Columbia County Commissioner Tom Mercer would admit hes not the best public speaker in the world. His voice-box often sounds like its full of rocks - not quite gravely, more like sandy; kind of a raspy tone that doesnt project very well.
During the elections last year, in which Mercer, a Procter & Gamble retiree, ran against Roger Fortier, it was sometimes almost painful to watch as the two men met in a public forum. Fortier, forceful and articulate, addressed the audience like a seasoned campaigner. An advertising salesman, Fortier is accustomed to making pitches, and he handled the task well.
But Mercer, clearly nervous in front of the big crowd, ate the microphone. His words often were unintelligible, blurred by overloading the sound system as he held the shaking mike against his lips.
We expect candidates to be polished speakers, to be able to glibly articulate their ideas for audiences of voters. Though we claim we want smart, sincere people with the best interests of the citizens at heart, what we often expect are politicians who, to paraphrase the words of a current popular song, are so fake they seem real.
There is nothing fake about Tom Mercer. He is, above all else, a genuine, caring man who has spent hours in a fur-trimmed white suit as children sat on his knee telling him what they want Santa Claus to bring on Christmas Day. He is a volunteer referee who quietly suffers the abuse of overzealous parents out of the hope that his service will help some of the young players become better citizens one day.
What Tom Mercer may lack in speaking ability he more than makes up in sincerity. And it was from the heart that Mercer spoke this past week to fellow commissioners and a roomful of county workers and citizens. The only thing lacking was the rest of the countys residents, who should have been there to hear one of their leaders as he said the things many of them want to say after the terrorism that has all but paralyzed our country.
For context, it is important to note that county commissioners themselves seemed to feel almost obligated to make a difference with the first full Commission meeting after the attacks. Commissioner Frank Spears secured an honor guard from the Martinez Fire Department to post the colors at the session, and found Pam Hutto to sing the National Anthem.
It was after this ceremonial opening that Tom Mercer asked Chairman Barry Fleming for permission to speak, his raspy voice quavering and breaking as he poured out the emotions so many citizens have felt almost powerless to release:
America is under seige. Two of our shining symbols have suffered. The World Trade Center, a symbol of our success, and the Pentagon, a symbol of our strength, have been attacked by cowards. Our citizens have been murdered. Our diverse workforce, along with citizens of many other countries, have been mutilated by cowards that hide in the shadows.
I challenge these cowards to come out of the shadows and face us man to man, and woman to woman. I promise them they wont like it! They should not mistake the tears America is shedding as a sign of weakness. They are tears of compassion and love for our fellow men and women - and tears of anger. This anger is not soon over.
My prayers are for the leaders of this great nation that the hard decisions they have to make will not put our sons and daughters in harms way and lead to death and destruction of innocent people abroad. That God give them the resolve that will be satisfied only when the world is completely rid of terrorists.
These United States are as strong, if not stronger, than on Sept. 11, 2001, because we are a religious nation, regardless of what faith we as individuals profess. Make no mistake about it: We will prevail and God bless America!
Sure, we could have gotten a better speaker to say those things. We may have been able to find a better writer to string the words together. But it wouldnt have had the feeling. It wouldnt have been the same.
I was speaking from my heart, says Mercer, characteristically, humbly, worried that allowing his words to be published would make it look as if he was trying to draw attention to himself. I struggled with it. I struggle with it every day.
We all do. And even those of us who write and say things for a living could take a lesson from people like Tom Mercer when it comes to putting that struggle to words.
(Barry L. Paschal is opinions editor of The Columbia County News-Times. E-mail comments to email@example.com.)
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