Tag Archives: Barack Obama

Long bar

Lunch Anyone?


I’m always interested in the response of my friends to a simple question. If they could conjure up anybody from the past or present, who would they like to have a leisurely lunch with? 

Sometimes we could use some new conversation-starters.  In my circle the usual topics run all the way from A to B, from the cool and wet summer, to the latest norm-violating behavior of our President. There are also some local issues that are good for a few minutes of hand-wringing, including plans to build an unwanted pipeline through our valley, or the always-good-for-a-comment angst about our state’s high property taxes.

But sometimes it’s worth taking a leap into the unknown, or even the frankly impossible. I’m always interested in an acquaintance’s response to a simple question:  if they could conjure up a meeting with anybody, who would they like to join for a leisurely lunch? A meal can not only satisfy an appetite, but ruminations with a good conversationalist can stay with us a long time.

All of us come into contact with remarkable people, friends or strangers with wonderful stories to tell or experiences that extend well beyond our own. It is usually just an intellectual exercise to imagine what it might be like to spend time over lunch with a famous person. But people we already know can be just as interesting. Think of the conversations with familiar companions that bubble up in Louis Malle’s My Dinner with Andre (1981) or Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight (2013).

To be sure, it sometimes works out that someone with intimate knowledge of a notable achiever may come away from a meeting chastened. More than a few writers have admitted that their living or deceased subjects remained interesting, but not necessarily as candidates for a fantasized social outing.  Biographer Nell Painter remembers working on a study of the famous slave preacher, Sojourner Truth.  But several years ago Painter told a C-Span interviewer that her “closeness to me receded” as she worked her way deeper into Sojourner’s life.  She respected her subject to the end, but finally doubted they would connect in a conversation. Sometimes a little distance keeps the great and good on a pedestal where we want them.

In a recent dinner with friends the question drew various responses.  Singer-songwriter Paul Simon came  up as  a good lunch companion.  He  has been a stream-of-consciousness poet for several generations.  And some of those enigmatic lyrics in Graceland: what do they mean?  Another liked the idea of sharing a meal with Jesus, and  it’s hard to quarrel with that choice.  But the guest of honor would probably make me a nervous eater. Did I order to much? Should I have shared it? Why didn’t I suppress the joke about turning my water into wine? Another mentioned Barack Obama.  He’s articulate and sometimes funny.  And his off-the-record perspective in this political moment would be fascinating  to hear.  Would he make us feel better about where the nation is headed?

Another person suggested the African-American blues musician, Daryl Davis. Davis seems to have a knack for drawing in listeners, including KKK members.  He told an NPR interviewer that in some cases he was the first black American these white men had spoken to socially. One measure of his success is that he has a pile of KKK robes that his newly sensitized friends have sent him after they renounced their membership in the Klan. Think of what he might teach us about the subtleties of face to face conciliation.

American culture exists most vividly when we focus on agents of insight or change.

My choice tends to change by the week.  But right now I’d love to have lunch with the arranger, musician and producer, Quincy Jones. He is in his 80’s, with a career that spans playing trumpet in several great 50’s bands, to arranging and conducting some of the best performances caught on record: everything from Sinatra at the Sands, (1966) to Michael Jackson’s Thriller (1982). He’s a walking history of American music: big-band Jazz, R&B, Pop and Funk. In interviews and a growing list of tributes (including 26 Grammys) Jones is unfailingly generous and interesting. Can a person still be hungry when sitting next to a national treasure?

There’s a useful point to this exercise. It’s a reminder that American culture exists most vividly when we focus on agents of insight or change. They may be famous or obscure.  But more than we think are close by,  their lives are testimony to the value of pluralizing our world beyond the shallow celebrities that sometimes narrow rather than broaden our horizons.

Since the fantasy lunch with the fantasy check is on me, who would you choose?

The Canvassing Imperative

Of course we can do politics at a distance through all kinds of dreary media: direct mail, tweets, television advertising, robocalls and other poor substitutes for direct citizen action.  But there’s a better option.

In the age of video politics and social media it may come as a surprise that political canvassing survives as a vital way to connect with voters.  Though for many it may seem like a stretch to actually show up at someone’s front door and ask for their support, thousands of Americans are comfortable doing it.  Canvassing is a proven way to increase a candidate’s chances.  One study indicated a 10 percent increase in the likelihood a voter will show up on election day if they have met someone from the campaign.

We have over 500,000 elective offices in the United States. Most are for small districts, featuring local candidates who cannot afford TV buys or big campaign budgets. The solution?  Put your supporters, friends and family to work going door to door and asking voters for their support.  It’s always been an important feature in American political life.  This humble approach is even credited with Barack Obama’s impressive presidential win in 2008. The former Chicago organizer seemed to remember a thing or two about mobilizing neighborhoods.  In that year thousands were mobilized for a street by street effort in key states, spreading enthusiasm from one front porch to the next.

When insiders talk about a good “ground game” this is partly what they mean.  It’s no wonder that the emerging wisdom in campaign strategizing is to put less money into video ads and more into organizing recruits to knock on the doors of the still undecided.

Social media and face to face canvassing share the common thread of a more interpersonal approach to political persuasion.  The canvas in particular is a hopeful exercise in direct citizen to citizen action.  By comparison, candidates who phone in a plea for support via robocalls seem positively lazy .

Two recent developments are reminders of the importance of canvassing. One is a new book by Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes on the failed 2016 Clinton campaign.  Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign lays part of her defeat to the fact that her staff did not follow the Obama playbook of fully committing to get-out-the-vote efforts. Of course neither did the victor’s campaign.  But Donald Trump in 2016 was an outlier in so many ways that it is risky to view his path to the White House as a bellwether.

The second development comes from recent reports that some of the parties fighting for dominance in the French elections are trying out American-style canvassing. The tradition is deeply entrenched in Britain, but not across the Channel in France, where talking politics at the front door of a stranger’s home is considered unusual.  But it reflects a feature that motivates so much effective canvassing: an urgency at the grassroots to do something to stave off an election disaster: in this case, what some fear could be a Trump-style victory by far-right candidate Marine Le Pen.  Whatever the outcome of the final vote on May 7, the result is good for democracy in France.  More citizens will have engaged in meaningful contact with their neighbors on a vital question worthy of their effort.

Few householders are hostile.  And most seem surprised that someone cares enough to show up.

Of course we can do politics at a distance through all kinds of dreary media: direct mail, tweets, television advertising, robocalls and other mechanical means that are poor substitutes for direct citizen action.  But all are disembodied, remote and impersonal.  Only social media come close to rendering an impression of direct contact with others we know.  And even that is partly an illusion: something short of a genuine conversation with a  neighbor in real time and space.

A modern canvasser should not expect a cakewalk.  Many doorbells will not be answered. And some campaigns send their workers to the wrong houses (a micro-targeting challenge that is never easy).  But few householders are hostile.  Most seem surprised that someone cares enough to show up.  And all seem grateful that the canvasser isn’t launching into a lecture about eternal salvation.