Talking The Political Talk

It always takes me by surprise to realize that there are people who go out of their way to avoid talking politics.

Among my friends and colleagues, political talk is one of life’s great pleasures, on a par with homegrown tomatoes in August or dark chocolate anytime.

I suppose it’s possible to get along without political discussions – just like it’s possible to get along without seasonal produce or chocolate – but why would you want to?

Nevertheless, a press release that arrived at our office the day before Super Tuesday offered advice from a business etiquette expert on how to avoid discussing politics. The missive even went so far as to call such discussions “career-killing.”

In my book, politics is the stuff of great conversation, lively debate, free-flowing ideas. Of course, no one wants to feel pressured to vote a certain way or be intimidated by a boss’s stated political leanings.

But not to talk about politics? Not to follow the candidates, the campaigns, the coverage? The coups, the blunders, the victories, the setbacks, the defeats? The strategies, the polls, the debates? The horserace, the scorecard? That’s a lot to give up.

But beware: There is an etiquette expert out there offering five very specific suggestions “to help you steer clear” of those troublesome discussions.

One is to remove yourself from the conversational situation, claiming you are wanted on a conference call. “See you later” is the suggested snappy exit line. Another is to “respond with humor.” That response should be accompanied by “a smile on your face and a twinkle in your eye.”

Frankly, it is also surprising to realize that someone might actually make a living by advising people how not to discuss politics. In that spirit, I have a little election year advice of my own to offer, and it’s free:

If you’re looking for people who avoid talking politics, you probably want to stay away from Manuel’s Tavern in Atlanta, especially on an election night.

Manuel’s, in Atlanta’s Poncey-Highland neighborhood, has been around more than 50 years and is justly proud of its tradition of camaraderie and conversation. The tavern was founded by the late Manuel Maloof, veteran Georgia Democratic party leader and longtime county commissioner and CEO of DeKalb County. Until his death in 2004, Manuel was often at the tavern holding court among groups of political-talking citizens.

Longtime customers will tell you Manuel’s isn’t the same without Manuel; but it remains a pretty good place to talk politics. In the best tradition of its founder, there is still a strong Democratic flavor to the discussions, but there are always enough Republicans around to keep the conversations bipartisan.

I have spent more election nights at Manuel’s than I can count, watching the returns come in via TV screens and listening to the early-evening bustle turn into a late-night cacophony of shouts, cheers, jeers and heated commentary.

On Election Night 2000, the tavern was so crowded you could hardly move a French fry from your plate to your mouth without elbowing someone. At the point the networks called Florida for Al Gore, the crowd thinned a little bit, assuming the fat lady was singing. Of course, that assumption turned out to be premature by several weeks, and the tune ended up sounding a little different.

Last Super Tuesday night, Manuel’s was packed to the gills. There were reporters and camera crews and bloggers. There were Clinton partisans, Obama supporters – even a guy wearing a Ron Paul T-shirt. The crowd was nicely balanced – older folks, veterans of many election night watches, and younger folks, venturing out for their first. There were die-hard political junkies and folks who just came to see what was going on. And there was much to see, including current and former elected officials.

Certainly there were people cheering when the TV anchors called a state for a particular candidate; but the overall feeling was less focused on individuals and more on the whole exuberant process.

It was a great spectacle and great entertainment, but there was more to it. People were energized, interested, engaged.

I did not personally observe anyone leaving to participate in a conference call; but there were lots of smiles on lots of faces and several twinkles in several eyes.

In fact, the scene called to mind Manuel Maloof’s oft-quoted line, imprinted on his tavern’s menu: “Anybody don’t like this life is crazy.”

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