Friday, November 21, 2008

Image & Reality

Dispatch 16
Image & Reality
David Levi Strauss

I felt early on, from age 10 or so, that a big part of politics was emotional, and had everything to do with the collective imagination and memory. President John F. Kennedy was assassinated when I was 10, and those images remain indelible. My first electoral politics excitement came from the insurgent candidacy of Bobby Kennedy, and those images too have never faded. When Martin Luther King was assassinated, and then Bobby, in 1968, I was 15, and I never stopped mourning those losses, until November 4, 2008. Forty years later, I feel that excitement again. Electoral politics seems possible again. That’s a long time to wait, a long time to be outside, and I’ll admit it feels very strange to be back after all this time.

If Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy were still alive, they would be 79 and 83 years old, respectively. Think about how much different the intervening years would have been if they hadn’t been killed. As a political tactic to influence democratic process, terrorism doesn’t work—but assassination does.

The politics of fear and resentment that has largely determined electoral politics in America for the last forty years just lost. Nixon and Reagan lost. Lee Atwater and his protégé Karl Rove lost, decisively. “Triangulators” like the Democratic Leadership Council lost. The change—and in American democracy, change is still a choice—is palpable. People are moving differently on the street, and sounding different when they speak.

A few days after Obama won, some people began to publicly wonder whether this was “only a symbolic victory,” or constituted real change. This question seems to me to reveal a singular misreading of the present moment. Yes, this is a symbolic victory, but it is one in an environment where symbols matter more than ever. Symbolic change is real change.

It was necessary, in this campaign, to change the way people thought about electoral politics, to create a new image of it. In the recent past, right-wing Republicans had gotten themselves into position to govern by seizing the public imaginary and by controlling images. They turned out to be extremely good at this.

To defeat them, it was necessary to reclaim the public imaginary, to change the symbolic order. Now Obama and his team are in position to govern, to change policy, and they must do so swiftly and decisively, but they must continue to pay attention to the image. In their second term, Bush & Co. neglected the image, gave up on the public imaginary, and ruled with brute force and fiat. Obama can never do that. There are hard times ahead, and we are going to need images to unite us.

In the campaign, Obama had a particular problem that few politicians ever face: he became too popular. At one point, the level of public adulation rose so precipitously that it threatened to get out of control. The opposition (first Clinton, then McCain) took note, and their image of Obama as a callow celebrity—all style and no substance—briefly took hold.

Then, in Denver, in a stadium filled to bursting with 84,000 of his most ardent supporters, high on their own rightness and growing strength, I saw Obama dial back the charisma and cool the image, to make it more convincing for the 40 million people watching the speech on small screens in living rooms, many of whom did not know him well and had not yet made up their minds. He controlled the image, in order to get into position. When this kind of understanding and self-control comes together with great intelligence and a genuine will to change things for the better, many seemingly impossible things become possible again.

If Obama continues to honor this confluence, he will become not just the most unlikely candidate ever to win an American presidential campaign, but one of the greatest presidents we have ever had.

Filed on Monday, November 17, 2008, after the 60 Minutes interview.


Friday, November 7, 2008

The Day After: Electoral Campaign Lessons

Comments by Debra Chappell, Douglas County Caucus for Barack Obama Co-chair. Recorded November 2, 2008 at Staging Location 1, just off Jack's Valley Road, following a long day devoted to a get-out-the-vote effort.

The 12 point win in Nevada by President-elect Obama clearly supports her observations.

The conversation continues in "The Day After: If Obama Loses"

Ms. Chappell is also featured in "That One," an interview following the second Presidential debate.

Friday, October 31, 2008

I Put This Floor in This House

Dispatch 15
I Put This Floor in This House
David Levi Strauss

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.]


Sunday, October 26, 2008


Excerpts of Interview with 'Cappy' Israel of Santa Cruz, California. Recorded mid-October 2008 on Pacific Avenue where Ms. Israel was staffing a table for WILPF, the Women's International League for Peace & Freedom. [She is a member of the Santa Cruz chapter.]

Their Web site states: "The Women's International League for Peace and Freedom was founded in 1915 during World War I with Jane Addams as its first president. WILPF works to achieve through peaceful means world disarmament; full rights for women; racial and economic justice; an end to all forms of violence; and to establish those political, social, and psychological conditions which can assure peace, freedom, and justice for all."

Ms. Israel is a member of the "Raging Grannies," a group that sings "topical satirical songs, performed by women in grannie flowered hats and aprons. Always looking for new singers. Sing to public at rallies, actions, meetings and by invitation at the City Council, on KUSP, at the Crepe Place, etc." An upcoming, related video will feature Ms. Israel performing a classic tune, one familiar to U.K. soccer fans, with new lyrics.


Thursday, October 23, 2008



Maybe it's the unseasonably warm weather, maybe it's the depressed & stagnant economy (mine even moreso than the USA's), I don;t know for sure, but this election campaign is starting to feel like another endless ALCS postseason between a team from a depressed industrial city vs. a team from a Florida retirement suburb - or maybe more like the middle rounds of a stupefyingly boring heavyweight title fight, something along the lines of a Trevor Berbick vs. Gerrie Coetzee match. Both fighters come out of their corners for a few minutes of sparring every few weeks, neither making much contact, then scuttle back to their corners. The ring card girl is from Alaska. So far, Obama has not been Muhammed Ali, more like a Ken Norton: skilled & efficient but not as charismatic as we'd hoped. At the end of the torpid fight, Jerry "Quarry" McCain can't lift his arms. Obama in a 53%/47% "KO." Phillies in five.

Sunday, October 19, 2008


INT. JOHN McCAIN’s living room in Bethesda, Maryland. McCAIN sits stiffly facing his old friend COLIN POWELL. COLIN lets out his breath. It is as if some great weight had been pressing on him.


I’m sorry, John. I just - for once in my life - maybe the first time - I had to make the right choice.