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Obama and the Camp Followers


As Obama’s presidential campaign marches inevitably toward Washington DC, Camp Followers emerge from the left, right and center and jog to catch up. They freshen up their resumes with belated help for their candidate and would-be employer. They throw ethics to the wind, in apparent desperate attempts to get more than a chance to boogie at one of the many inaugural balls. They want a chance to replace a Bush appointee in the new Obama administration. Their chutzpa is shocking and depressing.

Consider Hendrick Hertzberg, a staffer at the New Yorker’s Talk of the Town, and a former speech writer for President Jimmy Carter. When he left out salient, historical facts about the Alaska Independence Party in a recent piece, leaving the impression that the AIP was a haven for domestic terrorists tied to Sarah and Todd Palin, I assumed he needed help with his research. I wrote the New Yorker:

 “You praise the Obama campaign for not using a “true” smear about the Palins’ association with Alaskan secessionists. Consider the facts: The bombastic founder of the Alaska Independence Party, Joe Vogler, 80, was murdered by a burglar for non-existent gold buried in his cabin, not (ed:as you wrote) “in connection with an informal transaction involving plastic explosives.”

Alaska’s second governor, Republican Wally Hickel left his post to become Nixon’s Secretary of Interior, banned offshore drilling after the Santa Barbara oil spill and quit his cabinet post after the Kent State Massacre. He ran and won for governor again, this time, on the AIP ticket. When they finally met, Hickel chased Vogler out of his office, “brandishing his office stapler like a club” (from the official party web site). Maybe Obama did his homework.”

Hertzberg  replied

“Dear Professor Conn —

Thanks for your letter. I did know about the Hickel connection. But the facts in my piece are still facts. Selected facts, out-of-context facts, inflammatory facts, yes — but if Obama were running a campaign like McCain’s, he’d go right ahead and use those selected, out-of-context, inflammatory facts in a negative ad.

Sincerely, Hendrik Hertzberg”

Did other New Yorker readers realize that Mr. Hertzberg had decided to run a campaign like McCain’s on behalf of Obama in “Talk of the Town”?  I replied:

“Thank you for your honest reply. If facts provided voters are measured by the standard of the most unethical Presidential campaign, where does this place the voter with a sincere desire for information in this race to the bottom? Or, put another way, why does Obama need to sink to McCain’s level of discourse if you and a magazine of the New Yorker’s apparent integrity are willing to do it for him?”

Obama may need a good speechwriter who uses facts selectively. Jimmy Carter, banned from the Democratic convention for his Nader-like position on Israel, no longer does.

Now consider the illustrious Colin Powell. His endorsement of Obama on “Meet the Press,” has been considered a turning point in the Virginia campaign and a reason for cheer among American Muslims. Powell’s direct role in selling the Iraqi invasion to the world and his complicity in killing hundreds of thousands of Muslims on the other side is a slate, now wiped clean by his support. Less publicized was his more expansive endorsement of Alaska Senator Ted Steven’s character under oath before a Washington, DC jury just days before his endorsement of Obama. According to Rich Mauer and Erika Bolstad of the McClatchy chain: Powell told the court that (now convicted felon) Stevens: “was a “trusted individual” and a man with a “sterling” reputation”.

Wrote Mauer and Bolstad, “He was someone whose word you could rely on,” said Powell. “The former secretary of state said he had known Stevens for 25 years, mostly in the senator’s role as the top defense appropriator on the Senate Appropriations Committee. In Stevens, “I had a guy who would tell me when I was off base, he would tell me when I had no clothes on, figuratively, that is, and would tell me when I was right and go for it,” Powell said. “He’s a guy who, as we said in the infantry, we would take on a long patrol.”

So much for the judgment of a former Secretary of State and military leader, at least in the eyes of the jury who convicted Stevens, thereafter, on all seven felony counts.  Camp Followers need not be perfect. None of us are. Still, isn’t it strange not a single political journalist in Washington has asked whether Powell’s decision to sell the war and his very recent decision to vouch for Senator Stevens’ character at his trial, taken together, should weigh on the public’s judgment of  his decision to vouch for presidential candidate Obama?  The Obama campaign and Powell counted on media silence in the nation’s capital on that question, and got it.

Last and least is a voice from the left, Norman Solomon, who comes forward in these last days to warn his progressive voter friends to stay away from Ralph Nader at the polls. No matter that national polls say consistently that Nader draws his votes from McCain’s side, Solomon is worried. Even as he acknowledges Obama’s progressive policy failings both domestic and foreign, he explicitly counsels voting for Obama with no expectation of change:

“When I’ve spoken to dozens of audiences during the two months since the Democratic National Convention (where I was an elected Obama delegate), there’s been an overwhelmingly positive response when I make a simple statement about Obama and the prospects of an Obama presidency:

“The best way to avoid becoming disillusioned is to not have illusions in the first place.”

“Looking past the election, progressives will need to mobilize for a comprehensive agenda including economic justice, guaranteed healthcare for all, civil liberties, environmental protection and demilitarization.”

I recalled (though many may not)  his similar warning to the Greens in October 2003 to stay away from Nader, a decision which ultimately allowed Democratic operatives and Republican law firms to keep Independent Nader’s anti-war message off of state ballots and out of the 2004 campaign. Thousands more died while Progressives mobilized.

If Hertzberg wants to write speeches again and Powell wants in on presidential  foreign policy decisions, Solomon seems ready to audition as the next Ralph Nader within the Obama circle, ignoring entirely Nader’s reason for pursing tirelessly multiple presidential campaigns- the corporate dominance of  the political agenda in both major parties, a dominance which blocks new generations of citizen activists and their plans. That  corporate dominance is already implanted in the Obama program of change.

“Expect nothing and you won’t be disappointed,” is hardly a battle cry for progressive mobilization , but, I suppose, it’s a living.

Camp followers are not professional political fabricators like James Carville and Mary Matalin. They are tactical amateurs who arrive when the march is nearly over and shout to be heard. When their own career agenda shades their advice to those who trust them, especially younger voters, they deserve to be tagged with warning labels. Those who rely on their counsel before they vote, need to understand that  their intent is  simply to advance in the ranks of Obama supporters on the way to the White House.

STEVE CONN lived in Alaska from 1972 until 2007. He is a retired professor, University of Alaska. His e mail is








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