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Some Ramblings - The Ides of March
By Srinivas Kanchibhotla
the ides of march

It was just a little flag pin, hard to pick out at a cursory glance. Right after 9/11 when patriotism blended blindly with jingoism, where every form of stars and stripes paraphernalia - large flags, lapel pins, T-Shirts, handy flags on cars and in peoples' hands - sold like water bottles on a torrid day, it became a mandatory adornment for politicians, a little flag pin beaming proudly from the chest, without which they would be rather caught dead in public view. And during Barack Obama's presidential campaign, that little pin almost threatened to take the conversation away from the wars, economy, and administration and towards inconsequential and inane topics like whether Obama was indeed a patriot by refusing to wear the pin, refusing to take his noble answer that patriotism should mean much more than flaunting tiny trinkets on shiny suits. The non-issue dragged down his message to the point that where ever he went he spent more time defending his choice to not wear the pin than talking about his position on more important issues that directly affected the populace. It was a brave stand by an American politician who refused to take refuge in the last resort for scoundrels - patriotism. Along with race and religion, patriotism is the third wheel in American politics, and politicians dared not go against the popular sentiment. That made it much more presidential of Obama, who appeared on stage after stage in state after state, without the pin, answering the same question, defending the same position, over and over....Until one day, the pin made a quiet entrance on his breast pocket. It wasn't the foul/loud mouthed commentators, or the hounding press or the non-existent public resentment that won that day. A small victory party was celebrated in his own campaign headquarters by his own staffers that night. It is they who eventually wore him down and won over him (not, won him over) on that occasion.

Political campaigns have become a business model unto themselves in American politics (and taking the American lead, as with everything else, in the rest of the world too). It is a business that takes in vasts sums of money (in contributions), hires slick professionals, has a focussed strategy and single-minded goal (of getting the candidate elected), and stops at nothing from getting it accomplished. And once the campaign ends, either in victory of defeat, the hired guns dust off the mud (from all the smearing and slinging) and hunt for next client (candidate), sometimes from the same persuasion, and sometimes from across the street. They have little sentiments, few sympathies, and wavering allegiances. They are the real stage managers, the puppet masters, who manage, massage, mangle, mix and morph every sound bite coming out of the candidate's mouth so much so that the campaign staff run the real show, while the real candidates only play a part in the grand scheme. A 'God Complex' grips the campaign runners, rightfully so, and when they gather around the table trading stories and brandishing wounds, the conversation is so less about the candidates than it is about themselves - how they ran the show, how they held the candidate's hand on the road to victory, how they couldn't foresee the doomsday scenario and such. An old adage in the publishing circles went - those who have the talent, write, and those with the patience, edit. Similarly the campaign runners, who lack the charm of the candidate, and hence consign themselves to the background being ruthless as a tyrant and cold-hearted as a surgeon. And when the campaign folds up, and the show leaves the town, the staff walks away earning another lapel, another badge of honor (or ignominy), another war all another line that they could embellish their resume with. A Clinton lasted 8 years at the top, but his campaign strategist, James Carville, is still in the business. Bush has left the office a while ago, but Karl Rove, the brains behind his rise, is still seen lurking in the corridors of power. Obama might last a few more years, but the story of his lapel pin and the persuasion of his campaign manager, David Axelrod, will continue to ring as a cautionary tale for many generations to come. They say, in a thermonuclear blast, only the cockroaches survive. Same goes with campaign staff, in the wake of long forgotten campaigns.

'The Ides of March' (name aptly after the day of assassination of Caesar by his colleagues in the Roman senate) is less about the actual campaign than it is about the schemes and machinations of the staffers who are highly professional, meaning, detached, cold and cunning. It is a world in which staffers in opposite camps indulge in games of mutually destructive upmanships, each figuring out the other's move well in advance and plotting his own to counter the trouble coming round the corner; and trouble could come from any side - morality, ethics, statements, positions and yes, even school grades. They live most of their lives away from their families in roadside motels in nondescript towns on the campaign trail, and have their allegiances more to the telephone ring than to their wedding rings. It is a deeply cynical profession in which every good deed is suspected for a quick quid pro quo, and every bad news is guarded for, and where idealism exists only in words, and inspiration comes across only in stump speeches. It is a classic case of 'I know you know I know....' where everyone, from the one playing the game to the one watching, is aware of the every nuance of the game, and the question that begs asking becomes, whom are the candidates playing to - the electorate, who by now have heard every variation of the hope message ? or the pundits, who merely are commentating on the proceedings ? No wonder the campaign runners have to work twice as hard getting through the hard, thick and saturated skulls of the jaded public, employing every little and dirty trick in the book to get a leg up. And the next time a candidate takes a hard turn on his position, spare a thought on him, and tip the hat to his campaign.

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This article is written by Srinivas Kanchibhotla
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