A Lesson in Politics: Mimi’s Simple Answer

by Borderstan.com September 6, 2012 at 2:00 pm 1,578 1 Comment

From Dito Sevilla. Email him at dito[AT]borderstan.com, follow him on Twitter @DitoDC.

In times of doubt, in moments of trepidation, even political doubt, when the answers you seek don’t materialize where do you go for answers?  From whom do you value advice? Who can you trust to have your best interests at heart? For most of my life, answering those questions came easy. Like so many in my family, I had Mimi — even when it came to politics.


Grandma Mimi dancing with President Lyndon Johnson in 1965. (Courtesy Eduardo Sevilla)

My definitive image of motherhood, my grandmother, was not a vain woman, not by the time I knew her (even though though she came to Washington as an ambassador’s wife). Beneath her simple dress, she cut an unassuming silhouette.

Topped by a head of perfectly coiffed snowy curls, her stern expression harbored a mischievous spirit. Behind bifocals, her eyes sparkled with the effervescence of knowledge, brimming with a confidence imparted by life experience; real life experience. When she smiled — it was the smile of victory, the expression of conquest. She smiled often.

There they were — instructions for political survival. Now, they are my presidents. And I vote for them, but not for a moment do I forget that no matter who wins an election, no matter who comes, and who goes; we have to work with all of them.

Her maternal appearance aside, Mimi was a brilliant strategist. In moments of conflict, she provided sound judgment. In dissecting disagreements, reducing them to their most basic form she processed the details, reassuringly nodding her head with consumptive understanding. An advocate of role-play, she espoused the importance of examining the circumstances from all angles, and through the eyes of others.

Empathy, she said, is a prerequisite of victory, and once achieved, that same empathy would provide a shield against the grief and envy attached to that victory. From those who knew her, I have heard repeatedly that had she been born a man, she’d have been a general. I have never doubted it. She was her father’s daughter.

She shared my life until May 14, 2003, when the battery of ailments finally overwhelmed her just 11 days after her 82nd birthday.

Since that time, not a day has passed where she is far from my thoughts. Some days she seems to control them, her advice bouncing around my head, the sturdy grip of her fingers holding my tongue. Just as in life she would never tell me what to say, rather what not to dare say. Last Tuesday night, while I watched the First Lady’s inspiring Democratic National Convention speech, Mimi was there. She was there just as she was the first time politics entered my life.

On an early fall afternoon of 1988, thwarted in any attempt to get a straight answer from my father, and not daring to ask my own mother about something so insignificant & unrelated to fashion, I went to Mimi and asked my question. I wanted to know. I needed to know. Up until that time, I had no position on the issue. This was Washington after all, and here even a fifth-grader needs talking points.

Naturally, with the nature of my question being what it was it would seem most logical to have prodded the answer out of my grandfather. After all, he was highly respected, universally revered and easily the most accomplished individual I had ever spoken with. A better source for political knowledge did not rest beneath our roof. However, I wanted a brief answer — all I needed was one word, and this man, I am convinced, was physically incapable of brevity and wholly uninterested in satisfying the needs of the impatient. As I had long come to understand this man didn’t do simple, he couldn’t. His answers were grand, deep, long wrought speeches.

“Meee meee!” “MEE MEE!” I yelled down the hall, turning my head left and right. Waiting. Where was she?

“Que?” She hollered, reassuring me of her succinctness. I ran in, plowing through her sitting room, “Mimi!” Not giving her time to react to my entrance, “Mimi, I have a question…”

“Que?” Pausing her Julia Child recordings, she looked up, “Si?”

“Mimi, are we Democrats or Republicans?”

Her lips pursed. She looked up, over her glasses. Good, I thought. She’s thinking. Like a bull, she inhaled and then exhaled through her nose.

Her mouth opened, she spoke the answer that I have lived by, the answer which is my mantra. Her words gave me the detachment I need to be able to live in this city and not work in politics. “Dito, in this country, we are diplomats. Their presidents come and go. We have to work with all of them.”

There they were — instructions for political survival. Now, they are my presidents. And I vote for them, but not for a moment do I forget that no matter who wins an election, no matter who comes, and who goes; we have to work with all of them.

And Mimi – she would have loved to work with Mr. Obama. Together they’d smile. Victorious. Yes they would.

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