Border Cantos is a timely, new and free exhibit now on view at Crystal Bridges.
If I had to describe what it's like running for office for the first time, I'd explain it this way: Wait for a sunny day and seek out the tallest, thickest, nastiest tree you can find. Once there, strip naked and climb to the very top, wrap a blindfold around your eyes and jump into the thicket below.
As you're slapped in the face with every limb; knocked around like a pinball from branch to branch, you have to find ways to maintain a belief in a political system wired for resistance; belief in a people conditioned for cynicism; and belief in yourself, as you are challenged almost ceaselessly to compromise your principles in some way.
Something changes when you take that first plunge. The lines of reality sharpen and then fade around the edges, and once you do reach bottom, you're left wondering how your wounds will heal. Will they scar with bitterness and frustration, or will they regenerate into a tougher, wiser layer of skin? Will you hesitate before the next climb to the top? And once there, how will your memories shape your path forward?
It's these questions that illustrate where leadership bleeds into politics. And several months after my first ever political campaign, in which I ran for U.S. Congress in Arkansas's Second Congressional District as a Democrat, I am grappling with these questions in very real and difficult ways.
The phrase "campaign trail" has a special place in the psyche of American political discourse. You don't have to travel far to be reminded about the glory days of politics, as candidates rode from town to town, speaking from a megaphone, leading parades — and, of course, shaking hands and kissing babies. The "trail" was a train of communities, interlinked and interwoven into the democratic process.
But that campaign trail no longer exists. Old courthouse rallies have been replaced with cocktail parties. Backwoods stump speeches with VIP fundraisers. Fireside chats with fund-raising calls. It seems everywhere I traveled throughout the district, voters and candidates alike longed for that personal touch that defines Arkansas politics.
In early May, two weeks before the May 18 primary, I accepted an invitation to speak at the 20th Annual Free State of Yell Fest in Dardanelle, Ark. What was once "the centerpiece" of the weekend's festivities was now hauntingly barren.
While waiting to speak, I saw that one old-timer was visibly upset. As I inched toward him, he continued staring at an old, faded campaign poster of former U.S. Sen. David Pryor, which hung loosely on a plywood wall next to the stage.
"It ain't what it used to be," He suddenly muttered. "It just ain't."
As I walked onto stage, staring at the empty bleachers, I decided it would be my last time to speak before the primary.
I was extremely excited about the opportunity to speak before the public. I guess I wanted my very own "Obama moment." But it never came.
I quickly discovered speeches make little difference. And if an event did generate a crowd, it was mostly candidates and their staffs. And perhaps a few potential voters would show.
As I listened to each candidate deliver their "stump" speeches, I worked extremely hard on my poker face. After enduring the same tired rhetoric week after week, my internal conversations became increasingly hostile.
While candidates did change message occasionally, the one constant was primary opponent Robbie Wills' "do nothing" campaign speech ...
"You might know me as the speaker of the house from Conway. But, you see, that's not exactly true. I come from a small town right outside called Pickles Gap, where my grandfather made these little things called a do-nothing. But he said, Robbie, you don't want to be a do-nothing, but a do-something. And that's exactly what I'm going to be when I go to Washington."
On the car rides to events, my staff would have contests for who could deliver Robbie's speech the best. Up on stage during the last debate at Sticky Fingerz, I noticed people chuckling as one of my staffers sat mimicking him word-for-word, pose-for-pose, pause-for-pause. As I gestured him to shut up, I couldn't help but smile myself.
I grew to really like Robbie as a person, but to survive the monotony of a campaign, a sense of humor is a must. And he provided plenty of ammunition, as I'm sure I did for others.
Everything on the trail seems like the replica of a replica of a replica. The images, the words, the delivery, too often seem familiar. It's as though a successful politician is first and foremost "replicable."
When exploring whether to officially run, I took the advice of some friends and called some highly touted campaign "consultants" from Washington to provide their assessment of me as a candidate. At one awkward exchange, a young man just out of college was concerned that my being single was a liability.
"Well, I'm not in love," I replied.
"But people want to see that you have similar values."
Another strategist chimed in that I should "find a girlfriend in a wheelchair."
It seems unbelievable ... I know. But this industry standard of the "perfect" candidate, pieced together over time from polling and punditry, has obsessively warped the mindset of many of those in the business of politics.
But I've always believed that the undercurrent of politics today is our search for authenticity. And for many in Arkansas's Second District, that will be Rep. Vic Snyder's most lasting legacy after he retires this year. Everywhere I turned I heard something similar, "I might not have agreed with Vic, but I respected him."
Perhaps he was one of our last authentic leaders in Congress. But let's hope not.
The most difficult dance in today's political arts is the courting of a stranger to ask for their vote. It's intimidating knocking on doors or approaching someone without knowing their views, moods, or life history. And, frankly, with only three months to campaign, it was an inefficient means to reach voters.
Beyond the small numbers you touch, a candidate also has to break through several emotional barriers to even have the opportunity to ask for their vote. And let me tell you, voter anger, mistrust, and disgust aren't just media buzz words — they're very real and very potent in today's electoral climate.
My first time shaking hands was in downtown Little Rock at the River Market. And it was pretty much like speed-dating from hell.
"Hi ma'am'," I'd say with my hand extended.
"You're not a politician? ... Are you?" a brightly clad woman snipped.
"Well, no ma'am. But I'm trying to become one."
"You come one step closer, I'll scream!"
Lesson one became: DENY! DENY! DENY! ... that you're a politician. And so I tried a different strategy.
"Sir, my name is Patrick Kennedy, and I'm NOT a politician."
Without hesitation, a grandfatherly-like gentleman said, "Son, with a name like Patrick Kennedy, you sure as hell better be."
He's got a point, I thought to myself.
Despite its slow and unpredictable nature, I loved this type of campaigning. With every vote hard-earned, you realize that the most explosive change was catalyzed one conversation at a time.
And over time, I came to see the anger much differently. Behind the angry mask was a feeling of hurt; of people feeling invisible to the political process and those pulling the strings. And whatever Democrats say about the Tea Party movement and its followers, they should learn a lesson from them. Most people on both ideological spectrums are yearning for their voice to be heard once again, but the Tea Party just seems more willing to do something about it.
If I could have changed anything about the campaign, I would have robbed a bank. It would have been a lot more respectable than some of the things you have to do to raise money.
A candidate's need to fund-raise abdicates his or her self-worth. Every dollar donated marginalizes a candidate's ability to lead independently. But as I was constantly reminded, if I wanted to succeed I had to become a "shameless" fund-raiser.
Call it stubbornness, or just plain ol' self respect, there's something about shamelessly begging that's difficult to accept. But the drain of campaigning on principle alone can test the willpower of the strongest person.
A candidate will usually spend four to eight hours each day making fund-raising calls. And not having any previous experience, my first day was a disaster.
I remember the excitement of filing to become a candidate (which cost a whopping $8,000) quickly giving way to a hair-tearing anger. With a goal to raise $7,000 that first day, I found even my closest friends and family to be less than receptive.
My three favorite responses were also the most common:
Bronze: "I believe in you more than anything. But I can't give you money because it's too risky."
Silver: "Leave me. The. Fuck. Alone!"
And Gold: "You're either stupid or crazy to run, and what makes you think I'd give money to either one."
As awkward as it was for me to ask for money, it was more awkward for the person being asked. No one really wants to give money to a political candidate, no matter what they say.
And except for the few who donate because they genuinely care or believe, once a candidate accepts a donation, the donor essentially owns you. And It becomes just that more difficult to act in accord with your conscience.
At times, I was offered contributions with certain conditions. For example, at a small event a natural gas executive offered me a large donation if I promised to "take care of the industry."
I didn't feel confident enough about the issues to accept. But let me tell you, turning down a thousand dollar check when you're as broke as I was, was damn hard.
Most fund-raising exchanges weren't this direct, but all had an unspoken expectation, like in any transaction.
Just think of politics like NASCAR. The candidate is the car, and the more money someone sponsors (or donates), the more training and testing you can buy to help you win. In return, your sponsor gets to ride you to the finish. The only thing missing are the big, colorful patches on our suits.
ALL politicians hate fund-raising — don't let them fool you. I remember hearing each of my primary opponents complain about the absurdity of fund-raising. The reason being that it causes you to contantly lose perspective on what's important in politics.
One night after speaking to a Little Rock neighborhood association, a young woman in hospital scrubs asked to speak with me in private.
She pressed her hands tightly around mine and excitedly said, "I'm going to give you $5, 'cause I know you need it."
I must not have hid my disappointment very well, because she responded in kind, "Five dollars might not mean much to you, but it should."
She continued, "My husband died two weeks ago. I can barely afford feeding my baby girl, much less waste money on a politician. ... So, DON'T LET ME DOWN!"
I felt terrible; truly ashamed. I had lost perspective on why I had gotten into the race to begin with.
The pundits may trivialize political fund-raising as a numbers game. But it's the human capital of a small donation, or a handshake, or a conversation which is really the highest form of political currency.
I believe most every politician has a genuine desire to serve honorably when first pursuing a political vocation. But one of the most serious and palpable effects of fund-raising is the growing disconnectedness between the "haves" and the "have nots."
I deeply respect many of the Democratic Party values. But I was surprised to see just how out of touch the party leadership is. Hardly ever did I see candidates or party leaders in the poorest sections of Arkansas. With the foundation of the party built on serving the "underserved," we seemed too far removed to truly understand what we paid lip service to.
And let me be clear, this isn't an attempt to place blame. If any one is to blame, it starts with me. But ultimately, it's a matter of priority. And when candidates and their parties are forced to spend a majority of their time with the elite few to meet our fund-raising needs, then we become disconnected from the realities on the ground and the values we preach.
If I had to guess, the results of this election will ultimately reflect that.
Not having money was not always a bad thing. I might have been the poorest politician, but I was also the freest politician. But what largely allowed me to do so was the equalizing effect of social media.
On the night before the first-quarter financial reports were due, I was struggling with how to notify the media about my less-than-stellar fund-raising numbers. After several weeks of good media exposure and a Talk Business poll showing me in third place, just a few points behind Wills, I knew that once the numbers were released I'd return to being the black sheep of the candidates.
When I read online that another primary opponent David Boling and Robbie had both released their numbers early along with their new campaign ads, I had never been more disappointed in the media. Not policy, not ideas, not substance, but money and, yes, campaign ads suddenly qualified as news.
I feel confident saying pretty much every normal person abhors campaign ads. I mean, I can't imagine any of my friends saying, "Man, I'm so pumped about seeing that new Boozman commercial. It's going to be sick."
I called my campaign director around 2:30 the next morning. "We've got to flip this," I said.
Half asleep, she responded, "Yeah, OK. We'll flip it."
"Don't know. We'll think of something."
Ten minutes passed — I called her again ... and then again. Until, finally, she answered "Shut up! And go to bed!"
"Well, I'm not going to bed and neither are you until we figure this out."
After a long pause, she chirped, "Fine, you want an idea? Five-second ad."
"Make a 5-second ad poking fun that you can't afford a real one."
"OK, great. I'm shutting my phone off. Goodnight!"
The next morning, we recorded a 5-second video on an iPhone, taking us less than 30 minutes to produce. Just a few clicks and it was on Facebook, YouTube, and throughout the blogosphere, becoming our most popular message of the campaign.
Other campaigns paid good money to coordinate their media efforts, and used social media as an arm of their public relations strategy. But I noticed as candidates assigned others to post their material for them, it often backfired.
For young people especially, there's nothing more off-putting than canned, corny, cheesy political statements. In other words — if you're new to the "Face" just be yourself, answer the questions, and don't be afraid to make mistakes.
Lord knows, I made some silly statements. But I found people appreciated a human, imperfect politician.
Social media also served as a testing ground for campaign messaging. Instead of paying for a pricey pollster, I'd leak policy statements or ask questions on Facebook or Twitter. It allowed me to gauge anecdotally the mood of certain groups of people, and most importantly the media.
And because of the hotly contested U.S. Senate primary between Blanche Lincoln and Bill Halter, earned media was very difficult to come by. But social media provided a more personalized window into the lives of candidates. Which is why, in our campaign, a small tweet was twice as effective as a press release.
While social media brought my campaign to new heights, it also became intrusive at times.
When you think of a political sex scandal, I'm assuming most would think of it involving an act occurring between two (or more) human beings (or animals if you live in South Carolina). But today, in the age of Facebook, the political sex scandal has gone virtually viral.
Not too long after announcing my candidacy, I started receiving e-mails and Facebook messages from random women who had supposedly met me at some time. What I thought to be your normal constituent e-mail exchange quickly turned into a young woman sharing nude photos. And, yes, her wanting me to do the same.
After respectfully declining, I started noticing more and more of these e-mails and messages from different women, and then web chat requests, and if iPhone had a sex scandal application, I'm pretty sure that would have popped up too. The evidence strongly suggested them to be politically coordinated, hoping I would do something stupid.
Now, I had a woman stalk me in the bathroom at an event; and I even caught someone videotaping me across from my apartment while changing. But political "sexting" on Facebook seemed almost surreal in a very post-modern way.
And so I was left wondering — really? I mean c'mon. Has the need for scandal really come to this? Apparently it has.
Perhaps what I've said is abundantly clear and offers no new insight. I wouldn't disagree, as it seems like every week a retired or recently-defeated politician comes forth to speak about the ills of politics.
But the real issue, I think, is the unspoken assumption in politics: that the voters are easy manipulated. To speak frankly, the practice of politics today treats people like they are stupid.
People with the most speak on behalf of those with the least, whether through donations, or what is claimed to be representative party leadership. We in politics assume, whether through commercials and carefully calibrated messaging, that you'll simply accept what we say.
And so the question becomes whether you are willing to do something about it.
Once described as the "art of the possible," politics is merely the paintbrush that transforms ideas into reality. And you are the one wielding that brush.
The root of the problem in politics is that we seem to have a spiritual deficiency. I didn't realize this until after the campaign ended, when I learned that my own frustration at the voters and the political system was actually directed toward myself.
And so I wrote this piece because I guess I'm just tired of the bullshit. We all know politicians lie and exaggerate. And as much as I tried to stay true to myself, I sometimes didn't.
We all yearn for strong, independent leadership, and yet we somehow know that we'll always be disappointed in the end. And as much as I resisted fund-raising, I accepted that check.
We all obsess over sound bites and scandal, accepting politics as reality television and spectacle as entertainment. And even in writing this piece, I could not escape the temptation to do so.
The best way, I believe, to shut up the political chatter that distracts you, discourages you, ignores you, is turn me and others off. Drop the papers, switch off the television set, close your cell phones and computers and start talking with each other again. And don't just take it from me, because after all, I am — God help me — a "politician." But instead, learn to think and feel for yourself once again.
And so when I'm asked whether I'm going to run for office again, I honestly think that I must first be selfish and focus on how I can become a better person before thinking of serving others. So that if and when I do consider running again, I can make the decision knowing that I'm prepared to once again climb to the top of that tree and jump with equal or more force the next time.
Patrick Kennedy, who finished fourth in the five-candidate Democratic primary race for 2nd District Congress, now works for KARK-TV, Channel 4.
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