I’d been talking to my research supervisor the other day when he asked me if, nearly two months into my DC internship, I’d caught “Potomac fever” yet. At the time I said I didn’t know; now, I’m pretty sure I’m a chronic case.
It all started after the Barack Obama speech on Tuesday. None of us had any idea that the speech Senator Obama was delivering was his landmark foreign policy address. We’d heard the words “major speech” bandied about, but really, what speech isn’t considered major when you’re a presumptive nominee?
After having lunch we’d all headed back to the intern room, where I immediately logged on to the New York Times, only to see as the feature a picture of Obama standing at the podium of the Reagan Building Atrium accompanied by a long article about his plan and some of the reactions it had drawn. All I could think was, I was there!
Then on Thursday, a friend of mine, who is interning at a sustainable-community nonprofit, invited me to come see Al Gore with her at Constitution Hall. The event was sponsored by the We Campaign, an organization dedicated to energy independence. When we arrived, a gigantic crowd had already amassed on the front steps, and a few charming activists from a conservative organization called Freedom Works were holding signs that read, respectively, “Drill Drill Drill” and “You Can’t Have My Car Al Gore.”
We left our activist friends behind as the doors opened and we were led into a colossal stadium-style auditorium adorned with huge green “We” signs and green spotlights (“it looks like Emerald City,” someone remarked). Literally thousands of people filed into the hall – remarkable for an event that had had only a week’s worth of publicity – before Al emerged to deafening applause.
The speech he delivered was, I thought, absolutely brilliant. Instead of the political speeches of our YouTube gaffe-avoiding era – which generally seem to range from faultlessly orthodox to merely careful – this was a true call to action and unapologetic shake-up of the status quo. Al Gore pointed out how three of the most significant problems we’re facing – national security threats, environmental issues, economic worries – can all be traced to our overdependence on oil. (My favorite quote: “We’re borrowing money from China to buy oil from the Persian Gulf to burn it in ways that destroy the planet. Every bit of that’s got to change.”)
The solution is not, of course, to “drill now” or to set a long-term goal (2050, for example) to cut carbon emissions. Rather, Al Gore proposed a 10-year deadline to transition completely to alternative energy sources. He couched this goal in terms of JFK’s call to land a man on the moon in 10 years – one which appeared similarly, laughably, impossible but ended up happening, instilling the kind of hope and confidence in American citizens that is sorely lacking today. We left the hall feeling incredibly inspired and moved to action; although Gore was criticized by some for failing to delve into the specifics, the audacity of the vision he had set forth resonated with the crowd of thousands.
After work that same evening, I headed to my new favorite DC haunt, Busboys & Poets – it’s a U Street cafe/bar/bookstore, named for Langston Hughes, who worked as a busboy when he first began writing poetry. It’s also dedicated to progressive causes; all proceeds from the bookstore are directed toward social justice education in local high schools, and the place regularly hosts author events.
Christine Pelosi (daughter of Nancy), a Democratic activist and author, was stopping by on this particular day to discuss her new book, so a friend and I had decided on a whim to drop in. After we were seated in the small, fairly intimate room, a tall woman walked up to our table and introduced herself: “Hi, I’m Christine. What brings you all here?” So there I was, talking to Christine Pelosi, superdelegate, about my internship with the Wilson Center. I noticed she was wearing one of the green We Campaign buttons they’d been handing out at the Al Gore speech, so I remarked how much I’d enjoyed the event. “Wasn’t it great?” she said. “I’d love for you both to talk about it – I’m doing an interactive segment after my book talk.”
We were listening to her talk when a few sharply dressed Secret Service guards walked in, flanking a petite, well-coiffed woman I immediately recognized as Nancy Pelosi. My friend and I exchanged hysterical, unbelieving looks. No one had even mentioned the possibility of her showing up here; we’d just come for the event and some good food, and I’d even brought some work articles to read afterward. She took a seat a few tables away from us, beaming at everyone in the room as we stared at her, goggle-eyed.
To add mortification to our shock, Christine, who was asking everyone about their “calls to service,” called on us – “there are a couple of young ladies here who attended the Al Gore rally, and we’d love for them to talk about why they went.” A mic was thrust in my hand and before I knew it, I was stammering about the need for alternative energy sources as Nancy Pelosi looked on attentively. I can’t (and don’t really want to) remember what I said – I was completely overwhelmed and still amazed that I was able to string together a complete sentence.
As the event wound down, Speaker Pelosi began chatting casually with people in the room. We approached her, disposable camera in hand (I had shamelessly run out to a neighboring CVS midway through the event after my camera picked this opportune time to die). I racked my brain for a second figuring out how to address her (Representative Pelosi? Ms. Pelosi? Nancy?) and finally said, “Speaker Pelosi, it’s such an honor to meet you.” She replied with a smile, “No, the pleasure is all mine.”
She agreed to a picture, and when we were having trouble figuring out the camera, showed us how to turn the flash on. We shared our tremulous excitement with two girls our age from American, who had been sharing a table with Nancy Pelosi (she reached over and picked up their tab at the end of the evening). Finding our way back to the U Street Metro station, we were practically dancing, our excitement symptomatic of full-on Potomac fever.