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The Mother Tongue

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

navajo2_webLanguage is culture. The Navajo language is Navajo culture. When one changes, so does the other. Many ceremonies and cultural activities peculiar to and associated with the language that my grandparents spoke are now gone.

I will never experience the Navajo associated with that worldview. It is gone forever. But language is alive. When it diminishes in one area, it expands in another. In Navajo, we adopt new words to articulate contemporary concepts and objects like neuro-immunology and computers. We strive to maintain the integrity of tradition while accommodating an ever-changing world.

Although cultures may evolve and languages may change with the times, certain linguistic and cultural associations function as inalienable, immutable forces that keep us Navajos. One such force is the notion of k’e—relationship building that is linguistically and culturally Navajo. Within our clanship system, a 96-year-old grandmother may call me “Daddy.” On Navajo, when I talk about all my children, everyone understands. Off Navajo, I am often asked how many children I have and it is demanded of me to explain how one of my children can be 46 years older than me. I used to try, but now I don’t even bother. My reality in Navajo needs no explanation in English to a non-Navajo worldview.

This peculiar relationship allows our elders to be childlike again. It allows them to be goofy without being ridiculed. They use this opportunity to ask of me as their father things that I cannot provide them. Through these interactions, they teach me how to be a caring and loving father to my own children, passing on lifelong lessons of parenting. At the same time, they would tease my children as brothers and sisters, establishing lasting and valuable relationships. These elders and my children bond together for life, respecting and loving one another as siblings.

In Navajo, we call our biological nieces “mothers.” From birth they are our mothers; our kinship demands that we respect them as matriarchs. Our interactions with them must help them become mothers and leaders of the family. Knowing this, I do my part, misbehaving and allowing them to chastise me for being foolish. In so doing, we begin to train them to become matriarchs.

Video: Rex Lee Jim, on his interest in langauge

They learn quickly. On her first day at school as a kindergartener, my youngest niece was running around when her teacher asked her to stop. When she refused, her teacher said, “I am going to tell your uncle, the school board president.”

“What uncle?” she responded.


“He’s not my uncle; he’s my son. I tell him what to do!”

The Navajo teacher realized what was going on. “Well, I will tell your ‘mother’ Janice (the ‘aunt’) at the high school.” My niece settled down right away.

The Navajo language allows us to develop intimate and unique relationships, which is the foundation of strong, healthy communities. When we no longer speak the language, what makes us distinct and unique will be gone. We will be speakers of English with brown skins. The Navajo community will no longer be.

Whither Courtly Love

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

CourtlyLove-webWhen I was an English major at Middlebury back in the eighties, courtly love was my cod liver oil: dosages were the mandatory price I paid for the lovely beef stew of Middlemarch and the meringue of Pride and Prejudice. It was key to Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale, in which two suitors duke it out to win the love of fair Emily, and Spenser’s deadly boring Faerie Queene, and even in Shakespeare, my bugaboo was unavoidable: the romantic fealty of courtly love is captured in Sonnet 18 (Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day…), and its vanilla rituals mocked in Much Ado About Nothing and As You Like It. Even when it was the subject of satire, courtly love spawned my biggest, baddest internal eye roll. Once I had my diploma in my 22-year-old hand, I was sure that with respect to the canoodling of knights and ladies, I’d never look back.

But then I wound up writing an entire book about the social and cultural history of heartbreak, and no matter how sturdy my decades-long resistance to courtly love was, ignoring it in my book would have been downright negligent. After all, at least in the beginning stages of the courtly romance formula, heartbreak was codified: a knight attempts to attract a married noble lady’s attention via stolen glances; then he circles said lady like a shark, perhaps by attending court just a little too often; then he declares “I love you,” perhaps from behind a curtain or in a dark corner; the lady replies, “No, no, no! I’m so very married and so very devout!” and focuses on her needlepoint; the knight says he just might die if his lady doesn’t return his love; then the knight moons around court bemoaning how the lady doesn’t love him back.

Only when the knight takes a dramatic risk is the spell of unrequitedness broken: he might get his hot little hands on a ribbon from the lady, tie it to his lance, and proceed to win a jousting tournament (with bonus points for any injuries sustained). Only then might she give in and reward him with kisses and/or sex, and from there they might sneak about for a little clandestine codpiece ’n’ corset action. The nobility of courtly love, of the heartbreak, was in the attenuated longing, and consummation between the lovelorn knight and his lady was theoretically verboten. If the relationship was consummated, the thrill of the chase was replaced by the thrill of evading detection.

No doubt part of the reason why I found courtly love so irksome lay in the fact that it was so at odds with what I was experiencing as a young woman at Middlebury in the eighties—or thought I was experiencing. Among my peers/friends, romance and its close associate, eroticism, were certainly not celebrated. (The terms I recall for sexual encounters were “hooking up,” “muckling,” and most memorably, if repeated encounters were the case, “dealing.”) In my own personal experience, the only thing that sex and romance at Middlebury had in common with courtly love was that it was furtive: the closest thing I had to a relationship in college was a guy I’d hook up with—FOR THREE YEARS!—but we couldn’t hack breakfast together in Proctor, much less meet up to see a Hitchcock movie at Dana Auditorium. It makes sense then that my muckling self, sitting there in the second row of a classroom in Munroe, Faerie Queen open, was perplexed by the idea of an entire subculture devoted to mooning around for love.

But then, nearly 25 years later, I found myself fascinated by the academic debates that have, for decades now, framed discussions about courtly love. What was it exactly? A real phenomenon, a literary device, or a little of both? Among those who believe that knights really did hotly pursue married women, the phenomenon is thought to have been more or less natural adaptation: in a milieu where marriages among the upper classes were arranged and loveless, courtly love was a neat ruse that covered, justified, or perhaps even celebrated adultery. Some who have studied it have gone so far as to suggest that the spread of courtly love across Europe from the 12th century onward marked a sexual revolution in which women radically turned the tables on men. Others are quick to point out that there is really no evidence whatsoever that courtly love existed anywhere but on paper and in song: no legal cases, no chronicles, no correspondence. It has even been suggested that many depictions of courtly love in medieval literature were more or less ironic jokes, just as they were in Shakespeare several hundred years later.

Initially, as I absorbed the fact that courtly love has no smoking gun, I felt vindicated: my 20-year-old self was wise beyond her years. She knew courtly love was bogus. It was as absurd as, in today’s world, a midlevel manager professing undying love for the CEO’s wife, sailing into tough meetings with her Hermes scarf wrapped around his arm, and then crying to the crowd around the water cooler about how she doesn’t love him back.

But the nagging questions about it also got me thinking about love at Middlebury in the eighties—about what was, what wasn’t, and what might have been. Naturally this line of thinking got me rummaging around in what I think of as my Middlebury closet, pushing past my cynicism to the painful box of regrets/box of pain, but it also got me going drawing comparisons between the upper echelons of the medieval world and, yes, Middlebury. Think about it: like a royal court, Middlebury is elite, packed with smart and attractive people; like a court, it is physically isolated from the rest of the world; and like a court, it has its cliques and pecking orders. It is a castle on a hill.

And, like any court, and any small school, Middlebury also had its own culture. What strikes me now is that a key component of that culture was this: love wasn’t cool. “Hooking up” was cool, walks of shame were cool, but unabashed love, as in shouting to the hills that are his also, that you were madly in love? Not so much. Sure, there were the rare couples who were in love and wore their hearts on their Patagonia sleeves, but those were the exception, not the rule. The way I see it, never in the history of man has there been a group of 18–21-year-olds quite so determined to not be in love.

I’m sure this had something to do with the fact that for four years, we were in essence at an endless banquet: you could pick and choose among countless smart, attractive, and more-or-less like-minded individuals to spend your time with. Indeed, you could have a crush in every dining hall to keep you entertained. The rock climber who ate with his friends in the SDUs; the lacrosse player in Proctor who you hooked up with freshman year; the moody poet in Lower Proctor. I also think the collective resistance to love originated in naiveté: little did we know just how precious that time in the castle on the hill was, and weak was our understanding that never again would we share such intimate space with so many interesting people the same age. So the saying goes, youth is wasted on the young.

But I’ve talked to a few close friends from Middlebury about this, and we all agree that there was more to it than that. At Middlebury then, and perhaps now, tribalism was fierce. Perhaps the lack of love at Middlebury also had something to do with fear of crossing social boundaries, of being associated with someone who, even within the coziness of Middlebury, was “other.” Love wasn’t in the air, but following the rules was. And foremost in that pack of rules was this: “Thou shalt not profess undying love.”

I’m in my mid-forties now, and perhaps unduly preoccupied in my research on love by what was, what wasn’t, and what might have been. I regret that I didn’t have the confidence and steeliness to tell the boys I loved—and yes, there were a few—how I felt, and I regret dismissing the ones who were bold, and yes! wise enough to at least hint that they loved me. Love wasn’t in the air, and yet it was all around us. The flickers deserved to be fed.

And as for courtly love, the trappings of adoration, confession, and persistence, and my now-ancient distaste for them? Now I know that the line between scorn and envy is a thin one. Love isn’t just loving, it’s letting oneself be loved.

Meghan Laslocky ’89 is the author of The Little Book of Heartbreak: Love Gone Wrong through the Ages, Plume/Penguin 2013.

Restoration Hardware

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

A painting is an image, but it is also an object. The image resides in a thin film of pigment bound by a medium, such as egg yolk or oil, to an underlying support: a taut piece of canvas or—in the case of many Western paintings before the late-15th century—a carefully prepared panel of wood.

For most of us, the painting is what we see on the surface, where light reflects the image into our eyes. George Bisacca ’77 sees that same image, but his vision of a painting penetrates more deeply, to the object beneath. As one of the world’s leading conservators of paintings on wood (often called “panel paintings”), Bisacca sees through the paint to the cracks, fissures, worm holes, and clumsy repairs of centuries past—yet he also sees the craftsmanship, history, cultural tradition, and immense beauty of these objects.

In the airy, north-facing conservation studio atop the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Bisacca stands among a dozen paintings. Some need minor repairs, removal of yellowed varnish, cleaning, or minor retouching. Others are in shockingly bad condition.

On a nearby easel stands a large German oil on wood from about 1585, an Annunciation given to the Met last year by a Florentine art dealer. It’s a familiar Christian scene: the angel Gabriel gestures toward a demure Mary, each figure occupying about half the picture. And in the sky above, a bearded figure of God points at her, releasing a dove of peace.

The two halves of the composition are unified by sightlines and gestures—but they are no longer physically joined. The original panel, made of four planks of wood, has bowed and cracked along its three seams; the central seam is so badly compromised that Bisacca decided to separate it entirely. It seems like radical treatment, but now conservators will be able to align the surfaces and adjust the natural curvature of the entire panel. Once the pieces are rejoined, restorers will clean and retouch the damaged surface, being careful to use materials that can be removed later without damaging the original paint. Today’s restorations are largely done in this manner, so that future conservators can reverse this treatment and conserve the painting differently as new science emerges.

There’s a lot of science in modern art conservation. Soon after X-rays were invented, people began using them to investigate works of art, often finding surprises below the visible surface. Bisacca shows me an unfinished portrait of Michelangelo, painted about 1545, when the great artist would have been 70. It’s attributed to a devoted follower, Daniele da Volterra. Yet X-radiography clearly shows that Daniele painted his Michelangelo atop an earlier image of the Holy Family.

With its varnish removed, the portrait looks flat and faded. Bisacca takes a cotton ball, wets it with turpentine, and swipes it across the face of Michelangelo, bringing out the contrast and color, just as a fresh coat of varnish will do. He points to where the ghosts of the older composition can be seen in the unfinished areas, then shows me the back of the painting, which he and his structural team stabilized before the restorers began their work on the painted surface.

Slideshow: Inside the conservation studio with George Bisacca ’77

X-rays aren’t the only diagnostic tool in the hands of today’s conservators. Infrared reflectrography can reveal an artist’s preparatory drawing, showing how a composition evolves as the artist proceeds. Chemical analysis of paint reveals artists’ techniques and points the way to proper treatments of the surface. And not long ago, Bisacca used a CT scanner to solve a persistent mystery concerning an early Renaissance painting in the Met’s collection.

For a century, art collectors have been hunting down pieces of the Borgo San Sepolcro Altarpiece, painted in the late 1430s by the Sienese artist Sassetta. Like many altarpieces, it consisted of several separate paintings hinged or pinned together. Some were double-sided so that when the altarpiece was “closed,” additional images appeared on the back. Like many old altarpieces, the San Sepolcro was broken up and sold to multiple buyers; the two-sided panels were often sawn in half in cross-section, creating two paintings where there once was just one.

Three central elements of the San Sepolcro altarpiece were found in a Florentine antique shop about 1900 by the famed connoisseur Bernard Berenson, and the hunt has been on for the rest ever since. One supposed member of the set was thought to be in the Metropolitan’s Lehman Collection, yet doubts remained about its attribution.

The problem was that the Met’s painting appeared to be on cypress, while all of the other San Sepolcro candidates were on poplar—including the one thought to be the obverse of the Met painting, a Crucifixion owned by the Cleveland Museum. Met curators were thinking that sometime after the paintings were separated, a cypress backing was laminated to the Met’s thin poplar panel, but they couldn’t prove it. Cutting into its edges to investigate its composition was not an option; it would have been too destructive to the painting and its attached frame.

So, at the suggestion of a colleague, Bisacca took the 17-inch-wide panel downtown to New York University Medical Center, where the CT scanner saw exactly what had been expected all along: a lamination line between two layers of wood—cypress on poplar.

Another key piece of evidence was also found in the scan. The annular lines—tree rings—in the poplar portion of the Met’s painting matched exactly the rings visible on the back of the Cleveland piece. “That put it completely beyond doubt,” Bisacca says. “We proved it.”

Politics in America: Sweat and Tell

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

On the afternoon of October 18, 2012, President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney arrived at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City to speak at the 67th Annual Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner. ¶ Before the meal, Governor Romney and his aides visited the hotel’s luxurious Guerlain Spa, whereupon the candidate entered a private sauna room. The following is a transcript of what occurred next.


[sound of door opening]

Romney Oh, for Pete’s sake. Guys!
Obama Governor, come back.
Romney There’s some kind of mix-up!
Obama It’s no mix-up. Please, come in. Look: no cameras, no witnesses. It’s a chance for the two of us to just talk . . . honestly.
Romney . . . Why?
Obama It’s tradition. Bush–Dukakis, Carter–Ford, Reagan–Carter, they all did it: The Al Smith Sauna Summit.
Romney Reagan sat here?
Obama Kennedy and Nixon sat here. Picture it: America’s great cold warriors, sweating it out on these very benches.
Romney . . . They had towels.
Obama I assume they had towels . . . Kind of a draft coming in here . . .
Romney Oh, sorry.

[sound of door closing]

Obama They didn’t warn me either, first time. I walk in, there’s McCain stretched out in a full sweat. Scars and all.
Romney Pretty banged up is he?
Obama Unreal. I mean, you’ve heard the stories about what happened to him over there . . .
Romney Right. But until you actually see . . .
Obama Exactly . . . That’s quite a little scar of your own there. The car crash?
Romney Yeah. Not quite as heroic as getting shot down and tortured, but uh, I guess we all have our narratives.
Obama True.
Romney Hey, didn’t Churchill speak at this event?
Obama By phone, yeah. And Eisenhower. Three different times . . . Probably had his own locker.
Romney Everybody loves a war hero.
Obama Men who risked it all to change the world.
Romney Right . . . And now us.
Obama Yeah . . .

[long silence]

Romney Michelle . . . doing well?
Obama She is, yeah. Tired, you know.
Romney Well, sure.
Obama Ann seems to be . . . hangin’ right in there.
Romney Amazes me.
Obama Remarkable woman.
Romney We’re lucky men, Barack . . . Geez, that sounds funny, doesn’t it?
Obama It does . . . Mitt.


Obama You mind a little steam?
Romney No, go ahead.

[sizzle of water on stove]

Romney Normally I’m more of a Jacuzzi guy.
Obama Me too. High heat kinda goes to my head.
Romney Yeah, what is that?
Obama No idea.
Romney Breathing it in, maybe?
Obama May be. Or maybe we’re just lightweights!
Romney Right! . . . Hey, what the heck? Give her another shot!
Obama Why not?

[sizzle. laughter]

Romney So. One of us, huh?
Obama Keys to the kingdom.
Romney Someone tries to pull the old “You’re not the boss of me,” you get to say. “No, I am.”
Obama Well, it’s a little more—
Romney They say, “You can’t make me!” You go, “Actually? I can.”
Obama That’s not exactly —
Romney Nah, I’m pulling your leg . . . Though you gotta admit, looking down that menu of al-Qaeda operatives every morning, choosing one for a little drone visitation, that must kinda brighten your day.
Obama . . . No comment.


Romney You know what I wonder about you, though?
Obama What?
Romney Do y’ever look at Bill Clinton, crisscrossing the globe, rescuing exotic populations, connecting with audiences off the cuff, and you just think to yourself, “Ex-president. Now that would be a great job.”


Obama Every day.
Romney Really?
Obama You sound surprised.
Romney No, it’s just—
Obama You’re thinking, “Whoa, Obama’s starting to think about defeat.” Well guess what? I am . . . In fact, I’ve pictured it: Four days from now in Boca Raton, final debate, foreign policy, we’re in the final round, and I’m starting to say something about multilateral relations with Iran or something, when suddenly, I go blank; it’s like this cloud passes between my ears, and you just rear back and pounce: teeth, claws, flesh is flying, absolutely no mercy
. . . By the time you finish, I’m either in tears, or on my knees praising Allah. I’ve seen it different ways: In one version, I start apologizing to the bin Laden family, but whatever I do, it’s clear to every human being on the planet that Obama is finished. No, We Can’t! No, We Can’t!


Obama You’re probably wondering why I would tell you that.
Romney No, it makes sense, tactically.
Obama Wait, what do you . . .
Romney I mean if we’re trying to psych each other out for the debate, it’s a decent strategy. Transparent, but . . .
Obama No!
Romney “Oh look, it’s just like Obama said. My chance to lunge and risk it all! In a national debate!”
Obama Okay, I can see why you think that but . . . you’re wrong.
Romney I’m wrong?
Obama Yes.
Romney Enlighten me then.
Obama Well, it goes back to my time in here with McCain.


Obama Towards the end, he got all quiet, just lying there. In fact I was getting a little worried—man that age. I was just about to give him a little shake, when there’s a knock on the door. They give you a two-minute warning at the end; so this knock comes, and like a shot, McCain sits up, pulls his knees up to his chest like this, and says: “I am a black criminal, and I have performed the deeds of an air pirate. I almost died, and the Vietnamese people saved my life, thanks to the doctors.”
Romney Whoa.
Obama Yeah. Verbatim from his taped “confession.” And for a second there, he looked disoriented, you know? And sort of embarrassed. But then it was like his face relaxed and this calm came over him. “There,” he said, “now you know what haunts me.” I don’t know if you saw the speech he gave that night.
Romney Oh, he killed.
Obama I’ve never seen him so comfortable with himself.
Romney Fearless. If he’d kept that up ‘til election day . . .
Obama He’d be sitting here right now.
Romney With Hillary!
Obama President McCain . . .
Romney . . . All right, where’s that water bottle?
Obama Here ya go.


Romney One thing that really spooks me?
Obama Go ahead.
Romney Is that I get elected and then I spend my entire presidency trying to rein in Ryan.
Obama For me, it’s the Blue Dogs.
Romney Plus, I’ve got Grover Norquist. The Chamber of Commerce. NRA.
Obama Hey, I’ve got two NEAs to deal with!
Romney Wall Street Journal. Rush Limbaugh, Rush Limbaugh, Rush Limbaugh . . . And that’s before I even get to the opposition.
Obama Good to know we’re in there somewhere.
Romney Oh, oh, oh. Almost forgot. The absolute scariest guy of all.
Obama Netanyahu?
Romney Sheldon Adelson.
Obama You’re afraid of the man who gave you guys 71 million dollars?
Romney Closer to 100, and yes, it’s like the whole Nightmare on Elm Street series playing out in my head: all these scenarios where I’m carrying Sheldon’s golf bag, I’m grooming his cats. This one scene, I walk into the Oval Office, my very first day on the job and there’s Sheldon, sitting in my chair, signing pardons with my pen. And I have to kneel next to him—this is the part I really don’t get—because he has this box of mothballs, Enoz Old Fashioned Moth Balls, right? And whenever he picks one up, I have to open my mouth so he can pop it in. So after a while—

[a knock at the door]

Romney Darn it.
Obama We’ll be right out!
Romney I have so much more to unload.
Obama I didn’t get to say half of mine.
Romney . . . Okay, prioritize.
Obama What?
Romney What is your absolute worst fear of all?


Romney Barack?
Obama That we broke it . . . We had this amazing country and I worry that we just . . .
Romney Yeah, that’s mine too.  Somewhere around the Gulf of Tonkin something cracked . . .
Obama I keep thinking, we don’t get along, it’s like we don’t even want to get along: why don’t we just . . .
Romney Call it quits. That’s what you’re thinking, right? Go ahead, say it.
Obama . . . Amicably.
Romney Good luck!
Obama Like two grown-ups.
Romney You are such an optimist.
Obama We could at least try!
Romney Like last time?


Romney No, we are stuck in this particular union, my friend. Till death do us part.
Obama Yeah . . . Makes you wonder, though . . .

[sound of door opening]

Obama What if every four years, we could just have an adult conversation and then vote?


Romney There you go again.

[sound of door closing]

Politics in America: The Obamaland Diaries

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

Like Christmas sales and hangovers, electoral mania seems to arrive a little earlier and little less welcome with each passing year. (“Christie says he’s open to 2016 presidential bid,” the Associated Press reported in July.) The November showdown between President Obama and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney has been A1 news since the latter clinched the Republican nomination in May. For the 12 months before that, it was wall-to-wall primary coverage, not one whit of which now seems relevant. (Remember when Herman Cain won the Iowa straw poll?*) Unless you spent the summer thru-hiking the Long Trail, by now you’ve glimpsed what will be the costliest presidential contest in American history. If you happen to live in a battleground state—Ohio, Colorado, Florida—perhaps you’ve taken one politico’s advice and given your television to a neighbor.

The parties and their proxies, including Super-pacs, intend to spend $2 billion on this year’s election. Just how many votes can be bought with that kind of money remains to be seen. Ben LaBolt ’03, the Obama campaign’s national press secretary, is hoping it’s enough to keep him employed after November 6. Also, he would like to point out, the future of the greatest country in the world depends on it.


LaBolt ducked out of Obama for America’s glass-and-granite headquarters in downtown Chicago to grab a quick lunch the other day. He was wearing his characteristic five o’clock shadow and a well-cut pair of jeans. He has eyebrows like “em” dashes, perfectly flat and humorless—and a slight growl. At 31, he is world-weary in a way usually reserved for roadies and parole officers, people who have seen it all and have lost their capacity for surprise. “I don’t think anybody’s ever accused me of being an idealist,” he said, tucking into a bowl of potato leek soup.

His CV reads like the portrait of a political operative: In 2003, weeks out of college, he went to “knock doors” for Howard Dean’s nascent presidential campaign; when Dean flamed out, he jumped to the Democratic National Committee. He did press for Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) on the Hill, assisted Sherrod Brown’s (D-Ohio) successful Senate campaign in 2006, and a year later went to work for the junior senator from Illinois. The weekend that LaBolt arrived, his new boss—a largely unknown legislator with a funny name and dark skin—announced his presidential ambitions. LaBolt would go on to be one of Obama’s 2008 wunderkinder, and after Obama’s inauguration, he found a home in the West Wing as an assistant press secretary. When Rahm Emanuel left the administration in 2011 to run for mayor of Chicago, he took LaBolt with him as his communications director. As soon as Emanuel was sworn in, Obama took LaBolt back and made him national spokesman for Obama for America.

All of which is to say, this is not his first rodeo. And the itinerant life of a political cowboy suits him just fine. “I used to relitigate my future at the end of every year and really focus on developing a 10-year plan,” he mused. “I don’t do that anymore.”

His Cobb salad, no bleu cheese, arrived. Lunch outside the office is a rarity these days. He rises between five and six a.m. “in case news has popped overnight,” and he fields calls from morning-show producers who need a quick sound bite. The e-mails begin soon after, with reporters from the big dailies and wire services checking in to see what narrative the campaign is pushing (today it’s Romney’s tax returns) and “asking us to show some leg” on issues like Medicare or off-shore drilling. LaBolt might do a national cable appearance with Fox to spar with the anchor over Vice President Biden’s gaffe du jour or knock down Romney’s latest attack ad. “Cable contributes to the daily national-news cycle to drive a story,” he admitted, “but you really don’t reach voters doing that. You really have to get into the local market.” Swing voters care less about Romney’s car elevator than they do about, say, emergency drought relief. “That’s just not relevant to people who aren’t junkies.”

Instead, LaBolt does dozens of weekly radio and TV interviews in targeted markets, talking about the president’s position on education reform (Akron), the farm bill (Ames), the renewable-energy tax credit (Fort Collins), and defense spending (Norfolk). “Our ultimate focus is what’s on TV in Cleveland and Orlando and Denver, rather than on dominating the conversation in every media outlet.” A studio in the corner of the Chicago office allows him a direct feed into the cars and living rooms of millions of Americans. Does he ever get nervous that he’ll stray from his talking points and say the wrong thing? “Every spokesperson worries about that. But you also know that things move quickly. If it was insignificant, in 48 hours it’ll be gone.” He added,
“The truth is, we don’t get very far up or down about anything. We know there’s always going to be another turn of the wheel.”

By late afternoon, the campaign’s senior staff has planned the next day’s line of attack, briefed reporters, and, if need be, begun to “get out in front” of any negative stories coming their way, while a “rapid response team” continues to parse Romney’s every statement from the campaign trail.

This routine plays out six and a half days a week, with a slight slowdown after the Sunday news shows are over. On a good night, he’s out of the office by 9 p.m. and back online for a few hours after dinner. His iPhone is always within reach.

LaBolt’s office has a killer view of Millennium Park, with its free lunchtime concerts and young folks lounging on the grass after work. He probably hasn’t noticed. The first thing staffers see when they arrive each morning is a sign in the entryway reminding them how many days remain—today, 84—until the election. The place feels like a San Francisco start-up on the verge of an IPO, where chaos is the organizing principle and a half-empty bottle of Jameson is a perfectly acceptable paperweight. Instead of walls, state flags delineate boundaries between desks, organized by region. The “First Lady’s Ladies” manage Michelle-related campaign initiatives, while the “Voter Protection” team stays abreast of new voter I.D. laws. An office manager dispenses paperclips strictly on a need-to-collate basis. “These are volunteer dollars,” one press assistant explained. “There is no free shit.” A phalanx of programmers keeps the campaign’s sprawling Web empire running, and a corral of designers churns out reams of thematic posters. “We are hungry and foolish,” reads one, “fired up and ready to go.”

If that sounds a little 2008, a little “hopey-changey,” well, it is. In truth, LaBolt shares little of the younger staffers’ caffeinated ebullience.

“The biggest mistake you can make is trying to repeat the last campaign that you’ve run,” he said. “Obviously the political climate is different.”

Since the court rulings on Citizens United and SpeechNow.org, Democrats have been hammered in the SuperPAC fund-raising game by Republican heavyweights like the Koch brothers and Sheldon Adelson. (As of early September, according to Center for Responsive Politics, conservative groups had spent more than $226 million to unseat Obama and wrest back control of Congress, to liberals’ $63 million.)  Meanwhile, on the issues, this election is less “Si se puede” (yes, it is possible) than it is “It could be worse.”  Still, LaBolt added, “It’s sort of a myth that ’08 was all unicorns and rainbows.”

This go-round, there will be no such myth.

* He didn’t. Michelle Bachman did.

Kevin Charles Redmon ’09 writes from Washington, D.C.

Politics in America: Legal Eagle

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

Attorney Megan Sowards ’98 is on leave from her job as an associate at the Washington, D.C., law firm Patton Boggs to serve as the deputy general counsel to Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign. Amid a grueling campaign schedule, she was gracious to answer a few questions we had about her job and how she got there.

Middlebury Magazine You are a working as the deputy general counsel to a presidential campaign at a time when lawyers and politicians (and journalists!) aren’t held in the highest public esteem. What attracts you to this particular job? And what would you say to those who have less than a positive image of politicians and lawyers?

Meghan Sowards It’s unfortunate that this perception exists, because my career in public service provides me with a front row seat to the sacrifices that men and women on both sides of the aisle make in order to stand for election and to serve in public office. I see the long hours, the missed family events, the attention to detail, the passion for fact-finding, the day-to-day hard work that comes with being an exemplary public servant–things the general public doesn’t get to see. I’m fortunate to work for men and women who became involved because they believe that their efforts will strengthen our country and improve the lives of all the people they serve. I feel strongly that this presidential election will be the most consequential of my lifetime. It’s tremendously satisfying to work for someone who I believe has the skills and know how to lead country in the right direction.

MM You’ve written speeches for the State Department and served as a speechwriter and press secretary, respectively, for a pair of United States senators (Susan Collins from Maine and Lincoln Chafee from Rhode Island). How has this experience informed what you are doing now?

MS Obviously those jobs helped me hone my writing skills, which I use every day as a lawyer.  Having worked on both Senate and State Department staffs, I know what those positions entail. So, that background helps me provide more practical legal advice to my co-workers on the campaign. I’ve stood in their shoes. I have a greater appreciation for the realities and demands of their jobs. Campaign staffers may not always love visiting the lawyer’s office, but I hope my background makes me a more approachable counselor.

MM Is there anything about this job that has surprised you?

MS I’m continually amazed by just how much work goes into running for president and how such a small team of people is able to get it done. Even basic things—like making sure that the candidate’s name appears on the primary ballot in every state—require a great deal of preparation and effort. During the primary, I spent a lot of time researching each state’s unique ballot access requirements and making sure that our campaign had met those requirements in all 50 states and D.C. These can range from filling out a basic form to submitting a petition signed by thousands of registered voters in a strictly prescribed format.  Our office oversaw the process from start to finish—including taking volunteers into the field to gather signatures. Even on a presidential campaign, everyone rolls up their sleeves to get the job done, no matter how big or small. You have to earn it.

MM What does a successful day look like to you?

MS A successful day is a day when no one outside the campaign knows that I exist.  When the lawyers have done their job, we’ve anticipated the pitfalls and steered the campaign in a direction that avoids them.

MM You’re on leave from a position at one of the most prestigious D.C. law firms—Patton Boggs—to work as legal counsel on a presidential campaign. Think back to 1997-98 and your senior year at Middlebury. In your wildest dreams, did you envision doing what you’re doing today?

 MS Not at all. I don’t come from a political family or even from a family of lawyers, so it wasn’t until I started working on the school newspaper at Middlebury that I gained any exposure to politics. Then a Middlebury alum offered me a summer internship on Capitol Hill, and I realized that politics is in my blood. Even then, though, I never imagined that I would have the privilege of working on a presidential campaign. It’s a thrill.

Politics in America: Myth or Reality

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

In the media’s telling, a presidential election is in almost daily flux. Voters’ sentiments shift, often dramatically, in response to each new event: a change in candidate tactics, an evocative ad, a dramatic speech, a strong debate performance, and, not least, a highly publicized candidate “gaffe.” Entire news cycles are devoted to parsing the electoral implications of candidates’ rhetorical miscues: “you didn’t build that,” a claim that 47 percent of people “are dependent on government,” or even seemingly trivial mistakes such as a misremembered marathon time.

In our view, this media narrative—if not wrong—is very misleading. As our students and those watching our Professor Pundits videos have heard us say, we believe that voters are not so easily swayed, and that presidential elections turn on much more substantial matters. The history of past campaigns, the data on public opinion and voting behavior, and our understanding of how political activists and groups behave suggest to us that the voters’ political sentiments are both more stable and more rational than media accounts indicate. To illustrate our claim, we focus here on four key themes that we believe will shape this election in ways that the conventional wisdom may not appreciate.

It’s the Economy, Stupid
Much election coverage focuses on hot-button “social” issues—abortion, welfare reform, and gay marriage—that pundits believe divide voters along partisan lines based on gender, race, or other demographic characteristics. The media also spends considerable time discussing candidate qualities, such as likeability, as measured, for example, by which candidate voters would prefer to have a beer with. In contrast, we tend to discount these factors as major electoral influences.  Instead, when voters are asked to identify the issue that most concerns them, polls repeatedly show that the economy—particularly jobs, governmental spending, and the federal budget deficit—is by far the most important priority. Health care usually comes in a distant second, followed by immigration. Cultural or “moral values” issues, on the other hand, barely register on the list of voters’ concerns. This is why we believe this election will turn largely on how voters assess the state of the economy and to what degree they hold President Obama culpable for its middling performance during his first term.

Similarly, we do not find much historical evidence that candidates’ personalities are strongly correlated with election outcomes. Just because a voter might prefer to have a beer with one candidate does not mean she’s likely to vote for him. It is true that whether a candidate is viewed favorably or not does have some bearing on the race, but favorability ratings say as much about voters’ assessment of contextual factors, such as the state of the economy, as they do about attitudes toward the candidate. That’s why the most accurate election-forecast models are based largely on economic variables and not on other issues. To be sure, in a tight race, one can cite almost any issue as determinative. But in prioritizing electoral influences, we start with the economy.

Drowning in Campaign Cash
A new entity, the Super PAC, emerged in the wake of the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v. FEC. Super PACs can raise and spend unlimited amounts in connection with electoral races, so long as they do not coordinate their spending with the campaigns themselves. This is significant because it has rearranged how campaign money is spent, but it probably has not dramatically increased the likelihood that election victories can be “bought,” as many critics have claimed. First, the total percentage of gross domestic product (GDP) spent on politics in the U.S. has remained stable over the last century despite numerous changes in campaign finance rules; this is unlikely to change any time soon. Second, evidence from past campaigns suggests that while lack of money can lose elections, a surplus of money is no guarantee of winning. Witness 2012’s most generous Super PAC donor, Sheldon Adelson, who was unable to “buy” the Republican nomination for his preferred candidate, Newt Gingrich.

Although large donors like Adelson have received most of the attention this year, we continue to see an increase in small-donor contributions of $10, $25, or $50. This year, the Federal Election Commission made it even easier to donate small amounts by approving technology that allows giving via text message. Reformers laud small contributions as more democratic than large ones, but small donors are also unrepresentative of the electorate at large. They are more likely to be white, male, and possess a higher income, and—importantly—they are also more likely to hold views on policy issues that are far from the mainstream. Those who collect most of their money from small contributors are candidates such as Ron Paul, Michele Bachmann, and Vermont’s own Bernie Sanders—none of them is a moderate.

A Hopelessly Polarized Electorate
If there is one overriding media characterization of this election, it is that we are a deeply and increasingly polarized nation, an image indelibly captured in the ubiquitous red-state, blue-state electoral maps. That division, pundits tell us, is based on fundamental differences between Republicans and Democrats on a host of issues, from gun control to prayer in schools.  We believe this image is overdrawn. The mistake pundits make is to confuse a choice between two polarized candidates with a polarized electorate. It is true that candidates go to great lengths to differentiate themselves across a host of issues, and that these differences are based on very real and contrasting ideologies. However, as political scientist Morris Fiorina puts it, voters, while closely divided, are not deeply divided. Although they must choose between two very partisan candidates, most voters are moderates.

As we noted above, the moral values that attract so much media attention actually rank very low in voters’ priorities. Moreover, there is not much evidence indicating that red-state and blue-state voters differ significantly in their views on most of these “hot button” social issues. Aside from party identification, income remains the most consistent predictor of the presidential vote, with lower-income voters more likely to vote Democratic. Church attendance has become a better predictor of votes in recent years, but that may reflect the fact that presidential candidates are talking more about religious issues than it registers a change in voter opinions.

Health Care
We’ve been hearing all season long about Republican vows to repeal the Obama administration’s health-care law, and about Democratic vows to defend it. This campaign bluster obscures the fact that the main battles over the health-care law over the next few years will focus on the states. At the national level, Republicans are unlikely to have the votes to overturn the Affordable Care Act, but numerous Republican governors, including Rick Perry of Texas, Rick Scott of Florida, and Nikki Haley of South Carolina have promised to resist at least some provisions of the law. Indeed, over the summer the Supreme Court handed the states a powerful tool by ruling that states are free to reject the Act’s Medicaid expansion provisions.

It is no accident that the states are playing a key role in a controversial U.S. policy area. Congress and the White House often find that it is easier to get a bill passed if major conflicts are deflected onto the states. In the case of health care, Congress decided to let states set up insurance exchanges, for example, rather than fighting a battle over a single national model. One of the reasons that the U.S. federal system remains vital is that politicians in Washington repeatedly pass the buck to other levels of government. Alexis de Tocqueville famously wrote that there is hardly a political question in the United States that does not eventually become a judicial question. We would add that there is seldom a national policy debate that does not touch on a local policy debate.

We hope that most readers will find the picture we paint more reassuring than the media’s portrayal of an electorate whose vote can be bought by misleading ads, flowery rhetoric, and pleasing candidate personalities. To be sure, voters have neither the time, nor the inclination, to dig deeply into the weeds of policy platforms or candidate biographies.  But they can tell a lot by observing shorthand cues, starting with the presidential candidates’ party allegiances, that allow voters to infer the relative candidate positions on those issues, particularly economic ones, that really matter to them.   And the evidence indicates that voters choose accordingly, in ways that are consistent with both their own preferences but also with what they view as the best interest of the nation. That voters do so is, we believe, a sign that elections continue to provide an effective mechanism for choosing our president and for insuring that he—someday she—remains responsive to the collective will of the American people.

Matt Dickinson and Bert Johnson teach in the political science department.  Matt and Bert cohost the middmag.com video series Professor Pundits