Ready or not, the 2012 American presidential race has begun.
In the next 18 months, you’ll hear thoughtful proposals, outrageous reactions, and predictions of catastrophe or paradise. There will be gaffes, sound bites, endorsements, and breathless reports noting shifts in public opinion. Hundreds of millions of dollars will be spent to woo and mobilize enough votes to win a job that pays $400,000 a year – not shabby pay but chump change for a smart lawyer or investment banker.
Sure, the office has cool perks (Air Force One, Camp David, a platoon of White House chefs), but there’s little privacy, unimaginable criticism, and the subsequent need for lifetime Secret Service protection. Who would want the aggravation? John Adams called the job “the four most miserable years of my life.” Less grumpily, Thomas Jefferson termed it “splendid misery.”
Crafting important legislation, manning the situation room, and hammering out peace treaties is truly important work that requires intelligence, poise, and character. God bless the person who does this. There may be some ego involved. Maybe a lot. But no one is in it for the money. She or he wants to lead, to think intelligently, to solve problems and protect values.
Political reporters like the Monitor's Linda Feldmann know this territory. This will be the fifth campaign she covers. That means long rides on buses, endless rounds of rallies, stump speeches, and town-hall meetings. She’s familiar with truth squads, attack ads, and damage control. You might think she’d be cynical by now. You’d be wrong.
“I have to say, I loved going to New Hampshire,” she says. “As jaded as we as a nation seem to have become, the fact that folks are still willing to go and hear these candidates out, in person – even the long shots – tells me we haven’t completely given up hope.”
The world has changed dramatically in the 15 years since she’s been on this beat. Booms have busted. Wars have come and gone. Linda has witnessed extraordinary history: an election decided by the Supreme Court, the improbable victory of America’s first African-American president, dizzying power shifts in Congress.
And yet, she says, “in a fundamental way, voters are the same.... There’s nothing like shaking a candidate’s hand, looking him or her in the eye, and getting a feel for what they’re about.”
Over the years, I’ve pitched in on political coverage as most journalists do. Perhaps the most gratifying election-year assignment I ever had was in 1996. My task was to ride trains across the country and listen to a cross section of Americans talk about their country. You can’t do this on a car trip, and forget about mingling on an airplane.
On a long train ride, people get on and off and settle for a while. Some are travelers. Near big cities, many are commuters. I talked with a rodeo performer, a retired nurse, a General Motors employee, and dozens of others. All were more relaxed and thoughtful than people a reporter might randomly intercept on the street. The train – from Boston to Chicago, south to New Orleans, and out to Los Angeles – sliced through an older America, a place of backyards with dresses flapping from clotheslines and small towns that Horton Foote would have recognized.
Riding down the Mississippi Valley was like traveling through songs sung by both Arlo and Woody Guthrie – past houses, farms and fields; through an immense jungle of deltalands, before suddenly encountering the Gulf Stream waters. [Editor's note: The original version of this article incorrectly indicated that the lyrics of "City of New Orleans" were by Arlo Guthrie. They were by Steve Goodman.]
This may surprise you: On board, many passengers were reading Bibles or daily devotionals. One was slowly making his way through Carl Jung’s collected works. Those who wanted to talk were calm and intelligent, generous and optimistic.
Like Linda, that told me we hadn’t given up hope.
Pay attention to the 2012 debates and disputes and media flaps. They are part of any election. I, for one, am confident that today, just as 15 years ago, hope endures.
John Yemma is the editor of The Christian Science Monitor.