Richard Schiff: As my household shows, we're a divided nation

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I am worried. Just back from the Democratic Convention in Denver, an almost joyous event that was arguably a seminal moment of our time, I have never been this charged up, this excited, this hopeful and this concerned. Charged up that I am a part of genuine movement of people, of citizens, to positively alter the course of history. Excited that I have witnessed a unified front coming from a once fractious Democratic Party. Hopeful that the course of events culminating in the great Obama speech has swayed the fence-sitters to jump off and join in. But concerned that the politics of propaganda and panic will induce the middle of the voting pack to fall back on old rhetoric and Cold War paranoia.

I was oh-so anxious to return home and discuss the week's events with my wife. My wife, Sheila of the Hillary camp, of the middle-American, working-class, Catholic, voting block, of a father who landed on Omaha Beach in June of '44 and who wouldn't vote for John Kerry four years ago because the young Kerry had returned from Viet Nam and while still a soldier voiced opposition to the war; Sheila of an extended clan of old coal miners and blue-collar patriots who believe in family values and God and winning with honour.

We had fought like pack dogs throughout the primary season; myself for Joe Biden early on and then for the ultimate nominee, Barack Obama, and Sheila for Hillary Clinton, a woman she grew to admire and idolise. And throughout the primary season, she persisted in warning me that she, along with an army of Hillary-ites, infuriated by real and perceived misogyny and mistreatment by the press, will abandon the Democrats and vote for Republican John McCain.

Then, as it became clear that the inevitable winner would be Obama, Sheila warned that she would bale again if Hillary wasn't the Vice-Presidential nominee. One day before the convention, Joe Biden, my guy, was chosen. She showed me the emails that spread rumour of dissent, of protest plans and walk-outs. None of it happened. Hillary and Bill were magnanimous and magnificent in their mutual calls for unity and their unqualified support for Obama. And conventioneers rejoiced with a singular voice. I imagined Sheila moved to tears as she watched from home. I thought: done deal! Let's move on and take the whole shebang.

I came home exhilarated, kissed my kids, kissed my wife and with eyes wide open asked: "Well?" She was: "impressed but not convinced"; "moved but not moving"; and, unbelievable to my ears, "still considering McCain". I love my wife... but sometimes not so much. Frustration and fights can muck up a good thing. And just when a thing can move past differences and into the realm of peace and prosperity, another thing – an old idea or new interpretation or any spark that relights the paradigms that comfort us – will keep us where we are, where it is safe. Therein lies the challenge: this promise of change is a scary proposition.

It seems not to matter that we are at the brink of a war that may spread beyond Afghanistan and Iraq to Iran and Georgia and then where? To Syria? To North Korea? To China? That we in America are in economic doldrums and are seeing small businesses fold and houses reclaimed by banks and a smouldering panic that is palpable everywhere. My beautiful and loving wife, despite seeing her own small business begin to show troubling signs of downturn after years of worry-free success, despite her passion on women's issues, despite having a son and daughter who may be conscripted, may vote for the party responsible for the entire mess.

I will sneak out early on election day, vote, get a tub of roses and a vat of champagne and hold my wife hostage in love and seduction until she realises that the booths have closed and her voting rights expired. Perhaps we can do the same in western Pennsylvania and Ohio and Indiana – we'll have hoedowns and squaredances and prayer meetings and whiskey and make the whole lot of them happily drunk and content enough for inaction.

But the bottom line is that this is where we are: a still fractious and divided nation, split right down the middle, as represented by my very own household. I am moved to think that we, along with the Obama/Biden team, will begin to change the very culture of the way we do business with each other and the world at large. That we should use "Example as power rather than power as example"; that "America's promise [is] of a democracy where we can find the strength and grace to bridge divides and unite in common effort."

I ask myself why these tenets are so rejected by the opposition, by my wife. Is it racism? Is it the propaganda of family values and God and the manifest destiny of American domination of the world as a righteous cause? Is it that John McCain is still perceived as a maverick and revered for his heroic war service? Is it the singular issue for some women that Hillary Clinton was castigated in certain media and an object of old-school misogyny that is unacceptable and cause enough to abandon the very politics that she supports?

I can't answer these questions, as I don't understand the thinking and emotional investment that defends them.

My opinion of John McCain is different. Here is a man who had his moment in history already pass him by. After being eviscerated and politically castrated in the 2000 Republican primaries by the Bush PR machine; accused falsely of fathering an illegitimate and racially mixed child, he was given a chance at redemption and a chance to save the world from a man he considered at the time to be dangerous and untrustworthy. He could have run as a third party candidate and taken enough votes away from George W to seal the election for Al Gore. He passed.

Four years later, John Kerry had talks with McCain about running as his Vice-President; a dream ticket that would surely bring down the Bush regime. Again he passed. When I ask Washington insiders why, they can only conclude that the reason was simple, unadulterated ambition to be President. But what a price to pay. This is a man who could have saved the world from the last eight years of disaster and instead is content to inherit the aftermath. But the other half of the divide chooses to imagine the younger McCain, the independent, free thinking, iconoclast he may very well have been once, long ago.

And now McCain has picked Sarah Palin of Alaska for the office of Vice-President. I'm sure she is capable of governing the frozen tundra of her state (couldn't help myself) and is surely a force to be reckoned with on some level. But no one can convince me thatMcCain has chosen a running mate who is capable of stepping into the Oval Office in the event of the death of the President. And let's face it, that scenario isn't beyond the realm of possibility. And even with this, I hear in real and electronic voices "we like her," "she's warm and personable," she's a soccer mom who has become accomplished and powerful." What?

And so we stay divided: My country, my wife and I. I am stumped. But I am stubborn in my hope that Americans across the great divide, including one who sleeps in my bed, will wake up to more lofty dreams.

I imagine an America that can actually change. That we become a nation that prospers again but without pillaging the resources of nations that make their people hate us. That we become a nation that, as the constitution says in its preamble, its very first paragraph, "promotes the general welfare" of its people.

When new ideas and belief-altering evidence confronts us, many of us still shout that the world is flat, or global climate change is cyclical, or women belong in the home. I can only remember when great agents of change come to us, it seems as many reject their presence as rejoice in it. Kennedy won office by the slimmest margin in our history to that point. Martin Luther King made as many or more enemies than there were marchers by his side.

Many of us Americans are still inert, isolated and content to stay on our couches and watch on television and iPods as the world goes by. This idea of change means, at least, getting up, going out into the real world and opening our eyes. It seems too much of an effort for many of us. Much to my utter shock, after eight years of what most Americans consider a disaster in the Oval Office, we again face an election that may come down to the wire, neck and neck.

I can only hope that the roses and champagne do their magic and maybe this change I hope for will win by just that one vote. It may be that close.



Richard Schiff is an award-winning actor, one of the stars of the TV series 'West Wing' and a noted Democratic activist

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