10. Oklahoma City Thunder Run to the NBA Finals

On June 6, 2012, I walked into the Hooters in south Oklahoma City to what was apparently our designated table. My friend Mark greeted me with the curious phrase, “I’m surprised you’re here.”

Of course I was. How could I miss it? It was game 6 of the Western Conference finals between the hometown Thunder and the San Antonio Spurs. OKC had won the previous three games to climb out of an 0-2 hole and into a series-clinching game.  There was no way I was going to catch a game of this magnitude at home.

When the Thunder were down by 18 in the second period, two things kept things even-keeled: 1) It was only game 6, although a victory in San Antonio wouldn’t be a sure thing; 2) I had seen OKC claw back within two points from a similar deficit a few weeks before at Chesapeake Arena against the same team. Yeah, it was a bad case of déjà vu, but the will of the team (and the arena) during that almost-comeback stayed with me. There’s no reason we couldn’t close the deal this time. Then KD drained a three to end the first half. The Thunder were down by 15.

Then it happened. With some beautiful basketball (the phrase writers galore used to describe San Antonio’s play during the series) and an active defense, the Oklahoma City Thunder fought back and entered the fourth quarter down by one point, 81-80. “Now it’s a game,” I thought. One quarter of hell separating us and the NBA Finals.

More than a Diversion

For the past two Top 10 list of entertainments, I’ve included Thunder playoff games. To some, the fact that sports is sometimes dubbed “entertainment” leads them to think it’s an insulting, dismissive term. That it invalidates all the personal investment they’ve made in the team.  What I would argue, and what is demonstrated in those top ten lists, is that entertainments, sometimes at their highest level, are much more than ways to spend leisure time. They speak to you and your aspirations.

I didn’t watch Manny Pacquiao fights so I could see two men beat each other. Roots didn’t become one of the seminal events in television history because it was a good time. I don’t love Sideways for its views of Santa Barbara or Man on Wire because I’m into wire-walking.

That’s why I have no shame discussing the Thunder as entertainment. That’s why the gallons of ink and gigabytes of space that have been dedicated to the Thunder often also mention Oklahoma City and its rise from a forgettable cowtown to an inspirational comeback story.

My Oklahoma City

I came to Oklahoma in 1980 as the seven-year-old son of a relocated GM worker.  Throughout the eighties, my Oklahoma City was, in hindsight, remarkably narrow. It consisted of school, church, Crossroads Mall, and centers of the metro OKC Filipino community — Tinker Air Force Base, Midwest City and Del City. That was pretty much it. While we did the theme parks and museums for out-of-towners, eating out at local establishments was limited to Applewoods. (My quarterlife conversion to local restaurants likely began when I found out my dad and others took a visiting Filipino consul general out to lunch — to Golden Corral.)

Other than some vague memories, I don’t remember going to downtown until our Filipino group performed a folk dance for Opening Night at Leadership Square maybe around 1988. The next memory was my high school band performing at the Myriad, and later that night, dining at this cool place called Spaghetti Warehouse in this district called Bricktown.

But I didn’t mind it. As a kid, your universe is limited to what you see, so unless you travel to other places, you don’t really know what you’re missing.

It took summer family vacations for me to realize what Oklahoma City lacked. My mother’s family then lived throughout North America: New Jersey, Toronto, Ottawa, Chicago and its suburb Wisconsin, not to mention my original hometown, Cleveland, Ohio. In my New Jersey uncle’s van, we would go to those places, plus, one time, to Washington, DC.

Of those places, Toronto was what really knocked my socks off. I can still remember flower beds designed in corporate logos,  curving highway overpasses ringed with red-lighted lampposts and surrounded by gorgeous foliage, gourmet food courts, the sleek CN Tower, and downtown trees, ice cream carts, plazas, and electronics stores.

And then there was the SkyDome, the first stadium to have a fully-retractable roof. Torontonians were awfully proud of the home of the Blue Jays. It even had a Hard Rock Café! I remember seeing in my uncle’s house a souvenir cup with a drawing of the Jays’ manager, and thinking, “It’s cool they have a major league sports team; too bad I have no idea who this guy is.”

So – throughout this period in the late eighties and nineties, I’d wonder, “Why doesn’t Oklahoma City have this?” Then OKC citizens passed MAPS in 1993, and I hung onto every development. By the time I left “The City” to work in Arkansas in 1997, only the beams of the ballpark were any evidence of the program. During my two years in the Natural State, I frequently spent evenings at the local community college’s computer lab, reading up on MAPS coverage provided by this guy, and participating in his newspaper’s MAPS forum, where other dreamers of Oklahoma City’s future talked about the possibilities. During one visit back home, I attended a Redhawks game and savored the momentary thrill of being one of thousands of people on the street leaving the ballpark. It was a sight I wouldn’t see until the Bricktown canal opened months later, after I had moved back.

A New Oklahoma City

Fast forward to 2008. After successfully hosting the Hornets, Oklahoma City gained the NBA Thunder, a development that most cities can only vaguely “plan” to have. From the ballpark completion to that moment, a few things had happened. More MAPS projects were completed, with every opening providing a boost of confidence in the city government and the city itself. The bombing had devastated downtown, but the resulting memorial and funds provided to nearby affected buildings greased some development north of the Central Business District.

Downtown had a new champion in Downtown Oklahoma City, Inc., which paved the way for the city’s first new downtown housing development, the Deep Deuce apartments. The city’s planning department gained traction in City Hall. MAPS II gave residents some taste of neighborhood redevelopment with school construction and reconstruction, as did mechanisms such as the Main Street program. Fortune 500 corporations that were not very citizen-like fled, but were replaced in the local imagination by those (Devon, Chesapeake) that made corporate citizenship a hallmark of operation. With those two companies leading the way, Oklahoma City’s economy blossomed to become a national pacesetter.

Personally, during this interregnum, I earned a degree in planning and urban economic development. I started thinking about what events would be benchmarks for Oklahoma City’s arrival as a top tier city, if not a “good enough” location to call home. Key among them was no longer being a place those of my generation and older had previously left in droves because the life and opportunities here sucked.

Over the past few years, Oklahoma City has rapidly been checking off items on that list, to my delight, pride, and amazement. The Skirvin was redeveloped as a Hilton hotel in 2007. A couple of thousand people live downtown, though thousands more are needed to form a self-sustaining neighborhood. Several cities are choosing Oklahoma City for their aspirational intercity visits. (!!) The Paseo neighborhood was named in 2010 by the American Planning Association as one of its Great Places in America. (!!!) Oklahoma City is commonly seen as a national leader (second only to Houston) in energy, and indeed the capital in natural gas. One of the reasons for that last point, Devon Energy, erected a shimmering blade of a headquarters downtown.

And in terms of scene for those aforementioned young (and often creative) workers…there’s been a sea change.  From great and noted local restaurants, to a flourishing visual arts scene and world-class performing arts, to nationally-recognized and off-the-wall events, vibrant urban districts, Oklahoma City is becoming a place graduates aren’t desperate to leave. And those younger movers and shakers are celebrated and courted.

From Entertainment to Identity

None of these benchmarks involved major league sports. I have always thought there were things more important for the city’s development and economy – like building a strong second private sector job-creating driver industry to lessen our dependence on oil and gas. Major league sports was gravy, an aspiration for many cities, but in reality only a few could have, and even if then, support well. A championship? Come on, come back down to Earth. Cleveland taught me that. And its urban affairs school taught me that economically, you should really just hope for a competitive team that packs the house — and contends in the playoffs to keep ‘em coming.

When the Thunder started coming to life the 2009 – 2010 season, that mindset began to change. When a team grows before your eyes to become a national contender, you can’t help but become invested. The Thunder blogger Royce Young made a great analogy when he likened that season to Seinfeld during its third season – to be fans before and as it exploded into the national consciousness was immensely thrilling. And not only were the players decent people and good, they were exceptionally good, fun to watch, sported lovable personalities and reflected the city’s character uncommonly well. They may have been entertainment, but because they were part of my city, they were a part of me.

They started beating NBA mainstays like the Lakers and Celtics during the regular season. Then they challenged the Lakers for six games in the first round of the playoffs. Then they went to the Western Conference finals the next year, ultimately decimated by that German bombardier, Dirk Nowitzki.

In 2012, the stage was set for an epic run. The Thunder avenged the previous series defeat by eliminating Dallas in four games. Next, the Thunder avenged their 2010 first round loss to the Lakers in five games, with the last game providing TNT producers killer shots of some 7,000 Thunder fans packing Thunder Alley on Reno.

Now it was time for the Spurs, the four-championship, small-market team the Thunder modeled themselves after. It was like Obi Wan Kenobi versus Darth Vader without all that dark side baggage.

The Fourth Quarter

The fourth quarter was about as steady as basketball could be, with neither team leading by more than two possessions’ points. The Thunder was showing life, but I was tense throughout. (But then again, I’m barely satisfied with a ten point lead in an important game such as this.)  In the final minutes of a playoff game, sometimes Mark will smile, essentially saying “Don’t worry, we got this.” He tried pulling it again this game, but followed the expression with a shake of the head. “I don’t know, man.” Adding to the tension, a small but strident contingent of Spurs fans (naturally, right next to our table) increasingly turned obnoxious.

Somewhere under three minutes, I couldn’t constrain myself anymore. I stood up to watch. Whether a crushing disappointment or a rousing victory, my reaction to the game would be full-body.

It was close, but the Thunder players were responding with huge plays. Derek Fisher stole a pass and hit big shots. So did James Harden. Russell Westbrook fought for a rebound off his own free throw miss. Durant was Durant, imperceptibly racking up points.

With 56 seconds remaining, the Thunder still had only a four point lead. After a Harden miss, San Antonio took possession. What happened next sent Oklahoma City to a place it’s never been before.

Tim Duncan drove to the basket, and was blocked by Kendrick Perkins. Duncan recovered the ball and passed it to Stephen Jackson, who’d been hot all night from downtown. His three-point shot clanged off the rim, bouncing to Duncan and then Tony Parker. Parker put up a corner three shot, and it caromed off the rim, sailing again into the air.

Until, in one fell swoop, Harden corralled the ball and avoided contact with a San Antonio player. I pumped my fist. That possession took 18 seconds off the clock. 38 seconds were left.  I knew we were in the catbird seat now. By this time, everybody in the joint was standing. And the Chesapeake Arena crowd, which was reportedly rocking long before tipoff, began to sense the moment. This time was ours.

What a moment. I felt an exhilaration and pride I couldn’t remember last feeling. The best I can describe that moment would be to say I felt like a Shaker ­– a member of the religious sect that would shake in ecstasy when intensely experiencing the grace of God (they made great furniture by the way). I leaned forward, pressed my fingers on the table, and thought, “Oh, my God.”

The meaning of game’s outcome flooded my head. Seven years earlier, before Katrina, an NBA team was nary a possibility in most Oklahomans’ imagination. Now, we were on our way to the championship. It’s one thing to have a major league team, but to have a good one, and a championship-contending one at that – it was the crest of a wave of good fortune following three decades of a busted economy, a generation of lost leadership, and tragedies of terrorism and tornadoes.

We’d lose to LeBron James’ Miami Heat in the Finals. And Oklahoma City still has issues as an urban metropolis. But to think of the time when I was frustrated with Oklahoma’s plainness and resulting brain drain –and now to hear Reggie Miller say the words, “This is a great atmosphere…I hope America and the nation embraces this team”–  gratifies and validates in a way only sports as mass entertainment can.

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Favorite Entertainments of 2012, Part II

Argo, directed by Ben Affleck

This was the movie I most looked forward to catching this year. The true story had a premise no screenwriter could have cooked up: a CIA agent attempts to rescue hostages in Iran by having them pretend they’re a Canadian  film crew scouting locations in the desert. Heck, even if it wasn’t a true story, I’d be into it.

The movie strikes an immensely entertaining balance between the hostage drama and the Hollywood satire stemming from measures taken to make the cover as real as possible. The American diplomatic officials hiding in the Canadian ambassador’s home know that the longer they stay, the likelier they are to be discovered by Iranian rebels; at the same time, a table read for the space fantasy “Argo” is staged to gain coverage in the industry press. You’d think the tonal shifts would be too jarring for the audience, but somehow Ben Affleck makes it work. From costume design to cinematography to terrific performances to the dialogue, it’s a diversion of the highest order.

Groovology at El Chapultepec

I have a confession to make. Sometimes, during a performance at a jazz club in another city, I’ll catch a few winks. Not that I want to, but because the performer has gone off to lala land. I know, I know, improvisation is the defining element to the genre. But my jazz ear is still too fresh to follow a piece without some semblance of melody.

That was not a problem at Denver’s legendary El Chapultepec. In a place that would make Guy Fieri feel right at home, the local group Groovology smoked with a hard-driving, rock and R&B-infused style that kept the standing-room only patrons howling with every solo. The night before I witnessed a polished blues act at the quintessentially classy establishment DazzleJazz — an experience like many before in other city visits. But this was a down-and-dirty, it’s-my-turn-so-I’m-takin’-it kind of jazz that reminded you that personal expression doesn’t have to be a sleepy soliloquy. Sometimes you just want to have a rollicking good time.

Skyfall, directed by Sam Mendes

What a great year for spy movies, huh? Here’s the one that’s entirely fiction but still bloody good.

Sam Mendes, a director who’s known more for domestic dystopias, needs to guide more action movies. DC and Marvel ought to be calling him. Armed with the eye of cinematographer Roger Deakins (apparently one of the best in the business), Mendes turned out one gorgeous Bond movie. Whether creating the Scottish countryside, a Shanghai office tower, Macao casino, London rooftop, or an abandoned island, this iteration delivered the eye candy not typically associated with a Bond movie.

On top of cinematography, the latest Bond showcases scintillating stunts, gunfights and car chases and a tense bar conversation that would’ve been a terrific short film in and of itself. The plotline about an unhinged rogue (delusional capitalists just don’t cut it anymore) tormenting M drives the film, but this is a transitional Bond like The Empire Strikes Back, where backstory and new characters point to future installments. My one criticism is that the last act resembles more the conclusion of an A-Team or MacGyver episode than a Bond movie. Nevertheless, Daniel Craig is back again as a James Bond providing substantive escapist entertainment.

Top of the Rock: Inside the Rise and Fall of Must See TV,  written by Warren Littlefield and T.R. Pearson

On Thursday nights during my last year of college, many of our friends would hang out at the apartment I shared with my sister and cousin. We’d all watch Friends and then play poker. After graduation, I hung on to every last second of ER. TV writers at the time were calling it “appointment television.” NBC called it Must See TV.

So when the TV exec most responsible for these shows came out last year with his account of his years at the helm of NBC Entertainment, Top of the Rock became the Must Read Book (haha). In Rock, Warren Littlefield takes you behind some of the machinations, decisions, and varied perspectives behind NBC’s heyday of the 1990s, when the Peacock introduced the two shows plus Seinfeld, Frasier, Mad About You, Will and Grace, Law and Order, and West Wing, among others.

If you’ve borrowed the DVDs or seen documentaries of these shows, some of what you read won’t surprise you. From DVDs and Youtube, I knew Seinfeld did horribly in initial market research, and that Friends‘ Courtney Cox was called in to audition for the Rachel role. But you also get tidbits like the creators of Will and Grace being coached on how to court Debra Messing (with vodka, no less) or Jerry Seinfeld threatening to call out Tim Allen when the latter was boasting in interviews he was the highest paid actor in television.

Unlike other autobiographies, the book stays away from being a simple hatchet job by featuring commentary from not only Littlefield, but also other network executives, creatives and some of the stars, too. This makes the read much more engaging, like sitting at a campfire with all the players in the story you’re hearing. For the TV buff, it’s an engrossing read you’ll likely put away in a couple of days.


Inside the Rise and Fall of “Must See TV” by NewsLook

Pick number 10 will have its own entry next.

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Favorite Entertainments for 2012

I’m not a fan of winter, so it’s a nice respite when Hollywood comes through and takes America through awards season, culminating in the Oscars. Every year I make it a point to check out some contenders and find out what makes great movies great according to critics and academy members, industry politicking aside.

For awhile now, I’ve held up 2008 as one of my favorite years in film, when a spate of particularly inspirational movies were nominated for Oscars. It was the year of Frost/Nixon, Milk, The Reader, Wall-E, Best Picture winner Slumdog Millionaire, and that little Brit pic that could (and my favorite of the bunch), Man on Wire.

2012 could possibly top that year, if not in inspiration, then in sheer entertainment. This list of favorite entertainments could very well have been all movies. Where in years past I found it difficult to add a tenth entry, there were too many great candidates in the film realm to choose from. But for the sake of mixing it up (and to reward only those films that made the deepest impression on me), I have selected some other entertainment forms as well.

Midnight in Paris, directed by Woody Allen

I saw this weeks after I wrote about my brief foray into Parisian cafe society at Cafe Intermezzo in Atlanta. Midnight in Paris materialized that vision with a story about an aspiring writer who is transported to that very scene during the Jazz Age, the 1920s. Midnight was my favorite movie this year because I could so see myself in Owen Wilson’s shoes.

There was so much to love: the Parisian views, the nighttime strolls on city streets, historical figures come to life, the celebration of art and literature.  Two casting choices delighted me: Michael Sheen, who plays against type as an annoying snoot, and the lovely Carla Bruni, the former first spouse of France, as a tour guide. (One shot in particular convinced me that the only way to make the Parisian cityscape more stunningly beautiful was to make Bruni a fixture in it.) One critic was spot on when they noted Wilson was a brilliant and unlikely choice as Woody Allen’s muse.

Underlying this film of style, though, is a lesson about romancing the past that should strike a chord with anybody engaged in a battle for historic preservation. It’s that lesson that for me takes it past mere entertainment.

Zero Dark Thirty, directed by Kathryn Bigelow

I don’t think it’s a partisan thing to say that the assassination of Osama bin Laden, the architect of September 11, was a landmark victory for the country and its intelligence community– not just President Obama. It brought a sense of closure and justice to that horrific event. When I read about how the CIA located OBL’s compound in a piece in Time magazine, I kept thinking, “Damn, this would make a great movie.” Hollywood being Hollywood, I was fairly sure it would happen.

So it was cool when I found out Bigelow and her writer partner Mark Boal, the same tandem that developed the 2010 fave The Hurt Locker, would be the team to bring the story to screen. In the hours since watching it, I’ve come to look at Zero as a document — similar to how Steven Spielberg described Schindler’s List. I can make that comparison because much of the movie stems from Boal’s original reporting, which in turn was based on first hand accounts of SEALs and intelligence officials.

I joked with my friends who saw it with me that Zero is combination of Law and Order (the investigative half), bureaucracy drama, and a Military Channel documentary. It’s not a thriller, as the film’s producers are trying to market it; in fact, the torture scenes (which are not as visually harrowing as critics have described them), come across as dragging. (Maybe that was the point.) But for me the film picks up, and is at its most riveting, when the hunt for bin Laden’s courier commences. And when the helicopters surreptitiously soar along the Pakistani mountainside, the moment grips you, and you say to yourself, “This is it. This is how it happens.”

Margin Call, directed by J.C. Chandor

Securities and finance are not my forte. If I’m reading the business page, it’s about strategy, marketing, or development — for me the more “fun” aspects of the business world. Still, I found the 2008 financial crisis a fascinating bookmark (and lingering issue) in the nation’s history. It’s spawned a cottage industry of its own, with stories about Wall Street during this period coming out in various media. I’ve seen the television adaptation of Andrew Ross Sorkin’s Too Big to Fail, the Wall Street family drama Arbitrage, and Margin Call.

I picked the latter because it packs more tension in its length than a lot of so-called action movies. The story about a brokerage firm that takes desperate (and flatly immoral) measures to save itself occurs in mere hours, making you feel as if you’re pulling an all-nighter with the group. In another case of art imitating life (like Moneyball last year), I understand all too well when Zachary Quinto finds numbers he doesn’t expect or want to see. For some reason, I take much joy from seeing Kevin Spacey play conflicted characters. And the scenes of Manhattan at night only heighten the electricity –and the loneliness– of the moment. If more white collar crime movies were like this…well, I still wouldn’t understand finance, but it’d more fun to learn.

Beauty is Embarrassing, directed by Neil Berkeley

This was my favorite film at deadCenter this year, and came closest to generating feelings of inspiration and joy that I felt with those 2008 flicks. Apparently I’m not alone, as it’s been winning film festival honors around the country.

Wayne White’s talent as a visual artist took him from Chattanooga to Pee Wee’s Playhouse, the 1980s children’s show. White’s personality –kooky, funny, and sincere in alternating moments– fills the film and endears him to the audience. The deadCenter crowd got an early taste when White took it upon himself to entertain them by parading in his giant Lyndon Baines Johnson head when the Harkins projectionist had difficulty starting the screening.

On another level, the film (directed by Moore native Berkeley) shows that visual art, in my opinion an art form less appreciated and understood than music, is still a compelling medium for the human imagination. There’s a great shot where you sense White’s father, who mostly just tolerated his son’s quirks, finally realizes that his son’s creativity does make some contribution to mankind.

Life of Pi, directed by Ang Lee

This is a movie that must be experienced in a theater. The visuals are just too breathtaking to confine to monitor or even an HD tv. You have to be immersed in it. The story about an Indian teen on a boat who somehow must cross the Pacific with the unnerving company of a Bengal tiger is one of courage, ingenuity, spirituality, and interconnectedness. And it is inspiring. I would say that it’s an underrated film, compared to more important films like Zero Dark and Lincoln, but its Oscar nomination count, second only to the latter, makes a great case that Pi should be considered an instant classic.

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Merry Christmas

Some scenes from downtown OKC this Christmas season. Happy Holidays!


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The Accidental McCainiac, Part V: Sunset on the Tarmac

Sunset on the Tarmac

Once the event got underway, I realized my car was still at the airport. The College Republican had informed me one of the drivers was headed back to the airport after the event. I scanned the room for him. As soon as McCain concluded the event, I charged toward the driver and his navigator. “Hey, I know you’re returning the van to the airport. Can I bum a ride off you? My car’s still there.” Sure, she said.

As the navigator headed out of the ballroom, the driver and I followed. They entered another banquet room whose door the House staffer was already holding open for us. We unceremoniously walked through some passageways to the back door of the Skirvin. There, at the receiving area, were the vans. The drivers stepped down, but the House staffer asked me to hold the door open. “This is where Senator McCain’s going to come out.”

My jaw dropped. The drivers were not only returning the vehicles, but taking Senator McCain back to the airport! I assumed they were spending the night at the hotel (just as the press were)! But I had no time to anticipate the moment. Senator and Mrs. McCain would be coming soon; I had to literally hold it together!  A few minutes later, the Marine came through the passageway, followed by the senator and his wife. She was talking to him as she stepped down the back stairway. For some reason I still do not know, I felt like I had to say something. (Maybe I was still in Human Arrow mode, where no attendee passed us ungreeted.) I said under my breath, “Thank you for coming.”

It seemed for a moment (and to my relief) that no one heard me. Senator McCain had taken a couple of steps down the stairway when he turned back to me, looked me in the eye, and said, “Thank you for volunteering.” Or something to that effect. All I could do was return a vacuous smile and nod.

I boarded a van with the two drivers and three McCain aides. The eldest aide opened conversation with us. He brought out a book of Will Rogers quotes. I thought he was either very politically astute (play to the locals), or he genuinely liked Will Rogers. He threw out some of Will’s political jokes. I added one I knew. “I’m not a member of any organized party. I’m a Democrat.” He knowingly laughed. He then commanded everybody to watch Boston Legal at a specific date and time. One of the show’s writers based a bit part on him.

Back on the tarmac, we circled around a smaller jet. The staff bid adieu, and the senator and his wife boarded the plane. But we could not leave just yet. It’s practical and protocol to let the senator’s plane take off before the staff leaves the airport.

The drivers positioned the vans in the same position as before: facing the open runway. We all got out of the vehicles, and huddled in somewhat of a semicircle around the Marine. He found some common ground with the navigator. Both were from Houston.

The sun was setting on the tarmac. What the Marine said next put the past 24 hours in perspective. He said that once Secret Service protection begins for Senator McCain, things will be very much different. You won’t be able to get within a hundred feet of McCain. “You guys better relish the time you had here. You normally can’t get this close to a (major) presidential candidate. You were very lucky to have this opportunity.”

You betcha!

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The Accidental McCainiac, Part IV: The Human Arrow

The Human Arrow

I was sweating by now. My press duties done, I went upstairs to check out the event. A driver was serving as a “Human Arrow,” the Marine’s term for a greeter showing attendees where to go. She had to find someone, and asked me to fill in for her. It was probably the cushiest job of the event. Along with three others, you had to greet attendees as they headed to the reception area.

It was a nice break for me. “Welcome,” was all I said for about the next 45 minutes. There I saw one GOP luminary after another. Senator Coburn. Representative Fallin. Representative Lucas. Denise Bode. A woman in a gray pantsuit approached me, and this time she actually needed assistance. “My husband called me on the phone and told me he’s at the photo op area. Can you show me where that is?” That husband was the chief of an Oklahoma City corporation, and the woman was a noted civic volunteer. As I led her through the main reception area, she yelped to me, “That’s okay, I found him!” I headed to where she was, only to see the CEO introduce his wife to Senator Inhofe. I’m not a fan of the man, but I was starstruck. I was starstruck with every politico sighting.

The volunteers were given a new mission. “We need you guys to get everybody who isn’t taking a picture with Senator McCain (marked by a star on their name tag) to file into the reception ballroom.” Fanning out like flies, we worked the area. Most were not willing to budge just yet. After a few minutes, we had at least alerted most everybody to get inside. Except for one small group of chatters. “Have you told Frank Lucas’ group to move yet?” “No, you tell him!” I couldn’t do it. The guy is like, six foot three. Despite his jovial country boy carriage, I decided he can move himself.

Eventually the crowd began to filter in. I was practically the only human arrow left; the coeds decided to get pictures with Senator McCain. I stayed in arrow mode, at the behest of the House staffer. Not too far from me was the general manager of the newly-opened Skirvin Hilton. I approached him by asking him his name. (I knew it was him, but I couldn’t think of anything else to say.) He naturally confirmed. I had to say it, because I so believed it. “Thank you for re-opening this landmark. I came to Oklahoma City in the early 80s but never came in. Then it closed in 1988. I’m so happy it’s open now, thank you.” He chortled, “Well, it wasn’t my money!”

The crowd in control, I decided to join my fellow volunteers to get a picture with McCain. I opened the door, and immediately, an aide said, “You can’t come in here”. I pleaded that I was a volunteer, and that we were promised a picture with McCain. The other volunteers had the same message. Because McCain was due to address the reception, his aides compromised by having us do a group picture. As we approached the candidate and his wife, we all shook hands with both. I can say that it was my second time, the first being several years ago at an OU event. But alas, no recognition. :)

Senator McCain gave remarks that were searing (against the Democrats), sincere (about policy), and funny (about Ronald Reagan). The one redeeming thing about this obscene $1,000/person event were the two open bars. Walking around, I chased a Heineken at one with a Sprite at the other. I had quipped to an associate the day before, “That’s the thing I admire about Republicans. You can give them sloppy joes, and they’ll pay you two thousand dollars.”

Next: The Conclusion, Sunset on the Tarmac

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The Accidental McCainiac, Part III: The Faceless Staffer

The Faceless Staffer

The press bus parked at the Skirvin. I jumped out, and the press started to bring their bags out. I had to show them to the front desk, and find out where the equipment storage room was. But one of the members corrected me – “I can find the front desk, can we get some bellhops to help us bring in the luggage?” I ran to the front, seeing myself as one of those faceless political staffers who gets things done, but doesn’t get paid much. I was doing it for the same reason they all do it – because of the experience. Because there is something so intoxicating about being in the thick of things. I collected a couple of bellhops to help us.

A bellhop was showing me where the equipment storage room was when one of the drivers snatched me. She was on the phone. “Did you find the iPod and bag?” I said yes to the former, but no to the latter. I quickly added that we made sure the plane cargo hold was inspected. She repeated what I said on the phone.

The bellhops gathered many of the bags and the press followed. As the bellhops and I led them in, they marveled at the hotel interior. A Skirvin employee confirmed the equipment storage room location. The press corps situated themselves at the front desk. The McCain aide then notified me he didn’t have his room key. I told him I would check on it, but went back to the bus. After making sure the bus was clear of personal effects, I gave the driver the go-ahead to pick up the press aide.

I then ran up to the second floor to find the College Republican, who had the room keys. The other volunteers said he was downstairs trying to find someone to give him his room key. (Natch!)  The McCain aide was at the front desk, seemingly situated. Out of nowhere, the College Republican surfaced to deliver the room key.

Next: The Human Arrow

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The Accidental McCainiac, Part II: Meet the Press

Meet the Press

I could hardly sleep that night. It wasn’t just anticipation, but some other issues running through my head. The next morning, I dressed up in a suit, following the Marine’s edict that we dress “as if you paid $1,000 to attend the event”.

At 2:15PM, I left the campus for a 3PM arrival at the airport site. A Village bus cruiser was parked. I checked in with the driver. “All I know is that I’m supposed to be here at 3 (PM)” he said. That was the extent of my knowledge, too, I replied. Along with the staff bus volunteer, we would wait about an hour before anybody showed up.

I knew our drivers had arrived when two white vans and a blue minivan pulled up. All together, we passed through the gate and onto the tarmac. We were told to position the vehicles side by side facing the open space. The Village bus was behind us.

We were given more marching orders. The most important thing at the moment, the Marine said, was to find a lost iPod and bag, both of which are Senator McCain’s. “Don’t allow the plane to leave until that luggage space is inspected.” I was told specifically to meet McCain’s press aide, and help the press get their equipment to an equipment storage space at the Skirvin. The Marine and House staffer left to go to a nearby building. They came out a few minutes later with a couple of others. One of them was balding with white hair. “That’s Senator McCain,” we thought.

Not quite. It was former Governor Frank Keating, and with him was Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett.

Things sped up. We were told that we have to be responsive to the way the plane lands: the doors to the vehicles have to be facing the plane door. For efficiency and security reasons, McCain aides do not want the Senator to have to walk around a vehicle to get in. A few moments later, we started the vehicles and turned left. There, right in front of us, was a JetBlue plane, Senator McCain’s. “I’m in a freaking motorcade,” I exclaimed to myself. We rolled back toward the plane in a preset order. We all got out to greet the plane’s passengers.

The white-haired balding man and his long- and silver-haired wife disembarked from the plane. The Marine, House staff member, College Republican, and the two public officials greeted the Senator in a scene similar to any Air Force One landing.

When I saw some hippie folk with bags and equipment approaching, I knew I had my own constituency. I asked one of the first two, “Are you press?” to which they confirmed. I pointed them to the bus and asked them if they knew where the press aide was. She was on her way, they said. As more followed and proceeded to the bus, one of them pointed, “That’s her” – a short, young woman in a pantsuit. Just like in one of those airport tarmac scenes in the movies, I introduced myself. And just like in those movies, I had to shout, because we were underneath the plane and the winds were ferocious that day.

“Hi, are you [the press aide]? I’m Ernest. If you need anything, let me know. I can also help you if you have any questions about Oklahoma City.” Thanks, that’s good to know, she replied. “How many members of the press do we have?” I asked. Not much, she conceded, only about twelve. “Good, because our bus seats 54!”

We then began the business of unloading bags and putting them in the cargo hold of the bus. We started by segregating staff luggage from press luggage. Each bag was labeled accordingly. The press aide initiated the search for Senator McCain’s iPod and suitcase. She later found the iPod, but not the suitcase. I watched (the Marine’s directive was still in my head) as the press aide made sure the plane’s cargo hold was empty. “Nothing left, I checked” the baggage handler confirmed. She went with it.

Then a new problem surfaced. There was no transport for staff luggage to get on another plane. The professional the press aide was, she chose to stay on the tarmac as the press, a McCain aide, and I would head for the Skirvin Hilton. The bus driver agreed that he would come back to pick her up as soon as the press emptied the bus.

Then my moment came. I thought about this throughout the previous night. I bounded onto the bus and got into a front seat. Indeed, there were only about a dozen members of the press for the trip. I clapped my hands and asked to get people’s attention. “How’s everybody doing today?” I greeted, without really expecting an answer. “If you have any questions about the McCain campaign, I can’t answer them. But if you have any questions about your stay in Oklahoma City, I can answer them.”

Almost immediately a voice shouted out, “Should we go to Cattlemen’s?” I knew the night before that if someone mentioned that legendary restaurant, I would point them in another direction. “No, it’s a tourist trap. I’ve had mixed results there”. Instead, I recommended one of the establishments owned by the great local dining shop, A Good Egg. (If asked about Cattlemen’s today, I’d say Go for it!) A couple of minutes later, I overheard my suggestion repeated in cell phone conversations.

“What about Chelino’s?” asked the Jon Bon Jovi-looking guy in sunglasses in front of me. Mmm, I would go across the street to Abuelo’s. “Isn’t that a chain,” the McCain aide asked. I confirmed. I was impressed; these guys did their homework on OKC.

After plugging the Festival of the Arts, I settled into my seat. I concentrated on maintaining a balance between the kid-like curiosity that made me want to talk with the press about their life while promoting OKC, and the adult who was simply here to serve a purpose. So eased off on the questions and boosterism. I relaxed.

A woman in the seats across from me looked approachable, so asked her what media outlets these people were from. “We’re all producers.” (To my sigh.) “I, and these two guys, are from the Associated Press.” The rest were from CNN, Fox News, and other organizations. Jon Bon Jovi reiterated later, “This is pool coverage.” (In pool coverage, a few producers, maybe some reporters, feed news and video to all the other media outlets). On the way to downtown, Jon Bon Jovi, the AP woman, and I would discuss his kid in New York City, where to find sunglasses or a Sunglass Hut, and the arts festival.

Next: The Faceless Staffer

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The Accidental McCainiac

To mark the end of the 2012 election season, here’s a personal tale that took place during the wildly entertaining 2008 campaign. While my undergraduate degree was in political science, up until that year, I had never participated in a major presidential campaign. Since graduation in the mid-1990s, it had been one of those regrets in life. I’d watch C-SPAN campaign trail coverage with a certain envy at all the young people taking part in the process.

This story is about one small opportunity to rectify that. For those who think that campaigns matter, but like me, have yet to volunteer in one, I hope it gives you a sense of what they’re like. I joyfully wrote this as a fan of Game Change and other post-election campaign accounts inspired by Richard Ben Cramer’s What It Takes. The events depicted don’t match the political drama of those works, but you will see some of the everyday workings of a national campaign. Enjoy.

The Accidental McCainiac

Photo by Rachel Dickson via Creative Commons

Prelude

It’s amazing sometimes. You hear and read about people, form an opinion of them, and then your curiosity takes you somewhere else. Little do you know that that person will come back to shape your imagination again. I developed a fondness for John McCain when I heard about the campaign finance reform bill he co-authored with Russell Feingold of Wisconsin. I even preferred him to George W. Bush in 2000 – only to see the Straight Talk Express fall off the tracks.

As election season 2008 began (like, in 2005), I dismissed McCain. He had remained somewhat in the limelight in the intervening years of the second Bush presidency. But he wasn’t getting any younger, and his core constituency seemed to consist only of the press. I considered him past his time. It was time for new people to capture the nation’s imagination and take the reins of the country.

McCain’s campaign did not help his cause. Its top dogs assumed default frontrunner status, and that Republicans would fall in line to support their candidate simply because it was his turn. The fundraising prowess of Mitt Romney, the folksy charm and persistence of Mike Huckabee, and the celebrity status of Rudy Giuliani, however, made it a race early on. Because they burned through so much cash upfront without checking for their candidate’s true viability, the campaign suspended the summer of 2007 and was left for dead.

Yet, there McCain was, back from the dead, winning New Hampshire on a shoestring budget and still loads of straight talk. He would withstand the challenges and come out as the Republican nominee. On a windy Friday night in April 2008, I saw just how threadbare the McCain operation was.

The Opportunity

I received an e-mail forward from a coworker who knew I was interested in politics. John McCain was having a fundraising event at the Skirvin Hilton Friday. Its tone was so desperate, even non-Republicans were beckoned to help out. I had not decided who I was going to vote for, but I jumped at the chance. Thursday evening, my coworker and I attended an orientation session. I was expecting a group of staff to organize the volunteers, but alas there was only one: an advance man, a former Marine.

He was all business. He started describing the different tasks groups of volunteers would do. “Please don’t make me drive” was my overriding thought throughout the descriptions. “Press check-in,” he announced. I was intrigued; my coworker, a journalist by background, took the opportunity. Then he said, “Press bus aide”, whose responsibility would be to answer any questions McCain’s traveling press corps may have about Oklahoma City.

I mentally LEAPED at the thought. It was perfect: I have always been a watcher and fan of the press, and there are few things I like doing more than selling my hometown. Unfortunately, after the Marine ran through the responsibilities, we found out that a few others were interested in the job as well. I’m not sure what happened next, but I made it clear I was going to do it, and the others signed up for other duties.

Being at that orientation, two thoughts ran constantly in my head: 1) I just may be the oldest person in this room besides the Marine and a couple of Oklahoma House staff members; and 2) These are staff-level responsibilities, what is up with that? Indeed, as my coworker and I met the volunteers, it was clear that we were almost twice their age. I would find out later why this bunch of coeds and a couple of thirtysomethings were used for the campaign.

After the dust settled and people had their responsibilities, I asked the Marine where we’d be receiving the press corps at the airport. He mentioned an airport tenant I hadn’t heard of. Someone eventually suggested that I and another volunteer (who’d orient traveling campaign workers to OKC) should accompany the drivers on a dry run to the airport. So we did. My fellow volunteer was the president of the College Republicans for a local university.

We got to the site, with the Marine, a Oklahoma House staffer, and the other drivers in a police cruiser. The other volunteer and I waited for further instructions, but the Marine was having some debate with the police escort (who was off duty). The policeman’s plan was to have two or three more cops in the van motorcade. “No,” the Marine declined. “We can’t afford that. That’s our mode right now – we’re trying to cut costs and raise as much cash as we can”. He added that it would change once McCain started Secret Service protection the next week. There would only be one police escort for this event.

Next: Meet the Press

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Atlanta Days 3 and 4: High Art and the Man from Plains

Sunday and Monday were the busiest days of the conference. I spent Sunday morning at a remote college site for a workshop. With the afternoon open, I decided to break out of downtown Atlanta. It was time to take the MARTA.

I read that Atlantans have soured on the MARTA subway — that it’s not safe, hardly in use, and that the people who do use it, you’d rather not share seats with. Blah blah blah so goes some folks’ thoughts toward mass transit. My experience was the complete opposite. My fellow passengers were a diverse lot (if you see only tourists and executives or only neighborhood folk using a transit system, it’s not fully serving its purpose), never was I alone, even at the wee hours, and the cars and stations were in decent shape. In addition, in tandem with the bus system, I was able to go just about anywhere I wanted to go in Atlanta proper straight from my hotel room (thank heavens for covered walkways and Peachtree Mall).

Four subway stops north of Peachtree Center is the High Museum of Art, according to locals the preeminent art museum of  SEC country, located at the Woodruff Arts Center. The High (I’m sure they’re tired of the puns) was designed by Richard Meier, who the following year won the Pritzker Prize, architecture’s highest honor, and later designed the Getty Center, which I’ll discuss in my next travelogue on Los Angeles.

The High boasts European, American, and African works, but what drew me in were the collections of folk art and decorative arts. The folk art was a nice change of pace from the works I usually view in major city art museums, European and 19th century American paintings. The folk art in this collection instead seemed to me utterly personal and local. My takeaway from the decorative art collection was what it always is whenever I see such a collection: My, what happened to such craftsmanship? I enjoyed the Frank Lloyd Wright, modern furniture (including a familiar looking George Nelson), and historical pieces the most.

Come early evening, I had to return to base camp for the Opening Session, essentially a keynote speech. During the Q & A, I slipped out to dinner with a couple of quite engaging representatives from a data vendor we’d had talks with before, along with colleagues from another school. The place was Azio, which serves modern Italian (take that, Stella!) in a colorful yet warmly elegant street level space around the block. While one of my fellow researchers seemed to be hitting on the male rep, my goal for the evening was to enjoy the dinner and conversation, maybe learn something, not make any stupid/offensive remarks, and keep from making a commitment or give any impression of such. I met my goals, but my colleague had to settle for an exceedingly-long, parting handshake under the well-lit hotel port cochere on a breezy Atlanta night.

The next day was all concurrent sessions until that evening’s Monday Special Event: a tour and dinner at the Jimmy Carter Library and Museum.  I have to admit, this was the agenda item I most looked forward to. It was my next stop in my tour of mid-America presidential libraries.

Set in a leafy part of town, the campus resembles a series of bubbles flow-charting into a semicircle. The museum composes the largest bubble; the other bubbles serve as banquet rooms.  As the tour guide shepherded us through the museum, he rendered a personal context to the exhibits.

Like the Clinton museum, Carter’s features a replica of the Oval Office with audio from Jimmy himself.

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Jimmy Carter’s presidency is great example of events shaping, if not overtaking a presidency, not vice versa. It’s also proof that when it comes to shaping events, the global sphere is where a president has the greatest opportunity to put a personal stamp on public events (particularly when Congressional cooperation is lacking). From the Camp David Accords to human rights activities to an (albeit failed) resolution to the Iran hostage crisis, foreign policy gave Carter chances to do something good while the domestic economy suffered from minimal growth, inflation (creating a new term, “stagflation“) and the second oil shortage of the 1970s. Reflecting the round-the-clock pressures of foreign affairs, a compelling feature of the museum was a theater showing the day-to-day developments of one of the crises in a series of time-stamped news clips.

But the tumult of Carter’s presidency gave way to a meaningful and redemptive post-presidency, including work with Habitat for Humanity, special missions in foreign trouble spots, and the Carter Center, the ex-president’s international human rights organization. The last rooms of the museum focus on these efforts.

Afterward, we were served an excellent dinner by Proof of the Pudding, a well-regarded local caterer. I don’t remember what I had, but the dessert was picture-worthy.

Next time: Georgia State and Lenox Square

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