Political campaigns are at once noble and naïve. On one level they are not akin to anything so much as, perhaps, a revolution, albeit one that requires only a temporary commitment. A great deal of personal sacrifice goes into an attempt to bring power to a smiling, old-but-not-too-old schmuck in a blue suit who may just screw up even worse than the one he replaces…and yet there are times when it would seem criminal not to take that risk. So, part-time Bolshevik that I am, I packed up this summer for the great state of Oregon to participate in the overthrow of George W. the Terrible.
My first impression of what the campaign would be like came when I touched down in Portland and began my search for representatives of the League of Conservation Voters, the environmental group I’d be working for. The official Kerry campaign was virtually non-existent in Oregon, and from the way Kerry’s message has been managed I had the impression that its managers would have trouble finding their own butts, much less the treasured swing voters I had come to grant sexual favors in exchange for votes…I mean, that I had come to “persuade.” So I signed up with LCV, one of the non-profit 527 organizations campaigning for the Democrats and often referred to by the Bush camp as “shadowy,” which as far as I can tell refers to the fact that some of them contain racial minorities. Anyway, the representatives of the campaign sent out to retrieve me were three very attractive college girls, whom I identified by the fact that one of them was busy informing a passer-by that Bush was trying to “take all her rights away as a woman.” Ah, I thought. A summer of accosting random strangers. Awesome. Little did I know that was exactly what I would be doing.
Of course, they ease you into that part. The first night was all organic pizza and getting-to-know your fellow campaigners. Glossing over the boring details, they were a motley crew of college and college-bound liberals with an average granola factor of about 8.2 on a scale of 10. I felt bad just eating meat on my pizza in front of them. When we returned to our living accommodations, a Doubletree Hotel, I was shown to a room with two beds and only one occupant: me. The next day I arose to begin my service as a loyal peon to John Kerry.
The duties of such a peon, known in our office as an “intern,” are simple: convince as many people as possible as quickly as possible to vote for Kerry. There is a long apprenticeship in doing this properly, lasting all of two hours spent following a more experienced canvasser around. “Canvassing,” of course, is a code word for “bugging people in their homes.” After those first two hours, you’re pretty much on your own. Fortunately you’ve been supplied with a script for your opening speech at the door, called a “rap,” and if things should get really hairy, a clipboard. The typical conversation with a voter at the door is complete and utter social chaos. To maintain your composure it’s necessary to adopt a sort of Orwellian doublethink, where you can at one time believe that you are changing this person’s political opinion while simultaneously recognizing that they would like nothing better than for you to shut up and go away. You must also remain smiling and persistent in the face of crying children, constant suspicion that you’re about to break into an Amway sales pitch, small yapping dogs attacking your ankles, and giant ferocious Hounds of the Baskervilles who follow you to the end of the neighborhood, growling menacingly, just because they can.
Of course, there were positive experiences at the door; they’re just not as interesting as the awkward ones. One man, upon my asking what issues he was most concerned about in politics, replied “Jobs. And cats.” He then paused for a good ten seconds, while the letters “WTF” flashed through my brain. Fortunately his wife chimed in, explaining that he meant big cats, like cougars, and was apparently concerned with their population control, bumping him up in my estimation from crazy to merely very weird. There were confrontations at the door as well, including the ever popular “Get off my propert-ay.” The worst of these types was the environment hater, the guy who grabbed Kerry’s platform out of an intern’s hand, threw it back in his face, and proceeded to scream for a good thirty seconds about how environmentalists did nothing but cost people jobs and that he hoped we all lost our jobs because of environmentalists. When he took the time to pause for breath the canvasser at the door replied not-so-calmly, “Yeah? Well I hope you get cancer and die!” In politics, that is what we refer to as “being on-message.” If that were all there were to the campaign, I don’t think there’s any way I would have lasted two months. Fortunately, however, there are some distractions, the main one being the people you work with. My days as a single occupant in my room were short-lived; I was soon moved into a room with a pair of roommates who could only have been put together by sitcom writers or the Princeton Housing Office. One was a flamboyantly gay Republican from Miami, Jon, who over the course of the summer asked me how he looked approximately 1000 times, severely testing my less-than-metrosexual fashion sense:
“What kind of look is this?”
I was occasionally tempted to ask what he thought of the t-shirt and cargo shorts combo I wore nearly every day for 8 weeks, but resisted the urge, preferring to bond instead over our loudly announced trips to McDonald’s which we took for no other reason than to piss off the more liberal members of the campaign. My other roommate was Drew, an indie-rock loving, perpetually smoking liberal from Mississippi with a strong southern drawl and a power of analogy beyond description. Dick Cheney debating John Edwards? “Dracula debating Han Solo.” John Kerry giving a speech? “Like a slow blowjob. Doesn’t get you all worked up at any one point, but it’s slow, and it’s steady, and eventually it gets the job done.”
For all-out memorable personality, though, no one could top Laurie, the 35-year-old woman from Rhode Island with the partially shaved head, the brand on her calf and the heaviest Rhode Island accent (if there is such a thing) known to man. Over her all-too-short stay we heard tell of her trip to Home Depot to remove a sensitively-located padlock piercing with a pair of bolt cutters and her brother and sister-in-law’s unique marital problems (“One day they’re talkin’ about having more kids, the next day it’s ‘Fuck you, I’m goin’ dyke!’”). She also brought up Kant and Plato at dinner one night, causing me to totally flip out. Perhaps her finest moment, though, and my favorite part of the entire summer, came on her first day, riding back from the airport with two interns too hung over to make conversation. Finally, Laurie leaned in and used a typical icebreaker: “So I got this adult store, you know, on the Internet. And they send me these products, and I try ‘em out, use ‘em a little, and then I write about ‘em.” Silence filled the car, but only briefly. Rather than the sensible response, which would have been, “Gah?” one of them managed to ask about her favorite product. That’s the kind of verbal agility you acquire as a canvasser.
Tragically, it eventually came time for me to leave this happy place called Portland. Though I had, under the influence of tequila, given serious thought to taking a semester off to work through the election, I knew I couldn’t take three more months of canvassing every day. It’s not unlike being a socially responsible I-banker, minus all that evil capitalist money. Obscene hours, intense pressure, hard drinking at night, it’s all there, just more organic. I needed some time off in the more manageable realm of JPs and meals that do not in some way involve Ramen noodles donated by former Howard Dean supporters. I miss it though. Here I can say “I’m going to McDonald’s” and nobody gets self-righteous or anything.