When Barack Obama’s campaign asked if I’d like a few minutes on the phone with Maya Angelou last Thursday, the first day of early voting in Iowa, I thought: “!!!” Being a professional, what I actually wrote was: “I’d love to.”
Any journalist who says he or she wouldn’t get excited about interviewing such a well-spoken and well-regarded celebrity is either Barbara Walters or a liar. Which is part of the reason why the Obama camp was offering 10-minute phone calls to female columnists of a certain age, of course. How many phone calls, exactly? “I’m not going to tell you that,” Angelou chided me with practiced gentility. “Unless you come and do some of them for me.”
Democrats have been in hot pursuit of female voters (and journalists) this election season, hoping to capitalize on the epidemic spread of foot-in-mouth disease in certain Republican circles on issues that matter to women.
There have been ad campaigns and email chains all dedicated to turning women out to vote, all assuming — maybe not incorrectly — that more women at the polls will mean more Democrats in office. And while proximity to power might keep high-rolling donors invested in politics, for the hoi polloi, celebrity’s the big draw.
Republicans like to say that’s shallow, but they’re just jealous. Take a look at their lineup, after all. How many people really want to breakfast with The Nuge? Clint Eastwood is too busy arguing with an empty chair. If only real-life Alec Baldwin could be a little more Jack Donaghy … But there’s no use wasting time on might-have-beens, not 38 days out from the election.
Angelou demurred when I asked if she was out to woo women to Obama’s camp. “I try not to indulge any of those differences between us,” she said. “I don’t speak to the black voter, I don’t speak to the woman voter, I don’t speak to the 6-foot-tall voter, or the voter who is 70 years old, or any of those things I am.”
“I try to speak as a representative of my people, and I am an American,” she told me. “So when I speak, I speak as an American.”
Still, there’s no question the elder stateswoman speaks especially to a certain demographic. “Isn’t she Oprah’s mom?” my husband asked when I told him about the interview. Maybe he was joking.
“I’m a political being,” Angelou told me, with the same slow grace with which she told the world she is a Phenomenal Woman. A gravitas that could make sound profound a statement as simple as, “I’m taking an umbrella,” if she looked outside and thought that it might rain.
We all are political beings, she said, like it or not: “Politics works on every American,” she said. Our schools, our food, the things we buy — all produced and approved and regulated by law.
“We have to constantly remind women,” she said, “and men, because an embarrassing amount of men don’t turn out and vote, and the young people — oh, my land. We really do need to go around banging on tin drums and tin buckets to wake everybody up.”
Angelou has been involved in politics her entire adult life. She backed Hillary Clinton until the bitter end in ’08, even though she says Democrats pressured her to ask Clinton to step down. Angelou refused, having pledged to Clinton way back when the newly minted first lady was defending her right not to be a chocolate-chip-cookie-baking wifey that if she ever ran for office, Angelou had her back.
Only after Clinton withdrew did Angelou throw her significant presence behind Obama, in ’08 and again today. Which brought us to her pitch:
“I believe if we can come together like sensible people, not raising our voices and shouting each other down, but really come together as sensible people and support him, his dream is to make this a better country for all of us,” she said.
Maybe you agree. Maybe not. But you have to admit, it’s a pretty clear and simple sentiment from a single voter, celebrity though she may be.
But then again, it’s our obsession with celebrity that bought me this banner headline and a couple hundred extra words to deliver a message which, if we all had our priorities straight, I could have done in five:
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