Monday, April 14, 2008


Now that the glow has faded a bit from Montana's historic presidential "wannabe weekend," some quick thoughts about that remarkable 48 hours--and a couple of more recent developments.

First, does punctuality count when choosing a candidate? If it does, then Barack Obama gets extra points. His Adams Center appearance on April 5 was right on time. Also, virtually all of the media people I know gave the Obama campaign good marks for organization. Translation: he didn't waste our time or the time of the audience. Plus, his staff warmed up the audience with a pre-speech undercard of campaign information, typically witty remarks by Mayor John Engen and that amazing "Yes We Can" music video.

Hillary Clinton, by contrast, kept her public rally audience waiting for 40 minutes. There was virtually no attempt to engage the audience before the speech and the opening remarks by Carol Williams and Missoula County Commissioner Jean Curtiss added little to the event. Clinton's staff also left some media folks grumbling about lack of communication. To her credit, however, Clinton spent longer on stage, spoke more specifically about her agenda, took questions from the audience, answered them forthrightly and, in my interview with her, was both charming and informative.

Both of the candidates' appearances focused on hope. Obama has made it a watchword, while Clinton is more subtle. In the last 24 hours, though, the story of the Clinton-Obama race has focused on faith. Personally, I'm troubled that a candidate's church-going habits and profession of faith have become so prominent in national campaigns. Article VI of the U.S. Constitution specifically states that "no religious Test shall ever by required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States."

Yes, I understand the sentence refers to a government test and that the United States has no law requiring a candidate to adhere to a particular religion (or even have faith at all.) Yet the language of Article VI seems lost on the public and on the major political parties, especially the Republican.

I asked ACLU legal director Steve Shapiro about this when he came to Missoula in February. His take was that the First Amendment is the bottom line here--that the Constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion empowers citizens to talk about faith and query their candidates about it. I accept that but, personally, I'd prefer the candidates answer questions on personal and professional ethics and morality. If they choose to reference faith and religious beliefs to answer those questions, fine. But for Americans to choose a leader based on a particular spiritual approach seems antithetical to what the founders intended.

One final thought. My daughter recently attended her first Bruce Springsteen concert and, not surprisingly, was swept off her feet. Her descriptions brought back my own memories of Bruce's 2000 show in Tacoma. Which made me think of last fall's Elton John show in Missoula.

Springsteen and Obama seem to have similar approaches--lifting their audiences en masse to create a unified whole with strength, hope and the belief that, together, we'll all get through whatever trials life brings. (For me, in that pre-9/11 year, the ultimate expression of that was "Land of Hope and Dreams"; for my kid, it was "The Rising.")

Elton and Clinton focus on personal connections. When Elton sang "Your Song" last September, I felt he was singing it to me. (Although my wife swears he sang it to her.) It wouldn't surprise me if everyone in the Adams Center came away with a similar thought. That seems to be Clinton's approach--that if she can make individuals believe in her, she can build on the strength of those bonds.

We'll know in the coming weeks which approach is the more successful.

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