The day after he turned 25, and thereby old enough to run for Congress, Weston Wamp stood on the second floor of the Hunter Museum of American Art, staring at one of the most recognizable images in all of American photography.
Dorothea Lange's "Migrant Mother."
You've seen the photo. The black-and-white image is the face of the American Depression. A mother suffering in untold ways stares off into a horizon drought of hope, as her children bury their faces in her shoulder.
Wamp looked at the plaque on the wall.
"She looks a lot older than 32," he said quietly.
So true. Age can be tricky, can't it?
Since declaring his candidacy, Wamp's bandwagon has been hit with two main criticisms (but no flat tires): his age and his dad. The son of former Rep. Zach Wamp hasn't had any life experience -- his opponents say -- and is hoping to inherit the seat from his eight-term father.
It would be easy to believe this if he were running an immature and cocky campaign, but he's not. If Wamp -- confident, intelligent, not divisive -- were 43 and had a different last name, he'd win November's election by a landslide. But he's 25 -- and his father's son.
Wamp, more than anyone, forces us to make a decision. It's the Dirty Harry dilemma.
Do we feel lucky?
Is Wamp who he says he is?
"People are skeptical about the contributions young people can make," he said during our afternoon at the museum.
Today, Ron Bhalla, current Rep. Chuck Fleischmann and Wamp engage in their first public debate (UTC, 6:30 p.m.). More than any other candidate, Wamp has a quality that moves past the literal and into the symbolic. Wamp's candidacy says something about Chattanooga.
I'm glad he's running. I'm proud that Hamilton County has a population of twenty-somethings (Wamp is one of many) who are engaged, active, thoughtful and committed.
Sure, he's young. The average age of a congressman is 56. Senators, 62. And they're doing such a grand, grand job of running things, right?
Talking with me, Wamp hit all the big topics: money in elections ("a game for billionaires"), the debt crisis ("catastrophic") and 24-hour news ("the more controversial, the more advertising ... it's a dangerous model").
He used variations of the word "demagoguery" (noun: to gain political power by appealing to the fears and prejudices of a people) multiple times, referring to the politics of Washington.
"I do not see the world through Democrat or Republican glasses," he said. "I could care less about if my friends are Republican or Democrat. Or even perhaps the woman I marry.
"We actually have enemies in this world," he said moments later, "but they are not the other political party."
He sees his candidacy as a calling of sorts, and referred at least once to William Wilberforce, the British abolitionist-politician who, after being first elected in his early 20s, led the effort to outlaw the slave trade in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
That's why I invited him to see the Lange exhibit. In many parts of America, a depression continues. The Migrant Mother is still alive.
And the future of this country depends on our response to the problems at hand. This is not an endorsement. Wamp is running as a Republican; I think President Obama is not liberal enough.
Wamp and I differ on politics, but I'd double down on his character. I'm starting to believe that may matter more.
"I want to earn the respect of people who don't agree with me," he said.
The way we respond to politicians often says as much about us as them.
David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...