The Physicality of Politics

President Barack Obama, on the stump in Maumee, Ohio, July 5. (AP via KATU)

Watching President Obama sweating out on campaign stops across Ohio last week, where temperatures hit the 90s, is a welcome reminder that politics is above all a physical endurance contest. It’s a hot early summer, we haven’t had the party nominating conventions and we haven’t hit Labor Day yet, the traditional beginning of the general campaign season.  But off they go to the hustings.

Politics is often called a “contact sport,” usually as a strained, overused metaphor for the battering politicians’ reputations take. Most commentators who use that old cliche have no idea ofthe sheer physicality of the campaign trail. It is not for nothing that John F. Kennedy holds the world record for handshakes.  “The handshake is the threshold act, the beginning of politics,” writes Anonymous (Joe Klein) in Primary Colors, the roman a clef of the 1992 presidential campaign. And no matter the concern about the “air war” and campaign organization, television advertisements and the Internet’s impact on fundraising, SuperPACS and voter turnout, candidates still need to get out into the country and meet the voters. The primary contests — this was most dramatically demonstrated during the 2008 race — particularly demand it.  In the early primary states especially, such as New Hampshire and Iowa, voters expect to meet all the candidates before casting their ballot.  This is democracy writ small and in the largest sense of the word.

Mitt Romney and his wife, Ann, enjoy an ice cream to cool off during a break from the campaign trail. (AP via ABC News)

But it places incredible physical, intellectual and psychic demands on the candidates.  Bill Clinton famously gained weight during his 1992 race and completely lost his voice in his dash to the finish.  I remember meeting him with a friend on the campaign trail during the summer of 1992.  At one o’clock in the morning at the Peabody Hotel in Memphis, Tennessee, he still stopped to meet every single person in the lobby. Obama, it is perhaps less well-known, lost weight on his spare physique in 2008.  Clinton’s propensity to eat on the campaign trail, and Obama’s commensurate ability to burn calories reminded me of a Senate colleague who, while running for the State Senate in Maryland, lost 40 pounds: politics plays havoc with the human frame.  Obama’s voice in Ohio already sounds raspy.  Even on vacation, you could see Romney’s magnificent coiffeur begin to wilt.  Just wait until he hits North Carolina in August.

The primary and general election campaign you see on television (whether you follow it intently or whether it forces itself on your consciousness occasionally) is mirrored all across the country in towns and cities and villages and counties, in congressional and state legislative districts, in cantons and parishes and townships, as thousands of people stand for office for mayor, city council, school board, county supervisor, state assembly, and dogcatcher. This is the real stuff of republicanism, far from the attention of national media and big money, and it is as physical and grueling and demanding as any national race for the candidates and families involved. For months, they will be running, their own names in contention against others, out in public, meeting people, asking for votes.

This can be great fun.  Local political campaigns are rooted in community, and running for office means working and knowing where you live better than probably any other time in your life.  My mother ran three times for local school board in my hometown in California (she won by expanding margins each time); the year before her first race she ran the campaign for a local referendum. Each race was different, of course, but at the local level they were always the same.  We gathered the same group of friends for the same activities: silk-screening campaign posters, folding and staple-gunning them to stakes which we then drove around the city to  pound with great mallets into willing families’ front yards to advertise the candidate.  We stuffed and licked envelopes for direct mail appeals (no computers necessary, my mother hand-addressed each one).  Sometimes I accompanied my mother to the print shop where she would submit, approve, and pick up her mailers.

Using a huge blueprint map of the city tacked up on our dining room wall, we “walked precincts,” literally and physically meeting people at their homes in neighborhoods all across the city, highlighting each block that we finished.  I watched my mother practice speeches in her bedroom mirror before going out to meet civic groups to win their endorsement and member support.  She attended public events (Fourth of July, Memorial Day, Labor Day), meeting people day after day.  My grandfather, a famously successful cookie salesman, donned a campaign hat and went door to door meeting people to ask them to vote for my mother.

All of this is to say, to reach voters, candidates have to be out and meeting people constantly.  My mother did advertise in the local newspaper, but just to raise the money to buy an advertisement she needed to meet and win over people and that meant getting out to where people are. That activity is tremendously physical and requires a hearty, friendly, outgoing, and generous constitution.

There is very little mention or literature about this aspect of politics.  The physical nature of it, the rootedness in family and community, the sheer fun.  Practically our entire family helped my mother, and an entire legion of my mother’s friends helped her too.  Often journalists on the campaign bus or plane will complain about the unrelenting pace of the trail, but they are only capturing a small aspect of the experience (they have deadlines; in politics the only deadline is election day and for the winner usually even that day restarts the clock).  I admired Primary Colors for its intimate look at the often-ignored aspects of small-time political organizations in the back-of-the-beyond before people are really paying attention, and the latter “West Wing” episodes captured some of this is-anybody-paying-attention feel to the race for the White House in chilly Iowa and New Hampshire.

Because politics is a contact sport. Americans have the right to meet their representatives, to look them in the eye, size them up, ask them questions, hear what they answer.  That’s a fundamental aspect of our representative democracy, and quite unlike many parliamentary systems, where there is very often no direct connection between that meeting and their vote. In America, you get to meet the man and woman in the arena. In fact, we insist on it.


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