Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Swayed by history

Barack Obama’s dominant showings yesterday, in Wisconsin and particularly, in Hawaii, where he’s viewed as a native son, clearly show that the momentum’s turned his way in the Democratic race for the presidency.

Senator Hillary Clinton’s hope in Tuesday’s primaries was to run close in Wisconsin, which she wasn’t able to do. It now appears that the flickering flames of her lagging campaign may come down to upcoming primaries, dependent on rust belt voters in Ohio and Latino support in the Lone Star State.

I’m not a Barack Obama supporter. When his name first began being whispered as a potential candidate for president, I thought that he was jumping the gun and getting ahead of the curve of his promising political future. It has been my intention and still is that he should have “waited his turn” and paid some dues.

Obama is a politician brimming with charisma, and possesses topnotch oratory skills. However, being president is much more than being an excellent motivational speaker. He’s untested and unproven in the area of governing. Much of the Obama-rama and the accolades cascading his way smack of emotionalism. Having fallen under the “spell” of emotion during my foray into fundamentalist religion, it’s no prettier when witnessed in the realm of politics. Additionally, Obama has gotten favorable press, by and large, and I think this media “bump” has helped him immeasurably. It will be interesting to see if he continues receiving a free pass from the press when (and if) it comes down to Barack, “the Black Kennedy,” vs. Johnny Mac.

I think Obama, like many men with a quest for power and prestige, is in possession of a certain arrogance and need for public adulation. It’s almost as if they feel entitled to their perch above the rest of us. So far, it seems to have paid off, at least in getting the Democrat nod for the presidency. Given the track record of his party, however, I wouldn’t discount McCain’s chances in the general.

Recently, I have decided to have my wife, Mary, do some guest blogging here at Words Matter. If you’ve read her recent posts, you’ll see that she’s firmly in the camp of Mrs. Clinton. Not only has it given you some respite from my writing and choice of topics, I think it has added a valuable perspective—the perspective of a rational woman, with some life experience, as well as, political passion.

When you’ve spent over half of your life with a person, you develop a level of comfort and trust in that person’s views and opinions. If you know Mary, you’ll know that when she’s passionate about something, she’s hard to ignore. It’s more than just persuasion. She’s also a genuine, relational person. That’s probably one of the reasons why as a salesperson, many of her customers have been with her for years. She inspires a loyalty in these customers that make them stay with her, even when Mary’s changed companies. She also has an intuitive sense about things and especially people that I’ve learned to acknowledge.

After 2004, I changed my party affiliation from “Democrat,” to being “unenrolled.” I was fed up with the Democrats, “the gang that couldn’t shoot straight,” as I liked to call them. I felt lukewarm for Kerry and when he rolled over like a drunk, conceding the race immediately, even though there was considerable controversy in Ohio, with allegations of voter fraud; I vowed I was done with the Dems.

Despite this vow, it’s been hard for me to remain on the sidelines. I certainly agree with others, who contend that in America, our political choices are limited and the shades of political choice are difficult to parse. It’s the old “Demicans” vs. “Republicrats” dilemma all over again. Ignoring my better instincts, there’s something about the horserace that drags me back into the political fray.

My wife has been a fan of Hillary for awhile, but that wasn’t always the case. The major reason for this has to do with reading Clinton’s book, Living History, which came out in 2003. Mary is an avid reader. I’ve never known her not to have a book in progress, plus she’s always listening to an audio book, so she plows through a lot authors and titles. She first read former President Clinton’s book, My Life. She was impressed with the book about the scope his life. She then decided to read Mrs. Clinton’s book, which helped her realize that Hillary was “an amazing woman.” I can already hear the gnashing of teeth of the Hillary-haters, brought on by that statement.

Mary contends that on the basis of reading her book, she believes that HRC is a person motivated by the desire to do good and make a difference in the lives of others, especially women and children. Oddly, these qualities, and her advocacy for these groups, which, by the way, are certainly a matter of public record, often get overlooked. Instead, we have commentators on both the right and the left criticizing her for her ambition, her brashness, for being “too tough,” and even going so far as comparing her to Shakespeare’s, “Lady Macbeth.” These very same qualities and strengths are lauded in men, particularly if exhibited during the battles of political blood sport.

On Friday, Mary came home with Living History, in audiobook form. While my wife is out and about most of her work day, my 9 to 5 experience involves days on the road and then, playing catch up in the office. This week, my only time behind the wheel has been traveling 20 minutes to work and then, back home.

The first cassette of the 18 that make up the audiobook of Living History was sitting on my seat, Tuesday (I had President’s Day off) morning. Mary had mentioned that she’d feed me a tape at a time, to see if I wanted to continue.

Driving to Lewiston, for work on Tuesday, I was captivated, hearing the genesis of Mrs. Clinton’s life and her surroundings. Granted, autobiographies tend to highlight the better qualities and minimize those things that are less flattering. Still, hearing about where she came from, her experiences growing up in Illinois and the stories of her parents and the town where she came of age struck a chord with me. Maybe it’s because I’m spending almost all of my time away from work detailing my own life story, growing up in a small Maine town, for a new book. Or maybe I’m just a sucker for people’s stories about their formative years, but for the past two days, Living History has been difficult to pop out of the cassette player, before turning the car off and heading into the office, for work.

I’ve enjoyed reading author and radio personality, Studs Terkel’s books about the American experience. While Terkel was born in 1912, he didn’t publish his first book until 1957, when he was 45. Another decade would pass before Division Street was released. I recently picked up The Studs Terkel Reader, which I’ve been going through, a chapter here, a chapter there. Some of my favorite stories have been the ones taken from Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression.

Mary and I journeyed westward towards the Chicago of Studs Terkel, in July, 1983. We ended up marooned in the post-industrial graveyard of northwest Indiana. Both 21, married less than a year and expecting our first child in December, we drew upon whatever inner strength we had, a reservoir we weren't aware of at the time, but one that was put there by the experiences of our past.

I couldn’t appreciate it at the time, but the archetype for our journey to Indiana, had been forged by another young couple, nearly 60 years earlier. My paternal grandparents, Michael and Anna Baumer, had journeyed across the Atlantic Ocean, from Kleinschwand, Germany, aboard an ocean liner. They arrived and passed through Ellis Island, on January 11, 1924. From there, they made their way to Lisbon Falls, where my Opa worked at the Worumbo Mill and put down the root that I would be later become grafted into.

As I listen to the audiobook narrator read Hillary’s story, I recognize that like Mary and I were forced to, she’s been drawing on her own personal reservoir of strength, one that is rooted in the story of her own mother, forced to fend for herself, at the age of four. Later, her mother, Dorothy, deprived of love and affection early in her life, managed to learn how to love and nurture her own daughter. Living History is a testament to her story and her impartation of strength to her firstborn child. Women from Hillary’s generation, the ones that broke away from typical gender roles and stereotypes, were spurred on by their mothers. While her father (shaped by many of the same depression era experiences Terkel chronicled) certainly helped shape the woman she would become, countless times, particularly when struggling with Wellesley and being away from home for the first time, it was her mother that demanded that she "tough it out," rather than return home, which would have satisfied her father. I think her mother, the woman who Hillary wrote, “cried the entire 1,000 mile trip back to Park Ridge,” recognized that if Hillary returned home and went to school nearby, she would never tap her true potential.

For a period of time in my life, I truly believed that incrementalism and parsing of minimal differences made supporting a presidential candidate meaningless. My recent experiences with workforce training have revealed that government programs can make substantive differences in people’s lives. I try to imagine what could be accomplished if training dollars were reinstated and I had the opportunity to double the number of programs I was able to run. Hence, my political beliefs have modified into a more pragmatic approach than in the past.