Photo: Les Todd
Two days before the Iowa caucuses, Dick Gephardt was waiting awkwardly offstage while Michael Bolton prepared for a rousing rendition of "Go the Distance" from Disney's Hercules. When the microphone stand broke, the union-heavy crowd yelled, "Made in China!" The omens were ominous, and the irony was rich.
I was watching a humbling and silly end to the career of a good and serious man. I was a Duke student a thousand miles from Durham. I was a Republican surrounded by Democrats. I was having the time of my life.
Back in October, I had asked my political-science professor for class credit to follow the Democratic presidential primary campaign from Iowa through Super Tuesday. As a lifelong political junkie, I knew that there was not a place in the world I'd rather be. After watching the campaign for a year on television, I wanted a front-row seat.
An independent study was born, and after eight weeks--13,000 miles, 400 interviews, seventy campaign events--I returned to Duke with indelible lessons learned about our candidates, our politics, our people.
The retail politics of presidential primaries are beautiful. General elections hide candidates behind choreographed conventions and multi-million-dollar media buys, but a primary campaign is an altogether different animal. I saw candidates campaign from diner to diner across a thousand miles of byways and back roads. From Cedar Rapids to Sioux City, from Merrimack to Manchester--in local libraries, Elks lodges, and bowling alleys--senators and governors became traveling salesmen, grateful for every ear and desperate for every vote.
I learned that a primary campaign is a grueling gauntlet, a great test for our candidates and a great service to America. As I watched John Kerry answer voters' questions over the flushing sound coming from the boys restroom of Maquoketa Middle School, I couldn't help but think, "What a wonderful way to pick a president!"
I also learned that my fellow travelers--the voters, volunteers, and activists at every rally--take their duty as citizens very, very seriously. There was Moriah-Melin Whoolilurie, who wore red, white, and blue plastic eyelashes and traveled to Iowa from California with twenty-five other Dennis Kucinich volunteers on a fifty-two-hour train ride. They called themselves the "Peace Train." She and her husband were on their honeymoon.
I met Glenn Dody at a Howard Dean "meetup" in Columbia, South Carolina. Over the past year, Dody had given the Dean campaign 1,200 volunteer hours and a sixth of his modest annual income in donations and expenses. "I fought the battle here, and I failed," said the devastated Dody. "I didn't know enough, didn't do enough."
Whoolilurie and Dody exemplified a spirit I saw everywhere, a faith in the power of small voices. In that spirit, citizens shivered at street corners on cold winter nights, each armed only with a yard sign and the courage to say, "This is who I am. This is where I stand. This is the candidate that I support."
I saw their candidates up close every day. Rarely did I agree with them. But, having seen them through times of triumph and defeat, I came to respect much about them.
I saw John Kerry at his best, in Iowa, with his back against the wall and his lifelong dream on the line. He fought against the front-running Howard Dean. He fought against past perceptions of himself. He fought fatigue and unions and a hard-charging John Edwards. And he won.
I came to admire Dennis Kucinich--not for his politics but for his compassion. Originally dismissing him as a "vanity candidate," I reconsidered after Kucinich and I visited a sleeping homeless man in a Cedar Rapids parking garage. The Congressman, who slept in cars as a boy in Cleveland, seemed to be suffering that night right along with the helpless and hopeless sleeping man. I will never forget the look of compassion on Kucinich's face as he knelt by a man whom most of his party and most of his country would rather ignore.
I enjoyed John Edwards' stump speech, an eloquent criticism of our nation's failures, strengthened by his passionate insistence on hope. The speech was so brilliant that even a lifelong Republican like me couldn't help but like the man. His optimism and energy made it fun to be in the same room.
When I joined Edwards' campaign plane for a day of traveling from New York to Minnesota to Ohio, I had doubts about the sincerity of Edwards' smiling image. By day's end, I found myself convinced. After fourteen straight hours of campaigning, Edwards joined our section of the plane and rejuvenated a tired press corps with the humor and energy of a candidate who was both younger and more likeable than his opponent.
Ten days later, on Super Tuesday, Edwards lost everywhere, marking an end to his campaign and an end to my project. I drove my well-traveled red Volvo back to Duke, with memories of a political junkie's perfect adventure, and with high hopes for a ferocious fall campaign.
If this summer is any indication, the coming campaign will be a great fight over war and peace and jobs and trade and American values.
It will be a great debate. It will be so democratic. It will be fun. I just wish I could have kept my front-row seat.