As Father’s Day approaches, I still find myself reflecting on this recent Mother’s Day and a few fancy cupcakes. They were all it took to demonstrate that my almost-84-year-old father — former Minnesota Gov. Arne Carlson — has not lost a step in his integrity.
In today’s discouraging, personality-focused politics, I’m still amazed by the grace, dignity and morals of a former politician like my father.
My little sister, Jessica, was in town for the weekend, so we all gathered at Lake Harriet for a family picnic. My job was to bring something for dessert. My wife suggested cupcakes from A Piece of Cake in St. Paul, so I picked up a baker’s dozen of their little masterpieces.
After our picnic, we still had some left on the table. As we were all enjoying a beautiful day at the lake, my dad noticed the young family sitting near our table. He saw one of the little boys spying the remaining cupcakes. Without any of us realizing what was happening, he invited the family to help themselves to some of the tempting cakes. The simple pleasure of watching the boys delicately selecting and enjoying their choices provided incalculable joy for everyone.
I’m absolutely blessed and, in a very selfish way, cursed that I inherited the humanitarian ideals of my father.
I’m blessed because I have his example of what anyone can be as a human and as a public servant. He has never been false in either role.
I’m cursed because I lack the comfortable ignorance to tolerate the corrupt behavior we witness, daily, from too many of our political leaders. Sure you can say both sides are equally corrupt, but that’s intellectually false. While the post-civil-rights generation of Democrats has tried to walk the difficult line of change and inclusivity, the Republicans doubled down on division and distraction political strategies. It’s the Republicans who over the past 40 years abandoned leaders like my father as they embraced selfish policies while dismantling voters’ rights and post-Watergate political reforms.
Sadly, I feel my generation, Generation X, began the slow decline in “genuine” empathy that has fed this political destruction. Our parents spoiled us enough to be the first generation with the luxury to be selfish and entitled in the middle classes.
We now spend so much time fighting about what’s “fair” to “me” that we fail to acknowledge the impact our selfishness can have on others. We’re now willing to sacrifice so much, and so many, in our singular pursuits. We fail to appreciate the other side or the less fortunate nearby, much less relate to the fortunes of those generations in other countries seeking a brighter future.
Maybe that’s why a genuine act of kindness has stayed with me. After all these years of singular successes, my father still connects with his younger, impoverished, immigrant self. He related to these young boys reveling in the chance to have a fancy cupcake. The fact that the person offering them this tiny act of generosity was the last truly “republican” governor of Minnesota, they may never realize.
Don’t get me wrong — few people are wholly saints, my father included. Many of his political opponents would testify that he knew how to throw a devastating punch. They would also acknowledge that he did it with respect to the simple rules that the fight was for the greater good of all, not just the individual.
In his eight years as governor, my dad leveled a record number of vetoes. Not because he was a bully, but because he was committed to bringing both sides to the table with the task of focusing on the fundamentals of governing. The resulting policies updated and innovated many stale approaches and dishonest budgeting practices. His achievement was to help Minnesota regain a secure financial footing to keep our native ideals while remaining a leader in the country.
He never forgot how he came to be and whom he represented. He was never corrupted by the elite who are always prevalent in politics. He recognized their important contributions and place in society but never believed they deserved the outsized speech provided to them by a majority of today’s leaders.
Simply put, his generation of politicians still believed the moneyed classes needed to be kept in check and policies needed to reflect that balance. My dad was a modest, fair, effective and efficient leader. And it was just a couple of fancy cupcakes that reminded me of that legacy. Unlike too many of our former leaders, he didn’t seek fortunes in lobbying. Instead, he stayed engaged in Minnesota and continues to contribute. That’s a proud legacy that will last for many Father’s Days to come.
Tucker Carlson (Arne H. Carlson Jr.), of St. Paul, is an artist.