The following diary entry describes my 3-day Midwest tour with Ralph Nader in September.
10:40am... I am on a prop plane flying from Flint to Milwaukee to meet Ralph Nader, the Green Party candidate for president, for a three-day campaign swing through Wisconsin, Michigan, and Minnesota. Ralph called me a few weeks ago after I wrote an Internet letter and a column here on Grassroots.com about his campaign. I had asked those who were part of the 100 million voting-age majority planning not vote in November to come out and cast a rock at the system and a vote for Ralph Nader.
Ralph wanted to know what I thought of doing a "Non-Voter Tour" through my part of the country -- and asked if I would join him to help pull in the crowds. I said sure, and now I am on this little plane, trying to fly through a rainstorm, getting tossed around and wondering where Mr. Safety is when I need him (I know where -- he specifically told me he was not going to take a prop plane and would meet me in Milwaukee via jet. I laughed at his nervousness. I'm not laughing now.).
The man across the aisle from me sees the petrified look on my face and tells me that these little planes "are safer than the big jets." He says that he has "personally spoken to the vice president of this airline" and knows for sure they are "very good with their maintenance." He knows about stuff like this because he himself is an engineer. I start to calm down.
That is, until he gets out his laptop and turns it on. Up pops "Windows 95." Windows 95!! If he knows so much, how come he isn't using Windows 2000? And if he is an engineer, what is he doing using Windows, the inferior operating system, in the first place? The plane dips and dives and "Mr. Windows '95" provides me no solace or comfort.
11:35am... We land safely in Milwaukee. I am met by a local Green Party organizer who immediately tells me that the heading to my Internet letter, "Bush and Gore Make Me Wanna Ralph," was really HIS slogan. You see, he "invented it."
"I thought of it in '96 and put it on a bumper sticker -- but you can use it," he generously offered. "That's funny," I said. "I didn't know that Bush and Gore ran for President in '96. Man, I gotta pay better attention!"
11:55am... Ralph arrives and is followed by national press people who hailed from places like the New York Times and the St. Petersburg Times. Two vans are waiting to collect us. One of the vans, though, won't start. No one seems to know what to do, so the Guy From Buick City offers to take a look under the hood. As I'm tinkering around, I determine that the fuse for the starter has burned out. While looking for a spare fuse in the van, I hear the engine of the other van start, and, as I look up, I see it taking off, on its way to the first destination, leaving me to play Mr. Goodwrench with this aging Ford/Firestone vehicle. I guess every campaign needs its grease monkey.
1:00pm... More than 1,000 students and local citizens have packed the student union of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee to hear us speak. I have made my way there by hitching a ride with a couple of college students who took pity on me. Ralph is holding a press conference so I am asked to speak first to the waiting crowd. I say a few words about the shell game of our two-party system and then introduce Ralph. I don't get to hear much of his speech as a line of people approach me for a job, an interview, advice on filmmaking and betting tips on the American League wild card race. By the time I am done talking to everyone in the hallway, I look up to see that Ralph has finished and that the entourage is leaving. I get down to where the vans are -- only to see them driving away again! I'm beginning to get the message -- Ralph thinks it would be best for me to walk off a few pounds around the former beer capital of the world.
I go back inside to grab lunch. Like most student centers these days, the old cafeteria with the "Thursday Surprise" on the menu has been replaced with actual mini-outlets of Burger King, Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, and Cinnabun. I come to the cash register only to discover that I have no money. It is in my bag in the runaway van. I turn around and ask the kid behind me if I can bum five bucks off him. He recognizes me and decides to savor the moment. "Well...," he slowly responds as if he is thinking it over. "Look," I say, "give me your address and I'll send you the money. You have my word." He digs out five bucks and buys my lunch.
3:30pm... The Nader Van Brigade has found me and transported me to the offices of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel where Ralph is being interviewed by the editorial board, a ritual candidates go through in the hopes of gaining an endorsement. I'm not sure why Ralph is doing it, but at least these editors will get to hear a candidate give them some specifics for once. The editorial board senses that the pack traveling with Nader does not look well (am I the only one who has been forced to run a triathlon today?), and asks if they have eaten. No one has had anything since 8am this morning. The editors of the paper take pity on the group and order out for sandwiches to feed the starving campaign workers and its accompanying press corps. Big media companies and their PACs have given hundreds of thousands of dollars to Bush and Gore this year. In Milwaukee, Nader got some free salami on an onion roll.
3:50pm... In the lobby of the paper, the editors of The Progressive, one of the best magazines in the country, are waiting to join the tour. One of them apologizes for not having seen my show, "The Awful Truth" -- he doesn't have cable. There are two reasons why people don't have cable -- either they are poor, or they are making a statement. Lots of lefty-liberals tell me how proud they are to not have cable. Their refusal to watch the WWF and reruns of "The Beverly Hillbillies" is why the left will never attain true power in this country.
6:05pm... We are now at a fundraiser for Ralph in Madison. A guy my age with long hair comes up to me and introduces himself as a "truck driver." He says how rare it is to see "one of us" on TV. "It is odd," I say, "considering the truck drivers and the custodians and the data processors make up the majority of the country. Maybe we're just so sick of ourselves and what we have to go through, the last thing we want to do is come home and turn on a box and look at ourselves some more." He buys me a drink for that little pearl.
7:10pm... The Orpheum Theatre in downtown Madison is so packed, I am convinced that right wing Wisconsin governor Tommy "Gun" Thompson has not only taken away everyone's food stamps, he's canned all the fire marshals, too! There has to be more than 2,000 people in this place. Hundreds are turned away. Phil Donahue has joined the tour and gives an incredible, off-the-top-of-his-head speech. Listening to Phil, you realize just how much he is missed on TV. He proudly announces that of the 6,000 shows he did, he had Ralph Nader on more than any other guest. He then introduces me as "the son my mother always wished she had." Whoa. Now THAT would make a great Donahue episode.
I take the stage and it strikes me how nice it would be to live in Madison. You'd get to be in the Midwest AND have an excellent choice of independent bookstores. I must encourage more people to spend time in Wisconsin -- "It's Michigan Without the Militia!" I speak for about 40 minutes. It feels like a rock concert, only you don't have to know how to play an instrument.
8:00pm... I introduce Ralph and go look for a place to dry off. THAT'S why Meatloaf carries that towel on the stage -- you work up a bigger sweat out there under the lights than...than... than chasing a van on foot around the city of Milwaukee.
Three French film students approach me. They have traveled by Greyhound all the way to Madison after landing in New York. And they look like it. They give me the latest update from France regarding my work ("The Big One" is now entering its 12th consecutive month in a Paris theatre and "Downsize This" is number 6 this week on the French bestseller list). I thank them for the good news by buying them dinner in a noodle shop down the street. They ask if I'm worried if I'll miss Ralph's speech. I tell them "the best stuff is always in the third hour."
Over the noodles, they tell me that they are surprised by what they have found in the U.S. regarding this election year. They had been told they would encounter young people here who would mostly be apathetic and ignorant. Quite the contrary, they said. They have interviewed many young people and are stunned by the level of political awareness. I am heartened that a group of outsiders share my belief about students these days. Sure there are the dolts -- but there have always been idiots who are lazy and couldn't care less. My travels across America have confirmed that young people today are an active, excited, rebellious bunch, as they should be. I do not understand why baby boomers insist on putting them down -- other than to protect their own vaulted status as the REAL generation (the '60s) that kicked butt. That is such a myth, yet kids these days are always being compared to the kids of the '60s whenever they do something political, as if they will never match what their parents did. Boomers need to get over themselves or step aside.
10:45pm... Back inside the Orpheum, Ralph is still going strong, challenging these students to "make their mark." No one has left the building. I think they would stay for many more hours. It is time for us to drive back to Milwaukee for the night. That is, after Ralph does another hour and a half of interviews backstage.
1:30am... We have pulled into the airport Hampton Inn in Milwaukee. Ralph has us staying at Hampton Inns in each of these cities. We are convinced he's either getting frequent flyer miles from Hampton Inns or a senior citizen discount or perhaps this is the only hotel chain in which a guest has never slipped in the shower. Ralph would know that sort of thing.
At the counter, Ralph is checking in. I say in a loud voice, "Ok, Ralph, no parties tonight! We can't afford to wreck another hotel room like we did in Wichita!" The clerk becomes noticeably nervous at hearing this -- but Ralph is laughing. I like to see Ralph laugh, and he seems to like that the whole lobby has just been informed that Keith Moon is in the building.
1:00pm... We arrive at the Michigan Theatre in Ann Arbor. Again, not an empty seat in the house. I'm sitting backstage worried about our next destination -- Flint. Now, many of you would think that Flint would be a natural stopover for this tour, featuring the two General Motors critics together for the first time in the hometown of GM.
But I know better. Flint has had the crap kicked out of it and the people there are defeated. There used to be nearly 80,000 General Motors jobs in Flint. By the time Bill Clinton was halfway through his presidency, the number had dropped to 40,000. Today, after another Clinton/Gore term, there are only 17,000 people working for GM in Flint. The town is bankrupt and rumors fly about "receivership." Two-thirds of the kids live in poverty. It leads the nation in crimes of rape and burglary. The Democratic mayor brags about how close he is to Clinton and Gore and has his sleepovers in the Lincoln Bedroom to prove it. A lot of good that has done Flint.
Michigan is what is considered a "swing state," meaning that the voters could go for either Gore OR Bush. I'd like to meet the guy who makes up this hooey. If you'll recall, the Republicans in Michigan didn't even vote for Bush in the primary. McCain won Michigan. In fact, the Republican governor -- and then-vice-presidential hopeful -- John Engler, couldn't even find enough Republicans to vote in the primary. 51% of those who voted were Democrats! Whatever makes anyone think that Bush is going to win Michigan is smoking the same stuff W. wouldn't share with Oprah.
Nonetheless, the Gore campaign believes the hype that Michigan could go either way, so state party leaders were furious that I was bringing Ralph to Michigan. To them, one percentage point could give the election to Bush -- and Ralph has polled as high as 8% in Michigan. So, within hours of our announcement to bring Nader to Flint, Gore headquarters announced that Clinton was changing his plans for Thursday and would instead fly to Flint for a rally the same afternoon as the Nader rally. In fact, they rented a building for the shindig in the same college and cultural center in which Ralph would be appearing. Cozy.
I called up my friend, Dan Kildee, the chairman of the Democratic Party in Flint, and asked him if he would welcome Ralph to Flint on the stage of Whiting Auditorium. I told him he didn't have to endorse him, I just thought that, seeing how Ralph's positions on everything are the same as most Democrats and union members in Flint, it might be nice to make a statement. If Gore is elected, he must know that a lot of his supporters are not entirely happy with his stance on NAFTA, the death penalty, piecemeal health converge, and, oh, the general condition of our once-great city. Dan happily accepted the offer.
3:35pm... Ralph and I arrive in Flint. I first saw Ralph speak here when I was in 10th grade. It was one of the most inspiring speeches I had heard at that point in my life. I count that day as one of those moments in my adolescence that I started to think about things other than the Detroit Tigers. To now stand with him here in front of the Alfred P. Sloan museum, named after the longtime General Motors chairman, was a proud moment. Across the way, Clinton was speaking to an invitation-only crowd. I wondered if he was issuing an apology to the people of Flint for failing us. We had so much hope for him. We all voted for him -- he was ONE OF US, from the working class; he would save us, we believed, in 1992. Now we are nothing more to him than a chess move to block a candidate who might grab a few votes from his vice president.
As Ralph enters the auditorium, the have-nots of Flint, the guys who DO know how to fix a broken-down van, the single mothers who have brought their children to hear him speak, surround him. This is NOT the typical Nader audience, and yet it IS the exact audience who now live in a slightly better, safer world thanks to him. Unlike our other stops on this tour, there are not a lot of college students gathered here. This crowd of 1200 is the working poor, the retirees, union members, kids with piercings and tattoos and no money to go to school in Ann Arbor. The audience is white and black and Hispanic. Welcoming Nader from the stage is the local president of the NAACP and a member of the executive board of UAW local 599 (Buick). Ralph is moved by all of this -- and I have to admit the turnout is three times the crowd I expected.
Dan Kildee, the Democratic Party head, is nowhere to be found. I figured he probably got held up at the Clinton affair. A friend says that Dan got a call from the White House putting pressure on him for offering to attend the Nader event. I feel bad for the predicament I have put Dan in. He'll always remain my friend, either way.
Phil Donahue is now on the stage. He is recalling for the audience how he came to this auditorium in 1990 to broadcast two days' worth of shows with me as his only guest. It was the week after "Roger & Me" was released nationally and it was an experience Flint had never had before. Suddenly, thousands of Flint people could be on TV and tell the world what GM had done to them. Those two shows were filled with powerful and profound moments. Now Phil was back and being warmly welcomed.
He thanks my parents and my wife and any other family members in the audience and encourages them to help me with my wardrobe. Phil then brings me out on the stage. I tell those gathered that they have done something important today. Their being here will send a strong message across the country. Plus, more people have turned out to see Ralph than the President!
I decide to introduce Ralph by revealing something about him that I just learned earlier this year. Ralph's father immigrated to Detroit in 1913 and got a job working on the assembly line for the Maxwell Car Company (later to be joined into Chrysler). So, as the son of an autoworker, before a crowd of sons and daughters of autoworkers, I introduced Ralph as one of us. From the working class. I can see as he enters the stage he is both touched and slightly embarrassed. Ralph is very shy, and very private. He takes the podium and then launches into his best speech of the tour.
He is improvising, and he begins by relating what it is like to be an autoworker in China, where a number of Flint's jobs have gone. His words are both eloquent and damning as he describes what their days are like. This is not campaign rhetoric but rather the poetry that great writers like Dickens use. You could hear a pin drop in the auditorium, which is amazing considering he has chosen not to talk about THEIR sad predicament in Flint, but rather the slave-like conditions of their counterparts half a world away. He says, "Never use the term 'free trade,' even when disagreeing with it. There is NOTHING free about it." The audience erupts. And it goes on like that for the next hour.
8:15pm...The Flint stop went long, so we arrive on the campus of Michigan State University in East Lansing almost an hour late. Not to worry, the local Greens are busy indoctrinating the crowd! There are over 2500 people present, mostly students of working parents, a blue-collar university whose basketball team won the NCAA championship this year with a trio of kids from Flint.
I ask the students to not let the University of Michigan show them up in the courage department. U of M insisted that Nike join the organization that is independently monitoring its sweatshops in Asia -- and Nike responded by withdrawing hundreds of thousand of dollars from the university. Nike then gave that money and sponsorship to Michigan State. I asked the students to ask for nothing less than what they asked for at Michigan. The response to this suggestion is one of loud approval.
I have been careful not to use any profanity on this tour, but tonight I let it slip when I said that the Jesse Ventura line on the ballot in Minnesota represented the "f--- you vote" for all the disenfranchised voters there who wanted to make a statement about our corrupt political system. As soon as I utter the words, my eyes dart off to the side of stage to see if Ralph heard it. I am told later that he did, and I am asked that, tomorrow night in Minneapolis, I not use such a phrase.
The tour group heads back to the Detroit airport to spend the night, but I decide to head back home to Flint. I tell them I will catch up with them in Minnesota tomorrow -- after I get all the cussing out of my system.
10:00pm... My friend Jeff drives us back to Flint. We have a long talk on the way about what needs to be done the day AFTER the election. We have to quit waiting every four years till the next election before we get active. The 2004 election should start November 8. The majority of Americans have NO party. The Republicans and Democrats have done the work for us. They have so turned off the voting public that they will NEVER find a majority of Americans at their beck and call. Imagine if we lived in a country where the majority were loyal foot soldiers to these two disgusting parties? How hard would that be, trying to convince them to leave their happy Democrat-Republican home for something new? They already HATE these party dingbats! What are we waiting for? The fact that Nader is drawing far larger crowds than Bush or Gore or even Clinton has got our wheels a-spinning and we're in Flint before we know it.
11:10pm... Back in Flint, we meet up with my wife, and the three of us head to a local watering hole. It is mostly empty, except for the help. The fry cook comes out to say "hi." He heard about Nader being in town and wishes he could have gone. He is one of 17 children in his family and we have a good laugh over whose Catholic school in town had the family with the most siblings. Most of his brothers and sisters, he said, have left Flint. So have ours.
7:00pm ... After spending the day with family in Flint, I arrive at the Target Center in downtown Minneapolis. This is the NBA arena where the Timberwolves play. As I walk in I can't believe what I am witnessing. The place is packed to the rafters. There has to be between 12,000 and 15,000 people inside, and they all paid $7 to get in! It is the largest political rally for any candidate this year. Gore and Bush did not even have this many people at their own conventions! Imagine... seriously imagine, any group of people PAYING to hear a speech by Bush or Gore! It would never happen. I truly believe that those two couldn't get a crowd this size if you PAID the audience to be there.
I am told we are live on C-SPAN. There are many speakers, including Nader's running mate, Winona LaDuke. Phil takes the stage, then me, and then Ralph. Watching the replay later, I can see how exhausted the three of us are. Our speeches in the Target Center are not necessarily the best we've given this week. But that is not the point. The news that will come out of Minneapolis in the coming 24 hours is that 12,000-plus citizens were there and that something is happening out there amongst the electorate -- even if the official polls don't reflect it. The people want Ralph in the debates. It's the only way the issues are going to get the real debate they deserve. But that all looks pretty futile right now.
As Ralph speaks, I head out of the arena and to the airport to catch the late night flight home. Next week, it's on to the Fleet Center in Boston for another huge rally with Ralph, Noam Chomsky, myself and Howard Zinn. Then Chicago on October 10. My buddy Sam is riding with me to catch the plane, and we talk on the way that the biggest obstacle to doing well on Election Day is not Ralph's lack of media coverage or being shut out of the debates. It's the fear in the hearts of voters who would otherwise vote for him if they weren't so damned frightened by George W. Bush. And no amount of me telling people that there is no way W. is going to win -- he is TOO stupid and the American people are TOO smart to allow that to happen -- seems to assuage these fears.
Sam's cell phone rings. It's his wife calling from Virginia. She is a clerical worker at the Pentagon and has just watched my speech on C-SPAN. She tells him to hand me the phone.
"Hey," she says, "That was some speech. What happened to you? You're usually so laid back."
"I had to catch a ten o'clock flight."
Of course, the truth was, for thie first time, in a long time, it dawned on me while looking out at the crowd of 12,000 (and the TV audience of millions), that a change for the good just might happen in our lifetime.
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