Bill Clinton speaks to the Akron crowd Thursday. (Photo by Daniel Linger).
AKRON, Ohio — At this point in the interminable election campaign, there’s nothing new. We’ve departed the zone of persuasion and entered the zone of ritual.
One hears the same incantations, the actors (the candidates and their proxies) go through the same motions, and political events have become a kind of living theater, intended to conscript spectators (the voters) into an electoral performance. The idea is not to convince but to put people into motion, to get them to the polls.
Barack Obama was supposed to appear at the University of Akron on Wednesday. But then Sandy intervened, and President Obama, responsive to the immense tragedy, traveled to New Jersey instead. Although Democrats here were disappointed, everyone agreed that he did the right thing. Rumors spread that a surrogate was coming. On Wednesday, I went over to the James A. Rhodes basketball arena, where Obama’s appearance had been scheduled, to see if any such surrogate was actually going to show up.
To any Akronite of my generation, the idea of Obama speaking at a venue, especially at a local college, named for former Ohio Governor Rhodes seems incongruous and distasteful. Rhodes was a Republican hardliner who in early May 1970 compared Kent State student protesters to Brownshirts, communists and vigilantes.
“They are the worst type of people we harbor in America,” Rhodes declared, as he sent the Ohio National Guard to the Kent campus, just a few miles from Akron. On May 4, the Guardsmen shot and killed four KSU students. Nine were wounded. The event shocked the country.
Some years ago I tried to find the campus monument to the victims. I asked many Kent students. Some had no idea what event I was even talking about. Finally I buttonholed an older man, who instantly pointed me in the right direction. I suppose historical amnesia rendered the Rhodes Arena an innocuous site for a speech by Obama, who, after all, is winding down wars, not mowing down protesters.
Nothing was happening at the arena. Later that day, however, the Obama campaign announced that Bill Clinton was coming in Obama’s place, and would be speaking at the John S. Knight convocation center in downtown Akron on Thursday. John S. Knight was the conservative Republican owner of the Akron Beacon Journal who later built a publishing empire. At least he wasn’t Jim Rhodes.
An enthusiastic crowd, black and white and young and old, filled the assigned space in the Knight Center, despite the cold, slate-gray weather. Akronites complain loudly about the constant jackhammer of campaign advertising, but at an event like this one, the repetition becomes a kind of catechism, significant as a declaration of faith. The performance and the symbolism are what counts.
Draped along one side of the gathering was a gigantic American flag flanked by the Ohio state banner and a blue Obama campaign logo reading FORWARD. Soul music played at high volume. Akron mayor Don Plusquellic welcomed the crowd, regretting the president’s absence but noting that “leaders step up in a crisis and that’s what he’s done.” Plusquellic tasked the listeners with a weighty responsibility: “All of you know this election is going to come down to Ohio.” This point was to be often repeated. The audience broke into the Obama campaign’s trademark call and response: “Fired up!” – “Ready to go!”
Next, people stood to recite the pledge of allegiance and listened to a dramatic rendition of the national anthem by a female soloist. A huge cheer erupted afterward, ball-game style. A local minister offered a prayer of gratitude and a plea for God’s protection of the President. Christian Bowers, the young, dynamic regional field director of the Obama campaign, dispatched to Akron from afar, encouraged early voting. A bus, he said, was ready to take people to the Summit County Election Board to cast ballots after this event. Two local members of Congress followed. Betty Sutton appealed to state identity: “Today is about Ohio. I see proud Americans, proud Ohio families. Here in Ohio we’re tough.” Tim Ryan used football metaphors, urging people to play both offense and defense: “We’ve got to take it into the endzone. They have got to come through Northeast Ohio, and we are not going to let them come through Northeast Ohio.” He told us “what a great privilege it is to live in Ohio. To live in this state and every four years have the opportunity to pick the most powerful and influential person on the globe.”
And finally, after the warm-up acts, Clinton entered to wild applause and cheering. “It’s great to be back in Akron!” he said, and apologized for his hoarseness. This was his third Ohio speech today. “It’s OK with me that you get to decide this election.” And then – you have probably seen him do it – he effortlessly reeled off statistics, facts, surmises, criticisms, and conclusions. He was wonky and he was folksy. “They think we didn’t go to school,” he said, incredulously.
The Ohio State Buckeyes wouldn’t be undefeated if they were as sloppy with their numbers as the Republicans. Clinton is a lawyer: He laid out a fierce indictment of Romney and a comprehensive case for Obama, on foreign policy, treatment of veterans, women’s rights, student loans, health care, Medicare, Medicaid, the auto industry, clean energy, the budget, education, the economy, the debt, morality, and even the hurricane. He descended from the stage and toured the audience, enveloped in a pandemonium that would have done the Beatles proud.
Country, God, Obama, Ohio, even the locally sacred sport of football: all i’s dotted and t’s crossed. Some of us engaged in less combative, desperate, brutal fields than politics might cringe at the calculated message control, the iron discipline, and the lack of subtlety and historical vision of the Obama campaign, evidenced not only at this event but in other respects I have not discussed, but undeniably the partisans are executing their battle plan with great skill here in Akron. There is an approaching moment of truth, and they are determined to win the verdict.
Daniel T. Linger is a semi-retired anthropology professor from UC Santa Cruz and lives in Santa Cruz. He will file reports from Ohio during the stretch-run of the election season.
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