power. People would return my calls promptly and gave me what I wanted. As a TV news reporter covering politics in the ‘90s, I wanted them to drop everything, rearrange their day, invite me into their home or office, let me stick a camera and microphone in their face, and allow them to pontificate about whatever I deemed newsworthy enough to prompt my call.
Not next week, not tomorrow. Today. At 10 a.m. Then at 2 p.m., I’d do it all over again with someone representing a differing or opposing view. Then back to the TV station, write, voice and edit the package to air on the 6 o’clock news.
A combination of factors influenced their decisions to say, sure Matson whatever you want, none of them because they liked the color of my eyes. I was a vessel for their message, amplified by the most effective communications vehicle of the era.
Later, when I switched sides of the camera and became spokesman for a Governor, the same premise held true. Calls were still returned promptly, but a layer of unspoken influence was added. Specifically because those returning the calls perceived that I was important, simply because I spoke for the Governor, they would do what I want. Or if initially wary, I found I could often get them there by the end of the call.
Come to your shop and disrupt your business day for a bill-signing ceremony? Sure. Work up a quick white paper on the ins and outs of the Homestead Property Tax Exemption? You bet. You’ll have it by lunchtime.
I knew enough about the ways of the world to sense this was not normal, that it was somehow special. My end of the bargain, however, was becoming the norm, and because I was a marginally intelligent, well-spoken cisgender white male, I got the benefit of the doubt. Always. The ‘90s Kansas culture was on my side.
The unspoken payoff was that dealing with me got you on TV or close to the Governor.
When my career transitioned to the less glamorous, everyday work of system advocacy, the luster faded. Absent the imprimatur of the Governor or the shine of being that dude on TV, I became just another garden variety manipulator. Just another apparatchik.
All of this ran parallel with recovery from addiction. Awareness was a huge initial step. When I gained the ability to levitate above the milieu and see the entire picture, to visualize the full idea-to-endgame chronology, only then did it hit me I wasn’t winning people over purely by dint of personality, firm handshake and winning smile.
Whether it was filling the daily news hole, helping get a Governor elected, or spinning public policy proposals, it may have been manipulation in the service of moving an agenda, but it was still manipulation.
The recovery-driven change was gradual awareness, leading to a simple realization. Removal of self. Don’t lead with “me.” The Sunday school lesson of love your neighbor was legit. I learned to levitate and have come to interpret my recovery as sort of an existential mashup of physical, mental, spiritual and emotional health. What else is there?
Relationships ceased to be transactional and became genuine. It wasn’t power. It was a delusion of power. I try to live with no expectation of praise or pity. The operative word being, ‘try.’
By owning the past, I leave myself open to redemption.