Saturday, June 28, 2008

Unity Had Occurred, Regardless of the Pageantry

I rarely spend much time preparing for a campaign event. All I need is a few hours to charge my camera batteries and I'm on my way.

My routine changed for yesterday's "United for Change" rally. Not only did I repeatedly (and unnecessarily) submit my request for press credentials to guarantee that I was given access, but I gave the event more that its fair share of attention over the past few days. On Wednesday I predicted a larger crowd than expected, imagining news headlines like: "Tens of Thousands Make Pilgrimage to Unity." As it happens one could summarize the whole event as simply, "2,500 Unite for Historic Event," but that doesn't tell the whole story.

Driving to New Hampshire yesterday I played out a number of scenarios in my head about the rally. I expected a bunch of older voters and stay-at-home moms and dads to show up. I also figured there would be a smattering of protesters, both Republicans and Democrats. It seemed pretty simple: the two candidates would share the stage as a symbol of the Democratic Party's unification, and while most everyone would be excited, a handful of disgruntled ex-Clinton supporters would try to make the news with "Obama's an Empty Suit!" signs.

True, true, and true.

I had never felt it before at an Obama event, but I half expected (to borrow Clinton's previously sarcastic line) "the sky to open, the light to come down, and celestial choirs to start singing" outside the middle school in Unity. As it turns out, I could barely muster goosebumps.

Although the rally was a solid event, it never really took off the way one would have expected given the two historic candidates who were uniting their efforts for the first time. In part, I believe this was due to some missed opportunities. I expected (as did others I spoke with) that both Senators Obama and Clinton would finally loosen up and use yesterday's event as an opportunity to poke fun at their long primary fight in order to lighten the mood and release some of the tension and pent up emotions between their two campaigns, and to move on, with a shared laugh, towards a sense of shared community that would be felt by both of the candidates' backers. That never happened. In addition, for so long now, Obama and Clinton supporters have prided themselves on being different from each other and I never felt like either of the Senators took a moment yesterday to simply break the ice and acknowledge those differences (the proverbial "elephant in the room") and state that they would be valued and respected, as part of the process of bridging the interests of their respective campaigns.

As I stepped off the school bus that transported the media to the event, I couldn't help but notice the giant wooden "U-N-I-T-Y" prop that had been suspended on the side of the stage, not to mention the new "United for Change" signs that were being distributed. It was clear that the Obama campaign wanted to turn this rally into something truly spectacular. From my point of view that did not happen.

It strikes me now that it was not the Obama campaign's fault that yesterday's rally was not one of the more memorable campaign events I've been to. Beyond the logistical difficulties inherent in organizing a campaign event --delays in bussing thousands of people into and out of a tiny rural town, long waits, and occasionally inadequate facilities--all of which occurred here, first, in the hot sun, and then, in a fierce thunderstorm. The hardest part—the part that the Obama campaign had difficulty achieving—was how to market the idea of "unity" in ways to create a compelling front page story and make a big splash.

New Hampshire Congresswoman Carol Shea-Porter said it best yesterday: "Did anyone ever doubt this moment would happen?"

Whether or not anyone will remember what was said in Unity, NH, the moment has occurred.

(Photo credit: Luke N. Vargas. 2008. All Rights Reserved)


Anonymous said...

As the Boston Globe so elegantly put it the "feat of campaign choreography worthy of Hollywood" was a nice show. It is great to hear someone like you who was such an ardent Hillary supporter denounce this event. I believe that although Hillary is truly trying to throw her support behind Obama, after the fierce primary season, the ice still hasn't been broken between the two--as you said. There is still tension between voters and the rally definitely looked staged (note the coordinated outfits). I personally think they both need to stop putting on a show and start talking about issues again. Now that they are no longer fighting, they can start really discussing topics that are going to be important--not only in the race against McCain but also in the future of our country and the world. As James Harding, the editor of the London Times who was recently a guest of the Daily show put it, "thank you for giving us so much of an election to mock." Despite this comment, he does on to say that there is a lot to admire in this election--like the way it has gotten people back into politics. Which is true! And you certainly recognize it but its how we are going about "getting into politics" that is the problem. We need to stop having giant rallies where we sugar over everything and "start talking about Zimbabwe" etc. as Mr. Harding put it.

Anonymous said...

You know, to me, most of political campaigning is staged, so that didn't bother me. What struck me was how sad I was about Hillary (still). I really don't think she's (ever) going to get enough credit for what she's first lady, being in the Senate, and running for president. The woman's been talking about health care since I was in high school (which has been a while). I feel like we never give enough respect to people who have given up their lives to serve in the govt. Anyway, of course I'll jump on the Obama bandwagon, with no expectations of the "a ha" moment you talked about. (I have another theory about this--it's MY duty to get excited about my right to vote...not a politician's duty to beg me to exercise that right.) So the "unity" event has happened.

Thanks for your reflections, Luke!