I began writing this column in February 1991. Lately I’ve been looking back through some of those old columns pulling out a few to share with you this year. Today’s column about Bill Cohen was published on Jan. 22, 1996. Here it is.

It was obvious that Bill Cohen was a moderate, patient, and compassionate man the first day I was employed as his driver. It was 1972, Bill’s first campaign for Congress.

After returning from a couple months of campaigning in the New Hampshire presidential primary, I got a call from a friend on Cohen’s campaign staff offering me the position of personal aid to the candidate. My job was to travel with Bill, take notes for follow-up when he made commitments, and keep him on schedule. Mostly I drove the car. Badly.

I’d been behind the wheel about two hours on my first day when I was pulled over for speeding 50 mph through a school zone. I had no driver’s license.

Well it wasn’t as bad as it as it sounds. Traveling south on rural Route 11 in Sherman is a sharp turn in the road and all of a sudden the school was right there. You don’t see it until you’re passing it. There may have been a sign but I missed it. The trooper was parked in the schoolyard.

After discovering that I’d left my driver’s license and wallet at home, I gave the trooper my birthdate so he could verify that I had a license. He apparently called in the wrong date because when he returned he informed Bill that I did not have a license.

Well, I could see that my political career, one day as a driver, was going to be over very shortly. Bill calmly got into the trooper’s vehicle and discussed the situation for about 15 minutes. When he emerged, we were allowed to drive on to Patton while the trooper tried to run my birthdate through once more.

In Patton we were pulled over again — right in the middle of Main Street — and informed that they were able to verify my license. And I never got a summons. Even before he got to Congress, Bill Cohen had influence. More astonishing to me, I wasn’t fired. The man also had compassion.

I am not a good driver. Bill’s brilliant career was nearly over before it began on numerous occasions as I enjoyed the scenery in the Second Congressional District instead of paying attention to the road. Once on a late-night trip up the interstate, I fell asleep at the wheel and nearly ran us off the road. Bill ended up driving the rest of the way home while I slept in the back seat. Great staff work. More compassion.

Then there was the Walk. Beginning in Gilead on the New Hampshire border, Bill walked all the way (well almost all the way) to Fort Kent. I drove my old white VW van as the lead vehicle with a sign on the front: “Bill Cohen ahead. Honk and Wave.”

It was a real adventure. Bill was the first one to employ the walk as a campaign device. Through 600 miles of highway, I discovered that Bill Cohen was one tough cookie. Twice we drove him to the hospital to lance blisters on his feet. He walked about 15 miles a day.

Bill was not a comfortable campaigner (that came later after years of effort). We had to push him to go into stores and shake hands, but once he entered he had a real gift of gab and was quickly embraced by the locals. Bill was a guy they genuinely liked.

And here’s a story I’ve never been able to tell. On the last day of the walk, Bill was to cover the highway between Madawaska and Fort Kent. He got behind schedule. As the time of the big media event in Fort Kent was approaching, which was to mark the end of the walk, we panicked and decided to drive Bill a ways, instead of walking the entire distance as he was supposed to do. This was a very rural stretch of road with few houses and no one to meet. No one would be the wiser.

Bill jumped into the front passenger seat of my van and we hightailed it for Fort Kent. Unbelievably, we had gone only about two miles when I spotted a vehicle full of media people coming the other way! Bill had to duck down as they passed. They never did learn that he’d ridden the last few miles before walking into Fort Kent.

That night Bill and I shared a room in Fort Kent and stayed up until 3 a.m. to watch George McGovern deliver his acceptance speech for the Democratic presidential nomination. It seems so very long ago. And now Bill is retiring from Congress.

In one of Bill’s brochures from his first campaign there is a photo on the back page showing the two of us on the steps of Bangor City Hall. I had just shaved off my long beard at Bill’s request (he wasn’t that liberal in those days). Bill’s arm is extended, pointing toward Main Street. I’m next to him gazing in the same direction. We turned it into cartoon, with Bill saying, “George, go in that direction and don’t come back!”

Well, Bill went in that direction, all the way to Washington, D.C., and he made his career there, a career that made us proud, even his lowly drivers. Bill, come on home. You done good. If you need a ride, you know who to call.

After that column was published, Bill wrote me a very nice letter saying, “It brought back memories (fond and otherwise) … Though your writing and political skills do outpace your driving abilities, I know you’ll always be successful in what you do. My association and friendship with the Smith family has been a source of pleasure to me over the years.”

Well, Bill went on to even greater accomplishments once he left the U.S. Senate and I’m still proud of being a very small part of his very first campaign.

George Smith can be reached at 34 Blake Hill Road, Mount Vernon, ME 04352, or george [email protected]. Read more of Smith’s writings at www.georgesmith maine.com.

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