Monday, November 3, 2008

Last Dispatch

The Last Dispatch

A Tribute to Terence...Obama and the Age of Inclusiveness...Joe the Plumber seals the deal...Predictions!...the Round Mound of Governance...A Farewell to Dispatches...

This is the last dispatch of the 2008 election season, and it begins with a heavy heart. This morning I learned that Terence Tolbert, a friend, and my boss from the 2004 election, passed away from a sudden heart attack at the age of 44. Terence had returned to Nevada to serve as State Director for the Obama campaign, taking a leave of absence from Mayor Bloomberg’s Department of Education. Terence was the second person I met upon arriving in Las Vegas in the summer of 2004. My first full day he took me out to lunch, and struck me as an extraordinarily easy-going man in what was already, and would very much continue to be, a stressful and chaotic election. Soon the weight of campaign hours ended adventures like trips to the Rum Jungle, but in an office full of egos, stress cases and young people who weren’t 100% sure what they were doing, he was always smiling, unwilling to let his world collapse over a missing van, overbooked hotel rooms, or an uncertain volunteer capacity. Despite his ’04 and ’08 stints in Las Vegas, Terence was a New York City boy, and his presence will be missed most in the Big Apple, where he was a long-time fixture in the political scene. For him to die only a day before he could have seen the first African-American president elected is heart-breaking. Hopefully Terence was able to enjoy the victory just a little as he saw it on the horizon, and hopefully he was able to reap the satisfaction of finally turning Nevada blue. There is no question in the online political community that all eyes will be on Nevada tomorrow, as the staff and volunteers hit the pavement not just for Barack, but for Terence too.

The other tragic death that took place yesterday was the passing of Obama’s grandmother. There is little more than one can achieve in life than having raised young Barack to be the man he is today. Watching Barack grieve over her illness, and ultimately her passing is one more reminder of how human he is. Many months ago, being able to look into his eyes and see a person, not a robotic politician, is one of the main reasons I initially supported the Senator. His empathy is strong and real, and it has constantly reminded him of the causes that got him into politics and into this campaign.

Senator Obama reminded us of the people this election is really about in last week’s infomercial, which was watched by 26 million people. I teared up during when he spotlighted the man who has to keep working with a torn ACL and Miniscus because his disability benefits during the surgery process couldn’t support his family. What slaves have we become that we subject our proud working citizens to endure that kind of physical pain? After weeks and weeks of nervously making phone calls and searching the web to see if my worker’s compensation will cover my $25,000 ACL surgery, and whether that coverage extends to the hospital room, the anesthesiologist, and the necessary rehab, I can truly relate.

Like many of my fellow students I go through the constant ritual of donning a suit and tie and spending 20-30 minutes explaining my qualities strangers, grasping for a job that will justify 21 years of education. Like most young people, I grimace at the cost of rent, medical bills, and every last confusing credit card charge that plunges me closer to an empty checking account. I know I’m blessed, and have had great opportunities in life. But in these challenging times, feeling blessed and worried are less mutually exclusive than ever. In large measure, Obama has gotten as far as he has because he is the one man in 2008, Democrat or Republican, who has demonstrated that he can make people hope again, that can make people believe in a brighter tomorrow.

I’ve written before about the buoyant optimism of the Obama campaign, the place I call Obamaville. I’ve noted that it’s unlike any other place I’ve seen, except for Biloxi, Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina. In Biloxi, there were no questions about who you were or where you came from, only if you were willing to help. Soldiers and hippies literally worked side by side, fixing houses and eating Salvation Army meals. Catholics, Baptists and atheists sat together in damp meeting rooms for hours figuring how to help rebuild a city. There was no barrier- race, religion, age, or class, that could get in the way of the solidarity.

I hesitate to use the rebuilding of the Gulf Coast as to broad an example of the change we need. After all, much of the coast is still in tatters, especially New Orleans, which very much did fall to the pernicious influence of racial, class-based and territorial factionalism. In Biloxi that great progress of the early years has hit a standstill precipitated by low funds, massive burnout, and short memories. After all, as I sit here writing this, it occurs to me that not a week has gone by when I don’t wonder if it was a mistake for me to leave Biloxi before the job was done.

But for all of its flaws, the passion of those early Gulf Coast days was America at its finest, reacting to crisis with a unity of purpose. And the reason I believe Barack Obama can turn to governing with those same winds of common goals and dreams behind him is that he has blown the passage to the American Dream wide open, and in doing so, inspired untold millions. Not just African-Americans, though there is almost no way to underestimate the significance of having our first African-American president. In 2001 I helped my friend Emily write and produce a play for young students at a public school in Manhattan. The play, The Land and the Sea, was about how the people of the land came to find peace with the creatures of the sea, a plot the students created. In a performance before ours, another group of students enacted a skit in which they represented their role models. We’ve all heard the importance of young African-American having famous role models to aspire to, but it was powerful to see in person that these were 11 year-olds who could only imagine a destiny extending as far as hip-hop or basketball. The lamentations of the older black gentry like Bill Cosby has been only half helpful, because the clarion call to turn off the TV and take school seriously was coming from a man who built his career on telling jokes and starring in a sit-com. Now when they turn on the television, African-American children, and all minority youths, will see one of their own in the most powerful office in the country.

I mention other minorities because to me Obama’s candidacy spoke particularly loudly to three other demographics, or at least three demographics that touched me personally. One is to bi-racial people. Despite Loving v. Virginia, the Supreme Court case that invalidated laws against interracial marriage in 1967, five years after Obama was born, and fifteen years before I was, interracial marriage is still unspokenly taboo across the country, and not just by conservative whites. Minority groups themselves can be tremendously insular, be they Jewish, Korean, Hindi or others. Turn on any TV show, or watch any movie. Hollywood is happy to put minorities in positions of prestige (like president on “24”), but they are far more reluctant to show cross-racial coupling. If there’s a new hot black girl in town joining the all-white cast, you can bet a fine-looking black boy will pick her up soon.

Now Obama’s bi-racialism has not exactly been a major talking point, and I’m not arguing it won or lost him many votes down the stretch. But you might remember back to the pre-South Carolina days, when the pundits were still wondering if he was “black enough.” There was a reason to that. 'If you are black,' political players posited, ‘we generally know where you come from. You might have been one of the young lieutenants of MLK’s civil rights movement, or Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition. You might be one of those smart guys who rose from the projects that we built for you, and built your career as the mayor of a predominantly black city like Newark or Richmond.’

That Obama was not one of these people confused and worried the political establishment, black and white. How could they trust a man if they didn’t know the predictable story of where he came from, what his base was, and were his political limitations laid? Bi-racial people don’t make sense in the linear American narrative. What Barack Obama has done since 2004, in his constant refrain that his mother is a white woman from Kansas, and his father a black man from Kenya, is remind us that the American Dream applies to literally everyone, no matter how crazy his or her fairy-tale story of success might be.

That brings me to the third realm of his inspiration which is to immigrants, both here and abroad, and foreigners. Addressing the latter groups first- Obama actually explicitly reaches out to them in his speech, challenging America to live up to the standards of those who yearn to reach our shores for our freedoms and opportunities, those who see America is their great last hope. During these hard times, it can be difficult to remember that even through the Bush years, America has remained a beacon of freedom to those who struggle around the world. In New York City, one can recognize this most easily among the taxi-driving population, which is full of proud men who work ungodly hours to send paychecks home to third-world families, in the hope that maybe they can one day be reunited on our shores. And to our old friends in Europe and elsewhere, it will feel good to say, “America is back!” We have all been reluctant ambassadors during the Bush years. Lord knows I've seen things get ugly in America’s defense, from Belgium to Costa Rica, but as Americans ‘we believe in our country, even if we don’t believe in our government.’ I think George Bush said that in Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay. Above all, we say “we” when referring to our country, even when talking about things about our country we oppose, like invading Iraq. I was at a German dive bar in 2003 when my new drinking buddies explained how unique that really was. United “we” stand. It’s a concept that feels strange after these last eight years. Let’s just say Obama will bring back the “we”, stronger than ever.

The second group of immigrants, which may indeed include a fair amount of New York City taxi drivers as well, are those who have planted their roots in the United States for a generation, and raised their children as first-generation Americans. This group came here seeking opportunities unavailable back in their home countries, worked hard, paid taxes, and sent their children to the best schools they could get into. They may have been naturalized, that is, awarded legal American citizenship. But whether they were ‘real Americans,’ is a question many would insist upon those with different skin tones, strange accents, and unfamiliar customs. I am of such immigrants, from a mother who was raised in Stalinist Hungary, and a father who came from a region of India so poor and wild that when I tried to visit it two summers ago, my trip was cancelled by Maoist rebels who blew up the train tracks in their guerilla effort to return the land to the people (and they call Obama a socialist). I have never doubted MY American-hood. I’ll out-American anybody. But Obama’s message is to my mother and all other immigrants, that there is no hierarchy and no tiers as to who is a real American. The first ever son of immigrants to be elected president is sending a message to all immigrant parents trying the best they can to raise their children that there truly is no limit to their children’s futures. One wonders if even a dreamer like Barack Obama, Sr., could have imagined sitting in the White House one day, watching his son at work.

The final group that has been inspired, and perhaps had their conception of politics changed forever are progressives. Progressives have been lonely outsiders looking in, in perpetuity. Their fleeting moments of glory, the Progressive Era, the early New Deal, and the Great Society, are so long ago that today’s leaders have long ago retreated to non-profits and academia, where their brilliant ideas and energy are obscured from the greater public eye. This is particularly true for the young progressives who came of age in the Bush years. The thought of the federal government as an agent of change is beyond the realm of possibility. Before we go any further, people will fairly ask whether Barack Obama really is a progressive, and where the proof lies after a general election campaign that stressed his centrism and post-partisanship.

First, let’s revisit the Democratic primary. Obama defeated Hillary Clinton, who was not only the institutional candidate, but the NAMED successor of the man who defined the Democratic party during his right by lurching to the right and clutching dearly to the middle. When Bush won re-election in 2004 despite displaying a clear allegiance to conservatism, Clinton’s centrism suddenly revealed itself for what it was- not a political necessity, but either an act of political expediency, or true belief in those values. That Obama beat the Clinton machine is no small feat. The more progressive candidate has lost the Democrat nomination in every primary since George McGovern in 1972, and we all know how that one turned out. Is Obama the most liberal member of the Senate, as Republican talking heads claim? Of course not- that’s just crazy. Bernie Sanders from Vermont actually IS a socialist. But he’s up there.

Think about his campaign. He wants to end the war in Iraq. He wants universal healthcare. He wants to focus on climate change. He wants to raise taxes on the wealthy to pay for programs that will help the poor. These are all things our ilk have protested in the streets for. Now we’ll have a president who actually agrees with us on our core values. That’s crazy, just nuts. Who ever thought that would happen so soon? As for his post-partisanship, that too is real. It doesn't mean he's going to split the baby on every issue, it simply means that he will change the tenor of Washington, to limit slash and burn politics, erode the influence of lobbyists, and return civility to discourse on critical issues. Post-partisan is an approach to governnance not an ideological position.

There is no doubt that in the coming years Obama will be hammered for the left- his budget options simply leave him too small a window of escape. Today I overheard multiple people knocking Governor Patterson for his budget cuts, as if there’s something a governor can do about a budget billions of dollars in the red during a recession. There’s no way Obama or our local officials will be able to deliver on their promises in these economic times. The best we can hope from our elected leaders is that they will show strong judgment in how what they cut, what they preserve, and what they strengthen. And for that, there is no better indicator than their core values. I’ll take my chances with the Senator from Illinois.

If Barack Obama has taught us nothing else, it is to stay calm in the eye of the storm. As the McCain camp turns to Joe the Plumber to close out their campaign like a bald Brad Lidge, Obama closes with the same message he started with, “the same message we had we were up, and the same message we had when we were down.” It is a basic message of hope, an affirmation of the best America has to offer. The campaign was historic. The Democratic field was its finest since 1960, maybe ever. Hillary Clinton not only proved to be a bruising campaigner, but her supporters’ loyalty ran deeper and wider than anything I could have imagined. Obama is the first nominee in generations who truly left nothing on the table- the electrifying Convention, the speech on race, the fundraising machine, the immediate response media team. He has set such a colossal standard for future Democratic candidates that one wonders how anyone, sans the built-in stature of a Hillary Clinton, could ever expect to even approach it.

And in their final days, the McCain campaign thought they could bring the whole thing down with ‘socialism.’ The charge wouldn’t be worth addressing if here if there weren’t a need to expose it for what it really is- a racially charge proxy for “the other”. The subject of “socialized medicine” notwithstanding, Bill Clinton, Al Gore, John Kerry and Hillary Clinton would never be pilloried on charges of socialism in this manner. No self-respecting reporter would dare ask those Democrats to respond to similar charges. And yet, here’s Barack Obama with a bi-partisan stable of highly respected economists, his University of Chicago influences, and a tax plan extensively borrowed from the Clinton Era, and yet he might be the one to realize Eugene Debs economics? What the McCain camp is really saying is, ‘Obama is a socialist. How much do we know about people like him? After all, brown people (Chavez, Castro, Nassar), yellow people (Mao, Ho Chi Minh, and Soviet enemies (Krushchev and Breznev) have always been socialist enemies of the United States, so why not Obama too?’ The attack ultimately won’t work, largely because of the aforementioned ‘proof’ Obama can trot out. It’s just sad that he has to. Perhaps the best line of all came from the great Stephen Colbert, who pressed a Republican pundit, “So if Obama wins, is this an electoral mandate for socialism?” Somewhere Debs was chuckling at that one.

Speaking of mandates, Obama will enter office with the most favorable Congress since LBJ’s Great Society, and the most momentum since the Reagan Revolution. The House Democrats, already in charge, ought to pick up a net of 20-25 seats, which means they won’t have to treat Blue Dog Democrats as gingerly. In the Senate, where Dems have 51 seats now, my predictions are as follows:

Udall (New Mexico), Udall (Colorado), Warner (Virginia) romp to victory.

Shaheen (New Hampshire), Begich (Alaska), Merkely (Oregon) and Hagan (North Carolina) will win somewhat convincingly.

That puts as at 58. Toss-ups will include:

Franken (Minnesota), Martin (Georgia), Musgrove (Mississippi) and Lunsford (Kentucky). Those last three are important to keep an eye on, along with Hagan’s race. No Democrat has won an open Senate seat or Republican-held Senate seat in the former confederacy since John Edwards in 1998. The Democrats putting the most conservative part of the country in play has been one of the underreported stories of the 2008 election.

The culmination of the new southern revolution will be the 2014 election of Charles Barkley as governor of Alabama. Barkley, a recent convert from Republican to Obama Democrat, is poised to be the nation’s fourth African-American governor, and lord knows that will be one hell of a campaign to work on. I’ll close out this dispatch with his words to CNN’s Campbell Brown:

"I can't screw up Alabama. We are No. 48 in everything and Arkansas and Mississippi aren't going anywhere."


Sometimes, reflections on moments of passion yield the old refrain, “I said a lot of things I didn’t mean.” Well, I’ve said a lot of things, my friends. About 60,000 words on this election, straight from the heart of a man who doesn’t know a damn thing about journalism, except what he reads in the papers. I said a lot of things that were mean-spirited, sappy, even factually questionable. But I meant every word when I said it, even if my brain gave it only Keruoacian consideration on its way from my fingertips to the page, and even if I’ll be apologizing for it in front of some special interest group years from now. We all had a lot of fun, tortured ourselves with the ups and downs that make politics so riveting and addictive, and generally lived the dream. Tonight we’ll sit in living rooms, bars and burlesque halls, watching the results pour one more time. Watching John King play with his fancy CNN map one last time. Watching the weird banter between Chris Matthews and Keith Olberman one last time. Watching the networks call the presidential race for a progressive for the first time in most of our lifetimes.

I’ll be thinking of Barack, who is about to spend eight years feeling the weight of the world of his shoulders. I’ll be thinking of Michelle, who will bear these challenges with him. I’ll be thinking of my friend Carrie, working in 85 degree Texan heat re-electing Nick Lampson, one of the finest men in Congress, fighting for his political life down in Sugarland. I’ll be thinking of my friend Lis, trying to get Dan Seals elected to Congress from Illinois to replace an incumbent known for confusing ‘Obama’ and ‘Osama.’ I’ll be thinking of my friend Pat, who left his job behind to follow the Obama campaign, and has wound up, of all places, in Las Vegas- avenge me, Pat. I’ll be thinking of my friend Russ, who is helping run that union machine up in New Hampshire. I’ll be thinking of Terence Tolbert. And I’ll be thinking of all of you out there in Philly and Virginia and Ohio doing your thing, while I sit here on my wrecked knee, an untimely gimp in Brooklyn, which probably hasn’t voted Republican since Teddy Roosevelt was on the ballot 100 years ago. But I’ve had my run, and I’ll always come back for more.

“I have not yet begun to fight,” said John Paul Jones.

“The sun also rises,” said Ernest Hemingway.

“Sometimes…there’s a man,” said the stranger.

Thank you for reading, responding, and hanging out during these amazing times. I’ll see you all on the sunrise side of the mountain.

3 comments:

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