Spreading Some Canvass

So as I said, Melissa and I went to Pennsylvania yesterday to canvass for Obama. We drove out from Brooklyn that morning -- the New Jersey foliage was beautiful -- and gathered in a church basement in downtown Easton, in the Lehigh Valley. The canvassing office was well-organized, well-staffed, and well-stocked with doughnuts, bagels, and coffee. A bus came in from New York, and suddenly the space was flooded with people of all ages and races. We listened to our instructions, received our walk packet, and headed out to hit the streets with none of the pep rallying I heard before my Kerry canvassing four years ago, no drama or bombast. I guess we all knew how much this election means, and the focus was solely on efficiently, cheerfully getting the job done.

Our territory was a new-looking subdivision west of town, with pretty houses, well-kept green lawns, and jack-o'-lanterns or Halloween decorations on every porch. Melissa and I split up our list and worked up and down nearly every street in the area. Even though I had canvassed before, I was always a bit nervous as I approached each door, and then usually happily surprised by the niceness of the people inside, even if they don't support my candidate. The vast majority of the people I talked to were Obamaites -- naturally, since I was using a Democratic walk list, but it was heartening anyway. The yard signs looked split 50-50. One housebound woman and her husband kept me talking with them ten minutes after my questionnaire was complete. Another woman took my hand, patted it, and thanked me for my hard work. I wondered whether the families inside these housing-boom mansions were worried about foreclosure notices, and tried to keep this line out front: "Are you better off than you were eight years ago? Do you think the United States is in a better place?" The answer to at least one of these questions was almost guaranteed to be a "no," which invited further conversation and a chance to make the Obama policy pitch.

But when I met anti-Obamaites, they were never opposed on the basis of policy -- only on who they believed Barack was. One man I approached heard "Obama" and said immediately, "I'm not voting for him."

"Could you tell me why not?" I asked, just in case he needed a little more information.

"I'm prejudiced."

I think my mouth nearly fell open, but I decided to make him say it. "Against what?"

"Against minorities," he said.

"Really," I said. I honestly wasn't sure if he was just teasing me or whether he meant it, so I decided to play up Barack's non-minority background just in case that made any difference. "Well, you know, Senator Obama is half white, half African American -- literally, since his father was from Kenya." I added a few more details out of Dreams from my Father (which I commend to any of you who haven't read it), about his grandmother and growing up in Hawaii.

The guy shook his head. "I'm going to leave the country if he's elected. I was born in Lebanon and I'm going back there."

"Some people would think that makes you a minority," I said, but he just shrugged. He asked the friend in the car with him if he was going to vote. "Nah, all those politicians are alike," the friend said.

God knows I couldn't fix racism in a conversation, so I thanked them for their time and left. The other notable (to me) anti-Obama incident happened in the afternoon, when we were working over a different neighborhood north of town. By this time I'd put on an "Obama '08" button, and when my subject of the moment opened the door, the guy's eyes went straight to my button. "Oh, honey, I'm supporting McCain," he said.

"Fair enough," I answered, and started to step off the porch with a thank you for his time. But then he said --

"And you ought to look into your guy too."

I stopped. "What do you mean by that?"

"He's got some real questionable friends."

"Like who?" I said, waiting for William Ayers. But he went for Reverend Wright, so I brought up Charles Keating, then he switched tactics.

"Rush Limbaugh says he couldn't even get FBI clearance."

"Rush Limbaugh," I said, rolling my eyes. "There's a real fair and unbiased source."

"Yeah, like Channel 2, 4, and 7 are so unbiased," he said, naming the CBS, NBC, and ABC affiliates out of New York with his own eye roll.

"So what in his background keeps him from getting FBI clearance?"

"I don't know, but he can't get it. You can look it up."

"Fine, I will," I said, and I left. And when I got home, I did look it up. Obama hasn't actually been denied FBI clearance, and given that he's a Senator in line for the Presidency, he probably already has much higher clearance than that. The right wing just likes to allege that he couldn't get the clearance to become an FBI agent if he applied to do so. This is because the FBI investigates past drug abuse and association with "undesirable persons" as part of its background checks for security clearance, and both of those categories could potentially indict Obama. But per Dreams from my Father again, Obama last used drugs more than twenty years ago, and his associations with Rev. Wright and William Ayers have been thoroughly documented and do not seem to have had any lasting affects on his political thought.

So I'm telling these stories not because I think my performance in them was all that fabulous -- it wasn't, in case that didn't come through -- but because I've been so firmly in the tank for Obama, it was fascinating to me to meet people who were against him. And depressing, too, that they were against him for such utterly stupid reasons as his race and a pack of irrational lies. If you're voting for McCain because you're anti-abortion or really rich or you agree with his foreign-policy views or somesuch, I respect that; but if you're voting for him because of anti-Obama character canards from proudly biased talk-show hosts? No way. After these encounters, I found myself mentally reviewing everything I knew about Obama to test that I wasn't being irrational. . . . I've read Dreams from my Father (which he wrote himself), studied his platform and speeches, watched both the debates and all the headlines since January; and I couldn't find anything in all that to make doubt that he will be anything other than a reliable, coolheaded and trustworthy chief executive. (Which does still mean "politician," but other than that. . . .)

Over dinner later, I posed the questions to Melissa: Would you rather have a president who has a reprehensible personal life (fill in your own definition of "reprehensible" here) but policies you agree with 100%, and a good chance of getting them passed if elected? Or a president with a model personal life, but policies you agree with only 55%? I voted for reprehensibility and policy agreement, pending the particularities of the reprehensibility. . . . I do not think Obama's had a reprehensible personal life, for the record, but it's an interesting theory question, as it was an interesting day.

(Two new poll questions at right, since it's been a while! One is the question posed above, and one based on a closing number from [title of show].)