Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Elizabeth and the Bloggers

Manchester, NH -

Is blogging the next realm of populism, where every voice speaks true to the cause of real people? The Edwards campaign seems to think so. Or so it would seem as Elizabeth Edwards added some niche marketing to her latest New Hampshire swing this weekend by presiding over a NH bloggers roundtable at St. Anselm College’s New Hampshire Institute of Politics.

A dozen or two of the Granite State’s most prominent bloggers--plus me--were invited to chat with the would-be first lady for a little while over Dunkin Donuts and coffee early Sunday morning. In fact, it really wasn’t that early, but after a rare night out with a place to crash in Manchester preceding the day’s events, 9:15AM felt about as close to 6:15AM as it ever had. It didn’t help matters that I refrained from drinking the DD coffee on principle.

Ms. Edwards was happy to talk about blogging in the close confines of the conference room, where we sat in a rectangular arrangement of plush seats directed toward her desk near the door. Elizabeth began the chat, and it really was more conversational in tone that an actual press avail or group interview, by touting her old skool ‘net cred.

“We got on first with Prodigy, when prodigy and CompuServe were the first two internet providers,” she said, referring to the earliest incarnations of the internet superhighway back in the early nineties.

She continued on to joke, “Then we switched to AOL early enough that I probably could have got the address elizabeth@aol.com. I was even on internet news groups that argue about grammar.”

Icebreakers aside, Ms. Edwards moved into an impromptu speech about the importance of blogging in our political culture. With the decline of local gathering places in our busy society, she suggested that blogs were beginning to fill the void.

“Where is the town square any more?” Edwards asked. “Well, its on the internet.”

Edwards also spoke to the color blindness of chat rooms and blog avatars.

“You are connected on some issue that is important to you,” she intoned, “and the things that are different about you disappear. Its really a great way to make social connections because all of our prejudices are eliminated.”

She became even more animated as she continued with her crescendo of ideas. “Because there are so many ways to participate,” Edwards said of the internet, “it has actually become the most democratic media that can be devised. That is why net neutrality is so important.”

With that she realized she had been speaking for a few minutes, abruptly stopped, and welcomed questions from the audience. With the bloggers at the helm, many of whom were supporters, or at the very least just al little bit awestruck, the conversation was pretty tame. Questions mostly dealt with issues near to New Hampshire, the home schooling of the Edwards children, and the role of the media in the campaign.

Edwards again spoke of her appreciation for decentralized news, and compared it with the place of the New Hampshire primary as a more intimate venue than the potential of a national primary, which she said would be “depressing.”

She also used these questions as a platform to dispense what was likely a subtle dig at the Clinton operation.

Asked about a smear campaign in Iowa of the Edwards campaign providing false rumors about their campaign to gin up sympathy she said, “our job is to provide you with the positions with where we’re going to be. Its not to manage you. That would be completely contrary first of all to everything we believe in and secondly to the spirit of the media.”

Edwards’ responses to the New Hampshire-specific questions about issues like job loss and education were much more theoretical than your standard candidate town hall. Such is the nature of campaign surrogate visits. No matter who speaks, it is not the candidate. If Ms. Edwards were to say something groundbreaking about education, it couldn’t be attributed to her husband. Likewise, if she says something inflammatory it can be swept under the rug much more easily.

She said neither this morning, although credit is due for her statement on No Child Left Behind. “I don’t think NCLB was ever meant to fix the public schools,” she wisely mused. “I think it was intended as an excuse to go to vouchers.”

As a former NCLB Title 1 school teacher, I can’t do anything but wholeheartedly agree. But as the policy questions mounted, and the full day’s schedule of visits awaited, Elizabeth’s advance staff began to call for a wrap up to the morning’s event.

The session closed with a poem written by an elderly woman who was standing in for her son, a blogger who was unable to make the event. She recited a poem she had written about bloggers set to the tune a song from Guys and Dolls extolling the virtue and prominence of today’ internet ponderers. We all reacted with smiles and applause then closed our laptops to share websites and shake hands with people we had previously only known from a username on the screen. If that’s not the reincarnation of a town square, I don’t know what is.

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