(NOTE on 8/26/09: I wrote this yesterday, mentioning Senator Kennedy's poor health. He died last night, a great loss for this country.)
August is supposed to be a slow news month, right? Yet it seems I've been reading more and more news of a more and more depressing variety. This morning it hit me, a chasmic (yeah, "chasmic", of or like a chasm, deal with it) difference between my general feeling about the country last year on August 25th, and those feelings today.
Last year, today was day one of the Democratic National Convention and I was, as I was supposed to be, full of Hope. Hillary Clinton had come around to support Obama and it felt as if a small snowball had begun to run down a very long, very snowy mountain. That snowball did indeed get bigger, picking up speed when McCain caved in and chose Sarah Palin as his running mate. The debates added more size and speed, until the careening mass hit the sharp upward slope of Election Day and shot into the air, a massive, flying juggernaut of Things Are About to Change.
Then it landed.
It was unavoidable, of course. In hindsight, inevitable. The financial crisis would have no doubt hobbled a McCain presidency with even greater force, as the base he would have been beholden to would have made spending money a guarantee of a single term. But even before the election, we knew we were in trouble. We knew tough times were upon many of us and breathing down the necks of the rest. We did have Hope, though. Maybe the Buddhists are right and Hope is a catalyst for suffering, because as the news of the last month drains it from my gut there is a feeling now that gloved doctors tend to describe as "discomfort." I expected this last year to be difficult, full of battles, but I wasn't afraid, I was confident. The country had a leader who was interested in leading, had a mandate and had the skills as a communicator to hold that mandate together and reassure those who would disagree.
What a difference a year makes. Had I arrived here from Mars in January, I would not believe President Obama was capable of making the speech on race Candidate Obama made.
Maybe I should have seen the writing on the wall on that first night of the Democratic Convention. The keynote speaker? Michelle Obama. Of course the convention should start with a layup. Michelle Obama is not only someone with a spectacular resume, but charismatic and fashionable as well. The vitality the Obama family brought to the White House is welcome and needed but how did Michelle Obama go from a Harvard-educated lawyer and University Administrator to a set of arms that are sleeved or bare? Does the White House have any control over this? No. Disappointing nonetheless.
Also speaking that night: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. A wave of voter anger spawned of reckless sloth and turpitude by sloppy incumbent Republicans washes across Congress and receding, leaves us Pelosi and Reid? Seriously? The rot-stinking carcasses of sharks replaced by those of jellyfish. These are not leaders, these are power players. Who knew what Nancy Pelosi stood for before she ascended? Who knows what she stands for now? Oh, Waxman, you glorious, ugly bastard, where art thou? And of the great Senator Kennedy who, feted that night, was already deathly ill...timing is everything. Health care is back on the agenda, the Democrats control congress...his time has come, but unfortunately, it seems as if his time has come. It is not as if there are no leaders in Congress, they just are not in charge.
Later that night, one year ago today: Randi Weingarten, at that time head of the United Federation of Teachers. If one could sit down with a police sketch artist and describe what is wrong with unions in this country, then describe what is wrong with the education system, then (work with me, people) take those two sketches and morph them together, I think you'd get Randi Weingarten, wearing, of course, a black watch cap. Sure, not all the features of each would be represented, but you'd get a pretty good idea. A preference for job protection over reason or fairness, the apparent view of her job as a political, rather than a service position, a steadfast resolve to keep teaching right were it was when we taught the Greatest Generation. All these positions have the power of massive, entrenched, systemic inertia. Progress, innovation, reevaluation? Her presence on the dais should have been a red flag that "Change" was for many at the convention just a word that looked good in that font.
Also on the stage that night, a host of Chicagoans the President should have been running from, not carrying along, a particularly clumsy oversight considering the object lesson of the previous administration's coattail riders.
So here we stand a year after that night. Victorious. Losing. Lost. The promise of our candidate drowning in the shortsighted cowardice of those in the party of our president, weighed down with inaction on the part of the White House. He seemed such a strong swimmer. Where is that dominating, Phelps-like Freestyle we saw in the campaign? The Survival Float is not going to cut it. Help is not on the way. A vigorous dog paddle would be refreshing to see. Hell, even flat out flailing.
We are losing to failed comics, drug addicts and a guy named Weiner.
The sun is out, it is not 95 degrees with 90 percent humidity today, and I have half a watermelon in the other room. There are plenty of things to be thankful for. Especially for me, especially this last week. And I do not begrudge the President his time on Martha's Vineyard, and hope it is as restorative for him as it was for me the summer I spent working there. But when he returns, I need him to take the reins. To lead. To get out in front, push those bullying larvae back into the cesspools what coughed them up and to stem the leak my confidence has sprung. There are three years of constant struggle ahead of him, ahead of all of us regardless of our politics. We all need him to let us know there will be two sides to this fight.