In September, when Sen.-elect Angus King (then still a candidate) was the 41st guest to fill my deployed husband's empty chair at the dinner table as part of our yearlong project "Dinner with the Smileys," he was greeted in the front yard by my three boys chasing each other with foam swords.
King, a two-term former Maine governor, had a long bakery bag tucked under his arm. He pulled a French baguette from it, and wielding the food like a sword, joined the boys' battle.
When Sen. Susan Collins was a guest in January, she came with homemade brownies that had nuts in them. The boys devoured the dessert, but picked out the nuts and left them in a pile on the table. Lindell, 5, climbed over and across the senator's lap like she was his aunt.
When lunch was late getting to the table during our Dinner with the Smileys with Congressman Mike Michaud, the representative flipped over a napkin and challenged Owen, 9, to a game of tic-tac-toe.
At our 21st dinner, former Gov. John Baldacci played catch in the muddy backyard with Ford, 11. He let our 40-pound dog Sparky sit in his lap.
Basically, it's hard to be a politician around three young boys, or maybe, in particular, my three boys.
An unexpected outcome of Dinner with the Smileys is that the boys, with all their naiveté, strip our guests of their VIP status and titles. Around the dinner table, everyone -- politicians, authors, artists, and, yes, even the teacher who supposedly lives at school -- becomes more human.
How can they not? When you're passing butter to a U.S. senator or showing him where to find the bathroom after dinner, it's hard to treat him as anything less or more than simply human.
It was no different earlier this month, when we were invited to dinner with Gov. and Mrs. Paul LePage at the Blaine House in Augusta, Maine, for our 49th dinner. Being invited to the governor's mansion is an amazing opportunity. The house alone is historical. So I was surprised later that week when photographer Andrea Hand uploaded pictures of our dinner to the project's Facebook page and our "likes" plummeted. It seemed as if the bottom had dropped out on our more than 6,000 fans. And then former followers of the page wrote to tell me how shallow and ignorant I was to dine with a politician they hate.
For the record, throughout the past 51 weeks, we have had dinner with people from varied political backgrounds, even if they are not currently serving in a public office. I haven't agreed politically with all of our guests, but that has never been the purpose of the dinners. Rather, the purpose has been to fill up, rather than wish away, our time until my husband returns next month. And besides, if I have to agree politically with everyone I share a meal with, I would never see 75 percent of my friends.
What I have tried to teach the boys is this: Judge politicians' views in a political setting or in the voting booth. But at dinner, treat them as you would any other human being.
And Gov. LePage is nothing if not human with his incredible childhood story of perseverance. When he was 11 years old, his abusive father paid him a 50-cent piece to lie to a doctor and say his bruises were from a fall down the stairs. LePage took the 50 cents and ran away. For two years, he lived alone on the streets and slept in horse stables at night. He continued to go to school, worked three jobs, and later finished college and got his master's degree. His personal motto is, "If it is to be ... .it is up to me."
My boys were speechless as they heard this. Later, they were grateful when Gov. LePage gave them bracelets with the motto printed on them. My oldest son continues to repeat the motto nearly two weeks later.
How could any of this -- regardless of your opinion of the governor's politics -- have been a negative thing for my children?
We live in a highly polarized political world. Leaders are demonized for what people know about them only through media accounts. But at the dinner table, my boys have benefited from a fuller picture. They have gotten to know the human being. And, yes, it's true that not everyone has this privilege. Not everyone can eat with a senator. But shouldn't we give them the benefit of the doubt regardless? Shouldn't we be able to separate the person from the politics?
I don't necessarily agree politically with everything President Obama does either. But I suspect his supporters would ask me to set that aside and appreciate the man for what he has accomplished and overcome in his life. And, in fact, I do. If Obama had come to dinner, he would have been greeted by the same loud, rowdy boys and picky eaters. Lindell would have climbed in his lap. Sparky might have gotten fur on his pants. But mostly, he would have been greeted with an open mind and an eagerness to know more about him as a person.
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Navy wife Sarah Smiley is a syndicated newspaper columnist and the author of Going Overboard: The Misadventures of a Military Wife (2005) and I'm Just Saying (2008). She has been featured in the New York Times and Newsweek, and on Nightline, The Early Show, CNN, Fox News and other local and national news outlets. Her liferights were optioned by Kelsey Grammer's company, Grammnet, and Paramount Television to be made into a half-hour sitcom. Visit www.SarahSmiley.com for more details. To contact Sarah, you can also visit her Facebook page.