Opinion Columns & Blogs

October 11, 2008

Something profound is happening

I got my hair cut this week, and we did not talk about “American Idol” or new diets or even Paul Newman. We talked about John McCain and Barack Obama, Sarah Palin and Joe Biden.

I got my hair cut this week, and we did not talk about “American Idol” or new diets or even Paul Newman. We talked about John McCain and Barack Obama, Sarah Palin and Joe Biden.

This campaign is different. It isn't just a campaign with opposing sides, like 2004 and 2000 and 1996. Something profound is happening. It's as if a slow-building fire got lit sometime in the past few years and finally is blazing.

But the kindling was glowing as early as April 6, 2006. That day in Charlotte, a gray-haired real estate broker named Harry Taylor, attending a speech by President Bush to an applauding audience, stood and said into a microphone:

“In my lifetime I have never felt more ashamed of, nor more frightened, by my leadership in Washington, including the presidency. And I would hope from time to time that you have the humility and the grace to be ashamed of yourself. I also want to say I really appreciate the courtesy of allowing me to speak.”

Many in the audience booed. Letters to the editor in the Observer flayed Taylor as “embarrassing,” “boorish,” and “wimpy.”

But that day in 2006, some subtle shift was already occurring in the political atmosphere, and Taylor's remarks were the fluttering of a butterfly's wings. His words rippled around the globe. He was interviewed on national TV and deluged with approving calls and e-mails. Seven months later, the Democrats captured Congress.

Now Harry Taylor is running for Congress. It's a quixotic campaign – a politically inexperienced Democrat challenging a popular Republican incumbent, Sue Myrick, in a district that's been Republican since Ike was a president and not a hurricane and before Sarah Palin was born.

Why? He echoes what so many voters are saying this year: “I am angry. I am very upset. I don't like people hijacking my country.”

This column is about Harry Taylor – sort of. It's really more about the mood in America, a mood of both anger and activism.

Taylor knows he's an unlikely candidate. “I don't admire politicians,” he said. Running “was never on my list of things to do.” And he's not a guy who likes to call attention to himself. He'd rather watch from the sidelines than be in the spotlight. He's active in the community but in quiet, nonpolitical venues: mentoring kids, playing mandolin, banjo and fiddle for the Charlotte Folk Society. For years he was registered unaffiliated.

He comes off as smart, passionate – bordering on, though not tipping into, zealotry – but politically naïve in a Jimmy Stewartish way. Asked what he'd do if he won and an issue arose where he thought one thing but knew most in his district disagreed, he said, “I'd follow my heart.”

I swear to you, he sounded sincere.

That's hard for practiced politicians to pull off. Send a guy like that to Washington – or even the State House or City Hall – and he'll change. That's the nature of politics and politicians.

So don't take this as the Observer's endorsement of Taylor. I'm on the editorial board and I don't know yet whom we'll recommend. Myrick is an established, experienced representative whose positions usually reflect those of many in her district. She's been aggressive on homeland security and immigration, both hot topics here. And experience matters, including in politics. Her campaign strategy shows how slim Taylor's chances are: She's ignoring him.

Support him or not, agree or disagree. But Taylor exudes something essential about America, something lost for decades of passivity but that this country seems finally to have found again – an engagement with our shared government and shared democracy.

Harry Taylor got mad. Finally he got so mad he stepped out of his quiet, nonpolitical life and lit a small match.

Today, a fire is burning.

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