May 27, 2008

May 14, 2008: Dark and Dusty, Appearances Can Be Deceiving, TV is No Medium for a Poor Man


“All my memories, gather ‘round her
Finest lady, stranger to blue water
Dark and dusty, painted on the sky
Missed a taste of moonshine, teardrops in my eye”
--John Denver, "Country Roads" (1)

“As the song says, ‘Almost heaven,’ ‘Hillary said at her Charleston victory party, hailing herself as “the strongest candidate,” the one who can win swing states, and urging again that Michigan and Florida votes be counted.”’ (2)

It was a smashing victory, somewhere in the neighborhood of 40 percentage points with Barack winning only the Black vote. Comparing her mission in West Virginia to JFK’s campaign, Hillary told her audiences that, as in 1960, West Virginia would once again alter the political landscape. On its face, her overwhelming victory would have appeared to have done just that. But appearances can be deceiving.

The Clintons have been forced to retreat across the vast American political landscape, moving the electoral goalposts first from Texas to Ohio, then to Pennsylvania, and on to Indiana. We now find them holed up in the hardscrabble mountains of West Virginia, where she trumpeted yet another triumph in the hopes of convincing the remaining voters and superdelegates that she is best able to forge that coalition that will bring victory in the fall.

The lessons of the 1960 contest in West Virginia between John Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey are many and telling. From the perspective of the Kennedy campaign, the contest was a primer on the politics of tolerance. Kennedy went into the overwhelmingly protestant mountains of West Virginia and, with a little financial help from daddy, played the educator who, in the end, became the educated. Kennedy brought a message of optimism and hope, but foremost, he challenged the voters of West Virginia to demonstrate their tolerance. He campaigned on the assumption that the good people of the state would, after getting to know him, transcend their parochialism and vote for a Catholic candidate for President. The campaign also educated the candidate. Getting to know the good people of West Virginia, as Jay Rockefeller (now West Virginia’s junior Senator) would likewise do a generation later, Kennedy discovered the hardships of life in the old mining towns. For the first time he came face to face with those who work the black seam, the grimy faces, black lung disease, the danger, hardships, and the ever present specter of death hanging over those who toil in the bowels of the earth. Kennedy was given an abject lesson that chastened and humanized him. He encountered hardships he had only heretofore heard or read about, people and places that he would carry with him the rest of his short life. West Virginia held lessons that began to educate not only the emerging Democratic nominee, but the political elite and through them the rest of America. For the first time since the Great Depression, the established order confronted, head-on, the paradox that in the wealthiest nation on earth hard-working people, who labored long hours under dangerous and difficult conditions, would nevertheless be confined to a permanent condition of grinding hardship and poverty. JFK came to teach West Virginia about tolerance; West Virginia taught Kennedy lessons about hardship. Lessons that would lead, in time, to the Vista and Head Start programs and, later, become the underpinnings of Lyndon Johnson’s ‘Great Society.’

There were other lessons taught during that spring campaign so long ago. The West Virginia primary proved to be an experience altogether different for Senator Hubert Humphrey. Humphrey came to the state having lost in Wisconsin and needed to demonstrate that Kennedy could not win over protestant West Virginia. But out-spent and, more importantly, out-organized the Humphrey campaign was, in the end, reduced to a comedy of errors—demonstrating for all time what happens when one puts up ‘grocery money’ to run for President of the United States. Listen as Teddy White tells the story:

“I remember the final Saturday morning, shortly after it was revealed that Kennedy’s TV expenditures alone across the sate had mounted to $34,000. (a considerable sum at the time). Humphrey had had but four hours’ sleep that morning and was up at seven, prepared to barnstorm north from Charleston in his bus on a rainy morning, at that point one of his assistants informed him that the TV stations that had booked him for a Sunday night half hour were threatening to cancel unless they were paid that day, cash in advance for the time.

“It was one of the few times I have seen the temper of that genial man snap”“’Pay it!” snarled Humphrey, “Pay it! I don’t care how, don't come to me with that kind of story! ‘then, realizing that his crestfallen aide was, like himself, destitute, Hubert pulled out his checkbook at the breakfast table and said, “All right, I’ll pay for it myself,” and scribbled a personal check of his own

“Mrs. Humphrey watched him do so, with dark, sad eyes, and one had the feeling that the check was money from the family grocery fund…My memory tells me that the sum of that check was $750.—not a particularly large sum for a statewide hookup of half and hour. But such a grocery-money check buys time only—it does not buy the production, the preparation, the care a major television manipulation of the public requires.

“What happens when a man goes on cold on TV in politics with such a grocery-money investment was grotesquely shown by Humphrey’s final appeal to the voters of West Virginia on that day before the election. From somewhere he had raised another $750 for another half-hour of TV time, and now (like Richard Nixon much later in the year) he was prepared to save all with a telethon. A telethon is a political gimmick in which a candidate, theoretically but not actually, throws himself open to any and all questions from any voter who cares to call the broadcasting station. A good telethon requires good staff in order to screen questions and artfully sequence them so they give the illusion of spontaneity yet feed the candidate those pretexts on which he can masterfully develop his themes. It is commonly one of the most spurious and obnoxious devices in modern political gimmickry.

“What happens when such a telethon is authentic—not spurious—Humphrey demonstrated with is modest $750.00 Investment on that Monday. For when authentic, unscreened questions are fed to the candidate the effect is comic. Except that, watching Hubert Humphrey fight his last national battle with family grocery money, the effect was more sad than comic.

“The telethon opened with Humphrey sitting alone at a desk; before him was a manual telephone with switch buttons for two lines, which he was supposed to punch alternately as questioners telephoned in. The viewing audience was to hear both unscreened question and answer over the TV set.

“The first question was a normal mechanical question: ‘What makes you think you’re qualified to be President, Senator Humphrey?’ so was the second question ‘Can you be nominated, Mr. Humphrey?

“Then came a rasping voice over the telephone, the whining scratch of an elderly lady somewhere high in the hills, and one could see Humphrey flinch (as the viewers flinched); and the rasp said, ‘you git out! You git out of West Virginia Mr. Humphrey!’ Humphrey attempted to fluster a reply and the voice overrode him, ‘You git out, you hear! You can’t stand the Republicans gitting ahead of you! Why don’t you git out!’

“Humphrey had barely recovered from the blast before the next call came: what would he do about small-arms licensing for people who like to hunt? Then, what would he do about social security? None of the questions were hitting anywhere near the target area of Humphrey’s campaign program, and then a sweet womanly voice began to drawl on the open switch, ‘How about those poor little neglected children, Mr. Humphrey, I mean how can we lower taxes like you say and take care of all those little children who need more schools, and more hospitals, and more everything…’ On and on she went, sweetly, as Humphrey (his precious, costly minutes oozing by) attempted to break in and say that he, too, was for the poor little neglected children.

“By now the telethon was becoming quite a family affair, and the next voice was a fine mountain voice, easy, slow, gentle with West Virginia courtesy, and it said, ‘Senator Humphrey, I just want you to know that I want to apologize for that lady who told you to git out. We don’t feel like that down here in West Virginia, Senator Humphrey, and I’m very sorry that she said that…” He would have rambled on and on, but Humphrey, desperate, expressed quick thanks and pressed the other button.

“He had barely begun to answer the question when a clipped voice interrupted on the party line of the caller, ‘Clear the wires, please, clear the wires, this is an emergency!’ Humphrey attempted to explain that they were on the air, they were answering questions to a TV audience. ‘Clear the wires, clear the wires at once, this is an emergency,’ repeated the operator on the party line that straggled down some unknown West Virginia hill on which, perhaps, someone was trying to summon a doctor; and Humphrey, his face blank and bedazzled, hung up, shaken, to press the button for another call (a gruff voice, with a thick accent, asking what he and Kennedy were going to do for the coal operators, they’d only been talking about the miners up to now, not the operators). From that point on the telethon lost all cohesion—proving nothing except that TV is no medium for a poor man.” (3)


This is what can happen when a campaign gets desperate. Things can quickly degenerate into a comedy of errors; things can also get very ugly.

Hillary went into West Virginia, imploring the good citizens to — in the words of George Wallace — ‘send ‘em a message.’ Highlighting her support among ‘hardworking voters, hardworking white voters,’ the Clinton campaign once again reverted back to playing the race card. The result was wholly predictable “Two in 10 white voters said race was important in how they voted, and more than 8 of 10 of these went for Hillary.” (2) It was a route, a victory sullied by race-baiting.

The Clinton camp was quick to pounce on the emerging numbers. Spokesman Howard Wolfson said “I’m a little concerned about the fact that our nominee, presumptive nominee, can’t win West Virginia. I’m a little concerned that he can’t win Pennsylvania or Ohio, or Michigan or Florida.” “Put your brains back in your head,” an Obama spokesman retorted. “In national polls, we win every income group against John McCain except those people making $100,000-plus, where we lose by one point, which is a tie. Among white, non-college voters, McCain leads Obama 52-40 and he leads Clinton 52-44. A four point difference between us and Clinton, well within the margin of error. Overall in head-to-head matchups, we are beating McCain by more than she is. And, most importantly, we are winning independents 51-42 against McCain, and Clinton loses independents 49-46…” (4)

There were other results this primary evening that received almost no coverage. While Hillary was trouncing Barack in West Virginia, Obama was besting her 49-46% in Nebraska where, if similar analysis were applied, would reveal much different levels of support among the various socio-economic groups. The primary in Nebraska was a ‘beauty contest,’ a basically meaningless election since the delegates were chosen at caucus earlier in the year. Nevertheless, Obama won this predominately white state both at caucus and in a general primary.

None of this matters. By ‘winning ugly,’ Hillary has succeeded in doing what everyone long thought was impossible, driving up her negatives to even higher levels and losing the nomination by so doing. Roger Simon, writing for Politico.com, was moved to ask: “Hillary Wins—Does Anybody Care?" Since her victory last week in Indiana, Obama has picked up 27 superdelegates to Clinton’s one and a half (4), the answer is a resounding, "NO!" Perhaps if her party line, leading down some long craggy West Virginia hill, led to what unites rather than what divides us; perhaps if her party line had led to comic relief instead of bitterness; perhaps if her party line had led to acts of inspiration instead of acts of desperation, things might have been different. Her campaign in West Virginia invokes not the memory of our beloved JFK, nor does it bring a smile of fond remembrance for our ‘happy warrior,’ Hubert. Instead, the Clintons gave us a modern version of the snarling George C. Wallace, a man whose politics never captured the soul of the Democratic Party or the nation.


Footnotes:

1. http:/www.lyricsdowload.com/john-denver-country-roads-lyrics.html
2. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/05/14/opinion/14dowd-1.html
3. White, Theodore H., “The Making of the President 1960” New York
Pocket Books, Inc., Atheneum House, Inc., 1961. pp. 131-134.
4. http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0508/10322.html

May 18, 2008

May 9, 2008: Eight Belles for Hillary, Send 'Em A Message, There Is No 'Scoop' Jackson Wing of the Democratic Party


In the heat of the campaign for votes in Indiana, Hillary Clinton advised those around her to bet on the filly in the upcoming Kentucky Derby. Historically, it is not a sound bet. “Only three fillies have won the Kentucky Derby in its 134-year history, and none since Winning Colors in 1988” (1). What she meant to do, of course, was to draw a parallel to her own long-shot effort to win the Presidential nomination of her party.

One must be careful about the use of sports analogies. Tragedy struck at Churchill Downs as the filly “Eight Belles”, after “running the race of her life…finished second behind Big Brown in the Kentucky Derby on Saturday, then collapsed after the finish line and had to be euthanized” (1). What she hoped would be a stirring metaphor for her increasingly unlikely candidacy, Hillary — who has also compared herself to the fictional prize-fighter Rocky Balboa — tried to cast herself as the determined underdog who, by running the race of her life, would overcome all odds and win a glorious victory. It didn’t happen on this Saturday afternoon in Louisville. Instead after losing to Big Brown, tragedy struck.

This was not a good omen. These are not the kind of metaphors that will augur well as she continues fighting through the rest of the primaries. Already, smelling blood, the birds are circling overhead. Senator George McGovern, an early supporter and one for whom she labored in the fields of Texas supporting his forlorn effort 36 years ago, has now stepped forward urging her to drop out of the race, concluding that it is virtually impossible now for her to win the nomination (2). Hillary, however, is determined to stick it out. The question, for many of the party pols is ‘to what end’?

Many in the Democratic Party have long since given up hope that any good will come of this. Had the Clintons behaved themselves, had they not conducted a campaign worthy of Lee Atwater and Karl Rove, the fortunes of the party — and the nation — could and would have been much improved. Instead, many fear that as the Clintons become more desperate the attacks upon the party’s now sure nominee will grow more vicious and personal.

We didn’t have to long to wait. Standing before supporters in Indianapolis, Clinton, with a somber Bubba standing behind her, put on her game face and pledged to fight all the way to the convention. Expecting to have routed Obama, the Clinton camp had arranged for appearances next morning on all the network talk shows but, faced with these results, the campaign abruptly canceled her appointments and the candidate flew off into the night, announcing that she was moving the goal posts up into the mountains overlooking Charleston West Virginia. Soon she was recorded with yet another variation of her shopworn and increasingly racist rationale for continuing the fight. Quoting a recent Associated Press poll, Hillary, in an interview with USA Today, pointed to Obama’s difficulty getting the, “hard-working white vote,” saying that only she can best build that coalition, a coalition that must include working-class white voters, that can successfully challenge John McCain in the fall. There it was, once again, out in the open for all to see. Clinton is the White candidate. Obama is the Black candidate. And since one cannot win an election without the “White” majority…well you get the picture. To punctuate this theme, lest no one misunderstand the truly blatant racist appeal, Hillary was seen climbing the mountains of West Virginia, imploring the good citizens therein to “send ‘em a message’. This was the campaign slogan of that great race-baiter George Corley Wallace.

Meanwhile, the chattering classes have been doing their ‘bobble-head’ routine and parroting this drivel. Pat Buchanan, during his regular appearance on MSNBC’s ‘Morning Joe’ gave us yet another of his tired, dog-eared attempts at putting a ‘logical’ face on this clearly blatant attempt to play the ‘race card’. Saying that Obama has shown consistent difficulty winning over the ‘Scoop’ Jackson wing of the Democratic Party and, by extension, cannot build a successful coalition to challenge in the fall, Buchanan — a bedrock Nixon conservative — is seen here daily lecturing the Democratic front-runner on electoral politics.

First, Pat, THERE IS NO ‘SCOOP’ JACKSON WING OF THE DEMOCRATIC PARTY!!!! Henry ‘Scoop’ Jackson was a hard-working Democratic centrist who, after the departure of Hubert Humphrey from the national scene, momentarily — but unsuccessfully — tried to pick up his mantle. Like many others who have been touched with Potomac Fever, ol’ ‘Scoop’ — never realizing that the nation would recoil at the prospect of electing someone President who calls himself ‘Scoop’ — ran a few times for the Oval Office. He even went so far as to have some plastic surgery done around his eyes to make himself more telegenic. But Jackson never fared any better than, say, Dick Gephardt, or Paul Tsongas. To say there is a ‘Scoop’ Jackson‘ wing of the Democratic Party is as ludicrous on its face as saying there is a Richard Gephardt or Paul Tsongas or Paul Simon, or Mo Udall wing of the Democratic Party. In any case ol’ ‘Scoop’, far too decent a man, if he were alive today, would have no truck with these racists. Buchanan is just blowing it out his ass.

What Buchanan is doing, of course, is trying to put an acceptable veneer on that element of the Democratic Party that walked out of the 1948 convention, stood with George Wallace when he was in the party (pre-1968), outside the party (1968) and back in the party (1972). What he is referring to are the Democrats that bolted the party in 1968 and went with Wallace and Nixon and denied Humphrey the presidency. The other term for these turncoats is “Reagan Democrats” - another misnomer. Reagan didn’t bring a single Democrat to the Republican Party. What he did was re-capture Democrats who were already leaving the party — and it was not over economics, it was not over national security and defense, it was not over cultural issues, it was not over any question of principles, it was over race.

But Buchanan will have none of it. Daily, one can see him blathering on about the “culture wars”…reminding viewers of the hippies and the Chicago Riots, and all the rest. I doubt there were many young Democrats demonstrating in Grant Park in Chicago. Some young Democrats? Yes, I knew at least one…but mostly they were the sons and daughters of the affluent upper middle class, the stuff of which the later Republican and Libertarian movements would be built. No less that Jerry Rubin himself, one must be reminded, ended up being nothing other than a common Wall Street stock-jobber. But Pat paints with a wide brush trying desperately to offer a rationale—any rationale it seems—for why white working class voters quadrennially stand before the mirror, serrated knife in hand, and cut their own economic throats come election time. It is race, Pat, pure and simple.

What is lost in this analysis is that Obama has been making great strides toward bridging our racial divides, and would by now have been much further down the road had it not been for the malignant politics of the Clintons. Obama has won caucuses and primaries in states that are over 90% white. But this means little to those whose primary interest is to stuff him back into a narrow racial container and thereby marginalize him. To put it simply, if Clinton has demonstrated a superior ability to bridge the economic, ethnic, religious and racial divides, if Clinton is better able to build that winning coalition, why has Obama won more states, more caucuses, and three quarters of a million more votes?

It is a specious argument, and Buchanan knows it. He knows the game the Clintons are playing just as he knows why Nixon and later the Republicans have been able to turn the new South solid for the Grand Old Prostitute.


Footnotes:

1. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/05/04/sports/othersports/04churchill.html?_r=1&0ref=slogin.

2. http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20080507/ap_on_el_pr/mcgovern_clinton

May 7, 2008: Reversal of Fortune, The Thirteenth Round, Toast



 Election night in Indiana began with Terry McAuliffe, former Chairman of the national Democratic
Party and now full-time business consultant and Clinton spokesman, appearing on MSNBC confidently predicting a smashing victory in Indiana that would materially alter the dynamics of the contest for the Democratic Presidential nomination. The Clinton camp began the night confident that they could close the gap in North Carolina where Obama’s lead had been cut from over 20 percentage points to between 6 and 8 percent depending upon the poll. Indiana was looking much better with polls showing Hillary ahead by 6 to 8 points as voters were heading to the polls. The Clintons, factoring in the ‘Bradley Effect’ as well as the trend of late decider’s to track toward Hillary, began the night boisterously confident of their candidate’s chances. Howard Wolfson, the possum faced press spokesman of the Clinton campaign, openly talked about losing narrowly in North Carolina—where like her sister-state Obama, because of his race, was expected to do well—but winning big in Indiana demonstrating Hillary the superior candidate best able to assemble a broad-base coalition necessary to derail the good Marshall’s ‘straight-talk’ express. There was open talk in the Clinton camp of winning both states with a knock-out punch or at minimum winning Indiana and walking away with a net gain of several hundred thousand votes. Enough votes to assume, if you count the contested results in Michigan and Florida, the uncontested lead in the popular vote.

As the night began, it looked like it would all go according to script. Early returns out of Indiana showed a twenty point Clinton lead, with Obama narrowly besting her in North Carolina. But early signs of trouble emerged right off the starting block. No sooner had the polls closed when the networks immediately called North Carolina for Obama indicating that his margin of victory would be well above what the early returns were indicating. As the night progressed the huge lead in Indiana began to evaporate. By ten in the evening the outlines were becoming clear: Obama was running up a huge majority in North Carolina, far larger than his African-American political base would warrant, and Hillary’s lead in Indiana diminished as returns kept coming in. By two in the morning the networks would call it, Clinton would win Indiana, but by a mere 16,000 votes—a small enough margin so that Rusty “Rush to Judgment” Limbaugh could take credit for the Clinton victory by claiming that enough of his listeners, following his “operation chaos” stratagem, showed up at the polls and crossed party lines to vote for Hillary and by so doing keep the contest and the divisiveness going within the Democratic Party. What began as a night that would change the landscape ended with a huge reaffirmation of the Obama candidacy in effect wiping out whatever electoral gains Clinton had got from her victory in Pennsylvania. Crushed in North Carolina by a 57-42 margin, and limping to victory in Indiana with the help of Rupert Murdock, Fixed News, and Rusty Limbaugh, Hillary put on her ‘game’ face and pledged to trudge on.

Once again it is instructive to return to the world of sports, this time boxing, since everyone was looking for that ever elusive punch that would bring this contest to a merciful end. Once again it is useful to return to the “Thrilla in Manila”, the last of three heavyweight contests between ‘Smokin’ Joe’ Frazier and Muhammad Ali. Frazier won the first match, Ali the rematch and the contest in Manila was billed as the fight that would forever decide who was the best in the world, perhaps the greatest of all-time. The fight followed the pattern of the previous two fights. The first rounds went to Ali who would, through superior reach and speed, stick and move, keeping Frazier at bay with his flicking left jab and hitting him hard with an occasional right hand. But because he was no longer the young man who fought Liston and Cooper, Ali, knowing that the fight would definitely go into the later rounds if not the distance, would in the middle rounds lie against the ropes and Frazier would pile up points by getting inside and scoring with body punches and occasional shots to the head. By the end of the 10th round the fight, as so many of Ali’s later fights, would be seen as even. Then Ali would get back up on his toes and resume where he left off in the early rounds. Circling left, flicking out that jab, then at just the right moment—bang—that hard right hand. This is what happened in Manila. Occasionally replayed on cable sports channels it is, if you appreciate the sport and what these athletes brought to it, a joy to behold. In the middle of the 13th round Ali is circling, has Frazier in the center of the ring. The camera is situated behind Ali, Frazier facing Ali and the camera. Suddenly Ali hits him with a hard right hand that sends Frazier’s mouthpiece flying. So fast did it happen that ringside announcers did not notice that Frazier’s mouthpiece was missing until the round was over. But if you look for it, you can see it. As Ali’s right hand catches Joe square on the jaw, the mouthpiece comes out in a line parallel to the floor and goes flying out of the ring. So hard was Frazier hit that his mouthpiece ended up 9 rows into the seats. Hit with such a punch one would think that ‘Smokin’ Joe’ would have been crushed. In fact he didn’t budge, he didn’t move, he stood there on his feet and continued fighting. But the fight was over. In the next round Ali, knowing that the end was at hand, continued to dance and punish his opponent hitting him with several wicked combinations. As the 14th round ended Frazier slumped onto his stool and as the bell was about to ring to start the last round, “Smokin’ Joe” Frazier said “no more”. Over the protests of his corner, he said he’d had enough.

The victory in North Carolina was stunning: Obama bested Clinton by over 225,000 votes. Instead of delivering the much sought-after “knock-out” blow, it was the Clintons who found themselves fighting for their political lives, for the good people of North Carolina had delivered the blow that sent the Clinton mouthpiece all the way from ringside in Indianapolis to Hammond Indiana. The next day the New York Post had a picture of Hillary with a grim smile over which was printed the headline that said simply: “Toast”.

May 6, 2008: “Indiana Can Choose”, The Voice in My Ears, Through the Corridores of Time



“This is Senator Robert Kennedy. Today is an important day in Indiana. Today is Election Day. I urge all registered citizens to go to the polls and vote. Vote for the candidate of your choice, but vote. Indiana can choose the next President of the United States. This is Senator Robert Kennedy”. After all these years, I still hear that voice in my ears.

On or about the 3rd or 4th of May, 1968, I got my final call from the campaign to go South once again, this time in an effort to get out the vote. Kennedy was by now in a tight race with Eugene McCarthy who had established himself, after New Hampshire and Wisconsin, as a strong anti-war voice. The political landscape was further complicated by the ‘favorite-son’ candidacy of Governor Roger Brannigan. The Governor was then serving as a stalking-horse for the newly re-minted Hubert Humphrey who had entered the foray too late to file for the primaries. The campaign, sensing a possible setback, sent out a last call for us to return, this time to work until the time the polls would close. So once again I arranged some time from work, skipped a few classes, gathered up a friend of my younger brother and, with Max McPherson in tow, drove my car through the long dark night, and once again headed to the land of the Hoosier.

This time I reported to Michigan City, an industrial town situated in the Northwest corner of the state on the shores of Lake Michigan. Michigan City and neighboring La Porte, Indiana were working-class towns, surrounded by a growing rural prosperity with upper middle-class and upper class residences located in the dunes overlooking the lake. It was familiar ground to me, much like the cities in which I was raised. We arrived early Monday, finding the campaign headquarters situated downtown on Main Street near a theatre which was then playing “The Graduate”. The music of Simon and Garfunkle’s “Mrs. Robinson” filled the airwaves as we listened to the radio while making our way about town. I can remember crossing a set of railroad tracks, listening to the local news, as—in a foreshadowing of what would become common practice in later times-- a spokesman for Lyndon Johnson made references to ‘another McCarthy era’ in an attempt to smear the critic of the war. I remember shaking my head and remarking, “he didn’t say that, did he?” Not anticipating the politics of Lee Atwater or Karl Rove, I had no idea then that such tactics would become standard operating procedure, the political currency with which power would be purchased by the emerging Generation of Swine. But that was far off into the future; we had more important tasks immediately at hand.

We arrived at the headquarters and were assigned our various tasks. I went out into the neighborhoods canvassing door-to-door as I had a few weeks earlier in Marion. We returned, as before, late in the day to headquarters where Max and I were invited by a young campaign worker, who was then taking time from his studies at nearby Taylor University, to stay with his family then living in a splendid home up in the dunes overlooking Lake Michigan. There I spent a pleasant evening talking with the family about what we had done, why we had joined the cause, what brought us so far. After a morning breakfast I drove back downtown to the campaign headquarters.

It was now the first Tuesday of May, 1968. It seems strange, by today’s presidential campaign schedule, that this was the first primary election in which Robert Kennedy would make an appearance. Announcing his candidacy too late to enter the earlier contests, he had missed the important New Hampshire and Wisconsin primaries; Indiana was the first Presidential ballot upon which the name of Robert F. Kennedy would appear. Unlike the contest forty years later, the Indiana primary came near the beginning rather than the end of the process and represented the initial test of Robert Kennedy’s political reach. For this reason it was seen as an early bell weather of his support and would determine the seriousness of his candidacy.

We arrived at the headquarters and one of the campaign managers asked if he could fit my car with speakers, transforming it into a sound truck. It was a 1962 Ford Galaxy, as I remember it, a four-door brown sedan that was not-too-much the worse for wear and presentable. Someone emerged with the equipment in hand, made the necessary installations, and soon my auto was converted into another piece of campaign equipment. With the young man from Taylor University riding ‘shotgun’ we then proceeded out to tour Michigan City. We turned on the sound system and there was that voice, a message the Senator had recorded which would be played in an endless loop as we traveled through the streets of the city and through its neighborhoods. Over a span of now four decades I can still see the reactions of people as we moved among them. Children would stop playing, turn and run toward us, adults would turn and listen, fingers would be pointed, and small crowds would, on occasion, rush to gather around us as we moved among them. We smiled and waved, handed out some literature, urged those who looked old enough to vote. We were amazed, there were times when we thought we might be mobbed as people would gather around us and make moving the car forward difficult. Simply the power of his voice, by now growing familiar to America, was enough to elicit that kind of response.

This is how we spent Election Day in Indiana forty years ago. At the end of the day, as the polls were closing we debated whether we would make the journey South to Indianapolis and join the campaign’s victory party. Someone in the group knew where it was going to be held, we toyed with the idea for a while, but decided that it would make for a very long drive home. The group, which by now included not only my brother’s friend Max but also two students from Aquinas College, a catholic institution in Grand Rapids, decided that perhaps discretion would be the better part of valor and that the prudent thing would be to head home. Besides, there would be the general election, another campaign, and more victory celebrations. We waited for the election returns, did some celebrating with our friends at the Michigan City headquarters and then, taking our leave, began the long drive into the night. We arrived in Grand Rapids shortly after one in the morning; I dropped off our friends at their dorms and then headed west toward the lakeshore. I drove Max home, then made my way back into the city, down to Sixth Street, and got back into bed a few hours before the sun would rise.

“Those were the days, my friend
We thought they’d never end
We’d sing and dance, forever and a day.
We’d live a life we choose
We’d fight and never lose,
For we were young and sure to have our way”
---Mary Hopkin-- “Those Were The Days” (1)

“Indiana can choose the next President of the United States”, Bobby had intoned. Not since that campaign so long ago has the Indiana primary figured so large in the political calculus. Forty years ago it was important because it was the first real contest among the ‘heavyweights’; this year it is important because it comes toward the end of a long and drawn-out struggle; and could perhaps be not the contest which begins the race for the Presidency, but the contest which ends the race for Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama.
Clinton is looking for a quick combination in which she comes close in North Carolina, where Obama had at one time a 20 point lead, and finishes him with a huge right hand by crushing him in Indiana. The latest polls show her close in North Carolina, and a 6-8 point advantage in Indiana. Given that voters who have made their decisions in the closing days of the campaign have been breaking decidedly toward Clinton, the forces of the ‘dark side’ see Indiana as the battlefield that will change the fortunes of war.

“Indiana can choose the next President of the United States”. Forty years ago it turned out not to be so. Perhaps this year will be different. “Indiana can choose the next President of the United States”…I can still hear that voice echo through the corridors of time.

Footnotes:

1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Those_Were_The_Days_(song)

May 16, 2008

May 4, 2008: Celebrating a Century, Lessons From the Fields, The Education of a Private Man



“These are the saddest of possible words:
‘Tinker to Evers to Chance.’
Trio of bear cubs, and fleeter than birds,
Tinker to Evers to Chance.
Ruthlessly pricking our gonfalon bubble,
Making a Giant hit into a double—
Words that are heavy with nothing but trouble:
“Tinker to Evers to Chance.”

--Franklin Pierce Adams, “Baseball’s Sad Lexicon”
Originally published in the ‘New York Mail’, 1910 (1)

In these few lines, Franklin Pierce Adams immortalized the last of the Chicago Cubs to have reached the summit of baseball’s Mount Olympus, words that have been carved into the monument of our national pastime and have forever immortalized a team that set the twentieth century record for winning in a single season (1906, only to lose the World Series to the cross-town rival White Sox in six games). They would win three consecutive National League championships between 1906 and 1908, but a century ago, the year 1908, would prove to be the last year the Cubs would make an appearance in the fall classic and emerge victorious. Still it took the famous “Merkle Boner” to get there, an inspiringly “bonehead” play in which New York Giant Fred Merkle, in a September game against the Cubs, apparently failed to touch second base as one of his teammates scored the winning run. Merkle, seeing his teammate score, simply headed for the dugout. Cubs’ second baseman Johnny Evers retrieved the ball and as the crowd was filing out of the Polo Grounds, he stepped on second and recorded the third out of the inning. With fans already crowding on the field the game was suspended and, after several protests and appeals, was rescheduled later in the year. As luck would have it, the Cubs and the Giants held identical records at the end of the season so this game was replayed to decide the championship of the National League(2). The Cubs prevailed, but let’s make no mistake about it, if it hadn’t been for the now infamous ‘Merkle Boner’, it would now be 101 years since the Cubs were last the Champions of the World. The Team produced three consecutive league championships and two World Championships, but if not for Merkle, the famous double-play combination so eulogized by Franklin Adams would have, at the end of the day, been champions only once. So began the long and sorry tale of a franchise that has consistently wasted the talents of great players—men like Ron Santo and Ernie Banks, Furguson Jenkins and Greg Maddox, among many—who, if they reached the fall classic at all, did so playing in the uniform of another team.


Yesterday, at Zion Lutheran in Holland Michigan, my family gathered with nearly two hundred other souls to celebrate my Grandmother’s 100th Birthday. To understand this accomplishment one needs to reflect on the fact that she was born during the spring of the year in which the Chicago Cubs, the team that featured the famous double-play combination of Tinker, Evers and Chance, were last the Champions of baseball. Arriving in time to witness the last year of the famous Teddy Roosevelt’s tenure in the White House, and Freddie Merkle’s infamous boner, she has seen 18 presidents, 30 presidential administrations, two world wars, several other hot wars and one long cold one. In addition she has been through several economic downturns and one major depression. Through it all she has exhibited a hopeful optimism, a belief in the goodness of her fellow human being, a firm belief in providence, and a determination to teach lessons that have seen her family through thick and thin.

I arrived into this world during her 41st year and, having left my mother much the worse for the experience, was taken into her custody for my first six months as mother recovered. I have fond later memories of Grandfather, after a day at the factory, gathering up my baby brother and me, and driving out into the countryside to pick up grandmother, then teaching in a one-room rural schoolhouse outside of Ludington, Michigan. I remember listening to the car radio, the voices of Burns and Allen in my ears as we made that daily sojourn. Then there would be the inevitable stop at the Park Dairy to load up on ice cream as we made that journey, a practice my mother brought to a halt after watching several cooked meals go to waste.

She would teach for nine months of the year and in the summer we would bundle up and make the journey to Mount Pleasant where grandmother was continuing her education at Central Michigan University. In time she would earn her Master’s degree and follow us south relocating in Holland, Michigan where she continued to teach first again in one-room schools, and later as a special education teacher. Displaying a determined work ethic, she worked tirelessly to blaze a trail in higher education that would make possible later generations to follow.

To understand Grandmother one needed to understand that she was, in her soul, a teacher. As such she would tolerate no nonsense at the waterfront. When we misspoke she would correct us, when we misbehaved she would rebuke us. In this she is much like my paternal Grandmother. Both were women of learning, both married to earthy men who chafed under the constraints. I fondly remember my Grandfather’s frequent use of expletives. In a moment of disgust or anger he would customarily respond with appropriate profanity. I can still hear the voice coming from the kitchen, “Joseph”; she would yell out, “stop swearing in front of the children!” “Hell,” he would reply with a wink in his eye, “they got to learn sometime”. Grandfather was a boisterous, confrontational union leader; grandmother a quiet peace maker. They balanced each other for sixty years complementing each other in ways that takes years for an observer to understand.

To see Grandmother as a quiet, demure, schoolmarm is to materially misunderstand with whom one is dealing. She was quick to correct, sure in her judgment, and determined to see a positive outcome. At the tender age of nine, she declared that it was time to take the boy out into the fields and introduce him to the world of labor. So in the summer of 1958 I found myself absenting the ‘field of dreams’, putting my emerging career in professional baseball on hold, and heading out to the “blueberry” patch to earn some money. It was Grandmother’s wish that I be introduced early to life’s labors and in so doing instill in the young lad a work ethic that she knew I would need in order to prepare for life’s many trials.

And so it was that I found myself laboring in the fields well before my 10th birthday. Memories that now span half a century are as vivid as if it were yesterday of getting up well before sunrise, partaking of a quick breakfast, and heading out to the fields. We would arrive as the sun was rising, the blueberry bushes still wet with the morning dew. Our hands would quickly turn blue as residue of insecticides would mix with the natural juices of the fruit and the cold wetness of the morning dew transforming the ends of our fingers into something that looked like blue raisins or prunes. As the day progressed and the hot August sun rose in the east the temperature would climb and, by mid afternoon, the cold wetness of the morning would give way to a hot and dry furnace. At the end of the day we would emerge from the ‘patch’ covered with dust and ready to go home to eat some dinner and go to sleep. Day after day, for half the summer, while my peers honed their skills on the fields of play I, and later my younger brother, would so labor beneath the hot summer sun learning valuable ‘life lessons’ under the watchful and protective eye of our beloved Grandmother.

Her purpose, as befitting a lesson plan for a nine-year-old, was a straightforward one. To teach that money does not grow on trees, does not fall into one’s lap, but must instead be earned by the sweat of one’s brow. In this she succeeded in her mission. Later in life, as I lay in pain from serious back injuries—injuries that would in time require surgery removing entirely a ruptured disc—I could hear the voice of Grandmother calling me. “Joey”, she would call out—it was always ‘Joey’ not simply because I was young but to differentiate me from my Grandfather—“it’s time to get up. Let’s get going we don’t have much time”. Then I would rub my sleepy eyes and, in spite of the pain, drag myself up and out of bed and prepare for another day’s labor.

As straight-forward as was the mission, the lessons learned often transcend the limits of the lessons taught. While developing a tough and determined work ethic, which would lead me to work two jobs while going to college, and labor at many positions in my adult life for which I have been overqualified, the experience in the fields taught other, unintended lessons.

It was while laboring in the fields that I was introduced to the squalor and the exploitation of migrant workers. I labored with whole families who made the annual journey from Mexico and the Deep South arriving in time to harvest the crop and leaving just before the deadline, the Monday after Labor Day each year, established by the State of Michigan requiring that the children be put into the state’s schools. I saw a system that employed child labor and saw children, much younger than myself, not at play but working with us in the fields. I saw families dependent on the labor of such children and, unfortunately, children on occasion beaten for falling asleep or not working to expectations. What I saw before my very eyes was the underbelly of the established economic order; the wretched working conditions that made possible cheap and plentiful food.

While teaching her grandson life lessons about the nature of work and reward, Grandmother had inadvertently taken me into the recesses of those places that were still beyond the reach of the New Deal. Agriculture was, and still is, exempt from the Fair Labor Standards Act and, therefore, is not subject to the labor law providing for overtime, the 40 hour work week, or the minimum wage. Accordingly, laborers are paid by the unit, in this case the pound, in those days being 7 cents a pound. A young child could, on a good day, fill a 15 pound pail making a little over a dollar a day. Adults would make more, but a five or six dollar day was a good one. If a grown adult could pick 100 pounds in a single day, making $7.00, such a person was considered to be very good at it. Grown adults, if they were good at it, would work for between thirty and forty dollars a week, assuming one didn’t get sick. Grandmother had taken us into the fields to earn a little extra money, but these people were in the fields earning a livelihood. In my first two years in the fields I managed, by such labor, to earn $20.00 for the summer. The migrants, following the crops and the seasons, would keep in perpetual motion laboring for such meager rewards. Needing the labor of every member of the family, children were kept out of school in order to stay at work in the fields. This produced a permanent underclass of exploited men, women and children, available each harvest season to planters who would grow wealthy on the backs of such labor. This is what I witnessed at a young and tender age. I will never forget the sight of the old jalopies stuffed with children and all their earthly possessions as the arriving migrants would take up residence in the ‘living quarters’ often shacks resembling nothing so much as old slave quarters of Southern lore.

It radicalized me. When Lyndon Johnson sought to complete the New Deal by extending the benefits to those left behind I understood. When I read, in 1966, Michael Harrington’s “The Other America”, I understood. The poor were invisible. One could drive down Highway 31 between Grand Haven and Holland, Michigan and never see the squalor of worker’s ‘shacks’ just a quarter-mile or so from the road. I didn’t need Upton Sinclair to describe the working conditions in the meat-packing industry, or Karl Marx to explain the nature of exploitation in the workplace. I had seen it first hand. We lived in the working class neighborhood, down by the factories in what was once an industrial as well as a resort town. But the hardships we knew were nothing compared to what I witnessed in the fields of Western Michigan. Some were radicalized in the 1960’s, for me it happened a decade earlier. Later in life I would constantly find myself to the left of the Democratic Party and, of late, a sworn enemy of the Democratic Leadership Council and others of those who would move the party of FDR to the right. Grandmother had taught her lessons well, for she gave to her grandson not only a strong work ethic, but a social conscience in the bargain.

Happy Birthday, Grandma, may you have many, many more.

Footnotes:

1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baseball’s _Sad_Lexicon
2. http://www.baseballlibrary.com/ballplayers/player.php?name=Fred_Merkle_1888

May 12, 2008

May 2, 2008: Ranting Like a Crazy Man, Swift-Boating Obama, Lessons in Parochialism



“I hear a preacher on the corner
Ranting like a crazy man
He says there’s trouble, troubles a coming
I can read it like the back of my hand”
-----The Rolling Stones, “Back of My Hand” (1)

The right Reverend Wright has taken to the airwaves in an erstwhile effort to defend himself. Ever since he came to national prominence he has been thrown in the spin-cycle of cable news where he has been left to be wrung out. Now he has chosen to once again thrust himself center-stage in an effort to repair his tattered reputation. So first appearing in an interview with Bill Moyers, then later in a speech before the National Press Club, the Reverend began a haltering and convoluted defense of himself that quickly spun out into charges that “of course Barack had to say those things”, he is a politician. Missing a grand opportunity to clarify his statements and perhaps inject a bit of rationality to the controversy, the Reverend Wright chose instead to add to the proceedings yet another level of misunderstanding.

What one would have longed to hear from the good Reverend is that he was not damning the United States; he was damning its sins. From the record this could have been readily demonstrated. Instead the Reverend chose to further impugn the character of his congregant by implying that it was mere political calculation that made Barack put distance between himself and the Reverend. How this will “play in Peoria”, as Mr. Nixon would say, is yet to be determined but it has given Fox Noise and the chattering classes an excuse to put the Reverend through several more spin-cycles.

Obama, walking the high wire of presidential politics, stood before the cameras and in a firm but soft voice, and with a look of resignation in his face, once again explained that those were not his sentiments and that clearly the Reverend did not understand who he is or what he and his campaign are about. With no joy in his voice he then publicly repudiated the Reverend saying that he clearly is not the man he thought him to be. One hopes that this is the end of the business, for this campaign has been distracted far too long over such an issue.

One can ask, as many have, why Obama would sit in a pew and listen to such sermons. But the truth is that we all have sat in pews and listened to admonitions we find unpalatable. I remember the 1960 campaign. We were instructed from the pulpit to vote for Nixon because if Kennedy were elected the Pope in Rome would run this country. At school we were told to remind our parents not to vote for the Catholic. Long lectures about the inquisition and the Catholic persecution of Protestants were held. It was as if the Inquisition had happened yesterday. I went home and told my mother who, after patiently listening to my political advice, simply said “nonsense, we’re Democrats, we’re voting for Kennedy”. So it was with all my classmates who lived in the neighborhood. Grand Haven went for Nixon, but not my neighborhood. It is easy to put labels on people, to try and tag them by such associations, but I have yet to sit in any pew and not disagree with at least half of what is being said—beginning with the preacher’s misunderstanding of natural history.

What we have here are inflammatory remarks, loosely associated with the candidate that can be spun into smear. Another simple instance of ‘swift-boating’. The question is why would the Reverend seek to once again raise the ugly issue and by so doing participate in the ‘swift-boating’ of the man he mentored?

I think the answer is that he does understand his congregant. The Reverend Wright does understand what Obama is all about, and that is the problem. To a degree all religions, and all denominations within each religion, are based on the concept of exclusivity. In order to maintain the institution one must maintain its identity. In order to maintain its identity one must constantly strive to see to it that the congregation does not melt back into the larger society. Therefore to keep the flock together it is necessary to draw distinctions be they over dress, dietary restriction, religious holidays and observances, ritual, and an abiding belief that only the version of truth taught by this denomination is the way to salvation. Only by separation from the larger community and following the ‘true’ path can one be saved. Walls of varying descriptions are then erected between oneself and the larger society, sometimes (as in the case of the current scandal in Texas involving a renegade Mormon sect, or the Branch Davidians) becoming a bit bazaar. In any case, not so deep under the surface, lurks a great deal of intolerance. It is intolerance that prevents the Bible-thumping fundamentalist from embracing the Mormon Mitt Romney, as it is intolerance that prevents the Reverend Wright from witnessing before his very eyes the work of his own parishioner. To embrace the greater community, to cross the line of demarcation and transcend one’s own parochialism is seen as ‘backsliding’ into heresy. This is an old story, at least as old as the reaction of Christ’s disciples when Peter told them that they must now take the Gospel unto the Gentiles. The Reverend Wright, who had built his church on drawing distinctions between ‘them’ and ‘us’, now finds that he cannot bring himself to embrace ‘them’. It’s no different that Jerry Falwell’s difficulty embracing homosexuals. “I love the sinner, but hate the sin”, Falwell used to say. The problem, of course, is that we are all sinners and therefore cannot be so easily separated.

I attended a parochial school and within its walls learned the true meaning of the word. To be parochial means to be limited, be it geographically or intellectually. It means to adhere to a narrow and more constricted version of truth, to the exclusion of all else. It means teaching to fear the other, those not like us. It means if no Lutheran is running for President, then we must vote protestant over Catholic, Christian over Muslim or Hindu—whatever the lines of demarcation and such lines there must be. That is what fuels the internet smear that Obama is Muslim, and this is what fuels the infatuation with the rantings of Reverend Wright. We can appeal to our parochialism, our collective intolerance, and do it with religious sanction. The opposite of parochial is cosmopolitan, urbane, and in a word worldly. Barack, by seeking to transcend parochialism, as he must do if he is to become President of all the people, has offended his mentor who now fears his success. To transcend his station, to preach to the gentiles as it were, to appeal to the larger community is seen as ‘backsliding’; a heresy threatening not only the theological ‘certainties’ of ‘black liberation’ theology, but the very identities of the church and the Reverend who built it.

Footnotes:

1. http://www.oldielyrics.com/lyrics/the_rolling_stones/back_of_my_hand.html



.

May 9, 2008

April 29, 2008: Indiana Calls Me, Back to the Future, Those Were The Days My Friend



As I watched Robert Kennedy give his speech at Campau Square that bright April afternoon I remember him asking if we would join his campaign and go to Indiana. I thought, at the time, that it was a rhetorical question and didn’t think any more of it. We simply nodded yes. A few days later I got a call from the campaign to do just that. The Kennedy campaign had chartered a North Star bus out of Big Rapids and gave us instructions to gather in front of the Michigan Consolidated Gas building in downtown Grand Rapids and head south to join the campaign.

It was not, given the times, a difficult decision to make. The war was raging, the nation was tearing apart at the seams, and Bobby appeared to not only have a grasp of the situation, but was the one candidate who appeared most likely to prevail in the struggle against the “establishment”—that is, the established order. My problems in joining the campaign, however, were manifold.

Grand Valley State was, in those days, a small teachers college with a growing campus located due west of Grand Rapids on the plains overlooking the Grand River at Allendale. It was founded in 1963, and graduated its first class just prior to my arrival in 1967. One of the peculiarities of the institution was that for some reason, never made clear, registration for classes occurred on a single day in which the entire student body, then numbering about 1200, would converge just off the cafeteria and sign up for classes. Over the course of time it transpired that a great number of upper classmen had not been able to register for their foundation courses by this method and, therefore, were facing a situation where they could not graduate until they had satisfied the basic course requirements. This produced a melee in which upper classmen, juniors and seniors, converged on the proceedings with slips in hand from department heads and deans, reserving positions in the 100 and 200 level classes normally taken by freshmen like myself. By the time we got to the counter there were only junior and senior level courses left to be taken. So it was that I found myself with a course load that included one basic course in economics, but an upper level class in 19th century American History, and a course in International Law.

We were on quarters then, classes lasted for a mere 10 weeks, and some History classes would have as many as 5 textbooks and require a major paper, sometimes two. At the time the institution had not yet received certification, and the demands of the classes were daunting. Needless to say this was a formidable challenge made all the more compelling by the fact that my History professor was none other that John Tevebaugh. To understand what that meant one needs to watch a few episodes of “Paper Chase”, in which John Houseman plays a law professor who is a demanding old curmudgeon. I think this role must have been inspired by John Tevebaugh. Tevebaugh was the chairman of the History department and such a task-master that seniors were known to schedule writing their thesis around John’s sabbaticals. In any case I was quickly up to my eyebrows in books as I found myself, along with Steve Peckich and Dick Merrick charged with researching and writing two 50 page papers covering the political history of 19th century America. The experience proved to be, in spite of the ordeal, one of the most rewarding classes I would take, for I was introduced to the colorful and ribald political world of New York’s Tammany Hall, the machine politics of Philadelphia and other cities, the study of such splinter groups as the ‘Barnburners’ and the ‘Mugwumps’; and began my understanding of Jacksonian Democracy as well as the later Greenback and Progressive movements.

Additionally I was up to my eyebrows in the study of International Law, researching a major paper for Dr. Junn which included the readings of jurist Hugo Grotius among many others. This was a great period, one of those seminal times in one’s life in which one is confronted with great challenge, in which one works hard not to let the grade point average suffer too greatly, but nevertheless produces quantum leaps in ability and confidence. After this experience I knew that I could handle whatever the college could throw at me, and I was off to the races.

In addition I was working two jobs, on weekends and some evenings at the old W.T. Grant department store in Grand Haven unloading trucks and stocking shelves, and on weekends at the old Starlight Drive-In Theatre between Holland and Saugatuck, as a projectionist. It was a full load to be sure. Then I got a call from the Kennedy campaign asking if I would make the journey south to Indiana and join the cause. Of course I would. I made arrangements to take some time from work, skipped some classes, and made my way to the ‘big city’ to meet the bus.

We gathered very early on Friday morning at about this time of the month and made the long bus trip down to Kokomo, Indiana where we were split up into two groups. I went along with the group that was sent on to Marion and arrived at the campaign headquarters located across from the courthouse on the town square in a scene that looked very much like the town in the film “Back to the Future”. We found our way down to the campaign headquarters; an old store-front rented for the occasion, and were introduced to the campaign organizers. We were given a list of registered voters and addresses, some brief instruction, and sent out to canvass the neighborhoods door-to-door. Indiana, in those days, presented a bit of culture shock to those of us who were still, figuratively speaking, babes-in-arms. I remember Mark Henges, a friend of mine who had likewise joined the campaign, relating the story of a lynching that had occurred a few decades earlier in the square across the street from the campaign’s headquarters. Nothing like that had ever occurred from where we came from and such tales seemed exotic and somewhat frightening. Years later I would tune in to PBS and see an account of it and recognize immediately the incident being retold. Further we were up against the political forces of the Governor, Roger Brannigan, who was originally a stand-in for Lyndon Johnson but now a stalking-horse for Hubert Humphrey. The governor had the full power of patronage on his side with state workers taking time to openly campaign for him in the primary, leaving the streets to be patrolled by packs of dogs that freely roamed the city. The campaign was worried that Brannigan, a popular Democratic governor, would win the votes of the party regulars leaving Kennedy and McCarthy to split the ‘peace’ vote. Victory was not seen then as anything like a foregone conclusion.

We went out into the neighborhoods and worked until dark, long hours going door-to-door, engaging the bewildered Hoosiers who were surprised to find people coming from so far away to elicit their support. We asked questions, we engaged in conversations, we wrote down their responses. At the end of a long day, as the sun was setting, we headed back to headquarters where we met with campaign organizers and relayed the information we had gathered. My friend Henges and his friend Larry Baker —who would transfer from Grand Rapids Junior College to Grand Valley later in the year— and Baker’s friend Keith Wakefield, suggested we get a motel room and do some serious drinking. I asked if we had any booze, and Baker, with a grin, simply gave a silent nod. We asked one of the campaign organizers, a local union official, if he knew of a good motel. Sensing that we were up to no good, and that he was looking in the face of a possible major campaign scandal—since we were all underage—if we were left unattended, he seized upon the idea and told us that he knew just the place. He then promptly drove us to a local motel on the outskirts of town. When we got there we were surprised to learn that we would be staying with the family that owned the establishment and would remain with them in their living quarters. With the much desired beer warming in Brother Baker’s suitcase, the outlook appeared grim indeed.

The four of us sat about a small table playing a game of penny-ante poker as their young teenage son sat on a small couch engaging us in conversation. With the evening winding down and the beer getting warmer, Baker suddenly turned to the lad and asked, “Would your parents mind if we all had some beer”? “I don’t think they’d mind if you had a beer”, replied the lad, adding “why, you don’t have any do you?” At that Brother Baker got up and walked over to his suitcase, opened it up and proceeded to produce several cans. He had several such containers packed full. The boys eyes lit up and he went down the hall and, explaining to his parents that we would be undressing and getting ready to retire, arranged to have the area of the house closed off.

The party began in earnest at that point. To keep our cover we continued the poker game as each of us would temporarily leave the table, guzzle down a can, and then return. Over the next few hours hands were played, and coins changed hands with an ever diminishing understanding of whose hand one was playing and whose coins one was risking. What I remember mostly was the difficulty of getting the soap from my body as I showered before finally retiring in a drunken stupor. I slept like a rock, and woke up fully refreshed and ready to go.

“Those were the days my friend
We thought they’d never end
We’d sing and dance, forever and a day
We’d live a life we choose
We’d fight and never lose
Those were the days
Ah, yes those were the days” ----Mary Hopkin “Those were the Days” (1)

Those were the days, my friend, drink like a fish and no hang-over. We awoke, our gracious hosts none the wiser served us a splendid breakfast. We were then off to campaign headquarters for a repeat of the previous day’s labor and, at the end of another long day, we boarded the bus and headed back home. Sometime early Sunday morning we returned to Grand Rapids, found our cars and made the long drive back arriving safely home as the sun was rising.

As I reflect on that time now so long ago a few more memories play upon my mind. One is the image of my friend Mark standing in the middle of an intersection surrounded by a pack of dogs, the other is the remarks of a local Marion union leader who told us that we would always remember these days; that this was a time that we would always carry with us; a time that would forever define who we are. So it was.

Footnotes:

1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Those_Were_The_Days_(song)

May 8, 2008

April 28, 2008: I Walk the Line, Bird on a Wire, The Ties That Bind



“I keep a close watch on this heart of mine
I keep my eyes wide open all the time
I keep the ends out for the tie that binds”

----Johnny Cash, “I Walk the Line” (1)

There has been much said of late that Barack Obama is too “aloof”, too cerebral, too distant and, therefore, somehow out of touch with America. They cite his oratorical style, his lofty language, and foremost his unwillingness or inability to get down ‘in the trenches’ and deliver the body blows necessary to emerge a champion. To support these arguments pundits point out that to the degree his constituency extends beyond the racial barrier his support is primarily among the better educated professional classes and that somehow this son of Chicago’s south side cannot relate to the laboring masses. This analysis, put forward so eloquently by Chris Matthews on his MSNBC ‘Hardball’ program, and Pat Buchanan, the pugnacious Nixonite who learned nothing from the experience, materially misunderstands the natural limitations of Obama’s candidacy.

On occasion, when confronted with such questions, it helps to turn to the world of sports to find adequate and instructive parallels. In order to understand the paradigm, the limitations as well as the promise of the Obama candidacy, one needs to turn to other arenas for instruction. Professional sports went through much the same experience when it came time to confront such racial barriers and finally allow persons of color to participate at the highest level. Here one must remember Branch Rickey’s selection of Jackie Robinson, or Joe Lewis who became the first black boxing champion since the controversial Jack Johnson (so controversial that blacks could not get a title match for decades), or Arthur Ashe in tennis or Tiger Woods in golf—other lily-white endeavors-- until these great athletes rose to challenge Jim Crow. These athletes had several things in common: all were great athletes and all in relatively short order were welcomed onto the national and international stage. The reasons for this were not only were they in possession of great athleticism but also great temperament. From this perspective the choice of Jackie Robinson is instructive. There were several black athletes laboring in the old negro league who could, on the basis of athletic ability, have been easy selections as the athlete who would overturn decades of racism in professional baseball. Satchel Page, Josh Gibson leap immediately to mind. But what recommended Robinson to Dodgers’ general manager Branch Rickey was knowing he would have to endure endless taunting and racial slurs from the crowds and from other players—some his own teammates-- and that his choice would have to keep a cool head, would have to stand above it and teach by example what tolerance and acceptance looked like. His skill was a necessary condition, for it would not do to bring him to the major leagues only to watch him struggle and fail; but it was his temperament that was the sufficient condition for his selection. Without the proper temperament, Rickey’s choice would put undo pressure on himself and his team and possibly trigger a vicious spiral of violence or threats of violence always lurking just under every rock. To be successful, Rickey’s choice must have the ability to make himself welcome into the hearts of not only Brooklyn, but also the nation. And so he chose Jackie Robinson who, whatever his visceral reaction to the outrages that permeated America and it’s pastime, would remain cool, calm and collected and go about the business of demonstrating that he had every right to be on the field.


This, it seems to me is the high wire on which Barack Obama is walking. “Why doesn’t he react!” cries Chris Matthews and the chattering classes. “Why doesn’t he take off the gloves?” If he could only show a little more emotion….

This he cannot do, just as Lewis or Robinson or Ashe or Woods cannot. They live and lived in a world still circumscribed by racial stereotypes and the fear engendered by such collective misunderstandings. To react strongly is to risk being seen as “uppity” or condescending; to get angry is to be seen as not ‘in control of oneself’. We all know the stereotypes. From this perspective the limitations of Jesse Jackson’s and Al Sharpton’s campaigns were that they emerged from the civil rights struggles, and not only bore the stamp of righteous indignation over such obvious injustice, but because change—especially wholesale social change—threatens the established order,it is mostly unsettling, often frightening. The task at hand is to present change not only in its most promising and positive light, but to make change less threatening—to make change safe.

That was the task of Jackie Robinson, Arthur Ashe, Joe Lewis, and Tiger Woods; to be the first to take the stage and make it safe for others to follow. To make it safe not only for those of ‘color’ tot take a place at the table, but for the entire nation to welcome them.

The calculus is further complicated by his quest for the presidential nomination against a white woman. To be overbearing, to come on too strong, risks the likelihood of any such candidacy pitting a man against a woman that it would be perceived as somehow chauvinist. One cannot be seen to be figuratively beating a woman especially on a stage for the entire world to see. Indeed every time he has deigned to respond to the guttural attacks by playing ‘hardball’, to borrow Chris Matthews' motif, the Clinton camp has played the gender card to the effect that the boys are ‘ganging up’ on her. Obama, as any male opponent, must tread lightly lest he be perceived as abusing the woman, a problem that is compounded by the murky cross-currents of race. For several compelling reasons Obama must keep his eyes wide open all the time.

The national quadrennial spectacle that is the Presidential election in the United States has always involved the mortification of the flesh. In recent years the public has demanded that candidates wear their hearts on their sleeves. It has been yet another meaningless qualification instituted by the generation of swine that candidates must ‘bare all’. To that end long confessionals are in order, and the public demands visceral reactions to public events. To be analytical is seen to be detached and aloof, to commit the cardinal sin of being unfeeling. But are these qualities we want to see in the leader of the ‘free world’?

Much has been made of the similarities between Barack Obama and Robert Kennedy. Not since Bobby’s brief campaign 40 years ago has such enthusiasm been so manifest. I am reminded of that spring so long ago, but perhaps we are not drawing quite the correct analogy. In many ways Barack Obama reminds me more of Jack. It would be said of Jack, if he were running today, that he too is aloof and cerebral, distant and calculating. Nixon, on the other hand, was Nixon. Once when Kennedy was musing he paraphrased Lincoln by saying of Nixon “with malice toward all, and charity for none”. Imagine if the choice in 1960 were otherwise, if America chose its president based on the need to ‘emote’, on appearing ‘real’?. Can you imagine Halderman and Erlichman, or perhaps Colson and Liddy helping Nixon walk through the mine field that was the Cuban Missile Crisis?. No, for my money I want someone aloof, calculating, and rational in charge during such times of trouble.

And so Barack moves among us with eyes wide open holding out the ends for ties that bind.

Footnotes:

1. http://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/johnnycash/iwalktheline.html