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Things you learn from the Obama 2012 campaign
One year on.
There is nothing better than working on a presidential campaign.
There is nothing worse.
When your old boss calls you about joining up, 19 months out from the election and three weeks from the launch of the campaign, you’re living in London. “I know you don’t even live here anymore and you just started a new job,” he says. “But sometimes, you just gotta say ‘Fuck it.’” It’s not totally clear who you’ll be working with or what exactly you’ll be doing. You know you’ll say yes before you hang up the phone.
The huge campaign headquarters in Chicago is a cavernous empty slate at first: Rows of empty desks, beige on beige, spotless carpets. As the months pass it begins to fill with people and color and clamor, hundreds of people working intensely in one enormous open space for 12 or 14 hours a day. You learn that the third-most precious commodity on a presidential campaign, after time and money, is quiet. In the early months, you find a desk in the empty wing of the office; when that fills with people, you go to dark meeting rooms; then, finally, the floor of the tiny vestibule of one of the stairwells. You all buy noise-canceling headphones because they’re the only privacy you can have.
As the team grows you realize that you’re all a little strange in the same specific way: you’re unable to stop yourselves from being totally consumed by a cause in front of you, and it means you’re not very good at real life. You forget to pay your bills. You eat cereal for dinner more nights than not. You watch from afar as friends back home build relationships and buy homes and generally proceed to make lives for themselves while you’re in a necessary stasis, working all of the time. You wouldn’t trade places with them for a second. To be a part of something that’s worth giving up almost everything for: It feels like getting what you’ve always wanted, and a little like relief. You’re not very good at real life, but you know you can be good at this.
You recognize as it’s happening that the people you work with are some of the best and kindest people you’ll ever know. You try to appreciate it through the chaos of everything else.
You marvel, sometimes, that if you let your concentration wane for even a second, you could make a mistake that could embarrass your side, or even worse, that the other side could use. The unrelenting pressure strikes you as a little bit hilarious rather than anything else.
You hadn’t really expected “West Wing” high-mindedness, but you’re still a little surprised by how flat-out dumb a lot of presidential politics is. How much like high school, how full of machismo and B-grade put-downs, how bereft of sustained attention spans. That’s the operatives and the media, that is: The professionals are who make it dumb, and that includes you.
It’s the real people, the ones who write in letters about the stuff actually at stake, who bring it back to health care and equal rights and the reasons any of it matters at all.
You catch yourselves referring to them that way: “Real people.” Some members of your team actually start abbreviating it: “We’d ideally have a quote from an RP here.” (There’s a silent understanding that none of you are real people anymore.)
Sometimes, amid the long 19 months, it feels like the campaign will go on forever. There are times you can’t tell if that would be a good thing or a bad thing.
The exhaustion is a layer over everything you do. You take to going to Starbucks for a second time each day around 5pm, a different one than you went to in the morning because it starts to feel embarrassing. You get there when they’re closing up for the day and you’ve still got another five hours of work to go. The red-haired girl who closes most nights starts making your coffee for you as soon as she sees you walk in the door.
Never a person who cries, never a person who cries in public, you will cry in public many, many times.
You will not believe you’ve won, that you’ve got to think about how to acknowledge to the world that you’ve won, until your boss says “It’s time,” a couple of times. For all the planning all of you had done in advance of Election Day, you’d meticulously thought out everything you’d do if you lost or the results weren’t apparent that night. But none of you had talked about what you’d do if you won. You’re rational people, but this is your stronghold of superstition.
After it’s over, you will all keep coming to the office. First, ostensibly to “wrap some things up”; then, to clean up the accumulated stuff of being there, seven days a week, for months; then, finally, because none of you can think of anywhere else to go.
Eventually you say goodbye. Day by day, another person leaves to move back to Ohio or Iowa or to job-hunt in D.C. You all clap them out until there’s no one left to clap.
Afterwards you’re all tired for months, young people made old. Even when you start sleeping normal hours with not much to do during the day, you feel a low-grade exhaustion. You ask a friend who left the campaign in February how long it took her to stop feeling tired. “Six months,” she says. You mark your calendar for May and try to imagine feeling normal.
The media story of who did what, who really made a difference, won’t have more than a bare relation to the truth. But it’ll be hard to feel like any of it matters. You won. Everything else is bullshit.
When you feel like the thing you’ve just done is the best and most meaningful thing you’ll ever do, it’s hard to figure out what to do next. You spend three months avoiding thinking about it, and the six months after that just trying to imagine what it could be. Eventually, you end up falling in love and starting a job and becoming a person again. Maybe even a real one.
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