In the final week before the Texas Democratic primaries, Bill Clinton made an exhausting, whirlwind tour of the state on behalf of his wife, Hillary. Each and every day, he visited at least five small cities and towns across the state.
I remember when he came to Abilene. My e-mail notification of his visit arrived at five p.m. on the day before, which gave me no time to rearrange my schedule so that I could make the 100-mile drive for the event. At the time, as an Obama precinct captain, I was working day and night making phone calls and blogging and contacting other Democrats and so on, so I didn't see how I could manage the trip.
Turns out, I didn't have to. Clinton was scheduled to arrive at about seven p.m., I think, and supporters and the curious began to gather at the large community barn near the small airport two hours before that.
Also, all three local news networks had camera crews posted.
And Clinton was, as usual, notoriously late. As the hours passed, it began to rain, and a reluctant Secret Service permitted the people to enter the barn so they could at least remain dry while they waited, sitting on hay bales and standing around the perimeters of the building.
At least one local network, KTAB, the CBS affiliate, announced that it intended a live broadcast of the entire event. Most of their ten p.m. news broadcast came from the barn, where people still waited, on a Wednesday night. And even though most had children in schools and jobs to get to bright and early the next morning, very few left.
Finally, at eleven p.m. that night, after the crowd had been waiting five or six hours, Bill Clinton arrived. He clambored up into the back of a pick-up truck that had been decorated with flags, and spoke on behalf of Hillary in a hoarse voice for the better part of an hour. The speech was extemporaneous; he used no notes, nor did he need them, and if he seemed to ramble at times, the crowd didn't seem to mind.
Understand that Abilene, Texas is one of the most conservative cities in the entire country. It is home to three separate church-supported universities (Baptist, Methodist, and Church of Christ), and votes overwhelmingly Republican in most elections.
Molly Ivins once wrote of West Texas, "Gay people stay in the closet because they're afraid people will think they're Democrats."
But many of the (closeted) fans who had come to the event had long loved Bill Clinton, and many of them were Hillary supporters, but to pass the time, the longsuffering camera crew gamely interviewed a nice cross-section of the crowd, and just as many, it seems, had come out of respect for the presidency.
"Don't get much chance to see a real, live president," said one cowboy. "Thought it'd be worth the trip."
A plump, middle-aged woman said, "I'm a Republican, but he was President of the United States, and I thought my kids ought to see him." She added, "He gave a nice speech. It was worth the wait."
KTAB then did a rehash of Clinton's remarks, and the next day, local papers within a 200-mile radius had published front-page stories on the Clinton visit.
And Hillary beat Obama in this area by a resounding margin. (In my own county, some 100 miles from Abilene, 75% of the Democratic primary vote went for Hillary.) In fact, she won the state's primary vote-count, but Obama won the caucus.
(Yeah, we don't take anything for granted here in Texas. We do caucuses AND primaries, but you can't vote in the caucus unless you also voted in the primary. Please don't expect me to explain Texas, because if I try, we'll both get hopelessly confused.)
I'm telling you this little story in order to make a larger point: that Democrats need to stop all the "hand-wringing and bed-wetting," as Obama's campaign manager, David Plouffe, put it in a New York Times article, "Obama Plans Sharper Tone as Party Frets," by Adam Nagourney and Jeff Zeleny:
I live in solitude in West Texas ranching country, and my children are grown. My work as an author/blogger gives me the freedom to work from home, and the time to plow through half a dozen major newspapers a day, as well as numerous political blogs. I spend at least four hours a day doing this.
Reading. Listening. Watching all the new ads.
What this does is, it gives me a Big Picture attitude. By doing so much reading and Internet surfing on a seven-day a week basis, I'm able to follow general trends that I see taking shape in the political narrative overall.
The blogosphere especially, however, tends to grasp at whatever hot-news topic dominates a given day, and spew outrage on that. This outrage spills over into vitriolic e-mail forwards and other obsessing on the daily minutia of political campaigns.
Mostly, this past week or so, there has been a great deal of horror at John McCain's choice of Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate, combined with panic that Obama does not, in their view, appear to be fighting back hard enough to vicious McCain/Palin attacks.
Or, to read others--he IS fighting back, but that's NOT HIS JOB.
Or, to read others--he IS fighting back, but it makes him look WEAK.
Or, to read others--If he doesn't fight back, HE LOOKS WEAK!
Or, to read others--WE TOLD YOU TO NOMINATE HILLARY!
About Sarah Palin, viral e-mails and raging blogposts go out several times a day, consumed with the lastest revelation about her and her presumed barbarism.
Such as the fact that she not only encourages aerial hunting of wolves, but promises $150 in taxpayer money for every left front paw produced by hunters as evidence that they killed a wolf.
Animal lovers everywhere are horrified; even some hunters recoil.
(Out here in the West, where we've seen what a predatory animal can do to a baby lamb or calf, or house cat or pet dog, are not always as sentimental, but even we draw the line at aerial hunting. A more civilized solution in places like Yosemite, has been to tranquilize and relocate the animals who are encroaching on ranches and suburban areas. That said--I don't think there's much sheep-ranching or urban sprawl that goes on in Alaska. To Palin, this is just plain sport.)
So, what happens is, with each twisty new piece of the jigsaw puzzle, panicked Democrats launch into a fear-and-rage fueled tirade about how ugly this picture is going to be when it's all put together--Lady MacBeth wearing Tina Fey glasses, stalking the castle by night, looking for the sleeping Obama.
Meanwhile, thousands of Internet and op-ed voices pick and pluck over the perceived carcass of the Obama campaign like vultures waiting for roadkill to die already.
But boys and girls...ya gotta pull back, put away the microscope that focuses on each tiny thing, and look at the Big Picture.
One of the complaints I read today, by a liberal op-ed, was that Obama needs to go back to the big rallies that excited his base and cut out all these obscure stops at diners and factories and schools.
Whoever it was--I've forgotten now--said, "He's let the whole McCain-celebrity-meme get into his head."
It was a waste of time, they said, for him to concentrate on small venues.
Ahhhh, but whoever lodged that complaint did not see Bill Clinton take over media coverage for two straight days in the small-market area of Abilene, Texas...and Tyler, Texas, and San Marcos, Texas...and so many other small stops he made that last week before the primaries, standing alone in the back of a pickup truck, speaking from the heart to a few hundred souls.
The thing is, whenever Obama or Joe Biden speak at a small-town venue, they know that the local media will be all over the event. You have to understand that most small-town and small-city papers and local TV-news venues (outside of Iowa and New Hampshire) aren't used to big politicians coming to their little bergs and giving them one-on-one interviews. Most folks in those small towns don't get the opportunity to see famous people in such intimate settings.
It's exciting for them.
And when Obama or Biden makes such an appearance, they dominate the coverage and the commentary. There can be a dozen nasty McCain ads on TV, but they can't compete with this kind of personal communication.
Visit enough 200-mile media markets in enough swing states, grant enough interviews to small-town reporters, take enough questions from people worried about their jobs or their lack of health insurance or their kids in Iraq...and a new jigsaw puzzle begins to slowly be assembled in voters' minds.
This piece from Terre Haute, Indiana, and this piece in Santa Fe, new Mexico, and this piece in Raleigh, North Carolina--they all come together into a pattern, one pickup truck at a time, one vote at a time.
I understand that the McCain campaign is doing much the same; that's what politics is. But it has been a month since the so-called straight-talker has given any interviews to ANYBODY, and Sarah Palin is being kept tightly-wound in Saran Wrap.
Without her along, McCain can't even generate a crowd...and when she's alone, she says things like, "Perhaps"--going to war with Russia might happen because they invaded Georgia.
And people begin to lose count of all the wars McCain/Palin want to fight, when we can't even get extricated from the two we're in now.
Obama asks us, repeatedly, How stupid do they think we are?
When the McCain/Palin campaign runs outrageous, bodacious lies in ads, they may provoke panic among Democrats and sneering approval from Republicans, but the folks who sit on hay bales at the local community barn to hear Obama up close and personal are going to know bullshit when they see it.
At the same time, the superlative Obama ground operation has opened dozens of small campaign offices scattered all over various states--five or six for each large city, one each for small cities, way-stations for rural areas. Volunteers from each office-area are trained, given a list of names and phone numbers and addresses of voters in their own neighborhoods, and they are calling up their neighbors and saying, "My name is Jane Doe, and I live on Main and First. I'm volunteering for Barack Obama, and I wondered if we can count on your vote?"
Then, one on one, they can answer doubts and questions, and reach out to those same people who saw the local news broadcast of Obama talking to that nice waitress at the truckstop on I-10.
The waitress who, beaming, told the news-camera, "I wasn't sure before, but I'm voting for Obama now. It means a lot that he came in here."
Simultaneously, a massive voter-registration drive is in effect, nation-wide, that has so far signed up more than two million new voters, the vast majority of whom will vote for Obama. (Names, by the way, that are not included in those used by polling agencies.)
The Obama campaign has even set up a website, where you can register to vote. It takes less than five minutes:
Meanwhile, Obama IS fighting back, in an aggressive ad-buy in those same swing states, that, within hours, not only answers attacks as the untruths they are, but continues to hammer home his theme that Bush/McCain/Palin do NOT represent change, that they lack a true grasp on the problems facing our nation, and that all this flim-flammery coming from them is a con--deliberately designed to distract the American public from the fact that they have NO new ideas as to how to address those problems and would, in fact, simply apply Bush policies all over again.
And as far as the daily avalanche of Palin-stories, again, look at the Big Picture.
Rather than reacting viscerally to each new horrific revelation and fixating on that, keep in mind, as Obama does, that Sarah Palin is not running for president.
However, a man who impulsively selected her as his running mate after a single phone conversation and one hurried meeting months before, with virtually no vetting, has virtually sacrificed his country that he claims to put "first," on the altar of his own naked and blatant political ambition.
He would rather turn over the Oval Office, should something happen to him, to a haplessly unprepared and inexperienced political hack, than lose an election.
We've had a government run by political hacks for eight years, and what has that gotten us?
Sex, drugs, and rock n' roll between the Interior Dept. and the oil industry.
A Justice Dept. run by lawyers hired because they think Dubya is sexy rather than because they are qualified.
How, exactly, in a government like this, does Sarah Palin represent CHANGE?
Look at the Big Picture.
Don't fixate on the wolf's left paw. Sickening and disgusting though that is...it is irrelevant to the Big Picture. It is only one single piece of the jigsaw.
(And of course I'm not referring only to the wolf-hunting; I'm also talking about the whole daily soap opera coming from Alaska these days.)
Don't panic every time we pull a new puzzle piece out of the box. Don't freak out over every little daily poll or every attack ad or every news cycle.
Trust that, although we're putting the puzzle together blind--our candidate and his superb team have seen the whole picture.
He has seen it--not just one barn and one factory at a time--but the whole country, the whole strategy. He and his team know what they are doing. Give them some credit for getting this far.
(And if you're STILL worried...Don't forget. Yesterday Obama had lunch with Obi-Wan--er--I mean, Bill Clinton. They discussed the campaign at length, and Bill promised to help.)
The Bush/McCain/Palin campaign is doing everything it can to hide its own record and steal Obama's as their own.
Give it time.
The debates are coming up. The debates will present, not just single puzzle-pieces, but whole chunks of the puzzle. It will be very hard, in those settings, for the flim-flam man and his Vanna White to hold on to the pretense that they are anything other than what they are: a shiny new box with a pretty new picture...but once you put all the pieces together, it's the same old puzzle.