Some British guy once started a great novel with the memorable turn of words, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” That phrase perfectly captures the feelings of most political reporters as autumn approaches, especially those in Greater Cincinnati.
Most people might think political junkies — whether writers or concerned citizens — would love the coming of fall. After all, elections loom over the horizon and most candidates begin campaigning in earnest after Labor Day, once the average Joe’s attention has turned away from backyard barbeques and lazy days at the pool.
But all the activity also means politicians have extra time to grate on our nerves and cause even the most diehard American to occasionally have second thoughts about the virtues of democracy. Sure, people in Libya or Iran have to put up with torture and repression, but they’ve never had to endure the Harvest Home Parade.
The emotional roller coaster made me realize that fall is a lot like Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ “five stages of grief.” You probably remember the theory from a high school sociology class that states most people go through distinct phases when confronted with grief or trauma, usually a death or terminal illness. They are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.
Although Ross somehow missed the stage of “drinking heavily,” the theory holds up pretty well when considering campaign season.
As someone who’s covered Queen City politics off and on since 1995, I can confidently tell you that observing politicians while the leaves turn gold is like watching a theater troupe’s road company perform a Neil Simon play for the 63rd time. Many participants show little enthusiasm or creativity as they repeat their stock repertoire of speeches and movements they’ve made during this time of the year since William Howard Taft was svelte.
It’s enough to drive someone to tears.
DENIAL: Fall campaigning was dubbed the “silly season” by reporters decades ago because desperate candidates are prone to pull absurd stunts and make ridiculous statements to grab headlines. (South Carolina Rep. Joe Wilson knows a thing or two about this.)
If you have a burning desire to see middle-aged Cincinnati City Councilmen displaying their knobby knees and veiny legs in shorts or picking pieces of corn on the cob out of their teeth, there’s no better place to do it than the AFL-CIO’s annual Labor Day picnic at Coney Island. The event marks the start of hardcore campaigning for area Democrats, as they try to convince hard-working folks to relinquish some of their last time off from their jobs until the weather turns cold to get off the Scrambler and put down their beers to read a fascinating pamphlet about the city’s pension fund or the latest proposal to fill more potholes.
Attracted by free admission, the picnic draws thousands of people each year — providing a captive audience for all the shilling and stumping by politicians. Just as workers get a nice late afternoon buzz going, they must line up to hear a speech by a keynote speaker. Although President Obama appeared there this year to pitch his health care reform plan (see: desperation), the affair typically features someone more like the state comptroller or state auditor.
While the picnic might be good for networking, reporters usually find little of news value. More than once, I’ve said around this time, “I don’t have to cover the picnic, nothing will happen. Screw it, this year the campaign season is going to be different. Boo ya!”
ANGER: That wave of refusing to acknowledge reality quickly fades as the Harvest Home Parade rolls around a few days later. Now in its 139th year, the parade along Cheviot’s main drag is “the” event for politicians. This time, even the Republicans — check that, especially the Republicans — show up.
Every public office-holder in a 25-mile radius either has a float or marches in the parade, hoping to get the crucial 4-H Club constituency. This event single-handedly keeps the silk-screened T-shirt business booming.
Like clockwork each fall, the parade raises burning questions while reporters squint in the sunlight and are jostled by onlookers vying for a better view. Questions like, “Why are city of Cincinnati politicians marching in Cheviot?” and “Why does the sheriff need a battle-ready tank?”
“Am I really friggin’ here with funnel cake stuck to my shoe and someone in a lawn chair blowing cigarette smoke on my clothes and telling me about the genius of Sarah Palin,” I can be heard to mutter before I duck into the nearby Smokin’ Monkey for a bowl of vodka and glares from the bartender.
BARGAINING: Once October rolls around, candidates have put away their marching shoes in favor of appearing at debates. Lots and lots of debates.
As a I try to determine which would be more informative, a political forum at the Green Township Republican Club or watching WCPO anchorman Clyde Gray feign interest while hosting a Freedom Center candidates’ night, I briefly consider shaking things up with off-the-wall questions that might rattle the candidates enough to throw them off their well-rehearsed answers.
“Mr. Mallory, which Lord of the Rings character are you most like, and why?” pops into my head. So does, “Congresswoman Schmidt, were you really born in Miami Township or do you maintain dual citizenship in the Wonderful Land of Oz?”
I try to reassure myself that I can make the debates interesting, even if it means facing the public scorn of bloggers and Streetvibes.
DEPRESSION: By the time of Election Night in early November, I find myself willing to concede that representative democracy might not work like the Founding Fathers intended. As I stumble through the crowds at the Board of Elections office, patiently awaiting returns and this year’s explanation about why they’re late, I watch candidates awkwardly make small talk with supporters.
Maybe if I ask nicely enough Jim Tarbell will play his harmonica.
“Why do my bosses always make me come here shortly after the polls close, when we all know nothing ever happens until 10 o’clock or later?” I muse.
As the empty hours drag on and I explain to a Fox 19 reporter what “incumbent” means, I mull how much damage would happen to a body jumping from a third-floor window. “Nevermind,” I think. “There’s a fire station right across the street. The paramedics would arrive too quickly.”
ACCEPTANCE: When the final results are finally tallied, it becomes crunch time. It’s easy to track down the winners at victory parties by making the circuit that runs from Arnold’s to Garfield Suites to the Hilton. Harder is getting sore losers to answer their phones at home after midnight, hoping for a soundbite. They must know by now that beating a hasty retreat never works.
Still, while watching smiling volunteers pat each other on the back for helping their candidate win or seeing high school kids busily taking notes for a civics assignment, it’s easy to remember how exciting campaigns can be and how many people in the world aspire to such a political system — warts and all.
“Maybe campaign season isn’t so bad after all,” I tell myself.
To be sure, there’s some value to be had from political campaigns, but you have to look long and hard for it and stray from the well-trodden path.
Forget Charles Dickens and all his fancy prose and Kubler-Ross and her book-learnin’. When things look bleak, I remember the sage words of Mrs. Garrett from The Facts of Life: “You take the good, you take the bad, you take ‘em both and…”
Well, you know the rest. See you at the Board of Elections.
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