Inside the (mobile) Strickland war room
If you really want to know your senatorial candidate, try to construct a ham sandwich with him while jostling around on a moving bus, surrounded by his staff, hustling to the next stop at a small Colorado town, all of it at the mercy of an octogenarian bus driver who loves to slam on the brakes suddenly and for no apparent reason.So there I am, going from 60 to 30 mph in 1.4 seconds with Tom Strickland, trying to look like a legitimate journalist, and all I can think is, “Man, I hope I don’t squirt mustard all over this guy’s brand new CFA firefighter’s jacket.”I carefully balance my plate and, in order to avoid any condiment-related scandals, head to the empty front of the bus, where a table and four facing chairs are, “Reserved for Press.”Apparently I’m the press, so I’ve got the whole place to myself.After a few minutes of watching the busy, officious activity in the back, I develop a theory as to why our bus driver likes to hit the brakes spontaneously: humor. One quick tap sends papers, briefcases, paper plates, granola bars, cups of coffee and juice flying everywhere. Aides grope on the floor with one hand while holding their cell phones in the other, trying to sound composed with their faces smashed up against the back of a bus seat.”No, no, everything’s fine. I have that information right, um, here (damn!) excuse me. I, uh, just need to wipe the jelly off this legal document”Perhaps, I think, the bus driver is a Wayne Allard plant, an old spy who has no real need for those hearing aids, who has been sent by the GOP to sabotage Strickland’s “One Colorado” campaign bus tour (by the way, the side of the spankin’ new bus is decorated with a banner, proudly pronouncing this a “Victory Tour,” even though the election isn’t until Nov. 5).If it’s true, and the driver really is a spy, it wouldn’t be out of character for Colorado’s ugliest campaign battle. But today, rolling through foggy northern Colorado farm country, the senatorial race actually has an air of peace, good will, and Americana. Two pretty teenage girls greet us at each campaign stop (the same ones every time, I notice) and mothers and husbands cheer and wave banners. In Fort Morgan there are men dressed in mesh hunting caps and brand new Big Mac overalls, green local journalists scribbling, portly women with dyed red hair wearing church choir sweaters, and blessed, blessed coffee.In Sterling there are firemen in bright yellow, a proud local sheriff, and an elderly woman who cheers loudly any time Strickland mentions prescription drugs. In Greeley there are somnambulist college students, suddenly awakened and inspired by Strickland’s presence in class but still not politically motivated enough to attend a rally voluntarily unless, of course, it somehow affects their grade.So it’s pretty mellow, but this is Monday. If you want Robert Redford and hundreds of people, if you want to see Allard supporters in gas masks getting arrested, if you want big fanfare, you want Saturday.That’s when Time Magazine rode the bus.The Vail Trail wins in the end, though, because Tom (I can’t resist calling other Toms “Tom” just to confuse things) has time for a long conversation as we roll from Greeley to the 100 percent wind-powered New Belgium Brewery in Fort Collins. By this time I’ve heard many variations on the same presentation, seen many incarnations of the same pro-environmental performance, and now I’m sitting down and getting to know the man who’s locked in a dead heat in the polls, who started Great Outdoors Colorado, and who may end up swinging the partisan balance in the U.S. Senate.It’s my second interview with him this year, and I’ve got plenty of time. I know the basic questions, the basic issues, the ones that my buddy Mike Johnston has helped him find the right answers to back at campaign HQ, and after a cursory run through these I take the interview into deeper waters.I want to know the man, and the motivation behind the man, and the man behind the manic motivational mantras, and the meaning of the mantras if there is one. Why politics? Why lose sleep? Why not go home and spend time with your family? Why become hoarse repeating the same message over and over again, suffering interview after interview each day (mine is the 10th, I think, and Mondays are slow), why suffer bombardment on statewide television? Personal attacks? Intense background checks? The endless planning, traveling, and strategizing, and the spasmodic bus ride?And in my opinion the worst of it all: at each and every engagement (of which there are more than a thousand in the course of a year) his face must not betray an ounce of fatigue, and charisma must be manufactured where natural stores of it are gone. He suffers the slow pain of endless small talk (the same that makes cocktail parties such a bore), multiplied a hundred times.The cynics have an answer for this.So do the idealists.In talking with Strickland (I mean Tom), I realize that no one can tell if an actor or a politician is a cynic or an idealist.But the same is not true of voters.The cynics claim that this seemingly boundless energy comes from a love of self, a dark-hearted and greedy love of glory that inspires one to take over office.But the idealists will say that only hard-core beliefs can drive a man to public office, a belief in things greater than the self – greater than one life – that provide charisma and energy when the internal well runs dry.And how do we know what we are?We find out on Nov. 5, because only an idealist will get out and vote, get involved, get motivated, get informed, and read this column all the way to its bitter, eye-stinging end.And the cynics?We lost them at paragraph four.
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