Jim McDermott: war, politics, perceptions

Even before Jim McDermott started recounting his years of service pushing for action on the AIDS crisis in Africa, one couldn't help noticing his necktie: a multicultural artifact par excellence, with youngsters of various hues and ethnicities mingled in play against a rich, earth-toned background.

The veteran Congressman - Democrat, 36th District,16 years and counting - had kindly dropped by the editorial offices of Pacific Publishing the afternoon of Sept. 1 for a roundtable interview. He was accompanied by his chief press officer Mike DeGano and - in that moment before the flattening of John Kerry's post-convention non-bounce by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and the blistering rhetoric of the Republican National Convention had become apparent - McDermott was jovially optimistic about the presidential race:

"If everybody who voted for Al Gore votes for John Kerry, and then if you add in all the people who have defected from Bush, it should be a fairly sizable win.

"I think the real power of this thing is the people who haven't been counted - the ones who have never voted, [who] don't get counted in these polls. There's an awful lot of energy out there that simply has not come to the fore," the Congressman went on.

"The first decision that's always made by the electorate is, Shall we retain the incumbent? I think that is done," he said. "The question then is, Is this [other] person [who] is offered to us capable of getting the job done? And I think that John Kerry gradually ... it's not an easy mountain to climb. The other side is very good at spinning things, to distract the American public from the issues."

McDermott himself, an outspoken critic of the war in Iraq, has felt the wind from many spin machines. There was the matter of his and fellow Democratic Rep. David Bonior's 2002 visit to Saddam Hussein's Iraq and their controversial statements denouncing President Bush's preparations for a preemptive strike. Months later, an on-air speculation (to KIRO talkshow host Dave Ross) whether the capture of Saddam had been too opportunely timed for credibility prompted further criticism.

The editors asked about the Congressman's participation in Michael Moore's barn-burner documentary "Fahrenheit 9/11." McDermott assented to a request for an interview, he said, without foreknowledge of what the filmmaker would ask. They talked for an hour and a quarter, which yielded the latest quotable quote to cheer McDermott's most devoted fans and inflame his critics: 'They're [the Bush administration] using fear - you make people afraid, you can make 'em do anything'."

McDermott pointed out that Moore's film "is not a documentary in the sense of 'This happened and this happened and this.' What it is is a [stream] of vignettes, which I would call Cliff's Notes for the 2004 election. Everything that happened in four [sic] years is crammed into two hours. Things that people saw, things that people didn't see....

"Our attention span is, what, two weeks?" McDermott continued. "Stuff passes people so fast. What the movie does is bring it back in one spot. He [Moore] doesn't resolve stuff.... It's stuff coming out of a firehose. He keeps moving the vignettes so fast that while you're still thinking about something, he's two stages down the road and you're trying to catch up.

"I think it's a very successful piece," McDermott concluded, "in the sense that [it gives] people an awful lot to think about, and it leaves people to decide whether or not [they] believe those dots are really connected in the right way or not."

McDermott sidestepped the question of whether Moore's scattergun technique did a disservice to the antiwar cause. In any event, the Congressman had plenty of dots of his own to connect.

"As for the economy," he said, "I think we're pretty split in the country. Some people think it's going pretty well, but the rest of the country disagrees.

"Take the issue of health care." Forming a zero with his fingers, McDermott went on: "He [Bush] has done nothing. Nothing. Nothing. We've picked up 4 or 5 million more people uninsured, so now we've got 44 million. You can't go anywhere and not find that the failure to make health care accessible and affordable for everybody isn't a major issue. The strike at Group Health, the strike at Boeing, at the grocery stores - all that stuff is related to health care.

"Then," McDermott continued, "you add the fact that people's wages aren't any better today than they were a couple of years ago. And on top of it, add in gasoline costs. And then you add Enron and what that is costing. The middle class is getting squeezed."

Lack of assured health-care coverage, he noted somberly, "is the number-one cause of bankruptcy in this country.

"So my feeling," McDermott summed up, "is that there's going to be a combination of things. The domestic-squeeze stuff is going to get some people [voting Kerry's way]. They're going to say, 'What's this guy [Bush] doing? The whole world was with us - now they're all against us?' You've got terror alert after terror alert, which means airplanes don't get built because people don't want to fly. The stuff related to the war really cascades down into the domestic stuff."

Asked whether he's surprised or disappointed that Bush could get reelected, McDermott insisted, "I think the polls are not as split as it's been reported. I really think the American people are getting ready to give him an exit line."

McDermott is heartened by a surge of grassroots, get-out-the-vote activism he sees as unprecedented. "This is not coming out of the Kerry campaign - this is just springing up."

The Congressman harkened back to 1970 and his own first race for public office. After setting up a table in front of the University Book Store to register students to vote, he went a step further. "It's not enough to get 'em registered. Election Day, I went into the dorms, up to the top floors - which was totally illegal [chuckles]! - and laid a piece of paper in front of every door. It said, 'Remember to vote - this morning, McManus Hall 103,' or wherever. And when they came out of their room they'd remember, 'Oh, today's Election Day!'

"There's a lot of room for slips between the cup and the lip," McDermott acknowledged. "But we're movin'. And I'm optimistic."

The conversation turned to divergent cultural perspectives and the persistence with which many in the Muslim world cling to the memories of centuries-old grievances. "Like the Irish," someone quipped, and McDermott shook with laughter.

"Right!" he said. "Did you ever see the movie 'Hidden Agenda'? This guy's driving along in a car with this Irish guy, and the Irish guy says, 'You know what the problem is? Seven hundred years ago...." [More laughter]

"So in my soul, I do understand the people who remember. The Irish definition of Alzheimer's is 'forgetting everything but the grudge'!"

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