Thursday, January 12, 2012

Notes from The Carter Center

The Carter Center's headquarters, usually on the 9th floor of an anonymous apartment building, have been moved for the week of President Carter's visit to a large, grand conference room in a large, grand international hotel. Endless cups of bright orange and strawberry juice chase cups of coffee and tea, croissants and meringues, as thirty staff members and interns type, call, eat, drink, meet, and speak, all at a buzzing, frenetic pace, while hotel staff stand in austere, bored silence, occasionally bolting into action to replenish the snacks. 

Outside, a phalanx of Egyptian and American secret service agents mill around, checking their phones and making small talk. The Egyptians wear white shirts, black jackets, and red ties, making them look like walking national flags. I remember a great short story by Donald Barthelme where he wonders: "Does the bodyguard gauge the importance of his principal in terms of the number of bodyguards he requires?" Today I made a game of trying to count them, and got lost in an officious ocean of red and white, which the American and Egyptian flags have in common, and blue and black, their differences. 

The energy of the war room comes in waves throughout the fourteen to sixteen hour days. Everyone's eyes grow red from staring at computer screens. Small talk often consists of making fun of journalists who stole pastries or dressed poorly, announcements of how swamped with work someone is, and bemused observations usually met with silence and zombie-like stares.

Everyone revels in the fun details of Carter' s meetings and photo op's and interviews, most of which happen far from the war room. At a polling station visit yesterday, the former President was swarmed by cameramen and moved slowly at the center of three concentric circles of secret service, police, and reporters. Because voter turnout has been so low this round, Carter only got to see a single voter actually perform the ritual of marking a ballot, dropping it in the big wooden box, and inking his finger. The man told Carter he was a big fan of the Camp David Accords, despite being an "Islamist." 

When the President enters the room, everyone stands and their faces glow. He raises his hands, and in his long familiar Georgia accent announces simply "My guarantee to you all, is that whatever happens here, it's going to be interesting!" 

The moment of zen comes late in the evening watching the elaborate ritual of sealing big wooden ballot boxes with hot red wax:

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