Friday, August 10, 2007

Cult-Like Programs I've Embraced, Part III: The Kerry-Edwards Campaign

November 6, 2004

The speaker was a 68-year old Army veteran who had served two years in the 1950s and was proud of it. He was a middle-class working man, a grandfather, a husband, a senior citizen. He was probably a churchgoer. I stood in his driveway in Bedford, Ohio, listening.

“He’s a punk,” he was saying. Almost beside himself, he was trapped between a desire to make clear his disgust for George Bush and a wish not to be brought to low language. “This guy? He’s a scumbag.” He looked uncomfortable having to speak this way. “The middle class is paying the taxes and fighting the war. A deserter. And he says John Kerry didn’t serve honorably? This guy’s a deserter, and deserters used to get shot.”

His grandson graduated from one of the top electrical engineering programs in the country; of twenty graduates, only two had gotten jobs. His grandchildren range in age from 24 down to 14. “If those kids want to go to Canada, I’ll drive ’em.”

We stood alongside a trim and modest suburban house on a clear, windy fall day, the day before the election. I was rapt. Label me (an East Coast editor for a British auction house) if you want, but I dare you to call this guy an “elitist,” or whatever it is they’re calling Kerry supporters now. Call him a bullshit-spotter. Call him a man of honor, someone with an understanding of hard work – not the kind you see other people do on television, but the kind you do yourself. He had my instant respect: sincerity, sensitivity, and above all, anger, came off him in waves. Call him what he is: a patriot.

I had come to Ohio on my own hook, getting up early one morning to drive from New York City’s far-northern suburbs to Cleveland. The ACT office there needed canvassers, and I had done some work in that line in 1991. That had been Thursday, October 28; my intention had been to return home on Sunday to catch my son’s first real Halloween. Instead, I was drawn in.

The intensity of the work was part of it, but the Cause overlaid the entire experience. No task was too mundane. Nothing was extraneous. Not once did I hear someone turn down a job. And in us all — New Yorkers, Californians, Ohioans, celebrity phone-bankers — there shone a joyous light, the knowledge of Doing Right so clear and so keen that it leapt from our eyes and our brows and our fingers as we sorted and packed and studied and clipped, and finally as we ushered the righteous walkers out the door and into the streets. When the training room was empty, we followed them out and brought the light forth ourselves.

The details of the work are important. When I walked in and reported for duty, as it were, someone took me aside and gave me a stack of forms to alphabetize. The beautiful thing, the architectural thing, about this job was its place in the scheme. I was sorting forms filled out by phone bankers who had spoken with potential volunteers and logged their contact information and availability. My forms held contact information for those volunteers who had been left messages and who would call back to obtain their confirmed assignment for the massive voter outreach effort that would happen over the weekend and through Tuesday. In the Cleveland area, about 2,000 canvassers and phone bankers were expected, with a target of reaching some 150,000 households. These forms had to be in order so that when the return-call hotline rang, Ken, the volunteer assigned to it, could find the caller swiftly and finalize their assignment.

Not long afterward, I was loaned out to the AFL-CIO, and thence to the NAACP, for a foray into the center of Cleveland to remedy attempts to suppress the black vote. Cloaked in a yellow “NAACP Voter Protection” jacket, I walked streets with alternating patches of well-kept yards, boarded-up windows and street-hardened dogs, knocking on doors and handing out Voters’ Bills of Rights. Everyone I spoke to planned to vote (the guy with three tattooed tears on one cheek sitting on the porch with the boarded up door seemed agreeable, at least), and they knew that forces were at work to take away their rights. That was evident in the thick metal gates through which we spoke. As darkness fell the blue flicker of TVs maintained its own twilight. Most everyone watched with the lights off there.

Every job was like that – its impact was incremental, but its necessity was evident. Over the course of the next days I performed dozens of discrete tasks, from data entry to raiding AAA for road maps to moving tables, ferrying messages and carrying food. At one point I was placed in charge of a team of volunteers creating canvass packets assembly-line style, highly reminiscent of my first post-college temp assignment. The meat and potatoes of my Ohio stint, however, was canvasser training.

Thirteen years earlier I had worked out of NYPIRG’s Albany office as a canvasser — at 22, I was among the older crew members. Filling in one day for the assistant canvas director, I cleaned the office and roused the troops with a briefing on Fear, which, combined with my generally successful neighborhood outings, landed me the assistant director job on through the summer and into the fall. Here in Ohio I was back again, trained by mid-20s SEIU organizers to motivate volunteers, to touch every sympathetic voter in a 10-mile radius. It felt powerful, and on Saturday, Sunday, Monday and Tuesday I would train and then go out myself, full of this astouding reservoir of belief.

The place I visited was not unlike Queens, but politicized, earnest, proud and American. I learned that the electoral map trumpeted by the media is a fiction. I fell in love with Ohio. On my map, the state is Red, but Ohio is no more Red than Orange County, New York is Blue. Blue and Red are just different names for Black and White, and to see the world that way is to deny not just the subtleties of your country, but to deny your spirit the richness of its full potential. Look no further than this Bedford man in his working-man’s driveway, speaking his mind with huge conviction and true emotion, forced — by a deeply-held knowledge of what is right — to denigrate the President. The pain of it was heartbreaking, and the yearning for a respectable presidency never felt so real to me.

Bush doesn’t matter, of course. Our efforts will one day be shown to have saved the world in some unlooked-for way. Perhaps we activated someone in some inner-city neighborhood; maybe someone’s child looked after one of us as we left her house and wondered why we walked; maybe my angry friend’s grandsons will refuse the offer of a ride to Canada and will instead lead a march on Washington. Maybe displaying hope was enough. Regardless, in the continuing struggle against injustice, poverty, corporate control of government, environmental destruction, and enforced religion, no effort is a waste, no task is unimportant, and no voice should be silent.

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