04/29/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Some Last-Minute Obama Thoughts, After Canvasing in PA

I live in Bucks County, PA, and over the weekend I canvassed for Obama out of the Quakertown campaign headquarters.

My actress friend Alice Playten came out from New York to join me. She's had a long career in musical theatre -- she was in the original Broadway companies of Oliver and Hello, Dolly (as Ermengarde), and replaced as Baby Louise in the original cast of Gypsy. Recently she was Grandma Gellman in Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori's acclaimed musical Caroline or Change.

Alice has shown good judgment in the shows she's been in. And now she's for Barack Obama. So if you liked Hello, Dolly, you should vote for Obama. And if you hated it (the film's not very good), you should still vote for him. I'm being silly. Anyway Alice and I went canvassing.

When we got to the Quakertown headquarters, we were surprised to learn that Senator John Kerry was there to give all the volunteers a pep talk. (Also there were his two sisters; and his daughter who was also going door-to-door for Obama.)

I voted for Kerry, but I had never seen him in person before. I was amazed by how charismatic he was. He spoke really well, and effortlessly. Of course, he was among people he knew he was in sync with; and that makes a person more relaxed.

He thanked us all for being there, and said that we all had seen that Barack Obama was the best chance for a new politics, for moving the country forward, and for changing its direction. (When Alice and I did our canvassing in a little while, even those who were undecided seem desperate for change.)

Kerry said we were not running against anyone, we were not running against Hillary Clinton. He knows and likes her. Instead, we were running in favor of Barack Obama, in the belief he was the best choice, and chance, for our country. He has very special gifts, and his candidacy was a very singular opportunity to change course FOR REAL. Which most of us passionately want.

Kerry said he assumed all of us there were already convinced of Obama, but added, is there anyone here feeling undecided still? And we were all surprised when an older woman (in her early 70s, I think) raised her hand.

And Kerry said, what are you thinking about in terms of the election? And she said, "Well, I'm an older woman, and I would love to see a woman elected in my lifetime." Kerry nodded sympathetically, and she added. "And also a black person elected in my lifetime." And he nodded again and said, "Well I suggest you plan on not stopping living for a while then." I don't know that I got his quote quite right, but his comment was extremely charming and funny, and the whole room laughed, as did the woman.

Again I was struck by how loose he was. (And how we must start looking at how the media interviews politicians. It's hard to communicate easily if there's a constant "gotcha" mentality all the time, and not just in debates. What was missing in the first half of that Stephanopoulos-Gibson-moderated debate was an actual interest in getting information. We need information first; challenge and opinion can come later, and in proper formats, like all those Sunday pundit talk shows... Well there's lots of good analysis on the Huffington Post and elsewhere on this issue.)

Anyway, Kerry was terrific.

And Alice and I went to my car, and I did my best to get to Sellersville, a town I don't know. We got a little lost, but only a little, and then we found the grouping of houses we were meant to go to.

Our list was of registered Democrats. We were meant to remind them to vote on Tuesday. To find out if anyone needed a ride to the polls. To give them some Obama literature. And most importantly, if they were undecided, to engage them in conversation and do what we could to move them toward Obama.

I may be feisty and out there as a writer, but as a person, I'm shy. And knocking on a stranger's door is very much not something I like to do. Alice, who had particularly wanted to do something to help in PA, was better at talking to the undecideds than I was; though once she got a conversation going, I was able to come up with some useful points too.

The thing that surprised me about the undecided ones was that they felt sincere -- I thought they really were still thinking.

I wondered if some of the undecideds were people who only watched some of the morning and evening network news shows (unlike a semi-news-junkie like me who watches a lot of news). Those network news shows really boil a story down to like 6-7 sentences and some pictures, and you don't get much understanding about anything.

Plus the ads in PA have been confusing.

A week ago (roughly) Obama's ads were positive and about his vision, and stressing the job losses PA has seen, and the Bush administration's favoring of corporations -- all worthwhile topics. And Hillary's ads were also positive for a while (about moving away from Bush's policies).

Then in the last days, they've both gone negative.

Obama has called her attack ads the "old politics." And he had a line I thought was good, saying he didn't want to learn how to play the game (of politics) better, he wanted to CHANGE the game. (Not do it the same way, not be beholden to lobbyists and corporations, etc. etc.)

Around the same time, Hillary came out with a very misleading ad, and I'm not entirely sure what it means, but let me tell you what I think it means.

The ad took umbrage at an Obama ad that said she took money from oil companies. (Thus implying he was a liar, or perhaps a "misstater," lol.)

Her ad said she didn't take money from oil companies, which was illegal anyway and had been for many years.

I am assuming his ad used the term "oil companies" as short-hand, but that he should have said she takes money from LOBBYISTS who work for oil companies. She has admitted she takes money from lobbyists; and in an early debate she said "well lobbyists are people too" or something like that. (Fine, I appreciate the honesty in that moment.)

So I'm assuming she's being literal in her denial, but not adding she takes money from oil lobbyists. Is that right? Or does she NOT take money from lobbyists for oil companies, but just accepts money from lobbyists for other things?

This is the kind of confusion one faces with political attack ads on tv.

Then the odder part of her ad was when it went on to say that Obama was a hypocrite accusing her because he had taken many, many donations from people who worked for oil companies. And there followed a long list of names such as (I'm making them up so you get a sense): John A., Exxon; Barbara B., Exxon; Charles W., Exxon, Phyllis C, Exxon, etc. etc. About 20-30 names.

Now what does this mean?

Are they EXECUTIVES from Exxon??? (Which would be bothersome to me) Or are they private citizens who happen to work for Exxon? In my canvassing I found someone who worked for Merck, and she said she was voting for Obama. Should Hillary list her as proof Obama takes money from pharmaceutical companies?

(The Merck worker, a vibrant young woman, said that many of the employees at Merck were voting for Obama, and this was a big surprise and change because usually they voted Republican.)

Anyway, I think Hillary's ad was listing individuals who worked for Exxon and gave personal donations to Obama to make it seem like he was in the pocket of oil interests. Sigh. In which case it's a rather silly ad. That's what I think she was doing. Am I correct?

We didn't always manage to chat with the undecided people. Our first undecided was a woman who was hostile, and didn't want to take Obama literature, and did not want to talk. She was the first door we knocked on actually.

She felt like she was a Hillary supporter who for some reason just didn't want to say that. Or maybe she was just hostile in general. Or maybe she hated someone knocking on her door, which I can have sympathy with. But for a while I got afraid of knocking on doors of women who were in their 50s. (Alice and I are in our 50s, but we are madcap theatre folk.)

It did seem that that age group (and up) and gender tended to be leaning toward Hillary. And at one point there were two doors to knock on, a woman age 32, and a woman age 72. And the younger people were almost all pro-Obama. And I was getting tired, and said, well let's knock on the 72-year-old's door second. The 32 year old is more likely to be pro-Obama and thus easier to talk to; and I wanted an easy one first.

So we rang the bell, and no one came to the door. (And we left literature, carefully following the rule you couldn't use mail slots or mail boxes, because the post office forbade that.)

So then we approached the door that I had been frankly "profiling" as older woman who'd be angry to see us, and with a slight sinking heart, I rang the door bell of the 72 year old woman.

And she answered the bell, a vibrant, friendly woman who looked 10 to 15 years younger than I expected. And she was aglow for Obama, and thrilled to see us. And also told us how both her daughters were for Obama, and had been convincing all their friends.

There was a lot of talk about people whose grown children had convinced them of Obama. (Though I believe the 72 year old woman came to the decision on her own, and was merely in agreement with her daughters.)

You know, I have to end this because I've got to get to a bus to get to NYC for theatre-related stuff today.

But let me, for any undecideds possibly reading this, address the recurring topic of worry from the undecideds about Obama: does he have enough experience? Doesn't Hillary have more?

Two answers to that.

Obama is older than both Kennedy and Clinton were when they were elected president. And they had no more experience than Obama did.

And Obama has said that judgment is more important than experience.

And I agree with that.

But the second answer is about Hillary's war vote. I've gone down this path before, but Hillary's vote in favor of authorizing the war was a serious lapse in judgment.

Obama, not at the time in the Senate, gave a speech against the war that was smart and saw many of the problems that we ended up having with this wrong invasion. (Here's the speech.)

But consider two other things about Hillary's vote:

There was a substantial number of Democrats, unlike Hillary, who indeed voted against the resolution authorizing Bush to go to war (if and when he felt like it).

21 of 50 Democratic Senators voted against the resolution. That's 42% of Democratic Senators who Hillary did not join in voting against the authorization.

Those 21 Democrats were: Senators Akaka (D-HI), Bingaman (D-NM), Boxer (D-CA), Byrd (D-WV), Conrad (D-ND), Corzine (D-NJ), Dayton (D-MN), Durbin (D-IL), Feingold (D-WI), Graham (D-FL), Inouye (D-HI), Kennedy (D-MA), Leahy (D-VT), Levin (D-MI), Mikulski (D-MD), Murray (D-WA), Reed (D-RI), Sarbanes (D-MD), Stabenow (D-MI), Wellstone (D-MN), Wyden (D-OR).

Also voting against it was 1 Republican, Sen. Chafee (R-RI), and one independent, Sen. Jeffords (I-VT).

All those Senators, some of whom took the time to read the N.I.E. which included some of the intelligence opinion that did NOT favor invasion, voted against the resolution. Senator Durbin in particular urged people to read the N.I.E. and said it influenced his decision to vote against authorization. But the pressure to go to war was high, and most Senators did not read it. (I think Hillary did not; I came across articles where it seems she refused to answer if she had. Then I gave up looking.)

However, there was something else Hillary did not vote for. She did not vote for the Levin amendment, offered at the same time, that would have caused the president to return to Congress one more time before deciding to invade Iraq.

I came across an op-ed piece written by Senator Chafee (the one Republican who was against the authorization). It describes the amendment well.

And Hillary's not voting for this is a further example of bad judgment by her (and many other Senators). Because it's about war, and many have died (Americans and Iraqis) and five years later it's still not done. So this was a serious lapse in judgment.

I hope you'll read the whole Chafee piece but here are some quotes from it:

A mere 10 hours before the roll was called on the administration-backed Iraq war resolution, the Senate had an opportunity to prevent the current catastrophe in Iraq and to salvage the United States' international standing. Carl Levin, Democrat of Michigan, offered a substitute to the war resolution, the Multilateral Use of Force Authorization Act of 2002.

Senator Levin's amendment called for United Nations approval before force could be authorized. It was unambiguous and compatible with international law. Acutely cognizant of the dangers of the time, and the reality that diplomatic options could at some point be exhausted, Senator Levin wrote an amendment that was nimble: it affirmed that Congress would stand at the ready to reconsider the use of force if, in the judgment of the president, a United Nations resolution was not "promptly adopted" or enforced. Ceding no rights or sovereignty to an international body, the amendment explicitly avowed America's right to defend itself if threatened.

...To a senator, we all had as our objectives the safety of American citizens, the security of our country and the disarming of Saddam Hussein in compliance with United Nations resolutions. But there was a steadfast core of us who believed that the tactics should be diplomacy and multilateralism, not the "go it alone" approach of the Bush doctrine.

Those of us who supported the Levin amendment argued against a rush to war. We asserted that the Iraqi regime, though undeniably heinous, did not constitute an imminent threat to United States security, and that our campaign to renew weapons inspections in Iraq -- whether by force or diplomacy -- would succeed only if we enlisted a broad coalition that included Arab states.

We also urged our colleagues to take seriously the admonitions of our allies in the region -- Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. As King Abdullah of Jordan warned, "A miscalculation in Iraq would throw the whole area into turmoil."

Unfortunately, these arguments fell on deaf ears in that emotionally charged, hawkish, post-9/11 moment, less than four weeks before a midterm election. The Levin amendment was defeated by a 75 to 24 vote. Later that night, the Iraq War Resolution was approved, 77 to 23.

Hillary was one of the 29 Democrats who joined the Republicans to make 77 votes authorizing this war that has turned out to be a disaster and an enormous economic drain.

There were 21 Democrats who knew better. As did Barack Obama (and Al Gore and Nancy Pelosi and many Democratic Congress people).


McCain will be more war, and a "let the markets do what they do" hands-off continuation of Bush's economy. I'm horrified he's doing well in the polls, though I admit he has an authenticity when he speaks which is convincing. But really his policies are truly a continuation of Bush.

Hillary Clinton would be better than McCain on some things, but not enough of a change for me. And with lots of chaos in governing, as with the running of her campaign, which has not been an example of clear leadership.

There are many wonderful and inspiring things about Obama, about his intelligence, and about his ability to lead and inspire. We need a leader, and someone to inspire us to the idealism and fairness that has been in much of American history. I'm still hoping for Obama.