A Lesson on Tactics and the “Enthusiasm Gap”

By Miryam Ehrlich Williamson

President Carter with the White House solar panels in 1979. (Photo: 350.org)

Will you do me a favor, please? Go read Bill McKibben’s op-ed piece, “My Road Trip With a Solar Rock Star or Notes on the Enthusiasm Gap,” and then come back here and read my reaction to it. I’m asking you for this favor because I want you to tell me whether I’m being fair.

Come on, it will only take a couple of minutes to read and you won’t lose your place; the piece will open in a new window so you can close it, or click the Back button, and you’ll be here again.

Look, if you’re not convinced you should go read it yourself, I’ll tell you a little about it as dispassionately as I can. Then maybe you’ll humor me.

Still here? Haven’t gone? OK, here goes: (If you’ve read McKibben’s report, you may want to skip the next four paragraphs – or check them out to see if I’m stacking the deck.)

The backstory is that in the 1970s President Jimmy Carter put a bank of solar hot-water panels on the roof of the White House. His successor, Ronald Reagan, had them taken down. Somehow the panels made their way to the cafeteria roof at Unity College in rural Maine, where they’ve been working ever since.

The day after Labor Day McKibben, accompanied by three Unity students in one of the college’s solar diesel vans, set out to take a panel to the White House, with advance warning to officials there, planning to ask that it be accepted as a historical relic and that the administration commit to installing new ones on the White House roof.

The trip was part of the run-up to an October 10 global work party sponsored by 350.org, which McKibben founded. As part of the event, the world’s leaders will be urged to get engaged in the fight against global warming.

The crew was able to meet with two people from the administration involved in environmental affairs. What happened at that meeting was a less than satisfying experience for the students and McKibben.

OK, now I’m going to stop playing neutral and tell you what I really think, quoting McKibben as I go along. I asked you to read him first, so you’ll have the full context for the quotes.

One of those crucial leaders is, of course, Barack Obama, who stood by with his arms folded this summer while the Senate punted on climate-change legislation. We thought this might be a good way for him to signal that he was still committed to change, even though he hadn’t managed to pass new laws.

I haven’t been exactly silent on this administration’s lack of commitment myself., so the first sentence in the quote gets no quibble from me. But I find the second sentence disingenuous, to put it politely.

If I were to make a top 10 list of people whose work on behalf of the environment I admire and respect, Bill McKibben would occupy the first four or five slots. But because I have been studying and taking part in actions associated with social and economic justice for more years than McKibben has been breathing, I feel entitled to offer a bit of tactical advice.

Tactic #1: Until you have exhausted all possible means of persuasion, do not ambush a public figure in public. In this way are enemies made, unnecessarily.

[...W]e kept telling reporters as they turned out along the route: if the Obamas will put solar panels back on the White House roof, or on the lawn, or anywhere else where people can see them, it will help get the message across — the same way that seed sales climbed 30% across the country in the year after Michelle planted her garden.

A lot of work went into getting that garden to happen, work that didn’t involve a festive drive down from Maine, news interviews and performances along the way, an appearance on David Letterman, and, to be repetitive, an ambush. I’m not saying Barack Obama is going to turn against the climate-change movement, only that you get more flies with honey than with vinegar.

Tactic #2: See Tactic #1.

There was just one nagging concern as we headed south. We still hadn’t heard anything conclusive from the White House. We’d asked them — for two months — if they’d accept the old panel as a historical relic returned home, and if they’d commit to installing new ones soon.

Here’s where the disingenuous part gets really disingenuous: The lack of a conclusive response was a conclusive response. It was a no. Did McKibben really expect the White House to write back and explain all the reasons why what he asked wasn’t possible – especially given the phrase “commit to installing new ones soon”?

Here are a few of the reasons: The White House doesn’t belong to the Obamas. They can’t just decide to put stuff on the roof, run pipes through the building, put a tank down somewhere, and replumb the house so some part of it is supplied with solar hot water. I don’t know what agencies and people Carter had to get to sign off on his solar panels, how he got the money, and so forth. But trust me: he didn’t do it soon and he didn’t do it without a whole lot of preparation. Same with Reagan, in reverse.

Also, the Obamas can’t just accept gifts of value – not an antique solar panel, not free installation of a solar hot water system. There are laws about such things. And there are also people who live for the opportunity to catch anyone named Obama off base and go on the Republican News Network (acronym is FOX) and YouTube and Twitter and whatnot and grab a news cycle or three, paralyzing the half of the government that really wants to do good stuff.

Add to that the fact that the Secret Service owns the White House roof for safety’s sake. Say what you want about the mentality in this country that has a fair percentage of people looking under their beds and in the bushes for terrorists. I’ll take our president’s safety over what sounds suspiciously like a publicity stunt any day. And imagine getting someone in the Secret Service to take responsibility for saying OK to putting something on the White House roof that gleams in the sunlight the way solar panels do – and soon.

I’m not making this up.  I’ve spent most of my civic life working outside of government, but I spent enough of it inside to know what I’m talking about.

Tactic #3: Before you start making demands of people in a position to help you advance your goals, do your homework and find out what’s possible.

I’ll stop quoting from here on; it gets too lengthy and complicated. McKibben says, accurately, I’m sure, that the people drafted to sit with him and the students, said nothing except to brag about what the administration has already done for the environment and what more it’s doing now. Fact is, and McKibben might have known this, that those people were sent in precisely because they didn’t have the authority to say anything but what they said. They were ordered to go to this meeting when they showed up for work that morning – the decision to have a meeting wasn’t conveyed until 6 o’clock the night before, and the meeting was set for 9 a.m. No time to prepare, no time to be briefed, just show up and make this go away was their mission.

McKibben refers to them as “bureaucrats.” I won’t because too many people use that term as a synonym for “scum.” By definition, anyone who is hired (as opposed to elected) to work in a government office is a bureaucrat, and bureaucrats are constrained by their bosses and the people they work for (that is, the public) so they can’t exercise much in the way of independent judgment. Did you know that the most stressful jobs of all are those in which the worker has no autonomy? That’s the definition of “bureaucrat.”

Nor would these workers pose for pictures with the students and McKibben. Churlish of them? Not at all. They wouldn’t dare. The White House office of communications gets to say who poses for pictures, with whom, where, and when. Had photos been taken they would have been all over the Internet in a matter of minutes, and the workers would have been unemployed in a matter of hours.

Tactic #4: See Tactic #3.

Now here’s what really got me going. I knew about this visit a couple of days after it happened. I didn’t say anything about it, although I thought it unfortunate, until McKibben’s op-ed piece appeared on Truthout today. (It’s dated Labor Day, but since McKibben says the trip didn’t start until the day after, and I neither believe that he made this all up in advance of the trip nor that he’s that prescient, I’ll take that as a mistake.)

And I didn’t take my gloves off until I read the part about how the students waited until they were out of the White House before the “hot tears” (McKibben’s words) started to flow. Those students are young enough to be McKibben’s children. They’re young enough to be my grandchildren. If I were taking people so young, with so little experience of how unfair life can be, on what might be one of the greatest trips of their life, I’d have a care for managing expectations.

“Look,” I might say, “what we’re doing is chancy. We haven’t a clue that they’ll see us. They may not be able to give us an answer. Enjoy all the fun you have and the attention you get on the way down, but don’t get your hopes up too high. Whatever happens, the trip will have been worth taking.”

aside to Bill: I feel that those kids’ hopes were unreasonably raised, their emotions exploited – and I don’t care how important your cause is, you don’t get to do that to people, especially young ones. You took them down there, you asked government people to do things they couldn’t possibly do, and you let the students be disappointed to the point of tears. That’s not the way to develop activists for the long run.

One last quote:

I got to see the now-famous enthusiasm gap up close and personal last week, and it wasn’t a pretty sight.

I’m with you there, buddy, and I just saw it again today, when I read your piece. You said a bunch of nice, understanding things about Obama at the end, but taking cheap shots, however you try to muffle them, doesn’t help the rest of us, including Obama, who are trying to make things better.

The talking heads are saying progressives won’t come out to vote this year because of the “now-famous enthusiasm gap.” Grownups knos that sometimes we have to do things even if we’re not enthusiastic about them – like getting people out to vote for a decent and humane future on November 2. Putting ammunition in the other side’s muskets is a good way to ensure that 98% of us will be cleaning the other 2%’s toilets by the time the Republicans get done with us.

For future reference: This the first administration to have an Office of Public Engagement. Its web site is here. Its e-mail address is here. The head of the office is Valerie Jarrett. I don’t have her number, but if you call the main White House switchboard and ask for her office, I’ll bet you get through. That’s how to do it without staging an ambush.

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4 Responses to “A Lesson on Tactics and the “Enthusiasm Gap””

  1. As someone who admires Miryam Ehrlich Williamson enormously, enough to have quoted her in my books, I’m inclined to take her schooling even more seriously than I do the critiques of others. And I do take it seriously–perhaps we shouldn’t have engaged in this. But for the record’s sake, a few things:
    1) Clearly, we had the conversation among our whole team outlined in #4 above. We had it many times, in pretty much those words. We all knew walking in that we weren’t going to get what we wanted–our sadness at the end was much more from the cavalier way it was done. Had the bureaucrats we encountered (and it doesn’t seem a slur to me to call them bureaucrats–certainly none was intended) spoken in anything like the terms that Williamson does, we might well have disagreed. But at least it would have been honest.

    2) Of course we did try, for months, to tell the administration we were coming. What they kept telling us was ‘it’s complicated,’ maybe for some of the reasons Williamson outlines. Which is true–you’d have to work with the Secret Service, and figure out how to make it happen. But compared with, say, rounding up 60 votes in the Senate–not complicated. They’ve had almost two years to work on it, and an entire Greening the Government initiative.  As it happens, the Carter administration, though often condemned for ineffectiveness, managed to get it done in sprightly fashion once the decision was made–the papers showing the decision process are in the Carter library. The whole process was shepherded by Stu Eiszenstat, one of those names I’d long forgotten. In any event, we would have been quite happy with some easier compromise–say solar panels out on the lawn, like they are at my house.

    3) The main point of our disagreement, I think, is that we wanted to press Obama. We hoped, quite honestly, that he’d seize a chance to throw a bone to those young people who ranked global warming as their #1 issue in exit polls in 2008 and who haven’t seen much action. But barring that, we wished to make him a little uncomfortable. I like Obama and was, I think, the first major environmentalist to sign up on the Environmentalists for Obama letterhead, back in the days when the nomination was very much in doubt. But perhaps my boyhood in Lexington Mass, or my adulthood in Ethan Allen’s Vermont, makes me slightly less prone to worrying about asking the powerful to do what they need to do. We didn’t want to widen the enthusiasm gap, which is why, as I explain in the second half of the piece that Williamson doesn’t quote from, we ignored the advice from many to turn the whole thing into civil disobedience and street theater. But if we have to in the future, we will–the solar panel itself is not that key, but there’s no issue more important for our future than this. Barack Obama is a good man, I think, but physics and chemistry are physics and chemistry, and they’re not going to give him a pass.

    4) The one thing I didn’t like in this piece was what seemed the insistence that we were acting disingenuously. It’s quite okay to come after my polish or my political wisdom. But I think 350.org has never given anyone reason to doubt its sincerity. Fool I may be, but an earnest one.

  2. Clearly, Bill McKibben and I each unwittingly made a pair of assumptions. I don’t doubt we’ll both be more careful in the future.

    I assumed that he understood the constraints on the Obamas, and that the people sent to meet him and the students were chosen specifically because they could say or agree to nothing.

    I also assumed Bill didn’t prepare the students for failure.

    Those two assumptions led to the use of the word “disingenuous.” If I had been correct, the word would have been apt.  I wasn’t, so it wasn’t.

    For his part, Bill assumed a non-existent power on the part of the administration. I hate most of what’s become of this country since 9/11. No longer are we “the home of the brave and the land of the free.”  And that applies to the Obamas no less than to the rest of us.

    Judging from his description of what transpired in the “War Room” (I’d love to know who chose that location, of all the named rooms in the West Wing) Bill assumed indifference (at best) on the part of the people sent to pacify the White House visitors.  I’m pretty sure I know what the experience was like for them.

    Sometimes in government you do what you have to do so you can advance to the next step up, or the one after that, where you stand a chance of having some influence on the issues that matter to you.

    As to Bill’s #4, at no point was I thinking about 350.org as being anything other than forthright and a national treasure.  If the organization wasn’t as influential as it is, it wouldn’t be reviled as much as it is. It was Bill I thought disingenuous, and I’m glad to have been shown my mistake.

  3. Wow, this is an amazing exchange between thinking, feeling individuals with lessons throughout the thread of this discussion for so many of us who care about government’s role in our lives and the issues that rule our existence. Thank you both for the insight and the experience of reading a respectful conversation of what I think is important — communication makes better people of us all!

  4. [...] read this. And if you don’t have the back story, read here. There’s also a post from me here, including comments you shouldn’t miss if you want to appreciate just what a victory this [...]

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