Campaign Dispatches: St. Paul and Beyondby David Levi Strauss
Day 1: A Ship in the Harbor
Who says we can’t afford another big election about small things? Isn’t it the little things that matter most? Like Bristol Palin’s teen pregnancy, and her mother’s big gun? Like John McCain’s age and Barack Obama’s secret Muslim heart? After all, the big things—war, environmental catastrophe, the energy crisis, economic ruin—are too immense to contemplate. So let us turn deftly away, as George W. Bush taught us with 9/11, and the Iraq War, and Hurricane Katrina, and Global Warming. Play some golf, dance a jig, cut some brush in Crawford. What we don’t think about can’t hurt us. Leave it to someone else. One day at a time.
Trivialize women’s rights. Make a cute little button-nosed joke out of the Vice Presidency. Turn the tables on those oh-so-serious Dems, with their sober assessments and dire predictions, and all that downer talk about mutual responsibility. Please. What ever happened to the happy-go-lucky, irresponsible Negro, anyway? Those were the days, remember?
When Blacks and women knew their place and were happy to be there? When the U.S. was the sole super-power and could conduct foreign policy from the air, no matter what Moscow or Beijing or anyone else thought about it? When economic policy consisted of deregulation and privatization and spending the government into bankruptcy? When energy policy consisted of removing all barriers for the oil companies? God created ANWR for us, didn’t he, so we could drill there?
The Democrats’ hand-wringing only encourages the worst tendencies of a Nation of Whiners. It’s Morning in America, my friends. Don’t worry, be happy. Let Sarah and Todd and Bristol and Levi and Cindy and John show you the way, Back to the Future.
The Calm of the Storm
So far the meeting in St. Paul is the Unconvention, and that may be the best thing that possibly could have happened for the Republicans. Bush & Cheney couldn’t make it? Fantastic! The Republican delegates are, after all, the only people left in the world who still think the current Administration is competent (71% of them approve of Bush’s performance). Much better to have Cindy McCain and Laura Bush (decked out in gold and white, respectively) show up only as fundraisers for hurricane relief efforts, although that line about how it’s time to “take off our Republican hats and put on our American hats” begs the question: are the two mutually exclusive?
The reason for the postponement of the convention was succinctly stated by David Brooks: “They couldn’t afford that split-screen image” of party-hearty Republican celebrations juxtaposed with homeless hurricane survivors recalling Bush/Cheney’s criminal neglect during Katrina. It just wouldn’t look right. Some lobbyists couldn’t help themselves tonight, and threw lavish meet-and-greet-and-bribe parties anyway, but they at least tried to lock out the press.
To fully capitalize on their good luck, the Republican ticket should disappear for the next 68 days, perhaps to Wasilla, or South Ossetia.
-Filed Monday, Sept. 1, 2008, first day of the Republican National Convention in St. Paul.
Day 2: The Other Side & Their Friends in the Media
When the Bush/Cheney regime seized power eight years ago, I would not have predicted that they would prove to be so adept at the deployment and control of images to shape public opinion. In fact, they turned out to be better at it than any previous American administration.
Watching the first (delayed) night of the Republican National Convention on TV tonight, I was struck by how different the image rhetoric in St. Paul is from what I saw first-hand in Denver last week. The images projected behind speakers tonight were more subtle and yet more iconic than anything I saw in Denver. Joe Lieberman stood before a clear blue sky broken only by a flag waving from a single pole. The film narrated by Gary Sinise was less mawkish and more moving than any of the Democrats’ films. Only George W. Bush’s visual broadcast from the Oval Office was substandard, and that may very well have been by design. For McCain to win, he must distance himself from the Bush/Cheney image.
The verbal rhetoric of each party is less distinguished and less distinguishable. Like John Kerry, Fred Thompson gave a great speech, much better than anything he did on his own behalf as a candidate. Did he have access to better speechwriters tonight, or does he just perform better in a supporting role? “John McCain knows about hope. [When he was a POW] that was all he knew.” “This is the kind of character that civilizations from the beginning of our history have sought in their leaders.” “Character you can believe in.” “Not because of a teleprompter’s speech designed to appeal to America’s critics abroad.” “The Democrats present a history-making nominee for President; history-making in that he’s the most liberal, most inexperienced nominee ever to run for President.”
The overall message was clearer in St. Paul because it was less complicated. Fred Thompson painted a compelling portrait of the candidate and threw out partisan red meat, and then Joe Lieberman appealed to disaffected conservative Democrats and Independents by saying partisanship isn’t enough. It is strange to see both campaigns running against their respective parties. Both McCain and Obama realize that they cannot win with only traditional party loyalties, that they must extend their reach. And they’re both reaching toward the same undecided voters, from opposite ends of the spectrum.
-Filed on Tuesday, Sept. 2, 2008, after the second night of the Republican Convention in St. Paul.
Day 3: How to Field Dress a Donkey
So a hockey mom carrying her special-needs child walks into a bar, and says to everyone in and outside the joke, “What are you laughing at, asshole? Here’s what I think of your European Ideas.”
Hillary Clinton must be wondering what she did to deserve this. John McCain has, with one deft stroke, made a mockery of her campaign and everything she stands for. You want a woman tough enough to be Commander-in-Chief? Sarah Palin is so tough she doesn’t need to wear pantsuits to wear the pants. She can stand by her man and stand up to the terrorists, while her lily-livered opponent is standing around “worried that someone won’t read them their rights.” And as she marches into history, Palin has picked up the fallen banner of Hillary to use as her own petard.
Unlike Hillary and Joe Biden, she’s “not a member of the permanent political establishment”. . . yet. She’s just been a small-town mayor, which is “sort of like a ‘community organizer,’ except that you have actual responsibilities,” and a big-state governor. Voters like governors, especially of big states. She sees this as a race between “a man who has authored two memoirs but not a single law or even a reform” and the “only man in this campaign who has ever really fought for you.” The sound of Styrofoam Greek columns falling was deafening.
Even Palin’s youngest daughter is so innately media-savvy that she turned Paul Wolfowitz’s telling rough gesture of licking his hand to smooth out his hair (in Michael Moore’s film Fahrenheit 9/11) into an endearing image, using hers to straighten out her baby brother Trig’s. Bristol and Levi looked independent, unrepentant, and fierce, like they could eat the whole Washington Press Corps for breakfast, even without the help of brother Track, who’s on his way to Iraq.
Barack Obama and Joe Biden suddenly have a tremendous problem on their hands. Sarah Barracuda is the new fresh face of revenge and resentment politics, and if enough white evangelical blue-collar and middle-class voters buy it again, things are going to get very ugly. It will no longer be about ideas, European or otherwise. Making sense, telling the truth, and being right just won’t cut it anymore. John McCain has, at least for now, turned the tables, back to a Karl Rovian image—and symbol-storm, in a skirt.
-Filed on Thursday, Sept. 4, 2008, after the third night of the Republican Convention in St. Paul.
Day 4: September 11, 2008: This Is a Test
Lipstick on pigs. Comprehensive sex education for four-year-olds. Sarah’s secrets vs. Joe’s loose cannon. John’s temper vs. Barack’s celebrity.
The high scream of Distraction Culture wrapping itself tighter and tighter around the still turning point of the body politic is deafening now. We can no longer hear ourselves, let alone others, think. D.C. never sleeps, never takes a breath, never blinks. Its imperative is speed, and it is relentless in its pursuit of . . . fuel. If it ever slows down, as it did on this day seven years ago, its moving parts become visible, and people begin to wake up and look around, beyond the Machine.
That was a dangerous time, and a time of great opportunity, politically. Unfortunately, the Democrats were caught flat-footed, having already walked away from a stand-off in Florida and ceded the field to reactionaries, who turned out to be terrifyingly unprepared to govern, but remarkably well-prepared in Machine maintenance and fuel issues. They advised us to “Get back to work, and your work is consumption.” Consumption and distraction.
The standard excuse for Americans letting happen what they have over the past seven years is that they were scared, and when people are scared you can get them to do almost anything you want, and get away with it. Distraction becomes an obsession, and politicians who interrupt it risk serious, even violent abreactions.
In this Tortoise & Hare race, the old man who can’t send an email and the past mayor of a sleepy Alaskan town are running on the Speed & Distraction ticket, while the skinny fast forward who suddenly became a global star and the fast-talking senator are running on the Slow Down & Think ticket.
As the clock ticks down, this election looks more and more like a final test of American democracy. If American voters pass the test, nothing will be solved, but the slow work of reconstruction can at least begin. If we fail, time may have finally run out on this noble experiment.
-Filed on Friday, Sept. 12, 2008, after Sarah Palin with Charles Gibson, Barack Obama with David Letterman, and the ceremonies at Ground Zero.
Mississippi Mud (The 1st Debate)
No one got hurt in this first debate, and under the circumstances, I think that’s bad for Obama. John McCain limped into this thing after two days of wildly erratic behavior, suspending his campaign and announcing that he wouldn’t show up in Mississippi for the debate, because he had to rush to Washington to solve the financial crisis. After demanding a meeting at the White House with President Bush, Secretary Paulson, Chairman Bernanke, and the Congressional leadership, McCain was ambushed by House Republicans, who decided to oppose Bush’s bailout. After that, McCain reportedly sat off to the side mumbling while Obama asked tough questions of the Treasury secretary and others. When Obama announced that he was going to appear at Old Miss with or without him, McCain decided he could spare the hour and a half to be there, too, after all.
The debate proceeded as if none of this had happened. Jim Lehrer orchestrated an elegant, measured discussion of the issues, with each candidate politely remaining within his time limits. There were no outbursts, gaffes, or zingers, to speak of. The problem with this, for Obama, is that it made McCain look like a perfectly reasonable, august statesman and executive, rather than the reckless, arrogant grandstander he’d been just hours before. McCain looked great tonight, much better than he ever looks when giving a speech. Obama always looks good, so there’s no relative gain.
Even though Obama will always prevail over McCain in any public, refereed debate on the issues, McCain still managed to get his broad, old-fashioned strokes in, painting Obama as a tax-and-spend liberal who will raise business taxes and drive jobs overseas, as a cut-and-runner who will lose the war in Iraq and dishonor the deaths of over 4,000 service men and women, and as an inexperienced, naïve upstart who won’t be able to stand up to America’s enemies. Obama is impatient with such broad strokes and doesn’t reciprocate, preferring to draw more precise and subtler connections to make more specific points.
The only real advantage to Obama last night arose from body language and speech tone. From the beginning of the evening, Obama often looked at and spoke directly to McCain, while McCain spoke only to Lehrer, ignoring Obama and refusing to look at him. The effect of this was cumulative and significant. As the debate wore on, McCain seemed more evasive and equivocal, refusing to face his opponent head-on. He always referred to his opponent as “Senator Obama,” while Obama called him “John,” and came right at him. On a number of occasions, McCain’s tone veered into the sarcastic and even contemptuous, and attentive viewers glimpsed two very different approaches to public speech and political discourse.
-Filed on Friday, Sept. 26, 2008, after the first Presidential debate at the University of Mississippi’s Oxford campus.
Overhead Projector (The 2nd Debate)
Acting partly out of desperation and partly out of hubris, John McCain chose to walk into a fair, refereed fight tonight in Nashville and try to go head-to-head on the issues with Barack Obama. This was a reckless, arrogant, possibly fatal mistake.
Granted, this was supposed to be McCain’s format. He’s done hundreds, maybe thousands of these “town meeting” style appearances, and he feels comfortable in this setting. But from the opening coin toss, Obama had the edge in this one, speaking clearly and convincingly about his new policies and about McCain’s failed ones: “He believes in deregulation in every circumstance. That’s what we’ve been going through for the last eight years. It hasn’t worked and we need fundamental change.” McCain revealed his one new proposal (to stabilize home values by buying up bad home loans) in his first minute, and his timing was shot from then on. His jokes fell flat and he couldn’t connect with the questioners in the audience, Tom Brokaw, or Barack Obama. To conceal his reluctance to face his opponent and look him in the eye, McCain retreated to his stool after each speech and pretended to write furiously in a notebook, or wandered the stage as if looking for a way out. When Obama wasn’t speaking, he sat confidently, looking directly at McCain. Obama was more aggressive here than in the first debate, but he never hit McCain when he was down. And McCain was down a lot.
This debate made it clear that John McCain and the Republicans are in the same position that John Kerry and the Democrats were in 2004. By accepting the basic terms of Obama’s original message of change, all McCain has to offer now, at best, is a watered-down version of what his opponent is proposing. If voters can get the real thing with Obama, why should they choose a less vigorous form of it with McCain?
Outside the debate, McCain and Palin have gone negative with a vengeance, recycling the old Reverend Wright and Bill Ayres guilt-by-association smears against Obama. This race- and radical-baiting is an attempt to resuscitate the old Vietnam War era animosities, to energize the base. The trouble for the Republicans is that the people who are going to put Obama over the top if they come out in force next month weren’t even born in 1968. The time has run out on this tactic, and it is rapidly running out on John McCain.
Filed on Tuesday, October 7, 2008, after the second presidential debate, in Nashville.
Autism on the Rise (The 3rd Debate)
John McCain has the worst timing of any politician in recent memory. Eight years ago, he was the most popular political figure in America. Shot down by the Bush/Rove team’s dirty tricks in 2000, he was later forced, Stockholm Syndrome-style, to embrace them. Now, after eight years of a Republican administration that will be remembered as among the worst in American history, McCain and his ideas are irrevocably yoked to that catastrophic cart. His statement Wednesday night that “I am not President Bush,” echoed Nixon’s “I am not a crook,” in its bitterness and irony.
Rather than moving toward the center to convince independent and undecided voters (who used to be part of his natural constituency) to vote for him, McCain instead swerved to the right, choosing a polarizing vice-presidential candidate that can only help him on the lunatic fringe, and mounting a negative campaign that attempts to revive the cultural battles of the 1960s at a time when a collapsing economy has voters focused only on the immediate present and future, not the past.
To rely exclusively on the old Republican rhetoric of cutting taxes and shrinking government at this point, when government is the only protection against collapsing markets, indicates a dangerous misreading of political realities. McCain is fighting the wrong war at the wrong time. More and more, he exhibits an abnormal subjectivity, marching to his own maverick drummer as it leads him and his supporters over a cliff.
Watching McCain in the final debate, I was reminded of Bob Dole in 1996, another highly skilled and successful senator who was drastically out of step with the changing times, and made bitter by the knowledge that he’d repeatedly missed his presidential moment. When John McCain looks at Barack Obama, he sees the future, and it galls him. You can see it in his eyes. Bob Schieffer was trying to help McCain by setting him up for his litany of attacks against Obama, but all it did was display the older man’s desperation and impotence. McCain looked better than he has in months in the first forty minutes of the debate, but if this had been a prize fight, Schieffer would have stepped in and thrown up his hands to protect McCain an hour into it.
Filed on Thursday, October 16, 2008, after the third and final presidential debate.
I Put This Floor in This House
The political campaign ad for television is certainly one of the most degraded forms of public communication we have. It was base to begin with, built on a tissue of half-truths, innuendoes, and outright lies, and designed to appeal to our worst tendencies: fear, greed, insecurity, and selfishness. Most of the ads aired by both sides in this presidential campaign have been negative hits on one’s opponent.
Until last night, when, six days before the election and flush with more donated money than any candidate in history has had at his disposal, Barack Obama bought thirty minutes on prime-time TV, right before what turned out to be the final game of the World Series, to make a final pitch to American voters.
It begins with an image of American beauty and bounty: a field of Kansas wheat blowing in the wind. Then a traveling shot of the prairie as the voice-over begins, “With each passing month, our country’s faced increasingly difficult times . . .” The candidate then appears, already at home in a less austere version of the Oval Office, and sits on the edge of his desk to speak to us. He’ll tell us the stories of four working families and their struggles, and what an Obama presidency will do to help them. “Everybody here has got a story.”
The structure of the ad is consistent and sound. Each family’s story is followed by Obama’s policy proposals to address their issues. These are the problems, and these are the solutions. There are moments of great subtlety and effect, as when Larry Stewart, retired after working thirty years on the railroad, sits in his house in Sardinia, Ohio, and says “I put this floor in this house.” When he retired ten years ago, he lost his health insurance and had to take a job at Wal-Mart at age 72, as an “associate salesman.” “In other words,” he says, “I just sell stuff, that’s all.” That is, I don’t make things anymore, like I built this house. I just sell stuff, cheap, that other people now make elsewhere in the world, to other Americans like me who can’t afford to buy stuff we make ourselves anymore. And we are told that this is now our work, to consume, to buy and sell stuff we don’t make to each other. This is what we’ve been reduced to, far away from “an economy that honors the dignity of work.”
Each family story, from Kansas City, Missouri, Sardinia, Ohio, Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Louisville, Kentucky, tells a part of the catastrophe we’ve been led into: forty-seven million people without health insurance, $10 billion a month in Iraq, and an economy built on easy money, debt, and consumption.
John McCain and Sarah Palin are never mentioned in this ad. George W. Bush is never mentioned. It’s not about them. It’s not even about Barack Obama. It’s about us. The entire ad, from amber waves of grain to God bless America, is about the idea of us, and what would happen if we decided to take back our country.
One of the marks of a world-class practitioner is that he can take a degraded form and breathe new life into it. Political analysts will be talking about this ad for a very long time, because it transcends the form.
But it doesn’t transcend reality. All of these stories of people who are hurting now are haunted by the realization that more pain is on the way. The current financial crisis will certainly lead to terrible economic effects over the first term of the Obama presidency. The real pain hasn’t even started yet. It’s going to be bad, and it’s going to be worst for poor and working-class families. To get through it at all, people are going to have to come together to enter a “new era of responsibility,” and abandon the politics of resentment and fear that have reigned over the last eight years.
“In six days, we can choose hope over fear and unity over division. . . . In six days we can come together as one nation and one people, and once more choose our better history. That’s what’s at stake.”
Filed on Thursday, October 30 , 2008.
ContributorDavid Levi Strauss
DAVID LEVI STRAUSS is the author of Words Not Spent Today Buy Smaller Images Tomorrow (Aperture, 2014), From Head to Hand: Art and the Manual (Oxford University Press, 2010), Between the Eyes: Essays on Photography and Politics, with an introduction by John Berger (Aperture 2003, and in a new edition, 2012), and Between Dog & Wolf: Essays on Art and Politics (Autonomedia 1999, and a new edition, 2010). He is Chair of the graduate program in Art Writing at the School of Visual Arts in New York, and he is on the faculty of the Milton Avery Graduate School of the Arts at Bard College.