Capital Letters: Walk on By

In which our man in Washington contemplates campaign finances, holy cows, and raw sewage.


Date: 3/7/2000, 11:27:30 a.m.
Subj: Granny D in DC

Surrounded by TV cameras and followed by hundreds of placard-waving fans, 90-year-old Doris "Granny D" Haddock pounded out the last few miles of her 3,200-mile walk across the United States. Undoubtedly the only person ever inspired by a Bill Bradley speech, Granny D had decided that something needed to be done about campaign finance after walking 60 miles to hear Bradley speak in New Hampshire in 1997. She tailed the 1999 Rose Bowl parade out in Pasadena and has just kept on a-walkin'. She's averaged 10 miles each day she walked; she's worn through four pairs of sneakers and four straw hats; she celebrated her 89th and 90th birthdays on the road; and she has achieved an optimal tan. All in the hopes of securing public funding of elections.

It's been no Sunday stroll, however. She spent four days hydrating in a hospital as the result of her trek across the Mojave Desert. At times, she was urged to quit, or at least take a ride across the desert. But she kept going and going, the Energizer Bunny of a really stupid idea. (We spend our whole lives being screwed by pols; now we should pay for their campaigns?) This was her moment of triumph. Common Cause, the left-wing lobby backing her, was passing out signs, "End Soft $ Now" and "End Legalized Bribery." Someone was in a full-body cat costume, cigar stuck in its mouth. A fat man wrapped in a sheet blew his bugle and banged his bongo.

That there was a crowd surprised me. I figured Granny D would draw about as many folks as a rally for the American Nazi Party: She's a loon and no one really cares about campaign finance, except John McCain, Russ Feingold, and Ralph Nader. Yet assembled were people ranging from the very young to very old and the very white to the even whiter. They earnestly believe that the only reason why the United States isn't Sweden is because moneyed interests corrupt politicians. And boy do they long for Sweden.

Granny D wannabes were everywhere. A phalanx of nine grandmas wearing straw sun hats sang a customized version of "Glory Glory Hallelujah" while being followed closely by a commensurate number of empty wheelchairs. Occasionally, Granny D would stop and utter some words. At the Lincoln Memorial, she quoted the Great Emancipator's calls for a government "of the people, by the people, for the people," a sovereignty, she says, that requires public financing of elections. Another speaker, looking out over the crowd, exclaimed, "You can't have a mass movement without the masses. I see Granny D as a kind of Johnny Appleseed." I see her more as an aged Forrest Gump.

"It's the moral issue of our time," said Cliff Arnebeck. "We've let our system be corrupted by money." Granny D had descended from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and Cliff and I conversed as we followed her past the reflecting pool. Cliff is a frustrated politician who can't find a political home or a winning strategy. In 1990, he ran for an Ohio congressional seat as a Republican. He lost. In 1992, he supported Perot and the Reform Party. Perot lost. In 1996, Cliff ran for Congress as a Democrat. He lost. He was outspent each time. He lost each time. It was the money, he suggests.

I caught up with 74-year-old Mary Morgan, also from Ohio. She'd walked with Granny D for 45 miles in the Buckeye State and is sure that all politicians, including Sen. McCain, are "bought and paid for." She wants full public financing of elections. This, I gather, would give us better politicians, who would give us better public services, like Amtrak, which transported Ms. Morgan to D.C. Less than a day's drive, it took the train 40 hours, she confides. The choo-choo ran out of traction and sat spinning its wheels on an uphill grade over the Alleghenies.

I interviewed the pre-Depends set as well. Turns out that the economics class of a Maryland high school used Granny D's arrival as an excuse to ditch school. The teacher told them that campaign finance reform is about economics, although none of the three high school seniors I interviewed quite knew how the two issues related. I asked one college-bound senior what was wrong with soft money. "Unless you know people, you can't run for president," he offered. But why should they care? They had all day to play in D.C.

Which is about how I felt. Granny D marched up 17th Street NW. I took a left at Pennsylvania Avenue and headed back to my office.

Date: 3/7/2000, 4:23:32 p.m.
Subj: Back to India

"I agree with the Hindus that cows are sacred," said Chrissie Hynde, the Pretenders' frontwoman. Hynde, clad in a non-bovine black trench coat, black cowboy hat, and, most important, synthetic shoes, was standing in front of Georgetown's Gap franchise.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals' president followed some cows around India and didn't like the way they were treated. PETA decided to target the Gap, one of many stores whose leather products have an Indian origin, because it's a national chain, sells in great volume, and would be able to discontinue leather without much fuss, said Kimberly Gillie Krier, a rubber-shoed PETA representative, in a pre-protest chat.

I had always figured that if I were to come back as a cow, I'd want to come back as an Indian cow. They're a bit thin (it's hardly surprising that the hide is worth 10 times the meat, if Krier's right), but they are worshiped and get the run of the joint for most of their lives. Sort of like D.C. pols, except for the thin part.

But it seems as if cows are taking it on the chin these days in India. Standing in front of posters of chafed cow asses and signs exclaiming, "Don't Have a Cow, Man!" and "Shed Your Skin," a soft-spoken Hynde explained what Indian cows go through so that Westerners can buy cheap leather. Due to our vanity, she said, there's a robust black market in cowhides in India. People are selling their pet cows, which are sent on 100-mile death marches to slaughterhouses. (Chrissie didn't mention if they took the opportunity, á la Granny D, to shill for campaign finance while they walked.) If the exhausted cows stop, they get cayenne powder rubbed in their eyes, and they're kicked along their trail of tears. (Now I know what stores really mean by "distressed leather.") Such cows come to us in the form of leather jackets, shoes, and handbags.

I asked Hynde if she'd have a problem if the Gap's leather were made from American cows. The 30-year vegetarian pursed her lips and said she'd prefer they didn't make them at all. I later asked if she thought there was a connection between being a society that worshiped an animal and being so cruel to it. She said the illicit slaughterhouses (32,000 illegal ones to 3,000 legal ones) caused ordinary Indians a great deal of anguish. Priests chant round the clock outside some of them.

Do you feel bad about your leather goods? If so, do what Chrissie did and walk into a Gap and return your jacket, assuming you purchased it there. Try it even if you didn't. I followed Chrissie into the Gap and can assure you that there are no hard feelings over returns. She'd already returned cow coats in Chicago, Vancouver, Toronto, and Boston and she'd always found the clerks accommodating.

She even recommends the store, confessing that it's the source of all her husband's T-shirts. "I do wish they would change their policy," mused Chrissie, who would be thrown in jail a few days later for pulling a similar stunt in Rudy Giuliani's New York. "I'm running out of places to get my cool fashions."

Date: 3/23/2000, 6:11:59 p.m.
Subj: A Message from the Mayor

"Sounds pretty grim," responded New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr. to a constituent who said she had raw sewage and rats in the basement of her house. Other than that, though, said the resident, her family absolutely loves New Haven.

If national pols make you want to puke, you ought to try stomaching the locals. (I was in town because I live here part of the month, the lovely wife having snagged a faculty post at Yale, a local college often confused with a lock company.) Mayor DeStefano was speaking at the school this afternoon.

"People focus on New Haven when we talk about New Haven," he explained as he fired up his PowerPoint slides. He wanted to "talk about New Haven because that says a lot about New Haven." But he also wanted to talk about New Haven by focusing on the suburbs–which happen to be whiter, less densely populated, and more likely to be home to people with jobs. "If we were like other American cities we'd be large," he said, a graphic of New Haven compared to Scottsdale, Arizona, on the projection screen. "Jobs and taxes are a problem for us." Like they aren't problems for the rest of us.

He spoke of the city like it's his, which perhaps it is, at least the part that Yale doesn't own: "I got 50,000 units of housing, 20,000 single-family housing." He then rattled off a bunch of statistics, sort of a list of excuses. Fifty-seven percent of New Haven's kids qualify for free lunch; one-third of housing units are directly subsidized by government; 27 percent of kids made the mistake of choosing parents who don't speak English. He confused sociologist William Julius Wilson with basketball's Dr. J, referencing "William Julius Erving's When Work Disappears."

Just like the family with rats and sewage in the basement, I actually like New Haven, especially after spending some time in Camden, New Jersey (see "Eminent Domain & the GOP National Convention," page 36). New Haven has three good restaurants and a cigar shop where they actually let you smoke.

So I asked hizzoner to say something positive about the town and to tell me why I should buy a house there instead of in the suburbs. His response: I'd know my neighbors, I could walk to the grocery store and to my children's schools, and I would have a greater sense of community. It all sounded pretty good to me. I only wondered why he hadn't put any of that on a PowerPoint slide.