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Friday, February 22, 2013

Marco Rubio, Dry Mouth, and the Invisible Primary

            Returning to the real world after our trip to D.C. was rough but necessary. Everyone knows that unlike the inauguration, everyday events in D.C. are no fairytale. Life is messy no matter where you live.
            So I was back in my campus office at the end of the first week of the second term, when my friend/colleague Sally came knocking on my door.

            “I need to ask you something,” she said.
            I didn’t even look up, because Sally and I are always asking each other for things, and I didn’t notice the urgency in her voice right away.

            “What’s up?” I asked, still focussed on editing the PowerPoint for my afternoon lecture.
            “Do you remember Brad Nelson, my grad student in public policy?”

            I did remember him. Brad had been Sally’s TA for the last year, and he was working on his thesis partially under her advisement.
            “Of course. Why?”

            With her hands clenched together and hanging at her waist, she took a giant step towards me. “Will you be second reader for his thesis? I have to bow out.” Now I did look up, and her face was sort of pinched and red, like what she said was causing her pain.

            I paused, cautious and skeptical. “Isn’t the subject of his thesis subject really more your area of expertise than mine?”
            She shrugged her tense shoulders. “It could be yours too. His dissertation is on public opinion, policy development, and their effects on the American presidency.”

            “That’s pretty broad.” I looked at her, and she stood there, uncomfortable as a televised speaker desperate for a glass of water. I longed to put her out of her misery and give her a drop or two, but it wasn’t that easy.  Agreeing to be a second reader is a major time commitment, and I barely know Brad.
            I had to ask. “Why do you need to bow out?”

            She took a sharp inhale. “I can’t say.”
            I widened my eyes and gave her an incredulous look, and she hung her head. “I’m sorry, Lucy. I hate to put you in this position. I’d tell you if I could, but I can’t, so please… Say you’ll at least meet with him?”

            I tilted my head to the side and offered up half a smile. “Sure. I guess I can meet with him. But I’m not committing to anything more than that." Sally and I set up a time for the following week, and she said she’d let Brad know.
        That night as we were preparing for bed I told Monty about it. He reclined against his pillow, but spoke with conviction.

            “Are you crazy? You’re always complaining about how busy you are! And if Sally won’t even tell you why she’s stepping aside, I’d run the other way, as fast as possible.”
            “I know…” I sighed.  I was next to him, sitting up, and fighting the urge to collapse into sleep before I explained my case. “But Sally seemed, I don’t know, distressed. Like she wouldn’t be asking me if she didn’t absolutely have to. Besides, it’s hard to convince anyone to be your thesis advisor. I feel bad for this guy.”

            “But you barely know him. And doesn’t he already have an advisor?”
            “He needs two. Anyway, all I said is that I’d meet with him.”

            Monty stretched and rolled over, trying to find a good resting position. With his eyes closed, he said, “Well, be careful. Don’t get yourself into something you’ll regret.”
            I gave him a gentle kick with my socked foot. “Thanks, Bossy.”

            He opened his eyes and rolled towards me. “Hey. You asked.”
            “Umm, no. I don’t think I did.”

Why is it that men always equate talking about your day to asking for advice?  I said nothing more, gave him a kiss on the cheek, turned the lights out, and settled in for the night. But my mind wouldn’t slow down. Does campaigning ever really stop?
            It seems impossible to believe that the 2012 election was over a mere three months ago, because, for better or for worse, the 2016 election is already underway.  Maybe it’s not obvious to everyone, but the “invisible primary” began even as the last of the streamers were getting picked up and thrown out on the morning of November 7th.

            Things didn’t always happen this fast. But in the 1970s, post-Watergate, Congress had this idea that they could and should remove corruption from politics. This resulted in the FEC and then a Supreme Court case because James Buckley felt that his rights to expression and due process were being limited. The end result was that while candidates have to disclose who their donors are, and individual contributions are limited, the court decided to strike down all limitations on campaign expenses, donations by groups, and use of candidates' personal funds.
            So insiders have the advantage, because insiders can raise a lot more money than outsiders can. With primaries getting scheduled earlier and earlier in the year, a boat load of money is needed RIGHT AWAY in the actual primary season. Candidates know they have to win in Iowa or New Hampshire so they can gain momentum, and get the press and public on their side. If they don’t, their campaigns die a quick, quiet death, the likes of Tim Pawlenty and John Huntsman. Remember them? Yeah, I didn’t think so.

            Marco Rubio has been campaigning in this invisible primary, competing for the most early donations, the most good press, and the most talent to work on his campaign, so he can win the legitimate, visible primary early and definitively. It had been going pretty well. He’s seen as a moderate, sort of, because of his views on immigration, even though his views on everything else have the Tea Party asking him to their soirees. He’s young, he’s from Florida, he can possibly attract Latino voters, and he can even reference rap lyrics and compare Tupac to Biggie Small.
            The Republicans decided HE was the guy to deliver their response to Obama’s State of the Union address, and if you’re not aware of how it went, then you’ve been living in a cave without cable. Some pundits believe Rubio’s presidential aspirations are ruined, that his now infamous water bottle moment is buried in the same graveyard as Howard Dean’s “I Have a Scream” speech, Richard Nixon’s flop sweat during the 1960s debate against Kennedy, and the Bobby Jindal impersonation of 30 Rock’s Kenneth during his own Republican response to the State of the Union back in 2009.

            I’m no Rubio fan, but I’m not ready to discount him quite yet. Uncomfortable, awkward moments are bound to happen. The real test is how you handle the fall out. Rubio’s people handled it by selling “Rubio Water Bottles” for a donation of anything between $25 to $250 to his PAC. So far, they’ve raised over $125,000.
            It remains to be seen if this will be enough to make people forget. If it will be enough to make Rubio win. But it is possible to come back.

            So I remembered this the following week when Brad Nelson sat in my office and explained his thesis to me. Tall, broad, and bald, he took up the entire room even though he fit neatly into a chair. Still, the light seemed to bounce right off of him, and his energy and enthusiasm were nearly tangible enough to touch while he expounded up Bill Clinton and political triangulation.
            I tapped a pencil against my desk, trying to resist being drawn in. But I found myself responding to his zest.

            “Your topic sounds really interesting,” I said. “I just don’t know if I’m the right person to help you.”
            He leaned forward, elbows on knees. “You won’t have to do that much. Just be second reader for a semester, that’s all.”

            “You’re in the one year program?”
            He nodded his head fervently. “Nothing against academics, but I’m not looking to teach.” He smiled self-consciously. “You probably think I’m too old to pursue this, don’t you?”

            I laughed. “Not at all. I was in my thirties when I started back.”
            He raised one eyebrow. “How old are you now?”

            Then he raised both his eyebrows. “I would have guessed you at a decade younger.”
            I smiled. “You’re very kind.” Actually, he reminded me a little bit of myself ten years ago, but I wasn’t going to tell him that. My stomach fluttered as I asked my next question. “Can you tell me what happened with Sally as your second reader? She wouldn’t say. Is there anything I need to know?” Like, why this odd, awkward situation is even happening.

            His face went blank. “No,” he replied. There was no dry mouth, no beads of sweat creeping down his forehead, no desperate grasp for a drink of water. There was no awkwardness from him at all. But why? Or more to the point, why not?
            I kept my eyes focused on him, silently compelling him to keep talking. “She didn’t give me a reason,” he said. “She just said she couldn’t continue.”

            I nodded and looked down. A setback like this could cost him so much, but it shouldn't, not when he has so much to offer.

            “Let me see your schedule again,” I said. “Let’s see what we can figure out.”



Saturday, February 2, 2013

An Incomplete Journey

            Four years ago we elected our first black president. And after eight years of George Bush, we also elected a Democrat. Most of all, we trusted Obama, as if our country was a baby and we were leaving it with him, the most promising babysitter in the world, for the first time.

The result?  Well, he hasn’t yet taught this baby to walk and talk. After all, Afghanistan is crippling, Guantanamo renders it mute, and jobs and the economy, while still alive, fail to thrive. But…healthcare and the motor industry promise to expand learning opportunities, and Osama Bin Laden, the biggest bully in the world, will bother us no more. Sure, not everything is perfect, but what parent in their right mind can expect one babysitter to provide her child with everything it needs or desires? At some point, we need to take responsibility for ourselves and that which we hold most dear.

This is why Obama’s reelection is every bit as monumental as was his original placement into office. Bringing him back for another four years says something. It wasn’t a fluke that we hired him. We weren’t just trying to be politically correct after eight years with Bush. We chose Obama because of the promise he offers, and we continue to place our future in his hands.

So it was no small thing, getting to go to his inauguration. It has been a dream of mine to see a president inaugurated, and Monty made it happen. So there Monty and I were, celebrating four years of marriage and a future we believe in, and we were to spend a week, alone together, in our beautiful hotel room at the Four Seasons in DC.

 What did we do first? That’s easy. We fought.

A week prior to our trip I told Monty that I was unwilling to consider moving to New York so he could work for a law firm there. “Exhaust all the possibilities here in Seattle first,” I said. “Then we can talk about moving.”

He didn’t put up much of a fight. I found out why later on. Turns out he was saving his energy for a new round.

Two days before we left for DC he mentioned, casually, that he would be leaving for South Africa at the end of February, and he’d be there for two weeks to work with government officials and policy makers on the logistics of, among other things, the malaria vaccine.

“But you said you weren’t travelling there again. You promised.”

Monty shrugged his shoulders as he stood over the sink, rinsing off dinner plates. “I have to be able to do my job. And if I’m not allowed to look for a new one, then I’d better do the one I have right now well.”

I swallowed hard. Then Noah began to cry because he’d hit head against the coffee table, so I walked away to fetch him, leaving this battle for another time.

Then my parents got to town, and we were preparing to leave for a week, and there was no good time to talk about it, not until we had a moment alone.

The second the door to our hotel room swung shut I dropped my suitcase on the floor, and faced this man who, four years ago, promised me a life full of hope and change. Now, two children and a million little decisions made together later, I still only want to say yes to him, and it infuriates me when he puts me in a position where  I am forced to say no.

“I’m so angry at you.” I said.

He sighed in exasperation and went to open the curtains, flooding our room with light. There he stood, with his back to me looking out the window, and said nothing.

“Are you going to say anything?” I demanded.

He stayed still and silent. So I went over and pushed him. He lost his balance and stumbled in surprise, and in the process he was forced to look at me.

“Hey!” he said.

“I’m trying to talk to you.”

“About my work trip?”

“Yes,” I said.

“There’s nothing to talk about, Lucy. I’m going, and I have nothing more to say about it.”

“Well I do!” I replied.

Monty backed away, and sat on the edge of the bed. “Fine, then say it.” His mouth formed into a grim, tight little line and his eyes narrowed - not exactly the face of a receptive listener.

“You promised,” I said. “You promised you wouldn’t go back. And now you are.”

He raised his eyebrows in response and I felt like we were in a staring contest. I placed my hands on my hips and took a deep breath. I wasn’t about to give in easily on this one.

“Your health is at stake,” I continued. “It’s not like I’m being petty. I want to keep you around. What don’t you get about that?”

He silently continued his death stare into my eyes, but after a moment he broke. His shoulders sagged and he looked away, towards the artwork hanging on the opposite wall.

I went on. “And your reasoning, that you’re ‘not allowed’ to look for another job, is completely unfair. There are plenty of law firms in Seattle you could work for. Have you even looked into any of them?”

At first I thought he was going to continue with his silent treatment and not answer, but thankfully he dropped the sullen teenager routine. In a soft, controlled voice he said, “I don’t want another job. I want the one I have.”

“But we talked about it, and we agreed…”

“No!” Now Monty stood up and over me. “You talked, and I didn’t disagree. But the more I think about it, the more I am not okay with this ultimatum you gave. It’s unfair, and I refuse to be treated like a child.”

I took a step back. “Excuse me?”

“It’s South Africa, Luce. I won’t have to take the same sort of medication this time, and I’ll either be in Johannesburg or Pretoria for the entire trip. There’s no risk! And it would be nice if you’d trust me and respect that I’m an adult who can take care of himself.”

I had pushed him once already, and I wanted to push him again and again, until that superior look was erased from his face. But I believe reasonable discourse is the best way to solve problems, so I yelled at him instead. “Do you remember the state you came home in last time? Do you remember how sick you were? Because I sure as hell do! And while you were gone, every day, your mother is like ‘It’s unsafe. Tell him to come home!’ As if I could reach you! As if you’d care or listen to me even if I could! I knew there was no way you’d come home even if I begged you to, and I was right. Because now you’re going back. So if you think it was easy for me to make this demand, if you think I made it lightly, then you don’t know me at all!”

I ran my fingers through my hair and sniffed back the tears I had only just noticed were falling. Then I turned away and did something I’m not proud of.  I went into the bathroom, slammed the door and sat on the floor and wept.

Two or three minutes later he knocked, and entered without waiting for a response. He looked around. “Wow,” he said. “There’s a phone and a TV in here. Fancy.” Then he grabbed a tissue from the box on the counter, sat, and gave me the tissue to wipe my eyes.

“I’m sorry,” he said. His voice was supple and conciliatory, and it made me feel like we were friends again, even though I was holding tight to my anger.  “But if you had begged me, I would have come home. You never said anything. I didn’t even know what you were going through.”

“I don’t believe you.” I sniffed and blew my nose into the tissue.

“Lucy.” He said my name like it was a plea. He waited until I looked up and met his eyes before he continued. “Come on,” he whispered. “It is true, and I do know you, and you know me. I have to believe that. Because if it’s not true, then my whole life is a joke.”

He reached out a cautious hand, and placed it on top of my head. When I didn’t dart him away, he smiled a little and combed his fingers through my hair.

“Listen,” he said and scooted closer. “I’ll have cell phone reception the entire time. We can talk every day. And I promise, if you think for any reason that I need to come home, then I will. No questions asked.”

That wasn’t the end of the argument, but it was the beginning of the end of it. And don’t worry; we didn’t spend the entire trip fighting. Instead, we got this conflict out of the way first so we could kiss, make up, let go, and enjoy the rest of our alone time together.

On Monday night I put on my ball gown and I felt like I was finally going to prom. Except we went to the Ambassador’s Ball, where we held each other close and danced under dimmed chandelier lights. Monty also introduced me to the ambassadors and diplomats from several African nations. He’d worked with many of them at some point, even if was just over the telephone. Others had only heard of him. But standing there, witnessing these conversations, I began to understand why he can’t just give up on this job that he loves, and I was reminded that it was his passion for justice that made me fall in love with him in the first place.

That’s not to say I feel 100% okay about him going, or about how everything was resolved.

But I’ve gotten ahead of myself here.

On Monday morning we sat, bundled up with my hands in his pockets, and we witnessed Obama being sworn into office for the second time. At the end, on his way out, Obama turned and looked out at the crowd. People walked past him, yet he just stood, like a parent trying to stop time with his baby before some magical moment disappeared. And while I was too far away to hear, I guess he said “I’m not going to see this again.”

What sort of wisdom does it take, to remember to look back while you are compelled to move forward?  I wish I had that wisdom, and I wish I had the strength and the power to give myself, and those I hold dear, everything they need and desire. But there’s nothing to stop me from trying.


Photo from Bakersfield for Obama on