Staging and performing: American elections

Staging and performing: American elections

26th August 2008, Comments 0 comments

For a change, Expatica asked a German living in the U.S. for her perspective on the American elections.

In 2003, I moved from Berlin to New York and the first American election I followed closely was the Bush vs. Kerry campaign a year later. This time around marks my second election experience in the US. And although I can not vote, I have been fascinated by the political process, the way the elections are staged and conducted and how politicians present themselves and perform in the public arena.

For the Democrats, the election drama has been building since Jan. 3, the date of the first primary election, the Iowa Caucus, and it has lasted for six months, until the very last primaries on June 3 in South Dakota and Montana – and when four days later, Senator Hillary Clinton conceded the Democratic nomination to Senator Barack Obama.

For over one year, starting back in April 2007, the two had engaged in 24 debates -- with both of them eloquently displaying their professional performance skills as well as their knowledge of any given subject matter.

To keep the tension going through the summer break, when congress is in recess and not a lot is supposed to happen, suggestions and assumptions for the appropriate vice presidents have been in the newspapers daily. There has been lots of speculation on both sides – among Democrats and Republicans. On the Democratic side, one potential contender was definitely out: After former Senator John Edwards confessed to an extra-martial affair with a documentary filmmaker – he was no longer a viable candidate.

However, Edward's story makes for a great film plot: It is a rags to riches tale of a hopeful, energetic and popular senator who becomes a vice presidential contender in 2004. He leaves the Senate after he loses the race to fight for pressing social causes and to spend more time with his family as his wife has been diagnosed with cancer. Around the time he announces his run for president in 2007, his wife's cancer comes back, the two go public and promise to stand together fighting the good fight for the little people. His wife becomes an essential and energizing element in his campaign and the two march on to the primaries: somewhat successfully but not enough so. As a result, Edwards resigns from the race the end of January. However, he is still under close consideration as a potential vice presidential candidate. But then, at the end of July, news breaks that he may have had an affair with a filmmaker who worked for him – and there are even rumors that he is the father of her newborn child. Edwards goes public, admits to the affair on TV but denies being the father of the child – and united with his wife, the two declare they will work through this and move on as a family.

Here in the United States, a scandal like that can be political suicide. And already, Edwards is no longer planning to attend the upcoming Democratic Convention in Denver.

While the scandal unfolded, Senator Obama took a trip abroad which was closely followed in the United States as well as everywhere else in the world. I was happy to see so many of my fellow citizens turn up to see him in Berlin. While Obama spoke to 200,000 Berliners, the Republican presumed presidential candidate Senator John McCain's response was a lunch meeting with five Ohio business owners at Schmidt's Restaurant and Sausage House in German Village, Columbus, Ohio.

The pressure that has been building up between the two camps is sure to increase until Election Day and it will be interesting to see which camp will cast the first stone.

Some have already started dropping. Earlier this month, a new book called The Obama Nation came out. Written by Jerome R. Corsi, who also co-authored Unfit for Command, a book that questioned Senator John Kerry's Vietnam war record during the 2004 presidential race, the author yet again challenges Obama's affiliation with Reverend Jeremiah Wright, his citizenship, faith and former drug use -- all accusations that have been refuted a long time ago. To counter these attacks, the Obama campaign has set up a web page:

Interestingly though, no matter how badly researched, outdated and false the accusations may be, this weekend the book climbed to number one on the New York Times Best Sellers nonfiction list. I wonder whether the Republican Party placed a huge book order to fill their delegates goody bags at the upcoming Republican Convention.

Meanwhile, the upcoming Democratic and Republican conventions as well as the three presidential debates this fall are going to be widely broadcast, analyzed and discussed ad nauseum. But where does one go for more in-depth, behind-the-scenes information? There is comprehensive daily on-line coverage in the New York Times ( but there are other sources worth tapping into:

C-span is a private, non-profit company, created in 1979 by the cable television industry as a public service with the mission to provide public access to the political process. It offers lots of live coverage from Washington, press briefings, hearings in the House and Senate and in depth studio interviews with journalists, politicians and authors. One can also review campaign ads of both parties, listen to debates, the candidates speeches and follow both conventions as they unfold in the next weeks. Plus, C-Span has a comprehensive archive, so whatever speech and debate one misses, you are sure to find in their archive (

On the lighter side, The Daily Show makes for excellent political satire and a critical look at the daily happenings in American politics domestically as well as internationally. Writer, co-producer and host, Jon Stewart will take his show to both the Democratic and the Republican conventions and will broadcast from them during the next two weeks. Watch out – his show is an excellent companion to the official news reporting from the classic sources – and many Americans use it as their primary source of information.

There is also The Colbert Report, Stephen Colbert's own show, which is an offspring of The Daily Show. Colbert portrays an ultra conservative, self promoting macho anchorman who twists fiction and facts -- always to his advantage. Colbert is a gifted improviser and a great physical performer -- he seems to have no shame -- and goes for it 150 percent, whether it is interviewing high ranking politicians, dancing and singing during the show or convincing the prestigious National Portrait Gallery in Washington DC to display his portrait in their museum.

To demonstrate his deep concern for the upcoming election, Colbert had applied to be included on the primary ballot in South Carolina as a potential presidential candidate -- unsuccessfully. According to Joe Werner, the executive director of the South Carolina Democratic Party "the council members had some concerns about his viability as a candidate" and Colbert himself did not file for the Republican primary ballot which came with a $35,000 filing fee ticket.

Both shows are streamed online the day after their initial broadcast (,

No matter how the election campaign is going to develop over the next months, it seems like people are paying attention -- and are engaging in the debate. The other day, I went to Times Square and looking up toward 42d Street, I saw this huge banner displayed on one of the sky scrapers -- hovering above a row of advertisements -- the red letters on the white banner simply read: VOTE. For a country that unfortunately too often appears to have lost touch with its very foundation of democracy, this was encouraging and refreshing. Let's hope the high voter turn out during the primaries was a start to setting a record number of people going to the polls and casting their vote this November.

-- Tanja Meding

Since moving to New York from Germany in 2003, Tanja Meding has worked as a producer for Maysles Films and other independent production companies. Her latest documentary as a producer, Sally Gross – The Pleasure of Stillness is directed by Albert Maysles and Kristen Nutile. It premiered at last year’s Locarno Film Festival, made it’s U.S. debut at the 2008 Full Frame Documentary Film Festival and was broadcast on Thirteen/WNET this summer.



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