|The LookOut columns |||What I Say|
By Frank Gruber
The campaign for president has been going now for somewhere between six months and forever, but I have tried not to let it consume me. It just didn't seem right, so far from the primaries, let alone the election.
But things are picking up, as are my obsessions/anxieties. With less than three months until California's presidential primary it's time to pay attention. Starting about six weeks ago I noticed that at dinners at friends' houses people were taking straw polls. In my crowd everyone is for either Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama or John Edwards -- and about evenly divided.
Last week I watched part of debate for the first time, the one on CNN from Las Vegas, and I've started to visit political junkie websites.
It's also time, maybe, with less than a year until the election, to start envisioning an end to the Bush years, when something positive in the world may happen again. Until George W. Bush is gone, everything is on hold.
Or at least I hope so -- he couldn't bomb Iran, could he?
President Bush, who reveled in a "mandate" after the 2004 election, has been a lame duck since spring 2005, when the oft-maligned and underestimated Democrats in Congress scuttled his plans to privatize Social Security.
On Saturday I had a thrill. By acting fast on an invitation from the California League of Conservation Voters, I snagged four tickets to a "Presidential Forum" the League and several other environmental organizations sponsored at the Wadsworth Theater on the V.A. grounds. The sponsors had invited all the presidential candidates, from both parties, to address the dual issues of global warming and energy.
As might be expected, only Democrats accepted the invitation -- Ms. Clinton, Mr. Edwards, and Dennis Kucinich. The format of the forum allowed each candidate to speak in some depth; they each had ten minutes to give a speech, and then answered questions posed by three panelists for another 20 minutes.
As I said, attending the forum was a thrill. Because of our primary used to be late, in June, and because in recent elections California has not been a swing state, Californians don't get to see and hear presidential candidates often in the flesh. If memory serves, the last presidential candidate I saw give a speech in person was Hubert Humphrey at a big rally in Philadelphia in 1968.
The four of us were my wife and me, both baby boomers, my father, who is 86 and who looked to me to be the oldest person in the audience, and my son, who turns 18 next month and will be voting for the first time in February. This generational spread felt very good.
Before I discuss the forum, a word of warning. As my family and friends remind me often, I am notoriously bad at predicting anything having to do with national politics. So read on at your peril -- but then I'm probably no worse at this than your average national columnist.
Dennis Kucinich spoke first, and all four of us were disappointed. Now I know why Kucinich is not taken seriously, and it's not his left-wing views. Indeed, having heard his well-placed radical zingers in debates, I expected that given half an hour he might have something profound to say about the world's future.
Instead, it was all about him. He could barely keep on topic, and instead of ideas, his "program" was "vote for me because I'm the most virtuous." Speaking for the once and future greatest generations, my father called him a "fool" and my son called him an "idiot." "Blowhard" was the word that came to my mind.
Hillary Clinton, the next speaker, was exactly the opposite. Instead of talking up the purity of her credentials, she challenged the green-minded audience by telling them that they should vote for her because she could make the practical compromises that would be necessary to pass the legislation that would begin to solve and then ultimately solve the climate crisis.
It goes without saying that Ms. Clinton was completely in command of the facts, but it was surprising to me to see how purposefully cool she was. She seemed to avoid big applause lines in her speech, and when questioned by the panelists, she addressed them conversationally, rather than speak to the crowd (as Mr. Kucinich had done, and as Mr. Edwards would do.) Ms. Clinton reminded me of the no-nonsense Midwesterners I knew when I went to college in Chicago; her flat Illinois vowels reminded me of my college advisor, who similarly dispensed common sense.
Her cool approach and pragmatism paid off; she received a big standing ovation when she walked off the stage -- a bigger ovation than the one that greeted her.
John Edwards was excellent in yet a different way. He also appeared to have command over the facts, but rhetorically he flew higher. To him, the key to solving the twin problems of climate change and oil and coal dependency was not the ability to make deals among competing interest groups that would move the agenda forward, but to go beyond the Beltway to enlist the moral fiber of Americans.
He several times called for more "backbone" to make the tough decisions, but he believed that Americans were ready to make sacrifices to secure the future, much as prior generations had done, for the benefit of both America and the world.
The contrast with Mr. Kucinich was telling; instead of asking for votes based on his virtue, Mr. Edwards asked for our votes based on ours.
All four of us left the forum excited. To put my cards on the table, I have been a supporter of Barack Obama ever since I read his two books last year. To my mind, he falls somewhere between Ms. Clinton's cool calculation and Mr. Edwards' moral fervor. I also like Mr. Obama because, as a chronicler of local politics, I believe that eight years in the Illinois legislature is more valuable experience than eight years in Washington.
But hearing Ms. Clinton and Mr. Edwards only fortifies my belief in the extraordinary quality of the field of Democratic candidates this year. To Clinton, Edwards and Obama add Richardson, Biden and Dodd, and you have perhaps the six best candidates for President from either party in a generation. Don't listen to anyone who says you have to hold your nose and vote, or accept the least bad choice.The end is in sight; the new beginning is almost visible.
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