Phyllis Chesler Interviews Carol Gould

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An American Odyssey
Last uploaded : Monday 12th Apr 2004 at 01:38
Contributed by : The Editor


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I have loved Vermont since a was a tiny child; my parents used to take my sister and me on holiday to New England to visit the various music festivals including Tanglewood and Marlboro. We stayed in cabins, caught our own fish to eat and guzzled silver dollar pancakes with real maple syrup at the foot of Hogback Mountain. That was long ago. I have lived in the UK for many decades but I still miss Vermont. It had a spiritual resonance for me that no other state, including my native Pennsylvania, has ever had. When Howard Dean hit the headlines with his endorsement of gay unions I chuckled; Vermont has always been a maverick state going back to the days of emancipation of slaves and women?s suffrage. Recently I took the step of securing a retirement home in Vermont and I pay attention when something happens there that ought to be policy for the rest of the nation. I was proud of Howard Dean when he achieved international prominence with his Presidential campaign and internet support base; the London papers gave him wide coverage and his status as a non-Washington operator appealed to many in Europe.

People who know from my published writings that in recent years -- since the new Intifadah and 9/11 -- I had become as conservative as Wolfy and Rummy are puzzled when I rave about Howard Dean. I was for the Iraq intervention and Dean was not. He has conservative views on capital punishment and guns that coalesce with my own. But he did a great job as governor of Vermont, and as a doctor has a fundamental understanding of the things that worry Americans that would escape many old Washington hands.

My own hobby horse is health care: one of the reasons why I am terrified of moving back permanently to the USA is the looming prospect of hideously expensive health insurance and medicines. In the UK people who take a number of pills every day are entitled to a Prescription Exemption Certificate. Pills that would cost an American $800-$1,000 a month cost a British patient ?89 ($175) a year!

I attended the UK Caucus of Democrats Abroad in London in February stunned by the possibility that Howard Dean, my favourite candidate, might not be the one to stand triumphant at the podium in Boston. There had been talk that he was a ?gift? to the Bush team because he was regarded as the most radical and therefore the easiest to beat. He had come under brutal and painfully destructive scrutiny from the American media (his coverage in Europe and here in the UK, by contrast, had been glittering.) It was therefore all the more heartwarming to have been elected a full Dean delegate to the Edinburgh Global Convention due to take place at the end of March.

If the enthusiasm and energy of the delegates and officials who attended Edinburgh from every corner of the earth was anything to go by, the 2004 Worldwide Caucus of Democrats Abroad was nothing short of historic. The news of the staggering increase in membership across the globe, and of disaffected expatriates coming out of the woodwork in every nation nearly moved me to tears. President Bush was generally regarded as the catalyst that had infused Democrats Abroad with renewed vigour.

I arrived at teatime on Thursday and was immediately swept up by the atmosphere when an informal gathering of the Dean PPG (Presidential Preference Group) met in the Grosvenor Hilton lobby. It was encouraging to meet delegates from places as far away as Japan and to welcome Bob Neer, a Dean campaign co-ordinator who had come in under his own steam from Boston. Despite long and arduous journeys, all were eager to get started and to ignore jet-lag.

A delightful reception was held at Bellini?s in the Old Town Thursday evening, and this was a good opportunity for representatives from all PPGs to have delectable hors d?oeuvres and great conversation. Many people I met at the function remained pals throughout the weekend. We broke up into groups to go to dinner and I found myself with three men all to myself: Richard Edelstein and Stephen Muse of France DA and Bob Neer. We had a chance to discuss our expectations and to share knowledge of the process from our varied levels of DA experience. For a novice like me it was an education.

Friday?s Executive Committee meeting and Platform Debate continued the process of education for those of us who were new to the process. It is notable that the Israeli delegation, described as amongst the ?best intellectual contributors? in previous conventions was absent this time; there was no Palestinian delegation. (I want to note that I have been trying to re-vivify the Israelis and to organise my Palestinian-American contacts in the West Bank to regroup but to no avail.) It was disappointing to this perpetual 14-year-old that there were no DA buttons. T-shirts or other merchandise available at the Convention but this was reported at DPCA as a production snafu Stateside. But these things are trivial when one realises how moving it was to hear that a group is now up and running in Iraq!

Friday?s whiskey tasting dinner included a tribute to Tom Fina in honour of his decades of dedication to DA. For those who have read his letter from Washington for so many years, it was a pleasure to put a face to a name. Tom and I part company over Israel; I see red when people in the UK and Europe bark at me about the power of ?the Jewish lobby.? To my astonishment my most senior fellow American convention delegate referred to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian areas as ?the Final Solution.? These are the times when I wonder if I am not a ?Demublican? at heart. I attended a lecture by a Palestinian group at SOAS just before Edinburgh and was astounded to hear a British speaker accuse the Democratic Party of dominating US politics because of its ?overwhelming Zionist composition.? If American policy and politics is steered by Jews, Joe Leiberman?s presence on the 2000 ticket would have swept the electoral college.

The PPG groups began their work on Saturday; the Dean PPG achieved viability and selected a delegate, Dorothy Dillard from Switzerland. Terri McMillan of Japan was elected Delegate at Large. Although I dislike singling people out by race and gender, I was thrilled on this occasion that two African American women would be representing us in Boston. They are both the epitome of Dean dynamism. The Dean PPG was still labouring in the hour before the Highland Ball, but being a Dowager Jewish Princess I had to slip away to see to the nails; hair, eye makeup etc. However I managed to get into my formal attire on time and make it onto the first bus to Prestonfield in time to see the enormous peacocks in all their splendour at dusk.

My misfortune was to be seated next to a man who seemed to think I was a cross between a Hamas activist and envoy of Fidel Castro. Though not a great beauty I am used to men enjoying my company so it was a jolt to my system to have the Grand Curmudgeon of 2004 next to me. Then came the cigar debacle. He lit up and the table virtually emptied. I left at 10PM long before coffee or dancing but I am told there were some tense moments between cigar-smokers and anti-cigar factions. Having filmed suicide bomb carnage and having been in war zones where Hezbollah Katyusha rockets are whizzing by I find people like the Curmudgeon painful company and was glad to get back to the hotel. I understand the rest of the Dean group had a much better time out and about in Edinburgh town.

Notwithstanding the arrival of British Summertime and the loss of a an hour?s sleep after the Ball, most of us staggered down to 6:30 breakfast that the Hilton had kindly arranged for us, and the regional Caucuses resumed at 7:15, followed immediately by the Global Convention. Oh, how wonderful those scones and coffee tasted mid-morning! Diana Kerry, the Senator?s sister, addressed the Convention and visited the Dean PPG. Her extensive experience of living abroad -- and living through many a coup! -- had a deep resonance for all of us. Caucusing continued all day Sunday and the Dean group again achieved viability, selecting J Brad deLange as Alternate for Boston. Bob Neer got up on a chair and told the group that expectations had far exceeded any he had envisaged a few days before, and it appeared the Dean PPG had achieved at least eight representatives for Boston. The Platform Debate resumed before dinner.

I had asked the Dean PPG to come out for a meal but the platform debate and DNC elections were detaining those who had qualified to have a chance to be selected for Boston. Bob Neer, Michael Steltzer and Andrew from Germany and I went out to The Scotsman Restaurant. It used to be the HQ of the famous newspaper and has retained all the features of the original building. The food was superb and I highly recommend it.

Miraculously all business, including selection of DNC members was completed by 11:15PM.

Those of us who stayed until Monday had a relaxing time and at breakfast we remaining Deanies had a few laughs; that was a therapeutic exercise to counter the exhaustion. We were filled with eager anticipation for what lies ahead in Boston and beyond. What I was left with was a feeling of hope: every person at Edinburgh was infused with passion and commitment to regime change in Washington.

I would have to live in a parallel universe not to comment on the tensions that kept bubbling up during the long weekend. It was deeply saddening to see people so angry at one another when their common goal is to bring the Democratic party, headed by a mensch, back to power in Washington. Frankly, I found the outbursts and warnings to Dean supporters about our somehow damaging the image of Democrats Abroad disturbing. I am old enough to remember names like Harold Stassen; Adlai Stevenson; Estes Kefauver and Henry Wallace. Oh, the beauty of American democracy! It reminded me of the awful divisions in the Israeli Labour Party after the death of Rabin that led to the smooth rise of the Right once more. From time to time at Presidential conventions there have been second and third choice candidates whose delegates have loyally trooped to the venue. What I found so astonishing in Edinburgh is that supporters of a fine man like Howard Dean, who had been at it for well over a year -- building a database; inspiring young and disaffected voters across America and not just in liberal strongholds -- were being characterised as damaging to the image of the party. Once again I was reminded of the fury and bitterness in Israel that left so many valuable and articulate leaders out in the wilderness.

As I said to the group on Friday night ( I had no intention of insulting Diana Kerry, who was seated facing me, and apologise if I did) Democrats Abroad have a unique perspective as Americans who live in other cultures. We understand anti-Americanism. We have an independent viewpoint. Delegates from countries as far afield as Japan, Armenia, Switzerland and the UK who might be elected to Boston can be expected to have a slightly different view of the universe.

Finally, a few very un-British personal notes, if readers will allow me to indulge you: I have lived amongst British people most of my life and have minimal contact with Americans. However, I was overcome with emotion when I said the Pledge of Allegiance at the opening of the Convention , something I?d last done perhaps thirty-five years ago in school in Philadelphia. Perhaps my emotion came from the fact that at Christmas I was rushed into hospital with what the consultants thought was breast cancer. After many biopsies it was not. Anyone who has been through this ordeal knows what it is like to live through ?the wait.? Attending Edinburgh as a delegate was a thrill for someone given a second shot at life at her half century.

It was odd coming back to London and trying to explain to my long-time British friends what this was all about. It had never occurred to me that Brits have no idea what a Presidential Convention does. With the world in the perilous situation of today this year's Presidential campaign is of enormous significance and I feel privileged to have contributed in my small way to this process as history -- and our manifest destiny -- unfolds.

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