Friday, April 04, 2008

The Fierce Urgency of Now

My sense memory of April 4, 1968 is of the
amber light in the college coffee shop after
a rehearsal of my play, when I heard the news.
I didn't want to hear it, to think about it--how
could the possibilities opened by LBJ's withdrawing
from the election be hammered shut so fast? Or
even the possibility that we would get a moment to
catch our breaths, and think of something else. Oddly,
I'd just cast the daughter of a minister in a small part,
a high school girl who would be the first African American
on our college stage in at least my years there. Some of us
had marched with her father through the Galesburg streets,
just as I'd marched behind Dr. King in 1963. She was shy,
but she was reaching out to a different world represented by
that strange campus in her own hometown. All of us had
a long way to go. But he would not get there with us. Not
everybody then thought of him as a great American. But
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Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Gore to the Fore

Al Gore announced "one of the most ambitious
and costly public advocacy campaigns in U.S. history"
the other day, to bring the climate crisis to the forefront
of American political consciousness---just in time to
influence the 2008 election campaign and provide a
backdrop of awareness and commitment to the next
President who will need to face this challenge head on.
(Gore was also being touted as either a Democratic
Party broker in settling the nomination, or the nominee
himself of a deadlocked convention--neither of which is
gonna happen.) In addition to media efforts, this We
campaign aims to enlist 10 million activists through
the Alliance for Climate Protection.

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Tuesday, April 01, 2008

The Cruelty of Hope

In 1968, this was a happy day. There weren't many that year. But the night before, on March 31, President Johnson ended a TV address with the words we thought we would never hear, "I will not seek, and I will not accept" the Democratic nomination for reelection to the presidency.

I watched it on the nearest TV set, which was several doors down First Street in Galesburg, Illinois, at the home of my writing professor (who was married, with two young daughters, and not more than 5 years older than me.) It was literally shocking, the kind of statement that displaces time: you feel you started to hear the words before he said them, and then afterwards you can't believe that he actually said them.

LBJ was stubbornly expanding and prosecuting the Vietnam War, and the demonstrations that were growing in size and emotion routinely included the chant, "LBJ, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?" But now, in an instant, he was not going to be there, and the only two declared Democratic candidates were running to end the war: Senators Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy. We were really going to end the war!

Of course, I knew that in some ways it wasn't going to be soon enough for me. I'd already had my pre-induction draft physical, and despite total deafness in one ear, and to the complete shock of several sets of draft counsellors I saw in Chicago, I'd passed. (They were already telling me about how to appeal.) I was a senior in college, and in a few months, my student deferment would end, and with draft calls still very high, I'd probably be drafted. I still hadn't decided what to do, except I knew what I wasn't going to do--I wasn't going to kill any Vietnamese. There was a lot of talk about options, but in the end no one else could really understand this decision--not parents or teachers, friends or certainly girlfriends. You were alone on this one.

But that was a couple of months away at least. I was about to direct a play I'd written, with its own statement about all this, and after that I could probably tie up the draft process long enough to somehow work for Robert Kennedy's campaign. And it was April--spring was short but intensely beautiful in Galesburg--and the barrier of LBJ was gone. There'd been dancing in the streets on campuses across America the night before. There hadn't been anything that public on our small campus, but we'd probably celebrated enough to be seeing the first April morning through a slight fuzz. There was hope now-- the war might end, and that immense burden on every single hour of every day.

April 1--April Fool's Day. Before the week was out, Martin Luther King would be assassinated, and eight weeks after that, I would spend my graduation day watching Robert Kennedy's funeral. Then would come the hot shambles of the Chicago convention, Humphrey, Nixon, and more war--much more war. "April is the cruelest month," T.S. Eliot wrote, as we students of literature well knew.

Forty years later, there are a couple of lessons I take from this. First, cruel disappointment is always possible if you dare to hope, but nothing changes unless you take that dare, and do your best to change what's wrong. Even if it means personal sacrifice, and even if it means that people close to you don't understand.

Second, if John McCain had his way, we'd still have troops in Vietnam. The reality is that Nixon and the Republicans continued to expand and prosecute that war for another half decade, and they had to get out under worse circumstances than the U.S. faced in 1968. Still, southeast Asia did not fall like dominoes to Soviet or Chinese communism, and today we're buying stuff made in Vietnam.

Let's not make the same bloody and tragic mistakes in 2008. Let's unite behind Barack Obama, end this war in Iraqnam in 2009 and start meeting the challenges of the 21st century.
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Monday, March 31, 2008

Obama in Western PA: the 'burgh

Indulge me. I'm fascinated with Barack Obama's bus tour through my old haunts of western PA. He started out in Pittsburgh, where I lived and worked in the late 80s to mid 90s, and where I spent time from childhood to last spring.

He spoke at Soldiers and Sailors Memorial in Pittsburgh...

and visited a steel mill with Steelers greats Franco Harris and Jerome Bettis--that's him apparently getting bussed by The Bus.

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Obama in Western PA: the 'burg

A day or two before the bus tour was scheduled to start, U.S. Senator Bob Casey, Jr. told the campaign he was going to endorse Obama. After Casey made his endorsement speech in Pittsburgh, suddenly the tour became a double act, as Casey came along.

Then they headed to Hempfield Area High School (home of the Spartans, the first high school team I saw play) for the Greensburg town meeting.
To get there from Pittsburgh his car probably took the same exit off Route 30 I did when I lived in Hempfield. I would have been able to see the car from the house where I grew up. I don't know how to explain it but there's some mystery of place that's engaged here. I know so much about that place, and experienced so much there, that this means something to me.

And at Hempfield he encountered a type I remember all too well from the local bar culture--the very educated crank. He took a question from a man who introduced himself as a PhD in Economics (a discipline that churns out cranks by the hundreds.) Who then asked Obama what he was going to do about the penny.
"The penny?" Obama repeated.

Yes, the obsolete penny--and the dollar bill--what about getting rid of that, too, and starting with the two dollar bill?

"The two dollar bill?"

Yeah, and another thing, what about island prisons for sex offenders?

I think maybe that photo with his finger on his eyebrow was taken about then.

Obama dealt with him better than I might have at the Court Jester bar, or Mr. Toad's. He said since Lincoln was on the penny, and Lincoln was an important guy in Illinois, he'd have to find another currency to put Lincoln on before he could get rid of the penny.

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Obama in Western PA cont.

Obama continued east to Latrobe, where he visited a sports bar. I didn't recognize the name--may be a new one, or one that's changed its name. The bars I knew in that area were ones that Steelers frequented when they were in training camp at St. Vincent's College in late summer. I hoisted a few with Jack Lambert once. One of my sisters lives just outside Latrobe now, and my brother-in-law has been known to drop into a bar there. He coulda been there! One of my nieces teaches grade school in Latrobe. She coulda been there! Although probably they were both working.

These photos remind me of something somebody observed recently--
maybe Marc Armbinder at the Atlantic--that on the campaign trail,
Obama is having fun, and Hillary really is not. And even though Obama
looks serious in that photo, he is holding a Slinky. It's a tour of a Johnstown specialty steel plant that makes various wire products, including the Slinky. Apparently when they gave one to Obama he carried it with him and played with it for the rest of the tour.

Then another town hall meeting in Johnstown. It was one of the first place names I learned, because one of our two and then three television channels was WJAC Johnstown, "serving millions from atop the Alleghenies."

I've only been there a couple of times, though I've driven through a few more. Way back in the 30s, when the Bonus Army of World War I vets was driven out of Washington where they were encamped to try to get some of the money the government had promised them, some of them reorganized in the only town that would host them, and that was Johnstown, PA.
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Obama in Western PA: Altoona

Altoona is kind of Johnstown's little brother or sister. Doesn't get much respect. It wasn't on the schedule, and the Altoona media had been complaining that their town was always bypassed--no presidential candidate had EVER visited Altoona.

Well, Obama did. Apparently on the spur of the moment, he and Senator Casey went bowling.

Obama's got decent form, as you can see, but he hadn't bowled since Jimmy Carter was President, and he didn't do real well. He and Casey both lost to their main competitor, a local woman named Roxanne Hart.

"My economic plan's better than my bowling," Obama said at one point. Said a man in a nearby lane, "It'd have to be."

Some kids came over to bowl a frame or two, while everybody took pictures and called their friends. Obama completed a spare, and picked up the chant: "Yes, I can!"

Either before or after the bowling alley, they stopped in at a hot dog place nearby. Obama was buying.

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Obama in Central PA: Penn State

Sunday morning, Obama spoke to the largest political event ever at Penn State, with a crowd estimated at 22,000. Coach Joe Paterno had snubbed Bill Clinton a day or two before (he drew about 5,000), and though Joe and Obama chatted today, he apparently wasn't at the rally--but his son and daughter-in-law were.

And one of his players gave Obama a Penn State jersey. Something was definitely happening here.

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Obama in Central PA: Harrisburg

Before Obama could leave Penn State, he had to visit the diary. Penn State began as an agricultural school, and it's still a big part of the culture. You always have to visit the ice cream place, which is where Ben and Jerry got their start. Obama got the grand tour--he got to see the cows, and even feed a baby one.

The last place Margaret taught before Humboldt State was a small college about an hour south of Penn State. We went there for occasional entertainment, and the book stores. Several of my cousins went to Penn State, as did my other sister's husband--he's a dedicated Penn State football fan.

Then it was off to Harrisburg for a town meeting. An overflow crowd of 2,000 were there for that event. When I worked for a small public relations firm in Pittsburgh, I actually did some work for the governor's office when Bob Casey, Sr. was governor. I put together what was essentially the Commonwealth's annual report one year, and wrote most of it myself. I worked on a project for Harris Wofford when he was Secretary of Labor and Industry, to promote the Pennsylvania Job Centers. So I spent some time in Harrisburg. One of my best friends worked for the state government then, in the environmental agency. So to this point Obama was still in places at least somewhat familiar to me. But as he goes farther east, my connections become more tenuous.

There's a certain universality to these photos. They could be taken almost anywhere, and probably the most important thing about them, it seems to me, is the look in Obama's eyes in all these situations. The way he relates to people, his attentiveness and tenderness with children, and even with that calf.

But they do mean something more when I know the places where they were taken, in at least a general way. I'm sure they mean something more to the people who live there, the kinds of voices I know. Reporters may cast this as Obama's attempt to court the blue collar white vote in particular. I'm sure people react to his celebrity, but I'll bet they've responded to his warmth and humor and ease. And I'll bet these people--with those voices that I know--will remember this for a long time.
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