Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Whitman: “I am with you, and know how it is.”

Aaron Belz


November 9, 2012

By Aaron Belz

Conservatives disappointed—maybe even surprised—by the outcome of the recent presidential election need look no farther than the spirit of the American people to understand why Barack Obama was reelected.

Look at our symbolic historical figures. Benjamin Franklin was the eighth child of a candlemaker, grew up working for pennies in a print shop. Davy Crockett was an outlier, bear hunter, explorer. Abraham Lincoln’s log cabin and homely appearance have risen to mythic status. Walt Whitman was a vagrant whose body odor appalled fellow opera-goers. Robert Frost never had much money, survived by selling poems and lecturing. President Franklin Roosevelt, although from a prominent, wealthy family, stared down polio, chatted with Americans from a wheelchair. A Poetry Foundation biography of recent U.S. Poet Laureate Philip Levine said he was “raised in industrial Detroit… in the midst of the Great Depression of the 1930s,” and his “heroes were not only those individuals who struggled against fascism but also ordinary folks who worked at hopeless jobs simply to stave off poverty.”

By contrast, Governor Mitt Romney, the baby-boomer son of a wealthy auto executive, is now, according to several conflicting reports, worth between $150 and $500 million dollars. His campaign gaffes included a statement on “Good Morning America” in September that he believed “middle income” Americans to be pulling in $250k a year. The Romney camp added insult to ignorance by clarifying that he meant per household. A campaign can’t withstand that much PR damage, not during a recession. A candidate can’t stand at that great a distance from American life and hope to win an election, at least not definitively. Although for some of us disappointment with Obama has come in nauseating waves, Romney symbolized something even less acceptable.

If Whitman’s iconic “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” is any indication, the key to definitive political success is emotional sympathy—first of all, with a generation: “I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence.” Second, with a diverse populace: “Crowds of men and women attired in the usual costumes! how curious you are to me!”  Third—and this might seem silly, but it’s true—with those of us who take public transportation: “I project myself—also I return—I am with you, and know how it is. / Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt; / Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one of a crowd.”

 Rosa Parks took public transportation. It is not ideology, in the end, that captures the American imagination; what binds us together is visceral experience with companions, from the Latin “with bread”—those with whom we eat lunch.  Whitman observes that in the common experience of the ferry commute, “What the study could not teach—what the preaching could not accomplish, is accomplish’d, is it not?”

The union is accomplished. Americans are nothing if not e pluribus unum. This is true not only for individual people working shoulder to shoulder but of corporate entities in the same communities, states united under one multicolored flag. Whitman, in closing, regards all of this happening on the same plane: “Come on, ships from the lower bay! pass up or down, white-sail’d schooners, sloops, lighters! / Flaunt away, flags of all nations! be duly lower’d at sunset; / Burn high your fires, foundry chimneys! cast black shadows at nightfall! cast red and yellow light over the tops of the houses.”

Granted, this is inspirational poetic imagery, not the hard reality of political governance. But as former New York Governor Mario Cuomo once famously said, “You campaign in poetry and govern in prose.” If the GOP is to succeed in future presidential elections, it must not only listen to or exploit populist imagery, but live and breathe with the populace. It must nominate a candidate who’s with us and knows how it is, someone who’s been poor or been kicked around by life enough to know what it means to be an American.

—Aaron Belz lives in Hillsborough, North Carolina. His most recent collection of poems is titled Lovely, Raspberry (Persea, 2010).


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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”