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Beasts on the Bus

Being on the campaign trail is like being trapped in a zoo exhibit with no shelter from the crowd, where the penalty for touching your own genitals is death.
 
 
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Editor's Note: This is an edited excerpt of Matt Taibbi's new book, "Spanking the Donkey: Dispatches from the Dumb Season" (The New Press).

The traveling press pool is a high-class cage.

It takes a while to see it, but once you do, it's hard to miss how completely U the Important National Pundit is sealed off from the outside world. On a typical day you awake in your hotel and very early in the morning—six or six-thirty is a typical hour—have to bring your bags down to one of the campaign "sherpas" or "shepherds," who arranges for its delivery to the plane. After that there is usually a half-hour or so in the hotel lobby. Then it is a bus to the airport, a security sweep on the tarmac, a flight to somewhere or other, then another single-file trip to the bus, which takes you straight to the event.

I didn't notice this at first, but very often, when the press bus arrives, there is another handler waiting right at the bus door. When you step off the bus he is literally pointing in the direction of the press filing center, normally a concrete room somewhere deep in the ass of whatever building the event is being held in. In case you miss that, there are always big paper arrows on the ground pointing you in the right direction, with signs that say things like "PRESS FILE." At one stop in New Orleans, these arrows were plastered for a stretch leading a full 200 yards between the outdoor area where Kerry's speech was being held and the Cajun restaurant the campaign had converted into a filing center.

"Yeah, it's funny," said Evan Richman, the affable photographer for the Boston Globe. "When you first get on the trail, you think: why are they treating me like an idiot? But then, after about a month, you're like—okay, this way, huh?" He mimicked lowering his head and following the signs.

At the event you do have free roam of the place. You can stay in the special walled-off press area, or you can mingle with the "public," that is, the people who came to the event. The idea that this somehow represents contact with the outside world, however, is a little problematic. After all, these are all people who came to see the candidate. They have that in common. And the setting is, of course, completely artificial. Everything is scrupulously clean and shiny and ready for television. Behind the candidate there is usually a platform where a statistically representative sample of the human racial gene pool is standing in a cheerfully supportive pose. The people.

After the event you go back to the file room, and file. From there it is the same routine as before: bus, plane, bus, event, bus, plane, bus. At the end of the day, often very late in the evening, you arrive at a ridiculously expensive hotel where a big fluffy bed with no fewer than five down pillows is begging you to plop down and collapse. There is never quite enough time to get a full night's rest. Ordering your wake-up call, you begin the next day on exactly the same schedule.

The isolation is so total that during some stretches the journalists, like prisoners, actually have to search out little cracks in the system just to smuggle in cigarettes. Among the staffers on the Kerry campaign, the preferred method is to send the baggage sherpa, a cheerful, sleep-deprived soul named Pat Shearns, to make runs during the events. Poor Pat often sleeps less than two hours a night. He hopes to have a few days off before November.

From inside this hermetically sealed universe, the cream of the national political press corps somehow has to come up with oceans of insightful material. Photographers take 500 pictures a day. Most reporters have to file at least once a day, sometimes twice; the wire service people often have to do more than that. At each stop, the Beast is waiting in that filing room to be fed. But with the gathering of material needing to take place literally at the speed of existence, how is this possible? Where can the information come from?

Answer: they have to feed it to you.

New Orleans

The spread at the filing center in New Orleans was about par for the course: massive in scale, with a local flavor, so you know where you are. There was boiled crawfish, crawfish étouffée, red beans and rice with sausage, ratatouille, braised catfish, bread pudding, and rolls with parsley butter. Praline cookies. Fresh-brewed iced tea. The speech that day was to contain an escalation of anti-Bush rhetoric, something about the president's foreign policy being really reckless and irresponsible.

The food looked great, but I wasn't having any. I had stopped eating from the campaign trough two days before. In fact, I had stopped going to events altogether. Previously it had been an occasional thing, but now it was an official policy. Rather than stay in the high-class neighborhood where the events were always held, I made it a point to seek out the bad neighborhood full of nonvoters that was always precisely a half-mile away and personally deliver the message that I didn't give a shit about their lives.

In New Orleans Kerry's speech -- the coin flip produced a "rally," not a Town Hall -- was held outside, at the Seaport, in the heart of the Latin Quarter. Walking out of the area straight down Conti Street, you have to pass through about five blocks of tourist shops full of plastic voodoo skeleton souvenirs, rubber masks, and aprons bearing messages like "New Orleans: Don't Fuck with the Chef !" Then the shops melt away into bars and daiquiri stands, and from there the bars turn into warehouses -- and finally you pass by a French cemetery, and just behind the Winn-Dixie is a stark dirt lot full of low-rise brick buildings.

This used to be Storyville, the birthplace of jazz -- onetime home to Jelly Roll Morton and Louis Armstrong—but now it's the Iberville housing projects. This place is so rough that I wasn't there two minutes before a kindly black policewoman named Sharon Cager zoomed up in her cruiser.

"Are you lost?" she said.

"No," I said, flashing my tags. "I'm press."

She looked at me as though she smelled rotting cheese. "What the hell are you doing here?"

"I'm covering the presidential election," I said.

She took about twenty seconds to think about that. "Yeah, right," she said.

"And you know where you are?"

"The projects, right?"

She shook her head. "You're going to get jacked up in here," she said.

She drove off. I started going door-to-door. As was usually the case, it took a while before I found anyone who planned on voting in the next election. The approval rating of politicians in places like this hovers somewhere between Stalin and athlete's foot.

"I don't like to use the word hate, hate is a bad word, but sometimes that's how I feel about them. I don't believe a word they say," said Lethia Guishard, a sixty-year-old woman and longtime resident of Iberville. "A stray dog deserves better than what we've got. Look at what we have to live with. There used to be a bleach factory right behind here. A lot of folks in this neighborhood got real sick. There'd be sludge from the factory running into the street and the kids would have to walk through it to get to school. Then there was a fire there, and we were just lucky the wind was blowing the other way that day. We tried to get them to do something about safety, but every time I went to City Hall, they'd just send out a different person to tell me they were busy.

"Now they're going to close this place up and we're all going to be moved somewhere else," she said. "As it is, we get subsidized utilities, but the next place that's not going to be happen, they tell us. I can't even find out what's going on. Our councilwoman, Jackie Clarkson -- she's a Democrat. She's the mother of Patricia Clarkson -- you know, the actress? I keep going to her office, but, like I said, every time I do, they send out someone else to tell me to go away. I mean, she represents the Quarter, too, so who are we? Like I said, a stray dog deserves."

"Excuse me," I said, looking at my watch. "I hate to interrupt, but I've got to go."

"What?" she said.

"Look, this is all very interesting," I said, "but I'm working, you understand? And I've got to get back right away. I might miss John Kerry playing Frisbee."

She stared in shock. "Playing what?"

"Actually, he prefers football," I said. "And he's pretty good at it. You should see it, he throws a really nice ball."

She nodded. "Oh," she said. "Okay. Well, nice talking to you."

Back at the Seaport, the event had broken up and a large contingent of the campaign staff had gone exploring, ending up on Bourbon Street, where they bought large quantities of Mardi Gras beads and king-sized Hurricane cocktails. There was a lot of laughing and stumbling around, and there was one reporter -- I wish I had gotten a picture -- who was wearing what appeared to be his weight in beads and standing in perfect contentment, with his lips stained bright red from drink. The party continued on the plane, where Kerry himself even got into the action, tiptoeing into the press area to catch some beads.

"Do I have to flash for these?" he said, smiling.

"Show us your health plan!" someone shouted. Everyone laughed.

"Well, it starts with twelve steps," Kerry quipped.

Houston, Texas

A wrong turn in Houston the next morning forced me to accelerate this increasingly ridiculous routine. At the Houston Community College in the well-heeled Bellaire suburb, I took off due north the instant the bus arrived, but quickly found the way blocked by that great nemesis of campaign journalism: train tracks. I doubled back and ran full-speed back to the event, where I found a Dennis Kucinich supporter named Gary Hardy standing and vainly trying to hold up a giant "Peace" banner in the wind. (It kept blowing down, despite three people trying to hold it up.) I explained my situation to him and he immediately packed me into his car and drove me a half-mile in the opposite direction, to a Central American barrio called the Southwest district. This time, there was practically another country sitting right in the shadow of Kerry's Town Hall event.

At an open-air flea market we jumped out of the car, and with Hardy's help -- I don't speak Spanish -- I quickly practiced what journalism I could. A nineteen-year-old named Eleu Aguirre was wandering out of the car parts stand where he worked.

"Do you know who's running for president?" I asked. He nodded.

"Boosh," he said. "And -- Kennedy."

Hardy prompted him. "You sure about the Kennedy thing?"

He snapped his fingers. "Oh, Kerry!"

"What are your concerns this election season?" I asked. Hardy translated. The answer came back: "The security is good."

"The security is good in this country?" I said.

"No," Hardy said. "The security is good at this flea market."

We stopped four or five more people, and it was the same story each time. No one was going to vote, or had ever voted, because they had no resident papers, and no one had anything at all to say about the election. It simply didn't matter here. The president was like the weather: sunny today, rainy tomorrow. One store owner declined to talk about the election, but pointed to a shelf full of religious articles.

"Okay," I said to Hardy. "Tell him I'll get the plastic Jesus. How much?"

"He says it's not Jesus, but St. Christopher, and it's five dollars."

"Whatever. I'll take it."

St. Christopher in hand, I sped with Hardy back to the event, which was breaking up. The menu included pasta salad, tossed salad, lox, strawberries and melon, bagels, muffins, danishes, croissants, pumpkin bread, fried chicken cutlets, roasted potatoes, scrambled eggs and tortillas, barbecued salmon fillets, sautéed asparagus and carrots, pear tarts, mixed fruit tarts, chocolate-covered strawberries, raspberry tarts, and an assortment of breakfast tacos. Additionally, each of the journalists had waiting for him, at his writing station in the filing center, a batch of fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies, wrapped in bandanas patterned after the American flag.

"Once, in Iowa, we didn't feed them often enough," Kerry staffer Lars Erikson explained. "And they got grumpy. We can't have them grumpy."

America, the Beautiful

One of the things that people should be aware of, when they read campaign coverage, is that the "man-on-the-street" interviews in the articles almost never take place on the actual street. Reporters come into contact with the population mainly in two ways. The first is through the rectal-thermometer avenue of polling data, which incidentally almost always reflect the responses "of those who intend to vote."

The second is mainly the man-on-the-street interviews of people at or around the events, which are almost always in certain kinds of neighborhoods. Whether the rest of the people are edited out or simply not seen, something jumps out at you when you actually look at all of these interviews. The responses are always of a certain type: yea ("I just like his straight-forwardness"), nay ("You didn't feel like he was knowledgeable"), or undecided ("I've been waffling between him and Edwards").

You never see answers like: "I think they all suck" or "I'm not voting, and I hope they all die in a fire." If you only go by the news coverage, all of America votes.

This is borne out numerically. You can search a long time before you find a nonvoter-on-the-street in major news coverage. Halbfinger hasn't interviewed one this year. I went back to mid-December and found twenty-eight straight men-on-the-street in his pieces who fell squarely within the three usual categories.

How about Jill Lawrence of USA Today, that muckraker who lately announced to us that the people have now firmly decided that the chief issue in this campaign is "electability" as opposed to "likeability"? Sixteen straight since the new year.

It's not so much that the reporters are ignoring an important issue in the voter participation story. The issue is how they cover it: from which point of view, and with what emphasis. This massive, unceasing amount of coverage is aimed exclusively in one direction -- at this exquisitely stage-managed soap opera of the American democratic process, where all of America looks clean and hopeful, and everybody in the picture believes. It becomes a never-ending advertisement for the health and functionality of the system, and within the parameters of that advertisement, the candidates are quite incidental.

All that really matters is that the reporters are kept on a steady diet of the he-said, she-said routine that passes for politics inside the bubble: you, sir, are soft on defense and won't spend enough on intelligence! No, sir, it is you, sir, who is soft on defense, and won't pay enough for body armor! (This was actually the current theme between Kerry and Bush that night in Houston.) And once the exchange of shots that day is safely recorded, everyone goes home to a five-star hotel and tries to sleep off the poached salmon and sea scallop fajitas and blackberry crème brûlée they just ate at the "office" cafeteria. Democracy works! America is doing just fine!

If large numbers of people are turned off politics and election coverage in this country, it's almost certainly because they are reluctant to consume the waste products of that singular process the campaign represents: a bunch of rich people talking to each other. It's the worst show on television. And it's on all the time.

The Dead Pool

From the very First moment I stepped on the plane, I knew I was in the presence of profound ugliness. It was a tangible, visceral thing that I was conscious of every minute, like cold air or a bad smell. It was not an amusing kind of ugliness, not kitschy like a Brooklyn social club full of mobsters. This was something modern and clean and scaly and something that on some level was a serious ideological threat to people like me, that is, small-time losers. But what exactly the source of it was, it was impossible to say. And I needed to find that source, because that was where the story was.

You could see a few things around the edges. There was the paranoia, for instance. It is almost impossible to cram sixty or seventy people in an incarceration-type setting, add about 500 gigawatts of constant deadline stress and high-stakes political expectation, and have not a single person utter so much as one incautious word, say one interesting thing. Everybody on the campaign plane is terrified of everybody else, as frightened of speaking their minds as the citizens of an Orwellian dystopia.

The candidates, naturally, are terrified of the reporters. The reporters are terrified of each other (people like me being the chief reason) and also of losing favor with the candidate. The staffers are simultaneously afraid of coming across as too stiff and of being too loose with their tongues, so they split the difference -- palling around with you now, buying you that second beer if you ask, but watching both you and themselves like a hawk the entire time.

There is no In Vino Veritas on the campaign. Even the most junior staffer learns to be able to keep his head straight after the fifteenth shot. And every conversation you have with anyone is a Defcon 5 affair, because everyone knows that anything they say could end up on HBO or under a Philip Gourevitch byline within ten minutes -- or, more to the point, in Alex Pelosi's documentary six months later.

Not even the stewardesses and the pilots are unaware of this dynamic. They keep their mouths shut and hand you that extra bag of peanuts. It is like being trapped in a zoo exhibit with no shelter from the crowd, where the penalty for touching your own genitals is death. Everyone therefore walks with their arms at their sides, and pees with no hands.

There is the insular nature of the assignment, already alluded to. There is the shallowness and idiocy of the stump -- speech/wire-feed reporting format, which reduces the entire exercise to a sort of rolling sports story -- again, already alluded to by hundreds of others who've been there. There is the financial excess, the waste, the fact that the reporters on board are participating in the projection of a fake version of reality. And last but not least, there was the issue that I believed for a while was most important -- the idea that the campaign was little more than a permanent commercial advertisement for an elite political consensus, a commercial that served its purpose even if you were denouncing it. Say what you want, just so long as the attention is focused in the right direction.

But all of these concerns were ethereal, theoretical. There was nothing you could see and feel on the campaign plane that would capture the inherent cruelty and absurdity of the whole process. Every conceivable original angle on the process that one could take from within the confines of the plane had not only been done, but done, as things are done in our media, to death -- turned into a cliché that had been swallowed up and assimilated as a legitimate if quirky ingredient in the whole excellent affair. Any kind of dissenting commentary on the electoral process was actually celebrated by the mainstream media, as a prime example of the First Amendment working in all its glory. There was simply no way to talk about the media effect in terms of its quantitative character, other than to physically juxtapose the 1,000 credulous campaign pieces against the one or two articles in minor publications that wondered pissily if the whole thing was not just a giant load of elite hog-wash. This is done in places like the FAIR website, and no one much cares.

For over thirty years now, since the publication of such books as “The Selling of the President”, “The Boys on the Bus”, and “Fear and Loathing”, it had been accepted as a given that the press itself plays an enormously important role in the process. Even if you wanted to argue, as I did, that the behavior of the press during the campaign was the dominant factor in guaranteeing that only certain kinds of ideologically acceptable candidates could appear in the general election, such a story would shock no one, because it's already "out there," as a "thing." More than a dozen times on the Kerry plane, I had reporters ask me: "So, you're doing a Boys on the Bus thing, right?" The original Boys on the Bus raised a few eyebrows, sure, but no one anywhere is threatened by a "Boys on the Bus thing" now.

I was having a tough time in particular because I now found myself working for a magazine that was spending thousands of dollars a day for me to watch this whole business unfold, and the only original conclusion that I could reach was that participating in the campaign at all was counterproductive, and that the only way to really express the horror of it in a proper way was to reject it openly and entirely, that is, to not be there.

The story, it seemed fairly clear to me, was everywhere but the plane --in the neighborhoods that the campaigns never visited, in the issues that were never discussed on the air, in the minds of the millions of people who were too sickened by it all to vote and who never visited the rallies.

But the campaign scrupulously avoided any physical proximity to those people, those places, those issues. And even if I wanted to confront one of the candidates about it, I had to do so shouting over a dozen other reporters who had other things on their minds.

Matt Taibbi lives in New York. He covers politics for Rolling Stone and the New York Press.