How Dick Polman got his political groove

    In a recent conversation WHYY producer Elisabeth Perez-Luna asked Dick Polman how did his passion for all things political started. Here’s what he said:


    I grew up in Massachusetts, and when I was 8 years old, John F. Kennedy was running for president — the local guy — against Richard Nixon. So — when I was 8 years old — my parents let me watch the first presidential debate. And, for whatever reason, I was always interested in history at a very young age, so I started paying attention because of that, and I liked the idea of these two men — I can’t remember anything that they said certainly, but I certainly remember how they looked — and the idea of the two men sort of in a contest, a talking contest, which I guess is all that came across to me at the time.

    Because of that debate, and because of all the attention certainly within our community about Kennedy running, I started reading what at the time (I don’t know if it still publishes) was called The World Book Encyclopedias. For all I know it’s digital today. My parents bought a set of The World Book Encyclopedias, and I started looking up all the presidents in there and reading the biographies in the World Book Encyclopedias. So I guess it kind of started from that.

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    It was this notion that who ran the country was important and that it was important to pay attention to it — and that you could study presidents and they would provide a window into American history and what was going on in America and what issues were important. So it was all sort of mixed up with that.

    ‘Human behavior in the raw’

    And then of course I grew up in the 1960s subsequently, and politics was very, very important in that era, and it seemed very consequential considering everything that was going on: Vietnam and poverty and issues that were sort of monumental. So I think that’s when the seeds were planted for me. And they are still there, stronger than ever.

    I don’t necessarily know if I am as idealistic as I was when I was 14 years old, certainly, but it’s like, to me, politics is human behavior in the raw, and it’s the first rough draft of history, and to me that’s never changed. And it sustains my interest, and I am sure it always will.

    ‘Lit up from within’

    I teach classes in journalism at Penn, and I always say on the very first day that you’ll know that you belong in this class if you feel deep inside that you have this burning desire to find things out and tell people about them. Or to weigh in on what’s going on and you have this impulse to share that and communicate that to people.

    It takes a certain amount of — and I say this not as a pejorative — but it takes a certain amount of ego, healthy ego, to presume that you can put something out there and have people respond to it. And then the pressure’s on you to try to write it well, certainly, or communicate it well, if it’s done verbally.

    I’ve had that since I was on my college newspaper, so that’s going back 40 years. And that’s never changed. And now with online communications you get instantaneous feedback.

    I always tell students that, if you don’t have a thick skin, or if you can’t develop a thick skin, then you really don’t belong in the business, because it goes along with it. Politics are probably more intense and polarized ideologically now than ever. People have extremely strong feelings, and many people can’t even see the other side. So you have to expect that it’s going to be a bruising game, but you sort of have to be lit up from within.

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