Jonathan Tilove

My Life As A Race Writer

Something Borrowed, Nothing New in Politics

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By JONATHAN TILOVE
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Dave Cash, second from the left in the second row, came up with the battle cry ‘Yes We Can!’ to inspire the 1974 Philadelphia Phillies. (Photo courtesy of Philadelphia Phillies)
February 14, 2008

c.2008 Newhouse News Service

Former Philadelphia Phillies second baseman Dave Cash well remembers how he came up with “Yes We Can,” the battle cry that launched the beleaguered franchise on the best run in its history.

It was 1974, spring training in Clearwater, Fla., Cash recalls from his home in Odessa, Fla., and he was at the Derby Lane dog track with some of his teammates’ money. “When I got back to the clubhouse one of the guys asked, ‘How’d we do?’ And I said, ‘Yes we can,’ and threw the money in the air.”

Then, on May 25, after the Phils swept a double header with the Montreal Expos, Cash shouted out, “Yes we can.” Sportswriters picked it up, and the rest is history.

Cash has been hearing “Yes We Can” a lot in the last few weeks, ever since Barack Obama made it the refrain of a powerful speech he delivered the night of the New Hampshire primary. Soon after, some artists, led by the Black Eyed Peas’ will.i.am, and Bob Dylan’s filmmaker son Jesse, created a pro-Obama video, “Yes We Can,” that has been viewed 6.5 million times on YouTube. Yes We Can became the theme of Obama’s surging campaign.

But, recently, the Clinton campaign has accused Obama of rhetorical plagiarism for a speech he delivered in Milwaukee just before the Wisconsin primary. In defending the power of words, Obama used language that had previously been used by a friend and supporter, Gov. Deval Patrick of Massachusetts. Like Obama, Patrick was running as a black candidate who could transcend race but who was disparaged by critics as more talk than substance. Both campaigns also were guided by Chicago political consultant David Axelrod.

“Lifting whole passages from someone else’s speeches is not change you can believe in. It’s change you can xerox,” Hillary Clinton said to Obama at their debate Feb. 21 at the University of Texas at Austin.

By then, the Republican National Committee had already piled on with a press release attacking Obama as the “Copy Cat Candidate: Rookie Obama swipes key themes, lines and even a joke from former clients of his chief strategist.”

And, truth be told, Barack Obama is not the first to rouse a crowd with “Yes We Can.”

Even before Dave Cash, there was Cesar Chavez, who, according to United Farm Workers spokesman Marc Grossman, coined the phrase in 1972 while lying limply in a Phoenix motel room where he was fasting in protest. After hearing one report after another from organizers and supporters who said, “No, no se puede” (“No, no it can’t be done”), Chavez replied, “Si, si se puede” (“Yes, yes it can be done”).

It became the official slogan of the United Farm Workers union and last year the unofficial rallying cry of hundreds of thousands of immigrant workers who rallied across the country in favor of federal legislation to legalize their status.

For many of Obama’s young supporters, “Yes we can” may have resonated at a deeper, even subliminal level, the consequence of growing up watching the animated public television show “Bob the Builder.” Bob’s “brand message,” according to the show’s Web site: “Can we build it? Yes we can!” It’s the “rallying call” Bob uses to “fire up his team’s ‘can-do’ spirit and kick-off a job.”

Barack the Builder.

In the political realm, Deval Patrick himself used “Yes We Can” in his 2006 gubernatorial campaign, though it turns out that he borrowed that from none other than Barack Obama, who was cheered on to chants of “Yes We Can” when he captured his Illinois Senate seat in 2004. The Patrick campaign later switched to “Together We Can.”

David Frank, a professor of rhetoric at the University of Oregon who has studied Obama’s speechifying, said the charge of plagiarism after Obama’s “Just words?” oration is “a sign of desperation on the part of the Clinton campaign, to be charging Barack Obama with some serious ethical issue here.”

If this is plagiarism, said Frank, then “we’re all plagiarists — we use words and ideas we have heard and borrow from others.”

“If you look at the Gettysburg Address or Martin Luther King’s speeches, so much of the ideas in those speeches were adapted from the Bible, from the Declaration of Independence, from common sense and folklore,” said Frank.

According to Michael Eric Dyson, a professor of humanities at the University of Pennsylvania, King borrowed the line “I have a dream” from the Rev. Prathia Hall, a black Baptist minister from Philadelphia.

“Welcome to the world of the black church” said Dyson, an ordained Baptist minister. “Here’s the order of attribution in black Baptist churches. The first time you hear it, it’s ‘As Deval Patrick said,’ the second time it’s `As somebody once said,’ and the third time it’s ‘Like I always say.”’

Cash understands this.

“A lot of people use a lot of people’s sayings; some people get upset about it. I’m not upset about it at all if it helps him,” said Cash, who last year managed the Utica Brewmasters in the short-lived New York State League, and will be the hitting coach with New Jersey’s Sussex Skyhawks in the CanAm League this spring. “If it inspires this time, that’s all well and good.”

“Yes We Can” worked for the Phillies, but it was a long process. The team, which had finished sixth in 1973, finished third in 1974, second in 1975, and first in 1976, 1977 and 1978. In 1980 they won their first and only World Series.

Cash, who came to the Phillies from the Pittsburgh Pirates, where he had been part of that team’s all-black starting lineup, and left the Phillies to join the Expos in ’77, is not choosing sides in the presidential contest.

He’s a Democrat, but he didn’t vote in the non-sanctioned Democratic primary in Florida because he didn’t think it counted. Anyway, he said he’s more of an “ideas man” than a partisan, and is still considering Obama, Hillary Clinton, Arizona Sen. John McCain and even former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, whose plan to abolish the IRS appeals to him.

As to why something as simple as “Yes We Can” — with only eight letters it is even more succinct than Larry the Cable Guy’s “Get ‘er done” — is so powerful, Cash breaks it down:

“‘Yes’ is making a commitment. And then using the word ‘We,’ it’s more than one. And the ‘Can,’ it’s just the opposite of ‘can’t.’ It’s just so powerfully positive.”

But, he said, by itself, it’s not enough.

In his three years leading off for the Phillies, Cash got a remarkable 206 hits in 1974, 213 in 1975 and 189 in 1976.

“You got to go out and do it,” said Cash. “No one wants to follow a leader if he can’t execute, if he can’t get the job done.”

Written by jonathantilove

October 22, 2008 at 2:55 am

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