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February 26, 1998


When the President Comes to Town (A Fable)

The usually estimable co-founder of Global Exchange, Kevin Danaher, came up with an odd one-liner in Denver the other day. Politics, he said, is a compound of two words --- poly, which means "many," and tics, which means "bloodsuckers." It's hard to imagine that this skillful tactician really subscribes to the "Politics is dirty" take on modern life. Nevertheless I welcome his mot, because it falls right in with some other bits and pieces I've been mulling over. In an era where influence is routinely peddled and the media define the issues, is politics still alive, or has it gone the way of the stegosaurus and the dodo? What, I wonder, is truly the purview of politics in these rapidly changing times, and what is --- or should be --- irrelevant?

The Northern California flavor of my thoughts (Tina Brown, are you listening?) takes me to one of my favorite mulling spots, the Yerba Buena Gardens. I grab a couple of local delicacies (a double cap, half-decaf, and a biscotti) and sit on a bench watching natives and tourists enjoying a rare moment of afternoon sunshine. As always, the jumble of buildings crowding in on this space astonishes me. Terra-cotta, chrome, and concrete,  they come in every style and face every whichway, as though the drill sergeant who usually keeps urban order has gone AWOL. Directly before me runs Mission Street, once a dusty planked road leading city folk to the pleasures of The Willows and Woodward's Gardens, now a dusty thoroughfare feeding commuters to the freeway. Across the street, the dignified red-brick façade of St. Patrick's Church has found a space-age copycat in the Marriott Hotel, whose high central section and wings to either side offer Blade Runner echoes of Gilded Age propriety. Will the now-in-progress Sony Metreon/Zeum (want to bet neither name sticks?) play off its neighbors or stridently dominate the corner? Is this a matter of aesthetics or politics?

I recall the mini-skirted giant in a platinum Prince Valiant wig and an "I'm worth it" air, who insisted on exiting from BART ahead of me. Definitely an assertion of personal, not political, value. Or was it? I watch a Hispanic student, wrapped in a red-and-white parka and grasping a ballpoint pen, who straddles a retaining wall and leans over a textbook. A laughing pair of men, pierced and tattooed, who watch as a female companion dips water from the broad shallow pool and smoothes down her bright yellow hair. Black-clad refugees from South Park, who huddle around a café table, peering at boldly formatted charts as they sip their lattes. Are they private occupants of public space, or soldiers in a campaign for affirmative action or affordable housing or tax breaks for small businesses?

I notice the stylish but sad newsstands scattered throughout the area, their neat plastic racks filled with nothing but Chronexes while The City's boisterous array of alternative free papers perch, like defiant squatters, at the edge of the sidewalk. Do the shabby newsracks represent clutter in the face of a mandate for cleanliness, or knights in the service of freedom of the press? The telephone poles are cluttered as well, with handbills announcing a forthcoming demonstration --- now at least temporarily unnecessary --- against U.S. intervention in Iraq. Is this the sign of obstreperous troublemakers (outside agitators, they were called in the 1960s), or the deliberate attempt of informed citizens to make their opinions heard? There's other clutter, too, a few blocks away, where heavy rain has overburdened the sewer system, sending partially treated waste material into the bay near Hunters Point. An accident of nature in a storm-ridden year, or a matter that requires human groups with long names, such as Communities for a Better Environment and San Francisco Bay Advocates for Environmental Rights, to ride to the rescue?

Politics is not dead, I think with relief, nor is all its energy being sidetracked into sneaky financial manipulation and sexual shenanigans. You might not realize it from what you read in the newspapers or see on TV, but countless American men and women are still organizing and planning. They're highly visible --- speaking out, petitioning, writing letters, knocking on doors, even marching, competing energetically in defense of their interests and beliefs. Reassured, I toss my cup in the trash receptacle and walk down the sunlit slope, past the frozen-in-motion statue and the Stonehenge-Ryoanji stone garden. I head across the park toward the Museum of Modern Art.

At the corner of Mission and Third, I am stopped by a policeman directing traffic. As I wait, a line of police cars and police on motorcycles approaches, lights flashing. They cross the intersection swiftly and silently, followed by two black limousines with darkened windows. Then several nearly empty vans, an ambulance, and more police cars and motorcycles. And a single discreet helicopter. The eerie procession passes without a ripple, like a knife through water. The most powerful political figure in the world has arrived in San Francisco.

The moral: Making waves makes history.

   --- Copyright Betsey Culp 1998

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