Thursday, August 28, 2008

“Letters from the Campaign Trail”

c. 2008 Rod Ice
All rights reserved

“Drivers, start your engines!”

To many Americans, the lure of competition is strong. We are a nation obsessed with sports of all kinds. For baseball, basketball, and football, professional wrestling, high-stakes poker, or NASCAR racing, fans are ever present. It is undeniably part of our nature. We seek out victory and embrace those who have attained success. To be a champion of any kind is near holiness itself.

Yet the ultimate game is not seen in a college stadium, on a speedway, or at a Major League ballpark. No medals or trophies identify those who excel at this mode of play. It is not celebrated in Indianapolis, Canton or Cooperstown. Instead, this conqueror’s quest is focused on dominance in Washington, D.C., our nation’s capitol.

It is the ultimate contest – for the keys to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

To voters, this battle of titans remains compelling. Much hope is invested in a changing of the guard at our executive level. But for journalists it represents a moment of opportunity, to opine as never before!

In personal terms, it seemed useful to sidestep this kind of self-serving prose, in favor of a more humble approach. I decided that a better plan would be to share a bit of Geauga County with those seeking The Oval Office, and wait for a response.

The result was certain to be interesting, unique, and worthy of appearing in newsprint.

Over the summer, I sent copies of the ‘Thoughts At Large’ book to both presumptive presidential nominees. And, to Governor Ted Strickland, who had sometimes been mentioned as a possible running mate for Mr. Obama, in the fall.

Amazingly, the Democrat and GOP campaigns replied in a timely fashion. Their letters differed in length, and style. But both expressed a positive outlook in the mission to succeed in November:

Senator Barack Obama

“Dear Rod, Thank you for taking the time to write to me. Your interest in my candidacy and participation in the electoral process is important to me and will help shape the future of the country. Since voting began earlier this year, the volume of mail we are receiving has exceeded all expectations. I have been impressed with the diversity and depth of the comments and questions I receive, most of which underscore the significant challenges the next president will face. And I have appreciated the candid observations about my campaign and policy positions… Some pundits, and my opponents, like to suggest that my two and a half years in the United States Senate are a liability for my campaign. Two and a half years may not be a long time, but I can assure you it is long enough to know that things in Washington must change. That is why I am running my campaign out of Chicago, not Washington, D.C., and concentrating on meeting with and listening to people who live outside of our nation’s capital. And that is why I believe… I will be best able to break the longstanding grip that vested interests and their lobbyists have had on the policy making process in Washington. I have been gratified by the amount of grassroots interest my campaign has generated. As I travel the country, my campaign headquarters is receiving thousands of personal messages a week from people like you. This volume of mail reflects the importance individual citizens place on this election… Again, thank you for writing, and for voting.”

Senator John McCain

“Dear Mr. Ice, Thank you for your kind note and sending me your book, ‘Thoughts At Large.’ Your support and encouragement keep me motivated every day on the trail. I appreciated hearing from you and wish you the best.”

Receiving these letters was a welcome surprise.

As a follow-up, I sent both contenders material about the ‘Thoughts For Our Soldiers’ program that involved members of the local community. I reckoned that the project was worth mentioning as an example of citizens reaching out to our military forces. It also helped to convey the durable spirit of our beloved Ohio – a state both candidates were likely to visit often during the intense fall campaign.

My third submission evoked a different response. One I had never considered when visiting the post office in Chardon. From the gubernatorial mansion in Columbus, an apologetic note arrived along with the same book I had sent, originally:

Wade A. Rakes II for Governor Ted Strickland

“Dear Mr. Ice, Thank you so much for your kind gift. The Governor is honored and humbled that you would think to send him this gift. On his first day in office, Governor Strickland issued an executive order tightening ethic rules, holding the Governor and his staff to the highest ethical standards. Governor Strickland and his staff are only permitted to receive gifts from close family members who are not lobbyists and have no contracts with the state. Directors and employees of cabinet agencies and those employed or appointed on state boards and commissions are also being held to these standards. Regrettably, the item you sent violates this executive order and we are returning it for that reason. On behalf of the Governor, thank you again for your thought. If there is anything we can do to assist you in the future, please feel free to contact us.”

I was saddened by the letter. Still, it seemed advisable to curb the spread of influence peddling. After puzzling over the returned package, I sent a message to Janet Carson, head of the Democratic Party in Geauga County:

“Dear Chairperson Carson, I am a local journalist and author, from Thompson. I have been with The Geauga County Maple Leaf since early 1998. After a decade of writing about the county, it was my pleasure to publish a collection of 'Thoughts At Large' columns in December of 2007. As a Libertarian, I thought it would be useful to share copies of my book with some of our candidates and elected officials. I sent the TAL collection to Barack Obama, John McCain, (and) Ted Strickland… Mr. Obama and Mr. McCain both answered with cheerful notes of gratitude... But Governor Strickland returned my book with an explanation that new ethics guidelines he signed into effect prohibit such gifts. I respect, and appreciate the Governor's intentions. Such a policy is long overdue in Columbus. Still, because I'd autographed the book to him, I wonder if there isn't some way to have him accept it without any perception of impropriety. Can you contribute any ideas? I appreciate your help.”

Taken as a whole, the exercise was a fruitful endeavor. In sports terms, I had scored on two of three opportunities, during the political pre-season. But soon, it would be time for big-league play, and the roughhouse nature of winner-takes-all competition.

I was excited. And ready to write.

“Let the games begin!”

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