Every civilization has iconic places where leaders converge and history turns. Yalta, where FDR, Churchill and Stalin met. Reykjavik, where Reagan and Gorbachev agreed to major arms control. Appomattox, where Grant and Lee ended the Civil War.
And Long Island diners.
In nearly 25 years of elected life, every consequential political meeting I’ve ever had was in a local diner. Meetings to discuss politics, to delve into issues, to avoid conflict.
In 2000, I was wrestling with a decision to run for Congress. I was a Huntington Town Councilman at the time and it looked like a crowded congressional primary field. One of my potential opponents called me for a “secret meeting” at a local diner. We arrived separately on a cold, drizzly day. The diner was packed with constituents, business leaders, and waiters and waitresses adroitly juggling massive platters of deluxe burgers, towering sandwiches and vats of Cobb salads.
Not a good place for a secret summit.
He suggested that we return to the parking lot, and meet in my car. We sat for an hour. The combination of our political hot air and the chill outside produced foggy windows and some curious stares.
It was, well, uncomfortable.
But we resolved our differences and I went on to run. I celebrated by walking into the diner and ordering a turkey club sandwich. To go.
After Republican Congressman Lee Zeldin’s election to Congress, he suggested that Democrats weren’t sufficiently supportive of Israel. Proud of my own outspoken leadership and perfect record on US-Israel relations, I criticized his comments.
We decided to resolve our spat at what was called the Manichevitz Summit – at a diner. In an act of supreme bipartisanship, we split the bill.
When my campaign needed television commercials, I insisted that we shoot them in diners. In a district as diverse as Whitestone and Smithtown, the one thing everybody could recognize was a diner.
More important, diners were the one place in my sprawling district that I’d hear what my constituents really thought.
There’s something about a deluxe hamburger platter that fuels people’s willingness to render opinions. I didn’t need a poll to tell me voters’ moods. Just a table at any diner.
In most cases, I’d walk into a diner to friendly waves. Often, someone would approach my table and say: “Mr. Israel, I hate to interrupt your meal, but…” Then they’d help themselves to a seat, and in one case, my fries.
Long Island diners are citadels of free speech, priceless democracy and inexpensive meals. They are places where income inequality is leveled. You can be a CEO or union plumber, but you know the best value is in that shiny encyclopedic menu that can sprain your wrist when lifted.
You may be reading this at a diner. If you are, do me a favor. Give your waiter or waitress a nice tip. They’re the hardest workers I know. And put up with far more than this Congressman did.