Sunday, August 24, 2008

Dispatches, Volume 15

The Text Message Heard Around the World
There’s no point in side-stepping it: I was wrong. Dead wrong. I fear that my adamance that Joe Biden would absolutely not be the Vice-President produced the deflated question marks that popped up in text messages and emails Saturday morning. I have a pretty good track record in politics, but as Bob Dylan and Bill Ayers would say, ‘you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.’ I know some people have liked Joe Biden from the beginning, perhaps because he was articulate, good-looking and clean. For me, it was tough to see past the derogatory comments about South Asians and his performance at the Alito confirmation hearing.
Jon Stewart could demolish the pundits on Monday, recounting the weeks of their erroneous bluster, but he may lay off simply because its become too easy. Cable television would be more entertaining and no less informed if pundits were replaced by philosophical night-shift security guards and ranting immigrant taxi-drivers. But while I joined the punditocracy on this twisted VP ride, you’ll never Daily-Show me- I straight admit to misreading this one pretty hard. And on Saturday night I was frustrated, even angrily balling out my friend Shilpa, who as a former Delaware resident was the closest thing I could find to a target for my tirade.
Then I watched the Springfield rally. Saturday’s rally was a fascinating moment in observing the evolution of Barack Obama. If February 10, 2007 feels like a long time ago, you’re damn right it was. Back then a frail-looking 45 year-old got up on stage in freezing temperatures and launched his improbable, adorably naïve, yet still inspiring, quest for the presidency. But when Obama stepped up to the mic today, his eyes were all business. His hair looked almost gray. And he was unquestioningly in command. By the time Biden bounded onto the stage to Bruce Springsteen’s “The Rising” (good choice, by the way), the Big O had once again convinced me of his wisdom.
Biden, despite possessing a second-string stump speech and an odd fondness for trampling certain words, like “literally”, and phrases, like “ladies and gentlemen”, into the ground…where was I? See, that’s a Joe Biden sentence. Where he shone was hammering home his middle-class values, from his ‘scrappy’ upbringing in Scranton, Pennsylvania to his son’s impending service in the war. He also has an ability to deliver zingers, noting that McCain sits down to sort through his economic affairs, “he’ll have to figure out which of the seven kitchen tables to sit at.” His joke earlier in the campaign cycle that Rudy’s idea of a campaign speech was “a noun, a verb, and 9/11” was so potent it took the wind out of Rudy’s sails as effectively as any negative ad could. This is a guy we want involved in the campaign.
Unlike John Edwards or Hillary Clinton, he’s going to be a running mate who looks out for the top of the ticket first. By the end of Obama’s second term, Biden will be 73. He knows his days of running for president are behind him. And the foreign policy stuff? Doesn’t do much for me. Vice President Biden may have Obama’s ear on big foreign policy questions, but less than Susan Rice will, and probably not much more than Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Biden would have had anyway. Kennedy barely even invited Lyndon Johnson to Ex-Comm meetings during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and Obama’s rhetoric makes it sound like he’s more interested in having that kind of traditional vice-president than having a father figure to turn to whenever things get rough, which is how the media is spinning it. If Biden’s “foreign policy credentials” reassure ‘working-class whites’ that’s fine with me, even though I think it’s a little ridiculous.
Finally, Biden’s ascendancy will allow Delaware Governor Ruth Minner to appoint a young, progressive Senator in 2009. Evan Bayh just didn’t seem to have the upside he would have needed to make up for losing that Indiana Senate seat. Governor Kaine will be happy finishing his term in Virginia, where the golden trio of Kaine-Warner-Webb will be working their damndest to turn the Old Dominion permanently blue. As for Sebelius…she was my pick of choice, and with her second term over in 2010, who knows what the future holds for her- though I’m sure there will be a warm place waiting for her in the high levels of the Obama administration. For now, however, the moment belongs to Joe Biden. May we have many gaffe-free days to come.

Fear and Loathing in Pitkin County
I was lucky that the Joe Biden announcement was not made during my stint at the Woody Creek Tavern. The Tavern was Hunter S. Thompson’s favorite bar, and our romp through Colorado would be incomplete without a visit. One of my favorite maxims is that a good last impression beats the hell out of a good first impression, and that was certainly the case here. First, the bar takes last call at 11pm, disappointing even for rural Colorado, and shocking for a bar that once housed Dr. Thompson. The next morning I endured a torturous brunch of pop music, chattering families adjacent to me, and a cash-only policy that played me into the diabolical hands of Big ATM.
But a trip to the next-door Woody Creek Community Center started turning things around. The folks out there take their art, their serenity, and their local alcohol seriously, and the themes mix pleasantly against the backdrop of the Rockies. The regulars float in and out of the tavern all day, every day, lounging in the outdoor patio, where they lean back in reclining chairs, watch decadent tourists meander into the art studio that adjoins the bar, and carve wood of all different colors (“wood comes in every color except blue”) into totem poles. Like the old camp fires of Biloxi, anyone was allowed to sit in the outdoor section by the art studio, but you’re not really welcome there until they get to know and like you.
I hit it off well with an overall-toting fellow named Dave Doggs from the nearby town of No Name, Colorado. “You should know,” he leaned over warning me, “That people say this is where the degenerates sit.” We chuckled together. I assured him that I was in familiar territory. The Lion’s Den this was not. My volunteer status with the Obama campaign transformed me quickly into its unofficial spokesman. The old-timer crew was conflicted between heavy Obama supporters and the forlorn who didn’t believe any Democrat would be able to stop the madness, the raping of the forest and the carnage of war. They certainly would have spit on the ground at Joe Biden, but then again, they might not have cared at all.
The crowd was universally dismayed that I was not going to Denver to protest, though Dave Doggs agreed that free beer for a week was a fair price for being part of The Man. If spending a week with left-wing bloggers and life-long activists can amount to being part of The Man, then we’ve come a lot father that I ever thought possible. One of Denver’s fascinating subplots will be the dynamic between the legions of progressives who have fought for years to nominate someone like Barack Obama and the protest-for-protests-sakers who will complain about a convention dedicated to universal healthcare and ending the war in Iraq. I’ll always have sympathy for those who protest settling for less than the best treatment of the destitute, both at home and abroad, and those who challenge the moral authority of violence and war. But I cast my lot for politics and policy over pure ideology back in the fall of 2002, and in the years since, especially in places like Biloxi, I’ve heard the echo of the old serenity prayer: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference.”
I spent about 38 hours in Pitkin County, and about a third of them at the Woody Creek Tavern. Nothing like listening to the sweet tunes of Van Morrison, drinking local brew, and watching the U.S basketball beat the hell out of Argentina at eleven in the morning. Things started to get ugly though- I lost my drivers license, Tim lost his phone, and the sun roof of my car was almost blown off completely until it was tied down with bungee chords and duct tape. Between our logistical woes and the pessimism of the crowd, I could sense the “fear and loathing.” As much as it’s a catchy, all-purpose phrase, it’s often abused, and over time I’ve come to question my own use of it, much preferring to go with “living the dream.” HST was, after all, a man who consistently had his dreams and conception of America shattered, and lived most of his life, even in his prime, in constant paranoia that he was not welcome- as Vonnegut later wrote of himself, “A man without a country.” I share no such despondency. We have many great times ahead of us, as individuals, and as a collective nation. To be in Denver now is to see what the young, fresh, purpose-driven progressives that pepper this land are ready to offer. It’s hard to imagine being anywhere else.
Hunter’s old friend found my ID. Tim found his phone. The bungee chord is still holding. I sit in a wireless rigged apartment in downtown Denver that costs $17 a day, split four ways. We have events and parties and adventures lined up for days. I am living the dream. That is just how we roll.

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