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ENTERING THE SUMMER OF 2008, our campaign’s first order of business was unifying the Democratic Party. The prolonged and bruising primary had left hard feelings between Hillary’s staff and mine, and some of her more ardent boosters threatened to withhold their support unless I put her on the ticket.
But despite speculation in the press of a possibly irreparable breach, our first post-primary meeting, held in early June at the Washington home of our colleague Senator Dianne Feinstein, proved to be courteous and businesslike, if not without tension. At the outset, Hillary felt obliged to get a few things off her chest, mainly having to do with what she considered unfair attacks by my campaign. As the winner, I felt obliged to keep my own complaints to myself. But it didn’t take long to clear the air. The bottom line, she said, was that she wanted to be a team player—for the good of the Democratic Party, and for the good of the country.
It may have helped that she sensed my sincere admiration. Although I would ultimately decide that having her as a running mate posed too many complications (including the awkwardness of a former president roaming the West Wing without a clear portfolio), I was already considering a different role for her in an Obama administration. How Hillary felt about me, I couldn’t say. But if she harbored any doubts about my readiness for the job ahead, she kept them to herself. From our first public appearance together a few weeks later, in a small New Hampshire town called Unity (corny, but effective), until the very end of the campaign, both she and Bill did everything we asked of them with energy and a smile.
With Hillary on board, the team and I got busy designing our broader electoral strategy. Like the primaries and caucuses, a presidential general election resembles a big math puzzle. Which combination of states do you need to win to get the requisite 270 electoral votes? For at least twenty years, nominees of both parties had come up with the same answer, assuming that the majority of states were inalterably Republican or Democratic, and therefore concentrating all their time and money on a handful of big battleground states like Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania, and Michigan.
Plouffe had a different idea. One happy by-product of our interminable primary was that we’d campaigned in every nook and corner of the country. We had battle-tested volunteers in a number of states Democrats had historically ignored. Why not use that advantage to compete in traditionally Republican-leaning territory? Based on the data, Plouffe was convinced we could win western states like Colorado and Nevada. With a big boost in turnout among minority and younger voters, he believed we even had a chance in North Carolina, a state that hadn’t gone Democratic in a presidential election since Jimmy Carter in 1976, and Virginia, which hadn’t gone Democratic since Lyndon Johnson in 1964. Broadening the electoral map would give us multiple paths to victory, Plouffe argued, and would also help down-ballot Democratic candidates. At a minimum, it would force John McCain and the Republican Party to spend resources shoring up their vulnerable flanks.
Among the various Republicans who had competed for the presidential nomination, I had always considered John McCain to be most worthy of the prize. I had admired him from afar before I got to Washington—not only for his service as a navy pilot and the unimaginable courage he’d shown during five and a half harrowing years as a POW, but because of the contrarian sensibility and willingness to buck Republican Party orthodoxy on issues like immigration and climate change that he’d shown in his 2000 presidential campaign. While we were never close in the Senate, I often found him insightful and self-deprecating, quick to puncture pretension and hypocrisy on both sides of the aisle.
McCain did enjoy being something of a press corps darling (“my constituency,” he once called them), never passing up a chance to be on the Sunday morning news shows, and among his colleagues he had a well-earned reputation for volatility—quick to explode over small disagreements, his pallid face reddening, his reedy voice rising at the first sign of a perceived slight. But he wasn’t an ideologue. He respected not only the customs of the Senate but also the institutions of our government and our democracy. I never saw him display the race-tinged nativism that regularly infected other Republican politicians, and on more than one occasion, I’d seen him display real political courage.
Once, as the two of us stood in the well of the Senate waiting for a vote, John had confided to me that he couldn’t stand a lot of the “crazies” in his own party. I knew this was part of his shtick—privately playing to Democrats’ sensibilities while voting with his caucus about 90 percent of the time. But the disdain he expressed for the far-right wing of his party wasn’t an act. And in an increasingly polarized climate, the political equivalent of a holy war, McCain’s modest heresies, his unwillingness to profess the true faith, carried a real cost. The “crazies” in his party mistrusted him, they considered him a RINO—Republican in Name Only—and he was regularly attacked by the Rush Limbaugh crowd.
Unfortunately for McCain, it was precisely these voices of the hard Right that were exciting the core GOP voters most likely to vote in presidential primaries, rather than the business-friendly, strong-on-defense, socially moderate Republicans McCain appealed to and was most comfortable with. And as the Republican primary wore on, and McCain sought to win over some of the very people he professed to despise—as he abandoned any pretense of fiscal rectitude in favor of even bigger tax cuts than the Bush tax cuts he’d once voted against, and hedged his position on climate change to accommodate fossil fuel interests—I sensed a change taking place in him. He seemed pained, uncertain—the once jaunty, irreverent warrior transformed into a cranky Washington insider, lassoed to an incumbent president with an approval rating around 30 percent and a hugely unpopular war.
I wasn’t sure I could beat the 2000 version of John McCain. But I was increasingly confident that I could beat the McCain of 2008.
THAT’S NOT TO say I thought the race would be easy. In a contest against an American hero, the election wouldn’t be decided on issues alone. Indeed, we suspected that the central question was likely to be whether a majority of voters could get comfortable with the idea of a young, inexperienced African American senator—one who hadn’t previously served in the military or even an executive office—filling the role of commander in chief.
I knew that if I was to earn Americans’ trust on this front, I needed to speak from the most informed position possible, especially about the nation’s role in Iraq and Afghanistan. Which is why, just a few weeks after I’d wrapped up the nomination, we decided I would embark on nine days of foreign travel. The proposed schedule was brutal: In addition to a brief stop in Kuwait and three days on the ground in Afghanistan and Iraq, I would meet with the leaders of Israel, Jordan, the United Kingdom, and France, and deliver a major foreign policy address in Berlin. If we pulled the trip off, we’d not only dispel concerns voters might have about my ability to operate effectively on the world stage but also highlight—at a time when voters were deeply troubled by the strained alliances of the Bush years—just what a new era of American leadership might look like.
Of course, with the political press sure to flyspeck my every move, there was a good chance something might go wrong. Even a single blunder might reinforce the notion that I wasn’t ready for prime time and tank our campaign. My team figured it was worth the risk.
“Walking a tightrope without a net,” Plouffe said. “That’s when we’re at our best.”
I pointed out that it was me and not “we” perilously up in the air. Nevertheless, I left Washington in good spirits, eager to travel overseas after a year and a half with my nose to the campaign grindstone.
Joining me on the Afghanistan and Iraq legs of the trip were two of my favorite colleagues, both of whom were seasoned in foreign policy: Chuck Hagel, the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Jack Reed, who sat on the Armed Services Committee. In personality, the two men couldn’t have been more different. Jack, a liberal Democrat from Rhode Island, was slightly built, studious, and understated. A proud West Point graduate, he had been one of the few senators to vote against authorizing the Iraq War. Chuck, a conservative Republican from Nebraska, was broad-shouldered, expansive, and full of good humor. A Vietnam veteran with two Purple Hearts, he had voted for the Iraq War. What the two shared was an abiding reverence for the U.S. military and a belief in the prudent use of American power. After almost six years, their views on Iraq had converged, and they were now two of the war’s most incisive and credible critics. Their bipartisan presence on the trip helped deflect any criticism that it was a campaign stunt; and Chuck’s willingness not only to travel with me but also to publicly praise aspects of my foreign policy, just four months before the election, was a bold and generous gesture.
On a Saturday in mid-July, we landed at Bagram Air Base, a six-square-mile installation north of Kabul, set against the jagged peaks of the Hindu Kush, that served as the largest U.S. military base in Afghanistan. The news wasn’t good: The collapse of Iraq into sectarian violence, and the Bush administration’s decision to reinforce our presence with a sustained troop surge, had siphoned military and intelligence capabilities out of Afghanistan (by 2008, we had five times as many troops in Iraq as we had there). The shift in focus had allowed the Taliban—the Sunni Islamic insurgents we’d been fighting since 2001—to go on the offensive, and that summer the monthly U.S. casualties in Afghanistan would exceed those in Iraq.
As usual, our military was doing all it could to make a tough situation work. The newly assigned commander of coalition forces, General Dave McKiernan, arranged for his team to brief us on the steps they were taking to push back against Taliban strongholds. The following day, dining in the mess hall at the U.S. coalition headquarters in Kabul, we listened as a group of soldiers spoke of their mission with enthusiasm and pride. Hearing these earnest young men and women, most of them just a few years out of high school, talk about building roads, training Afghan soldiers, and setting up schools, only to see their work periodically interrupted or undone because they were understaffed or under-resourced, was both humbling and frustrating, and I vowed that, given the chance, I would get them more help.
That night we slept at the heavily fortified U.S. embassy, and in the morning we drove to the imposing nineteenth-century palace where President Hamid Karzai lived. In the 1970s, Kabul had been not so different from the capitals of other developing countries, ragged around the edges but peaceful and growing, full of elegant hotels, rock music, and college students intent on modernizing their country. Karzai and his ministers were products of that era, but many had fled to Europe or the United States either during the Soviet invasion that began in 1979 or when the Taliban took over in the mid-1990s. After its assault on Kabul, the United States had brought Karzai and his advisors back and installed them in power—functional expatriates we hoped would serve as the Afghan face of a new, nonmilitant order. With their impeccable English and stylish dress, they fit the part, and as our delegation dined on a banquet of traditional Afghan fare, they did their best to persuade us that a modern, tolerant, and self-sufficient Afghanistan was within reach so long as American troops and cash continued to flow.
I might have believed Karzai’s words were it not for reports of rampant corruption and mismanagement within his government. Much of the Afghan countryside was beyond the control of Kabul, and Karzai rarely ventured out, reliant not just on U.S. forces but on a patchwork of alliances with local warlords to maintain what power he possessed. I thought about his seeming isolation later that day as a pair of Black Hawk helicopters flew us over mountainous terrain on our way to a U.S. forward operating base (FOB) near Helmand on Afghanistan’s southern plateau. The small villages of mud and wood that we saw from the air blended seamlessly into the dun-colored rock formations, with barely a paved road or an electrical line in sight. I tried to imagine what the people below thought of the Americans in their midst, or their own president in his sumptuous palace, or even the idea of a nation-state called Afghanistan. Not much, I suspected. They were just trying to survive, buffeted by forces as constant and unpredictable as the winds. And I wondered what it might take—beyond the courage and skill of our troops, despite the best-laid plans of analysts in Washington—to reconcile American ideas of what Afghanistan should be with a landscape that for hundreds of years had proven impervious to change.
Such thoughts stayed with me as we left Afghanistan and headed to Iraq, spending a night in Kuwait along the way. Trends had improved since my last visit to Iraq; a surge in U.S. troops, the internationally certified election of Shiite prime minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, and a brokered agreement with Sunni tribal leaders in the western province of Anbar had reversed some of the sectarian carnage unleashed by the original U.S. invasion and subsequent bungling by men like Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Bremer. John McCain interpreted the recent successes to mean we were winning the fight and would continue to so long as we stayed the course and—in what had become a common nostrum among Republicans—“listened to our commanders on the ground.” I drew a different conclusion. After five years of heavy U.S. involvement, with Saddam Hussein gone, no evidence of WMDs, and a democratically elected government installed, I believed phased withdrawal was in order: one that would build in the time needed to stand up Iraqi security forces and root out the last vestiges of al-Qaeda in Iraq; guarantee ongoing military, intelligence, and financial support; and begin bringing our troops home so that we could hand Iraq back to its people.
As in Afghanistan, we had a chance to mingle with troops and visit an FOB in Anbar, before meeting with Prime Minister Maliki. He was a dour figure, vaguely Nixonian with his long face, heavy five-o’clock shadow, and indirect gaze. He had cause to be stressed, for his new job was both difficult and dangerous. He was trying to balance the demands of the domestic Shiite power blocs that had elected him and the Sunni population that had dominated the country under Saddam; he also had to manage countervailing pressures from his U.S. benefactors and Iranian neighbors. Indeed, Maliki’s ties to Iran, where he had lived in exile for many years, as well as his uneasy alliances with certain Shiite militias, made him anathema to Saudi Arabia and other U.S. allies in the Persian Gulf region, underscoring just how much the U.S. invasion had strengthened Iran’s strategic position there.
Whether anyone in the Bush White House had discussed such a predictable consequence before ordering U.S. troops into Iraq was uncertain. But the administration sure wasn’t happy about it now. My conversations with several high-ranking generals and diplomats made clear that the White House’s interest in maintaining a sizable troop presence in Iraq was about more than a simple desire to ensure stability and reduce violence. It was also about preventing Iran from taking further advantage of the mess we’d made.
Given that the issue was dominating the foreign policy debate both in Congress and in the campaign, I asked Maliki through the interpreter whether he thought Iraq was ready for a withdrawal of U.S. troops. We were all surprised by his unequivocal response: Though he expressed deep appreciation for the efforts of U.S. and British forces and hoped that America would continue to help pay for the training and maintenance of Iraqi forces, he agreed with me that we set a time frame for a U.S. withdrawal.
It was unclear what was behind Maliki’s decision to push an accelerated timetable for U.S. withdrawal. Simple nationalism? Pro-Iranian sympathies? A move to consolidate his power? But as far as the political debate in the United States was concerned, Maliki’s position had big implications. It was one thing for the White House or John McCain to dismiss my calls for a timetable for withdrawal as weak and irresponsible, a version of “cut and run.” It was quite another to dismiss the same idea coming from Iraq’s newly elected leader.
Of course, at the time, Maliki still didn’t really call the shots in his country. The commander of coalition forces in Iraq, General David Petraeus, did—and it was my conversation with him that foreshadowed some of the central foreign policy debates I’d have for much of my presidency.
Trim and fit, with a PhD in international relations and economics from Princeton and an orderly, analytical mind, Petraeus was considered the brains behind our improved position in Iraq and the individual to whom the White House had essentially contracted out its strategy. We took a helicopter together from the Baghdad airport to the heavily fortified Green Zone, talking all the way, and although the substance of our conversation wouldn’t appear in any press write-ups, as far as my campaign team was concerned that was just fine. It was the photographs they cared about—images of me seated next to a four-star general aboard a Black Hawk helicopter, wearing a headset and aviator glasses. Apparently it proved a youthful, vigorous contrast to an unfortunate depiction of my Republican opponent that happened to surface on the very same day: McCain riding shotgun on a golf cart with former president George H. W. Bush, the two of them resembling a couple of pastel-sweatered grandpas on their way to a country club picnic.
Meanwhile, sitting together in his spacious office at coalition headquarters, Petraeus and I discussed everything from the need for more Arabic-language specialists in the military to the vital role development projects would play in delegitimizing militias and terrorist organizations and bolstering the new government. Bush deserved credit, I thought, for having selected this particular general to right what had been a sinking ship. If we had unlimited time and resources—if America’s long-term national security interests absolutely depended on creating a functioning and democratic state allied to the United States in Iraq—then Petraeus’s approach had as good a chance as any of achieving the goal.
But we did not have unlimited time or resources. When you boiled it down, that’s what the argument over withdrawal was all about. How much did we continue to give, and when would it be enough? As far as I was concerned, we were approaching that line; our national security required a stable Iraq, but not a showcase for American nation-building. Petraeus, on the other hand, believed that without a more sustained U.S. investment, whatever gains we’d made were still easily reversed.
I asked how long it would take for them to feel permanent. Two years? Five? Ten?
He couldn’t say. But announcing a fixed timetable for withdrawal, he believed, would only give the enemy the chance to wait us out.
But wouldn’t that always be true?
He conceded the point.
And what about surveys indicating that a strong majority of Iraqis, both Shiite and Sunni, had wearied of the occupation and wanted us out sooner rather than later?
That was a problem we would have to manage, he said.
The conversation was cordial, and I couldn’t blame Petraeus for wanting to finish the mission. If I were in your shoes, I told him, I’d want the same thing. But a president’s job required looking at a bigger picture, I said, just as he himself had to consider trade-offs and constraints that officers under his command did not. As a nation, how should we weigh an additional two or three years in Iraq at a cost of nearly $10 billion a month against the need to dismantle Osama bin Laden and core al-Qaeda operations in northwestern Pakistan? Or against the schools and roads not built back home? Or the erosion of readiness should another crisis arise? Or the human toll exacted on our troops and their families?
General Petraeus nodded politely and said he looked forward to seeing me after the election. As our delegation took its leave that day, I doubted I’d persuaded him of the wisdom of my position any more than he had persuaded me.
WAS I PREPARED to be a world leader? Did I have the diplomatic skills, the knowledge and stamina, the authority to command? The balance of the trip was designed to answer such questions, an elaborate audition on the international stage. There were bilateral meetings with King Abdullah in Jordan, Gordon Brown in England, Nicolas Sarkozy in France. I met with Angela Merkel in Germany, where I also spoke to an audience of two hundred thousand people gathered in front of Berlin’s historic Victory Column, declaring that just as an earlier generation had torn down the wall that once divided Europe, it was now our job to tear down other, less visible walls: between rich and poor, between races and tribes, between natives and immigrants, between Christians, Muslims, and Jews. Over a couple of marathon days in Israel and the West Bank, I met separately with Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, and did my best to understand not only the logic but also the emotions behind an ancient and seemingly intractable conflict. In the town of Sderot, I listened as parents described the terror of rocket shells launched from nearby Gaza landing just a few yards from their children’s bedrooms. In Ramallah, I heard Palestinians speak of the daily humiliations endured at Israeli security checkpoints.
According to Gibbs, the U.S. press thought I’d passed the “looking presidential” test with flying colors. But for me, the trip went beyond mere optics. Even more than back home, I felt the immensity of the challenges that awaited me if I won, the grace I’d need to do the job.
These thoughts were on my mind the morning of July 24, when I arrived at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, built two thousand years ago to protect the sacred Temple Mount and viewed as a gateway to divinity and a place where God accepted the prayers of all who visit. For centuries, pilgrims from around the world had made a custom of committing their prayers to paper and stuffing them into the cracks of the wall, so before coming that morning, I’d written my own prayer on a piece of hotel stationery.
In the gray light of dawn, surrounded by my Israeli hosts, aides, Secret Service agents, and the clatter of media cameras, I bowed my head before the wall as a bearded rabbi read a psalm calling for peace in the holy city of Jerusalem. As was the custom, I laid a hand on the soft limestone, stilling myself in silent contemplation, and then wadded up my piece of paper and pushed it deep into a crevice in the wall.
“Lord,” I had written, “protect my family and me. Forgive me my sins, and help me guard against pride and despair. Give me the wisdom to do what is right and just. And make me an instrument of your will.”
I had assumed those words were between me and God. But the next day they showed up in an Israeli newspaper before achieving eternal life on the internet. Apparently a bystander dug my scrap of paper out of the wall after we left—a reminder of the price that came with stepping onto the world stage. The line between my private and public lives was dissolving; each thought and gesture was now a matter of global interest.
Get used to it, I told myself. It’s part of the deal.
RETURNING FROM MY overseas trip, I felt like an astronaut or an explorer just back from an arduous expedition, charged with adrenaline and vaguely disoriented by ordinary life. With only a month to go before the Democratic National Convention, I decided to try to normalize things a little by taking my family to Hawaii for a week. I told Plouffe the matter wasn’t up for debate. After campaigning for seventeen months, I needed to recharge, and so did Michelle. Also, Toot’s health was deteriorating rapidly, and while we couldn’t know exactly how long my grandmother might have, I didn’t intend to repeat the mistake I had made with my mother.
Most of all, I wanted some time with my daughters. As far as I could tell, the campaign hadn’t affected our bonds. Malia was as chatty and inquisitive with me as ever, Sasha as buoyant and affectionate. When I was on the road, I talked to them by phone every night, about school, their friends, or the latest SpongeBob episode; when I was home, I read to them, challenged them to board games, and occasionally snuck out with them for ice cream.
Still, I could see from week to week how fast they were growing, how their limbs always seemed an inch or two longer than I remembered, their conversations at dinner more sophisticated. These changes served as a measure of all that I had missed, the fact that I hadn’t been there to nurse them when they were sick, or hug them when they were scared, or laugh at the jokes they told. As much as I believed in the importance of what I was doing, I knew I wouldn’t ever get that time back, and often found myself questioning the wisdom of the trade.
I was right to feel guilty. It’s hard to overstate the burden I placed on my family during those two years I ran for president—how much I relied on Michelle’s fortitude and parenting skills, and how much I depended on my daughters’ preternatural good cheer and maturity. Earlier that summer, Michelle had agreed to bring the girls and join me as I campaigned in Butte, Montana, on the Fourth of July, which also happened to be Malia’s tenth birthday. My sister Maya and her family decided to come as well. We had our share of fun that day, visiting a mining museum and squirting one another with water guns, but much of my time was still devoted to vote getting. The girls trudged dutifully beside me as I shook hands along the town’s parade route. They stood in the heat watching me speak at an afternoon rally. In the evening, after the fireworks I’d promised were canceled due to thunderstorms, we held an impromptu birthday party in a windowless conference room on the lower level of the local Holiday Inn. Our advance staff had done its best to liven up the place with a few balloons. There was pizza and salad and a cake from the local supermarket. Still, as I watched Malia blow out the candles and make her wish for the year ahead, I wondered whether she was disappointed, whether she might later look back on this day as proof of her father’s misplaced priorities.
Just then, Kristen Jarvis, one of Michelle’s young aides, pulled out an iPod and hooked it up to a portable speaker. Malia and Sasha grabbed my hands to pull me out of my chair. Pretty soon everyone was dancing to Beyoncé and the Jonas Brothers, Sasha gyrating, Malia shaking her short curls, Michelle and Maya letting loose as I showed off my best dad moves. After about half an hour, all of us happily out of breath, Malia came over and sat on my lap.
“Daddy,” she said, “this is the best birthday ever.”
I kissed the top of her head and held her tight, not letting her see my eyes get misty.
Those were my daughters. That’s what I’d given up by being away so much. That’s why the days we stole in Hawaii that August were worth it, even if we lost some ground against McCain in the polls. Splashing in the ocean with the girls, letting them bury me in sand without having to tell them I had to get on a conference call or leave for the airport—it was worth it. Watching the sun go down over the Pacific with my arms wrapped around Michelle, just listening to the wind and rustling palms—worth it.
Seeing Toot hunched over on her living room couch, barely able to raise her head but still smiling with quiet satisfaction as her great-granddaughters laughed and played on the floor, and then feeling her mottled, blue-veined hand squeeze mine for perhaps the last time.
A precious sacrament.
I COULDN’T LEAVE the campaign entirely behind while I was in Hawaii. There were updates from the team, thank-you calls to supporters, a preliminary outline of my convention speech that I drafted and sent to Favs. And there was the single most consequential decision I had to make now that I was the nominee.
Who would be my running mate?
I had narrowed it down to Governor Tim Kaine of Virginia and Senate colleague Joe Biden of Delaware. At the time, I was much closer to Tim, who had been the first prominent elected official outside of Illinois to endorse me for president and had worked hard as one of our top campaign surrogates. Our friendship came easily; we were roughly the same age, had similar midwestern roots, similar temperaments, and even similar résumés. (Tim had worked on a mission in Honduras while a student at Harvard Law School and had practiced civil rights law before going into politics.) As for Joe, we couldn’t have been more different, at least on paper. He was nineteen years my senior. I was running as the Washington outsider; Joe had spent thirty-five years in the Senate, including stints as chairman of the Judiciary Committee and the Foreign Relations Committee. In contrast to my peripatetic upbringing, Joe had deep roots in Scranton, Pennsylvania, and took pride in his working-class Irish heritage. (It was only later, after we were elected, that we discovered our respective Irish forebears, both boot makers, had left Ireland for America just five weeks apart.) And if I was seen as temperamentally cool and collected, measured in how I used my words, Joe was all warmth, a man without inhibitions, happy to share whatever popped into his head. It was an endearing trait, for he genuinely enjoyed people. You could see it as he worked a room, his handsome face always cast in a dazzling smile (and just inches from whomever he was talking to), asking a person where they were from, telling them a story about how much he loved their hometown (“Best calzone I ever tasted”) or how they must know so-and-so (“An absolutely great guy, salt of the earth”), flattering their children (“Anyone ever tell you you’re gorgeous?”) or their mother (“You can’t be a day over forty!”), and then on to the next person, and the next, until he’d touched every soul in the room with a flurry of handshakes, hugs, kisses, backslaps, compliments, and one-liners.
Joe’s enthusiasm had its downside. In a town filled with people who liked to hear themselves talk, he had no peer. If a speech was scheduled for fifteen minutes, Joe went for at least a half hour. If it was scheduled for a half hour, there was no telling how long he might talk. His soliloquies during committee hearings were legendary. His lack of a filter periodically got him in trouble, as when during the primaries, he had pronounced me “articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy,” a phrase surely meant as a compliment, but interpreted by some as suggesting that such characteristics in a Black man were noteworthy.
As I came to know Joe, though, I found his occasional gaffes to be trivial compared to his strengths. On domestic issues, he was smart, practical, and did his homework. His experience in foreign policy was broad and deep. During his relatively short-lived run in the primaries, he had impressed me with his skill and discipline as a debater and his comfort on a national stage.
Most of all, Joe had heart. He’d overcome a bad stutter as a child (which probably explained his vigorous attachment to words) and two brain aneurysms in middle age. In politics, he’d known early success and suffered embarrassing defeats. And he had endured unimaginable tragedy: In 1972, just weeks after Joe was elected to the Senate, his wife and baby daughter had been killed—and his two young sons, Beau and Hunter, injured—in a car accident. In the wake of this loss, his colleagues and siblings had to talk him out of quitting the Senate, but he’d arranged his schedule to make a daily hour-and-a-half Amtrak commute between Delaware and Washington to care for his boys, a practice he’d continue for the next three decades.
That Joe had survived such heartbreak was a credit to his second wife, Jill, a lovely and understated teacher whom he’d met three years after the accident, and who had raised Joe’s sons as her own. Anytime you saw the Bidens together, it was immediately obvious just how much his family sustained Joe—how much pride and joy he took in Beau, then Delaware’s attorney general and a rising star in state politics; in Hunter, a lawyer in D.C.; in Ashley, a social worker in Wilmington; and in their beautiful grandkids.
Family had sustained Joe, but so, too, had a buoyancy of character. Tragedy and setbacks may have scarred him, I would learn, but they hadn’t made him bitter or cynical.
It was on the basis of those impressions that I had asked Joe to undergo the initial vetting process and meet me while I was campaigning in Minnesota. He was resistant at first—like most senators, Joe had a healthy ego and disliked the idea of playing second fiddle. Our meeting began with him explaining all the reasons why the job of vice president might be a step down for him (along with an explanation of why he’d be the best choice). I assured him that I was looking not for a ceremonial stand-in but for a partner.
“If you pick me,” Joe said, “I want to be able to give you my best judgment and frank advice. You’ll be the president, and I’ll defend whatever you decide. But I want to be the last guy in the room on every major decision.”
I told him that was a commitment I could make.
Both Axe and Plouffe thought the world of Tim Kaine, and like me, they knew he’d fit seamlessly into an Obama administration. But also like me, they wondered whether putting two relatively young, inexperienced, and liberal civil rights attorneys on a ticket might be more hope and change than the voters could handle.
Joe carried his own risks. We figured his lack of discipline in front of a microphone might result in unnecessary controversies. His style was old-school, he liked the limelight, and he wasn’t always self-aware. I sensed that he could get prickly if he thought he wasn’t given his due—a quality that might flare up when dealing with a much younger boss.
And yet I found the contrast between us compelling. I liked the fact that Joe would be more than ready to serve as president if something happened to me—and that it might reassure those who still worried I was too young. His foreign policy experience would be valuable during a time when we were embroiled in two wars; so would his relationships in Congress and his potential to reach voters still wary of electing an African American president. What mattered most, though, was what my gut told me—that Joe was decent, honest, and loyal. I believed that he cared about ordinary people, and that when things got tough, I could trust him.
I wouldn’t be disappointed.
HOW THE DEMOCRATIC National Convention in Denver got put together is largely a mystery to me. I was consulted on the order of the program over the four nights it would take place, the themes that would be developed, the speakers scheduled. I was shown biographical videos for approval and asked for a list of family and friends who would need accommodations. Plouffe checked in to see if I was game to hold the convention’s final night not in a traditional indoor arena, but at Mile High Stadium, home of the Denver Broncos. With a capacity of close to eighty thousand, it could accommodate the tens of thousands of volunteers from across the country who’d been the foundation of our campaign. It also had no roof, which meant we’d be exposed to the elements.
“What if it rains?” I asked.
“We pulled one hundred years’ worth of weather reports for Denver on August 28 at eight p.m.,” Plouffe said. “It’s only rained once.”
“What if this year’s the second time? Do we have a backup plan?”
“Once we lock in the stadium,” Plouffe said, “there’s no going back.” He gave me a slightly maniacal grin. “Remember, we’re always at our best without a net. Why stop now?”
Michelle and the girls traveled to Denver a couple of days ahead of me while I campaigned in a few states, so by the time I arrived, the festivities were in full swing. Satellite trucks and press tents surrounded the arena like an army laying siege; street vendors hawked T-shirts, hats, tote bags, and jewelry adorned with our rising sun logo or my jug-eared visage. Tourists and paparazzi clicked away at the politicians and occasional celebrity wandering the arena.
Unlike the 2000 convention, when I’d been the kid pressing his face against the candy store window, or the 2004 convention, when my keynote had placed me at the center of the spectacle, I now found myself both the starring attraction and on the periphery, trapped in a hotel suite or looking out the window of my Secret Service vehicle, arriving in Denver only on the second-to-last night of the convention. It was a matter of security, I was told, as well as deliberate stagecraft—if I remained out of sight, anticipation would only build. But it made me feel restless and oddly removed, as if I were merely an expensive prop to be taken out of the box under special conditions.
Certain moments from that week do stand out in my mind. I remember Malia and Sasha and three of Joe’s granddaughters rolling around on a pile of air mattresses in our hotel suite, all of them giggling, lost in their secret games and wholly indifferent to the hoopla below. I remember Hillary stepping up to the microphone representing the New York delegates and formally making the motion to vote me in as the Democratic nominee, a powerful gesture of unity. And I remember sitting in the living room of a very sweet family of supporters in Missouri, making small talk and munching on snacks before Michelle appeared on the television screen, luminescent in an aquamarine dress, to deliver the convention’s opening night address.
I had deliberately avoided reading Michelle’s speech beforehand, not wanting to meddle in the process or add to the pressure. Having seen her on the campaign trail, I had no doubt she’d be good. But listening to Michelle tell her story that night—seeing her talk about her mom and dad, the sacrifices they’d made and the values they’d passed on; hearing her trace her unlikely journey and describe her hope for our daughters; having this woman who had shouldered so much vouch for the fact that I’d always been true to my family and to my convictions; seeing the convention hall audience, the network anchors, and the people sitting next to me transfixed—well, I couldn’t have been prouder.
Contrary to what some commentators said at the time, my wife didn’t “find” her voice that night. A national audience finally had a chance to hear that voice unfiltered.
FORTY-EIGHT HOURS LATER, I found myself holed up with Favs and Axe in a hotel room, fine-tuning the acceptance speech I’d deliver the following evening. It had been tough to write. We felt the moment called for more prose than poetry, with a hard-hitting critique of Republican policies and an account of specific steps I intended to take as president—all without being too long, too dry, or too partisan. It had required countless revisions and I had little time to practice. As I stood behind a mock podium delivering my lines, the atmosphere was more workmanlike than inspired.
Only once did the full meaning of my nomination hit me. By coincidence, the last night of the convention fell on the forty-fifth anniversary of the March on Washington and Dr. King’s historic “I Have a Dream” speech. We had decided not to draw too much attention to that fact, figuring that it was a poor idea to invite comparisons to one of the greatest speeches in American history. But I did pay tribute to the miracle of that young preacher from Georgia in the closing bars of my speech, quoting something he’d said to the people who’d gathered on the National Mall that day in 1963: “We cannot walk alone. And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back.” “We cannot walk alone.” I hadn’t remembered these particular lines from Dr. King’s speech. But as I read them aloud during practice, I found myself thinking about all the older Black volunteers I’d met in our offices around the country, the way they’d clutch my hands and tell me they never thought they’d see the day when a Black man would have a real chance to be president.
I thought about the seniors who wrote to me to explain how they had woken up early and been first in line to vote during the primaries, even though they were sick or disabled.
I thought about the doormen, janitors, secretaries, clerks, dishwashers, and drivers I encountered anytime I passed through hotels, conference centers, or office buildings—how they’d wave or give me a thumbs-up or shyly accept a handshake, Black men and women of a certain age who, like Michelle’s parents, had quietly done what was necessary to feed their families and send their kids to school, and now recognized in me some of the fruits of their labor.
I thought of all the people who had sat in jail or joined the March on Washington forty, fifty years ago, and wondered how they would feel when I walked out onto that stage in Denver—how much they had seen their country transformed, and how far things still were from what they had hoped.
“You know what…give me a second,” I said, my voice catching in my throat, my eyes starting to brim. I went to the bathroom to splash some water on my face. When I returned a few minutes later, Favs, Axe, and the teleprompter operator were all quiet, unsure of what to do.
“Sorry about that,” I said. “Let’s try it again from the top.”
I had no trouble getting through the speech the second time around; the only interruption came about halfway through my oration, when we heard a knock on the door and found a hotel server with a Caesar salad standing in the hall (“What can I say?” Axe said with a sheepish grin. “I was starving”). And by the following evening, as I walked out onto the broad, blue-carpeted stage under a clear and open sky to address a stadium full of people and millions more across the country, all that I felt was calm.
The night was warm, the roar from the crowd infectious, the flash from thousands of cameras mirroring the stars overhead. When I was finished speaking, Michelle and the girls and then Joe and Jill Biden joined me to wave through a flurry of confetti, and across the stadium we could see people laughing and hugging, waving flags to the beat of a song by country artists Brooks & Dunn that had become a staple on the campaign trail: “Only in America.” —
HISTORICALLY, A PRESIDENTIAL candidate enjoys a healthy “bounce” in the polls after a successful convention. By all accounts, ours had been close to flawless. Our pollsters reported that after Denver, my lead over John McCain had indeed widened to at least five points.
It lasted about a week.
John McCain’s campaign had been flailing. Despite the fact that he’d wrapped up the Republican nomination three months before I secured mine, he hadn’t achieved much in the way of momentum. Swing voters remained unpersuaded by his proposal for further tax cuts on top of those Bush had already passed. In the new, more polarized climate, McCain himself appeared hesitant to even mention issues like immigration reform and climate change, which had previously burnished his reputation as a maverick inside his party. In fairness, he’d been dealt a bad hand. The Iraq War remained as unpopular as ever. The economy, already in recession, was rapidly worsening, and so were Bush’s approval numbers. In an election likely to hinge on the promise of change, McCain looked and sounded like more of the same.
McCain and his team must have known they needed to do something dramatic. And I have to give them credit—they sure did deliver. The day after our convention ended, Michelle and I, along with Jill and Joe Biden, were on the campaign plane waiting to take off for a few days of events in Pennsylvania when Axe rushed up to tell us that word had leaked of McCain’s running mate. Joe looked at the name on Axe’s BlackBerry and then turned to me.
“Who the hell is Sarah Palin?” he said.
For the next two weeks, the national press corps would obsess over that question, giving McCain’s campaign a much-needed shot of adrenaline and effectively knocking our campaign off the airwaves. After adding Palin to the ticket, McCain raked in millions of dollars in fresh donations in a single weekend. His poll numbers leapt up, essentially putting us in a dead heat.
Sarah Palin—the forty-four-year-old governor of Alaska and an unknown when it came to national politics—was, above all, a potent disrupter. Not only was she young and a woman, a potential groundbreaker in her own right, but she also had a story you couldn’t make up: She’d been a small-town basketball player and pageant queen who’d bounced among five colleges before graduating with a journalism degree. She’d worked for a while as a sportscaster before getting elected mayor of Wasilla, Alaska, and then taking on the state’s entrenched Republican establishment and beating the incumbent governor in 2006. She’d married her high school sweetheart, had five kids (including a teenage son about to be deployed to Iraq and a baby with Down syndrome), professed a conservative Christian faith, and enjoyed hunting moose and elk during her spare time.
Hers was a biography tailor-made for working-class white voters who hated Washington and harbored the not entirely unjustified suspicion that big-city elites—whether in business, politics, or the media—looked down on their way of life. If the New York Times editorial board or NPR listeners questioned her qualifications, Palin didn’t care. She offered their criticism as proof of her authenticity, understanding (far earlier than many of her critics) that the old gatekeepers were losing relevance, that the walls of what was considered acceptable in a candidate for national office had been breached, and that Fox News, talk radio, and the budding power of social media could provide her with all the platforms she needed to reach her intended audience.
It helped, too, that Palin was a born performer. Her forty-five-minute speech at the Republican National Convention in early September was a masterpiece of folksy populism and well-aimed zingers. (“In small towns, we don’t quite know what to make of a candidate who lavishes praise on working people when they’re listening, and then talks about how bitterly they cling to their religion and guns when those people aren’t listening.” Ouch.) The delegates were ecstatic. Touring with Palin after the convention, McCain spoke to crowds three or four times larger than what he normally saw on his own. And while the Republican faithful cheered politely during his speeches, it became clear that it was his “hockey mom” running mate they were really there to see. She was new, different, one of them.
A “real American”—and fantastically proud of it.
In a different time and a different place—say, a swing-state Senate or gubernatorial race—the sheer energy Palin generated within the Republican base might have had me worried. But from the day McCain chose her and through the heights of Palin-mania, I felt certain the decision would not serve him well. For all of Palin’s performative gifts, a vice president’s most important qualification was the ability, if necessary, to assume the presidency. Given John’s age and history of melanoma, this wasn’t an idle concern. And what became abundantly clear as soon as Sarah Palin stepped into the spotlight was that on just about every subject relevant to governing the country she had absolutely no idea what the hell she was talking about. The financial system. The Supreme Court. The Russian invasion of Georgia. It didn’t matter what the topic was or what form the question took—the Alaskan governor appeared lost, stringing words together like a kid trying to bluff her way through a test for which she had failed to study.
Palin’s nomination was troubling on a deeper level. I noticed from the start that her incoherence didn’t matter to the vast majority of Republicans; in fact, anytime she crumbled under questioning by a journalist, they seemed to view it as proof of a liberal conspiracy. I was even more surprised to witness prominent conservatives—including those who’d spent a year dismissing me as inexperienced, and who’d spent decades decrying affirmative action, the erosion of intellectual standards, and the debasement of Western culture at the hands of multiculturalists—suddenly shilling for Palin, tying themselves into knots as they sought to convince the public that in a vice presidential candidate, the need for basic knowledge of foreign policy or the functions of the federal government was actually overrated. Sarah Palin, like Reagan, had “good instincts,” they said, and once installed, she’d grow into the job.
It was, of course, a sign of things to come, a larger, darker reality in which partisan affiliation and political expedience would threaten to blot out everything—your previous positions; your stated principles; even what your own senses, your eyes and ears, told you to be true.
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