Morrison R. Waite
East Toledo, Ohio. We’re standing in the gymnasium of Morrison R. Waite high school. The building is 102 years old. Gothic comes to mind, or maybe Victorian. I’m not too in tune with architectural history, so I make a note that the building is made of stone, has some epic peaks and windows and, inside, a winding stairwell that reminds me of Dead Poets Society.
Bill Clinton is here, somewhere. It’s National Voter Registration Day, and the first presidential debate between Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Trump took place last night. You saw it, I saw it, and we can just leave it at that.
The crowd is diverse – Black, white, Latino, and Middle Eastern. High school students are packed into the running track lofted above the basketball court with the bird’s eye view. Everybody else stands on the court. Some Pharell song is on the speakers when I walk in. Then Stevie Wonder. A few young women just to my left are dancing. RB sends me a photo of the track list for that afternoons rally, all Black artists. I compare the musical selection to what I heard at the Pence event, and the only thought that comes to mind is: know your audience. The press has an area cordoned off from the rest of the crowd at the back of the room. The mood is festive.
ORDER OF OPERATIONS
No Prayer. No Pledge of Allegiance. At least, not yet.
A young man named Roger Kilgore III takes the stage. He speaks of the importance of registering to vote, and the importance of this election. His theme is that there are 42 days left before election day. 42 days. 42 days to register, knock on doors, spread the word. 42 days. “I’m here today not to spread fear or to scare you but to remind you what’s at stake,” he says. He is a graduate of Yale, where he played defensive back, and he is soon entering the Marine Corps. He is the first person to graduate college in his family, and he tells us that his mother cried when he told her that he joined the Corps. She cried because she envisioned a world where Trump was his Commander in Chief.
A man in a strong suit takes the stage. His name is Shabundahaleinake – at least, that’s what my notes say. He is a graduate of The Ohio State University. He speaks strongly and energetically. Great smile. Will probably make a great politician one day. This election is far too important to stay on the sidelines. He takes his phone out of his pocket and snaps a selfie in front of the crowd. Take your phones out. Text this number. That text will connect you to campaign events in your area. Call friends. Text friends. Get on Facebook. Like. Dial. Knock. Anything you can. He’s hammering the social media aspect of campaigning, getting the word out. Big finish. God bless. God bless.
The crowd is getting hyped.
Teresa Fedor, a self-described “Scrapper from East Toledo.” She’s a Veteran, a teacher, and a state representative. She understands what people are going through, she’s seeing more and more people at the bottom. Education is the key to moving up and moving out- attaining The American Dream. Whatever that is. Mrs. Fedor wants to tear walls down not build them up. She cuts on debt free college. She rips Mr. Trump on his “Sacrifices.” The crowd is getting excited.
A lady behind me shouts, “I know that’s right” and “Amen,” every time Mrs. Fedor drops a punch line. Feels like home.
When Mrs. Fedor is finished, the high school band plays the national anthem. Nobody steps on stage, and nobody is holding a microphone. The crowd fills the void. Everybody starts singing – loudly and slightly off key. If the Pence event felt like a Wednesday night sermon, then this event feels more like a high school pep rally, which, essentially, it is.
A tiny Latina, that barely breaks the plane of the podium, takes the stage. Her name is Julia Hernandez. She is an alumnus of Waite high. She’s a bit nervous, but that’s understandable — she’s 19 and introducing Bill Clinton, after all.
I bet it’s not the first time Bill Clinton has come after a… [too easy]
Ms. Hernandez does something that nobody else has done in the series of speeches and interviews I’ve been privy to in the past two weeks: she defines The American Dream. No small feat.
THE AMERICAN DREAM
Version one: a better life.
THE PURPLE GAZELLE
There is a break in the action after Ms. Hernandez is finished speaking. The school band plays a song by Prince, and then the speakers come back full blast. The anticipation in the room is building. A woman next to me asks me how tall Bill Clinton is – she’s worried about being able to see over the gentleman in front of her. I look in the gentleman’s direction and see that hanging tightly off the back of his head, like a hardened dingle berry, is a rat-tail. It’s bound tightly by a thrice-wound, green rubber band. The man is about 45 years old.
I tell her I think that Bill Clinton is five-foot-four. She laughs and says that she wouldn’t doubt it, “Hollywood actors are actually quite short.” After some quick cell phone research, we discover that Bill Clinton is six-foot-two. Her fears are calmed. She asks me if I’m from Toledo, and I tell her that, although originally from Michigan, I now live in San Francisco. She tells me that she loves California. Her son lives in Huntington Beach. She tells me that she must brag for a second, because she’s so proud of him. Mentions a business. A fancy house. “Two Million,” she says. I think about how much money I made last year and consider performing Hara-kiri.
Our conversation ends. I start scanning the crowd, looking for interesting people. My eyes wander towards the press pit. There’s a woman in a skin-tight purple dress. She’s a newscaster. My mind wanders.
I excuse myself from the circle of new friends and make my way over to the press pit. RB is taking photos at the far end of the pit and sees me approaching with a confused look. I shake him off with a tic. Standing at the railing, I see that the Purple Gazelle is a newscaster. She’s gorgeous. Brunette. Long hair. Not too much makeup. She stands there looking bored.
“Hi, I’m Phill,” I say. She snaps out of her delirium – a career’s worth of political events must be mind melting; I’ve only been doing it two weeks and I’m already suffering from a serious case of alcoholism. “Are you with channel seven?” she asks. “That depends,” I say, smiling. “On what?” she says. “If you’re hiring,” I tell her.
She laughs. And this, my friends, is how babies are made.
“I’m working on a collection of essays about the election,” I say. She squints, skeptically. It’s understandable. At first glance, I’ve got a look that says ‘janitorial services’ more than anything. “Really?” She asks. I shrug my shoulders. “Yes, really,” I glance down at her hand, “You must stay busy with work.” Something has caught her eye from across the room. “What makes you say that?” “No ring.” I smile.
“You’re interesting,” she says. “Not really,” I say, “just a bloated sense of self-importance. You?” “Me what?” “Do you think you’re more important than you are?” “What kind of question is that?” “A fair one,” I say, “After all, you’re the best dressed person in here.” She smiles. “Was that an insult disguised as a compliment?” “No.” I shake my head. “Just stating the obvious.”
She gives me a peculiar look, familiar, but peculiar nonetheless. I divert my attention from the Purple Gazelle for a second and take stock of the room. People are talking and laughing. The energy is high, almost electric. When I focus my attention back on the Purple Gazelle, she’s speaking with a newsman. He’s so clearly a newsman that I don’t need to describe him in the slightest, trust me. He whispers to my Purple Gazelle, and he’s got a look on his face that screams giant dick bag. I bet he insists on Valet and never tips. I bet his name is Chuck.
Chuck leaves. My Purple Gazelle turns back towards me and says, “My boss just told me that Bill’s running late. Motorcade something or other. It’s going to be another hour, hour and a half.”
The temperature has already been rising for the past 45 minutes. Another hour might be unbearable. “I can’t wait here,” I tell her, “I’m going for a drink. Nice talking to you.” She looks like she’s going to say something but doesn’t, so I turn around and head for the door. Most of the people I pass have their eyes glued to the front of the room, as if Slick Willy is waiting backstage. I nudge a few shoulders and make my way towards the exit.
I head towards the stairwell. It’s wrapped inside the walls of the building like a giant boa constrictor. As I hit the first stair, a set of high heels click across the tiles behind me and echo through the cavernous hallway. “Hey, wait up,” she says. “I know a place.”
I feel like I’m in a bad movie.
Four empty shot glasses line the center of our table. The tri-fold paper menus sit placidly in between the salt and peppershakers. Deceased lime wedges rest on a plate. Tequila. Her name is Lynda. With a Y. She talks fast – somewhere between auctioneer and coke habit. She destroyed a Reuben sandwich in the blink of an eye. She works out every morning at five. She’s been in news for eight years, on camera for six. We’ve been at the table for thirty minutes. I set the recorder on the table.
“It’s all reactionary,” she says, laughing. “I mean it, I really do. You’re looking at me with one of those ‘she can’t actually be saying that’ faces, but I’m telling you that it’s reactionary. We probably do two, maybe three investigative pieces a year.” She holds her hands up high. “That’s it.”
“Look,” she says, “the fact of the matter is that Huxley was right. Not Orwell.”
“You’re a fan of Huxley?” I say.
“Duh,” she says. She presses her thumbs into her temples.
“Have you read Neil Postman’s book?”
“No,” I say. “I must have missed that one.”
“Amusing Ourselves to Death,” she says. “A must read.”
“You want the short or the long version?”
“Honestly,” I say, “I want another beer.” She gives me a look of contempt. “Either is fine.”
“Okay, essentially, it posits that the modern consumer, through the consumption of television, can only lead a decontextualized life. Television, here, being our ultimate form of communication. So, we, us, me and you, and anybody else that grew up with a TV in their face, no longer have the ability to view the larger picture in any type of meaningful way, and, instead, and this is my favorite part here handsome so pay attention, we begin to simply view our lives as a series of arbitrary, distinct events, which are, if nothing else, entertaining, but lack any sort of connection to what came before or what comes after. To put it plainly, the events in our lives have become a series of TV shows, with an average running time of 22 minutes, eight minutes of commercials in between, and they are, in no way shape or form connected to any of the shows that come on before or after, in any meaningful way.”
I sit silently for a minute and take a slug of my beer. There’s a television in the far right corner of the bar. A commercial for Meow Mix is on the screen. The bartender fills a beer and hands it to an old man.
“What do you have some rare disease where you take four shots of tequila and get a fucking Ph.D.?”
“I’m smart,” she says. “Studied philosophy at Stanford.”
Love may just be thy name Lynda, I say to myself, with a Y.
“Please, continue,” I tell her.
“We no longer care what it is so long as it entertains. But even if it entertains and is informative, we can no longer truly place the information in the appropriate context. So everything is entertainment, the byproduct of which is that the rational mind no longer exists in any meaningful manner.”
“Essentially, we’re fucked.”
“You’re a real romantic, huh?” she says.
“You’re making fun of me?”
“Listen you started the conversation, you ordered the first round of shots, you forgot to put your tape recorder on the table for the first ten minutes, so don’t get sensitive when you discover that you aren’t as smart as me.”
She winks. My heart melts and flows down the channels of my chest into the pit of my stomach.
“The idea that we now consume media and seek to be entertained as the ultimate goal in life, or our ultimate purpose, was what Huxley posited as the cause that lead to the destruction of western civilization.”
“So even if the news is informative and honest and real, it doesn’t really matter.”
“Right, because most of us have already long lost the capacity to take in that information in any meaningful way, deconstruct it, add it to a more meaningful narrative and see the bigger picture. Essentially…”
“Completely. And with the 24-hour news cycle, there’s just noise, constant noise, and people watch and watch and watch, and they have trouble filtering out the great, all-encompassing noise of various forms of entertainment. So when they speak, they sound like, like a,” Lynda says, trailing off and then laughing. “What’s that talking bird?”
“No, not the fruit loop bird I mean the one that actually talks.”
Our shots arrive. It’s only noon.
“Yes yes. They’re just like little parrots.”
We knock back the shots. I have to take mine in two gulps. I almost vomit, again.
“I’m actually really quite happy that we’re having lunch together,” I tell her, “but this conversation is really getting me down. Want to get naked before we have to go back? The Beast is parked right around the corner.”
People start cheering and clapping. My eyes drift away from the newscaster and back towards the stage. Bill Clinton steps up to the podium.
And the crowd goes wild. He’s older than I remember him, but he still looks good. As he’s thanking local politicians and people, campaigners and volunteers, speakers and staffers, the first thought that I jot down in my notebook is, “That accent though.”
Like a cool breeze on a warm summer night, that Arkansas drawl has some serious power behind it. I’m pretty sure that within thirty seconds of firing off thanks into the crowd, a number of men and women in front of me start swaying back and forth, rhythmically, as if hypnotized by the cadence and twang of his silky smooth voice.
It being national voter registration day, Bill starts off with the importance of registering and voting early. I have a sneaking suspicion that everyone in attendance today is already registered to vote, but that’s just me.
Building bridges and not walls / That we should all move up together / Trade / Getting back to being a stakeholder country / Tax cuts for business that bring money home, create profit sharing, and do right by the people / The differences between deregulating small business and Wall St. / Infrastructure / Putting America to work / Immigration / Investment in our economy by building at home / Black Lives Matter / Hillary’s career focusing on children / Unions / The working class / Religious freedom / Reversing citizens united / Hillary’s performance in the first presidential debate
The theme of the day, without a doubt, was one of togetherness. “We are close to being able to grow together again,” he says. “Tear down the totem pole so we can all move up together.” “Answers not anger,” “Empowerment not resentment,” and “Bridges not walls.”
Overall the speech is incredibly positive. There are a couple of jibes towards the candidacy of Mr. Trump, specifically, a bit about Carrier Corp. and its decision to move a total of 2,100 manufacturing jobs to Mexico. [http://www.npr.org/2016/03/14/470418449/moving-air-conditioning-jobs-to-mexico-becomes-hot-campaign-issue]. Bill tells the crowd that the move was all about breaking a union, maximizing profits, and enriching the people at the upper echelons of the company. Nothing more.
The focus is on the little man. Giant corporations have gone rotten. Trade is important, but Joe and Jane factory worker cannot be pushed aside or forgotten. A strong economy means putting people to work, and the government needs to invest in our infrastructure. Bill says that Mrs. Clinton has a plan to do all of this and more.
The differences in tone between Bill Clinton’s speech and Mike Pence’s from a week ago are striking. The fear machine hasn’t been charged up, the hate boners are not erect, the war saber isn’t rattling, and the idea of Us vs. Them seems as far away from Morrison Waite High as the factory floor of Dubuque, Iowa.
There’s no doom and gloom here today, the message is one of positive outcomes. There is room for everybody under the tent. Everybody. Me and you. Him and Her. Them too. Those with money, those in control need to be checked. We can check them. The systems of prosperity are in place, but they just need to be tweaked. We can enable, regulate, grow, and overcome. All of us, together. We are on the right path.
While standing in that room, surrounded by all that hope and positivity and youth, I think of our money pit of a failed war – the perpetual war machine that burns holes in our pockets, binds us to foreign lands, and violates human rights, at home and abroad, when convenient – and our collective inability to truly come together as a nation.
War – the one that we’ve been in for the better part of 16 years – the multi-trillion dollar blunder that has destabilized an entire region of the world and ruined countless lives has been omitted from today’s speech. Any talk of an exit strategy has been absent from much of the campaigns, on either side. Peace just didn’t make the cut. Focus groups must have voted it down. Why this feels important to point out, I cannot say, but I think it has something to do with the bigger picture.