What's Missing in Obama and Clinton's Bitterness Battle

In the face of people's real lives, Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton's escalating war of words about 'bitterness" seems to be an utterly silly, even a potentially destructive distraction. As this battle is fought on 24 hour news networks, I can�t help but think about my waitress this past weekend at a Denny's Restaurant in rural central Pennsylvania. I walked into Denny's at 6AM last Saturday morning. I was in town taking my daughter to an accepted student's day at a local liberal arts college, while most the other people in the restaurant were readying for a day fishing or hunting. One of only two waitresses on duty, my waitress scrambled between 10 tables and the kitchen, all the while calling me "honey" each time she stopped by to refill my coffee. As I went to pay my bill, she told me that she had been at the restaurant since 6AM the previous day, and that she was to work until 2PM that afternoon.

As I quickly totaled the number of hours she would working that day, I couldn't help but think of Senator Obama's comments about how people in small towns across Pennsylvania and Indiana feel "bitter" these days, seemingly left behind in a world changing around them; nor could I forget Senator Clinton's rapid response to his comments, arguing that Obama's words demonstrated that he was "out of touch," an "elitist," someone akin to the wind-surfing Senator John F Kerry.

This most recent spat between the two campaigns took place as the candidates participated on Sunday evening at the "Compassion Forum," held at Messiah College outside Harrisburg, PA - a quick drive from that Denny's. I listened carefully as each spoke of their personal perspectives on faith, and the connection they see between their faith and goals of fighting poverty. Both these individuals said that such a fight is a moral imperative.

But what does such a moral imperative mean when it comes to the Denny's waitress? I keep thinking about her as I wonder about this recent war of words. I don't buy that Obama is out of touch, though I do believe that he must translate his message of hope by speaking more directly and plainly to people in need. And while I do believe that Clinton would fight hard for those in need, I wish she would not lower herself by playing with words in ways that taint her own credibility and seek to cripple her opponent.

The very war over the nature of the word "bitter" makes empty the notion of a moral imperative to fight poverty and lift up all people. It is a digression from the real issues. No, let me put a finer point on that: it is a transgression of a public trust not to play with people�s realities.  Indeed, while we may hold different meanings for "bitterness," we do share a common knowledge that people are in search of an alternative way forward - of a politics and public life that reflect our better instincts. If there are disagreements about the candidates- ideas, so be it. But that is not really the debate right now, is it?

Perhaps the irony of this debate should not go unnoticed here: two candidates who profess to offer a new direction for the nation are caught up in a duel of words over the meaning of bitterness, when what we all know with certainty is that people are truly bitter (and angry) about the inability of their political leaders to address their genuine concerns.

Here�s my prescription for our current malady. I would ask both candidates to take five minutes to reflect on their words of faith during the recent Compassion Forum. Then I'd ask them to share two sentences about what their notion of faith calls them to say to my waitress from Denny�s. What would they say to her about her life and future as she finishes one of her 32 hour shifts. What words would reflect a sense of meaning in her life, and what word would offer her a sense of possibility about what tomorrow could bring.

These are the words I wish to hear.