Sunday, November 05, 2006


One of my earliest political memories is riding on my dad’s shoulders at rally on the tarmac of the airport in Milwaukee. I was all of 5 years old and Dad had brought me out to see: Richard Nixon, campaigning for president in 1960. All I remember is my clear view over the crowd and the small head of the young Nixon on a bare stage maybe 100 feet in front of me.

I don’t think I was very inspired by the moment nor do I remember feeling the dark chill of the anti-Communist and future criminal speaking before me. But it was my first political rally, albeit of the moderate, business Republican variety.

Since then, I had some interesting experiences, mostly watching from the sidelines. I remember attending a McCarthy rally in Milwaukee in ‘72, featuring Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul & Mary (yes, in ‘72 – McCarthy ran in the primaries that year, too). I remember seeing McGovern in some motorcade in downtown Milwaukee that same year, just before the election. I did the rope-line thing with Mondale in ‘84 and Dukakis in ‘88. My son and I stood in the rain for hours to see Kerry and shake his hand the day before the ‘04 voting.

With all the ugly TV ads and the dark poison stain of talk-radio, it’s sometimes easy to forget what is uplifting about the process of going to a political rally, in the right race with the right candidate. Democrats are, by and large, hopeful people who think they can change the world and individual lives for the better with the right voluntary nudges, protective laws and proactive programs. When we are together at a rally, such as that at the Milwaukee Theater with Bill Clinton this past Friday afternoon, we pat each other on the back for our successes and our at-least-we-tried failures. Sure, we talk about differences with the other side, especially with the radical right-wing agenda that Bush has pushed in the past 6 years, and highlight his historic failures. But we lift our spirits by being together under one roof, cheering our candidates and firing each other up to get out the vote.

As it is, political rallies are artifacts of a bygone time. Politics has become a spectator sport, as interested voters on all sides mostly watch the ebb and flow of the campaigns in the newspapers, on TV and, increasingly, on the internet. The appearance of figures of rock-star quality like Clinton brings people out and we all share a moment, before retiring to our sofa with a tub of popcorn to watch Tuesday’s returns.

I can’t imagine what it would be like at a Republican rally or, say, at a stage production by a Republican stooge like Sean Hannity, also in Milwaukee on Friday. What is it like to rely on tearing another down with lies, just to get power? What is it like to be in a crowd that is actually cheering a constitutional amendment to take rights away from unmarried partners or to penalize a woman exercising her right to choose what to do with her own body or to run impoverished illegal immigrants back across the border?

What is it like to be inspired by fear; to celebrate a failed administration simply because they happen to be on our side; to see success and honor in those who created a war out of whole cloth and lies, and then tragically failed on every level once they got there? How could they possibly feel the same uplift in spirit while they cheer for more blood and the increased repression of those who who are different or those who would disagree with them?

On Friday, Clinton shared the stage with various candidates for congress, senate and state offices. While Gov. Jim Doyle talked, Clinton was furiously scribbling behind him, sometimes checking local facts with an exuberant Congresswoman Gwen Moore, sitting beside him. At one point, when Clinton wasn’t listening, Doyle cracked a joke about him and looked behind him for a response. Clinton wasn’t listening and looked up to see all eyes on him and people laughing, so he broke out in a red-faced, aw-shucks laughing fit for Doyle’s benefit. Then, just as quickly, he went back to scribbling.

When he finally got on the mike, Clinton was a master of timing and substance. The crowd got very quiet, which Clinton took as a sign of the seriousness of the national condition. So he planted himself at center stage and settled in for a long talk. Although the organizers and candidates behind him might have preferred something a little more punchy and short, you ask for Clinton, you get Clinton. He settled in and riffed on his favorite subject – politics – and the differences between Us and Them. He was astute, funny and right on target.

It was the first time I had a chance to see him give a speech in person, and it’s amazing how comfortable he is in his own skin. There was no one like him before, nor will there be in the future.

After I checked in and realized I had some time before he would appear, I had to go get my son from school to see this. Although he was a bit pressed by some of the deeper substance – "Hey, Dad, what’s a surplus?" – I told him this was probably about as much of a genuine article as he was going to see in his lifetime. He’s a lucky kid: His first two major rock concerts were U2 and Bruce Springsteen and now he’s seen Clinton. He’ll certainly have high standards for rock and roll and politics from now on.

And to think I started with Jethro Tull and Nixon.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Your son will not forget it. I can recall only a few encounters with true charisma: meeting Clinton, meeting John F. Kennedy, meeting the Dalai Lama. And all here in Milwaukee!

Charisma is not a political thing or a religious thing. It's a magical thing, and your son will remember it.

I only hope that he gets to encounter it again, and soon.