Door to door in ’04 Kentucky

Long Narrative about the Trip to Kentucky in 2004,

from the student newspaper of St. John’s College, Annapolis, “The Gadfly”

Orig. published as “Chillin’ with the D-trip” (thanks Ian)

April  2004

A few weeks ago, Ian, Hayden, and I went to Kentucky with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee to help get a reasonably just Democrat elected to Congress. This is my opinion, that he was reasonably just; Ian said we couldn’t know that, and that what mattered was that he was a Democrat; Hayden hadn’t had time to research him as I had done, and form an opinion, so he just argued with Ian about whether we could know if someone was just. Perhaps you have not heard of the D-triple-C, as I had not before; perhaps you care little for politics in general, or perhaps you too think we can’t know if someone is just. Ian says that Kentucky is too long ago to be a good story; Hayden thinks it could be ok but doubts my ability to make it interesting to the masses after he went out on a limb and wrote about America last week. I say that perhaps you would be interested in the strangeness of the situation: not, hey look, Johnnies in politics, because as we well know that’s been done before, but something to wonder at, a strange part of the country and a strange collection of characters. Also, there’s a happy ending.*

So it turns out that the D-triple-C, as they apparently call it, is the part of the D. party that funds House campaigns. They’ve got a building as one might expect in DC, on Capitol Hill, not very good-looking, where the three of us went with our backpacks and computers to catch our bus, one of ten buses in all. Hayden had heard, on this Washington insider blog that he’s been reading for a few months, that this group was financing a trip to Kentucky for anyone that wanted to come along, mainly young staffers who could get away, and provide manpower for the last few days of this rather heated congressional race. Now, both Hayden and Ian want to work in politics in their soon-to-be-present future lives, if for slightly different reasons; me, I want to learn Greek and Latin really well. We are a somewhat unlikely trio. But we are alike in our spiritedness and our desire to be wherever the public things are, and the idea of getting away from Annapolis after our essays were more or less triumphantly turned in was appealing enough to convince us, even if we didn’t really know so much what we’d be doing in particular. Plus, I’d never been to Kentucky, and I was curious to see what it was like.

You may not yourself feel that Kentucky is a place you would like to visit. (I became aware of this shortly after expressing the above sentiment in language class.) Indeed, many of the amusing young workers in politics we went there with held similar opinions. Ah, heaven have mercy on a divided land! I’ve done a lot of traveling, and to see the individual land of each state, and how it shapes its citizens is quite something. Do you know the difference between West Virginia and western Maryland? How about Arkansas and Missouri? It turns out that Kentucky, both in its land and its people, is sort of a cross between Virginia and Tennessee. It has the obvious fertility and a good part of the domesticity that Virginia’s worn-down ancient mountains have, but mixed with a fair amount of the broadness and length-of-sight of Tennessee. Ian wanted me to put in that it leads the country in its percentage of toothless people, but I consider this to be a detail that is not useful rhetorically. Kentucky, at least the part where we visited around Lexington, seems to be a Southern state that’s doing a little better, is a bit more prosperous, is enjoying itself a bit more than say, Mississippi or Alabama. So the toothless people in Kentucky are doing relatively ok, at least poetically ok; their possible misery is not abject, like in the Mississippi Faulkner talks about. I think I like Kentucky; I met some good people there. (You should ask Ian about his opinion of Kentucky.)

So there we were in a new state, in the company of a great many amusing young workers in politics. Some had education, some had ambition, a few had both; all seemed to enjoy making more or less dull jokes about Republicans. We kept to ourselves initially, for the most part; Ian thought that any contacts he made would be unimportant, since he will shortly be sequestered in law school for three years; my wanting to study Greek instead of law or politics made me appear to be a rather dull, un-ambitious person, so I wasn’t eager to talk to people who held that opinion; Hayden did rather a large amount of talking to those in charge, which made Ian and me nervous (oh no, Hayden’s going to cause an international incident again); but fortunately he carried himself fairly well.

They bussed us through the night to a Ramada Inn (Hayden calmed our hysterical bus leader when our bus driver got lost for the third time, and gave him directions through western Maryland), gave us breakfast, and packed us off to the road again. This time, we were heading to our staging locations, as they quaintly put it; these were empty office buildings in strip malls, with a Ben Chandler sign in the window (our candidate) definitely and electricity/plumbing possibly. We met the man who ended up being our personal contact-on-the-ground, David Fitts; Hayden talked to him too. All three of us got along well with him; I think he appreciated our slightly older bearing.

Mr. Fitts had a rental SUV, paid for by the DCCC, that we got into with our information sheets of frequent voters who were registered Democrats, and little brochures to give them or leave at the door. These little brochures were identified as ‘literature’ to us, or ‘lit’. What we were to do was to knock on specific doors, remind the person to vote on Tuesday in the special election, and mention our candidate favorably. They had given us this rather foolish script about how our candidate had a history of helping Bluegrass families; our hysterical bus leader had told us that we had better use it, since somebody probably paid to have it written, but I didn’t really seriously consider using it. Surely people in the South more than others, perhaps, would be quick to be insulted at someone using false words at their doorstep; children from Washington telling me about bluegrass families, etc.

They told us to pick teams of four; for only a second were we in doubt as to our ability to find a fourth. As I said, we had kept to ourselves, but apparently this did nothing to prevent people thinking of us as the cool kids, a new experience for me, if not, as they say, for Ian and Hayden. We were besieged with offers from the ambitious and those with intellectual pretensions. I can’t imagine how they found us out. For this first trip, we settled for a group of not four but five, as attractive Mel from American University and dorky-lawyer-guy staffer, whose name I could never remember, both were equally determined to come with us.

For the actual walking from door to door, Ian and I were partners, while Hayden was cozied up to by Mel and the dorky-lawyer respectively. We would go up to the door, Ian would try not to look menacing, which was difficult for someone so amusingly urban, and I would find that adding some twang and lilt to my voice came pretty easily each time. The trick was to come up with a polite way to ask who they were voting for, that is, without really asking. I ended up doing most of the talking; Ian claims that this is only circumstantial and not meaningful at all; my way of talking was to make the reminder to vote the main thing, and tell them that personally I was supporting Ben Chandler. Most people seemed to consider me a sympathetic character, which was gratifying. Even if my mother considers me definitively not a Southern lady, at least I can fool the people in Kentucky.

It is quite something, to go up to a stranger’s door who is not from your city and talk to them about politics. Even though now I have actually done this, I still have to wonder at myself for doing it at all. Without the script and with some sincerity, however, it seemed at the time a pretty benign activity. I met many people that I admired. There are, of course, many purely amusing anecdotes I could tell, like the woman that said she never voted but her husband did, or the woman who told us ‘wrong party’, only to have her husband come out without a shirt to politely request one of our flyers; or the man that said his son, a gay vegetarian Republican, would cancel out his vote, but that he would still vote anyway. These were all very comical, and Ian and I enjoyed very much relating them to our band in the SUV, but they are not the meat of our acquaintance. It is fun to travel across the country a ways and find in a stranger a fellow partisan, but more than that, it was coming across the country a ways to find a great many intelligent, reasonably thoughtful people who considered it their moral duty to vote. These we found, at door after door, men and women both. Ian thinks this was just because we only went to people with a record of voting; I concede that that was the efficient cause, but hold out for a more profound meaning in the final one. Perhaps you would argue that we didn’t see all the foolish, dispiriting people we could have; I would return that to find 200 men with some claim to virtue was more than I expected, and something at which to wonder.

There was a party that night, Saturday, with loud music and many people from Kentucky thanking us for coming all the way from Washington. We stayed long enough to eat and be bothered by dorky-lawer guy (what was his name?), then took the very first bus back to our motel for the rest and solitude we greatly desired; this consisted of Ian playing punk for us on his computer, me playing chess on my computer, Hayden insisting that we watch Fox News because it was good for us to see what the conservative media was saying. We watched a sort of interesting edition of the Pat “throw the tapes in the river, Dick” Buchanan show and then went to sleep.

The next day, Sunday, was back into the SUV with David to cover a larger, more rural area with more people. To our futher surprise, not only did Mel and D.L. want to come with us, but red-jacket-with-Jewish-hat and annoyingly-and-rabidly-in-the-know-staffer, who were the most ambitious ones of all. Our popularity simply continued to grow; I suppose we can hope that our conversation was in some way edifying. In the morning it was the county seat of Anderson County; we called Anderson, whose father is an Irishman from Kentucky, and told him about it, but he didn’t think it was cool. In the afternoon, it was otherwise. I went briefly with Hayden to cover a long, hilly, rural road, and to critique his speaking to people from Kentucky skill. We met one lady who said she just voted for whoever was the most Christian, and then one lady who closed the door behind her so her husband wouldn’t hear, to ask about Ben Chandler’s stance on privatizing social security. We had a good, honest talk with her.

After a dinner remarkably similar to lunch, we were told that a few people were needed to knock on doors till sundown in another county. We gallantly volunteered, and were soon on the road again. This time, we all split up to get as much covered as possible. Once, though, when Ian and I met up to do the last house on the road, we noticed that the car in the driveway had a Dean for America sticker on it. We had a heartfelt talk with the nice couple who lived there, who invited us to stay for tea, but we knew we had to keep on going till sundown.

Early Monday morning, we did something called visibility. This means that you hold signs at large intersections while looking cheerful and perhaps jumping up and down. No one had brought gloves, as the principle of visibility was largely unfamiliar to us. Very quickly, we were cold, or as Ian put it, cold as hell. It was after several minutes of profane commiseration that I noticed the large red brick Salvation Army building. I told the House Minority Leader’s Chief of Staff that I would be right back, and ran over there. I met an extremely nice and pious woman who gave me many pairs of gloves for nothing, and ran back to the boys. All was comfort and goodwill after that; many people honked or gave thumbs up signs when they wanted to let us know that they too supported Ben Chandler.

After that, it was door hangers for three hours at a quick trot down street after street with Mr. Fitts circling in the SUV. Ian got out of breath very quickly because he smokes. I got out of breath slightly afterwards because I was born with underdeveloped lungs. We hung in there, though, and the time passed fairly quickly. Back at the bus, we bid a fond farewell to Mr. Fitts, bought three chocolate malts, and allowed ourselves to be driven back to DC by an untrustworthy bus driver with no DCCC bus leader and no map. We did make it to DC by the evening, though Hayden did have to make some attempt to quell several minor coups. Back in Annapolis, on Tuesday night, we sat around Ian’s ex-girlfriend’s television to watch the election results come in. Ben Chandler won, and by a good margin, too. I am glad both that he won, and that we helped shore up the base a bit. I am also quite glad to have seen Kentucky. Hayden calls this our first successful campaign; Ian rather scoffs at this but I think he is proud too. Now all there is to do is read the news, watch the Daily Show, and cross out fingers.

* If you are for universal healthcare, renewable energy, and no Patriot act. As many of you amusingly are definitively not.

**Back when, justice seemed as simple as supporting one party over another, alas for the day.

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