My work as a reporter intersected with history when I embedded myself with a group of Omahans traveling by motorcoach to witness the presidential inauguration of Barack Obama in January 2009. The University of Nebraska at Omaha‘s Department of Black Studies organized the trip and kindly invited me along and The Reader (www.thereader.com) newspaper generously picked up my tab. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that I am glad I had. My diary or journal like story appeared in truncated form in The Reader.
All a journalist like me can hope to do in a situation like the frenzy around the inauguration is to try and get the facts straight and to make sense of a bigger-than-life event. I believe I succeeded.
NOTE: You can see photos from my trip and even spot me (I’m in a light blue-grey ski jacket with a blue stocking cap and I have eyeglasses on) at the following site: http://www.unomaha.edu/blst/
SPECIAL SCREENING: UNO Department of Black Studies chair Omowale Akintunde led the trip. Akintunde, who is also a filmmaker (see my story “Deconstructing What Race Means in a Faux Post-Racial World” about his feature debut, Wigger) directed an Emmy Award-winning documentary about the trip, An Inaugural Ride to Freedom. The doc has shown at festivals and a special screening of the film is scheduled for October 26 at 7 p.m. at Film Streams, 1340 Mike Fahey Street. A post show Q & A with Akintunde will follow.
Because the film has generated some buzz, I am reposting my inauguration journey story here. In this light, my story is a kind of companion piece to the documentary.
Freedom Riders: A Get On the Bus Inauguration Diary
©by Leo Adam Biga
A version of the story appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Fifty of us from the metro area signed up to intersect with history. The chance to be at Barack Obama’s inauguration came via a special bus trip organized by the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s Department of Black Studies and sponsored by UNO’s College of Arts and Sciences.
Dubbed An Inaugural Ride to Freedom: The Legacy of a People, a Movement and a Mission, the trip’s mode of transportation, a Navigator charter bus, was both practical and symbolic. Buses figured heavily in marshaling foot soldiers for the civil rights movement and addressing segregation in public schools.
The UNO trip’s “freedom riders” included folks with direct ties to the movement, including older African Americans for whom this journey held deep meaning. Some are retired now and others still engaged in the struggle. Edwardene Armstrong is a UNO Black Studies adjunct faculty member. Her husband Bob Armstrong, former Omaha Housing Authority director, consults with public housing officials across America and the globe. James Freeman directs UNO’s multicultural affairs office.
Leading the university figures along for the ride was charismatic UNO Black Studies Chair Omowale Akintunde. Several UNO students joined us. One high school student was on board as well: Omaha North senior Seth Quartey. Most students were sponsored by UNO.
Community members, such as activist Katrina Adams, Youngblood’s Barber Shop owner Clyde Deshazer and gospel playwright Janette Jones, had no direct ties to UNO but strong convictions about our mission. Friends, couples and families made the trip. The youngest rider, 10-year-old Carter Culvert, traveled with his mother, Jackie Culvert. A few folks went on their own, including this journalist. All but a few made our first D.C. visit on this ride. What a time to go.
Precursor – Get to Know Each Other
A Jan. 7 briefing at UNO’s Milo Bail Student Center ballroom brings participants together for the first time. The group’s diversity is soon evident. Blacks, whites, Hispanics. Young, middle-aged, seniors. Students, working stiffs, professionals.
From the start it’s obvious Akintunde, a tall, lithe man with a brass band voice and a bigger-than-life presence, is in charge. Also a filmmaker, he’s chronicling the trip in a documentary. We all sign releases for our comments and images to be used.
(NOTE: The film premiered at UNO’s Malcolm X Festival in April 2009.)
As things develop the shooting threatens turning the trip into a tail-wags-the-dog scenario with all its set-ups and interviews. Some students serve as crew, holding the boom, operating lights/sound, carrying supplies. DP Andrew Koch flew in from the west coast for the gig. PA Stephanie Hearn did much of the prep work.
I leave the briefing with these thoughts: this will be a once-in-a-lifetime experience that sweeps us along on the tide of history; and we “tourists” constitute a microcosm of the broad-based support that made Obama’s election possible.
What follows are snapshots of our group’s four-day, 100-hour, 3,000-plus mile odyssey to embrace change and to participate in history.
Sunday, Jan. 18
Rolling Out – Get on the Bus
Lot C in UNO’s South Campus is our departure point. I arrive about 7:30 in the cold dim daylight. The bus is there, its engine idling, the lower baggage compartment opened. Some early arrivals have already loaded gear and settled in seats. I choose a mid-section spot befitting my middle-of-the-road nature. Over the next 75 minutes the bus fills out and the rituals of finding a place to sit, stowing away carry-ons in overhead bins and meeting-greeting fellow passengers ensues.
Obamamania appears low key for now. Only a few folks wear anything with Obama images or slogans. One woman climbing aboard is overheard telling another, “He’s not the chosen one.” The mood is a mix of sober expectancy and fan-filled ardor.
There are the usual stragglers and late arrivals. Some of us catch Zs, others chit chat. We’re finally all together and push off on time at 9. A 28-hour grind awaits us before we reach our hotel in Chestertown, MD, about 90 minutes from D.C.
All but a few seats are filled in what are cramped accommodations. For the biggest bodies the bus will mean contortions squeezing into narrow seats and relieving pressure on sore, stiff joints. Leg room is almost nonexistent. Everyone carves out a few inches of sanctuary in the tight quarters.
By the time we cruise I-80 in western Iowa, passing brown-white splotched fields sprouting hundreds of sculptural wind turbines, Akintunde’s filming is in full swing. He captures folks slumbering, reading, cell phoning, text messaging, you name it.
Reminders of this being a Soul Bus trip are the black themed movies that light up the tiny screens suspended overhead. By trip’s end we’ll have seen blockbusters like Ray to little gems like The Secret Life of Bees to old favs like Claudine to a Tyler Perry flick to a fresh bootlegged copy of Seven Pounds.
Akintunde, with Koch manning the digital video camera, grabs establishing shots and spot interviews where he can — on the bus, in parking lots, at rest stops, restaurants, the hotel. The two seemed joined at the hip in our close confines. The director, resplendent in jumpsuits, follows “emerging stories” in our ranks.
Some of us begin our own chronicles, snapping pics and journaling. One woman strides down the aisle, clicking away on her camera as she declares, “I’m going to get me some pictures right here.” In the case of this old-school reporter, notes are jotted on a pad and interviews committed to a micro cassette recorder.
We certainly all have our own story for being here. For retirees James and Jackie Hart it’s about bearing witness to the fulfillment of MLK’s vision.
“I can’t even describe how excited I am that we’re going to have a new black president,” Jim says. “I hope I’m around to see his eight years.”
“I Wanted to See It for Myself”
For Denise Howard, a wife, mother and student, it’s about being “part of change. I wanted to see it for myself, I wanted to feel the atmosphere. It was a must.”
For UNO public administration masters student Joe Schaaf it’s about being present at “a wound healing event, not only racially but politically. This is a huge breath of fresh air. There’s a momentum to change Washington. I view it as one of the top five moments in our country’s history.”
For Keisha Holloway the trip’s a homage to her late sister, Deanna Rochelle, who died only a week before. The two shared a passion for Obama. They voted together. “To kind of keep her legacy going I’m going for me and her,” says Keisha.
Bob Armstrong’s reasons are complex.
“My family’s life has been lived trying to fight for civil rights, especially for black people. Many of the civil rights leaders had been to my house to meet during the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, including Dr. King,” says Armstrong, who was in D.C. for King’s ‘63 address. At the time, he said, “we didn’t know it was history. It became historic. It’s a different setting though (with Obama). This time we’re going knowing that history is being made and so here we are 45 years later for the culmination of all those activities with the election of a black president.”
The way Edwardene Armstrong sees it, Obama’s achievement is only possible because of the work done by many others before him. Freeman agrees. He was on the front lines of the civil rights movement at Tuskegee University, and he said Obama stands on the shoulders of countless freedom fighters.
“It means so much to me because we’ve gone through so much getting to this point,” Freeman says. “We’re not where we ought to be but we’ve come a long, long way. It wasn’t only black folks. During that time there was a sense of commitment and frankly I haven’t seen that until this campaign. Back when we used to march there were so many people of all colors, of all nationalities, and then you saw that this (past) year. Just an affirmation that now I see that vision come to pass. It makes you want to cry. I wish my dad and mom could have been here.”
Edwardene can’t help be struck by the fact the new president has a similar biracial background as her great-grandfather, the son of a black slave mother and white slave master. A black president seemed inconceivable to her.
Bob Armstrong never thought it would happen, period. “It’s such a historic moment I felt we had to be there,” he says. “It doesn’t mean all our problems are solved but it means it certainly gives black people the aspirations that they can do pretty much what they want to do if they’re willing to sacrifice and get themselves educated and do those things necessary to become successful. It’s an emotional time. You’re going to see a lot of tears shed when he takes the oath. Tears of happiness, tears of joy, tears of pride, tears of wonderment of thinking could this really be happening…”
The stories go on all day and into the night. We drive through light snow showers in Illinois and Indiana. We cross the gray-slated, ice-strewn Mississippi River. We skirt south of Chicago and Indianapolis. We pass through Columbus, Ohio. By the time we hit Maryland more snow showers appear.
Sleep is fitful for most. A blessed few sleep through anything: the racket/motion of the bus; the sound from the DVDs; the din from up front, where Akintunde and his self-described “big mouth” holds court, and in the back, where there’s often a conversation or card game going on. Laughter sporadically breaks out.
Call it a lesson in multiculturalism but the “soft music” we’re promised late at night turns out to be hardcore Hot Country, courtesy Rebel 105.9. The driver’s choice. Quite a contrast from Marvin Gaye. Rumblings of a mutiny go up. Most take it in good-humored stride. Thankfully, that driver’s relieved, as previously scheduled, in New Paris, Ohio. The drivers repeat the process on the return trip. The music goes off and order’s restored with an Earth, Wind and Fire concert DVD.
Monday, Jan. 19
The Day Before – Get Off the Bus
We roll across Maryland on I-70, traversing forested ridges. Fog hangs in the depressions. Mills line the riverways. Colonial-style brick homes predominate.
At a Shoney’s I’m treated to a spirited discussion by three UNO students. They embody the youth Obama ignited. Brandon Henderson says Obama’s message of unlimited possibilities “resonated for us. It brought that a lot closer. He’s not just a black candidate. All kind of people are going to be at this thing. It took everybody to get him to where he is right now — to elect him as president. I just want to be part of the atmosphere of Everything Obama.”
Joshua Tolliver-Humpal says Obama “did a great job tapping into that youthful idealism. The youth vote really came out strong. I just have to be there to see the most captivating figure in American politics get inaugurated.”
“Really this is the first significant, world-changing event in my lifetime,” Joseph Lamar says. “Everybody’s going to remember where they were at this particular time and I can say, ‘Hey, I was there.’”
Upon reboarding the bus after bathroom/food breaks Akintunde takes to saying, “Is anybody here that wasn’t here before?,’ or, ‘Is anybody not here that you saw before?’ It’s the ghetto roll check,” he explains.
We never lose anyone, but we do gain two members our second night. They’re Nigel Neary and Tom Manion, whose public housing corporation in Manchester, England Bob Armstrong consults. They “crash” our trip at his invitation. Their addition lends our trip an international perspective.
A sign of the times finds many wired to their cells, Ipods, Blackberries. A few break out lap tops, too. The result is a running commentary or living blog about this trip.
We cross the massive Chesapeake Bay Bridge, the fog shrouded ocean spread out before us and make it into Chestertown by mid-afternoon, where we’ll encamp overnight at a Comfort Suites. There’s a snafu with some room assignments but we manage checking in and freshening up for an evening sightseeing tour of D.C. Signs leading in and out of the capital warn of major delays tomorrow.
“I’m Going to Take My Foot”
In response to a Fox News report that space on the Mall will be constricted to one square foot per person, Clyde Deshazer says, “I’m going to take my foot.” Given the congestion no one’s sure what we’ll actually see tomorrow. “Whatever there is to see,” Deshazer says, “I want to see it. I haven’t seen any part of history.”
Like many elders on the trip Deshazer grew up in the South. He’s struck by how a fractious nation moves toward solidarity at Obama’s lead. “I am so glad all races are coming together and focusing in one direction. The people coming together for one common purpose — that’s what gets me. That’s a soft spot in my life.”
“It’s a beautiful thing,” adds Henderson.
For tonight’s jaunt into D.C. we’re joined by Willistine Harris, a former student of Akintunde’s who lives and works in the area. She’s the trip’s consultant.We spot our first vendors. Once in the thick of the government district we get an on-the-scene sense for the immensity of it all. Streets are choked with vehicles, including buses like ours. Tourists overrun the sidewalks. We sneak peaks of monolithic buildings and famous monuments. But we don’t leave the bus until on the waterfront, where we take in the harbor and an open-air seafood market. Dinner’s an everything-you-can-eat buffet at Phillips, which Akintunde selected “so you will see some flavor” of D.C., where he once taught.
On the bus back to the hotel Sharif and Gabriel Liwaru say what they most look forward to is being amid masses who crave the positive social change Obama advocates. They see his inauguration as a catalyst for themselves and thousands like them to go back home and inaugurate change in their communities. Sharif is president of the Malcolm X Memorial Foundation.
At the hotel it’s soon lights out as we have an ungodly early-to-rise call. We’re slated to leave by 4:30 to beat the rush to the Mall.
Tuesday, Jan. 20
Inauguration Day – Get on the Mall
We’re psyched for the siege ahead. Braced for swarms of people. Schooled on the Metro rail system’s dos and donts. We’re to stay as one group. Harris has secured us Smart Cards to expedite our way through the stations. We pack all the necessities — sandwiches, snacks, drinks, maps. Layered clothing means double pants or thermal underwear for what will be hours in the frigid cold
As we gear up Akintunde tells me our diversity reflects the Obama phenomenon.
“What Barack Obama says is true. That despite our differences what really bonds us as a people is our commonality as Americans. And when we can get beyond the pettiness of racial divisiveness, difference of religious opinion, and start to think of ourselves as a collective unit, we can become a more powerful, more resolute people who can achieve anything we set our minds to.”
He’s pleased how smoothly the trip’s went thus far. “I mean, this could have gone so many different ways,” he says.
On the bus we’re sleep-deprived adventurers eager to grab some rest before the main leg of the journey unfolds. Janette Jones says our tiredness will soon seem trivial once “we see the fruit of our labor,” meaning the inauguration. “We’ve gone through the wilderness and we’re stepping over into the promised land now.”
“It’s worth it,” adds Andrew Gaines.
Nearing D.C. we get stuck in a traffic snarl on the Capital Beltway. Many others headed out early, too. Some folks abandon their vehicles and walk to the New Carrollton station. We inch along and after an hour or so finally make the station exit. Akintunde emphasizes, “Don’t panic…be vigilant…stay together… We’ll be cool.” We’re let out a couple blocks from the station. Parking’s at a premium. We break into small groups, huddling near for warmth. Prayers are offered. My group’s leader, Sharif, looking sharp in his dreds, says:
“Lord, we ask you this day to bless us on our journey, to keep us safe and to keep us warm, that we may enjoy this opportunity and that we may utilize this in our lives and in our communities when we get home, and to take the energy we’ve gathered here and use it to do good. Amen.” Amen.
Moving in formation, we come upon an ever-growing line outside the station that eventually stretches for blocks. Akintunde’s plea, “No gaps,” becomes our tongue-in-cheek clarion call. It’s easier said than done in what Deshazer calls “belly press” tight conditions. Our difficulty closing the gaps prompts Miletsky to crack, “Our civil rights marching is a little rusty — we haven’t had a movement in awhile.”
“Gracious and Great”
Everyone’s in a good mood. The positive energy visceral. You can’t help observe and feel it. A woman behind me sums up the vibe with, “This is how I feel — I’m feeling gracious and great today.” Perfect gratitude.
Zebulon Miletsky, UNO Black Studies’ resident historian, puts the situation in context. “It’s just a beautiful moment to be here, to document it, and that’s what we’re all doing — we’re all documenting this history for ourselves, and to me that’s the highest form of history. That’s our history as African Americans — oral tradition. To pass that oral history along to each generation And this story will be passed down and it will be written about. It’s already being written about. And so many times our history has been written by other people. Here we are as a people witnessing and documenting our own history and serving as the primary source.”
Gaines says he feels “so blessed” to be here with family — daughters Frelima Gaines and Gabriel Liwaru and son-in-law Sharif Liwaru — “and to experience this with so many diverse people. We’ve all come together for this historic moment I think in hope and great expectation for that better part of us that’s being expressed today,” he says. “It’s an excellent feeling. Indescribably great.”
Katrina Adams rode the Obama Express to this place as a grassroots supporter. She prays this is not the end. “This is one of those moments when I stepped up and felt like I could do something — to open the lines of communication, to let people know that regardless of what stance you’re taking you can always do more. You can speak your voice and let that be heard,” she says. “I just hope that feeling we started off with when Obama announced his candidacy replenishes itself and that people are not only touched and inspired but they’re called into action.”
Her fondest wish is that as her son “grows up as a biracial child he’ll understand there’s no limit to himself.”
Speaking of mothers and sons, Jackie Culvert brought 10-year-old Carter “so he will be able to see the change for America and be able to remember this moment.”
Every few minutes cheers go up as trains arrive and depart, moving us nearer the station. Security helicopters hover above. At 8:45 we finally make it inside. There, the crowd packs in even tighter. No shoving though. We’re connected to some living, breathing organism that moves in fits and starts. We’re one.
Akintunde says, “I don’t know why I’m not getting angry, I’m just getting more excited.” “More energized,” a woman says.
Terri Jackson-Miller marvels how “everybody’s in the same spirit…very cooperative. No one’s pushing or throwing attitudes, and I just think that’s all part of what’s out there right now, what’s happening today. Truly a blessed day. This breaks ground. The unknown is now known. It’s going to be a life changing experience.”
Between the magnanimity of the people and the cool-headed actions of cops and Metro workers, who closely monitor traffic flow, thousands safely snake through the station. Only a certain number are allowed on the platform. Once out of the crowd’s grip it’s a release and relief. Amazingly, the entire UNO contingent makes it through intact, amid hoops and hollers, all boarding the same Orange Line train. The empty cars fill in no time. It’s 10:30.
Our prearranged stop: Foggy Bottom. A half-hour ride. From there, a 20-minute walk to the Lincoln Memorial, our target area for watching the big event.
Jackson-Miller says the teeming crowds who’ve come from everywhere “really show the magnitude of this whole thing.” Confirmation is as near as the woman sitting beside me. She’s with the Red Rose Sisters from Miami, Fla. She “just had to be part of history.” Later, a man from Ireland joins me. He says Obama’s election night victory speech inspired him to cross the pond for this moment.
Akintunde announces our Foggy Bottom stop and we’re off, charging into daylight on the George Washington University campus. Vendors galore greet us, hawking Obama caps, buttons, key chains, T-shirts — “My President is Black” reads one. Food trucks do a brisk business. As Akintunde promised, “Everybody and their mamas’ selling things.” The cordoned-off district funnels a constant stream of people into the street, onto the sidewalks. A few on bikes. One atop a skateboard. We move in unison. So much activity, yet so quiet, so still. We’re like a great flock of believers bound for church. Serene. Sharing a sense of purpose and faith in a new era. A placards reads, “We Have Overcome — A New Age of Freedom.”
National Guard troops patrol select intersections.
We reach the base of the Lincoln Memorial at 11:15 and soon find the monument overrun with spectators. We make our way down to a grass field lining the reflecting pool, where thousands gather to watch a jumbo screen. We’re a mile from the Capitol, the whole of the National Mall spread out before us. It’s a grand sight with all the people, the flags, the monuments, the pageantry. Magisterial.
So many families are here. Indeed, it’s like a giant family reunion picnic. You don’t know most of the faces but you’re all linked. It’s our Woodstock.
“This is It, This is It”
Though removed from the pomp, circumstance and fanfare we’re still participants in this ritual and reverie. We angle within 25 yards of the screen, our eyes fixed on the ceremony. The mood, upbeat and solemn. Respectful. Swells of cheers and muffled applause rise as Michelle Obama and Joe Biden are intro’d. Aretha Franklin’s soulful “My Country, Tis of Thee” sets it off again. Biden’s oath of office elicits a big response. Rick Warren’s invocation is well-received. The buzz for Obama’s oath grows. When a classical musical interlude ends the crowd senses what’s next. “This is it, this is it,” a mother tells her girl, holding her tightly. The swearing-in rates a huge response, chants of “O-ba-ma, O-ba-ma, O-ba-ma” lifted up. Many folks hold cameras aloft to steal away what they can for posterity. Others share the moment with friends and loved ones on their cells. Tears well up in Katrina Adams’ eyes. Mine, too. Hugs and kisses.
The love-in’s repeated again upon Obama introduced as the 44th President of the United States. People’s faces betray awe, joy, pride. His address merits rapt attention. He hits all the right notes with his call for resolve, common purpose and a new era of responsibility, moving the crowd to shout out approval.
At “Thank you and God bless you” another crescendo, more words invoked, the Star Spangled Banner, and then it’s over. In the afterglow people don’t quite know what to do. Many, including our troupe, tour the Lincoln Memorial, lingering to soak in the panorama. One more tangible link to this moment. Much picture-taking. We do the same at the Vietnam War Memorial. The procession out of the Mall an orderly exodus. Even two hours after the inauguration the people file by.
Some of us get separated in the human stream. After the long walk back getting inside the Foggy Bottom stop takes an hour due to the logjam of people. We’re exhausted, chilled, overladen with souvenirs but still of good cheer.
Impressions from our members:
Janette Jones: “It was exhilarating. It was not so much the fact of him being black, it’s just the point America has come together for the first time in unity, and that’s what his message was all about — unity. It was very inclusive.”
Daryl Hunt“I feel like I’ve made it to the top of the mountain. It’s an awesome feeling.”James Freeman“It gives everybody hope because the door has been opened and so now we can come in.”
Katrina Adams: “It’s confirmed, it’s done, he’s safe, his family’s safe, and we’re going to be OK. I can’t feel my fingers but I’m happy.”
Andrew Gaines: “I’m ecstatic. I feel very hopeful we’re going to experience a new resolve as a country — to reenergize, refurbish, redevelop, reexplore…to make this American Dream we have more of a reality. I’m excited for the future. I’m engaged now.”
Omowale Akintunde: “Wasn’t it beautiful? We actually have a black president. It means we’ve evolved as a nation. You can literally feel the weight lifted. I’m amazed.”
Seth Quartey: “I feel real proud. I know with this change everything’s going to be alright.”
We all make it back to the Carrollton station and bus. Akintunde leads us in singing the Black National Anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing”, and the “Star Spangled Banner.” Linda Briggs offers a prayer thanking God for seeing us through. At dinner that night the event-filled day’s relived over and over. It’s a blur. Sleep comes easy.
The Day After – Get on Home
The enthusiasm’s waned some. We’re still recovering, still digesting. The trip home is long but we have the satisfaction of achieving our mission. James Hart gives thanks for our being delivered back where we started. The bus empties, the cameras record. Goodbyes said.
Joining the enormous throng for this slice of Americana gave each of us a personal stake in history, in something far greater than ourselves. Whether riding the human waves on the Mall, milling about the masses on monument row or navigating the gridlock in the Metro, we found ourselves literally and figuratively carried away. No matter how small, we played our parts in this celebration, culmination, commemoration. We made this more perfect union and fervent prayer sing. Hallelujah!
- Dan Beckmann: So Where Did All the Hope and Change Go? (huffingtonpost.com)
- Obama: ‘Much work to be done’ (politico.com)
- Letters: Why Is the Seat Next to Me Empty? (nytimes.com)
- Greenest Inauguration in American History (envtalengg.wordpress.com)
- Obama’s Second Inaugural Address (themoderatevoice.com)
- Letting 1,000 Flowers Bloom, The Black Scholar’s Robert Chrisman Looks Back at a Life in the Maelstrom (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
If you are like me and you like your issues-oriented television with a bit of an edge to it, then we likely agree see eye-to-eye that Bill Maher is a healthy antidote to the talking head drivel that passes for analysis and to the rants that pass for discussion on much of TV these days. Not that I agree with everything Maher or his guests say. Far from it. Not that I think his entertainment show is a substitute for substantive news and public affairs programs. It isn’t. It’s just that I like that he isn’t afraid to go after sacred cows and to challenge many of the conventions and systems that we are weaned to believe have our best interests at heart when reality should tell us different. That is a long way of saying I admire Maher and so when I heard he was coming to do his stand-up act here I went after getting an assignment to interview him in advance of his show. It was a fairly brief phone conversation, but he was just as smart and engaging as I expected. In fact, even though we were speaking by phone, it sort of felt like I was a panelist on his show and my questions were all the cues or prompts he needed to go off on one of his spirited riffs about this or that. My story previews his October 24 appearance here and can be found in The Reader (www.thereader.com). I will not be able to attend his live show, and now that I don’t have HBO anymore I miss out on his TV show, but when I do catch glimpses of him as a guest on Larry King Live and so forth I at least have a feel now for what it’s like to go one on one with him. It’s actually pretty easy and fun because he’s a pro and he’s being real.
Bill Maher Gets Real
©by Leo Adam Biga
Published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Acerbic television host and political comic Bill Maher views the 60 to 70 stand-up gigs he does each year as opportunities to connect with the American gestalt. His October 24, 8 p.m. Omaha Music Hall show will be more fodder for his gauging the nation’s Zeitgeist.
“When I go out into America I can really get a feel for what this country is all about. I especially love going to places I’ve never been before, and I don’t think I’ve ever played Omaha,” he said by phone from his CBS Television City studio office in L.A..
“Then when I go back to Hollywood and do my show here I feel like, Yeah, I’m not just sitting in a place that’s not really America. I do the work, I go out there and I see America, and I enjoy it more than anything,”
His topical late night HBO show “Real Time with Bill Maher” is in its eighth season. It’s among the few programs that neither talks down to its audience nor apologizes for its signature unabashed sarcasm. Before this show he enjoyed a decade-long run with “Politically Incorrect,” which began on Comedy Central and ended on ABC. Executives at ABC cancelled it after Maher and a guest made controversial remarks in the wake of 9/11. Unlike the network wonks who freaked, he says HBO’s suits take his incendiary humor and viewer reaction to it in stride.
“They’re like a Jewish mother. They will let me know after the fact if I’ve caused them some consternation or pain. They’ll be like, Aw, don’t worry about us, we had to handle 50,000 emails yesterday, it’s OK, we’ll be alright. Yeah, that sometimes happens, but to their great credit they don’t ever stop me.”
Considering his barbed comments on sensitive subjects. just staying on the air may be the greatest accomplishment of this self-described Libertarian and apatheist who considers organized religion a neurological disorder.
“I’m proudest that I’ve somehow managed to remain on television for 18 years,” he says. “I mean, from the end of ‘Politically Incorrect’ to the start of this show there was only a six month break. You would think someone who espouses as many unpopular opinions as I do, I mean just religion alone, would have been shown the door a long time ago instead of getting a star on the (Hollywood) Walk of Fame.
“So it’s pretty amazing to me, but that shows something good about America. When I started on ‘Politically Incorrect’ in 1993 all the critics said this show is never going to last because you can’t have a host who tells an opinion. Hosts were all playing out of the old Johnny Carson or Bob Hope playbook, where you just never let the audience really know your politics You didn’t know if Johnny Carson voted for Nixon or Humphrey. You still don’t know who Jay Leno or David Letterman votes for.”Maher, who regards America as a declining empire with a dumb body politic, has faith enough folks embrace his funny, smart, self-righteous brand of social criticism that he lets viewers know exactly where he and his guests stand.
“People, even if they don’t agree with you, as long as you entertain them and you’re honest about it and you’re not down-the-line doctrinaire, they respect that,” he says. “They can take it if they don’t agree with you.”
The edge “Real Time” maintains, he says, is the unfiltered, unapologetic way things get said.
“I think people feel like it’s more honest than anything else on TV. That we will give a very raw and different point of view. Admittedly, it’s my opinion and they may not agree with it, but I think they respect the fact it’s real.”
“Real Time” also fills an information niche, albeit a highly interpretive one.
Maher says, “Part of it is we’re a live, news wrap-up show on Friday night. I think the purpose we serve for a lot of people is they have busy lives, they don’t have a chance to be newshounds all week like we do. What I try to do is to make sure that anyone who hasn’t really gotten a chance to look at the paper that week will be caught up on most of the important things that happened if they watch the show. We will touch upon them in one way or the other, either in the monologue, in an interview, in the panel, in New Rules, or in the editorial at the end.”
At the end of the day then, what is Maher — a comic, a humorist, a critic, a commentator, a pundit, or a talking head?
“Well, I guess we live in an age of hybrids, so there are times when I am any one of those things, but I always think of myself first as a comedian. That’s why I still go on the road, because that’s what I love, that’s what I know best, and that’s what I do best.”
For tickets to An Evening with Bill Maher, call 800-745-3000 or visit http://www.ticketmaster.com.
- Bill Maher Reaveals Montage Of Former Guests Frustrated By Christine O’Donnell (mediaite.com)
- Bill Maher Gets Hollywood Star, Thanks Sarah Palin, Bush & The Pope (huffingtonpost.com)
- Bill Maher Gives Advice to Brett Favre and White Men of America (charlestoncitypaper.com)
- Bill Maher: America Needs “A Class War” (mediaite.com)
- Bill Maher’s next book gives us the New New (seattletimes.nwsource.com)
UPDATE: Omaha Mayor Jim Suttle incurred the wrath of some fat cats and some average Joe the Plumbers and became subject to a recall election this winter. Voters opposed to the recall and in support of Suttle remaining in office defeated the pro-recall ranks in a tight Jan. 25 election. The situation even caught the attention of the New York Times, whose Jan. 26 article makes note of how Omaha and greater Nebraska seem to take the recall route with unusual frequency. My take is that Suttle’s rigid engineering demeanor was the wrong note at the wrong time for some in the community who saw him as an interloper on the scene. He walked into a slate of problems that would have alienated almost any leader, but he didn’t do himself any favors with his autocratic style and superior attitude. Like most of us, he is his own worst enemy. But he’s survived to at least complete this term, and now that the economic forecast is looking a bit better for the city and the nation he’s out of the hot water, at least until the next crisis hits.
Omaha Mayor Jim Suttle was feeling the heat in office when I wrote this story for the New Horizons about nine months ago. But the temperature has only gotten hotter since, as the City’s economic morass has proven even deeper than once thought, and the mayor’s ideas for digging out of the hole have elicited the ire of more and more residents. It may be that the recession that’s forcing difficult decisions at every level of government is a problem too big for any one elected official to effectively address, and that whomever is in office would be compelled to take stands and to propose fixes that displease a whole lot of people.
NOTE: As of September 2010 the anti-Suttle sentiment ratcheted up to the point that a formal recall petition drive was instituted, requiring organizers collect a substantial number of signatures by a certain deadline. If the required signatures are gathered within the designated time frame then a recall election would be held. Omaha went through this before when rancor directed at then mayor Mike Boyle led to a recall campaign, and in that case the sitting mayor was unseated by a vote of the citizenry. The action didn’t necessarily lead to better city government or leadership in the mayor’s office, but it did shake things up.
Jim Suttle Feels the Heat as Omaha’s Mayor
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the New Horizons
Jim Suttle served as an Omaha City Councilman during a mostly robust economic period for the city. Then last spring he went and got himself elected mayor in the midst of a recession, promptly inheriting the worst financial crisis in recent city history. Priority one his first six months in office has been getting a grip on a budget that’s been running in the red and finding ways to trim spending and increase revenues to avoid a projected deficit next year.
Dealing with the city’s precarious financial straits has been a trial-by-fire baptism for Suttle, who’s weathered much criticism over his cost-cutting and revenue- generating plans. The 66-year-old retired corporate suit and City Hall veteran knows that flak comes with the territory, especially when city programs, services, jobs, wages and benefits are on the line.
Before becoming a household name the Baltimore native and West Virginia University grad enjoyed a decades-long career with international architecture-engineering firm HDR of Omaha. As mayor, he’s been vilified in the media, but he’s been nothing if not consistent and resilient. He’s called it like he’s seen it. He’s gone on record saying he’s not only ready for the challenges of this crucial position in this uncertain time, but relishes the responsibility for pulling the city out of its quagmire and, what’s more, that he’s uniquely qualified to do so.
He proudly points to a long private sector career and to service as Omaha Public Works Director as experiences that steeled him for the tough issues he faces in the hot seat he now occupies. As a civil engineer he headed up the controversial urban renewal North Freeway project that displaced residents and ruptured a community. As public works director under Mike Boyle in the ‘80s he felt the wrath of taxpayers over street repair, snow removal, garbage pickup, et cetera.
“I certainly knew all about the tenseness of the job and the pressures because I worked very closely with Mike Boyle when he was mayor, and so I was in this office a lot and I saw what he was going through and that was all in my mind as I prepared for this,” he said.
Even in the best of times a sitting mayor feels the heat that comes with the position, but the temperature rises when people’s pocketbooks and bank accounts are hurting, their jobs hang in the balance and the basic city services their tax dollars support are reduced. In grappling with severe budget issues Suttle’s been forced to make some Solomon-like choices.
He’s not helped by a dull, clipped delivery that falls flat in this sound bite era. He can come off as cold and imperious in print or on TV. On the other hand, the calm and certainty he radiates may be just what the city needs in a leader at this unstable juncture. Spend any time with his honor and it’s hard not to note his sure, decisive air. Where some see arrogance, he exudes confidence.
“I am confident,” he said. “I know I can do this job. I’m just prepared for meeting these challenges. I’ve been through this, I was through this as public works director, I was through this in my time at HDR when we would have something chaotic happen with a project or something catastrophic happened with the company, and I would just plow right into it. I’m not afraid of problems. I’ve dealt with catastrophic problems all throughout my career, and you can’t run from them, you have to turn and face them and step into them, and that’s what I do.”
Fairly or unfairly, he’s come under extreme fire from the moment he entered office. Even before then, really. In a headline-grabbing episode a week before he was sworn-in reports emerged that one-time key Suttle adviser Matthew Stamp, who was slated to be co-chief of staff, had been the subject of a police investigation some years ago regarding allegations he’d had sex with a minor. No charges were brought against Stamp. Suttle at first seemed to dismiss concerns about Stamp as rumblings from the rumor mill and implying he didn’t believe in background checks. He seemed to be sticking by his man.
Then, in the wake of public outcry, Suttle did an abrupt about-face and rescinded Stamp’s appointment and cut all ties to Clear Communication Partners, the political consultant firm of Stamp and Gary Di Silvestro, another key former aide. But Suttle did not reveal what he knew about Stamp prior to the story blowing up. Some chided his decision-making process and penchant for staying on-message platitudes to the exclusion of answering legitimate questions.
Months after the imbroglio Suttle acknowledged that ending associations with such close aides “was really difficult. We were family. They were involved in my campaigns and in my personal world for five years.” He said the news caught him “blind sided,” adding, “I learned something for the first time in my life when my wife called and read me this horrible article. I was in West Virginia visiting my mother. That was not fun. I was a deer in headlights, but I came out of that, I saw what I needed to do, I called some 20 people and 27 hours later I made my mind up to sever relationships. I just made my decision and I did not look back.”
As he’s settled into the job he seems less reactive and more open to seeing other points of view, although he makes no bones about standing firm on his beliefs.
“I like to make decisions and then run with that decision, but if I find the decision has got flaws or there’s something better I will change my mind, and I’m not embarrassed about that. I’m not driven by the ego, I’m driven by doing what’s right
for this city and not what’s right for Jim Suttle, and if that leaves me in the wake of the tide, then so be it. The people put me in this position, I represent the people, I don’t represent any other special interest groups whatsoever.”
He won’t temper his assertive manner to avoid critics.
“No, because to do that you’re starting to go in the direction that you see too many politicians go,” he said, “and that is they start paying attention to polls. They start making decisions around the polls or they start making decisions around what’s on the editorial page or letters to the editor or talk radio. No, that’s wrong and that’s going to get you in deep trouble when it’s all said and done because the problems will still be there and there’ll be messier. You get to the problems and get to them now and don’t let them get worse.”
He won’t be thrown by negative comments directed his way.
“I would say you’ll find me take five percent of it personally, whereas my wife takes 95 percent of it personally. I’m conditioned to just go ahead and let the flack come forward and deflect it to the side and then get on with the mission. This is the whole thing I was faced with in the campaign and in these early months in office.
“I could see there was a particular course that needed to be followed and I was going to stay on that course, and those who didn’t want me in this office or those who disagreed and were trying to get me off mission, off course, they never succeeded. I stayed the course, and I think quite frankly that’s a reflection of my leadership — that I can let the flak and the noise and everything else go around and stay on course toward the better good in front of it.”
He can come across as stubborn, cantankerous and aloof when pressed. At other times he can be easy, warm and engaging, which is how this reporter found him on a recent visit to his office in the City County Building.
Some might view becoming mayor just as the recession hit as rotten luck. Not Suttle. This self-described “optimist” and “glass-is-always-half-full” fellow sees it as an opportunity for making a difference in his adopted hometown. Public office is the fulfillment of a long-harbored dream and long-practiced philosophy of service. Being in this lightning rod post is exactly where he wants to be, good times or bad. It’s why he left corporate America six years ago to run for City Council.
He credits an HDR mentor, Bob Rohling, with instilling in him a greater-good orientation. “He said to me, ‘You can’t just take, take, take from your community without give, give, giving back.’ I’ve never forgotten those words,” said Suttle.
“I think we need to start though with a foundation. I am following a dream and I’ve had this dream for 40 years, and so as I was approaching my 60th birthday I said to myself, You have a choice here. So I went into see Dick Bell, the chairman of HDR, and started talking to him and he said, ‘Jim, I know this is your dream, let’s make it happen.’ I talked to my wife that night and she said, ‘Let’s make it happen.’ And then I went to talk to my financial adviser, who I thought would tell me to pound salt and he said, ‘Now you can afford to do it,’ and so we put it together.
“So I had the basics of what you really need to run for public office — you gotta have that fire in the belly, you really do, and I was committed to taking my dream and moving on my dream. And I had the support of my employer, I had the support of my family and I had the financial capabilities to do it. I didn’t have to be dependent on anything else or anybody else except me.”
While he seemingly came out of nowhere to defeat incumbent Marc Kraft for the District 1 City Council seat in 2005, Suttle was no newcomer. There was his public works tenure. His Council win came in his only bid for public office up to then, but he’s been active in local and state politics since HDR brought him to Omaha in 1971. He and wife Deb raised their two daughters here. A trained nurse, she’s also been active in politics — appointed by then-Gov. Ben Nelson to a Nebraska Legislature seat she later won election to. She’s also a busy community volunteer.
The couple had moved around the country for his work but once they came to Omaha they stayed put. Before long the political animal in Suttle found him raising money for candidates, stumping for them, advising them.
His involvement in politics goes back even farther, to college in the mid-’60s, when he served on the WVU student legislature, and to HDR posts in New Mexico, Missouri and Massachusetts. His student government experience got him hooked. As he worked in politics he recognized his analytical mind, managerial skills, leadership qualities and collaborate bent made him suited for the field.
“I found I liked it. I found my engineering mind let me figure out how to get good problem definition, which is necessary in anything you do, so that’s what I’m good at and I’d been doing it all my life in my professional world but also doing it while dabbling in politics as well. Good problem definition lets you begin to assemble the people and the alternatives to solving, and then you can solve — one, two, three. That’s my success as an engineer, that’s my success as a politician.”
At HDR Suttle embedded himself in the political arena of the communities he served, laying the groundwork for the company doing business in new markets. He beat the bushes, he pressed the flesh, he did dog-and-ponies, he cultivated relationships — the very things a lobbyist or politician does in building a base.
“I was part of the growth engine that took the company from seven offices to 150 offices, that took the company from 350 people to 8,000, and I found as I went to the different marketplaces I needed to know who the local officials were, be it at the state, county or city level, so they knew who HDR was,” he said. “And out of that we really began to follow the decision makers. So when it came time for us to seek professional work or offer professional services we were in the right places at the right time dealing with the decision makers. It helped us to maximize our time, get focused and make sure we were paying attention to local customs, local cultures, whatever it might be that was going to let HDR be hired.
“An example of that was going to Boston with nothing and winning back-to-back contracts on the Central Artery. That was a design all around the community in what I was seeing and learning, and that headline in the Boston Globe when we won that second contract says it all, because it told me I succeeded with my plan: ‘Local firm wins Central Artery contract.’ Notice it said ‘local firm,’ and we really weren’t, but we were because we designed it that way and in the eyes of the community and of decision makers and of the Boston Globe we were local. We became local as we continued to grow that office from zero to 75-100 people.”
Outside local Democratic political circles and corporate back rooms, however, Suttle remained relatively unknown to the general public until his City Council stint. Even after four years on the Council his low-key style made made him a dark horse candidate against mayoral challenger Hal Daub, a Republican stalwart and former Omaha Mayor and U.S. Congressman from Nebraska. Suttle’s blunt but bland persona and short elected history undoubtedly worked to his advantage though in facing off with the sharp-tongued Daub, who carried the baggage of a long, productive but contentious-filled public service career.
Though he seemed a decided underdog at the outset, Suttle appeared supremely confident in his chances from the get-go. He’s well aware he didn’t inspire excitement in many quarters, but he never let detractors spin him from his prize. In his bulldog manner, he kept grinding away, focused on that big bone, never doubting he’d get it. He drew extra motivation from being underestimated.
“I think it goes to the fact that a lot of people didn’t want me in this job, a lot of people didn’t think I would even win. I did, I knew I was going to win. From the moment I made the decision to run in August (2008) I knew I was going to win. And I’m not saying that from an ego standpoint, I’m saying it from something that the people didn’t study about me, the media and the Chamber and other places — I am a part of the marketing success of HDR, which was always looking for a new mousetrap. Every two years we reinvented our marketing thrust, and so I built on all that because I knew how to put the winning plan in place, and I did.
“What has been the challenge here is how do I get the acceptability of the business community and the Republicans that didn’t vote for me in the west and any of the other naysayers. I have to earn that, I know I have to earn it. I don’t lose sleep about it. I know it’s on my shoulders to earn their trust, not on their shoulders to just automatically give it to me.”
Soon after taking the oath of office June 8 as Omaha’s 50th mayor, Suttle put in perspective just how dire the budgetary crunch is when he spoke about the need for taking drastic measures “to prevent the city from falling off a cliff,” perhaps even into bankruptcy. This was unchartered territory for a city that had drawn the admiration of analysts and observers for its stable, diversified, economy, Triple A bond rating, low unemployment and high quality of life. It was only when Suttle delineated a laundry list of cuts that the crisis made page one news.
“I’ve been feeling all along and saying all along that the public was in denial that there was a problem. Closing the swimming pools one week early, closing libraries on weekends, shutting down helicopters for a month, all got us out of denial and the public began to see there is a real problem.”
After the campaign but before taking office, the fiscal crisis was only partly known. Still, he spoke about the need for belt tightening. Once the full extent of the dilemma was apparent, he no sooner took office than he described the hard choices that lay ahead and laid out in no uncertain terms what was at stake.
He confronted the problem head-on, a trait he learned long ago and still lives by.
“Well, my whole persona, my whole methodology for being an engineer, for being a manager, for being a business person is molded by the people who influenced me in my career,” he said. “So let’s just take Chuck Durham (an HDR founder) — he had a philosophy that if you see something that needs to be done, don’t ask permission, get it done. I never forgot that and that’s always been in my style. And this got me into some conflicts when I was on the City Council, with some Council members who maybe saw me getting in the way of things in their district, or in the way of their issues, but that’s the way I was trained.
“I ran for mayor because I did sense we had some horrific problems and we were doing too much waltzing around those problems, and as an engineer and as a trained problem solver that was the frustration. I saw when I was on the City Council that I was one of seven in trying to get things done, but as mayor I was going to be one of one. I felt the times were calling me to be the leader of this city because of my engineering and my business background.”
Suttle sensed the time was right to take the leap.
“I would say I got indications. See, I’m a visionary, I’m a guy who’s got a nose for what’s over the crest in the road. I don’t have any magic crystal ball, I just have a feel. About two years before the election I could sense there was going to be a whole different scenario and so I kept my eyes and ears glued to what I thought was going to happen and then just waited for it to happen.
“Now I was preparing in the meantime, I was continuing to get myself mentally ready because I had to have it down here,” he said, tapping his belly. “I basically put the final decisions together in August right after Mike Fahey made the announcement he would not run (for reelection). That’s when I moved into a hundred percent go, 24-hours-a-day mode.”
Fahey, enjoyed an eight-year reign as mayor that during more prosperous times saw the city grow its tax base via annexation and its debt via the Qwest Center. When revenues declined, cutbacks to city services began. By the time Suttle defeated Daub in the nonpartisan general election, it was clear city revenues were on a continuing downward spiral while expenditures were going ever up.
A looming budget shortfall required some hard decisions from the new mayor.
No one knew the depth of the economic woes until after the election. Suttle said his and Fahey’s jaws dropped upon discovering the city’s sales tax stream took a major hit. The sales tax collapse, combined with rising costs and pension payouts, resulted in a $9.5 million hole for 2009 and an even larger projected deficit in 2010. By charter, the mayor was mandated to submit a balanced budget by late July.
None of the options for addressing the problems have proved pleasant or popular. All involve some level of loss or sacrifice. Suttle and his team went about devising a plan. In the lead up to the final plan, Suttle drew the ire of many when he broached cutting more city services, raising property taxes, imposing an entertainment tax, laying off city employees and enacting wage-hiring freezes.
“I could not get any sense of consensus from the Chamber, from the Council, from the public or anywhere,” he said.
At roundtable budget forums he got an earful from taxpayers. When he announced specific cuts, debate began anew. With “the clock ticking,” he said, “we rolled it out. Right or wrong, we had a balanced 2010 budget document. When it was all said and done we had to do some massaging but at least I had something out there I could stand on and felt confident about and it forced the Council, the Chamber and the public to come up with other ideas they could put it into the game.”
As things played out, the Mayor won some points and compromised on others.
“There were really some decisions I did not like to make but some good came out of that,” he said. He admitted to “a couple” sleepless nights in the deliberations.
The city also faces major financial obligations outside its general fund budget: $325 million owed on the Qwest Center; a $500 million shortfall in the police-fire pension fund; and the $1.7 billion federally-mandated sewer improvement project. He wants more fiscal accountability in how the city budgets and conducts business.
Among those advising Suttle are some young staffers not long out of college. Asked if he’s concerned about their inexperience, he said, “no, because City Hall is steeped in the status quo, City Hall needs change, it needs constructive change, so I want to bring in fresh faces and fresh ideas and fresh people in a businesslike process. You’ll see me do that in just about everything I do.”
He said his “keen eye” helps him identify top talent. “I have hired roughly a thousand people in my career, and I’ve failed a few times, I’ve hired some real dogs, but I would say 98 percent of the folks I’ve hired I’ve made good choices. I’m trained to read people, I’m trained to read situations, I’m trained to read the tea leaves and so I will only employ the best.”
One of his older hires, City Planning Director Rick Cunningham, was a protege of Suttle’s at HDR. Suttle’s still looking to fill a few positions. “I’m ready to move on and get a personnel director hired from business that can do the changes in the system here that are progressive, the same with the parks director, and I do want to fill the deputy chief of staff position.”
He termed “bothersome” the tendency by some to compare every move he makes, including personnel and salary decisions, to what Fahey did.
“Making those comparisons is useless and worthless,” he said.
Aside from budget fixes, Suttle wants to create jobs, attract new business, upgrade the city’s infrastructure and spur more development. As for what kind of job he’s doing, he’ll let the only critics who matter decide.
“I’m the actor on the stage. It’s the audience that’s going to take me and it’s the audience that’s going to judge whether or not I do a good performance.”
- Hilton Omaha to Undergo $35 Million Expansion (eon.businesswire.com)
- Clean Energy Leaders Discuss Innovation at First Regional Summit as Offshoot of White House Conference (kauffman.org)
- States Combat Health Costs, Workforce And Safety Issues (medicalnewstoday.com)
- You: Recall Campaigns Become a Growing Hazard for Mayors (nytimes.com)
- Recall drives popular tactics for irate voters (sfgate.com)
- Omaha mayor narrowly survives recall effort (reuters.com)