Choir robes, $25,000 shrimp and grits, and the modern Presidency

I am a fallen believer in the power and will of a modern President. I should admit that from the start. I have no enemy in the office, and I have no friend.

There is a natural, human desire to be a part of something. There is peace in being part of the team. As you might now, I believed–right or wrong–that I was part of something in 2008. The man who would be President made me believe that he was looking out for the values and ideals I held pure and true. To date, he has largely not done that. I should not have been so surprised.

I don’t judge, no matter what you may think. If you truly believe in your candidate, I applaud your will to take part in the process. It’s not your opinion that bothers me. I’d kill to hear your opinion. Yours, that is.

I bring it up to say this: because you support a man and that man supports an idea should not mean you by default support that idea. That’s not fair to you. You are allowed to support a candidate without implicitly supporting every one of his ideas.

If support of a candidate automatically implies support of every one of his ideas, then we all become, by default, their pawns. You probably don’t do this, but that’s because you’re smart. I’d venture to say that a majority of Americans aren’t lucky enough to be as smart as you. That’s the problem.

Both sides of the aisle know it is to their benefit to make us part of the team, hand out the talking points, and make sure they’re repeated. They do this because it works so incredibly well. When the choir all sings in the same voice, it’s beautiful and people listen. Just make sure to hold the “o” on “Ditto” as long as you can. It sounds better that way.

I don’t bring it up because I care terribly how the November election plays out. You might be surprised to learn that I honestly don’t care that much. To those with whom I share values, I know that isn’t easy to read, but my belief in substantive positive change for the average American has withered.

The average American? Who is that? Nearly every person I know and love. Unless you were at Soby’s today paying the equivalent of a decent car for a plate of food and a stump speech (or at a fundraiser like it in the near future), the average American is you.

It doesn’t matter if it’s Barack Obama or Mitt Romney. Your seat at the table comes with a price tag you can’t afford.

Soby’s, you say? Well, that’s where this started for me this morning.


2010 per capita income in Greenville County, SC: $25,931.

Price of lunch with Mitt Romney in Greenville today at Soby’s: $25,000

That was my cry this morning on various social media sites as the Republican nominee for President visited this city for a million-dollar fundraiser at one of our downtown restaurants. I further noted that my last meal at Soby’s cost $150, a sum at which I would’ve blanched ten years ago, but today is an amount I can spend for the occasional decent meal. I’m fortunate.

But $25,000 for a lunch with a Presidential candidate? What does that buy? Well, one would hope it’s more than shrimp and grits (which, by the way, are pretty damned good at Soby’s). One would hope, indeed.

That was my point. Extrapolated with some degree of level-headedness and appreciation for the fact that I actually think about what I say, my intended point was that American politics has reached a point that requires this kind of fundraising, and that there are people—people with whom I can in no way relate (and neither can you, I’d assume)—who will spend that kind of money for an hour in front of a man who might—might—be President one day.

It’s accepted as de rigueur. As a people we acquiesce to the old trope: “It’s what’s required to get elected.” In short, we don’t question it. We let the figure fly by us on the news stations and barely blink. We people who might be able to afford the odd $150 meal don’t take heed of the fact that it takes the per capita income of the city to get a semi-private meeting with a man who might be President in six months, or could just as likely be on the lecture circuit (where you won’t be able to get a ticket, either).

It’s not the presumptuousness of people asking for that kind of donation. It’s not that people will actually give that sort of donation. It’s what we people without the means should infer from it. There are dozens of people in each of our cities who have the financial means to get a special meeting with a man who could eventually be the leader of the free world, and those are the people who pay for the campaign signs.

More importantly: we aren’t them.

Here’s your “Like, duh, obviously” statement of the day: these people are given that access because of their money. We average Americans for the most part cannot get that access because we don’t have the means to part with $25,000 for lunch. Hence, in the run-up to the election, our only value to the candidates is our willingness to sing with the choir. And the only way they can get us to sing is to pay the choir directors a lot of money. Follow the circle around, and you’ll end up looking in a restaurant window at a plate of shrimp and grits you don’t get to eat.

So, that was my point: not whether money is the driving force behind politics (of course it is), but to take notice of the fact that it would take the per capita income of Greenville, SC to get an hour at Soby’s with a Presidential candidate. In our moments of “like, duh, obviously,” we lose complete sight at just how much money that is and what could be otherwise done with the cash.

That was my point.


But because it was Mitt Romney and most people know I tend to align better philosophically with the current President, my point—as happens frequently in political discourse—didn’t hit its target.

Said one friend and coworker, “The per capita income in Greenville County would be higher today if it wasn’t for Obama.”

Commented another, “In MN Obama lunch twice as much.”

In a matter of seconds, because the player in the story was Mitt Romney, my disgust at a $25,000 fundraiser became an excuse to fight over which man should be President, a subject about which I think I’ve made myself very clear. I’ll admit, I quoted Romney’s 13% tax statement in the same thread (I thought it spoke to the point of the $25,000 fundraiser), but that was after the conversation already took a sour turn. And even if it wasn’t, that doesn’t change the point.

I ask this question with all sincerity: is it possible to have a discussion about this election and criticize the process–or even a candidate–without the conversation devolving to how the other guy will destroy America? Is that possible? Has it reached the point that if I want to make a point about anything that I automatically have to disavow the other side, too? I suppose I could preface everything with, “President Obama is just as bad,” but it really slows the punch. And I like the punches to be quick, because I’m not aiming at the man. I’m aiming at what he—no matter who he is—represents: a process that, no matter how much we want to believe, truly doesn’t serve us.

So, I’m doing my best to look at this year’s election cycle without doing the “your candidate versus my candidate” thing. It’s easy for me, because neither man represents me. And while it’s pretty presumptuous of me, I’d venture to say neither man truly represents you either. No matter whether it was $25,000 in Greenville or $50,000 in Minneapolis, I know very few people who have that kind of money to drop on a meet and greet with a potential or actual President, and those I do know with that kind of scratch certainly aren’t reading this.

So, to you, my fellow average American, I pose the following:

I wonder if it would be better if we as an electorate worked under a different system of discourse, one in which criticism of a candidate or an idea doesn’t automatically imply a defense or endorsement of another candidate. Perhaps we could move ahead with more efficiency if our first response to criticism of our man or his ideas isn’t “well, the other guy is just as bad or worse.” Because, under those systems, we limit ourselves. We become de facto, unpaid proxies for people we don’t know, who don’t know us, and—if we’re all being honest—probably don’t have us in mind on a regular basis.

If it matters to you, Mitt Romney doesn’t share my values. Barack Obama claims to share many of my values but won’t stand for them. Neither man is my candidate, and it’s unlikely either man will get my vote this year. With all of that said, I think it’s to our benefit to discuss how little we actually mean to both candidates, and to have that discussion, we have to rise above our choir chairs and realize that no matter how much both Presidential candidates may want us to believe it, the battle for change is not between Republicans and Democrats. We are all on one team. I’ll let you figure out who sits under the other flag.

In the end, what I find sort of amusing is that those people who forked over $25,000 apiece on their lunch hour (raising a reported $1.5 million) probably won’t have the kind of access they think $25,000 (or $50,000 in the case of the Obama event) buys. No, once November comes, and the newly-elected President sits down in the Oval Office, the shrimp-and-grits guy from Greenville probably won’t get a meeting.

Twenty-five grand just doesn’t buy what it used to.

Brad Willis

Brad Willis is a writer based in Greenville, South Carolina. Willis spent a decade as an award-winning broadcast journalist. He has worked as a freelance writer, columnist, and professional blogger since 2005. He has also served as a commentator and guest on a wide variety of television, radio, and internet shows.

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15 Responses

  1. CJ says:

    Couple of thoughts:

    1) It’d be a shame if you didn’t vote this year. Our imperfect(but still better than most if not all) political system leaves us with two choices. That’s it, no matter what the Green, Libertarian, etc people may tell you. And neither of those two choices will ever align perfectly with your beliefs. But the choice this November is pretty stark. There are two rather distinct visions on where this country will go. I personally believe it’s the most important presidential election we’ve had in a long time. Everyone should spend time learning about those visions and deciding which most closely meets their own. Voting is a tremendous privilege. Although we’ll always be disillusioned by our leaders, these choices still matter.

    2) Sadly, it’s the candidate of “hope” who helped usher in the massive fundraising we see today. Obama was the first presidential candidate to turn down public financing in 2008. He didn’t do it because he feared being out raised. He did it because he knew he could raise much more than McCain. And it’s why the last two years of the Obama presidency have been spent more at fundraisers than any incumbent president in history. Once that genie was out of the bottle, it was never going back in. It was a sad moment in presidential campaign history.

    3) Finally, you’re right about one of your final points. These $25,000 donations mean nothing. No individual donor to a presidential campaign will ever have access or influence. They just can’t give enough directly to one candidate.

  2. Drizztdj says:

    “Unpaid Proxies”

    Think of the millions of workers for large corporations who receive matching benefits with company stock and VOTING RIGHTS! Yeah, well, I looked at my shares, my number of votes after 16 years of service and saw how much my CEO, CFO, and two other board members cashed in recently (about 5% of their total) and the amounts of shares they cashed and how many I’ll have waiting in my 401(k) when I retire in 28 years… demoralizing is the only word that gets close.

    It’s not “poor me” but rather “why do they need that much money?”

  3. jremo says:

    Well done, sir. Damn. This one’s getting bookmarked and forwarded.

    I feel similar, although my political values align more with Romney’s.

    But he’s probably not getting my vote.

    I hate that political discussion is reduced to dictation of each party’s talking points. So many people are unable, or even worse, too lazy, to think for themselves.

    I’m definitely voting in the election. For whom? I’m not sure. But I’m sure as hell not excited.

  4. Steve Wood says:

    My feelings on the topic align pretty much with yours Brad. I felt like real change was possible in 2008 only to come to the realization that change is blocked by those who actually control decisions that could result in the changes we both hoped for. It’s impossible (IMO) to review Obama’s cabinet picks and major decisions related to the economy without seeing very clearly that those picks and decisions were made by those with too much to lose to allow real change.

    I’m not promoting some smoky backroom conspiracy theory, though I suppose it’s possible. The more likely explanation is a loose confederation of very wealthy and influential people and the banks/corporations they represent. Each one makes decisions in their own best interest, which unfortunately for the rest of us, align nicely with decisions made independently by many others in positions of power and influence. That power and influence is then used, legally and perhaps otherwise, to be sure nothing gets done that would endanger said power and influence.

    The result is the same whether the conspiracy is explicit or accidental. Until “we the people” DEMAND complete and total campaign finance reform AND full transparency with regard to the exercise of personal/financial influence on public servants (that’s what politicians are supposed to be), voting is a pointless exercise in futility.

    Sad to say “we the people” are a complacent lot, tending to act in politically correct ways. This includes being good citizens who vote because it’s the patriotic thing to do, yet avoiding activities that “make waves” like actively protesting the broken system and publicly demanding change. Change is hard when those who oppose change are in control. Anyone for a revolution?

    My two cents… YMMV

    — Que le vaya bien…Steve

  5. Easycure says:

    From my perspective, it’s getting easier to decide each and every election. I want less government intrusion in my life. The guy who leans that way gets my vote. Call me a simpleton from a flyover state all you want, but what we have right now is strangulation by regulation.

    Love to GVegas.


  6. Asian Bobby says:

    Another stellar post Brad. I have similar opinions but as a fiscal conservative (who also happens to be pro choice) tend to lean towards the Republican side of the aisle. I’ve never felt informed enough to discuss whatever political opinions I may have with the type of conviction that always seems required.

    I’m thankful to live in a country where the modest amount of success I’ve been fortunate enough to enjoy is rewarded. I don’t think that basic concept will ever be destroyed regardless of who’s in power.

  7. Katitude says:

    As a non-American, all I can say is that American election season puzzles me. Yes, the Parliamentary system has its flaws, but watching the machinations of your two party system makes me want to go have a shower.

    Reading your post and the following comments makes me wonder, what would it take to renew faith in the system? A new system?

  8. AgSweep says:

    Amen Brother.

    If you haven’t read it, your should read Treasure Islands, by Nicholas Shaxson. I read two to three books a week and don’t particularly like non-fiction but I can honestly say this is the best book I have read in a while. (not for the writing). It was a big OH….Well Duh. You know how when you read about politics you have a feeling that there is some tune in the background you can’t quite make out? Shaxson’s book help make that tune a lot clearer.

  9. Julius_Goat says:

    This is excellent analysis. I have my preference in this election, but I’m thoroughly ready to stop talking teams and start looking at the whole broken, unrepresentative system. This is one of the better political pieces I’ve read this cycle. Nice job, Otis.

    (But don’t give up.)

  10. BigMike says:

    Well written and it definitely resonated with me. Frankly I wouldn’t drop 25K to have lunch with Jesus Christ. Especially if he would take it.

    CJ, you are so right concerning the current political spending. Especially in light of the horrendous Supreme Court decision, I think the whole system needs reform. Imagine if all the money spent on the campaigns were funneled off to good use instead.

    I will still be voting for the lesser of two evils (my opinion).

  11. JoeSpeaker says:

    Loved this. I am so frustrated with the process, but perhaps even more so with the level of discourse, which is so low as to be comical. The ink spilled on Chik-Fil-A v. REAL ISSUES is disproportionate to their levels of importance and, you know what? that’s the idea. That’s how the politicians–criminals, all of them–keep the electorate entertained and the status quo firmly in place. Their speeches and appeals are about the level of a sophomore (in high school) debate.

    These folks whipping out their checkbooks for a sweaty handshake from Mitt or Barack are the same dickwads who don’t want their taxes raised so they can, in fact, chuck this meaningless money around for some dream of “Access” to a President (or future President). “No! It’s because we create jobs!” Bullshit. Bunch of Star Fuckers.

    And now, you’ve got me all frothy. Regardless, thanks again for this.

  12. Dr. Chako says:

    So I, um, know a guy who could afford these lunches, but let’s say he long ago realized exactly what you point out – you really get nothing in return for your money. Well, that’s not exactly true. You might guess this (and based on Drizz’s comment, he’ll HATE it), but many do it just for bragging rights at the club. (As an aside, ask me about the penis-waving contest I just lost to a guy who bought a $2-million car he can’t drive).

    To me, elections are about this: What 3 things is the candidate promising in the run-up to the election? There are only about 3 changes that can be made by each new president. After that, the rest is just complaining that the other side is blocking progress.

    This election is interesting to me because if Obama wins, I personally benefit for better reimbursement per patient. If Romney wins, my wallet suffers. The economy won’t benefit because all those savings will go to military spending we probably don’t need, or at least should audit before spending wildly.

    In the end, I’ll probably vote for whoever inconveniences me the least, like I always do.


    PS. You may remember that I didn’t vote for Obama, but I was secretly glad he was elected because it liftted the spirit of the country. I miss that feeling.

  13. Great writing, per usual.

    The more I know, the more I get frustrated. 100 million dollars a month raised by candidates? How many times do you read in your local paper about 2 million dollar (or 10, or 20 million dollar) projects cancelled because funding is no longer available? Projects that feed people, educate people, keep our streets safe?

    I think a golden opportunity to actually cause change has been missed. I think President Obama will win again. I hope he does. I align more often with that side of politics. But the system, as mentioned by you and others, is complete shit. It’s really doing more harm than good. If I were Obama, here’s what I would have done. After all, he repeatedly said he wanted to change things. In lieu of four more years as President I believe he could have had ten times that tenure in impact if he refused to play the game any longer. If the President had completely changed how his election campaign was going to be run, maybe it could have set in motion some actual change for once.

    Announce that you won’t be making attack ads about your opponent. Explain that it does more bad than good and devote your ad time to explaining your beliefs and your plans for the country. Actually follow through with it. Remind people why you’re doing it.

    Do this on the internet and on public television, with a select few prime time ads to ensure the word gets out. The news would be all over it. Nobody would have trouble finding or hearing about your beliefs and plans for our country. It would simultaneously help show how disproportionate and ridiculous the current strategy is for campaigning as your opponent continues to raise hundreds of millions and do nothing more than attack you and give generic statements about our country.

    Refuse to raise hundreds of millions of dollars. Explain how this is money that can be better used stimulating our economy. Give examples. Ask that Americans consider doing just that. Set a small budget and stick to it. You can get your word out for a tiny fraction of the money currently raised.

    Repeatedly, and I mean repeatedly, point out the absurdity of our current system. Take any given newspaper from any given city and show where the money could be going instead of into the political machine. “I could have raised 100 million dollars this month. I’m asking that those of you who would have donated to my candidacy instead rally to help save 10 schools in Cleveland, or hire more police in Detroit.”

    Yeah, yeah, yeah. But what about this? What about that? He couldn’t do it because this. Or That. Or the other thing.

    Bullshit. It can be done. It might not work the first time because many of our country’s voters are too dumb to think on their own. But I believe something that drastic would have a huge impact. And yes, everyone within the system would push back because nobody wants to give up their seat on the bus to Fuckyoumoneytownsvilleburghaven.

    Somebody needs to step up and force some real change in the process and while it won’t be the President, I sure hope someone does it sooner rather than later. It’s gotta start moving the other direction.

    And save your “that’s exactly what my candidate is going to do” line, everybody. It’s not. Not mine, not yours. Not any candidate is doing that. At all. In any way.

    If you need me, I’ll be busy hiding people on facebook who can’t shut up about how awesome they think their candidate is.

  14. HumanHead says:

    (Good post, man. I wish there was time to comment more thoroughly.)

    “I wonder if it would be better if we as an electorate worked under a different system of discourse, one in which criticism of a candidate or an idea doesn’t automatically imply a defense or endorsement of another candidate”

    Yes, of course it would be better. The question that must be answered is how this might be brought about. What is required? Simply put (and obviously, imo), it requires reasonably knowledgeable and considerate people that see each other as fellow human-beings rather than some “other”. Essentially the exact opposite of our culture/system.

    I’m of the mind that shutting off the television, and other various sources of “serious, respectable” analysis, commentary, etc – would be an excellent place to begin correcting this. The CNN’s, NYTimes, FOX’s, etc of the world need to go the way of the dodo, sooner rather than later. Sick of their stupid headlines, puerile human-interest, and generally constant bullshit? Don’t complain about them, turn them OFF – turn your ears and eyes away from them and give that mindshare (srry bout the buzzword, in a hurry) to things more worthy. It’s hard/impossible for any individual to see the world from a different perspective when looking at it through the same old Establishment prism that informs said viewpoints to begin with.

    Monkey see, monkey do.