Yesterday I went to some meetings in the Chicago Headquarters of the national Obama for President campaign. For nearly three decades I have visited the national headquarters of almost every Democratic candidate for president. And they have all been alike. Until yesterday.
The usual headquarters is clutter, organized chaos, self important people screaming, "Where is the fuck are the latest stats from the Gallup Poll?", people gathered in meetings that they are afraid to be left out of and managers closed-off from the rest of the campaign. You had a good chance in the last couple of campaigns to see someone like James Carville roaming through the headquarters dispensing wisdom and amusing the troops.
That is not what I found yesterday at the Obama Headquarters. Upon entering, you are greeted by the usual friendly and kind receptionist but as you pass beyond into "Obama Land" you enter a massive space with every inch taken up with worker bees and computers. The high tech component of this campaign can not be stressed enough -- volunteers staffing a room full of computers for their highly sophisticated call center. As far as I can tell, there are no large individual manager offices with quite efficient secretaries outside screening people from getting in. No gathering in the narrow aisles of the office attempting to see if some body got something better. People seem to get what they need on their very own. Everyone knows his or her assignments and they were just getting the job done.
I was awestruck. Deputy Campaign Manager Steve Hildebrand shares an office with at least four others -- although it was hard to be sure. When introduced to people you get a friendly greeting but underlining it all was an urgency to get back to work to elect their man to the presidency. Many are volunteers, many are living in jammed packed apartments hoping the landlord won't know how many are sharing and all of them are young and passionately committed to the cause. They believe in America and have adapted the tools of democracy to the high-tech brave new world.
Clearly a new age has arrived in American politics.
The sad part of this amazing dedicated and passionate group of individuals is that many in the press and others, mostly in the beltway, have taken this as a sign that the campaign is all rallies, organization and no substance. When I hear this my first reaction is shock. No substance? The man who has nuanced, detailed plans for change running against a man who doesn't know that Czechoslovakia hasn't been a country for over a decade? A candidate who reads books and meets with some of the best minds in the country against one that simplistically made Phil Gramm his top economic advisor in a time of economic crisis? A candidate that understands the technology revolution and its implications for rebuilding America running against one that has never operated a computer? Give me a break!
Being baffled didn't last long, since I have seen this before. When John Kennedy ran in 1960 all the Adlai Stevenson people could say was that the spoke beautifully but was a lazy senator and had no substance. Nixon people used to hang signs were ever Kennedy spoke saying "Action not Words." Kennedy was about a totally new era in American politics and the establishment didn't understand it, didn't feel apart of it and couldn't embrace it. Today, the beltway crowd knows the old politics of John McCain, they are comfortable with his bumbling around. They are hesitant to reach deep inside of themselves and understand something totally new.
Change is never easy. Those in power in either party have difficulties giving in to new ways and new times. Obama is an intelligent, substantive man surrounded by the best and the brightest who represent all that is best about America. We shouldn't expect the establishment in Washington or the media to embrace it. They simply will go for the comfort zone instead of reaching for a newer world.