Democrats & Liberals Archives

Scorched Earth

I spent months in a train station in Little Rock. It seems now as if I lived there, a transient alien and paid campaign staffer 750 miles from home. It also seems so brief and sharp, the countless hours spent pounding out code and watching the polls and making great friends.

And nurturing an intense dislike of the competition.

The season was too short and my candidate too late. Under normal circustances - a longer primary season, a longer campaign for the candidate - the dislike would have been diluted, spread out like finite grains of salt in an ever-widening pool of water. But the time simply could not be stretched to dissipate the competitive storm in which I saw the faces of those other candidates in the months between October and February.

In the weeks after the end of the campaign, the technicolor fireworks of life in the cauldron quietly took on the pastels of real life. Or, perhaps, it's more accurate to say that the competitive fire found its rightful home - the anger and disappointment and passion that had driven me to Little Rock from the beginning. The competition was, after all, to decide which of my own party was best suited to run the country. The commitment to my candidate was so complete and so strong that I could believe he was the lone candidate capable of righting the insidious wrongs of the past four years. I was incapable of believing anything else. That belief provided the sense of higher purpose that fueled the sixteen-hour seven-day weeks, a blur of passion and productivity and pain.

The competitive bonfire that roared so brightly through the fall and winter months of late 2003 died away as spring broke in Iowa. Maybe it was a sense of quiet reason borne on a fresh breeze. Maybe it was the rising attention to life's small but persistent demands. Maybe it was as simple as a full and renewed appreciation for the company of my wife and daughter, so sorely missed in Little Rock. Maybe the reasons are irrelevant. The fire faded, but the embers that stoked the fire in October remained.

Yesterday, in July, I was finally liberated. I watched my email through the night, waiting to discover whether my internal sense of politics matched up with reality. It was, in its own way, a competition, though it more resembled a three-legged race than hand-to-hand combat. I realized, as midnight rolled into 1:00 am, that I was excited, anxious to evaluate the subtle undercurrent of whatever decision sparked across the wires from Washington, D.C. to Iowa City. And, peering at CNN over the rim of my morning espresso, I thought fleetingly about the times when, in closed company, I'd fallen victim to the childish belief that insulting the competition somehow elevated my candidate. It was a simple realization, not a revelation. As my former foe spoke of the strength and dedication of his new partner, also a former foe, I felt a sense of satisfaction in witnessing the announcement of the right decision. There was no question. His judgement and mine were in synch. I again felt plugged in, confident and bolstered throughout the day.

Late in the afternoon, I curled around the laptop searching for the perfect words to descibe the virtues of Linux and Apache. The summer sun rolled through the shades, casting striped shadows through the room. Another day working at home and at home in America. As I pounded and paused, the phrase forming, an ad broke the monotonous hum of MSNBC's ongoing coverage. The man on the screen was a close personal friend of the candidate, one of the few from the opposing party with the self-discipline and integrity to refrain from personal attacks. He'd been vanquished by the machine of his own party just four years before in a hideous attack, couched in the subtle half-truths of push polling. Yet, the clip found him extolling the strengths of his attacker, praising his vision and leadership. The message was clear. It didn't require the filters acquired in a lifetime of political backseat driving or four months in a presidential campaign.

I try, at times with great effort, to avoid contempt. It's a cloud that eclipses the sunlight of reason. I cherish reason. But I felt the serrated edge of contempt sliding lightly across my throat as the ad rolled through to its inevitable conclusion; the cocksure drawl of the man who'd approved the message. What would compel a figure of such respectability, impeccable character and strength of conviction to diverge from his course and participate in the quiet sliming of his friend? Even I, in deep disagreement with many of his policies, have respected his strength. Why would he risk the hit to the admiration he's afforded even across the gulf of party lines?

Was this, I wondered, the first light of the real scorched earth policy, the flash of shock and awe preceding a blast wave that kills everyone in its path? Is there a bigger role in the months ahead for a decorated veteran, heroic POW and respected legislator? The rising contempt slipped away, replaced by rising concern and troubling questions. There is, after all, an increasing groan in the second in command. The weight of his counsel, some would argue, has diverted recognition of the vision of his counselee. Is this the first indication that his "health is failing", or that he intends "to spend more time with his family"? Will he graciously step aside, accepting the requisite praise for years of public service, to make room for the man his party so deftly slandered just four short years ago?

If so, I've truly misjudged the character of the man in the ad. But his entrance might truly scorch the political landscape. It might simply bury the men whom I'd only yesterday finally come to see as allies.

I grabbed the water bottle and stepped outside. A breath of fresh air would stoke the rising embers a long way from Little Rock.

Posted by Tony Steidler-Dennison at July 7, 2004 1:21 AM