As a Democrat, I have the utmost respect and gratitude for the Clinton, Sanders and O’Malley staffers who have devoted a chunk of their lives to electing a Democratic president. It’s the most stressful job in politics because the most powerful office on earth is at stake.
I’ve had the tremendous privilege of working on two presidential campaigns: Kerry 2004 and Clinton 2008. When I look back, it’s even more astonishing to me that I got there considering I barely escaped years of civil war in Lebanon and then spent a decade after college as a jazz and electronic musician far removed from the political grind.
My career detour into the thick of U.S. politics led me from Manhattan’s recording studios to the war room of John Kerry’s presidential campaign in the heart of D.C. As someone who didn’t have a professional background in politics and who entered the field through progressive activism, I was a Washington outsider, a visitor to an alternate universe where life-changing decisions were made on an hourly basis.
When I joined the Kerry campaign in late 2003, the Internet team was toiling in the basement of a townhouse. We eventually moved to a larger space near McPherson Square, where I spent 17 hours a day, seven days a week, trying to carve out a position that had never existed in presidential politics: blog outreach and online rapid response.
Only two Internet staffers were seated in the war room. I was one. Ari Rabin-Havt was the other. We were from the Democratic Underground, anti-war, MoveOn wing of the party. A few desks away sat Tad Devine, now Bernie Sanders’s top adviser. In another corner sat a quiet, focused Susan Rice, now National Security Advisor. Several members of the communications team would later find roles in the White House working for President Obama. These were some of the smartest people I’d ever worked with and I was always in awe of the brain power in that room.
Dismayingly, all the brain power in the world couldn’t unseat George W. Bush. I’ll never shake the memory of the dramatic Election Day mood shift in Kerry’s war room as he went from President-elect to defeat in Ohio. A dark cloud descended as the numbers gradually rolled in. The slightest rumor of good news would send waves of elation through the room, only to turn into despair when the rumors were shot down. A couple of open champagne bottles sat as stark reminders that nothing is certain in politics.
My experience as Hillary’s Internet Director in 2008 was even more intense. If the swiftboating of Kerry, someone I had come to know and respect deeply, was a shock to the system, the torrent of hate directed at Hillary was something else altogether. Every word, every nuance of every word, every pause before a word, every miniscule gesture, could be (and would be) spun against her. It was a level of scrutiny that no human should ever have to endure.
Not only did Hillary endure it, she thrived. She drove forward each day, determined to be the best. And I wanted to prove that I could keep up, that I could live up to her standards. So did my colleagues. We slept with Blackberries under our pillows, worked tirelessly (and played ping-pong to relieve the stress).
Debate nights were indescribably tense. Everything was on the line. Everything. A bad review or an offhand comment from a pundit would elicit frustrated groans. Well-delivered zingers would get massive cheers. Election nights were even more maddening. Watching vote counts slowly come in was a form of torture unlike anything I’d ever experienced.
I’m glad it’s not me this time around. I can spend time with my young daughter and advocate for Hillary with the luxury of a little perspective and distance.
But my heart goes out to campaign staffers who have our hopes and dreams in their hands.
And with Trump looking like the GOP nominee, Democratic staffers have more on the line than ever before.