By Pam Linn


Parsing the politics of change

It’s so tempting to whine about the length of the presidential campaign, to wish for the swift and efficient electoral process of Britain or Australia. How easy it is to become bored with the marathon “debates,” rallies and TV spots. The carping. The rebuttals.

I’m so tempted to opt out, to switch channels to “Book Notes” or “M*A*S*H” reruns, to mute the McLaughlin Group yell fest (which I actually do) and take up my latest issue of The New Yorker.

Hendrik Hertzberg reports from Iowa “with the bell at last ringing . . . the Republican card has come down to the Maulin’ Mormon versus the Battlin’ Baptist. Would the Framers be pleased?” He doesn’t think so. “The deists, free-thinkers and assorted Protestants (plus two Catholics) who drafted the Constitution sternly forbade theological sucker punches,” he writes.

Finishing Hertzberg’s piece on Huckabee versus Romney and political expediency versus religious beliefs, I flip to John Updike’s short story, “Outage,” then glance up at the silent TV and see Charlie Rose introducing his evening panel of political experts. I might have left the mute button on: I mean David Brooks has been all over the tube and Adam Nagourney I don’t know very well. And how many ways can you parse “Change”? But wait. There’s Paul Begala. Haven’t seen him in years, though I understand he’s the guiding light of Hillary’s brain trust (Bill notwithstanding). Okay, I’m hooked again. Volume up.

Conservative columnist Brooks is analyzing what went on in Iowa with his usual bemused restraint. Huckabee’s rise from the depths of single digits to a surprise win, though outspent 20 to 1 by Romney, makes sense in rural Iowa, he says, but maybe not so much in New Hampshire. By the time anyone reads this, we’ll know more about that.

Begala just seems so happy to be there. He truly knows Hillary is the best candidate, regardless of a disappointing finish in the caucuses (followed by a rather unfocused speech after the results came in). He says he’s advised her to loosen up and rely more on her sense of humor, which Begala swears is quick and genuine. As when moderator Charles Gibson asked how she felt when told by a voter, “I just like Obama better.” She replied with a shy smile, “That hurt my feelings.” After a huge laugh from the audience, she said she’d carry on. Obama generously chimed in, “You’re likeable enough.”

About 40 minutes fly by with no shouting, Rose thanks the panel for joining from their remote locations, then introduces an interview with someone we’ve never seen. She is Lylah Holmes, a student of Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. An attractive, soft-spoken young woman of color, she answers Rose’s question about the terms African American versus black, saying she prefers black because it’s more inclusive, as so many Americans of color (like Obama) have no real ties to the African continent.

Holmes is producing a film for her master’s degree on the Barack Obama campaign. Without seeing a frame, I’d say it will earn an A-plus. At a time when change is the watchword and all candidates claim to be agents of change, even those who have the most experience in government, Obama seems to have sparked a solid movement for real change, particularly among young people, she says. She sees the excitement that drew record crowds to the caucuses. She recognizes the significance of a campaign in which a white woman and a black man are considered serious contenders.

After a description of what it’s like for a journalist to have an insider’s position in the race, Rose took kind of a long shot and asked Holmes how she felt about the whole thing. As she spoke, not as a journalist, but as a young black woman who probably never dreamed she’d see the day, her throat tightened a bit, she remained composed, but one could feel the tension, keenly aware of an emotional struggle. Rose, as always unafraid of silence, gave her the space she needed to express her appreciation of the change in her country that allowed for Obama to evolve as a leader to be taken seriously in a predominantly white state. It was an extraordinary moment. And she seemed privileged to be part of it.

I think we’re lucky that Holmes chose to major in journalism instead of law or political science. The whole business of reporting has suffered these past few years, from hotshots gaming the system (think Jayson and Judith) to government agencies rigging press conferences and reporters intimidated by corporate bosses and the most secretive administration at least since Nixon.

With 11 more months of candidates slinging mud, dropping out and pundits analyzing the process, we can be grateful for a few minutes of genuine feeling, gracefully expressed by someone who is not in the hunt but will surely be heard from again.

Thank you for that, Charlie Rose.