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."

February 1, 2008

Looking Up to Government

I was watching the last season of The West Wing the other day with a friend and we struck up a conversation over the camera angles on President Bartlet. In the Sorkin seasons and after, it's a common technique to end the entire episode or a scene with the camera looking up at his face--to give the impression of grandeur I guess. Like in Citizen Kane.

Folks always say the White House was built to intimidate and humble foreign leaders. But so can state houses.

I'm partial to the Maryland Capitol in Annapolis, but I give the Florida seat of government high marks--especially for the upward sloping path to it on Apalachee Parkway. The Old Capitol is built on Tallahassee's highest Appalachian foothills, and especially in evening when the sun sets, driving up Apalachee to the very top makes you think about government--even if you're on the way to the grocery store.

January 30, 2008

"Croaker Sack"

After a short search, I discovered the meaning of the "croaker sacks" used by Florida cracker pioneers to protect their horses from mosquitoes at night. They're burlap bags, actually. Simple enough.

Johnny Sunshine State

Obviously, Edwards lost Florida the other night, but I got a kick out of looking at CNN's listing of the county-by-county results. Florida's most conservative, Dixiecrat districts gave the son of the South strong numbers. As the last returns were reported, I noticed Gilchrist, Columbia, Holmes, Taylor, Dixie--all favoring Edwards. I wonder if those folks will vote Democrat in the general election.


One of the most common things the reporters on The West Wing request is "tick-tock." I don't recall the name of the episode but the point is that they want the minute by minute skinny on what the president was doing when, and why. They want to know when he got and picked up the phone to call Prime Minister X, how long it took to write the State of the Union, or when the decision was made by a presidential candidate to drop out of the race.

The thing I struggle with is when and how to use tick-tock in political writing. Common sense says you pick what is "relevant" and "important" and skim the fat. But the truth is that when you've finished your six paragraphs on Election Night, you never really know until a couple days later when you look at it again and say, "That's it," or, "Wow, this is boring. It needs help."

January 29, 2008

Gone Turkey Hunting

Good quick article on the ridiculous tax proposals in state budgets around the country. One man's sound, politically savvy tax write-off or fee is another's "turkey," in the parlance of Florida politics.

January 28, 2008

"Everyone Wants to Walk with the King"

It strikes me that in the media's conversations about Obama, the charisma, cult of personality factor aways comes up. We'll probably be debating for centuries the difference between "personality" and "issues", between substance and fluff.

It reminds me of two things.

One is what Richard Neustadt says in Presidential Power and the Modern Presidents. I read the book in sophomore year of college I think, and I recall what most people do--the famous phrase that presidential power is the "power to persuade." In my most recent interview for this book, the lobbyist spoke often about Chiles' force of personality. Even after 1996, when Republicans ruled the legislature, no one could railroad Governor Chiles. He had too many friends.

The second is a memory from a campaign I worked on. The gubernatorial candidate, the challenger in a race against a one-term incumbent, had arrived at an event and a big crowd had gathered--much bigger than expected. People who had never showed up for phone banks, canvassing, or just hanging out at headquarters suddenly appeared. I mentioned this to a friend standing to me and my friend replied curtly, "Everyone wants to walk with the king."

At the governor level and the presidential level, the chief executive is unquestionably the head of state, too. It will be interesting to see, as Obama progress, how many of the ten thousand who cheered him on at American University today will stay and work--because they've been persuaded--and how many just want to "walk with the king."

January 27, 2008

Son of Seneca: John Edwards

In last night's South Carolina Democratic Primary, Edwards won one county squarely--Oconee County. He was born in Seneca, the main town in Oconee County.

Of all the "bellwether" districts to watch on Election Night, hometown counties are the most interesting to watch to me, especially if the candidate has deep roots. In Edwards' case, he features his Seneca-to-the-U.S. Senate story in his recent book, Home: The Blueprint of Our Lives. While he has moved rhetorically beyond the "son of a millworker" story, he often brings his parents with him on the campaign trail and the Edwards for President website includes photos of his childhood home in The Palmetto State. He has mentioned Bruce Springsteen's "My Hometown" as one of his favorite songs.

Pundits have described his defeat in South Carolina as a setback for his populist, rags-to-riches biography and his poverty-fighting cause. It's easy to dismiss Oconee as the "hometown crowd."

But I think looking back at Lawton Chiles' defeat in Polk County in his 1994 gubernatorial re-election campaign lends dignity to Edwards' situation. Governor Chiles lost his home county for the first time in 1994. The newcomers to Lakeland, Winter Haven, and Auburndale might not have remembered his days in the state legislature, but after 36 years in public service, they surely knew his name. The straw poll in Lakeland, organized by the town Chamber of Commerce, put Imperial Polk on the mainstream media bandstand. And losing the straw poll and then the entire county in November affected Chiles.

I think we must imagine Edwards happy. In his hometown are friends and family who lost their jobs when the textile mills closed, comforted him after Wade's death, helped open "Edwards for U.S. Senate" offices next door in North Carolina, knocked on doors for him in 2004, comforted him when Elizabeth found cancer, and knocked on doors for him yesterday. I doubt things have changed much in Seneca. It's far away from I-95 and Myrtle Beach. Its best economic days are behind it, and that's the source of his fame. But Edwards knows where he came from, and so does Oconee County.