Saturday, July 08, 2006

Commentary: Hahn Interview in Review

by Kyle Michaelis
This is late-coming, and I apologize for that. It was never my intention to allow more than a week to pass between the posting of my four-part interview with Democratic gubernatorial candidate David Hahn and the posting of this response to the man and his message after having the pleasure to speak with him in-depth and in person.

I'll be honest - editing my interview with Hahn was one of the most difficult projects I've undertaken as a writer, and I'm hesitant to vouch for its success. A lot of what makes Hahn such a great candidate is that he has a lot to say. From my Internet perch, I'm in a semi-unique position to print as much as he's willing to share, and I like the idea of giving readers the opportunity to get as much of that message as possible without my deciding what should be important to them.

Still, when an interview is too long, it's too long. And, I did Hahn nor readers any favors by not being more selective. But, as is, I cut out at least a third of the material - leaving out our entire discussion of Hahn's passion for technology and his plan for universal broadband Internet. In the interests of space and fluidity, I even left out our discussion of the on-coming and ever-growing Medicare crisis, in which Hahn drew a parallel to Pac-Man - of Atari fame - earning coolness points the likes of which Dave Heineman could hardly even imagine.

What I published, ultimately, were those portions most telling of who Hahn is and what he believes. Because the Nebraska media does a poor job of providing that sort of insight and because most people won't get the chance to sit down with the man personally, I sacrificed what could have been a good journalistic article for what I hoped would be a true record of Hahn's candidacy in these early summer months of 2006.

I hope the length of the interview was also justified because I couldn't, in good conscience, quote some of the bolder and more controversial things Hahn said on issues such as abortion, gay marriage, and the role of religion in politics without sharing the context from which those statements emerged. Sure, we live in an age of soundbytes - where every word is minced and where letting your guard down for even a moment can be a deadly mistake - but I refuse to contribute to that scandal-mongering mentality.

One of the most candid moments of the entire interview came with Hahn's mention that the first time he spoke with an Omaha World-Herald reporter, the first question asked was his stance on abortion - "are you pro-choice or pro-life?". That is, indeed, a sad testament to the priorities of the Nebraska press. How right Hahn is to challenge such over-simplified, dualistic thinking that not only clouds our politics in a haze of needless partisanship but also demeans our morality with false and destructive notions that every issue can or should be broken down into black and white.

Hahn clearly refuses those sorts of easy characterizations that serve few interests but those of special interest groups and single-issue voters. He is not a label-friendly candidate. Some would say that suggests a message too complicated, but I'd contend it's evidence of Hahn's humanity and his faith in a democracy that will only be as great as the trust placed in its citizens to know what's right for themselves.

I responded very personally to Hahn's ideal morality by which the individual is expected to answer to his or her God with "fear and trembling" in matters of personal choice and private sins. That "fear and trembling" before an awesome God captures the same degree of reverence and seriousness I've long believed democracy demands of its voters. Like life itself, freedom is a gift, but with it comes immense responsibilities that can not be abandoned in good conscience. And, make no mistake about it, a vote is an act of conscience. Whether or not you concurrently answer to a higher power, you must answer to the United States Constitution, democracy itself, and the memory of all those who have struggled and died in their defense.

Hahn did not draw this parallel. He may not even agree with it. But, he is a candidate for whom one could seemingly vote with not only a good faith appreciation of his moral decency but also of his intellectual honesty. Standing in a ballot box, knowing the difficulties on the path ahead, he is a candidate for whom one could vote with "fear and trembling" at the stakes but also with hope for the future.

For all these strengths, however, it's hard to argue that my Hahn interview didn't also demonstrate a few weaknesses as well. Having already acknowledged the dangers of Hahn's independent-mindedness and free-speaking with the modern media, there is also something to be warned against in the public response to his complexity of thought and lack of brevity.

Let's face it - the man talks like a lawyer. He's a good speaker. He has a lot to say, but there's a point of diminishing returns that holds just as true in an interview as it does on the campaign trail. With his talk of euphemism and his proven fondness for elaborate metaphors (i.e. "buying a ticket"), there's a bookish quality to Hahn (he even admits to reading) that would no doubt rub many the wrong way, probably inviting Hahn's classification as one of the "liberal elite".

It's unfortunate that being knowledgeable and speaking intelligently invite such criticism, but even Hahn has to recognize that Harry Truman, a man whose style he idolizes, didn't earn his reputation for being plain-spoken and a man of the people by referring voters to their dictionaries and discussing the finer points of the English language. And, I doubt Truman relied very heavily on syllogisms either (i.e. dogs & cats).

Though Hahn may share Truman's reputation as a straight shooter - something Nebraska needs so desperately from its leaders - there's a bit of the common touch essential to Truman's success that does not seem to come so naturally. I don't know if that's a skill that can really be learned or developed, particularly with only four months left until Election Day. But there's no doubt that, to have a chance this November, Hahn must learn to appeal to more than voters' intellect - an area he's got pretty well covered.

Hahn's arguments are largely detailed and well-reasoned - qualities all too rare in Nebraska politics - but they are also generally circuitous and long-winded. While Hahn meets that one component of plain-spokeness by proving himself so forthcoming and willing to speak his mind, his impressive intellect and refusal to simplify have a certain distancing effect on his communication. He can't be plain-spoken without speaking in plain language.

Hate to join the endless voices in the static offering unsolicited campaign advice, but there's a quality of abstraction to Hahn's entire message. He has sworn to avoid abstraction on individual issues, but, at the same time, has thus far failed to ground his campaign or his public persona in a narrative with which voters can relate.

Hahn needs an angle to connect with voters - personally, I think his faith offers the perfect opportunity, even if it means uncomfortably railing against the manipulation of religion by politicians (with just a tiny hint of self-knowing hypocrisy).

Regardless, the facts aren't enough. Ideas aren't enough. Voters need to embrace Hahn the man before they can accept him as a politician (particularly as the Democrat). And, all the expertise in the world in "targeting and data analysis" won't be able to accomplish that.

The people of Nebraska are lucky to have a candidate of Hahn's caliber on the ballot. It will be sad, though, if they never realize that for themselves. If every voter took it upon him or herself to be informed on the issues confronting their state, there wouldn't be a problem here. If voters even just showed a fitting degree of skepticism towards their elected officials - with high expectations for the kind of government that should be but isn't - Dave Heineman would be in a lot of trouble and David Hahn would be as attractive an alternative as this state could ask.

But, that's not the Nebraska we live in. That's not today's political climate. Voters have resigned themselves to the Republican Party. I don't think they like Heineman for being a nice guy so much as they've given up on the idea that they deserve anyone better or that better is even possible. That's a dangerous idea in democracy, and it won't be overcome by straight talk alone.

Would that it were so because I really do like the idea of Governor David Hahn and believe he could do great things for our humble Midwestern state. I walked away from my interview with Hahn more certain of that than ever yet saddened at the potential lost opportunity for this state we all love if such does not come to pass.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Pac-man was an arcade game before it arrived on any home system.


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