February 2, 2008

"Running Free"

In sailing nomenclature, "running free" refers to the point of sail that occurs when the wind is blowing directly behind you. To really go fast in a small boat (less than 19 feet or so), you pull up the daggerboard all the way and ease the sheet so the sail is perpendicular to the bowsprit. If the waves are big enough and you're up for an unsteady but exhilarating ride, you can lie back on the stern and surf the crests. When you race, you do anything you can to pick up a knot of speed here, a knot there.

Before writing the third season of The West Wing, screenwriter Aaron Sorkin must have either sailed himself or picked up a manual. One of Sorkin's best side characters, Bruno Gianelli, offers a long metaphor on campaigning vs. racing sailboats. A smart skipper, he says, does anything he can to pick up a knot of boat speed--especially when it costs him nothing. If a piece of kelp is stuck to the hull, he orders a deckhand to grab a boat hook and pull it off by a continual windmill motion that doesn't increase drag. If Joe Deckhand is on the wrong side of the boat, he orders him to where he should be.

For my part, I think sailboat races are won and lost in the first leg. Once you're a couple boat lengths behind, you've gotta really pray for a gust to put you back in the race. I wonder if there aren't things the Edwards for President campaign could have done in the first leg to pick up some free knots. It's only natural to look back and speculate. A possible scenario:

-establish the Edwards poverty center in 1998

-run for governor of North Carolina instead of senator, win the 2000 election, put in place a signature poverty plan that reaps nationally recognized results from Blue Ridge to Kitty Hawk; oversee further economic explosion in the Research Triangle

-write a book Four Trials AND edit a collection of essays on anti-poverty public policy

-run for president as an anti-war Southern governor with a dynamite "son of a mill worker" story, "Two Americas" message, and universal health care plan in 2004

Someone I interviewed a while back said that when politicians walk across the state like Lawton Chiles or work with garbage men during "Work Days" like Bob Graham, it kinda makes you bulletproof politically. When your opponents start to beat the drum, "Liberal, Liberal, Liberal," the voting public remembers the time you shoveled manure, or walked 30 miles in the summer sun to talk to one person. As Bruno Gianelli might say, when you've picked up enough boat speed, it doesn't really matter how much kelp sticks to the hull. You're going so fast, a wave will knock that rascal right off. You're "running free."

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