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Off To Cover The Obama Grassroots: I Was Not Going To Be Long

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The italicization is the last line of W.S. Merwin's poem "History," which is much about autumn and endings, about consciousness and its place in the universe, about the turnings of history and the inadequacy of language to capture them. And yet the first line, Only I never came back, perfectly describes the close of my seventeen months covering Election 2008 for OffTheBus. For the past week, after an unnerving experience driving the dark road between Roswell and Albuquerque and a subsequent mercifully-brief stint in the emergency room, I've been trying to decompress not only from that final adventure but from all the twists and turns of the campaign road. In one way or another, every reporter who like me has been committed to writing about this election--as if our very lives depended upon it--is experiencing dislocation. Where are we now? November 4 is a blow to sense of self, like a death in the family or another rite of passage. I thought that immersion in poetry might provide perspective. Instead Merwin has been freaking me out. I've burrowed among his collected works, and as every poem sings me into itself, W.S. Merwin has become a bourne from which no traveler returns. Other journalists beware. A bottle of Johnny Walker Blue might be a wiser choice.

As I sit down to compose this last piece for Off the Bus, the election is only days away. I know Barack Obama will do just fine. The only variable in my mind is whether he will garner over 50% of the popular vote--the same unknown that David Frum, Mickey Edwards and other conservatives debated with such intelligence and resignation in a panel discussion at the Republican National Convention. The assumption behind the Frum discussion was that John McCain was never going to win. By early September, the only puzzle piece still to be fitted into place was exactly how, in concrete terms, Obama on the other hand would close. The beginning of the financial meltdown two weeks later provided the answer. Barack Obama has been providing details and specifics in response to our national money troubles ever since the Ohio primary. Admittedly, Hillary Clinton set the pace and agenda on that topic in Ohio; but from March forward, day after day, in rallies and town hall meetings and those roundtables the campaign loved so much, Obama has been talking economics. Sometimes I wondered if Obama and his advisors felt like bashing their heads against some hotel wall, because the media seldom gave Obama credit for this dodged effort. He needs to address the economy. He isn't giving voters detailed answers. No one seemed to be listening. But all that preparation paid off. Here, seemingly suddenly, was a candidate in the right place at the right time. Likely, as with many aspirants to the presidency, Obama dreamed more of shaping America's place in the world than shoring up citizens' mortgages. But as September turned to October, he was comfortable talking about the economy. As some experts have suggested, Obama may not have the right answers (yet), but his has been "the steady hand on the tiller" for which John McCain has been calling.

A month ago, therefore, I knew how Barack Obama would persuade enough undecided voters so that he could prevail. At last, I had the omega bit of answer to the question that drove me from June 14, 2007, the day that I joined fledgling OffTheBus. Strange as it may seem--and indeed I can't completely explain it--I knew, as much as any mortal can know anything, that the junior senator from Illinois was going to be the next president of the United States. I knew this on June 4, 2007 when I clicked on a link in my daily email from sojo.net (Sojourners magazine) to a speech on the subject of faith and politics that Obama had given in June 2006 at the Sojourners "Call to Renewal: Building a Covenant for a New America" conference. "I think we make a mistake when we fail to acknowledge the power of faith in the lives of the American people, and join a serious debate about how to reconcile faith with our modern, pluralistic democracy," Obama said. I could hardly believe that even a June later I was reading these words. As Obama California field director Brent Messenger (latest assignment: New Mexico) later told me, in describing his reaction to the Senator's 2004 Convention speech, "It just broke me down." That was my reaction to the Sojourners remarks. Here was a Democratic politician decrying "the mutual suspicion that sometimes exists between religious America and secular America" and respecting his fellow citizens who "are looking for a deeper, fuller conversation about religion in this country." Here was the leader whom many voters had been looking for, a reconciler and a unifier, a person who appreciates different points of view. People were fed up with partisanship and intolerance and "mutual suspicion." I knew that fellow Americans, if not for the precise reason I was struck, would be attracted to Barack Obama's candidacy for related reasons, in a long linked chain of connection. I knew this because, to the horror of my husband and daughters, I have grown chatty in my middle years and love nothing better than sharing a few minutes with strangers in lines at the airport, post office, grocery and Wal-Mart.

Therefore, in a universe parallel to that of the Obama Campaign, I was also a person in the right place at the right time when OffTheBus came a-calling. How would Senator Obama get from where he was in June 2007, when my African-American neighbors in Oakland, California couldn't care less about him, to the threshold of the presidency? It was going to be the great election story of my lifetime--and I'm old enough to remember watching Kennedy and Nixon debate on the black-and-white box in my parents' den as our family ate Swanson's frozen turkey dinners on TV trays, and I still remember knowing instantly that the immediate future somehow belonged to Kennedy. I've pursued Election 2008 with a ferocity that sometimes surprised me; no matter the circumstances, there hasn't been a day when it hasn't been an honor and a privilege to write about the election for Off the Bus.

Certainly, the most surprising turn in the road was becoming part of the story I was trying to cover. It was a Pirandello-esque experience. Eventually, I will have more to write about what the press call Bittergate, as well as other incidents on the trail that, for various reasons, I chose not to disclose concurrent with the presidential race. Now is neither the time nor the season. Today, however, I can say--indeed swear--that following the election has been a humbling learning experience. Humorously, I envision leading citizen journalist training camps, as Marshall Ganz did at those Camp Obamas over the past two years, in preparation for Election 2012. By now, I've mastered as many stratagems to circumvent the press-controlling instincts of all the political campaigns as any graduate of Quantico. On a more serious note, I've learned the hard way that good journalism requires impartiality--at least as much as a mere human can muster. Since passion and intense curiosity are necessary as well, this balance is that green light at the end of the pier that all intent journalists are always working towards but never quite reach. In his poem "Berryman," W.S. Merwin recalls the older poet's mentoring: whether anything you wrote was any good/if you have to be sure don't write. Most of the time, reporters on the campaign trail don't have the time to fact check, much less ruminate. But it does seem that political reporting, particularly in the blogosphere, is ephemeral. We are words on a journey/not the inscriptions of settled people.

The corollary to Merwin's truth, however, is that beyond the next morning's encampment appears a new vista. And so there will be other compelling narratives: How wisely and for how long will the nation's Democratic leadership wield power? What new party will rise from the ashes of Republicanism? Where will Barack Obama lead us? All beckon, to be sure--but in my mind nothing likely will rival the days that our fellow Americans generously shared with me. Knoxville, Iowa and Reno, Nevada, Hayward, California and Victoria, Texas, Pennsylvania from Altoona to Scranton, Lenoir, North Carolina and Sturgis, South Dakota, Zanesville and Dayton, Ohio, Memphis and Minneapolis, Colorado and New Mexico--thank you for the hundred-and-one stories you've given me for Off the Bus. Some that have gone and arise only not to be here. In "A Given Day," Merwin describes coming home while remembering what has passed. And so I will be thinking (and writing) about all of you: Democrats and Republicans, supporters and inquirers, faithful readers and road warriors, editors and believers at The Huffington Post.