Taibbi: Political Absurdity Hits the Iowa Caucuses
I was back on the campaign trail for only about four hours before I started to feel unhappy again; this was back a few weeks ago, on actor Fred Thompson's kickoff tour (see "Running on Empty" in the current Rolling Stone), specifically on a bus run between Des Moines and Council Bluffs on the afternoon of Thompson's first day of campaigning.
Thompson had had a rough start to his presidential experience. His people had chosen to start things off by having a cow-eyed former Miss Iowa named Carolyn Haugland sing the national anthem for the large crowd of press and supporters gathered at a Des Moines convention center. Haugland is something every state should have -- a right-wing beauty queen with a Hannitoid political blog ("That's when it dawned on me," she writes, "Bin Laden isn't just a terrorist. He's worse -- a liberal!") who eschews post-pageant catalog work for stridently patriotic campaign performances. Her anthem would have been fine, except that she has a mild lisp. She ended up sounding like Robin Williams doing Elmer Fudd doing Bruce Springsteen doing "Fire." "Oah de wam-m-m-pahts we watch ..." she belted. "Wuh so gaow-want-wee stwee-e-e-e-ming. And de wockets wed gware ...!"
From there Thompson's handlers cued his campaign video, entitled The Hunt For Red November. The signature propaganda piece in a campaign that labors openly to blur media fantasy and political reality, the video is additionally confusing in that it starts off with a photo array of Democratic candidates Edwards, Hillary and Obama, interspersed with a dramatic "Hunt For Red November" title frame set against a frankly "Red" background. I thought they were trying to say something about the "Reds" on the other ticket, and so did someone in the crowd behind me. "Do they mean communiss?" I heard someone whisper in an Iowan twang.
So I ran to Todd Harris, the Thompson campaign's press guy, just to check. He seemed pissed by the question. "No," he sighed. "Red November, red state. Republican."
"Right," I said, "but in the original movie, it was Red like Lenin Red, and you've got Hillary and Edwards there all covered in red ... Do we want a Red November, or do we not want a Red November?"
"We want it. Now it means Republican," he said, trying to smile, then walked away.
After that Thompson gave his first stump speech, an understated thing designed to cast him, in stark contrast to the other flawed candidates of his party, as a pure nice-guy conservative. A good actor, Thompson's aw-shucks demeanor and near-constant emphasis on his humble roots and decided lack of megalomaniacal instinct makes his stump speech into a kind of political version of the late Phil Hartman's famous "I'm just a simple caveman!" SNL skit, which when you think about it is a near-perfect sales pitch for Red State voters.
The other reporters were bitching about how vapid it was, but I thought it was going over well -- until a woman just a few feet to my left collapsed unconscious on the ground with a fainting fit near the tail end of Thompson's presentation. Seeing the fracas in the back of the room, the candidate cut his speech short abruptly, forcing his campaign-opening rhetorical salvo to end not with hoots and cheers and resounding applause but ambiguously, with whispers and murmurs and frantic rubbernecking at the back of the room.
The woman got up after about ten minutes and walked away, apparently OK.
After the speech, I retreated along with the rest of the reporters to a cavernous filing room a floor below and immediately fell into a glum mood. The presidential campaign ritual in this country has obviously devolved into a deeply flawed phenomenon, one that tends to produce incompetent or inappropriate leaders and fails to really touch the population on any level anymore beyond disgust and resentment. Two straight (well, one-and-a-half straight) victories by the lunkhead George Bush are only part of the evidence on that score. Even more ominous were the 2006 midterm elections, a revoltingly idealism-free spectacle in which 80 percent of the money spent on television advertising across the country during the campaign season was devoted to negative ads.
The numbers released by the CQ Political Moneyline group following that race are startling. In 2004, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spent $13.8 million on ads for congressional races; 99 percent of that money was on "positive" ads. In 2006, they spent $14.4 million, but only 17 percent on positive messages; an amazing 83 percent went for attack ads.
The Republican numbers were similar. In 2004, the NRCC spent $19.5 million on ads, and the split was 54-46 percent positive-negative. In 2006, they nearly doubled the money spent, burning $33 million, and the numbers were 89-11 percent in favor of attack ads. By 2008 the process of turning national elections into a vote against this or that much-loathed candidate should be more or less complete.
This is why I hate showing up at functions like this Thompson thing and seeing everyone, from campaign staff to press reps to audience members, looking so content of disposition and cheered of conscience, like they're joining up with a neighborhood can drive. Like there isn't something totally fucked up and insane about the whole thing. In the filing room after the event, the reporters sleepily puttered around the buffet table in between sessions at their computers sending the nothing details of Thompson's nothing speech out into the world; there were chuckles as CBS radio reporter Peter King screamed his way through 15 or 20 takes of a four-sentence remote report on Thompson's debut, while a pair of TV guys in the back joked about the culinary shortcomings of this campaign. "I hope it isn't warm cheese cubes again tonight," one cracked, as he stared at a sad little plastic miniplate of warmed jalapeno jack. "I hate warm cheese cubes."
An hour or so after the speech, we all filed onto the bus to head for Council Bluffs, and the press members cozied up to Thompson's campaign guys, some of whom they recognized from previous tours at previous campaigns. Behind me I overheard Thompson's press flack Harris rhapsodizing to a newspaper scribe about a phone conversation he'd recently had with that great bard of bullshit campaign journalism, Howard Fineman of Newsweek. "Howard called me after he saw Fred on TV," Harris was saying. "And he was like, 'Todd, I tell you, he didn't say a single thing I disagreed with!'"*
"Wow," said the reporter, genuinely impressed.
In advance of Council Bluffs, some of the hacks on the bus commiserated about their reporting strategies. A loud British reporter two seats in front expressed hope that he'd get something really real. "I hope we get some real, you know, interaction with a voter," he gushed. Others were talking with editors via cell phone about their prefab article theses -- Thompson as the only guy who can beat Hillary, Thompson as Reagan, Thompson the too-late candidate. Then I watched as we actually poured out into the crowd at Bayliss Park in downtown Council Bluffs, and these same guys went from Iowan to Iowan in search of the needed quotes, literally shaking audience members like fruit trees until they coughed up the right answers. The only-Thompson-can-beat-Hillary guy -- actually a female wire reporter -- was moving quickly, trying in the 30-odd minutes we had on the ground to get at least one or two folks to say that they were supporting Thompson for the right reasons.
"Do you think Thompson is the only guy who can beat Hillary?"
"Uh, I don't know ..."
At that the reporter frowned and quickly moved on to the next local: "Why do you support Thompson?"
"I just think he can beat Hillary."
"Why do you think he can beat Hillary?"
And so on. I walked away.
Later the campaign bus horn honked and the driver announced that the campaign was rolling out of Council Bluffs. The reporters finished their in-crowd scramble and raced back toward the vehicle. Every time I see this, it boggles my mind that no one wonders about how ridiculous this whole ritual is ... Anyway, I was on my way back there, too, when two of Deport's "volunteers," a homeless couple named Dot and Jamie, stopped me. Jamie, a red-haired guy in his mid-30s with a beard, ratty yellow sweatshirt and reversed baseball cap, explained that the two of them basically lived in this park when they weren't being chased away three and four times a night by police. He asked who the candidate was and asked if I could ask him to put in a word to someone about getting a public toilet installed. Dot, a slightly older woman with a street-tanned face and long stringy hair, concurred and added that she wanted to get her blood pressure taken.
"I can't even afford that," she said. "I show up at the clinic, and they tell me I have to pay. You should ask him about that."
The horn then honked again, and I raced back to the bus-bubble, where the reporters were already filing their new story updates. The big news at this event was that Thompson had been mistakenly introduced by a local pol as "Sen. Fred Roberts."
The Brit typed away, apparently having gotten his "interaction." Finally the bus rolled out of town. As it got dark, a Thompson aide sitting next to me began searching on his blackberry for news of that night's Indianapolis-New Orleans football game. He was a very recent import from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's press office, and he was hoping the campaign turned out to be worth it from an experience point of view. "I figure I won't be able to do this kind of thing once I get married, you know?" he said. "It's just great to be able to do all this travel."
"Uh-huh," I said, looking back and wondering vaguely if the cops had already begun sweeping the vagrants out of Bayliss Park.
He looked down at his blackberry. "Seven-all, second quarter," he said.
An hour or so later we pulled into Sioux City for the night.
According to conventional wisdom, the 2008 presidential race is already widely considered to be a "very interesting" contest. The ostensible reason for that is that the actual winner, not only of the general election but of the respective nomination processes, will not be known long before 250 million people have two long years of their lives wasted through a relentless barrage of meaningless, spirit-sucking campaign muck. The press corps will therefore be relieved this time around to have something like real suspense attached to the dreary assignment of finding meaning/drama in all of this vacuous bullshit; instead of having to invent controversies and scandals out of thin air, people like me will have real ones (real at least in the context of the campaign) that they can sit back and confidently misreport as they come.
Looking at the field now, it appears that in the end the horse race will come down to three viable candidates on each side -- Giuliani, Thompson and Romney on the Republican docket and Hillary, Obama and the tireless John Edwards among the Democrats. Perhaps also squeezing their way into the viewfinder before this is over will be a smattering of minor figures not yet mathematically eliminated, in particular the Christian bassist Mike Huckabee lurking behind the Republican field and, who knows, maybe Bill Richardson on the other side. Sticking around for comic relief, at least for a little while, will be stunned-by-misfortune Arizona Sen. John McCain, whose job it will be to be whaled upon mercilessly by a press corps that is always courageous and exacting when dealing with a candidate who has no chance at victory.
There are similar figures on the Democratic side who could play the same role -- Joe Biden comes to mind -- but because the press this time around will be anxious to punish the Republicans for a disastrous Iraq war these same reporters mostly all thought was such a good idea not long ago, Democrats like Biden (who incidentally also heartily supported this war) will likely be exempted from the bulk of the gratuitous pol-bashing this time around.
Last but not least, there are parallel irritant figures on both sides in Ron Paul and Dennis Kucinich, whose jobs it will be to be roundly pilloried for wasting valuable air time (especially in debates) via their embarrassingly dead-on, pain-in-the-ass candidacies. Since neither candidate is a worn-out whore, and neither candidate has cast a single vote for any of the numerous completely avoidable political catastrophes that befell the country in the last four-plus years, both will be described as "fringe" and "unserious" figures who should rightfully be assigned to the "second tier" of presidential hopefuls. Meanwhile, the press will line up to laud as exciting breaths of political fresh air a one-note B-list character actor, a southern governor who believes the earth is 6,000 years old, and a hack plagiarist from Delaware with a head full of hair plugs who offers a "statesmanlike presence" and "raises the level of discourse" as he campaigns shamelessly for the secretary of state's job.
There is a dark irony waiting to announce itself as a factor in this campaign -- a trap that our press corps was almost certain to fall into from the moment the Bush presidency exploded in a nightmare of incompetence and horrifying corruption. Having observed all the awful missteps of the last seven years, missteps that came as a result of having indulged and enabled a preposterous figure like George W. Bush, the national press ought naturally to have learned a whole host of painful lessons.
Questioning the logic of viciously attacking too-intellectual fringe candidates while simultaneously lionizing a baldly incurious flag-waving moron like Bush is only the most obvious; there is also the matter of mistaking meanness for substance and falling under the spell of candidate access, and routinely blaming a dearth of issue politics on voter preference, when in fact it's the news organizations themselves that more love (and, more to the point, need) the mudslinging and the horse race.
The press should have looked at the rise of blogs and the angry momentum of blog-powered insurgent candidacies like that of Paul and Ned Lamont and recognized that the mainstream political press has become, in some circles, as much of a villain as the establishment candidates themselves. It should have seen this and made changes, if only out of pure self-interest, in an effort to retain both its political power and its market share. But it didn't. Instead, the big press seems to have mainly concluded that voter discontent toward the media is based upon its having been too friendly to George Bush in particular.
There is a vibe that can already be detected in campaign coverage that suggests that the media thinks that if it disavows Bush and in particular Bush's war, all will be forgiven. We journalists seem to be in a state of half-apology for having overstepped our traditional role as ideologically promiscuous ass-kissers and briefly gone over, after 9/11, into a dark side of frank and open cheerleading for Extreme Measures and Total War.
We're apologizing for that, but only that; the attitude is not much different from a high schooler from the OC who thinks that if he just promises to never again get into daddy's Porsche at 3 in the morning, it's still okay if he goes to keggers on school nights.
That's why you might notice, in campaign coverage, something that feels a little bit like nostalgia for the Clinton years, when the national political press behaved not like fascist henchmen but merely like a group of starfucking, hyperadolescent groupies. According to the curious moral calculus of this professional community, the best way to make up for being willing political accomplices to George Bush is to return to the cheerfully slavish celebrity journalism of the Clinton years. Here's the lede to an account of a recent Bill Clinton campaign appearance for Hillary by Stephen Collison of the AFP:
DES MOINES, Iowa, Sept. 3, 2007 (AFP) - Bill Clinton had a weekend campaign party like it was 1992, wading through crowds and backslapping his way around the U.S. electoral heartland, boosting wife Hillary's 2008 presidential race ...
"I love not running for anything, I can say everything I want and nobody cares any more," Clinton said, with a hint of false modesty, to union workers in Iowa for whom he remains a hero.
In his element, dusting off his legendary campaign skills, Clinton marveled at a 1,000-pound pumpkin which won a contest at a country fair in New Hampshire, treating reporters to a lecture about how it got its "steroid"-style girth ...That is the kind of political journalism you see on the trail now, among reporters trying to repent for the Bush years; grown men and women cooing over a mutant pumpkin with Bill Clinton, whose attention is a "treat." As for Clinton being a hero to union workers, why wouldn't he be? After NAFTA and all.
When I found out that I was going to be sent out on the campaign trail for another election season, I found myself struggling once again with the question of how to cover in a substantive way a story that is essentially uncoverable on its own terms. In my last book, Spanking the Donkey, I spent nearly 300 miserable pages groping around for an angle from within the self-contained, stage-managed pseudoreality of the campaign trail, settling eventually for the not-exactly-brilliant insight that the campaign is basically a rolling bourgeois television entertainment that has as one of its chief purposes the projection of a weirdly fictional vision of American political reality -- clean, healthy, positively engaged, and so bereft of real problems that it can afford to choose leaders on the strength of such questions as who looks better in a duck-hunting costume, or who can more charmingly engage an MSNBC morning anchor in a discussion about "traditional values" while squeezing a cow's teat in Wisconsin via a 5 a.m. satellite feed.
The more than half of the country that does not vote is scrupulously excluded from the picture, as are scenes of real, depressing poverty (as opposed to stylized, photo-ready poverty, the poverty implied by Howard Dean's fake graffiti backgrounds or the dreary working-class "rags" section of John Edwards' rags-to-riches "typically American" inspirational stump story), political alienation (your man on the street is either a liberal or a conservative; those who don't fit the red/blue requirement, who are too disgusted to endorse either party, are not seen), social disenfranchisement (as experienced, say, by ex-cons, illegals and prisoners), or just the general fucked-up-ed-ness of our weirdly paranoid, atomized, media-obsessed consumer culture. Our whole reality is instead defined by a narrow series of binary political issues: abortion, gay marriage, the war, healthcare, immigration, on which an endless series of credulous and interested "men on the street" cast their vote in one direction or another.
The campaign, therefore, becomes mainly a story about the interplay, or noninterplay as it were, between two worlds: the absurd fake world inside the campaign bubble, in which 250 million adults are depicted as gravely caring about such concepts as "likeability," and the much weirder real world outside the bubble where the rest of us actually live. This schizophrenic national self-image has become an even bigger issue in the years since the last campaign, especially since the country is now engaged in an overseas war where the schism is physically visible; in Iraq we actually built a vast archipelago of walled-off Americana in which one media-ready reality is visible inside the base walls while another, far less palatable reality rages out of control outside the gates of those bases.
Going into 2008, the American electorate is now divided along a clear fault line. One side, the side that believes the Iraq war is a cruel and unwinnable mess, recognizes the outside-the-walls reality as the truth. The other side, meanwhile, chooses instead to recognize the artificial inside-the-base reality as gospel; it listens to the pronouncements of the likes of Gen. Petraeus and to the tales of returning wounded who want only to go back to the front because "they know we're making progress."
*Correction Note: Although I originally reported otherwise in this piece, Howard Fineman and Todd Harris insist that they have never spoken on the telephone. It appears I misheard a conversation on the Thompson bus, and for this I apologize to Mssrs. Fineman and Harris. -- M. Taibbi