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.



SARAH and TODD PALIN walk arm in arm past shop windows that are either shuttered, papered over or have crude hand-written SALE signs taped up above cheap Chinese-made goods & sundries.

That was great. Now they think you’re cool, funny, easy-going.

They continue walking in silence for several seconds.

We’ll see how snarky Tina Fey feels when she’s outside in the snow breaking rocks in a concentration camp outside Minot North Dakota.

They continue walking past more boarded-up storefronts, and homeless men gathered around burning oil barrels.

And that nasty little Amy Poehler’s going to be lucky if she ends up as an Ice-Road Hooker.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Autism on the Rise

Dispatch 14
Autism on the Rise
David Levi Strauss

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 Friday, October 17, 2008, after the third and final presidential debate.]


Thursday, October 16, 2008

McCain-Obama III Debate Watch

Comments by Dave Jones of Walnut Creek, California, immediately following the third and final presidential debate of the 2008 race for the White House. The conversation took place at a sparsely attended McCain Nation Debate Watch party in the lounge of an apartment complex in Mr Jones' hometown.


Monday, October 13, 2008

"That One"

Comments by Douglas County, Nevada Obama supporter Debbie Chappell immediately following the second presidential debate at a debate watch party in Jack's Valley just south of Carson City in rural Nevada. Part of a longer interview.

A pre-debate segment is on The Electoral College YouTube Channel.



Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Overhead Projector

Dispatch 13
Overhead Projector
David Levi Strauss

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. 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 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.]


Saturday, October 4, 2008



SARAH appears, stark naked, running down the street in front of a growling red Pontiac driven by DICK CHENEY.


SARAH, seen from behind, is running with her arms spread wide. She opens her fists to allow streamers and glitter to float out of her palms. For a split second CHENEY cannot believe what he is seeing. He turns to KARL ROVE and RICHARD PERL. They also seem astonished by what they are seeing.

SARAH weaves down the icy street. SARAH is not just running. She is leaping and bounding, as if released from gravity and entered into a realm of pure ethereal space.

TODD pounds down the street behind the Pontiac, carrying SARAH’s clothes.

Look at that! Fuckin' chick! Fuckin' Sarah Palin!... Unbelievable!


The road forks, one road going high to a parking area, the other descending to the valley below. SARAH swerves up the incline toward the parking area, while the Pontiac goes straight and disappears down the hill.


SARAH stands motionless, looking out across the valley as TODD approaches. The night is brilliantly clear and the fires from the refinery light up the sky with an eerie glow.

TODD comes to a stop a few feet away.


SARAH turns. Her face has a strange, distant look, and she
gives TODD an almost feral grin.

You think we'll ever come back?

From Washington?


TODD moves up beside her. He doesn't know what to say.

I love this fuckin' place... That sounds crazy. I know that sounds crazy, but I love this fuckin' place... If anything happens, Todd, don't leave me there. I mean it. Don't leave me... You gotta promise, Nick. You gotta promise me that.

(half laughing)
Sarah --

Promise! You gotta promise!

You got it.

SARAH lets out her breath. It is as if some great weight had been pressing on her.

(with a laugh)
Let's go huntin'. I mean it - let's do it!

Friday, October 3, 2008

Special Needs: Style & Substance

Dispatch 12
Special Needs: Style & Substance
David Levi Strauss

Two extraordinary things happened last night in St. Louis. First, Sarah Palin showed up for the debate with her A game. She was well prepared and poised, and turned in a sterling performance. After disastrous TV interviews with Charlie Gibson and Katie Couric, in which she looked like a clueless student in a high school current events class, Palin appeared last night as the formidable politician that so excites John McCain. From her very first words to Joe Biden, “Hey, can I call you Joe?” she was on-message and relentlessly appealing. Deflecting Gwen Ifill’s insightful questions like a goalie at the net, she delivered her prepared remarks like a seasoned professional, peppering her speech with trademark folksy Fargoisms that made it seem like your gutsy, sexy mom had gotten fed up, put on her best black skirt and heels, and come to Washington to kick some ass.

The second and, in light of expectations, even more extraordinary thing that happened last night was that Joe Biden observed this miraculous make-over and brilliant performance, read Palin’s tone and body language, and carefully calibrated his own delivery to perfectly counter it. He treated her with the respect due a dangerous adversary. He listened closely to what she said and responded forcefully, letting the greater substance of what he was saying speak for itself. He did not overreact or become impatient. This was the most disciplined, magnanimous, and moving performance of Biden’s long and storied career.

I think operatives on both sides expected and prepared for a quite different debate, so there were a number of odd juxtapositions, with each candidate responding to something the other hadn’t said. But the Biden team’s strategy was essentially more generous, and was, in the end, able to absorb and subdue Palin’s style, which would have worked much better against, say, Hillary Clinton.

When the Roviacs discovered and deployed Palin, they were returning to the old Reagan playbook, to appeal to the psychopolitical narcissism of some American voters, who want “someone just like them” to lead the most powerful nation on earth. This weird perversion of populism (Pop populism?) helped to get George Bush and Dick Cheney elected. Going back to it now, after eight years of failure and devastation, is a desperate move, and last night, Joe Biden shut it down.


The Best Part ...

Comments by Brittany Alexander, Blackhawk Republican Women President, immediately following the Biden-Palen debate at a McCain Nation Debate Watch party in Danville, California.


I heart Mavericks.

This post originally appeared over on team small dog. Sarah Palin should have been drawn better for this one since I've practiced once before for you, but then I fell asleep.

So Black Beauty might not really have a future in agility. Pero, yo pienso que tiene a future in political analysis.

Black Beauty doesn't CARE if there was no dog running after a long hard day of sitting in the dog pen at work. Black Beauty understands we have to watch the tv at 6pm sharp to see the debate. Black Beauty has manners that do not involve launching one's self across the room at another dog to steal the squirrel and barking REALLY LOUD and obnoxious. Black Beauty didn't even know about the Minnesota accent until now. But she is enthralled.

I'm going to rent Fargo for Black Beauty soon. She can sit quietly and watch Frances McDormand channel all things Minnesota. Like some of my relatives, whose names I won't tell you to protect their identities here, especially if their names are Mom and Auntie Judy. Sarah Palin sounds just like all of them, you betcha. Golly gee. Don't know why. Never been up to Alaska, it's not really my neighbor, it's attached to a foreign country, which is sort of my neighbor, if you count Oregon and Washington as neighbors but neighbors that are patriotic and American and have Main Streets, then the foreign country, then Alaska, then Russia. If you think about it, yeah, Alaska is basically surrounded by foreign countries. It's just way different up there.

There's different customs maybe. So maybe in Alaska, if someone asks you a question, you just answer it however you want.

Let's play Alaska, Black Beauty. I'll start.

"Black Beauty, do you want to live here with us?"


"Black Beauty, inquiring minds want to know how old you are?"

"Pollo! Energy Bill! I want to talk about the Energy Bill now!"

"Black Beauty. You are not answering my questions."

"Because of the Job Creation on Main Street for the American People! Job Creation!"

"Black Beauty. What about climate change?"

Black Beauty pauses for a moment. "No esta caused by peoples. Not peoples. But the magical emissions not cause by the peoples! Drill Baby Drill!"

Wait. Weren't we talking about tax relief?

Black Beauty looks so perky. God, she is just such a cute little dog. That way her little eyes crinkle up when she smiles. "Energy Independence is the Key to the Future!"

"What do you mean, Black Beauty?"

"Reform of government and children of special needs. Pollo! 94 times voted for Pollo!" Black Beauty is watching the tv again. Whenever Biden talks, she starts making her cutey face. I can't listen so much to Biden because there goes gosh darn golly gee cute Black Beauty again with the cutey face. Black Beauty, you have such pretty teeth! Sanrio! Black Beauty, you are like from Sanrio! Joe Biden, you scare the children with your non Sanrio face. Black Beauty can only mug for the camera when Joe Biden talks. Sanrio! Hello Kitty and little penguins. Sparkly eyed little penguins!

Tonight we dream of little penguins. Ones that might be experiencing climate change but for all natural causes that might be emissions but not emissions caused by man. By other little penguins? Wait. Sanrio penguins or Alaska penguins? Are there penguins in Alaska? Or maybe extinct from global warming? I forget. I know they taught her that, deep down in the McCain Chamber of Quick Learning for tv appearances. So just ask Sarah Palin. She has all the answers.






The opening credits end by fading back into the white-out of an Alaskan blizzard.

As CAMERA SLOWLY ZOOMS DOWN COLUMBINE STREET we make out, through the heavily falling snow, a group of OLDER WOMEN carrying a huge wedding cake with a miniature bride and groom standing on the top. The WOMEN are all in their seventies and bundled in boots and dark overcoats. They are moving slowly up the street, in the driving snow, with the great white cake held firmly between them.

CAMERA SLOWLY ZOOMS PAST the group of OLDER WOMEN and continues ZOOMING DOWN COLUMBINE STREET towards a vague shape that we eventually, once we get close enough, recognize as a dented two-tone pink and cream double-wide mobile home which looks as if it had been purchased third-hand off a construction site. It stands on cinder blocks in a small lot which has been cut out of the side of the hill. A wrecked school bus decorates it to the right. On the left is a bare branched tree. TODD & SARAH PALIN's snowmobiles are parked in front and a light shows from inside the trailer.



SARAH PALIN and TODD PALIN sit facing each other at the kitchen table, playing Russian Roulette.

QUICK CUTAWAY TO ESTABLISHING SHOT that shows shoreline of Russia visible from kitchen window of the PALIN’s mobile home.


You can do it, TODD.

No. No, no.

TODD... listen to me, TODD! You have to do it.

I want to go home, SARAH.

You have to think about this, TODD. Listen to me, TODD! You have to
think about this.

(tears again)
This is horrible!

Listen to me, TODD. If you don't do it they'll put us in the pit. If they put us in the pit, TODD, we're gonna die... TODD, do you understand?

SARAH, I wanna go home!

There is an EXPLOSION from the other end of the room. TODD’s eyes go wide and he lets out a whimpering SCREAM. The SECRET SERVICE AGENTS open a path and MITT ROMNEY appears. His knees won't support him and the SECRET SERVICE AGENT who is holding him throws him on the floor.

Listen to me, TODD. Do it! You have to do it!

What are you, God?

Listen, asshole, it's up to us!

TODD PALIN hangs his head and whimpers.

What are you - hoping?

What else?

I thought you might be - praying.

I'm doing that too.

I suppose you wish you were somewhere else?

What do you think?

TODD, you're wasting your time... Listen to me! You're wasting your time! This is no fucking time for hoping or praying or wishing or any other shit! This is it. Here we are... And we gotta get out!

You're right... Okay, you're right.

(grabs him)
Get off your ass, TODD. Get off your fucking ass and stand up!!!

Okay, okay!
(he straightens his shoulders)
Okay. Okay, you're right...


Thursday, October 2, 2008

On the phone: Jim Domagalski

On the phone: Jim Domagalski of Orchard Park, New York Erie County Republican Committee Chairman

Phone conversation a few hours preceding the October 2 VP debate between Senator Biden and Governor Palin. Follow-up to an earlier interview on the topic of the Palin selection by the McCain campaign in St. Paul at the GOP convention.


A post-debate conversation is also planned. Stay tuned.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

McCain-Obama Debate: The Dance of the Country

Comments by Obama supporter and Executive Chef Kim R. Whittington of Oakland, California. Immediately preceding the September 26, 2008 presidential candidate debate, first of three scheduled.

The interview took place at a debate party at Everett and Jones, Oakland's legendary barbeque where scores of supporters gathered in a festive community atmosphere.

Talking to David immediately afterwards – he had watched the debates in camera at a disclosed albeit secluded location north of New York – was sobering. [See his post below, "Mississippi Mud."] Those in attendance at E & J not surprisingly scored the debate a decisive win for Obama, and although early assessments by the MSM punditocracy suggest a draw, Rasmussen Reports' first post-debate Daily Presidential Tracking poll for Saturday, September 27 gave Obama a 50% to 44% lead over McCain in the race, matching his highest numbers to date. [Note that those numbers held on Sunday, September 28.]

This is the first of a couple of videos from the event. Embedded from Vimeo, an online video site that reaches a much smaller audience, although in higher resolution, than YouTube, where we'll continue to post.


Saturday, September 27, 2008

Mississippi Mud

Dispatch 11
Mississippi Mud
David Levi Strauss

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 4000 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, 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, honestly and without guile. On a number of occasions, McCain’s tone veered into the sarcastic and even contemptuous, and attentive viewers glimpsed two very different approaches to political discourse.

[Filed on Friday, Sept. 26, 2008, after the first Presidential debate at the University of Mississippi’s Oxford campus.]



When I was 12 I attended a state 4-H Junior Leaders Conference in Fort Collins, Colorado. It was hundreds of teenagers from around the state, mostly rural communities like my own which then had only 1,500 inhabitants. My town is called “Craig,” the way that Indiana has a city called “Gary,” and it was the coldest place in the nation until Alaska was annexed. We had no Main Street, instead it was called Victory Way, a hopeful vision of America—a Christian town with a bar called “The Office” so that husbands wouldn’t have to lie to their wives when they called late at night to report their whereabouts.

At the 4-H Conference the final and inspirational speaker was Marilyn Van Derbur who had won the Miss America Pageant in 1958. She was in her early 40’s, wearing the power suit of the day, and she started off telling us how she entered the pageant with no talent at all. Invoking the ‘power of positive thinking’ she decided to learn one piece on the piano---well actually two, a medley of “Tiptoe Through The Tulips” and “Tea For Two”. She practiced, she said, hours and hours to get it all down, with both hands flying and most of all: a confident smile. She somehow won the Pageant with this combination of moxie and no doubt beaming through the swimsuit and evening gown competitions. I do not know if she was ever asked the dreaded ‘political question’ that now flummoxes so many beauty contestants. Part of what she won, she went on to explain, was an appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show, then the most popular stage in America. Much to her surprise, Ed suggested they do a piano duet together and a piano miraculously appeared. Marilyn said she pinned on her smile and made sure she positioned herself on the piano bench upstage with Ed facing the audience, then she pretended to move her fingers on the keys and smiled winningly through it all. She had just explained to us how she had faked her way through the pageant, and now she ‘inspirationally’ told us how we could fake our way through any situation when we didn’t know what we were doing by donning a winning smile. She ended her speech by singing acapella “To Dream The Impossible Dream,” which proved that perhaps the piano was indeed her more significant talent. I was dumbfounded. Had we really just heard this woman encourage us to fake our way to the top? But I looked around and many of the young girls my age and older were crying, they had boarded the space ship and were flying off.

I’m afraid when watching Sarah Palin on Katie Couric, and even before on Charles Gibson’s interview, I constantly thought of Marilyn Van Derbur. She had become an inspirational speaker who still circulated the country, a back-up to Anita Bryant, and who had added an instance of childhood sexual abuse to her range of topics in reaching out to rural conference communities. I saw the same smile, the same decision to try to dodge a direct challenge with a faked delivery. I became even more worried that she might someday be in a position of real power.

I have my own pageant confessions, for years later I did enter and locally win a Junior Miss Pageant, which in the small town (as part of a tri-county area) was one of the only things that was like a talent show. It had no bathing suit competition, instead you were judged on your academic grades and had to master a fully-clothed physical fitness routine. For talent I had done 5 paintings about the state of politics in America that I presented with an oratory about the confusions of the day. One was a black-edged 3-D frame of portraits of Bobby and John Kennedy with Martin Luther King, Jr. One was a painting of a wounded Vietnam soldier holding his dead friend based on a Larry Burrows photo, another showed a politician ranting, another a group of protesters with upraised fists; the final one showed a map of America with a thousand worried faces. There are eerie echoes of this same worry now. I had not wanted to win, simply make a statement and had assumed the other girls, far more glamorous than I, would take the prize. I was the shy art student who rarely said anything, least of all at home. When I did win, my parents were called onstage—a newspaper photo shows them looking stunned on either side of me, like deer caught in headlights, with me in my conservative gown and the shining rays from my braces emanating to the four corners of the picture.

At the state pageant, the cold ambition of the other contestants totally frightened me and I tried to make myself into a small ball, like a sow bug avoiding attack. There was a new feature at this level: the judges interview. The five judges of the contest took all of us out to dinner where we table-hopped, spending about 10 minutes with each judge explaining our beliefs. I was asked, sometimes with amusement, why I had been doing independent study the last two years, first researching the tribes of East Africa and the next year learning Swahili from a small plastic record and rare book of its grammar. I thought their questions were serious and didn’t hesitate to reply in my naive way. They assumed, they said, I must want to join the Peace Corps. Yes, well, I’d thought about that I said, Or to become an anthropologist, they suggested. I hadn’t considered that so I thought I should make myself clear: “I’d really like to join a tribe.” I said. One fairly hip-looking bearded judge looked at me in disbelief. “Join a tribe?” “Yes,” I explained how I found the tribal structure and housing, the customs to be so far preferable to life in the American high school that I fervently disliked. “I don’t want to change their way of life,” I added, “I want them to teach me theirs.” Needless to say, I did not win the contest, though they gave me a prize for my paintings. And though the naiveté that haunts all of us growing up in remote small towns (which I thought of as “Nowheresville” with the rest of the world as Elsewhere) rears its head from time to time, it has not compelled me (much to everyone’s relief I imagine) to seek public office.

My mother, however, came to the town as a community organizer and still, at 82, holds a prominent role in a wide multi-county area. Over the years she helped local families deal with financial woes and embrace new ways of doing things to improve the quality of their lives. She is on the board of a large area non-profit that looks to the future and joins businesses with other non-profits, with government organizations and public services like the hospitals and community colleges. She has worked to generate this kind of communication for the betterment of all her whole life and to me and so many others, she is a beacon of what one person can do for their fellow human beings. She has done so selflessly, and is the the real thing, the antithesis of faking ones way through anything. She is not like Sarah Palin at all.

(Photo: Marilyn Van Derbur)

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Hilda on the line I

As part of a project for the Buffalo ArtVoice I phoned Buffalo public school junior high teacher Hilda Ramos, who was also a delegate at the Democratic National Convention. She is featured in an earlier video interview from Denver – "Obama: Ready for Change."

First of a series.



Monday, September 15, 2008

September 11, 2008: This Is a Test

Dispatch 10
September 11, 2008: This Is a Test
David Levi Strauss

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 7 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 a 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.


Sunday, September 14, 2008

Thursday, September 11, 2008



Let us never forget the unknown number of people who have died in the “War on Terror” or whatever W’s misguided attempts to rid the world a' them’ terrorists are being called these days. Never forget the media orgy that occurs on this anniversary of the one time in recent history when AMERICANS felt threatened! The gall! The shame! Never mind the kids in Kandahar, there are ‘Mericans in Michigan suffering, having to recall when the TV showed them the motherland [albeit a place where all them queers and liberals live] being attacked, one day, seven years ago.

The charade of the candidates putting politics on hold in honor of the dead today makes me want to join the Taliban. Putting politics on hold? If you are politics, how do you put yourself on hold? I long for leaders who don’t subscribe to this sham. If you are a politician, you can’t turn off your politics. Just like if you are an imbecile…
In today’s New York Times:

“Ms. Palin told them they would be fighting ‘the enemies who planned and carried out and rejoiced in the death of thousands of Americans.’ It appeared to hark back to the disputed connections the Bush administration once made, but no longer does, between Iraq and the Sept. 11 attacks.” (JIM RUTENBERG)

Today Palin also called “the” war [is there only one?] “a task that is from God". While I admittedly find this one hilarious, it is also a real puzzler. Why does the military-governmental-media-complex broadly refer to "jihad" as terrorism and accept a candidate for VP calling war and occupation "A task that is from God"? [I know, I know, cause OUR GOD IS GOD, what kind of a red-blooded patriot wouldn’t know that?]

Maybe I should shut up now. I think I need to go get knocked up or get saved or something. But, if you haven’t heard about “Sarah Palin's Churches and The Third Wave: New Video Documentary”, do check this out—it may score even you points in the Big House.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008



The refinery is massive, grime-streaked, squatting in the valley under five massive stacks. No fires can be seen flickering through the windows and no long flames weave and dance from the tops of metal flues. No steam rises in clouds from vents and chimneys and the utter silence of it all is amplified by the falling snow.

In the foreground is a street -- COLUMBINE STREET -- which inhabits the bottom of a narrow ravine and plunges directly down the hillside, straight at the mill. Columbine is a sad looking street, a grim-looking street, a street hanging on by the skin of its teeth. Dilapidated stores hug the narrow sidewalks. Battered signs squeak in the wind. Sandwiched between the stores and scattered on twisting roads along the hillside are narrow Victorian houses. These houses, which run to three stories or more in height, all seem on the verge of toppling over, and undoubtedly would, except that they are all connected one to another by a mad arrangement of utility lines which cross and re-cross between them with occasional aid from a leaning pole.

MUSIC COMES UP -- dissonant, rather frightening music -- as we watch a snowmobile come charging up through the slush on Columbine Street. As it nears CAMERA the snowmobile falters on the slippery grade and slides out of sight. A figure appears, huddled against the driving snow. The figure disappears AS CAMERA HOLDS ON THE REFINERY AT THE END OF THE EMPTY STREET.



Everything's going to slip. Everything's going to slide. Everything’s going to crash!

JOHN McCAIN’S MOTHER puts her hand to her mouth and bursts into tears.

I can't believe this... My own little boy... with a stranger!


Snow is falling heavier and heavier as another snowmobile lunges up the hill, gets about halfway and slides back. As the snowmobile disappears, the door to one of the houses bursts open and a group of giggling REPUBLICAN PARTY DELEGATES begin scampering across the street. They have all been working on their dresses, which are not completely finished, and they all carry ribbons and scissors and pieces of material. As they make their way to the other side of the street they all wave away the snowflakes and grab each other for support. One of the REPUBLICAN PARTY DELEGATES loses her dress entirely and with everyone laughing she rushes back to retrieve it in her slip. When the garment is repossessed a door comes open and the REPUBLICAN PARTY DELEGATES disappear inside.

CAMERA HOLDS ON COLUMBINE STREET. The snow slants across the little stores and piles on the gables of the tipsy little houses. Another snowmobile appears, lunges at the hill and slides back. Snowfall is now approaching blizzard white-out conditions. Screen slowly fades to white as opening credits begin to roll.

Friday, September 5, 2008

No Country for Old Men

Dispatch 9
No Country for Old Men
David Levi Strauss

John McCain returned to form last night, snatching defeat from the jaws of a victorious convention. His speech was remarkably tone-deaf and stale. “Everyone has something to contribute”? Don’t worry, we’ll find you “a new job that won’t go away”? “We’re all God’s children and we’re all Americans”? Karl Rove must be tearing out his ear hairs. His minions had decked the hall for two nights with fresh red meat, and McCain poured warm milk all over it. The only hope left for his part of the Party is for the revenge and resentment agenda to leapfrog over Grandpa’s corpse.

McCain’s speech had “Old & In the Way” written all over it. He veered from platitude to bad attitude like a drunken sailor. When Thompson and Huckabee and Giuliani and Palin recounted McCain’s moving story as a P.O.W., it sounded noble and true. When he told it himself, it sounded like Gramps nattering on about his glory days.

When he was finally finished, his image men projected big flowing red and white flag bars behind him, recalling George C. Scott’s last speech in Patton, in decline, having become a caricature of his former self. Signal the balloon drop.

The youngest Palin daughter did her plucky best, appearing briefly onstage in a brown sack, looking like Joan of Arc, but it was too late. Her mother now looked for all the world like McCain’s third wife, elbowing aside his current fake glamorous billionaire CEO second wife. And McCain’s mother looked lost in a hail of red, white, and blue balloons. C-e-l-e-b-r-a-t-e Good Times, Come On!

It was all very sad. McCain retired early, leaving Sarah Palin behind to sign autographs, contemplating a future that will, God willing, never come.

Filed on Friday, Sept. 5, 2008, after the last night of the Republican Convention in St. Paul.


Are you guys freaking out as much as me?

So is it just me freaking out here? Usually I have a lot longer time to look at someone's face before I draw it and this one just like appeared KAZAM! and I wasn't even home, was at a really long dog show and then I get home and it's like, here. Draw her. Since you broke both your cameras and it's down to all pens and paper now, all the time. I'm like YAY she was a MISS CONGENIALITY OF Miss Alaska. Will be EASY to draw. And maybe even end up being a president in the sad or happy case of President John McCain dying of natural or unnatural causes. Would we be sad or happy about that? I am totally confused now. A religous Alaskan now could be our president instead of Barack? What the hell happened here, I was only gone for a few days??

Look at her little oil sniffer. That little sniffer can sniff out oil All over the place! And her big smiley fangs, so white and smiley they are calling her Sarah Barracuda! Little glimmer in her eye. And has all those kids and even a baby and no bags under her eyes that I can find ANYWHERE! Is that nice Alaska clean air? No damaging particles? Her skin Way Better than mine and we are ALMOST same age but HA! I am actually younger than you Sarah Palin. Um, take that? OK. Wow. Official freaking out over here at my house.