A speechwriter for Obama, Edwards, and Clinton on why she’s voting McCain.
Wendy Button is a writer in Washington, DC. She has written for Senators John Edwards, Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, Barack Obama, and Mayor Tom Menino of Boston as well as other national and international leaders. She received her MFA in writing from Bennington College and is currently writing the CNN Heroes Award Show to air Thanksgiving night.
Since I started writing speeches more than ten years ago, I have always believed in the Democratic Party. Not anymore. Not after the election of 2008. This transformation has been swift and complete and since I’m a woman writing in the election of 2008, “very emotional.”
When I entered this campaign, it was at the 2006 Edwards staff Christmas party. My nametag read “Millie Worker.” When former Senator John Edwards read it, he laughed and said, “That makes you like my parent.” He went on to say, “Would you please come down to Chapel Hill so we can talk about what’s coming up.” I sat in John and Elizabeth’s living room for two and half hours. I left North Carolina, energized about politics for the first time in months.
Not only has this party belittled working people in this campaign, it has also been part of tearing down two female candidates.
I didn’t hear from anyone for three weeks.
When I finally received the official offer, it was the kind of political offer that said, “Go away.” That happens. It’s their campaign and I just assumed that I had been pushed out. The problem was that I had canceled a number of freelance writing jobs because I had assumed that when John said, “Start right away” I would. I needed a job right away and so I took the one in front of me with Senator Barack Obama.
When we first met, Obama and I had a nice conversation about speeches and writing, and at the end of the meeting I handed him a pocket-sized bottle of Grey Poupon mustard so he wouldn’t have to ask staff if it was okay to put it on his hamburger. At the bottom of the bottle was the logo for “The South Beach Diet” and he snapped, “Oh so you read People magazine.” He seemed to think that I was commenting on his bathing suit picture.
I helped with his announcement speech and others. I worked in the Senate when he was in D.C. One day after a hearing on Darfur, we were walking back to the office. I was still hobbling from a very bad ankle injury and in a very kind and gentle way he offered his arm when we approached the stairs. But later in debate preps and phone conversations and meetings, I realized that I had made a mistake. I didn’t belong. No matter how hard I tried, my heart wasn’t in it anymore.
See campaigns get complicated when you’ve written for so many Democrats. Not only had I written for Senator Edwards, but I had also been Senator Hillary Clinton’s speechwriter. Senator Joe Biden is a “good looking” man and his care after my father almost died from an aneurysm is the kind of kindness you never forget. When I saw Edwards at a traffic light in D.C. about a year after our meeting, he asked for help and I did and it was an honor to help him with his concession speech. And when the primary ended, it was a privilege to help Michelle Obama with a stump speech, be considered as a speechwriter for the V.P. nominee again, and send friends in Chicago ideas until the financial crisis hit. This is what the Democratic Party has been for me; it’s family. Now, it doesn’t even feel like a distant cousin.
This drift started on a personal level with the fall of former Senator John Edwards. It got stronger during the Democratic National Convention when I counted the substantive mentions of poverty on one hand and a whole bunch of bad canned partisan lines against Senator John McCain. Some faith was lifted after Senator Hillary Clinton’s grace during a difficult hour. But that faith was dashed when I saw that someone had raided the Caligula set and planted the old columns at Invesco Field.
The final straw came the other week when Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher (a.k.a Joe the Plumber) asked a question about higher taxes for small businesses. Instead of celebrating his aspirations, they were mocked. He wasn’t “a real plumber,” and “They’re fighting for Joe the Hedge-Fund manager,” and the patronizing, “I’ve got nothing but love for Joe the Plumber.”
Having worked in politics, I know that absolutely none of this is on the level. This back and forth is posturing, a charade, and a political game. These lines are what I refer to as “hooker lines”—a sure thing to get applause and the press to scribble as if they’re reporting meaningful news.
As the nation slouches toward disaster, the level of political discourse is unworthy of this moment in history. We have Republicans raising Ayers and Democrats fostering ageism with “erratic” and jokes about Depends. Sexism. Racism. Ageism and maybe some Socialism have all made their ugly cameos in election 2008. It’s not inspiring. Perhaps this is why I found the initial mocking of Joe so offensive and I realized an old line applied: “I didn’t leave the Democratic Party; the Democratic Party left me.”
The party I believed in wouldn’t look down on working people under any circumstance. And Joe the Plumber is right. This is the absolutely worst time to raise taxes on anyone: the rich, the middle class, the poor, small businesses and corporations.
Our economy is in the tank for many complicated reasons, especially because people don’t have enough money. So let them keep it. Let businesses keep it so they can create jobs and stay here and weather this storm. And yet, the Democratic ideology remains the same. Our approach to problems—big government solutions paid for by taxing the rich and big and smaller companies—is just as tired and out of date as trickle down economics. How about a novel approach that simply finds a sane way to stop the bleeding?
That’s not exactly the philosophy of a Democrat. Not only has this party belittled working people in this campaign from Joe the Plumber to the bitter comments, it has also been part of tearing down two female candidates. At first, certain Democrats and the press called Senator Clinton “dishonest.” They went after her cleavage. They said her experience as First Lady consisted of having tea parties. There was no outrage over “Bros before Hoes” or “Iron My Shirt.” Did Senator Clinton make mistakes? Of course. She’s human.
But here we are about a week out and it’s déjà vu all over again. Really, front-page news is how the Republican National Committee paid for Governor Sarah Palin’s wardrobe? Where’s the op-ed about how Obama tucks in his shirt when he plays basketball or how Senator Biden buttons the top button on his golf shirt?
Oh right, this story goes to the sincerity of her Hockey Mom persona. What planet am I living on? Everyone knows that when it comes to appearance, there’s a double standard for women politicians. Remember the speech Speaker Pelosi gave on the floor the day of the bailout vote? Check out how many stories commented on her hair that day and how many mentioned Congressman Barney Frank’s.
Here we are discussing Governor Palin’s clothes—oh wait, now we’re on to the make-up—not what either man is going to do to save our economy. This isn’t an accident. It is part of a manufactured narrative that she is stupid.
Governor Palin and I don’t agree on a lot of things, mostly social issues. But I have grown to appreciate the Governor. I was one of those initial skeptics and would laugh at the pictures. Not anymore. When someone takes on a corrupt political machine and a sitting governor, that is not done by someone with a low I.Q. or a moral core made of tissue paper. When someone fights her way to get scholarships and work her way through college even in a jagged line, that shows determination and humility you can’t learn from reading Reinhold Niebuhr. When a mother brings her son with special needs onto the national stage with love, honesty, and pride, that gives hope to families like mine as my older brother lives with a mental disability. And when someone can sit on a stage during the Sarah Palin rap on Saturday Night Live, put her hands in the air and watch someone in a moose costume get shot—that’s a sign of both humor and humanity.
Has she made mistakes? Of course, she’s human too. But the attention paid to her mistakes has been unprecedented compared to Senator Obama’s “57 states” remarks or Senator Biden using a version of the Samuel Johnson quote, “There’s nothing like a hanging in the morning to focus a man’s thoughts.”
But thank God for election 2008. We can talk about the wardrobe and make-up even though most people don’t understand the details about Senator Obama’s plan with Iraq. When he says, “all combat troops,” he’s not talking about all troops—it leaves a residual force of as large as 55,000 indefinitely. That’s not ending the war; that’s half a war.
I was dead wrong about the surge and thought it would be a disaster. Senator John McCain led when many of us were ready to quit. Yet we march on as if nothing has changed, wedded to an old plan, and that too is a long way from the Democratic Party.
I can no longer justify what this party has done and can’t dismiss the treatment of women and working people as just part of the new kind of politics. It’s wrong and someone has to say that. And also say that the Democratic Party’s talking points—that Senator John McCain is just four more years of the same and that he’s President Bush—are now just hooker lines that fit a very effective and perhaps wave-winning political argument…doesn’t mean they’re true. After all, he is the only one who’s worked in a bipartisan way on big challenges.
Before I cast my vote, I will correct my party affiliation and change it to No Party or Independent. Then, in the spirit of election 2008, I’ll get a manicure, pedicure, and my hair done. Might as well look pretty when I am unemployed in a city swimming with “D’s.”
Whatever inspiration I had in Chapel Hill two years ago is gone. When people say how excited they are about this election, I can now say, “Maybe for you. But I lost my home.”