Today is Ash Wednesday. “Remember that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return.”
But dust, death, and any other downers seem a million miles away from where I am writing this story, in my room on the 7th floor of the Radisson Hotel, Manchester, New Hampshire, ground zero for the action at the first primary in the presidential season, 2016.
It’s a powerful crowd here. A self-important crowd, you might say. Everybody’s on the make. The place practically vibrates.
Hillary and Bill and their Secret Service are spotted on the 12th floor! The swaggering Donald Trump bounds out of a big black SUV for back-to-back radio and TV interviews. The swagger-free Jeb Bush, alone save for three or four reporters, slips quietly out a side door after a chat with MSNBC, which is broadcasting all day from the Radisson’s tavern. The network gives out free cheeseburgers to keep the place packed.
Oh look! There’s Chris Christie in a crush of cameras! There’s Ted Danson and Mary Steenburgen! There’s ABC’s George Stephanopoulos and Martha Raddatz, who moderated the GOP debate, and Chuck Todd of “Meet the Press” lounging by the breakfast buffet while Rachel Maddow rushes out after her show with a police escort. A police escort! Wow!
We lesser-known or utterly unknown journalists sport press badges that signify: We’re not just bumpkin tourists here to gawk. No, we’re members of the media, too, present at the making of history. We’re tweeting, texting, networking, shaking hands, then gossiping about owners of said hands. Women are mostly thin, young, and incredibly good-looking. Men are way above average.
It’s a vision of the incestuous political and media elite much of America hates. Ergo the Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump poll numbers. But inside the Radisson, it does feel fun and exciting and terribly seductive. We’re swept up in it, at least temporarily.
But at the end of the day, alone, back in my 7th floor room, it all looks different. A tad depressing, actually, all that star gazing and hunting for power, more power, more status and prestige. It’s a full-time pursuit, really, and an exhausting one. Nothing soul-enlarging about it.
In Iowa, thick with evangelicals, we heard a lot about Jesus from candidates like Ted Cruz who, incongruously, wants to deport 11 million illegal immigrants and carpet-bomb Syria. We don’t hear much Jesus talk in New Hampshire. The citizenry is far less devout.
But at a town hall meeting, CNN’s Anderson Cooper did ask Sanders, a non-observant Jew, about his faith. And Sanders said he’s translated strong religious and spiritual feelings into a sense of responsibility for the less fortunate.
During Clinton’s turn on stage, a rabbi quoted a Hasidic sage who taught that every person has to have two pockets, each with a different note inside. The note in one pocket says, “The universe was created for me.” The note in the other says, “I am just dust and ashes.” Ash Wednesday back again.
Then the rabbi asked Clinton, “How do you cultivate the ego, the ego that we all know you must have — a person must have — to be the leader of the free world, and also the humility to recognize that we know that you can’t be expected to be wise about all the things that the president has to be responsible for?”
I have wondered for some time why Clinton — already a First Lady, US senator, secretary of state, now a multi-millionaire and new grandmother — is back at this presidential rat race. Up early, late to bed, chasing from one boondock rally to another, facing hecklers who scream, “But you took the Wall Street money!”
It’s a sexist question, I realize. Why not ask it of the billionaire Trump?
But the answer for him, for her, for all of the candidates, really, has to do with a level of ambition and power lust few of us understand. And that made her answer — long, thoughtful, and unusual — all the more fascinating.
In part of it, Clinton called herself a woman of faith, then said she thinks all the time about the balance: ambition vs. humility, service vs. self-gratification.
“It will be something that I continue to talk about with a group of faith advisers who are close to me,” one of whom sends her a scripture reading every morning at 5 a.m., she said. “It just gets me grounded,” as do the close friends “who deflate my head (and) deal with the universe in one pocket and the dust and ashes in the other.”
Ash Wednesday one more time.
Hillary Clinton has a problem with trustworthiness. I have no idea if what she replied is true, or sincere.
Still, this was hardly a typical, canned campaign moment. And when you think of humility, well, she has not only been humbled by politics, lost elections, and her chronically cheating husband. She has been humbled in public, before all of the world.
Back in my room at the Radisson, I re-read a Richard Rohr meditation e-mailed Monday. It’s about how holding too tightly to money, possessions, and power can lead to obsessive self-protection, fear of outsiders, socially sanctioned and even idealized violence. (Sound familiar?) Rohr writes about a way of living not based on “climbing, achieving, possessing, performing” or presenting a false face to the world — but one that finds deep satisfaction in being real, open, and vulnerable.
“Naked being itself,” Rohr calls such a way of life.
“What?” I can hear you saying. “Naked being itself?” What’s he even talking about?
On the other hand, I see the grasping and posing in this hotel, the brutal battle among candidates who would lead America. Meanwhile, most of the rest of us struggle to get ahead and beat each other all day long. We go to bed. We get up, and do it all over again. A little “naked being” doesn’t sound half bad to me.