Tuesday, October 14, 2008

"Detroit: The Quest Is The Thing"

Detroit turned out to be an extremely rewarding experience.  Unlike Camp Obama, this was an eclectic, dynamic, engaged group of people who weren't just talking about making a difference, but who showed up with game faces on.  As a result, the team bonded very quickly.  Watching the debate with them, packed into the GOTV (Get Out The Vote) Room with pizza and beer, was a bizarrely homey, comfortable experience with a group of people I had met only the day before, and a truly great time.  It was quite something to be exchanging knowing glances with people I had only just met...

In fact, in only a week our group began to have a real dynamic.   (Apologies to people from the team reading this who don't get mentioned here... I expect a full "Cast of Characters" missive later.)

Becky, our coordinator, had a seemingly bottomless well of energy that fueled everyone.  Jay brought a real efficiency to the program.   Deborah, Sylvia, Ananya, and Ron brought a real roll-up-your-sleeves sensibility. Miguel, Tali and Evelyn brought a distinct youthful edge to the group.  Jonathan was a real original.  While from Chicago, he featured an accent that was, at best guess, some cross between Cajun and Irish.  Jonathan had lived, in the last few years, everywhere from Mississippi to Seattle to Japan doing all sorts of work, some interesting, some less so, and he was a delightfully stimulating combination of well read and well traveled, intellectual and eccentric, affable and acerbic.  Romanian-born Cosmin brought a sense of calm and focus.   Max brought a bit of a true activist orientation.  And then there was Reggie, a Teamster, a longtime union organizer, someone who is like a platoon sergeant in a war... the guy you want in your foxhole.

On Thursday night we went to Greektown for dinner, and ended up having a fascinating conversation until well after midnight.  The conversation was started by Reggie, who wanted to know what the plan was for this amazing grassroots organization after we (Insh'allah) win this thing... does our carriage turn into a pumpkin on November 5th?  How do the people who have mobilized each other to do this amazing thing stay mobilized to do the work we all know needs to be done?

Now, Reggie and I had been butting heads all week, intellectually.  Reggie comes from the trenches, he's been hardened in battle.  As a result, he sees all politics as a struggle between powerful forces operating in the shadows, and every battle we are forced to fight is part of someone's master plan.  I, on the other hand, come at it from a more academic and less cynical (Reggie would say more naive) direction.  Maybe not full-on idealism, but certainly still with a belief in the possible.  And on some level, Reggie must have believed it, too, because he was here.

Jonathan was in on this conversation, as were Cosmin, Miguel and Becky.  But what I began to see was that the creative friction between Reggie and myself had become one of the driving dynamics within the group.  Reggie was of the belief, in keeping with his world view, that Barack Obama had to have a plan to keep us mobilized to do the work of the country.  I was of the opinion, because of my world view, that we should not wait to be led.  Rather, we should control what we can control, and if among the thousands of people working on this campaign, if ten such discussions were happening around the country, that's how movements get started and that's how mountains are moved.  I believe it's possible to temper expectations but not temper aspirations.

And none of us at the table really knew what this should look like.  As yet I still don't, and I'm waiting for a few quiet moments to think on it.  But it was one of the most amazing, intellectually stimulating nights I have spent in a long time, and I doubt I'll ever forget the people around that table at the Parthenon restaurant into the wee hours that night.

I said something else at the table that night, too:  at some point last week, and I don't remember when it actually was, this stopped being about Barack Obama for me.  It started being about Reggie.  And Becky.  And Cosmin, Jonathan, Becky, Lael, Tali, Diane, Max....  Because at the end of the day, electing Barack Obama is still a means to an end:  to solve the problems that we have all come together to work to solve.  It was about us, and our work, and our country... indeed, our world.

When Obama would frequently say that this campaign was about us, not about him, I always considered it a mix of elusive philosophy and a bit of a platitude.  But around that table that night, I began to understand it in a way that maybe others in the campaign do and maybe they don't... and doubtful those who haven't joined us ever could.  It's not that it's about me.  Rather, it's about us and our work.   

And as a result, I began to think about what is possible (or necessary) beyond getting Barack Obama elected President of the United States.

I don't have that answer.  Maybe I never will.  But I was reminded of something that we all, at some point or another, tend to forget:  that it's about the quest... it's always about the journey.

In his monologue at the end of The American President, Michael Douglas, as President Andrew Shepard, said, "We have serious problems and we need serious people to solve them."

I was privileged to spend that first week with some serious people.

And at the end of the week, we were all walking around headquarters, taking pictures, celebrating the time we spent and realizing that in so little time, we were actually going to miss each other!  I was reminded of a scene from another movie, the slightly less inspiring Iron Eagle.  Jason Gedrick's father, a fighter pilot, had been shot down over a fictional middle eastern country, and Gedrick rallied his spunky group of military brat teenage friends to organize a two-plane rescue mission, flown by himself and Louis Gossett Jr.   The planning session was a joyful, festive time of comradeship... despite the fact that their friend's father was facing execution in a foreign land and their friend, himself, was not terribly likely to make it back alive.

While our stakes are not quite so dire (or at least not quite so immediately dire), we were still having a great time preparing to go out into the field and, well... do some pretty serious business!

Now, out in the field, we are all like replacement soldiers, our OD's still clean, coming in to relieve the bedraggled group of warriors who have been at this all year.  Overnight, I have gone from being the charter member of a club to almost a dilettante.  So I am now losing the daffy grin and once again getting back to business.

I'll let you know how that goes.

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