Sunday, October 19, 2008

Dancing with Obama as Satan falls on the governor

When Barack Obama called me on Saturday morning, I was reading about a poet costumed as Satan falling offstage onto the lap of a governor.

Our next president was making a few, targeted media calls as more than 100,000 people waited to cheer him on under the Gateway Arch on the St. Louis Riverfont. I was on his list because I edit The St. Louis American, which his campaign has seized upon as a key outlet to reach the black community in St. Louis and, via our heavily visited website, all over the country.

Two of our reporters, Alvin A. Reid and Bill Beene, were down on the riverfront to hear him speak, as was our photojournalist, Wiley Price, who took the unbelievably intimate shot of the AME bishops praying over Obama that went around the world on email chains and was a significant element in the spread of deep trust for Obama at the African-American grassroots.

As an editor, I'm not often the guy who gets the story. I'm usually the guy who makes sure somebody else is there to get the story. Mine is typically the dull but necessary task of making sure there are trains running and that they run on time, and I also get the chore (and, at times, satisfaction) of fine-tuning the stories when they finally come in.

I only agreed to take this call from Obama, instead of assigning it to Alvin, for mostly practical reasons. I imagined Alvin would be in the crush of the crowd and peaking on adrenaline, eager for Obama to take the stage. These are not ideal conditions for conducting an exclusive, five-minute interview with arguably the most important person on the planet.

I'll also confess to a little bit of collecting on a dues payment.

My family visited Chicago after Obama's 2004 Democratic National Convention speech, but before he announced his candidacy for U.S. president. My wife was, at that time, anything but the political junkie that the Obama campaign (and David Gergen) subsequently have made of her. She remembers that we passed a street poster advertising a black Chicago politician named Barack Obama. (I don't remember this episode, I'm sorry to say.) She asked who was that.

Apparently, I said, "That's the next president of the United States."

Of course, he may not be - any number of bad things can happen between now and the close of polls on Nov. 4 - but I'll take my wife's word that I was with Obama from before the beginning. Certainly, I was with him before the rest of The St. Louis American newsroom was with him. Mind you, I work with a bunch of brilliant, cynical, hardbitten black journalists. After Obama announced his candidacy, when I already firmly believed in him, I was often told in our newsroom that "a black man named Barack Hussein Obama is not going to get elected president."

At the time, I had no argument against their practical objections. I knew that only white men have ever been elected president. I knew that Obama was competing against a Clinton, when another Clinton had been elected as president twice and that this Clinton is a woman, and women were much better organized politically, going into this campaign, than the black community. I knew all this and didn't want to argue against any of it. All I could say, to a room full of brilliant, cynical black pragmatists, was, "Look, I'm a white progressive. I'm being true to my kind. We're for Obama."

This conversation started to change after Obama began to outraise Clinton in funds, and after Wiley took that historic photograph that convinced a skeptical Black America that this son of a white woman and a black Kenyan was, indeed, a native Christian son.

So, I wanted to take the call from Obama before he went onstage on Saturday morning, even though I had been offered two previous interviews with Michelle Obama (whom I love and respect as much as her husband), but had assigned both of those interviews to other reporters. This one was mine.

Barack Obama had called me before. That was very early in the primary campaign, long before he was a household name or any of his policy stands or rhetorical flourishes were well known. He was already my personal candidate, then, but most of America, including most of Black American, didn't know him yet. So, instead of asking him the many specific things I most wanted to know, in that first interview I lobbed him softballs and gave him a chance to air out his stump speeches, which he did very effectively.

We spoke, that time, on a Thursday. Our paper comes out on Thursday. Our conversation was a week old the next time we came out. Though it ran on our website the day we spoke and got plenty of looks online, I didn't place the Q&A on the front page of the newspaper. This will be a funny and slightly embarassing footnote if Obama is elected president. I got the first one-on-one interview with the next presindent in my media market, and I didn't even carry it on the front page of the paper. I buried it inside. It was old news (in the logic of our news cycle) about a fringe candidate who had a long way to go.

He has now come a long way. And I really wanted to talk to him again.

At age 41, I have been doing professional journalism for exactly half of my life. It's in my blood and instincts. Unless I am working on an investigative piece, which involves a specialized skill set (that of the assassin), I tend to venture into interviews with nothing more than a hunch for the first question I'll ask. The rest is a dance. The better you respond to how your partner is moving at that particular time, the more likely your partner will move well. The more you capitalilze on inertia from your partner's most recent movement, the further you will get together. Moving down a list of questions, regardless of how any of the questions is answered, is the best way to kill an interview.

So, reporting for the black press, of course, I had a set of questions about race in the back of mind, ready to go, sure I'd find the right one when I heard the tone of his voice and got a sense of where he was at as 100,000 of my fellow citizens mustered along the riverfront, waiting to hear him speak to them. And I went about my ordinary business of the morning, with my cell phone ready to ring. The arranged time was 11:30 a.m. That time came and passed with my daughter and wife inside our local public library, where a guy from the local fire district was teaching children about fire safety, while I waited in the quiet of the car.

To relax, I read, so I was reading. I was reading a biography of the Australian poet Les Murray. If Obama is elected president, he will probably meet my friend Les one day, since Les is a very public figure in Australia and has had close relationships with more than one prime minister. I met Les myself some years ago in New York, after writing him a whopper of a fan letter and asking for his autograph on a baseball. My arts organization Poetry Scores has since committed to setting to music his great poem The Sydney Highrise Variations; Les is next on our list.

For as long as I have known Les, I have known that a biography of him existed, which is unusual for a living poet and indicative of his importance. It took me a good long while to buy the book, Les Murray: A Life in Progress by Peter F. Alexander, and even longer to read it once I had it. It's odd that I finally started reading it on Friday night, October 17, because I quickly learned that Les' birthday is October 17. He turned 70 on the very day I finally began to read the story of his life. Happy birthday, mate!

When 11:30 a.m. came and passed on Saturday morning, I was just getting into a story that Les had told me in person when we spent parts of two days together in New York. (He makes a living on the international poetry circuit, but likes to get away from his academic handlers and go local.)

Les told me how the woman who would eventually become his wife had fit him for a stage costume before they knew one another. He was playing Satan in a university performance of a late medieval German passion play, and she was sewing costumes. (Unlike John McCain or Sarah Palin, Barack Obama would actually understand what this means and be eager to hear the rest of the story.) In addition to the crushed red velvet suit his future wife Valerie sewed for Satan, Les wore a pig mask. Unfortunately for Les and for the governor of New South Wales, the slits in the pig mask were tiny and didn't line up right with the actor's eyes, so at one point when Satan is supposed to leap offstage, Les lept offstage - and right onto the knees of the governor! - who (a detail I remember from Les' yarn in New York, that's not in Peter's biography) had one or more wooden legs.

It was just then, as I was imagining the large rural Australian poet in the Satan costume and pig mask, landing on the wooden legs of the New South Wales governor, that the next president of the United States called me on my cellphone, as I sat outside my local public library. And we went to work, he and I: we danced.


Satan costume from Fun 'n' Folly

1 comment:

Tomatohead said...

What an extraordinary Saturday you had. Thoughtful questions and responses.