Banner over Main Street, 2016

Each Presidential Election year, I take photos of events starting with the primaries and ending with an all day series on election day. Last year was no different and to mark a full year since the Trump victory, I looked through my Politics photo file and decided to share some of the moments I’ve captured over the years. It kind of evolved into something more.

John King, Hollis NH, 2008

My first foray into primary politics was at a small pharmacy in Hollis New Hampshire (owned by a loyal GOP donor) the day after the 2008 Iowa Caucuses, where Barack Obama officially became a front runner in that race. That morning, both Hillary Clinton and John McCain were in New Hampshire, and I went to this little store to wait for the Straight Talk Express bus to pull up. There I found CNN’s John King deep in thought. (Off topic: I just noticed the framed Corona beer sign on the right. Interesting counterpoint to the stenciling on the left. That’s New Hampshire for you.)

As the pharmacy began to fill up with media and the very few voters who could squeeze in, King would chat with people between writing emails and taking calls on his blackberry – at the time juggling devices like this was still rather extraordinary. A native of Dorchester, MA, the bitterly cold morning was not bothering him even though he admitted that most days he wasn’t even sure where he was as long as he was on the heels of a candidate.

John McCain, Hollis, NH, 2008

Senator McCain arrived with former Senator Warren Rudman (not pictured here) whose endorsement was announced at this event. He shook hands with the few citizens who were within reach  – most had been pushed back into the aisles of band aids and shaving cream behind him. The tiny pharmacy was so jammed that Cindy McCain chose to stay on the bus, and the chaos was intense enough that McCain never again scheduled a campaign appearance at a private business. At the time I thought he looked old and tired, but compared with the man today, he looks positively chipper.

Press Pool at the Nashua Airport, January 2008

Meanwhile, Senator Hillary Clinton was flying in to speak in a hangar at the Nashua Airport, where there was plenty of room for the media.

Hillary Clinton buttons and tee shirts for sale, 2008

And, unlike McCain, lots of merch.

Hillary Clinton unveils her new campaign bus, January 2008

Clinton’s airport event included the unveiling of her new campaign bus, intended to be a counter punch to the straight talk express. Alas, Obama’s victory was all anyone could talk about.

Bill and Chelsea Clinton watch Hillary speak the morning after her defeat by Barack Obama in the Iowa caucuses, 2008

As she got up to speak, the the expressions of former President Bill Clinton and daughter Chelsea pretty much said it all.

Hillary Clinton speaks at the Nashua, NH Airport, January 2008

Like the pharmacy, the hangar had more media in it than voters but the campaign was sure to create good optics for the event.

Bill Clinton works the crowd at the Nashua Airport on behalf of Hillary, January 2008

What they didn’t show was Bill working the crowd like he was still the candidate.

Braving the elements for Obama on Super Tuesday in Groton, MA 2008
Super Tuesday voter and friend, March 2008

Super Tuesday, 2008.

I didn’t take my camera to the polls in November, 2008. I was preoccupied with other things and also didn’t want to jinx it. I wish I’d thought of that in 2016.


Barack Obama campaigns in Manchester, NH, October 2012

In October 2012, President Obama campaigned in New Hampshire. The group of voters on the bleachers in front of us brought giant pieces of foam core cut to spell OBAMA.

A homemade Obama sign, 2012

I thought of this home made sign a lot in the fall of 2016, when the side of this house and whole lot of yards were empty.

In 2008, the slogan was “Hope.” In 2012, Obama perhaps understood that his path forward would be blocked at every turn by an obstinate and xenophobic Congress.

Mitt Romney was undone by a comment about the 57%. How quaint.

Screen shot of the Five Thirty Eight election analysis, November 6, 2012

Nate Silver and his Five Thirty Eight statistical analysis first emerged in 2008 and changed the face of political prognosticating for good.


Screen shot of a Facebook post of the NYT front page, November 7, 2012

Foreshadowing: For a lot of people, this was as close as they got to the front page of a New York Times – by 2012 more people were getting their news online than ever before, and the influence of Facebook on the electorate in 2016 is a story that is still unfolding.

Elizabeth Warren’s victory over Scott Brown proved that, at long last, a woman could win a state-wide election in Massachusetts. Niki Tsongas is giving up her seat in 2018, leaving Veterans without one of their strongest advocates in Congress. It’s a race to watch.


Pro-Trump yard signs in Westford, MA, Fall 2016

2016 was an ugly campaign in so many ways, illustrated by this display I drove by several times each week. The house (unseen here) looks like Boo Radley might live there. The center side says “Jail Hillary.”

Anti-Hillary yard sign in Ayer, MA, Fall 2016

Someone actually had these signs printed up – and we live in a blue state.

Clinton-Kaine sign across from a dinosaur mailbox, Fall 2016

By the time I took this photo I was starting to get the hint. There weren’t nearly as many signs up as in 2008 or 2012.

Three Trump sign displays in MA and NH, November 8, 2016

Hillary ultimately won the states in which these signs appeared, but the strength of Trump’s message and how it was delivered could not be denied. A year later, there are still some Trump signs posted, despite local ordinances saying political signs must be removed after an election.

This New Hampshire sign, backlit by the early morning sun on Election day, marks the moment where I first felt that Trump might win. I had been driving down a road dotted with Trump sings and no Hillary signs and I had to pull over to get this shot.

Democrats at a MA polling place, November 8, 2016

And then, at a local polling place, all of my shots of this group had this line through them. All of them.

Republicans at a MA polling place, November 8, 2016

Over in the shade, at the same polling place, these steadfast women held their ground.

Republican supporters at the entrance to a polling place, November 8, 2016

Out on the main road, Trump supporters dominated the entrance to the polling place. Again, Hillary won the town and the state, but you’d never know it from the signs.

The beginning and end of our day – we started with cake and ended with booze. At one point while watching the returns – everyone else had gone to bed – I needed to stress eat so much I took Christmas cookies from 2015 out of the freezer and ate them. They were delicious, but needless to say they didn’t help.

I watched all of the debates, read the news, and sat in disbelief that people could be diverted by Benghazi and email servers. I was befuddled by references to Russia, annoyed by anything having to do with the Clinton Foundation, and furious with all the free media time given – without rebuttal or correction to the endless lies – to the Trump rallies. Bannon and Conway were admired for their Machiavellian brilliance with absolutely no understanding of what that might mean for America.

iPad screen shot, November 9, 2016

We woke up to this.

Even though it has taken me a year to process the results of the 2016 election, I am no longer mystified by the reality of President Trump. There is no single reason for a success even he did not anticipate. If he really thought he would win, he and his associates would have hidden their ties to Russia better. I underestimated the antipathy of voters toward the Clintons (yes, plural) and the tone-deafness and sheer incompetence of the Democratic party. One need only look at the pitiful minimum wages and job losses in key states like Michigan to see that the Democrats lost touch with their base and did not take care of working class people at the state or federal levels. Whether Bernie Sanders could have solved that problem is a question that will be long debated but never answered, because he was never tested by the fires of a general election.

The Weinstein scandal came too late to help Hillary, but there is no guarantee that wouldn’t have backfired, too. Bill Clinton’s harassment, perjury, hypocrisy, draft-dodging and perpetual obfuscation paved the way for Donald Trump to do the same things, only exponentially worse because he has surrounded himself by people who, like him, are morally bankrupt, scientifically illiterate and clueless about governing. Add to that the unanticipated mendacity of Mitch McConnell, Paul Ryan, Mike Pence and John Kelly – the “cooler heads” we kept telling ourselves would prevail in a Trump administration – and we are left with the too little too late types embodied in Jeff Flake and John McCain, whose political careers are effectively, almost tragically, over anyway.

And so we are left with a leadership – and in some ways moral – vacuum in the Democratic party.  Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer had worn out their welcomes with the larger electorate by 2014, but their fundraising prowess obscured their lack of appeal to the next generation of voters, who were looking for a champion like Bernie and the only thing the democrats had to offer was…Bernie. Debbie Wasserman Schultz proved herself to be the Democratic versin or Reince Priebus – and somehow she got re-elected. Now, as in 2014, Elizabeth Warren and Al Franken are doing all of the heavy lifting. I haven’t read Donna Brazile’s book yet, but it appears she is owning the failures of her own party, and taking a terrible hit for telling it like it is – or was.

Even if the Trump presidency does not last, the GOP line of succession still guarantees that moneyed interests will prevail over the common good. The Democrats still have not figured out who is a worthy successor to Barack Obama. The solution is maddeningly simple in theory: authenticity. It’s what Obama has down to his very fingertips, and what every major Democrat with a wide audience beyond but Franken and Warren lacks. Franken and Warren are the first to admit they are not the saviors of the party, but they do set an example for what a competent Congress looks like. It’s a start.

As for what happens next, Robert Draper wrote a must-read piece on this topic in the November 1 New York Times Magazine. The money quote comes from an Army veteran named Bill Hyers, who helped create a brilliant ad for a challenger to Paul Ryan’s House seat. Referring to Pelosi and company, he says:

“What’s terrible about Democrats like [former congressman, democratic strategist, White House chief of staff and current Mayor of Chicago] Rahm Emanuel,” Hyers said, “is that it matters more to them if you’re a candidate who can raise money from very wealthy people than if you have an argument to make. They look at everything through the old Clinton triangulation strategy. Put out very carefully prepared statements. Don’t let anyone get to your right. Deny and ignore. Never have an honest dialogue. It was a bad strategy back in the ’90s. But it’s even worse today, because we can now have 24-7 access to candidates, and people can see when they’re not being authentic. Everything Hillary Clinton did was carefully scripted — they could see that.”

We need a Bernie Sanders for the 21st Century or we could very likely end up reliving in the 19th century.

President Obama, driving away from a campaign rally, October 2012

A Machine with No Message or Heart: How the Democrats Blew It in 2014

It’s your President, stupid.

Democrats failed to stand by or tout the many successes of their sitting President, instead trying to distance themselves from him. Barack Obama is – and deserves to be – their standard bearer, their moral compass, the sign of all is that is good about their party. If they’re disenchanted with their leader then we have every right to be disenchanted with them.

Lesson? You can’t whine or scold your way to victory if you are an incumbent, and you can’t mobilize voters by talking about how good you are at mobilizing voters. People will listen to outsiders who complain about insiders, but when incumbents complain about the opposition (who don’t have to back up their claims with facts, it seems), voters don’t take them seriously.

Democrats cut and run on Barack Obama because that is what the pundits told them happens in mid-term elections, and now they don’t have any credibility with which to pave a positive road the White House in 2016. They could have talked about the good points in the economic recovery, the improved oversight of Wall Street, the benefits of Obamacare, the greatly reduced budget deficit, the ascending housing, job and stock markets and (just this morning, preliminary reports of 230K more private sector jobs in October) and then gone on to talk about how there is so much more work to be done in all of these areas. If they don’t know how to tout their own success and go forward with a vision, why should we vote for them?

Instead, Democrats not only bailed on a President they should have been supporting, they focused on all the wrong issues – things like reproductive rights, voter ID laws and gay marriage. Those are not local or economic enough to sway a voter that thinks Congress is stuck – they smack of telling people what is good for them because they are too dumb to figure it out for themselves. Voters are smart enough to know that their congressman or governor has no real control over those non-paycheck issues and women don’t want to be shamed into a feminist vote. When in doubt, vote for the one who promises to leave you alone and not to raise your taxes – the latter is a key promise people can keep track of very easily.

It was wrong to let Elizabeth Warren, Al Franken and Bernie Sanders (an Independent, it should be noted) do all the heavy lifting, but at least they each had something to say that was worth hearing. All three of them delivered messages that were rich in facts but also exuded warmth and humor and a desire to connect with people – everyone else seemed to be talking to a demographic. Elizabeth Warren was able to be candid about missed opportunities during the present administration but she never lost sight of the passion and core ideals that have people talking about her as a presidential hopeful – but apparently most of the people who heard her speak liked her, but not enough to elect the people she was stumping for. (Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, didn’t do herself or her party any favors by joining the chorus and disparaging the administration that gave her the gravitas she needed to bolster own run for the White House.)

The good old days: Deval Patrick is elected Governor of Massachusetts, 2006
The good old days: Deval Patrick is elected Governor of Massachusetts, 2006

In Massachusetts, the most inspiring speech I heard all election season was outgoing Governor Deval Patrick’s eulogy for Boston Mayor Tom Menino. The Governor reminded us that the best public servants do their work not by belittling their opponents and getting out their base but by listening to individual people and making their daily lives better, one street at a time. He praised the famously mumbling Mayor by saying that “you always knew what he meant and, more importantly, that he meant what he said.” Governor Patrick and the late Mayor share what was so woefully lacking in this election: the ability to show us what is good about our world and demonstrate the ability to deliver on a promise to make it even better.

Why is that so hard?













Ain’t That a Kick in the Head?

The last photo I took before I whacked my head on the ice
The last photo I took before I whacked my head on the ice

Four years ago today I went out to play with the kids and take photos in the snow. Two minutes into it I slipped on smooth ice under the snow and landed on my head and watched the Presidential Inauguration through the fog of a mild concussion (Hillary Clinton, I feel your pain). Sometimes it still hurts on that spot at the back of my head, and it hurts, too, to know that not everything has gone as well as we had hoped over the last four years. We feel more divided and less safe and we are still at war, but we seem to be making progress in a lot of important areas even as we fall behind in others.

It's not as easy to believe as it once was, but I still do
It’s not as easy to believe as it once was, but I still do

In 2009, we were elated at the historical significance of Barack Obama’s election and also in survival mode from the Great Recession. Then, we were looking at some huge milestones for our kids and wondering how we would survive those. Now, we are satisfied from having accomplished so much, proud of our children, but weary and a little worried about the world we are handing to them. It is a new kind of uncertainty, informed by the realization that talking about peace and compromise are so much easier than accomplishing them – and we really thought we knew that. Sometimes it’s like the 1970s all over again, just with better clothes and more cynicism (which I didn’t think was possible).

I still have high hopes for our President, still feel the same thrill at seeing the monuments and marble corridors in Washington that we have visited a few times in recent years, still look ahead optimistically to the next milestones for our family. And I still walk very gingerly in the snow.

Mr. President, on the inside, looking out
Mr. President, on the inside, looking out – God Speed, sir

Photo Essay: Election 2012

Obama Campaign Office, Main Street, Nashua, NH.

The New Hampshire Obama campaign staff hand-cut letters out of foam core that spelled out “NH 4 OBAMA” and convinced people to hold them up throughout the rally. It’s not as easy as it looks.

The President gave a rousing version of his stump speech on a spectacular October afternoon. He was probably saving his new material for the Al Smith Dinner in New York that night and his appearance on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.

We all want a moment that we think belongs just to us. My friend and I were the only spectators on this stretch of street as the motorcade passed. We like to think that he saw us.

Hurricane Sandy was comparatively kind to New England but no discussion of Election 2012 is complete without her.

Sunrise, Tuesday, November 6, 2012.

On the way to the polls, a juxtaposition of the 20th and 21st century economies.

These signs were everywhere; we had an 85% turnout.

There were numerous Brown signs posted in town, many of them ten times this size. See also: previous post.

Even though Brown won the local vote, Elizabeth Warren ran away with the election for Senate.

And amidst the election hoopla, signs of thing to come. Turkeys party and then get raffled off.

Civic pride on both sides of the street.

Remnants of a successful Halloween remain.

An unattended sign at a polling place caused a little controversy, but not enough for it to come down.

Although it was cold, it was sunny, making it easier to get out the vote.

As the sun went down, the sign holders were steadfast in the cold.

True believer.

Darkness settled over the Groton School, with football practice under the lights in the distance. It seemed fitting to end the day in this place where Presidents and statesmen first made their marks.

We rushed to buy the morning papers with the results, not realizing that they went to press before 11pm.

2012 was indeed the social media election – this was the only copy of this edition available.

The election produced another winner: Nate Silver, who had the numbers right all along. Goodbye, Gallup.

But old habits die hard, and it was good to sit down on the first snowy day of the season and read the news the old fashioned way, with soup and coffee.

Bringing Democracy

I heard on the radio this morning about the Afghan peoples’ disappointment that the United States failed to deliver on its promise to bring democracy to Afghanistan and I wonder whether any outside entity has ever successfully brought democracy to any nation.  I may be out of my depth here; I am not a history scholar, but any lasting efforts to fundamentally change the political structure of a nation appear to have carried through by the people themselves.  Americans have always kept the flame alive, overtly and covertly, but Solidarity had deep Polish roots, the Germans dismantled the Berlin Wall , Gorbachev oversaw the breakup of the USSR.  Can democracy be exported?  It can be funded, encouraged, and nurtured, but I think the idea of exporting a successful turnkey government (even if it appears to be handcrafted a la Karzai) is preposterous and I thought that this failed conceit was the big lesson of Viet Nam.  I do think that the undermining the Taliban and rooting out Al Qaeda are noble causes that can save lives and personal freedoms, but I cannot comprehend how we can reverse centuries of skepticism about Western motives in Middle Eastern nations; President Obama may have a better shot at it than most, but I still think the parameters of the mission and the methods should be redrawn, and fast.

We Thought We Could

Election Night 2006 confetti

Election night 2006.  That’s Deval Patrick on the jumbo screen at right, emerging triumphant in his victory as the first person of color to be elected governor of Massachusetts.  The campaign slogan was Together We Can.  The headline in today’s Boston Globe was that he will cut 1,000 state jobs to avoid a budget deficit of $600 million.  He didn’t create the recession, but there is still something terribly disheartening about this news.  Families of people with disabilties will lose the people who support them, more teachers will lose their jobs, more schools will be overcrowded, and politicians – the Governor included – may use this as an excuse to build casinos in Massachusetts.  He is sinking in a quagmire not of his own making, and signs point that he is looking to all the wrong people to pull him out.  I don’t blame him for not getting along with his own legislature – even though his party holds the majority – but, just as with Obama, I wonder if he has been able to surround himself with people who are truly like-minded.

That election night was an interesting moment in time.  Ted Kennedy spoke (boring boilerplate), as did John Kerry (deadly boring boilerplate – leftover from 2004 Presidential campaign) and Martha Coakley (most boring of all attorney general-speak that she still uses in her current campaign to fill Kennedy’s Senate seat).  Patrick was the beaming exception.  Like Obama – he literally lit up the room.

Still, my favorite moment from that night did not take place on the floor, but in the empty corridor outside as my daughter and I were going out to find something to eat before the speeches began.  It was one of those enormous convention center hallways that could accomodate a truck if it was required, and walking toward us was a man in a red pullover sweater.  He looked familiar and I squinted to get a better look.  He smiled at me and, not breaking his easy stride, smiled and said “Hi there, how are you?”

“Fine, thanks.”  I nodded and returned the smile as we passed each other. 

 My daughter looked at me, and said “Who was that?  It seemed like he knew you.”

“That, my dear, was Mike Dukakis.   And he was once the Democratic nominee for President of the United States.  I’ve never met him before, but that’s what good politicians do – they make everybody feel like them know them.”

“That guy in the red sweater walking all by himself?”

That guy in the red sweater walking all by himself.

Nobel Aspirations

If your phone ever rings at 5 a.m. in October, answer it. That’s when they award the Nobel Prize and as this morning’s news proves, you just never know, it might be you. Many Octobers ago my phone rang before dawn with Nobel news about two professors who won the prize in Physics. The call came from the Director of the MIT News Office, and as the Interim Assistant to the President of MIT, it was my job to know help him prepare to recognize and celebrate the awards such.

At a place like MIT, where 63 people have won the prize, people talk about Nobels like the rest of the world talks about a really great promotion – to people accustomed to extraordinary accomplishment, a Nobel is a distinct possibility, and some get to the point where they plan their careers around it. One gentleman declined the presidency of the Institute based on his expectation that he was a contender for the prize and that accepting an administrative position would hurt his chances. (He did win the Prize, eventually.)

So, given that this event was oddly commonplace and extraordinary, we set about honoring the winners while tip toeing among the winners (there are over 60 as of this writing) and losers that roam the Infinite Corridor. The President, intent on doing the right thing, asked me to visit the Dean of Science to invite him to the press conference honoring the winners. He specifically instructed me to walk down to the office and extend the invitation in person, rather than via phone or e-mail. I knew that the Dean of Science, an imposing and square jawed man with a laugh that reminded me of Beavis and Butthead, was still smarting from being passed over for the Presidency and then the Provost’s position. It became quite clear to me how much he was smarting when I asked to see him personally on behalf of the president and he did not only not rise from his desk, but only glanced briefly over his half glasses at me and inquired what I wanted. I felt more like a child in a principal’s office than a presidential envoy, and was both terrified and furious. I extended the invitation as best I could and backed out of the office. When I told the President what happened he realized his mistake in sending a staff memer and, ever gracious, apologized for his colleague’s behavior. The winners themselves were wonderful, one charming and affable, the other more quiet and dignified, but both humbled and delighted by the acclaim. I generally found this to be true; that those with the greatest accolades were the most gracious and rewarding to work with.

All of this came back to me this morning when I learned of the Barack Obama’s own Nobel phone call and his daughter’s reactions that this was a great way to start a long weekend. So many laureates in so many disciplines toil in quiet libraries and busy labs, driven by the pursuit of a single idea or narrative, trying to explain something that has never been seen or told before in quite the same way. The award may or may not come, but they work on, devoted to an ideal often only known to them. Those prizes are awarded for moving us forward in a way we might not have expected; they shine light into corners we did not even know were there, and the prize turns up the wattage for the world to see. But Obama has been awarded the beacon itself, and is asked to make good on his promise to further illuminate the world, to take his message of hope and make it a reality. Whether history with judge this as and enlightened choice or a colossal act of hubris we will soon see for ourselves.

Eight Years and Counting

The eighth anniversary of September 11 brings cloudy skies, and rightly so. Unlike that blindingly clear day, everything is murky now. We are mired in a jobless recovery from a recession that snuck up on us, an no one seem to really know how to fix health care, and everyone is cranky about it. We expected that September 11 would change the way we live radically, instantaneously, but it didn’t – instead it visited upon us a long, slow, steep decline that we still fail to comprehend.

I remember calling my mother in Saint Louis as the towers burned. ‘I have been waiting for something like this to happen my whole life,” I said. “That’s terrible,” she replied. “People are jumping out of the buildings.” “I don’t mean that,” I tried to explain, “I mean that this is a defining moment for my generation. I always heard about Pearl Harbor, about the assassinations, about events that everyone else remembers happening with a sense of manifest destiny. And with that came an identity, a place in history that shaped how you look at the world in the space of a moment. Everything that happens from this moment on will be thought of in terms of before and after this day.”

I still believe that. September 11 set George Bush on a course for disaster but in a more roundabout way it set Barack Obama on a course for victory. If Bush (and so many others complicit in the march to war and financial ruin) had not been so terribly wrong, people never could have made the leap of faith that brought Obama forward. But where that leap of faith will take us remains to be seen. Will his eloquent hopes lead us to a sustainable future? Can one man cure a crippled legislature?

I think the mentality that there were terrorists at the gate created by September 11 allowed bankers to gamble and regulators to turn a blind eye. Like the 1920s after World War I, a war that was decimating a generation provided all the rationale required to pursue the high life. The post 9/11 world allowed the government and media to hype the beauty of having it now just at the moment that the generation who saw the danger in that philosophy was fading away. No one was willing to say no to anything except personal responsibility. Who knew what the future would bring; why wait when you can Buy It Now, just like on eBay.

And still, for every one of us that has reacted in fear and denial there are so many who have been humbled, who have worked to understand our responsibility to act thoughtfully. It is that appreciation, that sense that if we try to listen we can come to an honest conclusion about what is right for us, that brought us to the conclusion that is Barack Obama. We have so much history to overcome in this process. Not just racism but the politics of money, legislative and judicial inertia, and party organizations that no longer make any sense. Many a good public servant has fallen prey to the duplicitousness of friends and enemies alike.

September 11, the wars, and the Crash of 2008 robbed us of what little trust we had manage to recoup after Watergate and Viet Nam. Restoring it is a tall order for one man, but we have done more with less.

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