top of page
  • Writer's pictureHollis Robbins

After working on Mel Levine's U.S. Senate campaign (lost in the 1992 California primary) and having a baby in the middle of the Landers earthquake (June 1992), my then husband and I moved to Denver in September so that he could work for Governor Roy Romer. We did not know anyone in Colorado and my father-in-law suggested we make a sizable contribution to the state Democratic Party to get ourselves involved before the November elections. So we did and we were.


It turned out that there were some schisms in the party between the Clinton (Bill) people and the Ben Nighthorse Campbell people. Campbell had beaten two popular candidates in the primary, former Governor Dick Lamm and Colorado activist Josie Heath. We arrived after this and didn't then know the players or the hurt feelings. Because I was new to town and knew my way around campaigns, I was asked to broker a peace deal and organize a joint fundraiser for Clinton and Campbell. The venue was Swanee Hunt, a Denver philanthropist who was later appointed Clinton's Ambassador to Austria. And so I did -- the Clinton people gave me a very valuable donor mailing list (on a floppy disk) and I made calls to get the proper people on the host list and was directed to a stationary store for the invitations


I had a 4 month old so all of this was being done with a baby on my hip. So it was easy, after I got the box of invitations and envelopes printed with the valuable mailing labels, to put them on the top of my car while I put the baby in the car seat, then get in the car, and drive off.


We didn't have cell phones back then but when I got home, maybe 15 minutes later, the house phone was ringing when I walked through the door with the sleeping baby (in the car seat). "Are you the young lady who just got invitations from our store? They are scattered all up and down the street!" I died. I raced back, waking the baby. If I am recalling correctly the shop manager assumed I would want another batch and was printing them off while I went up and down the street like in a comedy, screaming wet baby in one arm, gathering up scattered dusty invitations, dodging cars. (It was a busy street.)


Somehow I got the invitations out that night. We hadn't asked for a specific amount for the Campbell campaign but this was a high donor list at Swanee Hunt's house and we hoped for a good turnout and maybe even a respectable sum of money. Over the next few weeks I learned who I'd sent invitations too. It was a very respectable list. But some of the Party volunteers were irritated about the event and at me for marching into town into this role.


Fast forward to the night of the event, some time in late October. I found something fairly attractive to wear -- still carrying the baby around with me -- and arrived at Swanee's house early. I met some of the Party volunteers who seemed worried about the turnout. But luckily it was a beautiful night, the right people were on the host list, and everyone showed up. There was a basked near the front door for checks and the basket was in fact filling.


Toward the end of the evening, one of the Party volunteers told me very specifically: Representative Campbell likes to have the checks handed to him immediately after the event is over. Make sure you do that. Gather them up and go over to him and hand them to him. Okay, I said. I'd worked in politics long enough to know that politicians all have their preferences when it came to money.


So when just about everyone had left I gathered up the checks and walked over to Campbell. Hi, I said. Looks like we did pretty well -- and with two hands (I don't know where the baby was at the moment) I held out a bit stack of checks.


Campbell jumped back as if I'd held out a snake. Get those away from me! he hissed. What are you doing??


It turns out he hated handling money. He found it degrading. His staff generally whisked the checks out of his sight. The Party volunteers knew this of course. The joke was on me. That's what I deserved sweeping into town and organizing an event with people I didn't know. Campbell never spoke to me again. A few months later he changed political parties and served out his term (and a second term) as a Republican.







  • Writer's pictureHollis Robbins

It's expected in certain circles to speak of disliking school. I did not like school from third grade on, though the alternative, not going to school, was worse. I grew up on a lake in the woods which was nice enough but it was lonely and boring. So school, though awful, was preferable. The awfulness was a fact of life that I didn't theorize until much later. Somewhere sometime I came across Alvin Toffler's Future Shock (1970) in which he described the “Industrial Era School”:


Mass education was the ingenious machine constructed by industrialism to produce the kind of adults it needed. The problem was inordinately complex. How to pre-adapt children for a new world – a world of repetitive indoor toil, smoke, noise, machines, crowded living conditions, collective discipline, a world in which time was to be regulated not by the cycle of sun and moon, but by the factory whistle and the clock.


The solution was an educational system that, in its very structure, simulated this new world. This system did not emerge instantly. Even today it retains throw-back elements from pre-industrial society. Yet the whole idea of assembling masses of students (raw material) to be processed by teachers (workers) in a centrally located school (factory) was a stroke of industrial genius. The whole administrative hierarchy of education, as it grew up, followed the model of industrial bureaucracy. The very organization of knowledge into permanent disciplines was grounded on industrial assumptions. Children marched from place to place and sat in assigned stations. Bells rang to announce changes of time.


The inner life of the school thus became an anticipatory mirror, a perfect introduction to industrial society. The most criticized features of education today – the regimentation, lack of individualization, the rigid systems of seating, grouping, grading and marking, the authoritarian role of the teacher – are precisely those that made mass public education so effective an instrument of adaptation for its place and time.


Okay then, Hudson Memorial School, where I spent 4th grade through 8th grade, progressively depressed and angry. I understand your roots.


And yet there were highlights. I was the first girl to enroll in shop class (industrial arts) rather than home economics. (I was harassed mercilessly there by all the boys and the teacher in ways I only now understand. But I learned to use power tools.) My 7th grade English teacher taught us Poe and spoke of her Master's thesis, which I still remember: "Verisimilitude in Poe's Ligeia." I talked my way back into the top math class after getting straight Cs the year before. My science teacher had played briefly for the Boston Patriots but got cut and took out his anger on the students. My eighth grade English teacher made fun of a girl whose last name was 'Seaman' saying she would never make it through high school. I was on the chess club and student council, which meant taking the late bus home, which didn't go near my house. This meant literally walking three miles on the road or a mile through the woods to get home. The band teacher who was a volunteer firefighter on weekends once described finding a burnt infant in its crib like handling a pot roast. So not exactly a lack of individuation but regimentation combined with no quality control.



  • Writer's pictureHollis Robbins

When I was briefly a doctoral student at Stanford in 1991 (after my Master's in Public Policy at Harvard, before returning five years later for a Master's in English literature), I was a research assistant for the excellent Richard A. Brody, who passed away last year. Dick's work at the time focused on how public opinion was swayed by the appearance of elite 'experts' on TV news. I had written a final paper/thesis of sorts at the Kennedy School of Government analyzing network evening news coverage of the Exxon Valdez oil spill (whether it had or had not attended sufficiently to the idea of 'risk') and so I presented myself to him as someone prepared to do research on television news.


Back then there was no internet really -- and certainly no Google -- so research was done by looking at volumes of the synopses of news coverage published by the Vanderbilt Television News Archive. Each network's news coverage each day was broken down by length of segment, reporter, on-air guests, a synopsis of the story, and a description of the images involved. I rarely checked the quality of these synopses because there was little else, beyond ordering and screening of videotapes to watch the news every night. Sometimes I did this, for the Valdez paper. But only a few times for Dick's research.


Dick was interested in judgmental shortcuts to opinion in the run-up to the Persian Gulf War. His thesis was that a person did not actually have to have an opinion on something but rather kept in mind a list of elite experts and whatever that expert's opinion would be the opinion of the person watching. The article Brody published was:"Crisis, war, and public opinion: The media and public support for the president," which appeared in Taken by storm: The media, public opinion, and US foreign policy in the Gulf War (1994): 210-230." (I think I'm cited as the researcher somewhere.) The book he eventually wrote was: Assessing the President: The Media, Elite Opinion, and Public Support.


The idea is that the elite opinion was a kind of heuristic, enabling judgmental shortcuts. Who has time to have an opinion on anything? Easier instead to select a stable of 'thought leaders' (the term wasn't current at the time) and let them do the thinking for you. I don't remember the names of the elite experts but I mapped the rise and fall of support for the Gulf War in Gallup polls that lagged one or another expert appearing on ABC, CBS, NBC, and/or PBS. The results were elegant and convincing. You saw your elite friend on the news and your opinion strengthened. I was actually surprised by the data thought Dick was not. I think he found it charming that I was shocked at how easily people were swayed.


I think about elite shortcuts in the context of social media and what people post. Podcasters are the dominant elite judgement shortcuts I see operating. Ezra Klein. Joe Rogan. For others it's business leaders and politicians. For some people it's Elon Musk. For others, it's AOC. In Silicon Valley it's Paul Graham. Around the Jewish holidays it used to be David Brooks but not so much any more.


I've never liked hanging my understanding of a topic on the hook of an expert. Too risky! Too dependent. Better to do the work myself. Thank you Dick Brody -- I think my resistance predated working with you but working with you refined my understanding of the practice.



Stay up to date

bottom of page