Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Real Politiks

My parents announced that we were moving from Indiana to Colorado when I was in second grade. My best friend’s mom cushioned the blow with tickets to the Michael Jackson concert (Bad Tour, 1987). I only remember that Michael performed Billy Jean in silhouette before claiming the stage in a werewolf mask. I couldn’t dance or hear the music. God pressed his hand to my heart and I felt every rhinestone-studded finger.

At age ten, the greatest moment in my life was behind me. We’d been living in Littleton for three years. My faded concert t-shirt was declared “retarded” at school and my lips were constantly chapped. I had finally learned to ride a bike in an empty parking lot miles from our subdivision, but persisted on my push scooter. I played Nintendo and overate. The opportunity to sing I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy for President George Herbert Walker Bush was a mercy I couldn’t refuse.

My choir teacher at Eagle Ridge Elementary must’ve been a political operative. We were a talentless bunch, but she shoved little flags in our fists and won us the honor of headlining a serious gig. The event was a fundraiser for a prospective state legislator and President Bush was lending some weight. Saddam Hussein hadn’t yet invaded Kuwait and the green specters of Patriot Missiles hadn’t lit up my tractable mind, but the President was obviously an important man.

As the date approached, I spent less and less time in my regular classroom, learning to smile with my eyes and sing from my gut.

I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy
A Yankee Doodle, do or die
A real live nephew of my Uncle Sam
Born on the Fourth of July!

I’ll never forget this refrain, nor will I be as nauseous as I was the morning of the big day. After vomiting in the restroom at school, a teacher’s aide took me to the main office to call my mom. The rest of the kids were already loaded on the bus and my choir teacher showed little patience for a fallen soldier.

“I’m sick,” I told my mom.

“You’re just nervous. I think you should go.”

This was a familiar conversation. When I was in pre-school, my teachers had a note on file that said, If Ryan vomits, don’t send him home. Having already evacuated my breakfast, there was no excuse not to get on the bus.

By the time we arrived at the convention center, I was hungry. I probably snuck a few gummy fruits or traded up for a Lunchable. Our teacher and parent volunteers hustled us off the bus to be organized in gender-segregated lines. We entered a building that looked like an airplane hanger full of red, white and blue balloons. An interminable waiting ensued, measured only by a cycle of bathroom visits in six-person rotations. When we finally mounted the bandstand, I tried to look past the spectating sea and retain the sensation of hunger, which I preferred to its opposite.

The opening bars of You’re a Grand Old Flag cued the waving of our cheap little props and the audience gushed, but my gaze never left the old man in the blue suit. He couldn’t moonwalk or say anything memorable enough to be reproduced eighteen years later, but I sang for him because he was more significant than me or anyone I’d ever met. Actually, I just mouthed the words.

My career in the field of political pomp had been on hold until last Saturday morning. I woke up at six-thirty, put on a casual, but respectable sweater and got into my frozen car.

In a recent tussle with my friend Shannon over presidential predilections, I said something like, “It’s shallow, but if we have the opportunity to elect the first female or the first black president, why would we choose the white guy?” I aspire to more nuanced and substantive political thought, but when I really consider why I’m going to vote for Barack Obama on February 5th, it’s difficult to move beyond personal preference.

The leading candidates for the Democratic nomination are not the same. Their agendas are flecked with different points of emphasis that will have real effects in the world. Some of these differences are spelled out by Glass Booth, a refreshingly meaty website that found my political views in 91% alignment with Denis Kucinich. Huh.

Having waded through the gray waters of strategic messages and distorted attacks, I’ve identified the face that I want for our country, but I can’t sustain a very heated argument with a supporter from another Democratic camp.

So, why was I driving to a John Edwards rally at the Carpenters’ Union of Greater St. Louis? Honest answer: I wanted to be in the same room with someone famous.

I met Shannon and another friend, Lori, in the parking lot. It was too early and cold for ideological exchange, so I quietly shrouded myself in their Edwards love and slipped through the door. In the lobby, we signed in and received bumper stickers. I noted the complete and kind of alarming absence of security and that helium balloons are not a good way to promote an environmental record.

Lori, who had traveled to Iowa to document and participate in the caucuses, knew one of the event organizers. He asked if we, as young people, would be willing to stand on stage behind Edwards.

“Sure!” I said, overcome by that basic human desire to be seen on TV.

Inside the union hall, a huge American flag established a sense of production and Lori showed us the sign that she had made—the loveliest in the room.

I snapped photos of the gathering crowd and worked up the courage to approach two men who actually looked like they belonged at a union-sponsored event. Alex Gromada and Bill Dill were card-carrying members accompanied by Bill’s daughter, Sarah, who said she would be voting for the first time. Both men described themselves as undecided and were interested in getting specific information about Edwards’ platform.

“I’m pretty impressed just reading the flyer he’s got,” Bill said. “He’s not taking PAC [Political Action Committee] money from anybody. He wants the people to back him, not the corporations. So that’s pretty impressive right there.”

“About the NAFTA expansion,” Bill added, “he’s against that, so that’s going to help us out a lot too—keeping jobs here in America.”

When I asked Alex which issues he considered most important, he listed the economy, healthcare reform and ending the Iraq War. He also said that he didn’t think Edwards was getting as much attention in the media as Clinton or Obama.

After a difficult loss in Nevada, where Edwards only captured four percent of the vote, and in the face of South Carolina polls that have him trailing far behind (see the NY Times), that appears to be the case. Nonetheless, a roomful of people had shown up to hear the man speak and the buzz was making me giddy.

Shannon, who had to leave early, took over the camera work as Lori and I ascended to an elevated position. I felt like the least appropriate person in the room to be playing the stage prop. We stood amongst union men, signage bearing children and state legislators representing their various districts. One of the organizers helped us focus our efforts.

“I want to thank you guys for standing up here,” she said. “You are the face of John Edwards!”

“What we're looking for is engagement, so don’t fall asleep standing up. That would be really awkward. When he says something, don’t be afraid to clap, nod, wave your signs, that kind of stuff. And get to know each other. We have a lot of organizing to do to win this thing.”

From there, several speakers would do their part to warm up the crowd, including Alvin Reid, a journalist for The St. Louis American, who I found the most compelling.

“As I’ve spoken on behalf of the senator and the candidate for president of the United States, people have asked me, ‘Alvin, what are you doing up on that stage?’ and I tell them, ‘I’m doing the right thing.’”

“I’m not up here to make history and to try to prove something to somebody other than that the Democrats need somebody in the White House to work with the Democratically controlled Senate and the Democratically controlled House. Then we can get back to helping out people like you and I—people who work for a living, people who just want to raise their kids and be able to send them to college without going broke, be able to fix their car without taking out a loan, be able to do the things that I was able to do as a kid coming up with a father who was a printer and a mother who was a schoolteacher.”

“And if you’re a schoolteacher now or you're a union printer, you’re struggling. You’re trying to get by. And the White House, they’re laughing. They say, ‘Hey, I can send you sixteen hundred dollars and that’ll shut you up.’ Well you know what, we’re not gonna shut up! We’re gonna get John Edwards elected the next president of the United States!”

A few more speakers addressed the audience before a swell of applause brought Mr. Edwards on stage. I can’t say that anything about his appearance surprised me. I had seen plenty of him on television and listened to enough of his North Carolinian cadence that he felt familiar standing just a few feet in front of me.

His speech was broad and the points he made were expected, offering himself as the miner’s son ready for a fight, but I still marveled at the immense task with which he was engaged and his resilience in the face of it. Certainly that could be said about any of the candidates, but I haven’t stood behind them yet, goofing for the cameras.

*The last four photographs were taken by Shannon Connelly.


Lolololori said...

That video is hilarious. We're like the only people between the ages of 9 and 39 in the shot.

katie brad said...

You are funny, clever and thought provoking. I love your honesty and always your stories from childhood. This is my favorite entry so far....they just keep getting better.