Volunteer Cynic

Whenever I see people volunteering for a presidential candidate, I can't help but think: who are all these people anyway? And why are they doing this? As a proud cynic, I have never understood how anyone could possibly volunteer for, of all things, a politician. I may always vote, but I have never been all that enthusiastic about it.

I am not alone either. Most people I know feel the same way. They laugh incredulously at the mere thought of volunteering for a candidate. What could be more uncool than to work on a political campaign? And yet ... there are so many other people who actually do volunteer -- and enjoy it. When you think about it, the real divide in America is not between Democrat and Republican, but between the political and the apolitical.

To understand this divide a little better, I decided to do something that felt completely unnatural. I volunteered to work on a presidential campaign. I chose Bill Bradley. While volunteering, I wanted to see exactly what happens at the grassroots level of a campaign. I wanted to see what work I would be given if I just wandered in off the street. If lucky, I also hoped to learn exactly what it is that drives these volunteers to sacrifice so much time and energy for a candidate. Could a cynic like me understand all this? It was time to find out.

A Half-Better Country For You

I am in the common room of a Harvard dormitory. Here, the Harvard-Radcliffe College Democrats are holding a debate between surrogates of Bill Bradley and Al Gore. Since I live nearby, I figure that this is a good place to start. I will listen to the debate, and afterwards I will talk to some of the Bradley people about volunteering. The only problem is that, aside from the Bradley surrogate, there does not seem to be anyone else in the room for Bradley. A large Gore 2000 poster at the front dominates the room.

Paul Demakis, a state representative, talks for Bill Bradley, while John Schnur, a former education advisor to Gore, speaks for the Vice President. It isn't really a debate. Each simply talks casually about why he prefers his candidate. It's a calm and civil discussion of issues, much like the early stages of Bradley-Gore before all the mud starting flying.

But it's not all calm and civil. That's because Schnur is late, so Neil Carpenter of the Young Democrats of America fills in on the Gore side for the first fifteen minutes. Unlike the others, Carpenter is a man of immense energy, a true campaigner. He starts by saying that Bradley has no chance of accomplishing any of his plans. He does like some of Bradley's proposals, particularly universal health care, but he reminds us that Bill Clinton tried to accomplish many of these same goals and failed.

"Let's face it," he announces. "If Bill Clinton couldn't get these things done, how will Bill Bradley? Clinton is a man who can talk anyone into anything. He can even talk some women out of their underwear, so if he couldn't get this done, how will Bradley?" It is certainly a novel campaign tactic, but it does seem to be winning over the college crowd.

Carpenter now paces the room excitedly. While admitting that Clinton and Gore did not accomplish everything they wanted, ("that would have been impossible") he claims that they have made this a better country and that a Gore Presidency would do the same. "Al Gore will make this country a little better. And so we have to ask ourselves, do we want a country that's half better than it is now or do we want a perfect country that we can't have?"

I suppose it's a logical argument, but it's not exactly "Ask not what your country can do for you ...." I had hoped to be inspired, but the potential slogan of "Gore: A half-better country for you!" just isn't working for me. Potential political chants float into my mind.

"What do we want?"
"When do we want it?"
"How much do we want?"
"Only half please!"

Carpenter's words have an effect, but not the one he was hoping for. He has made me like Bradley more. At the end, the campus coordinator for Gore asks for volunteers, but I was right about Bradley. There is hardly anyone there for him -- just one man who gives us an e-mail address. I do, however, discover that I can just arrive at Bradley's Boston office and volunteer there.

Phoning for Bill

"Hi, my name is Joe Lavin, and I'm a volunteer with Bill Bradley for President. First, I'd like to thank you for attending our event last week, and I'm wondering if you would be willing to volunteer on our campaign." Yes, I have only been in the Bradley office for about ten minutes, and already I am getting ready to call voters. Anne Maurer, a 20-year-old Bradley staff member, has just written this script for me. She has given me a phone and placed me at a card table in the front of the office. It is now time for me to make my first phone call for Bradley.

I am nervous, but it's not all that difficult. I am simply calling people who had earlier attended an event featuring Bradley's wife Ernestine. Most had already indicated that they would like to volunteer. Still, for some reason, I must ask them this again. When they say yes, I can only tell them that their local coordinator will e-mail them. I am essentially contacting potential volunteers to tell them that someone else will contact them in the future. It all seems silly, but I am told that the calls "have to be made."

I mostly talk to answering machines, but there are a few people home. The first person who answers actually worked on the campaign in New Hampshire. Her name has been included on my list by accident. "It's so funny getting one of these calls, because I must have made hundreds of these a week," she says. I reveal that this is my first call, and she tells me I'm doing fine. I know that she is lying, and I feel particularly self-conscious because I am out front where everyone can hear me.

Not that there are many people there. It is just a small office in a building overlooking the Southeast Expressway; five young people wander in and out of the office. I discover that they are all from out of state and have come down from New Hampshire to run the Massachusetts office. Occasionally, someone else will return from holding a Bradley sign outside. One girl complains that her hands are frozen because she was holding a sign in the cold weather for two hours without any gloves.

Meanwhile, I babble into the phone, stuttering over my script. Occasionally, someone will ask me a question, and I am forced to ad-lib. Usually, though, the person will just ask what kind of help is needed. When I hear this, I just parrot what I was told when I earlier asked the same question. "Well, you know, really whatever needs to be done. There's phone work, and some office work. And, of course, there's always visibility work." A few days earlier, I might have guessed that "visibility work" is code for holding a sign on a street corner, but I certainly wouldn't have been able to say it with a straight face. Now, though, I am telling everyone who asks me all about the visibility work.

Since I am calling supporters, hardly any selling needs to be done. Most people sound more enthusiastic about Bradley than I do. One woman ends the call by saying, "Well, March 7th is only a short time away. We can do it!" I feel as if she is selling me on the candidate, and not vice-versa.

Someone else is disappointed that she had not been called earlier. "Both my boyfriend and I speak Spanish and would love to help in the Latin community," she tells me. She wants more information on volunteering, but I don't really have any. I can only say that someone will e-mail her in a few days, and I can tell that she's disappointed.

Towards the end of my calls, I talk to a woman who really likes Bradley but does not have the time to help. "You see, it's a very busy time for me," she explains. "Also, I was just diagnosed with epilepsy."

I don't know what to say. I stutter a bit and say that I'm sorry while thanking her for her support. She asks whether she can be sent a calendar of future Bradley events. Before I know whether the office can do that sort of thing, I instinctively tell her that we will send something right out to her.

When I am finished with the phone calls, I am given scissors and some old campaign literature from New Hampshire. My job is to cut off the top part that refers to New Hampshire and to cross out the New Hampshire phone number with a black magic marker. This way, they will be able to use the pamphlets in Massachusetts. It's boring, but it's at least nice to see them recycling the gigantic pile of pamphlets in the corner.

I stop this for a moment when I hear that another staff member is having computer problems. She cannot get a database to open, and, since I am sick of the cutting, I offer to help. After a few minutes, I manage to open the database, and she is deeply appreciative. "Thank you so much. Now, I can make all my calls tonight," she gushes. As far as I can tell, this is my one real accomplishment of the day.

As you can imagine, I don't last long at the pamphlet-cutting. I am soon ready to leave. On the way out, though, I am invited to watch the next Bradley-Gore debate with Bradley supporters at the Crimson Bar and Grill in Cambridge. "Bring some friends," a staff member suggests cheerfully as I walk out.

Rhetoric and a Beer

Well, I try to bring some friends, but my friends are having none of it. As much as I try, I can't convince any of them to go with me. I can't exactly blame them. Before my excursion into politics, I would have laughed heartily at such a suggestion myself. I call my friend Mark and practically beg him to come. "I'll buy you a beer," I suggest, but he informs me that there's no way he will watch a ninety-minute debate in a bar with me. "Okay, I'll buy your dinner as well." Still no luck. Jeez, I can't even bribe my friends to go to this.

As I walk there, I have visions of five people huddled around a TV in the corner of a bar, but I am wrong. Am I ever wrong! The place is packed. At one point, all the seats are taken, and about fifteen people are crammed in near the door. It's standing room only, and all eyes are focused on the debate.

My friends don't know what they are missing. I have never seen anything quite like this. As Bradley and Gore hack away at each other with jab after jab, the crowd is cheering and booing wildly. Whenever one of the candidates issues a particularly nasty putdown, hisses and laughs reverberate through the crowd. I feel as if I'm watching Ricki Lake, or at least a major sporting event. Everyone in the room is having a great time -- all except for the waitress, clearly one of the apolitical, who just rolls her eyes at the spectacle while delivering her orders.

I want to talk to the others to find out how they can get so excited about two guys in suits trading insults, but there really isn't an opportunity. After all, there's no time for chitchat. We have a debate to watch.

A few days later, I talk to Anne Maurer again. I learn that she has taken a year off from college in order to help the Bradley campaign. I ask her if there was any one thing that made her volunteer for Bradley. She tells me that she became inspired by reading Bradley's 1998 book Values of the Game. "Ever since, I've just been waiting for him to run for president. Unlike the others, I think he can really make a difference," she says. And what does she like best about working on a campaign? "Just being part of a movement and being able to name people whose minds that you've changed. It's just really rewarding."

I also talk to Bethany Nadeau, a senior at Clark University, who is helping to coordinate Bradley's efforts around Worcester. Like the others, Bethany also spent a month volunteering in New Hampshire. She seems just as enthusiastic as Anne. When I ask her about the rampant cynicism many Americans feel about politics, she can only say that "by bringing a fresh face to the political scene" Bradley can change all this.

It's not really the answer I was looking for. Just as I have trouble understanding how these people can be so dedicated to a politician, it seems that they have just as much trouble understanding how anyone can not be so dedicated. By now, I suppose this shouldn't surprise me.

Beep Beep for Bill Bradley

My plan is to hold a Bradley sign in Harvard Square with other supporters, but for a cynic like me this is just too much to ask. I try, but I can't make myself do it. I just can't.

It's not that I'm ashamed of Bradley. It has nothing to do with the candidate. The visibility work itself bothers me. It all seems too intrusive to me -- as if I am thrusting my opinion down other people's throats. Perhaps that is what sets me apart from the campaign workers -- not only that I'm cynical, but also that I just don't want to bother anyone. If people don't agree with my politics, I usually don't care enough to convince them otherwise. Making a difference by changing people's minds is just not something I have ever wanted to do.

"We're having a massive rally in Harvard Square, and we'd love it if you could come," I had been told the day before. Unfortunately, massive turns out to be four people. Not that Gore or anyone else would have done better. There is a cold, misting rain, and the fact that even four people are willing to stand outside for Bradley is impressive enough. I had hoped for at least ten or fifteen people. Then, I could just hide in the background, but with only four, there is no possible hiding. As I walk past, Anne spots me. "Where's your sign?" she teases.

Anne is standing in a median with a big sign that reads, "Beep Beep for Bill Bradley." Another girl is holding a Bradley sign next to her. They are both masters at working the crowd. They wave their signs enthusiastically at the drivers. If nobody honks, Anne playfully taunts them. "I can't hear you," she says, while putting her hand to her ear. Whenever someone does beep for Bradley, they both cheer wildly, jumping up and down with their signs. It's odd. They seem to be the complete opposite of the candidate that they are supporting. I can almost imagine Gore, Bush, or McCain imploring voters to honk for them, but I just can't imagine Bill Bradley doing it.

They are, however, wildly successful at this game. Harvard Square is awash in honking horns, though I can't see how any of this is helping Bradley defeat Gore. My roommate, for example, has already announced that she is not voting for Bradley, specifically because of the honking.

Anne asks if I want to hold a sign, but I politely decline. However well intentioned it may be, trying to get motorists to beep for Bradley seems to be overkill. I say that I would be happy to help in the office, but that I don't really feel like holding a sign. Quite rightly, she is perplexed. I have essentially told her that I'm happy to support Bradley just as long as nobody else sees me doing it.

I try to explain that this visibility work just isn't my thing, but she seems surprised. "Really? This is my favorite part," she says happily. Oblivious to the weather, she then laughs and waves at yet another motorist who is beeping for Bradley.

Copyright 2000 by Joe Lavin
Joe Lavin's Humor Column is published every Tuesday at: http://joelavin.com
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Submitted By: Joe Lavin
Mar 8, 2000 12:46

This joke is rated: PG