Wednesday, May 5, 1999

Do-gooder's progress

One man's frantic attempt to pitch in and do his share.

Posted By on Wed, May 5, 1999 at 12:00 AM

First off, the title is all wrong. This book hasn’t got a damned thing to do with the secret lives of any citizens I’ve ever known or heard of. And it doesn’t have much to do with anybody’s pursuit of America’s promise, whatever that promise is supposed to be.

Well, wait a minute. Maybe the second half of that title actually does get a little closer to what Cincinnati-born, Harvard-educated Geoghegan is getting at in this brief memoir of his frantic attempt to be the perfect American citizen.

Still, Geoghegan isn’t divulging the secrets of his life or anyone else’s, and what he is pursuing isn’t really the promise of American life so much as his internal vision of what American society could and should become. If only citizens would participate in their communities rather than simply observe from the sidelines, then America could really work like it’s supposed to. Or so he argues.

Maybe he knew what he was talking about with that title after all.

Geoghegan actually took the steps with his own two feet and used his own life as an example. Previously he had served time as a journalist – writing for The New Republic, for instance – and staffer in the Carter administration’s Department of Energy. He recorded his experiences as an independent labor lawyer in the widely praised Which Side Are You On?: Trying to Be for Labor When It’s Flat On Its Back.

After deciding on Chicago as the best city in which to plant roots, Geoghegan begins his sociopolitical odyssey as the classic wide-eyed, enthusiastic liberal do-gooder in search of more and more good to do. He becomes aware of the actual cost of his commitment, yet still values the good fight. Perhaps the best example of this transformation can be seen when Geoghegan becomes one of the few whites to volunteer for Harold Washington’s 1983 mayoral campaign. Geoghegan feels he is a vital part of something important; initially, he doesn’t think that Washington has a chance in hell of winning, but that doesn’t diminish the fight’s appeal. He emerges from the ordeal somewhat battered as a white man who had dared to work in a black man’s mayoral campaign in a city that has become legendary for its racial and ethnic divisions. He’s also far from defeated in his zeal to become the right kind of citizen.

Geoghegan’s guidebook to citizenship is observant and instructive, sometimes perceptive, sometimes funny and sometimes a little lightweight. But in his determination to make a difference in life, he’s given us something important, an appeal to the rest of us to do the same.

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