Looking for votes, finding America

Scared, angry and needing to act, I left California to volunteer for John Kerry in Pennsylvania. I changed some minds -- including my own.

By Jonathan Alford
Published October 7, 2004 7:14PM (EDT)

I do not consider myself a political animal. That is, I don't eat and breathe politics. I'm a professional pianist; my day job is as a postal worker. The gamesmanship and competitive fire of true politicos is not in my nature. But this is a time when politics has become so much a part of my daily life and consciousness that it is unavoidable. More than at any time in my life, I feel the weight of the historical moment and the truly terrifying possibility of a disastrous change in the nature of the American political experiment. We have reached the stage where a manipulated media, an arrogant and unscrupulous Republican Party, and a fearful and misinformed populace have created the specter of a strange new Teflon-coated fascism. Antiseptic in its glossiness and packaging. Politics wearing a lethal smile.

Scared, angry and feeling a desperate need to act, I decided to volunteer a week of my time in a swing state and called the Kerry campaign. Pennsylvania and Ohio were the two possibilities, but Pennsylvania seemed a little better organized. No offense to the Ohio organization -- this is based on nothing but a half dozen phone calls.

I am staying with a single mother, Lynn, and her two kids who have graciously let me have the extra bedroom. The 11-year-old son is a completely precocious political junkie. He grills me on California politics and pointedly tells me that he is taking the morning off from school today to go to an Edwards town hall meeting with his grandmother.

The office is busy, staffed with a blend of students and housewives and some paid staffers. People seem serious and intent. And even people coming into the office to pick up lawn signs and buttons seem to have a gravitas and intent that is striking. This is serious business. Door-to-door work mostly takes place on the weekends, so I have been put to work phoning seniors. Pittsburgh is a graying city and the senior vote is considered crucial. Undecided voters have been identified and my job is to call these folks and gently nudge them into the Democratic fold. I am given a script that gives some phone tips and some horrifying Bush facts (numbers of lost jobs in Pennsylvania, number of children who have lost health coverage, percentage increase in healthcare costs, etc.) and the Kerry response to these outrages.

I reach a few stalwart old working-class Dems -- "kick those bastards out of office" -- right at the start, but soon enough the typical responses to my questions become expressions of confusion and hopelessness. "I don't know who to believe -- I don't what to think -- something needs to change -- they always promise old people things but nothing ever happens -- my income hasn't changed in 12 years and everything keeps going up." One old woman says that her friend is being forced to sell the house she has lived in for 40 years because she can't pay her bills. She says it is happening all over and it just makes her sick.

What is touching about some of these undecided seniors is the responsibility they feel about collecting all the information before making a decision. "Well, Al and I are planning on watching the debate and reading some more and then we will probably make up our minds." Or "we just don't know enough." It is the older generation's inbred sense of the importance of a vote. It is a precious thing, to be cast with care and deliberation. Most of the seniors are leaning toward Kerry, but most are not excited by him. An interesting -- and depressing -- note is how many have been influenced by the scurrilous GOP attacks on Kerry's wartime service. One lady, a lifelong Democrat, said she couldn't vote for Kerry because Teresa wasn't ladylike enough. "Can you imagine telling that reporter to 'shove it'? My goodness." When I pointed out that the reporter had been dogging her for days and was personally abusive, she said simply, "I don't know about that but I just don't think she is a first lady." A slender reed on which to make a decision, but gratifying, I am sure, to Republican spinners.

Many are not really willing to engage at any length, but a few every hour will tell me personal details and allow little glimpses into their lives. These phone calls are no longer a pro forma political exercise; they are achingly poignant and compelling. Irma tells me her husband can't come to the phone as he has just gotten out of the hospital and is resting. She confides that she too had a stroke two years ago and they both are pretty much housebound. "I don't know what we are going to do. I thought that you were supposed to enjoy the older years -- you work your whole life for this?" It is a hard dance, to try to talk to Irma about the political dimensions of her life woes, convince her to vote for the man I want her to vote for, and still simply be a listener and a fellow human being. And that of course is the nub. Politics has been so dehumanized by image glorification and the pursuit of power that it has become impossible for many of these men and women to even imagine a world in which the personal and the political could ever intersect.

I spend the evening recruiting more volunteers for another phone bank. It's Chinese box time: Recruiting volunteers to recruit more volunteers. It's not so fun, but at least the digs are better. Instead of the close and humid headquarters we get a swanky lawyer's office in the Frick Building, courtesy of a liberal law firm. One of the partners is the volunteer coordinator. A trial lawyer still in his suit and tie, he is scared that Bush is out to gut his profession, removing one of the last legal constraints on a powerful corporacracy. He is still there calling when I leave at 9:30.

On Wednesday morning, along with a Kerry staffer named Pat and a volunteer named Sally, I go to a senior center where we give a brief talk. It is the morning bingo game, in the generic all-American church basement. Round tables, folding chairs, linoleum floor and 40 or so men and woman intently studying their cards. A man reads numbers into a microphone. We wait until the next "BINGO" and then are invited up. It is hard to talk over the machine that blows the balls around. The whooshing sound feeds into the microphone and rumbles around the room. Pat, the 22-year-old staffer, introduces himself. In long hair and jeans, he seems totally comfortable and the folks in the hall are attentive. I am introduced and simply say that I have come all the way from California because of the importance of Pennsylvania to the future of this country. I relate a few stories from the older people I had talked to the day before. Heads bob up and down, and one black lady in the back even gives me a "That's Rightttt."

Sally talks next. She's a middle-class woman from Mount Lebanon, an old Pittsburgh activist, more pugnacious than me. She's really hitting on Bush. I worry that she is assuming this is a Kerry crowd, but everyone keeps nodding. We hand out signs and buttons and absentee applications and ask for questions. These people are not just worried about their Social Security and drug costs. No, most are worried about their grandkids. So most of the questions are about the war. What will Kerry do? Are we stuck? Can we just leave? What are these kids dying for? We answer as best we can, but of course for many of these questions, there are no good answers. We thank them and walk out.

On the way back to headquarters, Pat says that he has spent more time registering students and 18- to 25-year-olds than any other group. He's been averaging 1,000 a week. And he points out that because most students only have cellphones they are below the radar of the pollsters. There could be a million, who knows, perhaps millions of students who may be the true deciding votes of this election -- and we won't know it until Election Day. I feel a little surge of optimism.

I make a few more calls before lunch. Elsa is 90 and undecided, although it says on the phone list that she is a registered Democrat. "Well, I don't really know. I don't like Bush, I know that." I ask her what she is concerned about. She hesitates and I tell her about my concerns about the war and that our young men and women are dying in a needless war. Elsa starts to cry. Her voice breaks up. "That's about it ... that's what gets to me. Oh my." She says she may need a ride to the polls and I make a note.

Wanda was born in the Ukraine. She came over when she was 13, in 1949. "I love this country so much. And what are they doing. When I see those pictures of the dogs and prisoners. All that ... I said, 'Is this America?' This is the greatest country -- everybody looked up to us. But now who wants to look up to America. Ach -- I love Ukraine but I will die here. Where is our respect?" I tell her that my grandparents came over from the Ukraine and she wants to know where. "Oh, Brody -- a lovely place." She wants to know my last name but for some reason I don't tell her my grandparents' name. They were Jewish and I fear an embarrassing silence on the end of the line.

Thursday. I wake up and find that my equanimity has vanished. I had a vision in the night of an America of cultural and religious bantustans, cut off from each other. Where the drift toward mutually polarizing populations is complete. Where no dialogue is possible, where each group is self-reinforcing and turned inward. It was a vision of a world completely at odds with my comforting experience of the day before. I struggle to reach the safe haven of the thought that human beings really want the same thing, that we are all the same under the skin. I remind myself that taking the long view, the historical view, what's happening today is that the worldview of the Middle Ages, represented by fundamentalism, is trying to maintain itself against the emerging worldview represented by nonlinear scientific models, a tolerant and nondogmatic spirituality and a sustainable, ecological enonomy. And I try to tell myself that the weight of history is behind the latter. Maybe -- but maybe not. I fear the best we may be able to hope for is some kind of fairly nasty divorce, leaving the country divided up into mutually hostile and uncomprehending camps. With your New Agers over here, your born-agains here and your scientific rationalists over here.

As if my dark mood had leaked into the day, I reach more undecideds and Bush supporters this morning. People seem irritated and annoyed. I even had a "go to hell." There are very few enthusiastic Kerry supporters.

I leave the office to speak at a senior center feeling gloomy. This one is in a black neighborhood. The folks are finishing their lunch when we arrive. Pork chops and mashed potatoes. Sally and I speak briefly. We hand out some signs. Everyone assures us they are registered. We're preaching to the choir. Two woman sitting together seem to be the most political and aware of the group and begin to talk. Cordelia is a big woman with big black glass frames and a short Afro. She has a presence.

"You all say that we need to get black folk to vote. But I will tell you something. Black folk don't vote because they don't think it makes a damn bit of difference. Let me tell you about our neighborhood here. This is a good neighborhood, a beautiful place to live and it going to hell. We have drugs and young people getting into trouble and problems all around and where are the police. You know kids come over from Mount Lebanon to buy their drugs here. White kids. Heroin, crack, whatever it is they are buying. And when black kids were being shot and the drugs were everywhere, did anybody worry. No. But now you have white kids shooting up and suddenly we got police all over here.

"Let me tell you something. Every problem that we have, you folks will get it sooner or later. No one pays attention to poor folk but when white people suddenly find their kids hooked on drugs then it becomes something we have to deal with. And you know where it all starts. It starts at the top. You don't think that the government doesn't knows about all these drugs or don't make money on it. Well, you know, I am tired of it."

Cordelia is more and more animated. Her fellow table mates are quiet; some are still knitting as she talks. "I get worked up about this stuff. I am so angry. My son even told a white kid buying drugs in front of his house to leave the neighorhood. We don't want you here. Stay out of our streets. Look at our young kids. I mean 16 and 17. They're nothing but kids. They got no jobs. You birth 'em and raise 'em and it break your heart to see 'em dying and so lost. You know I turned in my own son because of drugs. I am not saying that black shouldn't vote. Mae and I have been getting our neighbors registered. But if you don't have hope you don't vote. And it isn't like black people have any reason to think that things are getting better. Well look at me, I get $15,000 a year and I make a choice every week about what I am going to buy. Is it my medications or my food and bills, and you know I never have anything left over just to buy me something for myself. Black people have been burned too long."

Sally, my co-worker, says that you know things are bad when even she is getting worried about how she is going to survive in her retirement. Another woman asks us what is going to happen in 2007 when the Medicare rules change. "We don't understand what exactly is going to happen. I wonder if you can send somebody over here to explain it to us. I think all hell is going to break loose." When we leave I go over to Cordelia, who is sitting quietly. "I was going on a bit ... but I can't stop once I get started."

Sally and I are still feeling the energy from the room as we drive back to the office. Sally talks about organizing in the '60s and mentions how many times she has heard conspiracy theories over the years. "It is funny how many black people think that drugs are a conspiracy to tear down their communities. I think it makes it easier to accept if it is simply the work of the government rather than a complicated response to a whole range of complex social and political factors. And you know there is some truth to it. Look at Iran-Contra, or how involved the CIA has been with drugs over the years. No wonder black communities think the worst."

It is easy to be dismissive of undecided voters. Who are these people? How can anyone be undecided in such a glaringly obvious election? But that feels patronizing and simplistic. Most undecided voters seem to me to be victims of a political process that seems alien and unresponsive. You can blame personal ignorance but it seems more systemic than that. People who are not ideological or well informed are not patsies or dupes. They seem to be honestly confused. These people represent in some ways the core of any country's population. They're mostly concerned with the daily business of life. They're not vindictive or judgmental. They're prone to respect authority, and naturally conservative in an unforced way. This is the mind that to the ideologue seems stupid and backward but which in a funny way is really a bulwark against extremism in all its forms. By voting their gut, making decisions based on "well, I just like him," or simply by looking at public life through the parochial lens of their personal story, they stand up for the simplicity, the honesty, of mere experience. They are the demos -- the people -- in a democracy.

Back in the office, there's a buzz. Everyone is waiting impatiently for tonight's debate. There's a lot of apprehension about how Kerry will do. Will he be forceful and concise, or vague and long-winded? Will Bush play the fear card skillfully? Will he manage to appear presidential and decisive? The debate really does feel crucial, particularly because I know how many older voters have said to me that they are going to make their decision after watching the two candidates.

The debate party is at the home of my hostess, Lynn. Bush starts out seeming relatively articulate and in control, but then, to everyone's surprise, he degenerates before our eyes into petulance and incoherence. One woman even points out how Nixonian he becomes at the end: bent over the podium, the shoulders hunched, the mouth pursed in that famous Tricky-Dick, resentful pose. If you are a believer in the unconscious messages sent by posture and demeanor, then Bush is revealed as a man, oddly enough, who caves in under pressure. He looks smaller and smaller as he struggles to find his talking points and to fill his allotted time. Kerry, by contrast, becomes more forthright, looking into the camera, upright and controlled. People in the room watch intently for the first 45 minutes or so, but as Bush begins his disastrous slide, the jokes start coming. No one can resist feeling a little gleeful. The group consensus is that this is a man who should be the president of the local Elks Club. He would be great: Personable, simple and well able to handle the demands of the job, organizing dinners, roasts and the occasional charity drive. Our glee is tempered by the sobering fact that this mean-spirited, incompetent figure, shriveling like the great and powerful Oz, is in fact the most powerful man in the world, and that the debate will have consequences that will affect the entire world.

Kerry was actually the second choice for most people in the room. And everyone watching is evaluating Kerry not as a candidate, but as an actor. No one feels particularly inspired by Kerry's candidacy, but everyone is passionately concerned that he play his role well. We find ourselves at a strange moment in American political history. Most people have internalized the rules of the game; everyone is an expert in the gestures that denote "authority," "the common touch," "love of country," "excessive intellectuality" and so on. In this election, at least, no one even pretends that substance will win the day. Years ago, in his book "Mythologies," the French culture critic Roland Barthes wrote about the way that mass-culture consumer societies create and maintain images, gestures, discourses that act as the filters through which we perceive the world. It is the double gaze that all of us have to some degree. It is the world of spin. We have all become implicit spinners. No one likes it and no one knows how to stop it. We look simultaneously at content and predicted effect, at what actually happened and how it will play. If it doesn't play, it never happened. Conversely, even blatant lies, if they play, become true.

Watching Bush dissolve, I reflect that this phenomenon, abetted by a cowed and lazy press, has played into the hands of this administration to a fatal degree. The media, unable to confront the propagandistic web of distortions and lies the administration used to make its case for war in Iraq, falls back on simply evaluating its effectiveness. Abdicating their responsibility to find out the truth, they vanish into a never-never land whose apparent cynicism ("it's all spin anyway") conceals its moral and intellectual vacuity. They would still roll over for Bush in tonight's debate, if only he had told his lies crisply and with folksy assurance. Thank God he didn't.

By the end of the debate, two of the attendees, Karl and Lou, are pretty looped. After Bush had used the phrase "hard work" a couple of times, they decided to drink to it. Each subsequent time Bush uttered those immortal words the glasses had to be downed. Needless to say the liter bottle was polished off.

Judging from the phone calls on Friday, most of Pittsburgh's older voters were impressed with Kerry. After a week of calling and visiting senior centers I feel like I am getting an immediate hit on how people are responding day to day to unfolding events. It is my own personal poll. And the polls look good for Kerry.

On Tuesday, back in Oakland, I'm sorting out what I think. The old saw says that when you are suffering, find someone to help. Volunteering or any act of social engagement works the same magic. To act is a balm, a restorative, and simple contact, even that as minimal as mine, has been a powerful antidote to alienation. The sheer number of voices I have heard over the last few days has created a background hum in my awareness, a human melody. Just hearing the inflections of the voices, their hesitations, anger or sadness, even tears, is somehow deeply grounding. These are Americans; this is our country. And no matter what happens on Nov. 2, that's something I will remember.

Jonathan Alford

Jonathan Alford is a jazz pianist. He lives in Oakland, California

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