All the World’s a Campaign by Michele Volansky


The room is upstairs in a town hall that was built in 1924.

The room is a converted metal factory from 1891.

The room is a theatre that used to house a market, then the Masons, then the Shriners, and then the movies.

The room is an arena that hosts ice hockey and indoor football.

The room is in a former railroad station that was converted into a hotel in 1983.

The room is the lobby of a sports arena at a Division I university.

In a time when historic characters sing about being in “the room where it happens” onstage, the common perception is still that politicians are making policies in back rooms somewhere, far away from the nosy public eye. That may be the case, but the road to the Oval Office is very public, paved in arenas in towns and venues across the U.S. Campaigns choose towns for demographics, or in the belief that an impressive crowd can be drawn, and venues are selected because decades of advance teams have shared contact information or because of one staff member’s familiarity with the area.

What is less clear are the other choices made on the campaign trail: Who picks the music? Why does one candidate use a chandelier while another uses house lighting? Is there meaning to be deciphered in the decision to place a bottle, glass, or pitcher of water on the podium/stool/dais? What about those homemade signs? And finally, what does this level of theatricality say about our political process in 2016?

Despite the (often incorrect) overuse of words like “kabuki drama” and “political theatre” by pundits, the message conveyed to what Aristotle called “the polis” relies on the medium of theatre. If the selection of a candidate comes down to who makes the better argument to the American voters—the script, if you will—there are also decisions to be made about everything that goes into presenting the script: lights, sets, costumes, sound, text, directing, and, perhaps most of all, acting.

It’s not “just” theatre, of course. As I followed six candidates on the campaign trail through the primaries this spring and summer—John Kasich, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump, and Hillary Clinton—what I found most compelling was the tension between what was presented live on the stage at events and what was designed exclusively for audiences elsewhere: social media, radio and television, print, and other outlets. It became apparent that the latter was of primary concern to the campaigns, though those audiences/voters who were actually in the room (myself included) certainly found ways to connect with the candidates.

As anyone working in live theatre is aware, the audience is part of the performance. Staged events, from “town halls” to “public conversations” to “rallies” to large-scale arena events (there is no clear definition or delineation among them), rely on a candidate connecting emotionally and commanding the room. In a political season in which authenticity and straight talk have seemed to be unusually determinative forces, in-person audiences allow a narrative about “approachability” to emerge. Voters in 2016 no longer want to have a beer with the candidate; they want to take a selfie with them. Spending time live and in person with a candidate certainly appears to sway voters; Iowans and New Hampshirites have proven this since 1972 and 1920, respectively.

What follows are my reports from the trail on how candidates used that quality time with audiences—both the ones in the room and the ones on the other end of the cameras.

Republican presidential hopeful Gov. John Kasich addresses the crowd at a town hall campaign event at Plymouth, Mass.’s Memorial Hall in February 2016. (Photo by Bobbi Clark/95.9 FM WATD)
Republican presidential hopeful Gov. John Kasich addresses the crowd at a town hall campaign event at Plymouth, Mass.’s Memorial Hall in February 2016. (Photo by Bobbi Clark/95.9 FM WATD)

Ohio Gov. John Kasich exploited his personal style as a way of separating himself from the rest of the field, particularly Trump. Kasich was the folksy candidate who refused to join in the usual mudslinging, a point he made at the start of his remarks on Feb. 29 in Plymouth, Mass.: “I would rather lose than degrade myself…kids are watching this.” His tie loose and his shirt unbuttoned, he shed his jacket when he started engaging with the audience, which he did after speaking for 15 minutes. Kasich relied on a local vendor to provide music (a mix of male-heavy tunes from groups like Zac Brown Band, John Fogerty, and Mumford and Sons). He chose a bright and open historic town hall, set up with seating for 235—a stark contrast to the larger spaces of other campaigns. Kasich’s event, according to a seasoned advance team member, was designed to appeal to the older, potentially swing-voter audience, who’d been polled for their thoughts on the theatrics of the rest of the field. Emphasizing jobs, family, and security, Kasich said, “A president has the moral duty to create jobs because they will secure kids and build better neighborhoods,” while evoking local heroes Tom Brady and Paul Revere, plus Republican patron saint Ronald Reagan. The audience, invited to ask questions (this was the only event I attended where that was an option), brought up Common Core, veterans’ issues, gay marriage, and religious liberty.

The gathering was clearly designed to be personal; what was seen by spectators in the room was nearly identical to photos in the press. The overall impression was of a candidate wanting to be seen as a transparent, common-sense option—and, like a lot of common-sense options, not all that dynamic. His message and his style was best summed up by his peculiar conclusion: “I need your help. Please vote for me. And if you didn’t like my presentation, don’t tell anyone.” At press time, Kasich had yet to endorse his party’s more flamboyant nominee, despite suspending his own campaign the first week of May.

In contrast to Kasich’s staid audiences were the raucous and youthful supporters of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, whose campaign I witnessed in Reading, Pa., on April 21. (Total man-buns observed: seven.) He was clearly on their wavelength. He led his audience in roaring “$27!” when asked how much his average campaign donation was. While other candidates appeared tailored down to their socks, Sanders didn’t attempt to tame his frizzy white hair or his slightly oversized blue suits. Sanders’s outsider status was also apparent in his music choices: songs about revolution and change by Tracy Chapman, Neil Young, and Bruce Springsteen (all appropriately licensed), played alongside, curiously, at least three songs by Diana Ross and the Supremes.

It was clear why Sanders engaged so many first-time voters: His message was direct and targeted at them, whether he was offering solutions to crippling student debt or pairing the legalization of marijuana with an income-inequality message. He was equally responsive to the other side of his support base—people who recalled the “Food Not Bombs” movement that began in the 1980s. Sanders’s 2016 version became “Jobs and education, not jails and incarceration.”

It was at the Sanders rally where the differences between what the audiences in the room saw and the public watching on the evening news, reading online, or in the paper became apparent. A member of the Sanders advance team described planning events with “the vibe and energy of a Bernie concert,” aiming to reach as many people as possible. Creating this was a delicate balance that involved deciding what the lighting in the room should be: adjusted for television—historically “hot”—or, as the candidate preferred, less bright so he could better see his audience? The Sanders campaign also wanted to make sure that all venues were signatories with the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (both the Clinton and Sanders campaigns have contracts with the union).

In other words, the Sanders campaign, like others on the trail in 2016, worked to marry the message (pro-union) with the medium (a theatre with enough light to be able to point out the members of striking Verizon workers in the audience). In addition, of the 58 individuals seated behind the candidate (in the shot for the cameras in the back row of the theatre), 14 percent were people of color—a much higher percentage than was evident in the 1,700-seat theatre. The campaign acknowledged that the selection of background faces was intentional, as the message it wanted to present to the audience outside the room was about immigration. Polling at the time suggested that it would be advantageous to court Latino voters; that’s why three of the four individuals who spoke prior to Sanders spoke in Spanish to the crowd. The campaign succeeded in conveying the message: Though only a small part of the live event, these pre-Sanders speakers were forefronted in broadcasts on national and local media outlets.

Marco Rubio and his family embrace after he suspends his campaign at a rally at Florida International University in Miami in March 2016. (Photo by Angel Valentin/Getty Images)Marco Rubio and his family embrace after he suspends his campaign at a rally at Florida International University in Miami in March 2016. (Photo by Angel Valentin/Getty Images)

When a campaign is clearly in its last throes, as was the case with U.S. Senators Marco Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz  of Texas in mid-March and late April, respectively, the room takes on a completely different atmosphere. All the blue suits, white shirts, and red ties become nearly interchangeable.

Rubio’s farewell took place at Florida International University in Miami on the day of the state’s primary. The polls predicted a Trump victory, and as a result, the event, originally planned to take place inside the arena where the Panthers play, was moved to the lobby instead. Two American flags were draped on either side of the podium touting, and a banner hung behind him with “New American Century, New American Jobs, New American Leadership” printed on it. The atmosphere among the crowd felt like a mini-family reunion; there was a lot of hugging and welcoming, but with a somber air.

There were also a lot of reporters, who at times seemed to be roaming around the room looking for anyone who was a supporter and not a fellow member of the media. Two screens airing Fox News hung on the second-floor balcony, with the audience looking up frequently and expectantly. At 7:25 p.m., chants for “Rubio!” began, but they died quickly. At 8 p.m., polls closed and Trump was declared the victor.

Rubio’s appearance was received warmly, but the candidate was subdued. After noting that he had called Trump to congratulate him (which the crowd booed), he observed: “There is nothing more that you could have done…America is in the middle of a real political storm, a real tsunami, and we should have seen this coming.” He commented on the political climate, adding, “The politics of resentment against other people will not just leave us a fractured party, they are going to leave us a fractured nation,” and sounded frustrated as he talked through the rise of the Tea Party, lamenting that while it “gave Republicans a majority in the House, nothing changed.” This refrain, “Nothing changed,” was clearly his message for the evening, though he concluded on a note of optimism: “We are a hopeful people.” He ended by quoting a passage from Corinthians. It was unclear to the dramaturg in the room what the intention of this was, but it appeared to salve a deeply wounded audience. The event was over by 8:35 p.m.

Cruz would ultimately suspend his campaign on May 3, but on April 22, he was in a small ballroom at the Radisson Lackawanna Station Hotel in Scranton, Pa. Unlike the Trump, Sanders, and Clinton campaigns, security for Cruz was light. There were no visible signs of the Secret Service, no airport-style screening machines, and only a handful of state police. The line to enter was only 40 people deep, but they were adamant in their commitment to the candidate; they were not interested in the eventual Republican nominee. The room itself was generic, with a thrust stage set up in the middle and seats for roughly 300. The press pool, which took up large areas at other events, was limited to six cameras and four tables on risers.

An official from a local foundation introduced Cruz, and the presenter responded to chants of “Cruz Cruz Cruz” with the statement: “He will stand up and fight for us no matter what the Washington cartel says.” Cruz himself responded, “We are here because our country is in crisis…and I am here today with a word of hope and encouragement. All across Pennsylvania and all across this country, people are waking up and help is on the way.” This was a candidate who didn’t waver from his message of jobs, freedom, and security, even at his campaign’s twilight—and in the face of a vocal audience. To the audience member who agreed, “It’s disgusting,” when Cruz said, “Grown men should not be allowed to go into the little girls’ room,” the candidate did not respond. Similarly, he did not turn to look at the voter who shouted, “Israel is our friend,” to his observation, “For seven years, we have seen a leader alienate our allies and appease our enemies.”

He also offered the most pointed punch lines, taking shots such as, “Let’s hear it for the Democrats: a wide-eyed socialist whose ideas are dangerous to America and the world. And also Bernie Sanders,” and, “Do you know the quickest way to clear out a Sanders rally? Tell everyone there they need to go and get a job.” Those in the room cheered, but Cruz’s campaign was effectively over.

A Hillary Clinton event is orchestrated in much the same way as a well-made play: There is a clear beginning, middle, and end. There is anticipation that something will happen, and there is defi­nitely the sense that an audience member is in experienced hands, as with Ibsen. Or Tracy Letts.

In Philadelphia in late April, Clinton was close to securing the nomination, and the crowd assembled was certainly enthusiastic about this fact. Though the event was scheduled to begin at 6 p.m. (and the candidate herself didn’t come on until 7:46 p.m.), lines started forming at 3:30 p.m., and campaign workers took advantage of a captive audience, moving among the crowd to secure volunteers and approval for other candidates, and to talk about issues ranging from Social Security to gender equality. Hillary’s Spotify list is highlighted by songs from female artists about joy, happiness, and celebration, feelings that were enhanced by a live band called the Sermon.

As was the case with Sanders, the frame behind the candidate was heavily curated. “Homemade” signs were handed to audience members (“Clinton Country,” “I’m With Her,” and “Rise Together”) along with small American flags, and staffers were seen teaching proper clapping techniques. At 7:33 p.m., another staff member poured water into a glass and placed a cough drop next to it.

Clinton’s appearance, from her suit to her message, was refined and specific. Though she was losing her voice, she appeared relaxed in the wake of a successful debate appearance six days earlier and a well-received speech in New York City the day before. In Philadelphia, her message, “I have a plan,” and her assertion, “It’s not enough to diagnose the problem, you’ve got to know how to solve the problem,” were cheered each time she said them, proving that repetition can be as effective a campaign tool as a well-worded tweet.

Clinton, who has faced criticism for a purportedly inauthentic tone and style—even the way she smiles has been scrutinized—was rumored to have been coached by an actor to improve her breath control. Coaching or not, it’s apparent that she is a seasoned performer; she moves through the world as though it were her own proscenium stage.

And while Donald Trump has been able to command attention via social media and television, in the eyes of this dramaturg he was less successful on the trail because of his choice of venues, such as the Crown Coliseum in Fayetteville, N.C., on March 9. Unlike in ancient Greece, where the architecture and acoustics were designed to focus the audience’s attention on the actors, Trump routinely scheduled events that took place in arenas made for sports and crowds of more than 10,000 people. Such choices made for a yuge (sorry) challenge in connecting with the individual voter. While Trump certainly captivated many with his provocative rhetoric (“I am 100 percent committed to waterboarding,” “The border is letting in Syrians; we don’t know if they are ISIS,” and, “In the good old days, this didn’t used to happen, because they used to treat them very rough”), at times his audiences appeared to be more interested in their phones. None of the large video screens familiar to fans of hockey or basketball were used, leaving many unable to actually see his facial expressions and gestures. Bright fluorescent lighting provided little nuance, and his self-curated playlist—ranging from the Alan Parsons Project to Luciano Pavarotti—provided little context or point of view.

Of course, both campaigns climaxed with televised conventions that were stage-managed within an inch of their lives for viewers at home, and while there was the usual range of speeches from brilliant to dull, also as usual the real drama emerged from the unexpected, like Ted Cruz’s pointed non-endorsement of Trump at the RNC or the passionate, often tearful protests of Sanders supporters at the DNC.

After looking at several months of campaign events, I got a genuine sense that politics are being performed for the electorate rather than with us. There was never a dull moment. But perhaps there should be. Our republic, if we can keep it, is predicated on the notion that we be well informed. But are we? Do we want to actually engage with poli­cy or are we content with a two-dimensional democracy?

Alexis de Tocqueville, observing both our theatre and our politics in 1840 while touring America, noted:

The democratic audience listens in the theatre but does not read plays. Most of the spectators are not looking for pleasures of the mind, but for lively emotions of the heart. They want to see a play, not discover a fine work of literature and, provided the author writes his native tongue well enough to be understood, and his characters excite curiosity and arouse sympathy, the audience is satisfied. They ask no more of fiction, and go back immediately to real life.

If this dramaturg could implore readers, voters, citizens to do one thing based on what was experienced in 2016, it is this: Get in the rooms. All it takes is an RSVP of “yes.” You’ll inevitably grow tired of the song “Roar,” and perhaps not be able to unsee John Boehner dancing. But the real election is taking place live on stages around the county, not just on your screens.

Michele Volansky is chair and associate professor in the Department of Theatre and Dance at Maryland’s Washington College, and associate artist/conference dramaturg for PlayPenn. This originally appeared in American Theatre magazine, Vol. 33, No. 7. Used by permission from Theatre Communications Group.

Reprise and Thoughts on Concentration of Power by Al Sikes


Few of my columns have resulted in more feedback than last week‘s entitled “Entanglement: Faith and Politics.” In it I recognized my heroes of the Christian faith: Fredrick Douglas, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, William Wilberforce and Martin Luther King. In each case these leaders took aggressive and unyielding actions against the institutions of slavery, fascism and racial discrimination—their actions were unerringly aimed at inhumanity.

The column led to several interesting conversations, with one person reflecting on Christianity’s inhumanity. Fair enough. There have certainly been numerous instances when religious institutions or rhetoric have been subordinated to the ego—the power needs—of their leaders. And while especially painful to recall, there were church leaders who justified slavery and at a later time chose to avert their eyes from the unfolding holocaust.

It is, of course, impossible to find any institution of long-standing that has not attracted and elevated exploitative leaders. America has had its noble and ignoble moments. Fortunately we are never far from the next election and are blessed with a constitution that assures checks and balances.

Religion, appropriately, is held or should be held to the ultimate standard. Love thy neighbor is unambiguous and maddeningly difficult.

Hillel, the Hebrew elder, said: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation of this—go study it.”

Jesus urged his followers to love their neighbor while warning them of pretenders and contenders who would deceive them. Most tellingly, Paul in his letter to the Corinthians stated: “I may be able to speak the languages of human beings and even of angels, but if I have no love, my speech is no more than a noisy gong or a clanging bell.”

We need to look beyond the preening opportunists who conceal their motives in religious or political rhetoric, and at any given moment there are plenty of them. Media today amplify those noisy gongs and clanging bells. Each day there is a flood tide of indignities. We turn to the videos. We choose to pay attention—the news on any given day is mostly about indignities.

There is also a flood tide of humanity. We don’t have to test our memories; Hurricane Matthew reminded us that devastation is always paired with the Red Cross. Likewise, the YMCA with youth opportunity and Habitat for Humanity with care—people of faith reaching out and going well beyond their own self-interest. Divine stirrings.

Just as we don’t find the truest expression of patriotism in Washington, we won’t find the truest expression of faithfulness among the self-anointed. If a person, parading under the banner of his/her faith is principally known for their work in politics, some version of Caesar has already prevailed.

Short Take on a Big Proposal

Each year seems to feature at least one blockbuster acquisition or merger in the communication’s industry. Since at one time I had regulatory power over deals of this sort, I still get questions. Let me provide a very fast and quick take on AT&T’s acquisition of Time-Warner which must receive government approval.

Acquisitions must at least theoretically improve return on investment. In this case, AT&T’s most certain path to better returns will be through greater pricing power or the use its network to its competitive advantage. It’s hard to see much public interest in either result.

I say this because bringing together engineers and artists rarely results in synergies. Those who engineer networks or devices or financial statements don’t, for the most part, appreciate the artistic impulse. They, understandably, want theories to be tested through measurement and modeling. Artists don’t do that.

There was a story in this morning’s New York Times about artists and exhibitors mounting exhibitions in small and counterintuitive spaces because the owners of large galleries wanted more and then more. The title of the article was Art Dealers Move Out of the Gallery and Into a Taco Bell. If you own a large gallery in a popular location you have a significant investment and need each artist’s work to sell at significant prices. If you are an artist trying to break through, that doesn’t work.

Time Warner has significant content brands; Warner Brothers film studio, HBO, CNN, and on and on. AT&T would use network leverage to get more return from those brands but the company would not be a fertile place for new ideas, just as big galleries are not fertile venues for new artists. So let me leave it there, the next administration needs to do a thorough going scrub of the proposed acquisition and look for creation, not more consolidation.

Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al recently published Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books. 


Messing About in Boats by Jamie Kirkpatrick



Downrigging Weekend is almost here, Chestertown’s annual celebration of tall ships and all things nautical. Absent a polar vortex, hurricane, or squall, Downrigging is a nostalgic voyage into the days when canvas ruled the world, the days of topsails and jibs; moonrakers and spankers; ratlines and vangs.

Sailors are born, not made. I know this because I’m not one. I get running before the wind, but something as simple as sailing into the wind leaves me baffled. Over the years, plenty of good sailors have attempted to educate me on their art, but whether it’s the physics or the vocabulary of sailing, all-too-soon there comes a point in the conversation when my eyes glaze over and I feel the urge to excuse myself and go get another ration of grog from the bos’n.

Despite my ignorance of wind-driven ships, I love these leviathans of the deep. Even at anchor, there is an elegant majesty about them. Once they’re underway, the creak of planking, the luff of a sail, or the slap of a bow wave induces an atavistic memory deep within me that recalls some long-gone forbearer who came over to the New World on one of these transports to start a new life on the edge of the wilderness. (In my case, that would a seven-time great grandfather who was the last settler to be attacked by Indians in the wilds of western Pennsylvania. Presumably he survived the attack or I wouldn’t be writing this.)

As a child and young reader, one of my favorite books was “Wind In the Willows.” Toad’s motor car was indeed a marvelous invention, but what first captivated me was Ratty’s leaky old rowboat. “Believe me, my young friend,” says Ratty, “there is nothing—absolutely nothing—worth doing half so much as simply messing about in boats.” Now just imagine: if a simple rowboat was worth half so much as that, how much more fun would Ratty and his friend, that ultimate landlubber Mole, have had aboard one of the tall ships that will come sailing up the Chester a few days hence?

When it came time for me to own a boat, I opted for a canoe. Not just any canoe, mind you, but a beautifully crafted cedar strip and canvas boat built by an artisan friend of mine up in Canada. It’s a fifteen foot “Bob’s Special,” a model first produced by the Chestnut brothers of Ontario in the waning days of the 19th Century and named in honor of Lord Roberts who had distinguished himself in the Boer Wars. It’s a wide, stable, and relatively light weight craft that tracks well on flat water and while it lacks mast or sail, it is driven by a power with zero carbon footprint (me) and is just about perfect for messing about in Ratcliffe or Morgan Creek.

But canoes lack perspective. The paddler is only a foot or two above the waterline so the horizon is never more than a bend in the creek away. Maybe that’s why I am so enamored of our taller, fully rigged cousins. How I’d love to have been that lad aloft in the crow’s nest of a tall ship who, espying a distant shore, sang out “Land Ho!” after a long and prosperous voyage across the ocean. As in all things, perspective matters.

So… “If you really have nothing else on hand this morning,” said Rat to Mole, “supposing we drop down to the river together and have a long day of it.
I’ll see you down there.

Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer with homes in Chestertown and Bethesda. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, and the Philadelphia Inquirer. “A Place to Stand,” a book of his photographs, was published by the Chester River Press in 2015. He is currently working on a collection of stories called “Musing Right Along.”

The Tidewater’s John Wilson on the Business of Hospitality in Talbot, Queen Anne’s and Kent Counties


There is no getting around the fact that John Wilson, along with his Coastal South investment partners, has become one of the Mid-Shore’s unsung commercial development heroes over the last ten years. Starting with the Chesapeake Bay Club on Kent Island, followed by the remarkable turnaround of the Tidewater Inn in downtown Easton over the last seven years, and the more recently, the addition of fifty-four luxury rooms at The Inn at Chesapeake Bay Club earlier this year, Wilson has not only been given credit for bringing all these properties to new heights of sophistication and elegance to the region but has provided a significant economic engine for the communities they reside in as well.

In his Spy interview, John talks about the changes at Tidewater Inn, the significant footprint he has created on the shores of Kent Island, and some miscellaneous thoughts on what it would take for Chestertown to join the club of Mid-Shore communities who offer high-end accommodations and fine dining.

This video is approximately fifteen minutes in length. For more information on the Tidewater, please go here, and here for the Chesapeake Bay Club and Inn.

Hope for Healing by George Merrill


Early voting begins this Thursday.

I will vote largely by the way I feel. Since no one is in command of all the facts of the complex political scene, feelings must often carry the day. If feelings are informed, then we act wisely. If not, feelings can do us in. Being aware just what a particular feeling is attempting to tell us can be the difference between wisdom and folly.

I know that the most important decisions in my life, like deciding whom to marry or what home to buy, have been settled more by a feeling than some rational process I engaged in. Identifying the source of a feeling is difficult at times, especially when we’re beset with a variety of conflicting emotions all at once. A feeling can be very insistent even while what’s causing it remains elusive. Because our feelings can easily deceive us, “know thyself” avoids lots of pain for ourselves and for others.

The presidential debates are over. I suspect by now most people’s minds are made up. I confess that I experience the predictable feelings party partisans go through as they hope their man or woman will be elected. It’s a given now that partisan feelings are running exceptionally high, going over their banks as swollen rivers do and like storm surges, leaving behind impoverished landscapes.

Since I am Clinton supporter, I, of course, see her as the superior candidate. In that sense, I experience all the appropriate feelings toward Trump that many card carrying Democrats would: anger, outrage, incredulity, and contempt. These are undoubtedly the same sentiments that Trump supporters feel toward Clinton. To that extent I believe I am operating within that normal window of negative emotion that most political conflicts arouse. Yet, I’ve noticed another feeling, subtle but powerful.

As I watched the debates, I became conscious of this strange feeling: a feeling that seemed wholly unrelated to the combative exchanges. At first I wasn’t sure what the feeling was: I had the urge to hide somewhere, as if I had been witnessing some act of desecration. Then I felt sad and finally experienced a sense of loss, like a death. When I reflected on it for a few days I suddenly realized what it was: I felt shame, which slowly morphed into grief. I felt shame that something as potentially noble and treasured as our democratic process has been sullied and cheapened by Trump’s unbridled appetites for power and dominance. America was being dumbed down while dignity and idealism were pitched aside.

Dr. Joseph Gurbo, a psychologist writing in Psychology Today, defines shame as a “painful feeling arising from the consciousness of something dishonorable, improper, ridiculous, etc., done by oneself or another.”

Why I’ve found the political climate so demoralizing is that it follows in the wake of a presidency that, despite significant policy failures, was conducted with great personal dignity and respect for the country. Obama conducted himself as an honorable man. He was an icon of the American dream.

As the debates have demonstrated, there’s little dignity in public discourse. It’s further exacerbated by eroding confidence in our once revered public institutions: the child-abuse scandals in the church, sexual misconduct in the military, the economic exploitation of the poorer by the rich in the corporate world, peccadillos by elected officials and police brutality; all these have led to widespread cynicism.

Still, I believe Americans have a deep hunger for being a part of essential goodness. I could see it when Pope Francis brought an inspiring vision to America– compassion for the poor and disenfranchised and justice for all. His visit ignited, however briefly, a hope for healing. His vision was lofty, idealistic and visionary – something I believe our souls long for. Francis imparted a sense of dignity to the tasks he told us that we must engage as a global community. The American public was inspired by his presence – I know I was – although significantly, most presidential candidates at the time kept him and his vision at arms length, often with dismissive comments like religion should help people become better persons, but should not mix with politics.

Whatever character deficits we believe either presidential candidate possesses, there is one fundamental difference in how each candidate defines his or her presidential task. Trump says repeatedly that “he” is going to make America great again. His claim that “I alone can fix it” is as though American greatness depended on him. Clinton on the other hand emphasizes the importance of community and our common humanity, the possibilities of what we might become if we could pull our weight “together.” She saw America’s healing as all about us. Trump’s style is the classic top down model, basically authoritarian, while Clinton represents a collegial approach in which we all become a critical part of the solution.

But back to feelings . . .

I read about the National Museum of African American History and Culture opening on September 24th in D.C. The picture accompanying this essay was taken at the opening ceremonies. I was deeply moved by it, almost to tears. The picture said to me that although America may be wounded, she’s still great. The occasion brought dignity to African Americans who have been marginalized since our founding, and judging by the picture, also brought those who had once been political adversaries together in solidarity with the noble vision of equality –the vision that we are all persons of worth. This is America at her best. A noble vision inspires the best in us and draws us together. It feels good and warms the heart.

I have hope for our healing.


Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist.  A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.

Entanglement: Faith and Politics by Al Sikes


A political proverb: Election campaigns are about addition, not subtraction. Reality: recorded history tells us that subtraction is often used for addition.

Subtraction has rarely enjoyed such an important tactical moment. Donald Trump’s campaign is built on damning various people and groups. Most of his assertions demonize some opponent; elect me he says, to “Make America Great Again”, as if unity is an anachronism.

Hillary Clinton, presumably to demonstrate the moral superiority of her followers, called half of Trump’s supporters “deplorables.” Not, I understate, a leadership moment.

There are numerous theories on how we arrived at this moment, but one observation (outside the election cycle) that deserves further comment was made by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg at a University of Chicago Law School presentation. Ginsburg, when asked for reflections on Roe v. Wade, said the landmark 1973 Supreme Court decision that “affirmed a woman’s right to an abortion was too far-reaching and too sweeping.”

Justice Ginsburg favors a woman’s right to choose, but now understands the downside of such an abrupt and sweeping preemption of State laws on an intensely personal issue that for many attacks an important religious belief.

Post-Roe v. Wade we are still feeling the shrapnel from that decision and especially in this election cycle.

In a recent opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal, the noted Dietrich Bonhoeffer biographer and Christian media personality, Eric Metaxas wrote: “It’s a fact that if Hillary Clinton is elected, the country’s chance to have a Supreme Court that values the Constitution—and the genuine liberty and self-government for which millions have died—is gone. Not for four years, or eight, but forever.” I can feel the shrapnel.

If Hillary Clinton, who praises Roe v. Wade, shares Justice Ginsburg’s wisdom, it is not apparent. If she were to publicly embrace this more cautious judicial view, I believe there would be a significant political upside for her and the nation.

I am a Christian and strive to understand what that means in relationship to the political world where I spent part of my career. When I was nominated to be Chairman of the FCC, three Christian-right political activists who preached in the halls of Congress, opposed my confirmation. They wanted to tell President George HW Bush who to appoint. While Chairman, I took on Howard Stern (a Trump enabler) and was praised by those who were earlier damning me.

Stepping back, as faith requires, I am reminded of William Wilberforce, Fredrick Douglas and Martin Luther King. Wilberforce, an evangelical, led the successful fight to abolish slavery in Britain. Douglas fought it in the United States, and King fought 20th Century discrimination. Each spoke about their faith and its importance in shaping them and their mission.

And each spoke of disappointment and sadness when they saw Church leaders yield to politicians who were appealing to our worst instincts.

Martin Luther King in commenting on the early Church captured that sadness in Letter From Birmingham Jail: “There was a time when the Church was very powerful. It was during that period when the early Christians rejoiced when they were deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the Church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society.”

Metaxas, in his biography on Bonhoeffer, chronicled Bonhoeffer’s departure from Germany’s state church to form the Confessing Church. Hitler had co-opted, what was called the German Church and it ended up supporting his nationalism. Bonhoeffer was implicated in the attempt to assassinate Hitler and in its aftermath he was executed. We should all get to know Bonhoeffer, Wilberforce, Douglas and King–those who courageously followed Jesus Christ.

Coming back to today’s campaign I will leave you with my heroes of faith except to say that I believe the Church and its leaders are best when they are concentrating on saving souls and serving those left behind. The more the Church, in all its diversity, reflects the life and teaching of Jesus Christ the more influence it will have. The influence will not be due to its political advocacy, but to the faithful living lives of grace and the extraordinary influence of that reality.

Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al recently published Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books. 

On Solitude by Jamie Kirkpatrick



Solitude, like New York, is a good place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there. A little quiet reflection goes a long way with me. Like the lighthouse in the photograph, solitude warns me away from the dangers that lurk just below the surface of my life and keeps me in the sea lanes of deep and open water. Without an occasional dose of solitude, I might well flounder, maybe even hit rock bottom and sink.

On the other hand, give me too much solitude and I might sail off into the sunset, never to be heard from again. Wordsworth might well rue a world that is “too much with us, late and soon, getting and spending,” but without a little engagement in that world, what do writers have to write about? So to me, solitude is both my curse and my best friend, the yin and yang of my craft.

Solitude is the art of being alone without being lonely. If loneliness is the glass half empty, solitude is the vessel half full. It’s where I go to read or think or write; an oasis in the desert; a warm, dry cave of self-content; a prosperous voyage on a calm sea. If loneliness is imposed, solitude is chosen. You get the picture.

In a world in which we are constantly bombarded by all manner of stimuli, it’s no wonder that we see (Wordsworth, again) “little in Nature that is ours.” Maybe old WW should have spent a few hours (as I once did) overlooking The Strait of Juan de Fuca, the watery international boundary that separates the United States and Canada in the Pacific Northwest. On the eastern side, the San Juan Islands, an archipelago of little pearls to the north of Seattle, dot the passage that is the Salish Sea’s outlet to the Pacific Ocean. A couple of miles across the strait lies Vancouver Island, Canada’s equally lovely littoral. Despite its proximity to the “Graveyard of the Pacific,” a stretch of nasty local coastline known for unpredictable weather and dangerous shoals, the Strait is a popular waterway for both maritime and mammalian traffic. The last time I visited Lime Kiln State Park out on the tip of San Juan Island, the largest island in the eponymous group, two large pods of orcas cruised by on a cool, foggy morning. It was a sight and sound I will never forget. “Holy” was the adjective I used then to describe the moment I saw those creatures (Wordsworth, for the last time) “rise from the sea like Proteus and heard them, like Triton, blow his wreathed horn.” A few other friends stood nearby, equally transfixed. For each of us and for all of us, that moment was solitude at its finest.

Now don’t get me wrong: I have no desire to withdraw from my earthly circle of family and friends to go live, hermit-like, away from it all. I need to connect with people as much as I need my occasional dose of solitude. But doesn’t one make the other all-the-more sweet? In other words, Musers, as Honore de Balzac said, “Solitude is fine, but you need someone to tell that to.”
Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer with homes in Chestertown and Bethesda. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, and the Philadelphia Inquirer. “A Place to Stand,” a book of his photographs, was published by the Chester River Press in 2015. He is currently working on a collection of stories called “Musing Right Along.”


The Day of the Dolls by George Merrill


For many years I directed a network of counseling services in the Baltimore and Washington D.C. corridors. They were good years for me. I was personally fond of my staff who were generously caring and committed people. They represented a variety of health care professionals and clergy of most all denominations. Our mission was to equip clergy in mental health counseling skills and, through supervised interns in training, offer counseling services to the general community. Churches hosted our offices. This allowed us to bring quality mental health services to the general community at affordable cost.

I discovered something of who I was in those years. The knowledge freed me.

The agency was successful. I functioned well as its director. However I was plagued with an internal saboteur who hovered at the edge of my consciousness. I kept feeling I wasn’t that effective, that I needed to be doing more. This phantom saboteur appeared periodically, his head tilted skeptically to one side, eyes raised and his voice barely audible, whispering, “Not good enough!”

It mattered little whether the agency was doing very well or experiencing hard times; the saboteur had the same message in weal or woe, “Not good enough.” Anyone who has struggled with self-confidence will recognize my visitor.

In reality the agency flourished and my staff had no problems with my leadership.

Then, the Myers Briggs inventory was in vogue. For those unfamiliar with it, the inventory helps individuals and groups understand the difference in people’s personality styles as well as how they process information. It’s a helpful tool for identifying personal gifts and abilities including whatever things, because of our personalities, we probably have no business messing with. The staff and I opted to do the Myers Briggs and Isabel Myers came and administered the inventory.

At the time, my administrative assistant, Jean, was a highly organized and detail oriented person. She kept the columns up to date and the figures were accurate. Our records were kept impeccably, appointment times scrupulously scheduled. However, I felt intimidated because she seemed to have much more of a command of the Agency’s details while even on my best days when I thought I had it together, I always wondered if I had thought of everything.

As we took the inventory I discovered one of the most affirming aspects of my function on the staff: I was a natural in the leadership role I held in supporting the staff and solving our problems together. There was no way I could ever be the master of details, but more importantly, that wasn’t being asked of me. I could never have a mind like Jean’s. By understanding more clearly who I was, I could be with my staff far more easily and not feel as if I were failing them or had to do “more” or be “better.” My affection for my colleagues grew with my new sense of personal freedom.

I was thinking about my experience the other day. It occurred to me how in community we discover ourselves. A healthy community searches for and calls forth what’s best in its members and helps them see where they can function maximally in the larger picture. A community becomes diseased when its members feel at odds with their neighbors and are set against one another.

Racism and xenophobia, hardly new to America, are increasing. The state of uncertainty in this post-modern world is a fertile climate for a demagogue to appear. Appealing to the fear of the unknown, this natural human inclination is inflamed and exploited by opportunists as we’ve seen recently on the political scene. Not affirming and cultivating the immigrant and African-American presence already here, both of which are having an enormous influence on American culture, I find naïve and short sighted. By 2045, the census bureau predicts whites will become America’s minority. It will be instructive to see what happens when the tide’s turned. These however are general cultural considerations. More to the point is how, when racism and xenophobia get personal, they become tragic.

To understand what discriminatory attitudes and practices do to the soul of a person is profoundly disturbing. I’ve written of this before, but I know nothing, save active violence, that brings the horror of discrimination home more poignantly than what clinical psychologists, Mamie and Kenneth Clarke concluded in an experiment they performed in 1956 involving black children.

They showed black children a number of dolls. The dolls were identical except for skin color. The children were asked to choose the dolls that they liked best, asking them questions like; which doll would you like to play with? Which one is nice, pretty and which one is bad and not pretty?

The majority of children had a clear preference for the white dolls, some even saying of the black dolls that they were not nice or pretty.

The results of the experiment exposed how self-hate internalizes itself in African-American children. The American culture had successfully taught young black children not to like who they were.

I first saw this experiment years ago. I saw it as a clip on TV presented by Bill Cosby. It had a profound effect on me. Up to then I had a general idea but no real feeling for the monstrous implications racism and discrimination have for the soul of a human being.

I recall watching the clip. When a little girl picked up the white doll because she thought it was prettier than the black doll, I remember how my throat constricted, tears formed in my eyes and I wanted to hold the child and say to her again and again, “No, no!”

But she was just a little girl being who she thought she was while being taped on a TV clip. There was no way she would ever have heard me no matter how loud I protested.

Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist.  A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.

Republican Party: Dead or Alive by Al Sikes


One phenomenon of Donald Trump as a candidate for President is that never in a Presidential campaign have more persons looked beyond Election Day so early. And I am not talking of discussions about the inauguration or the President’s choice of key aides.

To me the Clinton-Trump match-up is no longer interesting. Both are fully revealed in a campaign that is focused on them and not the challenges our nation faces.

Turning briefly to Trump, a majority of those who supported him during the primary contests did not anticipate the cascade of self-inflicted bullet holes. And that, of course, is the essence of the problem. Trump’s decisions turn on his psychic needs. This fact causes an overwhelming majority to be unnerved, if not horrified. In a world of unpredictable dangers a discernable measure of stability and consistency is vital.

It is my guess that Clinton will win and that the failure of the Republican Party to pick a winning candidate, and the likelihood of negative down ballot consequences, will result in an intense leadership battle. If our laws were not stacked in favor of the two major parties, the Republican Party would be history.

I suggest to those who want to lead the Party that they not just lip sync the name of Ronald Reagan, but go back and do personal and leadership studies of the party’s legendary figures.

Why, they should begin, is there a Republican Party? Abraham Lincoln and his stand against slavery and for the Union is the answer. What, they might ask, would Lincoln do today?

Why, they might question, is Teddy Roosevelt on Mt. Rushmore? The reformists (reform is essential) should look at his aggressive defense of business freedom and environmental initiatives.

Why, they should ask, did Dwight Eisenhower decide to run as a Republican when both parties were courting him? And why did Ronald Reagan switch parties and then serve two terms as Governor of California, a state where Republicans barely have a pulse today.

And the reformists must understand how Donald Trump gained the support of so many, given his obvious personal and policy irregularities? The answer, I would suggest, is that voters were paying attention to the full field of candidates and didn’t find scripted orthodoxy appealing.

Occasionally leaders shape culture; more often it is the reverse. Year after year we see certain sports teams dominate their respective collegiate or professional leagues. We understand that they are capitalizing on a winning culture shaped and sustained by legendary players and coaches.

When we look around the business community we find no shortage of new companies, but we also find iconic ones that underscore Jim Collins’s analysis, in his book, Good to Great. Inevitably these are companies with strong and constructive cultures and leaders that understand succession is the single most important act of corporate leadership.

My view is that both major parties have regressed into extensions of their strongest interest groups—neither party represents the broadly defined public interest. Since neither party can pass the public interest test, leadership succession has become a systemic problem. When prospective leaders are forced to ape the most extreme positions of their special interest coalitions the best and brightest use their energies elsewhere.

Bernie Sanders, an obscure socialist senator from a small state, would have won his Party’s nomination but for the Clinton Network pulling the strings of her party’s apparatus. Sanders used the title Democrat as a convenience not a definition. The Republican Party voters selected Donald Trump who for much of his life was what economists call a rent-seeker and a registered Democrat.

If the Republican Party is to be revived, its leaders must begin by working on its culture. They must revisit its historical sources of strength. If they fail to develop responsive policy positions, then leadership succession will remain problematic. If Party leaders are wise and skillful the Party will have a huge advantage because if Mrs. Clinton wins, the Democrat Party will not be forced to face its similar weaknesses. In short, whichever Party loses, has the potential to be the ascendant Party for the next generation.

Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al recently published Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books.