All Politics Is Local
Even for Presidential Candidates
By David S. Lewis
An interview with Barack Obama in The Montana Pioneer—really? We’ve interviewed high profile names before (Redford, Fonda, Quaid, Gingrich, Schweitzer, to name a few) but Mr. Charisma himself—how did that happen? The answer is threefold, and the outcome seems almost inevit-able once you understand the context.
First, Ari LeVaux, an excellent food writer and a frequent contributor to this publication (whose byline runs on the interview) is a persistent man. He pestered Obama’s people for weeks, and they finally gave in. Second, Obama is running for his party’s nomination with Montana hanging in the balance (as of this writing). The general election hangs in the balance too, and when candidates run for office, it’s surprising how readily they grant interviews, even rock stars like Obama. Third, the interview was conducted by email, allowing the senator to respond at his conven-ience, and with a Q & A format guaranteeing him a certain amount of control over the outcome.
Matt Chandler, who directs Obama’s press relations in Montana from a Chicago office, assured us Obama sat down and composed the responses personally (not some staffer), intrigued by the idea of a food writer in Montana asking about policy issues that could be disseminated in our now strategic state, and given LeVaux’s substantive and original questions, no one but Obama himself could have responded.
Chandler, by the way, who told me over the phone that he is not from Montana, refers to himself as hailing from everywhere, in that he has lived in various parts of the country and is now based in Chicago, Obama’s adopted town. He and others not from these parts have zeroed in on Montana, deter-mined to win our delegates so Hillary Clinton will not, and to pave the way for the race against John McCain in the general election in November. Publishers like yours truly and reporters like LeVaux benefit from such circum-stances, as dynamic campaigns like Obama’s do what they do best—reach out through all means possible, including email and free alternative papers like the little rag you’re now reading with such enthusiasm and glee. And we’re not in the business of psychic predictions, but with the kind of outreach, grassroots organization, and national momentum Obama has generated, it’s hard to see how Republicans, whose brand name now ranks right up there with Michael Jackson and Benito Mussolini, can hope to pull off a victory in November, even with the formidable John McCain as their nominee.
Still, regarding the interview, you say, Obama’s running for president and every news outlet from 60 Minutes to MTV wants a piece of him now, so why an interview in a free monthly publish-ed in a sleepy railroad town?
The answer is—60 Minutes and MTV aren’t in Montana. They aren’t strategically situated, not at this defin-ing moment, as his holiness would say. And so things happen. LeVaux was on Chandler’s case, even as Chandler was sending out dozens of emails a week to local news outlets, including this one, trying to generate stories in the media. And you know what Tip O'Neill said—all politics is local. It’s why you hear one message from a candidate in one venue, Obama included, and a different message in another.
It’s both preposterous and sublime, though, that candidates address themselves in such thoughtful ways (they would have us believe) to local audiences across the country, a practice that abruptly ends once they’re elected. At Obama’s town meeting in a high school gymnasium in Billings last month, that’s what was happening. With our reporter Pat Hill covering Mr. O later that day in Bozeman, I copped a press pass and slipped off to Billings for the morning event, because it was billed as a town meeting and promised some give and take with questions from the audience, rather than the pep rally format in Bozeman. But it was, of course, a staged event more than a town meeting. Obama gave more or less the same solil-oquy as in Bozeman (adjusted for a more conservative crowd), ably and with commanding presence, but of the few questions he solicited at the end of his talk, not a single tough question was asked, and none were taken from the press. Indeed, of the few folks he called upon, two were kids, assuring soft ball questions.
As town meetings often go during political campaigns, it was preaching to the choir (or, in Obama’s case, to his mosh pit). The goal was to avoid any gaff resulting from tough questions or open dialogue, to control the event for political effect, keeping his momentum going, then have the media report accordingly. And that strategy figures in the campaign’s decision to send along written responses to be published in local media outlets—no ad libs to be seized upon by the press, although Obama gives substantive responses to LeVaux’s questions, which make for good reading (more so if you’re into chili).
Obama for America’s overall outreach has been masterful (with Kool Aide fast becoming the national beverage). And it’s odd how events turn. Before Iowa, pollsters rated Hillary as a shoe in, and McCain would have seemed the national unifier based on his record and courage. But noooo, as we like to say, it’s the tall skinny guy with the funny name, the one who spent childhood years in Indonesia, then later dabbled briefly in the United States Senate—the one who may become our first black president, and change the face of American politics forever.
Happy Independence Day.