Now, there are endless days on the campaign trail where absolutely nothing happens. You hear someone give the same speech in four or five different town squares. You see otherwise dignified people in handsome suits stumbling over cables and smaller livestock, which is funny the first seven or eight times you see it. But, after a while, you realize what you’re watching is pretty much the news equivalent of meat slurry. And when you consider what the stakes are in what you’re watching, the sheer travelling banality of the process can be both frightening and disheartening. But, every now and then, you get an afternoon like Sunday afternoon, in the most unlikely place, where the process serves you up the real thing.
For example, it was clear from the beginning of her speech that HRC and her campaign were feeling a little stung by the byplay during Saturday night’s debate about her ties to the financial industry and her strange invocation of the 9/11 attacks in her defense. (“They hate us for our credit default swaps.”) She flipped her stump speech around so that her populist rhetoric about the money power came right at the top, cleverly couching it as a defense of the president’s efforts to lift the country out of the deep recession that his predecessor had left behind. She recalled that she had been warning people about the poisonous mortgage securities. “I even ran a campaign ad here in Iowa in 2008, warning people about the dangers of the mortgage bubble.
“Senator Obama and I voted to try and salvage the situation that the Republicans created,” she also said, referring to the bailout package that passed shortly before the 2008 election. Of course, the Republicans did not do this creating entirely alone but, with her husband, the Glass-Steagall repealer and the signatory of (among other things) the Commodity Futures Modernization Act, sitting right there on the stage behind her, she hardly could have pointed this out too directly.
(The former president’s presence in Ames also could be seen as a little bit of damage control. “Asked about those attack lines, the former president shook his head as he signed an autograph. “It is a stretch,” Bill Clinton said. ‘Those of us who were there know that.'” You don’t exactly have to pop a hamstring to make that stretch, though.)
Rolling up on stage after HRC, O’Malley got in on the action himself. “Last night in the debate, Secretary Clinton, to try to mask her proximity to Wall Street and the huge amount of contributions she has received personally from the major banks of Wall Street, sadly invoked 9/11,” O’Malley said. “She doesn’t have to mask it. It is what it is. That is the sort of economy, that is the sort of economic advice she would follow.”
So far, so ordinary. A lot of the audience, and most of the media, had filtered out after HRC had finished her spot, so there was a corporal’s guard of largely white, largely elderly folks remaining when Cornel West took the stage to pitch Bernie Sanders, and then the day stopped being ordinary for everyone.
“What a blessing it is to be here,” West began. “All of my brothers and sisters of all colors here in central I-O-WA!”
Suddenly, the whole atmosphere of the day changed. Some of the people who’d stuck around looked on in something like awe. Some of them laughed and cheered. And, admittedly, more than a few of them looked as though they’d been hit over the head with a shovel. For West it didn’t matter. He’d started at a higher altitude and he very quickly lit the afterburners.
“Brother Bernie and I come from a great tradition,” West continued, his tone rising and falling in the familiar cadence and modulation of the pulpit. “The tradition of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Albert Einnnn-stein. The tradition of Helen Keller and Ella Baker. The tradition of John Dewey, who is the founder of pragmatism, but he was a democratic socialist, too. Reinhold Niebuhr! And my dear brother, one of the greatest folk I’ve ever met in Iowa, his name is Reverend Gil Dawes, who’s a Methodist minister, who has been struggling for fifty YEARS and still on fire for justice! The point is that, you see, democratic socialism is not some kind of alien element. It’s organic and indigenous in the history of this nation. Don’t allow the ‘ism’ get in the way of the love of poor people, the love of working people, the love of people of color, the love of gay brothers and lesbian sisters, the love of the elderly and the children and the physically challenged. It’s a question of what kind of human being do you want to be.”
He jibed at the Republicans for having “a nervous breakdown in public,” and for a “lack of integrity, mediocrity and mendacity EVERYwhere.” He jibed at HRC and the Democratic party establishment as well. “Glad to hear my dear sister Hillary Clinton sounding so progressive,” he declaimed. “I salute her effort. But it’s lip service if you don’t come to terms with your…actions.
“My question for Hillary Clinton is what I would call the Jane Austen Challenge. You all know the great Jane Austen. One of the greatest novelists who ever put pen to paper in the English lang-guage. She talked about ‘constancy.’ Like Fanny Price in Mansfield Park. Like Annnnne Elliot, in that great novel, Persuasion. And what is constancy except a willingness to act for integrity, sustain moral engagement, and always subordinating political calculation to deep con-VIC-tion. And we have to be honest about our dear sister Hillary Clinton. When it comes to my gay brothers and my lesbian sisters, one year, she says marriage is just male and female. Few years later, she says she’s evolved. I say, OK, I’m open to evolution. But there’s certain issues that should cut so deep that you don’t need to be a thermometer. You can be a thermostat.”
If they weren’t ready for Cornel West, they damn sure weren’t ready for Jane Austen. Gobs throughout the hall were smacked. West rolled on for another 10 minutes and, by the end, there was something quite remarkable about watching him address this audience in this place. You don’t often get moments like that in a political campaign, not anymore, anyway. Every moment is strategized to within an inch of its life, and the candidates are fashioned to within an inch of their Ids. Whatever you may think of Cornel West, or of the candidate he had come to Ames to support, this was a slice of genuine surprise, and genuine creative spontaneity, an indication that beneath the surface ice of political calculation there remains a roiling, powerful river. There was a strange kind of optimism in the air when West was done. You can hear it in full at the end of this post, in which we’ve embedded his entire address, typography being unable to do justice to the riff-heavy rhetoric that West brought into the livestock arena, amid the haybales and the cornstalks, a place where it shouldn’t have belonged, but damned well did.