Category Archives: U.S. Culture

Go take a hike

Potomac Overlook Regional ParkPotomac Overlook Regional Park is soul food for this African. Walking in the park’s forests gives a smidgeon of the sensation of being in untrammeled nature and away from it all—despite being in a densely populated area close to the heartbeat of one of the world’s most powerful cities. I try to go there as often as possible, and always emerge refreshed and energized. I’ve blogged about it previously: it’s one of the places where observing deer is exhilarating rather than exasperating. Seeing them there transforms us humans from beleaguered gardeners into awestruck visitors. Park woodlands are where deer belong.

Apart from wildlife and the trees, the other appealing aspect of Potomac Overlook Regional Park is the gradient. I enjoy the way the forests slope down to the Potomac River. So it was perhaps inevitable that someone would hatch a plan to develop the park’s forested bluffs along the Potomac into a commercial zip line venture.

The suggested plans also included “expansion of the park entrance and additional parking, construction of a new amphitheater/stage area, an urban agriculture plot, a youth group camping area, and improvements to the birds of prey shelter”.

Having two thrill-loving teenagers and having experienced myself the pleasure of such canopy tours—in South Africa’s Magaliesberg—I’m not averse to zip lining. It’s great fun! However, the notion of developing so dramatically one of the remaining, relatively untouched woodlands in the metro area is simply horrifying. Washington residents, human and animal alike, need a place such as Potomac Overlook Regional Park to help stay sane. The idea of tampering with it reminded me of Joni Mitchell’s “pav[ing] paradise to put up a parking lot”.

Happily, many in the community were similarly appalled at the idea of changing so many aspects of this treasure of a park.

A meeting on March 19, this past Tuesday, in a church hall adjoining the park was overflowing with indignant, vocal, and very organized park lovers. They had flooded the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority with emails, letters, and phone calls since the NVRPA authorized “planning and implantation” of the projects at a November 15, 2012 meeting and then presented revised plans at a February 26, 2013 public meeting.

At the outset of Tuesday’s meeting, NVRPA officials announced that they rescinded their November 15, 2012 authorization to plan and implement the projects. They admitted to “eating a big slice of humble pie”, and noted the “force of the community” and the “power of public opinion”. Using a buzz phrase that the Obama administration has contributed to Washington lexicon, they promised to “hit reset”.

It is a remarkable turnaround and a breath of fresh air to hear officials admitting to miscalculation and error. Oh that all public officials or managers were so responsive to those whose interests they ostensibly serve.

In their campaign to get NVRPA board members to change their mind, the activist park users reminded all that the NVRPA itself had declared “the mission of Potomac Overlook Regional Park is to provide a protected woodland sanctuary, in order to preserve environmental quality and species diversity; to provide environmental and cultural education, stressing the relationship between all living organisms and to provide a natural setting in which to enjoy low impact recreational activities and physical exercise.”

Beware any entity that tries to implement a measure in a community such as this that doesn’t have broad-based support. In a fair generalization, many Washington area residents are over-educated, overachieving, incredibly determined people who know how to organize and get their opinion across. Don’t mess with them, or cross them. A well-informed and highly opinionated citizenry lives here.

As usual, the source of the problem was a search for revenue. Potomac Overlook Regional Park, the largest park in Arlington County, is clearly not a moneymaking enterprise. Indeed, it is documented to be one of the revenue drains for the NVRPA, although it is not the biggest money loser among the parks.

NVRPA officials acknowledged it was a mistake to pursue turning such a nature education park into a revenue stream without better community outreach and engaging earlier with the public.

The furor around Potomac Overlook Regional Park is an instructive example of the weight that public opinion should be play in policymaking. Policymakers ignore the views of those they serve at their peril. If only this type of pragmatic, consensual politics could be practiced at the federal and state level as well as it was this past week in Arlington County.

But it is not enough to merely solicit public opinion. Government officials must also listen to that public opinion and react accordingly. Public officials’ contrite apologies can be even more refreshing than a walk in the woods.

 

Tech tools: Paths to participation?

This past Valentine’s Day at my daughter’s school led me to thinking about whether all the technology tools now available really do–or do not–increase participation.

The PTA organizes staff appreciation lunches throughout the school year, one of which is traditionally on Valentine’s Day. Well before these lunches, an email from the PTA goes out to parents soliciting suggested contributions. This is linked to an electronic sign-up site, where folk can add their names to the categories of needs for the event. And then the promised items should be delivered on the appropriate day.

Do these broad appeals elicit different people participating each time? Or do the same “usual suspects” respond and contribute each time? I surveyed the current PTA school directory of family names and contact details: Nearly all families provided an email address as a contact point (only a small minority opt out of being in the directory), so the universe of potential participants in an event such as the Valentine’s Day staff appreciation lunch is very large. It would be revealing to know if the same families are repeat participants in these events or if different families step forward to contribute.

Two other experiences that same week reinforced this interest in who is engaging and who is not. Our landline rang about an hour and a half before President Barack Obama was to deliver his State of the Union address. Caller ID showed the incoming call to be from “U S Captl”. We usually ignore phone calls when it is unclear who is calling, but you can’t blame me for being curious that night. Who would be calling us at that time on that particular night—from the U.S. Capitol?

The call was from our congressman’s office. It was completely unexpected and unsolicited. A recording by an aide to Congressman Jim Moran invited immediate participation in a live telephone discussion with the congressman on various issues. I decided to stay on the line, intrigued by how something like this would work. Congressman Moran first addressed themes thought likely to be in President Obama’s State of the Union speech. And then he took about six to eight questions. Constituents who wished to ask a question were instructed to punch in a code. When they asked their question, they became audible to all, while the rest of us remained mute.

The most surprising part of this technology experience was that the outreach was routed through our landline, yesteryear’s technology.

Minutes after he had finished delivering the State of Union address to a national television audience, President Obama spoke to supporters through an online conference call. To connect to this online opportunity with the president, you had to have signed up beforehand with Organizing for Action, the nonprofit organization derived from Obama’s reelection campaign that is trying to mobilize community (and financial) support for his legislative priorities. President Obama had participated in a similar massive conference call with supporters a few days after his reelection last November.

President Obama and Congressman Moran targeted different audiences and used different tools to reach them. Nevertheless, I do wonder how many people were caught in the intersection of both these outreach efforts. How many engaged American voters participated in both of those opportunities? The congressman’s initiative was unsolicited (yes, I could have put the phone down) and participation in the president’s was self-selecting. But it would be fascinating to know who took part in both? Same old, same old? Or were people new to the political process drawn in by either outreach effort?

Since landlines were the way Congressman Moran’s office could identify who lived in his constituency, this was a feasible way to go. Yet many are now choosing to discontinue having a landline and depending exclusively on smart or cell phones.

A question about the Obama team’s outreach reflects broader concern about the digital divide. Nowadays, wealthy and middle-class urban residents take for granted Internet access and rely on the technologies that allow it. The assumption of almost universal Internet connectivity in the Washington D.C. metro area is alarming. But how many are not included? Here the digital divide may reinforce existing socio-economic inequities, with the well-connected, excuse the pun, always being favored. And the more Internet-enabled technology one has at one’s fingertips, the better and wider one’s choices.

Public libraries are critical to bridging the digital divide. They are a mainstay for those with limited or no other Internet access. Observing the rows of computer users at the terminals in libraries here is always such a pleasure (and a painful reminder of how South Africa has neglected and underfunded its public libraries in recent years). Many of the public libraries around here are hives of activity and engines of digital integration.

Notwithstanding the hustle and bustle at nearby libraries, is all this online activity really expanding opportunities for true political participation? Is political participation narrowing or broadening with the ubiquity of Internet access? Or is the noise only the reverberations of the echo chamber of the “well-connected”?

A quintessential Washington night

It was the first time for me. Never before had I attended an inaugural party, never mind an official inaugural ball, around a U.S. presidential inauguration.

Aspects of last night will stay with me forever, but the subway ride back to our car at the end of the evening provided some memorable moments. The juxtaposition of riders reflected the assorted diversity of America in snapshot form. The bejeweled, glamorously clad attendees of inaugural celebrations contrasted with other riders. Some were journalists in jeans pushing carts laden with equipment. Others too had clearly put in an extra-long day’s work and seemed drained, relieved to be finally heading home. Some already seated on the train when we boarded had the dazed, weary look of folk who had been on the job all day. Perhaps they had worked since sunrise, preparing to cater to throngs of inauguration viewers? Or maybe they were cleaners who had just finished a shift dealing with the aftermath of the day’s revelry? They looked with seeming indifference at the black-tie folk in their midst. Or was it with bemusement? Disgust? Or even envy? It was hard to read their minds as they surveyed the groups of loud, fancily dressed partygoers standing in the train.

The eclectic combination of people thrown together in our subway carriage included a statuesque woman with an incredibly tall and dramatic gold hat. She seemed Nigerian—or at least her hat did. Perhaps she had attended the widely promoted charity ball that ambassadors from various countries had put together? This lady with the imposing hat didn’t look at all tired. She looked ready for a regal procession or to be part of a family wedding photo.

Men in formal military dress wear, with all kinds of medals filling their lapels, also stood out. They and their wives or dates were clearly fresh from the “Commander-in-Chief’s Ball”, one of two official inaugural balls. One such gentleman, in a splendid Southern drawl, had immediately offered me his seat when we boarded. Such gallantry is not generally expected at that late hour on Washington public transportation.

Like the passengers on the subway last night, Washington encapsulates diversity. The powerful coexist with the relatively powerless, the haves with the have-nots, the chivalrous with the rude. The scene had me thinking about the inaugural speech President Barack Obama delivered earlier that day. He had observed, “For we the people understand that our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it… We do not believe in this country that freedom is reserved for the lucky or happiness for the few.”

D.C.’s Metro system was the great leveler last night. The subway was definitely the most efficient way to get around. The gridlock was as bad as forewarned. Unless you were the president or vice president and travel with police escorts in a motorcade, you were foolish to be wedded to a car. I’m not sure if other chauffeured, limousine-riding VIPs were able to beat the traffic odds. The many road closures around the National Mall where President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden were publicly inaugurated earlier in the day were partly to blame. Backups were also due to the sheer volume of vehicles on the road, especially around the Washington Convention Center where the two official inaugural balls were held.

Walking was also extremely popular—despite the frigid weather. A regular sight earlier in the evening was people walking hand-in-hand, bundled in coats, heading toward the Convention Center. Surprisingly often, a man might have been carrying a woman’s pair of impressively high-heeled shoes, with a woman ambling alongside in a pair of flats, holding a clutch bag. Guess the flat shoes were going to be stuffed into coat pockets at the coat check, and the showy, sexy, high pair then given the chance to strut their stuff. Trust ever-practical Americans! Have to get to the event comfortably, but then look good when there!

An inaugural ball myth was exploded for me: Most people DID wear coats, given the fearsome, wind-chilled cold. One is warned about the long coat-check queues at the end of such events, so the recommendation is not to bring a coat to check. The chilliness of the evening showed most to be sensible though. Only a minority seemed to be “underdressed” despite being in black-tie and ball-gown finery.

We attended two events: A sponsored party at one of the Smithsonian Museums, plus one of the two official inaugural balls at the Convention Center. The former was a cocktail party, with delicious food, a wide-ranging bar, quiet music so conversation with fellow attendees was possible, and, most remarkably, the possibility to sit down. The latter was not exactly an intimate affair—we were part of the reputed 40,000 who attended the two official balls. We missed the fleeting appearance and dance of President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama, but it really didn’t matter. With so many people present, I doubt we would have been able to get close enough to actually witness the moment with the naked eye. Giant video screens provided a sense of what was happening on stage. That was how we were able to enjoy Stevie Wonder giving his all, belting out his familiar songs while weaving characteristically to the rhythms. No food was available at this event, but champagne, wine, and other sundries could be purchased for a princely sum.

People watching and celebrity spotting were most rewarding. The whole kaleidoscope that is America was present. Local Washingtonians danced in delight to honour Martin Luther King, Jr., whose birthday it was yesterday, plus to celebrate the re-inaugurated Obama. Many of those filling the expansive dance floor were grassroots activists from out of town who had worked to reelect Obama. Seasoned, older political operatives mingled with young activists. Pride and joy were palpable.

That is the overriding impression: Folk really had fun and enjoyed themselves. And the buzz of happy people was infectious. Even when they were outside in the mind-numbing cold, traipsing from one event to another, they were laughing, smiling, and full of joy. People in Washington are typically intense and usually take themselves too seriously. Last night was different. There was an appealing lightness to the mood.

Hopeful hints of change

When Barack Obama is re-inaugurated as president of the United States this long weekend, the weather is expected to be chilly, bright, and clear. This forecast is symbolically appropriate, as President Obama is beginning to articulate his vision for America with greater clarity, vigor, and purpose.

The team President Obama is assembling around him for his second term suggests an agenda stressing domestic priorities. World events will always compel a U.S. president’s attention, but Obama is signaling clearly that his focus will be on domestic issues. As he emphasized during his reelection campaign, “It’s time for nation building at home”. This is true. The world needs a strengthened America. The world needs an America that has reprioritized and balanced its budget, and bolstered its economy to create more jobs. The world needs an America that has rededicated itself to supporting its citizens with better education, improved infrastructure, accessible healthcare, and other tools to get ahead and provide for themselves and their families into the future.

The administration’s battles with Congress have acquired a different hue lately, hinting at a new dynamic. Despite itself, the Republican-dominated House of Representatives voted for that anathema—tax increases—for those Americans with annual incomes over $400,000.00. Wary of authorizing further spending, Republicans reluctantly also agreed to extend $50 billion in aid to those devastated by Hurricane Sandy in New York and New Jersey last November.

A slim minority of House Republicans breaking with their party and supporting the Democrats to provide the winning votes was essential to passage of these two bills. This is the formula Obama and his team will have to use repeatedly in coming months to get measures through the House of Representatives. Obama will have to keep coaxing such splits in the Republican monolith to enable passage of his legislative priorities. This type of bipartisan behaviour is, of course, how effective democracies should operate.

There is yet another new approach from House Republicans: They announced yesterday they will support extending the government’s borrowing authority for three months, rather than force another fabricated crisis now. This action will give more time to craft agreement on budgets for the new fiscal year, including possible tangible deficit reduction. This extension of the debt ceiling is a most positive and practical concession from the Republican side.

President Obama is also a more seasoned politician and strategist this time round. This past week, he showed how much he has learned from past battles with Congress when he presented very particular proposals for executive and legislative action to curb gun violence. The horrific murders of twenty first-grade students and six adult staff members at their Newtown, Connecticut elementary school in mid-December have galvanized opposition to America’s loose gun laws. Newtown has created the opportunity for changes to America’s permissive gun culture like no other recent mass tragedy involving a gun—and there have, unfortunately, been too many. Shifts in public opinion show majorities of Americans now support, in differing degrees, various specific measures to curb guns.

Since the day of the massacre, which he has described as the “most difficult day” of his presidency, President Obama has appealed for action in common sense, reasonable, and nonpartisan terms. He says Americans will have failed in their duty as parents to keep children safe if they do not act to curtail gun violence.

In making his very specific recommendations for action this week—derived from Vice President Joe Biden’s task force—Obama promised he will “put everything [he’s] got” into getting the announced measures adopted. Having been criticized for “leading from behind” on other issues, his fast, impassioned, and firm response to the gun control challenge is the essence of presidential leadership.

Obama has thrown down the gauntlet to members of Congress and the National Rifle Association. He challenged the American public to put pressure on members of Congress to state their position on the measures “on record” and “…[I]f they say no, ask them why not. Ask them what’s more important: Doing whatever it takes to get an ‘A’ grade from the gun lobby that funds their campaigns, or giving parents some peace of mind when they drop their child off to first grade?” He added, “There will be pundits and politicians and special-interest lobbyists publicly warning of a tyrannical, all-out assault on liberty—not because that’s true, but because they want to gin up fear or higher ratings or revenue for themselves. And behind the scenes, they’ll do everything they can to block any common-sense reform and make sure nothing changes whatsoever.” He has urged members of Congress to “examine their own conscience.”

The NRA’s capture of the legislative process concerning guns at federal, state, and local levels of government has been alarmingly successful until now. Its disturbingly effective modus operandi is to bully legislators to do its bidding. In elections, it spends millions to bolster proponents and, far more importantly, oppose those who reject its viewpoint. The NRA ferociously pursues those who vote against its narrowly defined interests. Republican members of Congress who oppose it have been vulnerable to primary challenges by NRA-sponsored candidates, while Democrats have been vulnerable to general election challenges. Gerrymandered voting districts across America that limit diversity in opinion have further strengthened the hand of the NRA and other special interest groups.

Until now, the NRA has been ruthlessly effective in furthering its agenda. Might the debate about gun control be different after Newtown, especially with such strong presidential sponsorship? How the gun violence prevention debate plays out in Congress could have an enormous impact on President Obama’s second term.

Deer oh deer

The surrogatesWashingtonians do not feel or behave very kindly toward the deer living in their midst. They do try to make nice with reindeer, the close cousins of deer, at this time of year. But the decorative, illuminated Christmas reindeer now offered as peace tokens in neighbourhood yards do not make up for the lack of love extended to real, wild deer most of the year.

The free-roaming sika deer of the Todaiji temple complex in Nara, Japan, are venerated in Shinto belief as “messengers of the gods”. There is, however, nothing sacred or sentimental in how most Washingtonians regard the deer so ubiquitous to these parts. White-tailed deer here are described as “scourge” or “rodents with legs”. This is a bit harsh, to my mind, since deer are certainly more thrilling to encounter than, for example, the rats often seen scurrying in urban environments anywhere in the world. Yet deer too are bearers of disease. Lyme’s disease, a debilitating illness caused by a bite from infected deer tick, is treatable, fortunately. The bulkiness of deer makes them deadly for drivers, especially those traveling fast on area roads. These collisions, of course, also always end very badly for the deer.

My family has journeyed the usual trajectory of most area residents in their feelings toward deer. It was initially quite charming to observe deer in our garden. Especially when the grazing gang included little Bambi-like family members. This pleasure faded somewhat when noticing how much foliage could disappear during visits from deer. I did not mind too much when the leaves munched were from big, settled trees or bushes. But now that I’m mutating into a novice gardener, I’m very much minding the deer.

Virginia’s hot, humid summers and its heavy clay soil present enough gardening challenge. Trying to garden with hungry, wild deer is an obstacle of a different order. I’m learning, most painfully, some of the tricks of the business: I’ve learned about breaking up mothballs and scattering the pieces generously around the base of the plant one is trying to protect. It’s not easy to remember to renew sprayed deterrents on time, so physical barriers ultimately work best. I’ve learned about plumbers’ piping, and how it can be sectioned to protect the trunks of trees. Some young male deer apparently went on a rave in our garden one night and repeatedly rubbed their antlers against numerous tree trunks (apparently to try to get rid of the velvet on the antlers), in between hearty feasting. The remedy this time was fencing with poles. But we’ll see if these trees survive winter and rebound in the spring. Unfortunately, the bark plus waxy coating was removed in some areas.

Deer like to eat bulbs, so I’ve learned that deer-resistant bulbs are essential. Actually, one needs bulbs to be squirrel resistant too since squirrels are always hungry and also rather partial to them. I have to admit to thinking that these athletic little creatures seem to get particular joy digging up bulbs in places—like a raised “deck” or stoep—where they have no competition from deer and the bulb planter naively thinks the bulbs might be “safe”…

Recently, there was an unusual request on our neighbourhood listserv, with a neighbour asking for help with a problem I hadn’t previously considered. Her children had discovered a dead deer in their garden. Northern Virginia Critter Control was unavailable for a couple of days. She had also called the county, but they would not come unless the deer was road kill. What to do? A respondent rather brilliantly suggested dragging the deer into the road!

The happiest place to see deer is when walking in the many wooded parks in Arlington and Fairfax Counties that abut the creeks feeding into the Potomac River. Discovering and enjoying these parks is one of my favourite parts to living in Washington. And the amount of wildlife one can experience is quite surprising, considering how populated the area is. I’ve seen lots of deer, tortoises, quite a few snakes, a raccoon, a coyote, and even a fox. The bird life is impressive too.

And that’s the rub of the problem. It’s we humans who have intruded on these animals’ habitats. The more construction there is, the more squeezed these animals are. No wonder they come to feed in our gardens.

Deer are rampant in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. Without traditional predators to keep the deer population in check, culling or hunting deer is definitely one solution. Such efforts do exist and are highly controversial. They vary from controlled urban archery to regulated public hunts using firearms. There are also hunts conducted by police sharp-shooters. Reintroducing wolves and mountain lion is another possibility, but not for solving a suburban problem.

After the storm

Until Hurricane Sandy’s arrival, neighbourhoods around here looked festive and jolly, cluttered as they were with colourful adornments. Rotund orange pumpkins and pots of chrysanthemums in the warm hues of autumn flanked front doors. Shrubs, bushes, and trees were decked in coats of gold, orange, and red foliage. There were also Halloween decorations, creative or corny, but always spooky—proving again that no one decorates outdoors like Americans. Repetitively mind-numbing political signage for the presidential and congressional elections was everywhere.

Much of it is gone now. Hurricane Sandy took care of that, and left a world somberly transformed. Nonstop rain and gusting winds stripped off many leaves, creating soggy brown-yellow mounds of unedifying mush. Many folk brought in their chrysants, Halloween decorations, and political signs to prevent Sandy blowing them about and damaging people or property. Those who didn’t take preventative measures had to pick up remnants of dreams for a “Happy Halloween” and a routine election.

People in the D.C. area are lucky. Public transport here closed down for a couple of days, but has mostly resumed. The worst many of us suffered was flooded basements, no electricity for a couple of days, cold homes, defrosting freezers, and yards littered with storm debris. There are unfortunate folk who had trees crashing down on their homes, causing major structural damage. But, relative to those further north and east in New Jersey and New York, we fared very well. It is heartbreaking to see and hear people there grieving for the dozens of loved ones lost, and thousands of homes and livelihoods destroyed. The cleanup from Sandy will be expensive, time-consuming, and require great patience and perseverance.

Everyone is, of course, fixated on Sandy’s impact on the elections. And it could be really significant. Which candidate will “benefit” from the storm and its aftermath? And what will be the effect on voters in the key battleground states of North Carolina, Ohio, and Virginia, never mind Pennsylvania, a blue-leaning state that, before Sandy, suddenly became in contention again for Republicans?

President Barack Obama went back to governing full time for a few days, taking a break from campaigning. The crisis has allowed him to highlight that he is the commander-in-chief, the one who leads the relief effort for those now in dire need. Given the haggling in the campaign over the role and extent of government, he was able to remind Americans how all look to government, as well as NGOs such as the Red Cross, for assistance and support in a disaster like this—even those who lambasted government during the campaign. By being effective, authoritative, and caring, Obama would also been able to create a contrast with the Republicans under President George W. Bush who mishandled the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Sandy halted early voting in the mid-Atlantic states. Even though early voting has now resumed in states in Sandy’s path—such as in Maryland—reduced hours or days for voting could be significant for this year’s election, especially in crucial swing states. In the 2008 election, for example, around 30 percent of all votes were cast before Election Day. This trend was likely to be heightened this year, as more states now permit early voting, and voters are more familiar with the concept. Prior to Sandy, a National Public Radio commentator estimated that about one fifth of likely voters had already cast their ballots. The campaigns of both Obama and Governor Mitt Romney were encouraging the electorate to vote early, with both campaigns wanting to “bank” as many votes as possible before November 6. With much fanfare, Obama himself voted early in his home city of Chicago, apparently the first sitting president to do so.

In addition to perhaps impacting early voting numbers, Sandy is also likely to affect turnout. This will be so when early voting resumes, and for Election Day itself. Will voters whose homes or businesses were hammered by Sandy care to vote? High turnout typically benefits Democratic Party candidates. So reduced turnout would likely hurt the Democratic ticket more. The profound consequence of diminished turnout among Democratic voters could be that Obama could lose the national popular vote in the election, even as many polls perceive him to be narrowly ahead in the state-based electoral college that determines the outcome of the election.

The halt in campaigning due to Sandy is, frankly, a relief. The negativity, pettiness, and vitriolic nature of both campaigns were becoming extremely off-putting. When the campaigns resume, I fervently hope they will do so with a new tenor. This is probably wishful thinking.

If the demeaning nature and tone of pre-Sandy campaigning was the low point, for me, of this high-stakes election, the categorical high point was the remarks both Obama and Romney delivered at the Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation dinner on October 18. If you have not already done so, please watch the full comments of both presidential candidates that evening in New York City. They are riveting.

Their remarks that evening represent the best of U.S. democracy in my eyes. The dinner took place between the second and third presidential debates, at a time of heightened competition between the two men due to Obama’s weak first debate. The remarks both gentlemen delivered that night were, of course, scripted— unlikely by themselves—but the content and way in which both presented them is outstanding.

Humour is an essential part of U.S. society: No one can take them self too seriously; everyone has to be able to make jokes at their own expense. While the veneer of the comments at the Al Smith dinner was funny, the reality was that this was campaigning in a different guise, with very pointed digs being made at each other—and, most importantly, at themselves. Whatever happens on November 6, this encounter will be my best memory from the campaign of 2012.

Electioneering

The presidential campaign permeates everything at present. Even if you’re totally disinterested in politics, the campaign is hard to avoid or ignore. Certainly its ubiquity, the sheer overwhelming quantity of all its manifestations, and the negativity of much of the advertising can be a turn off. And it is such a  l-o-n-g process, even for political junkies like myself.

Part of the cacophony relates to living in Virginia, one of the key battleground and swing states—along with Colorado, Florida, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, and Wisconsin—in the race between President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney. Obama has succinctly acknowledged Virginia’s pivotal significance: “If we win Virginia, we will win this election”. Virginia also has an extremely tight U.S. Senate race underway between former governors George Allen and Tim Kaine. The outcome of this race could impact whether the Democratic Party retains the majority in the Senate, or control shifts to the Republicans.

There are so many avenues for campaign activity now. The Internet and social media are drenched in promotion and advertising for the candidates and their platforms. Yet television as a forum still appears to trump web-based promotion. Both of the presidential candidates and their wives have appeared on countless TV programs, including daytime chat shows and late night comedy hours. When in New York last week to address the U.N. General Assembly, Obama did not participate in any traditional bilateral asides with other visiting heads of state, delegating this role to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton instead. Controversially though, his busy schedule did accommodate him and his wife filming a segment for “The View”, a popular daytime talk show.

The biggest television moments for the campaigns will be the three presidential debates and the sole vice-presidential debate. The first debate, which takes place tomorrow night and focuses on domestic policies, will likely attract the largest audience of the campaign, larger than for either of the two parties’ conventions.

TV in Virginia is also saturated with advertising by both campaigns and their surrogate political action committees. Back-to-back political ads have long displaced dog food, hair shampoo, and laundry detergent commercials. More interesting to me is the placement of political ads in video games. Already in 2008, the Obama campaign embedded ads in games like Need for Speed Carbon, and it is doing so again this year in Madden NFL 13, for example. National Public Radio reported yesterday that these ads apparently appear only if you are playing online games in a targeted battleground state.

Turn on the radio for a few minutes, and the odds are high you will hear a political advertisement or two. Open your mailbox, and there’s probably a pamphlet, brochure, or fundraising appeal from any of the campaigns. Lawn signs are starting to proliferate in the neighbourhood, although the “battle of the lawns” hasn’t really begun yet this far from November 6. It is fascinating to observe neighbours revealing their political colours with their choice of lawn signs. I’ve been playing a guessing game with myself, trying to anticipate who supports whom. The lawns of those living at prominent junctions are obviously especially coveted.

The “ground game” in Virginia is particularly impressive. Both campaigns have opened dozens of field offices here, and have signed up swarms of volunteers to go door to door to solicit interest, canvass support, and remind folk to vote. People from both presidential campaigns have stopped by our house to chat, check whether we are registered to vote, and of course try to glean how our household votes. Given that I’m not an American and thus of course not eligible to vote, conversations with me end quite quickly.

We’ve received phone calls from both campaigns, some being automated “robocalls”, but also a couple from “real people” who have left messages, requesting our participation. My favourite anecdote with one of these automated calls stems from late in the 2000 presidential election when we were living in Seattle. A recorded message on our answering machine one day was from Robert Redford! Redford had “called” in support of environmentalist Al Gore. I enjoyed listening to his three-minute message about saving the earth and how Gore was the man for the task. My husband teased me as it admittedly took a few days for me to delete the message. I’m wondering who may call our home this time round. George Clooney? Clint Eastwood?

Another area of contest is the car. Bumper stickers and car magnets proliferate. The “doggy wars” are particularly active on the back of people’s cars, given Romney’s noteworthy strapping of the family’s dog (in its kennel) to the top of their car one family holiday years ago. Subsequently, Obama allowed a photograph of him with Bo, the Obama family’s dog, to be taken inside the presidential limousine. Democrats are delighting in displaying “I Ride Inside” bumper stickers, a product from “DogsAgainstRomney”.

Other moments from the campaign have also already been absorbed into popular culture. An empty chair will, for example, never be the same again. And the surreptitiously made video of Romney damagingly disparaging 47 percent of the American public as people “who are dependent upon government, who believe they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to take care of them, who believe they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, you name it” has galvanized Democratic t-shirt and poster makers, and provided fodder for some of their best material.

When we look back at the 2012 campaign, I believe the disclosure of these comments from Romney will be seen as the turning point in the campaign, the moment when he lost his bid to succeed Obama. These unguarded comments revealed Romney’s true disposition, showing that he really doesn’t understand how America works, if you’ll excuse the pun, and revealing the extent of his detachment from the lives of regular Americans. This candid speech validated the caricature of Romney that relentless Democratic attack ads suggested all summer long.

The unceasing demand for exposure to the candidates in a U.S. presidential campaign creates the chance for such slip-ups, especially when candidates are trawling for money. And more character revelations may yet come. There is, after all, still over a month to go until the votes are in.

Yes, the campaign is arduous and—especially this year, after the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision permitting unlimited corporate donations to campaigns—an atrociously extravagant way for people to choose their government. But there is no other purposeful spectacle quite like it, anywhere in the world. Viva democracy.

Update on October 4, 2012: The spectacle isn’t over, folks! After last night’s first presidential debate, it’s once again a real race. Romney’s campaign has bounced back from the debacle over the “47 percent” remarks with him delivering a strong, impassioned debate performance. While debating solidly, President Obama seemed under-prepared. Romney was too aggressive at times, I felt, and part of Obama’s demeanour suggested to me that, after four years in the presidential bubble, he wasn’t used to being spoken to without deference. Last night was really a celebration of democracy though. Imagine South African President Jacob Zuma having to defend his government’s policies for 90 minutes in a similar forum with Helen Zille? Or China’s leader-in-waiting Xi Jinping being exposed to 90 minutes of back-and forth with a seasoned domestic critic of China’s current economic policies?