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Mad Dog Palin

I'm standing outside the XCEL ENERGY CENTER in St. Paul Minnesota Sarah Palin has just finished her speech to the Republican National Convention, accepting the party's nomination for vice president. If I hadn't quit my two-packs-a-day habit earlier this year, I'd be chain-smoking now. So the only thing left is to stand mute against the fit-for-a-cheap-dog-kennel crowd-control fencing you see everywhere at these idiotic conventions and gnaw on weird new feelings of shock and anarchist rage as one would a rawhide chew toy.

All around me, a million cops in their absurd post-9/11 space-combat get-ups stand guard as assholes in papier-mache puppet heads scramble around for one last moment of network face time before the coverage goes dark. Four-chinned delegates from places like Arkansas and Georgia are pouring joyously out the gates in search of bars where they can load up on Zombies and Scorpion Bowls and other "wild" drinks and extramaritally grope their turkey-necked female companions in bathroom stalls as part of the "unbelievable time" they will inevitably report to their pals back home. Only 21st-century Americans can pass through a metal detector six times in an hour and still think they're at a party.

The defining moment for me came shortly after Palin and her family stepped down from the stage to uproarious applause, looking happy enough to throw a whole library full of books into a sewer. In the crush to exit the stadium, a middle-aged woman wearing a cowboy hat, a red-white-and-blue shirt and an obvious eye job gushed to a male colleague they were both wearing badges identifying them as members of the Colorado delegation at the Xcel gates.

"She totally reminds me of my cousin!" the delegate screeched. "She's a real woman! The real thing!"

I stared at her open-mouthed. In that moment, the rank cynicism of the whole sorry deal was laid bare. Here's the thing about Americans. You can send their kids off by the thousands to get their balls blown off in foreign lands for no reason at all, saddle them with billions in debt year after congressional year while they spend their winters cheerfully watching game shows and football, pull the rug out from under their mortgages, and leave them living off their credit cards and their Wal-Mart salaries while you move their jobs to China and Bangalore.

And none of it matters, so long as you remember a few months before Election Day to offer them a two-bit caricature culled from some cutting-room-floor episode of Roseanne as part of your presidential ticket. And if she's a good enough likeness of a loudmouthed middle-American archetype, as Sarah Palin is, John Q. Public will drop his giant-size bag of Doritos in gratitude, wipe the Sizzlin' Picante dust from his lips and rush to the booth to vote for her. Not because it makes sense, or because it has a chance of improving his life or anyone else's, but simply because it appeals to the low-humming narcissism that substitutes for his personality, because the image on TV reminds him of the mean, brainless slob he sees in the mirror every morning.

Sarah Palin is a symbol of everything that is wrong with the modern United States. As a representative of our political system, she's a new low in reptilian villainy, the ultimate cynical masterwork of puppeteers like Karl Rove. But more than that, she is a horrifying symbol of how little we ask for in return for the total surrender of our political power.

Not only is Sarah Palin a fraud, she's the tawdriest, most half-assed fraud imaginable, 20 floors below the lowest common denominator, a character too dumb even for daytime TV -and this country is going to eat her up, cheering her every step of the way. All because most Americans no longer have the energy to do anything but lie back and allow ourselves to be jacked off by the calculating thieves who run this grasping consumer paradise we call a nation.

The Palin speech was a political masterpiece, one of the most ingenious pieces of electoral theater this country has ever seen. Never before has a single televised image turned a party's fortunes around faster.

Until the Alaska governor actually ascended to the podium that night, I was convinced that John McCain had made one of the all-time campaign season blunders, that he had acted impulsively and out of utter desperation in choosing a cross-eyed political neophyte just two years removed from running a town smaller than the bleacher section at Fenway Park. It even crossed my mind that there was an element of weirdly self-destructive pique in McCain's decision to cave in to his party's right-wing base in this fashion, that perhaps he was responding to being ordered by party elders away from a tepid, ideologically promiscuous hack like Joe Lieberman -- reportedly his real preference -- by picking the most obviously unqualified, doomed-to-fail joke of a Bible-thumping buffoon. As in: You want me to rally the base? Fine, I'll rally the base. Here, I'll choose this rifle-toting, serially pregnant moose killer who thinks God lobbies for oil pipelines. Happy now?

But watching Palin's speech, I had no doubt that I was witnessing a historic, iconic performance. The candidate sauntered to the lectern with the assurance of a sleepwalker - and immediately launched into a symphony of snorting and sneering remarks, taking time out in between the superior invective to present herself as just a humble gal with a beefcake husband and a brood of healthy, combat-ready spawn who just happened to be the innocent targets of a communist and probably also homosexual media conspiracy. It was a virtuoso performance. She appeared to be completely without shame and utterly full of shit, awing a room full of hardened reporters with her sickly sweet line about the high-school-flame-turned-hubby who, "five children later" is "still my guy." It was like watching Gidget address the Reichstag.

Within minutes, Palin had given TV audiences a character infinitely recognizable to virtually every American: the small-town girl with just enough looks and a defiantly incurious mind who thinks the PTA minutes are Holy Writ, and injustice means the woman next door owning a slightly nicer set of drapes or flatware. Or the governorship, as it were.

Right-wingers of the Bush-Rove ilk have had a tough time finding a human face to put on their failed, inhuman, mean-as-hell policies. But it was hard not to recognize the genius of wedding that faltering brand of institutionalized greed to the image of the suburban American supermom. It's the perfect cover, for there is almost nothing in the world meaner than this species of provincial tyrant. Palin herself burned this political symbiosis into the pages of history with her seminal crack about the "difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull: lipstick," blurring once and for all the lines between meanness on the grand political scale as understood by the Roves and Bushes of the world, and meanness of the small-town variety as understood by pretty much anyone who has ever sat around in his ranch-house den dreaming of a fourth plasma-screen TV or an extra set of KC HiLites for his truck, while some ghetto family a few miles away shares a husk of government cheese.

In her speech, Palin presented herself as a raging baby-making furnace of middle-class ambition next to whom the yuppies of the Obama set -who never want anything all that badly except maybe a few afternoons with someone else's wife, or a few kind words in The New York Times Book Review -- seem like weak, self-doubting celibates, the kind of people who certainly cannot be trusted to believe in the right God or to defend a nation. We're used to seeing such blatant cultural caricaturing in our politicians. But Sarah Palin is something new. She's all caricature. As the candidate of a party whose positions on individual issues are poll losers almost across the board, her shtick is not even designed to sell a line of policies. It's just designed to sell her. The thing was as much as admitted in the on-air gaffe by former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan, who was inadvertently caught saying on MSNBC that Palin wasn't the most qualified candidate, that the party "went for this, excuse me, political bullshit about narratives."

The great insight of the Palin VP choice is that huge chunks of American voters no longer even demand that their candidates actually have policy positions; they simply consume them as media entertainment, rooting for or against them according to the reflexive prejudices of their demographic, as they would for reality-show contestants or sitcom characters. Hicks root for hicks, moms for moms, born-agains for born-agains. Sure, there was politics in the Palin speech, but it was all either silly lies or merely incidental fluffery buttressing the theatrical performance. A classic example of what was at work here came when Palin proudly introduced her Down syndrome baby, Trig, then stared into the camera and somberly promised parents of special-needs kids that they would "have a friend and advocate in the White House." This was about a half-hour before she raised her hands in triumph with McCain, a man who voted against increasing funding for special-needs education.

Palin's charge that "government is too big" and that Obama "wants to grow it" was similarly preposterous. Not only did her party just preside over the largest government expansion since LBJ, but Palin herself has been a typical Bush-era Republican, borrowing and spending beyond her means. Her great legacy as mayor of Wasilla was the construction of a $14.7 million hockey arena in a city with an annual budget of $20 million; Palin OK'd a bond issue for the project before the land had been secured, leading to a protracted legal mess that ultimately forced taxpayers to pay more than six times the original market price for property the city ended up having to seize from a private citizen using eminent domain. Better yet, Palin ended up paying for the fucking thing with a 25 percent increase in the city sales tax. But in her speech, of course, Palin presented herself as the enemy of tax increases, righteously bemoaning that "taxes are too high," and Obama "wants to raise them."

Palin hasn't been too worried about federal taxes as governor of a state that ranks number one in the nation in federal spending per resident ($13,950), even as it sits just 18th in federal taxes paid per resident ($5,434). That means all us taxpaying non-Alaskans spend $8,500 a year on each and every resident of Palin's paradise of rugged self-sufficiency. Not that this sworn enemy of taxes doesn't collect from her own: Alaska currently collects the most taxes per resident of any state in the nation.

The rest of Palin's speech was the same dog-whistle crap Republicans have been running on for decades. Palin's crack about a mayor being "like a community organizer, except that you have actual responsibilities" testified to the Republicans' apparent belief that they can win elections till the end of time running against the Sixties. (They're probably right.) The incessant grousing about the media was likewise par for the course, red meat for those tens of millions of patriotic flag-waving Americans whose first instinct when things get rough is to whine like bitches and blame other people -reporters, the French, those ungrateful blacks soaking up tax money eating big prison meals, whomever -for their failures.

Add to this the usual lies about Democrats wanting to "forfeit" to our enemies abroad and coddle terrorists, and you had a very run-of-the-mill, almost boring Republican speech from a substance standpoint. What made it exceptional was its utter hypocrisy, its total disregard for reality, its absolute unrelation to the facts of our current political situation. After eight years of unprecedented corruption, incompetence, waste and greed, the party of Karl Rove understood that 50 million Americans would not demand solutions to any of these problems so long as they were given a new, new thing to beat their meat over.

Sarah Palin is that new, new thing, and in the end it won't matter that she's got an unmarried teenage kid with a bun in the oven. Of course, if the daughter of a black candidate like Barack Obama showed up at his convention with a five-month bump and some sideways-capwearing, junior-grade Curtis Jackson holding her hand, the defenders of Traditional Morality would be up in arms. But the thing about being in the realitymaking business is that you don't need to worry much about vetting; there are no facts in your candidate's bio that cannot be ignored or overcome.

One of the most amusing things about the Palin nomination has been the reaction of horrified progressives. The Internet has been buzzing at full volume as would-be defenders of san-ity and reason pore over the governor's record in search of the Damning Facts.

My own telephone began ringing off the hook with calls from ex-Alaskans and friends of Alaskans determined to help get the "truth" about Sarah Palin into the major media. Pretty much anyone with an Internet connection knows by now that Palin was originally for the "Bridge to Nowhere" before she opposed it (she actually endorsed the plan in her 2006 gubernatorial campaign), that even after the project was defeated she kept the money, that she didn't actually sell the Alaska governor's state luxury jet on eBay but instead sold it at a $600,000 loss to a campaign contributor (who is now seeking $50,000 in taxpayer money to pay maintenance costs).

Then there are the salacious tales of Palin's swinging-meat-cleaver management style, many of which seem to have a common thread: In addition to being ensconced in a messy ethics investigation over her firing of the chief of the Alaska state troopers (dismissed after refusing to sack her sister's ex-husband), Palin also reportedly fired a key campaign aide for having an affair with a friend's wife. More ominously, as mayor of Wasilla, Palin tried to fire the town librarian, Mary Ellen Emmons, after Emmons resisted pressure to censor books Palin found objectionable.

Then there's the God stuff: Palin belongs to a church whose pastor, Ed Kalnins, believes that all criticisms of George Bush "come from hell," and wondered aloud if people who voted for John Kerry could be saved. Kalnins, looming as the answer to Obama's Jeremiah Wright, claims that Alaska is going to be a "refuge state" for Christians in the last days, last days which he sometimes speaks of in the present tense. Palin herself has been captured on video mouthing the inevitable born-again idiocies, such as the idea that a recent oilpipeline deal was "God's will." She also described the Iraq War as a "task that is from God" and part of a heavenly "plan." She supports teaching creationism and "abstinence only" in public schools, opposes abortion even for victims of rape, denies the science behind global warming and attends a church that seeks to convert Jews and cure homosexuals.

All of which tells you about what you'd expect from a raise-the-base choice like Palin: She's a puffed-up dimwit with primitive religious beliefs who had to be educated as to the fact that the Constitution did not exactly envision government executives firing librarians. Judging from the importance progressive critics seem to attach to these revelations, you'd think that these were actually negatives in modern American politics. But Americans like politicians who hate books and see the face of Jesus in every tree stump. They like them stupid and mean and ignorant of the rules.

Which is why Palin has only seemed to grow in popularity as more and more of these revelations have come out. The same goes for the most damning aspect of her biography, her total lack of big-game experience. As governor of Alaska, Palin presides over a state whose entire population is barely the size of Memphis. This kind of thing might matter in a country that actually worried about whether its leader was prepared for his job -but not in America.

In America, it takes about two weeks in the limelight for the whole country to think you've been around for years. To a certain extent, this is why Obama is getting a pass on the same issue. He's been on TV every day for two years, and according to the standards of our instant-ramen culture, that's a lifetime of hands-on experience. It is worth noting that the same criticisms of Palin also hold true for two other candidates in this race, John McCain and Barack Obama.

As politicians, both men are more narrative than substance, with McCain rising to prominence on the back of his bio as a suffering war hero and Obama mostly playing the part of the long-lost, futureembracing liberal dreamboat not seen on the national stage since Bobby Kennedy died. If your stomach turns to read how Palin's Kawasaki 704 glasses are flying off the shelves in middle America, you have to accept that middle America probably feels the same way when it hears that Donatella Versace dedicated her collection to Obama during Milan Fashion Week. Or sees the throwing-panties-onstage-"I love you, Obama!" ritual at the Democratic nominee's town-hall appearances.

So, sure, Barack Obama might be every bit as much a slick piece of imageering as Sarah Palin. The difference is in what the image represents. The Obama image represents tolerance, intelligence, education, patience with the notion of compromise and negotiation, and a willingness to stare ugly facts right in the face, all qualities we're actually going to need in government if we're going to get out of this huge mess we're in.

Here's what Sarah Palin represents: being a fat fucking pig who pins "Country First" buttons on his man titties and chants "U-S-A! U-S-A!" at the top of his lungs while his kids live off credit cards and Saudis buy up all the mortgages in Kansas.

The truly disgusting thing about Sarah Palin isn't that she's totally unqualified, or a religious zealot, or married to a secessionist, or unable to educate her own daughter about sex, or a fake conservative who raised taxes and horked up earmark millions every chance she got. No, the most disgusting thing about her is what she says about us: that you can ram us in the ass for eight solid years, and we'll not only thank you for your trouble, we'll sign you up for eight more years, if only you promise to stroke us in the right spot for a few hours around election time.

Democracy doesn't require a whole lot of work of its citizens, but it requires some: It requires taking a good look outside once in a while, and considering the bad news and what it might mean, and making the occasional tough choice, and soberly taking stock of what your real interests are.

This is a very different thing from shopping, which involves passively letting sitcoms melt your brain all day long and then jumping straight into the TV screen to buy a Southern-Style Chicken Sandwich because the slob singing "I'm Lovin' It!" during the commercial break looks just like you. The joy of being a consumer is that it doesn't require thought, responsibility, self-awareness or shame: All you have to do is obey the first urge that gurgles up from your stomach. And then obey the next. And the next. And the next.

And when it comes time to vote, all you have to do is put your Country First -- just like that lady on TV who reminds you of your cousin. U-S-A, baby. U-S-A! U-S-A!

AlterNet is a nonprofit organization and does not make political endorsements. The opinions expressed by its writers are their own.

Big Business Is Making Sure It Wins the Presidency

Remember the total, hideous, inexcusable absence of oversight that has been the great hallmark of George Bush's America for almost eight years now? Well, now we're getting to see that same regulatory malfeasance applied to yet another cornerstone of our political system. The Federal Election Commission -- the body that supposedly enforces campaign-finance laws in this country -- has been out of business for more than six months. That's because Congress was dragging its feet over confirmation hearings for new FEC commissioners, leaving the agency without a quorum. The commission just started work again for the first time on July 10th under its new chairman, Donald McGahn, a classic Republican Party yahoo whose chief qualifications include representing Tom DeLay, the corrupt ex-speaker of the House, in matters of campaign finance.

Apart from the obvious absurdity of not having a functioning election-policing mechanism in an election year in the world's richest democracy, the late start by the FEC makes it almost impossible for the agency to do its job. The commission has a long-standing reluctance to take action in the last months before a vote, a policy designed to help prevent federal regulators from influencing election outcomes. Normally, the FEC tries to root out infractions and loopholes -- fining campaigns for incomplete reporting, or for taking shortcuts around spending limits -- in the early months of a campaign season. But that ship sailed way too long ago to take the stink off the 2008 race.

"The time for setting the ground rules was earlier," says Craig Holman, a lobbyist with the watchdog group Public Citizen. "There isn't time to do much now."

That's especially true given the magnitude of what we're dealing with here: the biggest pile of political contributions in the history of free elections, nearly a billion dollars given to presidential candidates in this season alone. Because the FEC has been dead in the water for so long, it's likely that we'll still be in the dark about a large chunk of this record manure pile of campaign contributions when we go to vote in November.

But that doesn't mean that a little sifting through campaign records doesn't tell us quite a lot about who's backing whom in these races. The truth is that the campaigns of both Barack Obama and John McCain are being inundated with cash from more or less exactly the same gorgons of the corporate scene. From Wall Street to the Big Oil powerhouses to the military-industrial complex, America's fat-cat business leaders know that the Animal House-style party of the last eight years that made almost all of them rich with bonuses, government contracts and bubble profits is about to come to an end, and someone is going to have to pay to clean up the mess. They want that someone to be you, not them, and they've spared no expense to make sure both presidential candidates will be there to bail them out next year.

They're succeeding. Both would-be presidents have already sold us out. They've taken the money and run -- completing the cyclical transformation of the American political narrative from one of monopolistic Republican iniquity to an even more depressing tale about the overweening power of corporate money and the essentially fictitious nature of our two-party system.

In layman's terms, we've gone from being screwed to being fucked. Who knows -- maybe Barack Obama will surprise us if he wins the election. But if you look at the money, it doesn't look good.

Thanks in part to the dormant FEC, corporate America has had even easier access to the candidates than usual in its effort to buy off the next government before the crash. In fact, this election has seen some excellent new innovations in the area of campaign-fundraising atrocities. Chief among them is the rise of so-called "joint committees."

It used to be that campaigns could raise a maximum of $2,300 from each individual. Now, both candidates -- but especially McCain, who far outstrips Obama in this area -- routinely hold fundraisers in which individuals can give far more to a joint committee. Technically, the candidate still pockets only $2,300 in contributions. The bulk of the money raised -- in McCain's case, a whopping $70,100, or 30 times the previous limit -- goes to the state and national arms of the candidate's party, which can then spend the unprecedented haul on behalf of the candidate. "This allows CEOs to walk in the door and drop $70,100," says Holman. "It basically allows campaigns to exceed the spending limits."

McCain has raised more than $63 million via these joint committees, thanks to more than 1,000 "megadonors" who have each given at least $25,000 to his campaign effort. Obama, by contrast, has some 471 megadonors -- and a close examination of their backgrounds underscores some of the differences in corporate America's attitudes toward the two candidates.

One of McCain's chief sources of corporate money is the private-equity firm Kohlberg Kravis Roberts, memorialized for its takeover of RJR Nabisco in the movie Barbarians at the Gate. Through the pretext of joint committees, 10 KKR executives have given McCain $285,000, and it's not hard to figure out why. Two of McCain's key campaign proposals -- lowering the corporate tax rate to 25 percent and making purchases of industrial equipment fully deductible -- would save a single KKR subsidiary, Energy Future Holdings, $49 million.

"Just in his tax policies alone, McCain is saving corporate America $175 billion a year," says James Kvaal, who analyzed McCain's tax policy for the nonprofit Center for American Progress.

McCain has also raked in big contributions from two other giants of the buyout world: the Carlyle Group (famous for its close ties to the Bush administration) and the Blackstone Group (whose co-founder, Pete Peterson, wrote a $28,500 check to McCain after he took home almost $1.8 billion from a public offering last year). McCain has also received monstrous sums from hedge-fund managers, attracted by his pledge to keep the tax rate on their earnings at only 15 percent. Executives and family members in a single hedge fund, Knott Partners, have contributed some $225,700 to McCain's campaign.

Then there's the predictable influx of cash from would-be military contractors. John Lehman, a former secretary of the Navy whose firm builds the Superferry transport vessel, not only donated $28,500 of his own money, but bundled at least $250,000 for McCain from other donors. Donald Bollinger, who is a contractor on the controversial Littoral Combat Ship, gave $27,300 and bundled a whopping $500,000. Anyone want to bet on a decrease in Naval appropriations in a McCain presidency?

McCain has also received big money from telecommunications magnates. The senator has always been a friend to the industry: Back in 2003, just four days after AT&T sent him a check for $10,500, he sponsored a bill to ban state and local taxes on Internet service. Since 2007, McCain has taken in some $1.3 million from the communications industry. Just four members of the McCaw family, which owns the telecommunications firm Eagle River, have kicked in $123,200. McCain's campaign manager, Rick Davis, was a former lobbyist for BellSouth, Verizon and SBC Communications. His deputy campaign manager, Christian Ferry, was a partner to Davis at Verizon. One of his chief advisers, Charlie Black, is the head of the lobbying firm BKSH and Associates, which represents AT&T. His Senate chief of staff, Mark Buse, worked for AT&T Wireless. All told, of 66 current and former lobbyists working for McCain, some 23 come from the telecommunications industry.

Given McCain's telecom backing, it's not surprising that the senator has had one of his characteristic changes of heart. As recently as last November, McCain was staunchly opposed to retroactive immunity for telecommunication companies that took part in Bush's illegal spying on American consumers, saying their actions "undermine our respect for the law." Now, jammed to the gills with telecom cash, McCain calls himself an "unqualified" supporter of immunity, praising the telecom industry's warrantless wiretapping as "constitutional and appropriate."

All the same, plenty of other evidence suggests that much of Wall Street is betting on an Obama win. In fact, some observers believe that KKR announced a multibillion-dollar public offering this summer because it expects McCain to lose. "They're doing the public offering now so that the compensation can be taxed at the lower rate while Bush is still in office," says a strategist for a major labor union. "They're betting Obama is going to win, and they're getting their money while they can."

Other companies are getting in on the ground floor with the new chief by stuffing money in his ears. Overall, Obama is flat-out kicking McCain's ass when it comes to Wall Street contributions, raking in nearly $9 million from securities and investment executives, compared to $6.2 million for McCain. Obama has received more contributions from Goldman Sachs than from any other employer -- more than $627,000 at this writing -- not to mention $398,021 from JP Morgan Chase, $353,922 from Lehman Brothers and $291,388 from Morgan Stanley. Even among hedge-fund executives, who have an unequivocal interest in electing McCain, Obama is whipping the Republican, collecting $500,000 more than McCain. All of which begs the question: Why would corporate giants like these throw so much weight behind a man who promises to strip them of billions in tax breaks?

Sadly, the answer to that question increasingly appears to be that Obama is, well, full of shit. He has made no bones about his plans to raise income by soaking the rich, promising to roll back the Bush tax cuts for people making over $250,000, increase the top tax rate on capital gains to 25 percent and raise the top rate on qualified dividends. He has also pledged to deliver a real stomach punch to hedge-fund managers, raising the tax rate on most of their income from 15 percent to 35 percent.

These populist pledges sound good, but many business moguls appear to be betting that the tax policies, like Obama himself, are only that: something that sounds good. "I think we don't want to make too much of his promises on taxes," says Robert Pollin, professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts. "Not all of these things will happen." Noting the overwhelming amount of Wall Street money pouring into Obama's campaign, even elitist fuckwad David Brooks was recently moved to write, "Once the Republicans are vanquished, I wouldn't hold your breath waiting for that capital-gains tax hike."

Those worried that Obama might be all talk when it comes to needed reform had a real scare in July, when the senator failed to show up to vote for the Stop Excessive Speculation Act, a bill designed to curb rampant oil speculation. Oil speculators provide the perfect microcosm of what happened to the economy under Bush. Back in 2001, investment banks like Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan got together and created an online exchange called the ICE for trading energy commodities. The ICE ended up buying the British-regulated International Petroleum Exchange; it then opened trading windows in the U.S., allowing Wall Street investment banks to make oil-futures trades on American soil, on their very own commodities exchange, without any federal regulation whatsoever.

"In financial terms, they were playing blackjack at tables where they themselves were the dealers, in casinos they themselves owned," says Warren Gunnels, a senior policy adviser to Sen. Bernie Sanders. "It was crazy." Trading on the ICE had a massive impact on U.S. gasoline prices, and more than one legislator wondered if energy speculators were manipulating the market, as energy traders like Enron had been before. The speculation bill was designed to regulate the ICE and place limits on trades. But on the day before Obama returned from his eight-day, eight-country, megadazzling international photo op, Democrats failed by a vote of 50-43 to force a vote on the bill, as heavy lobbying by investment banks like Goldman Sachs torpedoed the effort.

Not only did Obama not show up to vote, he appeared at a public forum three days later flanked by Jon Corzine and Robert Rubin, two former Goldman executives, to discuss how to revive the economy. Here you have the basic formula of campaign contributions in a nutshell: Powerful investment bank gives big money to candidate, needed reform requires candidate to cross said investment bank, candidate pussies out and finds way to be gone at the moment of truth, candidate resurfaces later in arms of aforementioned investment bankers.

Obama's absence on oil speculation was eerily reminiscent of his previous decision to change his mind about giving retroactive immunity to telecom companies for spying on Americans. Obama withdrew his pledge to filibuster the immunity bill right around the time the Democrats announced that AT&T would be sponsoring the Democratic convention. So no filibuster on retroactive immunity from the top Democrat -- but conventiongoers in Denver will get tote bags emblazoned with the AT&T logo. So that's something.

Look, we all knew this was coming. Once Obama vanquished Hillary Clinton, it was inevitable that his campaign would start roping in the Clinton moneymen for the fall confrontation with McCain. Among those snagged by Obama were Iranian millionaire and former Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee chairman Hassan Nemazee, venture capitalist Alan Patricof and the touchingly plugged-in Wall Street power couple Maureen White (First Boston) and Steven Rattner (Morgan Stanley). Rattner and White, the former chief fundraiser for the DNC, are longtime friends of the Clintons; she quit the DNC in 2006 to build Hillary's war chest, while he backed Joe Lieberman against Ned Lamont and flirted with a Mike Bloomberg presidential run. Such are the people who are now whispering in Obama's ear.

Over the summer, the Obama camp has relentlessly pushed the notion that its record fundraising is mainly the result of small online donations. The first presidential candidate to raise so much money that he could afford to eschew the spending limits that would be imposed if he accepted federal matching funds, Obama claims that he opted out of public funding so that he could have a campaign "truly funded by the American people." And indeed, he has a record number of small donors, with some 45 percent of his campaign cash coming from contributions smaller than $200.

Which is a great percentage -- but it's only eight points better than John Kerry in 2004 and only 14 points better than George Bush that same year. In truth, Obama is still raising tons of money from big corporate donors. In June alone, as Obama was raking in more than $30 million from small donors, he also bagged $6 million in a single fundraiser at Ethel Kennedy's home in Virginia and another $5 million at an event in Hollywood. But time and time again, you see Obama aides boasting about how the day of the big-dollar donor is over. "More people are involved, and I think that necessarily dilutes the impact of any individual -- which is probably a good thing," one prominent Obama supporter recently declared. This staunch champion of the small donor happened to be none other than James Rubin, son of former Goldman Sachs co-chairman Bob Rubin.

Obama's decision to embrace Clinton's moneymen coincided with his decision to attend a public forum on economic policy with an A list of Clinton-era economic advisors, including Rubin and Corzine. "The message is that he's going to be a friend to Wall Street, just as Bill Clinton was a friend to Wall Street," says Pollin. "Wall Street will want to be at the head of the table."

By now it should be clear what type of service Wall Street will demand. The financial disaster dumped on us by eight years of Bush's mismanagement has left America with the prospect of short-term solutions in the form of massive government bailouts, and long-term solutions in the form of reform and regulation. A big chunk of the $1 billion in cash that will be spent on the presidential race this year represents Wall Street's desire to make sure that both candidates can be counted on to make the short-term bailouts large and passionate, and the reforms gentle and halfhearted. "They want to make sure there's socialism when they need it -- bailouts -- and capitalism when they need that," says Pollin.

Both candidates are already falling all over themselves to signal their business-friendly approach to the economy. McCain entered this election with a reputation as a strict Goldwater conservative. "I have always been committed to the principle that it is not the duty of government to bail out and reward those who act irresponsibly," he declared. McCain also sounded off in the past about troubled quasi-governmental lenders Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, pledging to "make them go away" and to strip them of their right to lobby.

But this year, McCain -- perhaps emboldened by the $238,100 he got from seven JP Morgan Chase executives or the $500,000 bundled for him by Chase executive James Lee Jr. -- caved in and supported Chase's outrageous government-backed acquisition of Bear Stearns. He also backed the recent bailout of Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae -- no surprise given that former Fannie Mae lobbyists are serving as his chief of staff and the head of his vice presidential vetting panel.

Obama also supported the Freddie Mac-Fannie Mae rescue, and that, too, is no surprise, given that he hired one former chairman of Fannie Mae to chair his vice presidential vetting panel and hired another former Fannie Mae chairman to serve as his consultant on housing issues. Most of us will never get within a hundred miles of a single Fannie Mae chairman, but Obama has already hired two -- and he isn't even president yet.

This, folks, is the way of the world. Forget all the promises to make the rich pay their fair share. As the candidates get closer to office, the actual paying customers move to the front of the line.

Sadly, both candidates have an extensive history of being dependable pals of campaign contributors. Back in 2000, when Obama was a state senator in Illinois, an entrepreneur named Robert Blackwell Jr. hired him to be his lawyer, paying him a monthly retainer of $8,000 -- big money for a part-time legislator with an annual salary of just $58,000. A few months later, Obama sent a letter urging state tourism officials to give a grant to one of Blackwell's companies, the amusingly named Killerspin, to fund a table-tennis tournament. Killerspin received $320,000 in public funds; Obama pocketed $112,000 in fees from Blackwell.

So far this year, Blackwell has bundled more than $100,000 for Obama's campaign. Looks like there's going to be a shitload of table-tennis tournaments all across America next year.

McCain also likes to write letters for big contributors. In 1998, four months after BellSouth contributed $16,750 to the senator, he sent a letter to the FCC asking it to give "serious consideration" to the company's request to enter the long-distance market. He later wrote letters on behalf of Paxson Communications, which donated $20,000 and let him use their company jet, as well as Ameritech and SBC Communications, which raised $120,000 for McCain at a time when they were seeking permission to merge.

McCain's still sticking by that gang. Former Ameritech chairman Richard Notebaert bundled more than $100,000 for him this year, and two of McCain's key fundraisers, Peter Madigan and Tim McKone, hail from SBC. The point is that politicians are intensely loyal to the people who give them money -- and not anywhere near as loyal to the promises they've made to suckers like us. No matter who's in the White House, the direction of the government has remained remarkably stable. Clinton's treasury secretary, Rubin, was a Goldman Sachs man; Henry Paulson, the current secretary under Bush, is also a Goldman Sachs man. It'll probably be a Goldman man again next year. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. In sickness or in health, the faces may change, but the money remains. "It's not an accident that both administrations picked for leading economic advisers people from Goldman Sachs," says Pollin.

The really distressing thing about all of this is the signal it sends to Americans. Goldman Sachs posted a record profit of $11 billion last year, much of it from betting against the subprime mortgage market they themselves helped to fuck up. That little energy exchange Goldman set up, the ICE, made a profit of $240 million last year, as gas prices skyrocketed. It may suck to be you right now, but all that pain isn't so bad if you are a big oil speculator.

When you live in million-dollar Manhattan townhouses and make billions in profits betting on the pain of the ordinary foreclosed homeowner, you shouldn't get to run around on TV with the prospective president on your arm. You should be hung by your balls. But that's not the way it works, and despite what you might have heard about "change," it probably never will be.

For all the excitement that Barack Obama has garnered, and all the talk about a new day in Washington, it would be tragic if the real legacy of his election victory was to finally expose the essentially unchanging, oligarchic nature of our political system. It's the same old story: Money talks, and bullshit walks. And don't be surprised if we're the ones still walking after November.

Economic Realities Are Killing Our Era of Fantasy Politics

I am a single mother with a 9-year-old boy. To stay warm at night my son and I would pull off all the pillows from the couch and pile them on the kitchen floor. I'd hang a blanket from the kitchen doorway and we'd sleep right there on the floor. By February we ran out of wood and I burned my mother's dining room furniture. I have no oil for hot water. We boil our water on the stove and pour it in the tub. I'd like to order one of your flags and hang it upside down at the capital building... we are certainly a country in distress. -- Letter from a single mother in a Vermont city, to Senator Bernie Sanders
The Republican and Democratic conventions are just around the corner, which means that we're at a critical time in our nation's history. For this is the moment when the country's political and media consensus finally settles on the line of bullshit it will be selling to the public as the "national debate" come fall.

If you pay close attention you can actually see the trial balloons whooshing overhead. There have been numerous articles of late of the Whither the Debate? genus in the country's major dailes and news mags, pieces like Patrick Healy's "Target: Barack Obama. Strategy: What Day is it?" in the New York Times. They ostensibly wonder aloud about what respective "plans of attack" Barack Obama and John McCain will choose to pursue against one another in the fall.

In these pieces we already see the candidates trying on, like shoes, the various storylines we might soon have hammered into our heads like wartime slogans. Most hilarious from my viewpoint is the increasingly real possibility that the Republicans will eventually decide that their best shot against Obama is to pull out the old "He's a flip-flopper" strategy -- which would be pathetic, given that this was the same tired tactic they used against John Kerry four years ago, were it not for the damning fact that it might actually work again. (I'm actually not sure sometimes what is more repulsive: the bosh they trot out as campaign "issues," or the enthusiasm with which the public buys it.)

Naturally we'll also see the "Patriotism Gap" storyline whipped out and reused over and over again. There will also be much talk emanating from the McCain camp about "experience," although this line of attack will not be nearly as fruitful for him as it was for Hillary Clinton, mainly because the word "experience" in McCain's case also has a habit of reminding voters that the Arizona senator is, well, wicked old.

The Obama camp, playing with a big halftime lead as the cliché goes, is going to play this one close to the vest, sticking to a strategy of using larger and larger fonts every week for their "CHANGE" placards, and getting the candidates' various aides and spokesgoons to use the term "McCain-Bush policies" as many times as possible on political talk shows. Obama will also use this pre-convention period to do what every general election candidate does after a tough primary-season fight, i.e. ditch all the positions he took en route to securing the nomination and replace them with opinions subtly (or sometimes not-so-subtly) reconfigured to fit the latest polling information coming out of certain key swing states. Both sides as well as the pundit class will describe this early positioning for combat over swing-state electoral votes as a "race for the center" (AP, July 3: "Candidates Courting the Center"), as if the "political center" in America were a place where huge chunks of the population tirelessly obsessed over semi-relevant media-driven wedge issues like stem-cell research and gay marriage, even as they lacked money to buy food and make rent every month.

The press, meanwhile, is clearly flailing around for a sensational hook to use in selling the election, as the once-brightly-burning star of blue-red hatred seems unfortunately to have dimmed a little -- just in time, perhaps, to torpedo the general election season cable ratings. They are working hard to come up with the WWF-style shorthand labels they always use to sell electoral contests: if 2000 was the "wooden" and ?condescending? Al Gore versus the "dummy" Bush, and 2004 featured that same ?regular guy? Bush against the "patrician" and "bookish" John Kerry (who also "looked French"), in 2008 we?re going to be sold the "maverick" McCain against the "smooth" Obama, or some dumb thing along those lines. Time has even experimented with a "poker versus craps" storyline, feeding off the incidental fact that Obama is a regular poker player while McCain reportedly favors craps, which apparently has some electorally relevant meaning -- and if you know what that something is, please let me know.

We're also going to be fed truckloads of onerous horseshit about the candidate wives. The Michelle Obama content is going to go something like this: the Fox/Limbaugh crowd will first plaster her with Buckwheatesque caricatures (the National Review cover was hilariously over-the-top in that respect) and racially loaded epithets like "baby Mama" (that via Fox News spokeswhore Michelle Malkin, God bless her) and "angry black woman" (via self-aggrandizing, cop-mustached Chicago-based prune Cal Thomas). Next, the so-called "mainstream" press, the "respectable" press, which of course is above such behavior, will amplify those attacks 10 million-fold via endless waves of secondary features soberly pondering the question of whether or not Michelle Obama is a "political liability" -- because of stuff like the Thomas column, and Malkin's quip and the endless rumors about a mysterious "whitey" video. Cindy McCain, meanwhile, will generally be described as a political asset, as the pundit class tends to applaud, mute, stoned-looking candidate wives who have soldiered on bravely while being martyred by rumors of their mostly absent husband's infidelities. It will help on the martyrdom front that McCain launched his political career with her family money and drove her into an actual, confirmable chemical dependency. As long as she keeps gamely wobbling onstage and trying to smile into the camera, she's going to get straight As from the political press, guaranteed.

Some combination of all of these things is going to comprise the so-called "national debate" this fall. Now, we live in an age where our media deceptions are so far-reaching and comprehensive that they almost smother reality, at times seeming actually to replace reality -- but even in the context of the inane TV-driven fantasyland we've grown used to inhabiting, this year's crude cobbling together of a phony "national conversation" by our political press is an outrageous, monstrously offensive deception. For if, as now seems likely, this fall's election is ultimately turned into a Swan-esque reality show where America is asked to decide if it can tolerate Michelle Obama's face longer than John McCain's diapers, it will be at the expense of an urgent dialogue about a serious nationwide emergency that any sane country would have started having some time ago. And unless you run a TV network or live in Washington, you probably already know what that emergency is.

A few weeks back, I got a call from someone in the office of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. Sanders wanted to tell me about an effort his office had recently made to solicit information about his constituents? economic problems. He sent out a notice on his e-mail list asking Vermont residents to "tell me what was going on in their lives economically." He expected a few dozen letters at best -- but got, instead, more than 700 in the first week alone. Some, like the excerpt posted above, sounded like typical tales of life for struggling single-parent families below the poverty line. More unnerving, however, were the stories Sanders received from people who held one or two or even three jobs, from families in which both spouses held at least one regular job -- in other words, from people one would normally describe as middle-class. For example, this letter came from the owner of his own commercial cleaning service:

My 90-year-old father in Connecticut has recently become ill and asked me to visit him. I want to drop everything I am doing and go visit him, however, I am finding it hard to save enough money to add to the extra gas I'll need to get there. I make more than I did a year ago and I don't have enough to pay my property taxes this quarter for the first time in many years. They are due tomorrow.

This single mother buys clothes from thrift stores and unsuccessfully tried to sell her house to pay for her son's schooling:

I don't go to church many Sundays, because the gasoline is too expensive to drive there. Every thought of an activity is dependent on the cost.

Sanders got letters from working people who have been reduced to eating "cereal and toast" for dinner, from a 71-year-old man who has been forced to go back to work to pay for heating oil and property taxes, from a worker in an oncology department of a hospital who reports that clinically ill patients are foregoing cancer treatments because the cost of gas makes it too expensive to reach the hospital. The recurring theme is that employment, even dual employment, is no longer any kind of barrier against poverty. Not economic discomfort, mind you, but actual poverty. Meaning, having less than you need to eat and live in heated shelter -- forgetting entirely about health care and dentistry, which has long ceased to be considered an automatic component of American middle-class life. The key factors in almost all of the Sanders letters are exploding gas and heating oil costs, reduced salaries and benefits, and sharply increased property taxes (a phenomenon I hear about all across the country at campaign trail stops, something that seems to me to be directly tied to the Bush tax cuts and the consequent reduced federal aid to states). And it all adds up to one thing.

"The middle class is disappearing," says Sanders. "In real ways we're becoming more like a third-world country."

Here's the thing: nobody needs me or Bernie Sanders to tell them that it sucks out there and that times are tougher economically in this country than perhaps they've been for quite a long time. We've all seen the stats -- median income has declined by almost $2,500 over the past seven years, we have a zero personal savings rate in America for the first time since the Great Depression, and 5 million people have slipped below the poverty level since the beginning of the decade. And stats aside, most everyone out there knows what the deal is. If you're reading this and you had to drive to work today or pay a credit card bill in the last few weeks you know better than I do for sure how fucked up things have gotten. I hear talk from people out on the campaign trail about mortgages and bankruptcies and bill collectors that are enough to make your ass clench with 100 percent pure panic.

None of this is a secret. Here, however, is something that is a secret: that this is a class issue that is being intentionally downplayed by a political/media consensus bent on selling the public a version of reality where class resentments, or class distinctions even, do not exist. Our "national debate" is always a thing where we do not talk about things like haves and have-nots, rich and poor, employers versus employees. But we increasingly live in a society where all the political action is happening on one side of the line separating all those groups, to the detriment of the people on the other side.

We have a government that is spending two and a half billion dollars a day in Iraq, essentially subsidizing new swimming pools for the contracting class in northern Virginia, at a time when heating oil and personal transportation are about to join health insurance on the list of middle-class luxuries. Home heating and car ownership are slipping away from the middle class thanks to exploding energy prices -- the hidden cost of the national borrowing policy we call dependency on foreign oil, "foreign" representing those nations, Arab and Chinese, that lend us the money to pay for our wars.

And while we've all heard stories about how much waste and inefficiency there is in our military spending, this is always portrayed as either "corruption" or simple inefficiency, and not what it really is -- a profound expression of our national priorities, a means of taking money from ordinary, struggling people and redistributing it not downward but upward, to connected insiders, who turn your tax money into pure profit.

You want an example? Sanders has a great one for you. The Senator claims that he has been trying for years to increase funding for the Federally Qualified Health Care (FQHC) program, which finances community health centers across the country that give primary health care access to about 16 million Americans a year. He's seeking an additional $798 million for the program this year, which would bring the total appropriation to $2.9 billion, or about what we spend every two days in Iraq.

"But for five billion a year," Sanders insists, "we could provide basic primary health care for every American. That?s how much it would cost, five billion."

As it is, though, Sanders has struggled to get any additional funding. He managed to get $250 million added to the program in last year's Labor, Health and Human Services bill, but Bush vetoed the legislation, "and we ended up getting a lot less."

Okay, now, hold that thought. While we're unable to find $5 billion for this simple program, and Sanders had to fight and claw to get even $250 million that was eventually slashed, here's something else that's going on. According to a recent report by the GAO, the Department of Defense has already "marked for disposal" hundreds of millions of dollars worth of spare parts -- and not old spare parts, but new ones that are still on order! In fact, the GAO report claims that over half of the spare parts currently on order for the Air Force -- some $235 million worth, or about the same amount Sanders unsuccessfully tried to get for the community health care program last year -- are already marked for disposal! Our government is buying hundreds of millions of dollars worth of Defense Department crap just to throw it away!

"They're planning on throwing this stuff away and it hasn?t even come in yet," says Sanders.

According to the report, we're spending over $30 million a year, and employing over 1,400 people, just to warehouse all the defense equipment we don't need. For instance -- we already have thousands of unneeded aircraft blades, but 7,460 on the way, at a cost of $2 million, which will join those already earmarked for the waste pile.

This is why you need to pay careful attention when you hear about John McCain claiming that he's going to "look at entitlement program" waste as a means of solving the budget crisis, or when you tune into the debate about the "death tax." We are in the midst of a political movement to concentrate private wealth into fewer and fewer hands while at the same time placing more and more of the burden for public expenditures on working people. If that sounds like half-baked Marxian analysis... well, shit, what can I say? That's what's happening. Repealing the estate tax (the proposal to phase it out by the year 2010 would save the Walton family alone $30 billion) and targeting "entitlement" programs for cuts while continually funneling an ever-expanding treasure trove of military appropriations down the befouled anus of pointless war profiteering, government waste and North Virginia McMansions -- this is all part of a conversation we should be having about who gets what share of the national pie. But we're not going to have that conversation, because we're going to spend this fall mesmerized by the typical media-generated distractions, yammering about whether or not Michelle Obama's voice is too annoying, about flag lapel pins, about Jeremiah Wright and other such idiotic bullshit.

Bernie Sanders is one of the few politicians out there smart enough and secure enough to understand that the future of American politics is necessarily going to involve some pretty frank and contentious confrontations. The phony blue-red divide, which has been buoyed for years by some largely incidental geographical disagreements over religion and other social issues, is going to give way eventually to a real debate grounded in a brutal economic reality increasingly common to all states, red and blue.

Our economic reality is as brutal as it is for a simple reason: whether we like it or not, we are in the midst of revolutionary economic changes. In the kind of breathtakingly ironic development that only real life can imagine, the collapse of the Soviet Union has allowed global capitalism to get into the political unfreedom business, turning China and the various impoverished dictatorships and semi-dictatorships of the third world into the sweatshop of the earth. This development has cut the balls out of American civil society by forcing the export abroad of our manufacturing economy, leaving us with a service/managerial economy that simply cannot support the vast, healthy middle class our government used to work very hard to both foster and protect. The Democratic party that was once the impetus behind much of these changes, that argued so eloquently in the New Deal era that our society would be richer and more powerful overall if the spoils were split up enough to create a strong base of middle class consumers -- that party panicked in the years since Nixon and elected to pay for its continued relevance with corporate money. As a result the entire debate between the two major political parties in our country has devolved into an argument over just how quickly to dismantle the few remaining benefits of American middle-class existence -- immediately, if you ask the Republicans, and only slightly less than immediately, if you ask the Democrats.

The Republicans wanted to take Social Security, the signature policy underpinning of the middle class, and put it into private accounts -- which is a fancy way of saying that they wanted to take a huge bundle of American taxpayer cash and invest it in the very companies, the IBMs and Boeings and GMs and so on, that are exporting our jobs abroad. They want the American middle class to finance its very own impoverishment! The Democrats say no, let's keep Social Security more or less as is, and let that impoverishment happen organically.

Now we have a new set of dire problems in the areas of home ownership and exploding energy prices. In both of these matters the basic dynamic is transnational companies raiding the cash savings of the middle class. Because those same companies finance the campaigns of our politicians, we won't hear much talk about getting private industry to help foot the bill to pay for these crises, or forcing the energy companies to cut into their obscene profits for the public good. We will, however, hear talk about taxpayer-subsidized bailouts and various irrelevancies like McCain's gas tax holiday (an amusing solution -- eliminate taxes collected by government in order to pay for taxes collected by energy companies). Ultimately, however, you can bet that when the middle class finally falls all the way down, and this recession becomes something even worse, necessity will force our civil government -- if anything remains of it by then -- to press for the only real solution.

"Corporate America is going to have to reinvest in our society," says Sanders. "It's that simple."

These fantasy elections we've been having -- overblown sports contests with great production values, decided by haircuts and sound bytes and high-tech mudslinging campaigns -- those were sort of fun while they lasted, and were certainly useful in providing jerk-off pundit-dickheads like me with high-paying jobs. But we just can't afford them anymore. We have officially spent and mismanaged our way out of la-la land and back to the ugly place where politics really lives -- a depressingly serious and desperate argument about how to keep large numbers of us from starving and freezing to death. Or losing our homes, or having our cars repossessed. For a long time America has been too embarrassed to talk about class; we all liked to imagine ourselves in the wealthy column, or at least potentially so, flush enough to afford this pissing away of our political power on meaningless game-show debates once every four years. The reality is much different, and this might be the year we're all forced to admit it.

An Atheist Goes Undercover to Join the Flock of Mad Pastor John Hagee

The following is an excerpt from Matt Taibbi's new book, The Great Derangement" (Spiegel and Grau, 2008). Update: Matt Taibbi has responded to readers concerns about a passage in this excerpt. Response pasted at the bottom.

I pulled into the church parking lot a little after 6:00 p.m., at more or less the last possible minute. The previous half hour or so I'd spent dawdling in my car outside a Goodwill department store off Route 410 in San Antonio, clinging to some inane sports talk show piping over my car radio -- anything to hold off my plunge into Religion.

There was an old-fashioned white school bus in front of the church entrance, with a puddle of heavyset people milling around its swinging door. Some of these were carrying blankets and sleeping bags. My heart, already pounding, skipped a few extra beats. The church circulars had said nothing about bringing bedding. Why did I need bedding? What else had I missed?

"Excuse me," I said, walking up to an in-charge-looking man with a name tag who was standing near the front of the bus. "I see everyone has blankets. I didn't bring any. Is this going to be a problem?"

The man was about five feet one and had glassy eyes. He looked up at me and smiled queerly.

"Name?" he said.

"Collins," I said. "Matthew Collins."

He scanned his clipboard, found my name on the appropriate sheet of paper, and X-ed me out with a highlighter. "Don't worry, Matthew," he said, resting his hand on my shoulder. "A wonderful woman named Martha is going to take care of you at the ranch. You just tell her what you need when you get there."

I nodded, glancing at his hand, which was still on my shoulder. He waved me into the bus.

I had been attending the Cornerstone Church for weeks, but this was really my first day of school. I had joined Cornerstone -- a megachurch in the Texas Hill Country -- to get a look inside the evangelical mind-set that gave the country eight years of George W. Bush. The church's pastor, John Hagee, is one of the most influential evangelical preachers in the country -- not because his ministry is so very large (although he claims up to 4.5 million viewers a week for his Sunday sermons) but because of his near-absolute conquest of a very trendy niche in the market: Christian Zionism.

The whole idea behind Christian Zionism is to align America with the nation of Israel so as to "hurry God up" in his efforts to bring about Armageddon. As Hagee tells it, only after Israel is involved in a final showdown involving a satanic army (in most interpretations, a force of Arabs led by Russians) will Christ reappear. On that happy day, Hagee and his True Believers will be whisked up to Heaven by God, while the rest of us nonbelievers are left behind on Earth to suck eggs and generally suffer various tortures.

So here I was, standing in the church parking lot, having responded to church advertisements hawking an "Encounter Weekend" -- three solid days of sleep-away Christian fellowship that would teach me the "joy" of "knowing the truth" and "being set free." That had sounded harmless enough, but now that I was here and surrounded by all of these blanket-bearing people, I was nervous. When most Americans think of the Christian right, they think of scenes from television -- great halls full of perfectly groomed people in pale suits and light-colored dresses, smiling and happy and full of the Holy Spirit, robotically singing hymns at the behest of some squeaky-clean pastor with a baritone voice and impossible hair. We don't get to see the utterly batshit world they live in, when the cameras are turned off and their pastors are not afraid of saying the really dumb stuff, for fear of it turning up on CNN. In American evangelical Christianity, in other words, there's a ready-for-prime-time stage act -- toned down and lip-synced to match a set of PG lyrics that won't scare the advertisers -- and then there's the real party backstage, where the spiritual hair really gets let down. I was about to go backstage, to personally take part in the indoctrination process for a major Southern evangelical church. Waiting to board the bus for the Encounter Weekend, I had visions of some charismatic ranch-land Jesus, stoned on beer and the Caligula director's cut and too drunk late at night to chase after the minor children, hauling me into a barn for an in-the-hay shortcut to truth and freedom. Ridiculous, of course, but I really was afraid, mostly of my own ignorance and prejudices. I had never been to something like this before, and I didn't know how to act. I badly wanted to be invisible.

The bus was nearly full, and mostly quiet. Here and there a few people sitting together or near each other huddled and chatted, but I could see right away that a great many people on the trip had come alone, like me. They were people of all sorts: younger white men in neat middle-class haircuts, a matronly Mexican woman quietly reading a romance novel, a few scattered weather-beaten black folk in secondhand clothing whom I immediately pegged as in-recovery addicts, a couple of ten-alarm soccer moms who would prove the loudest people on the bus by far, a few quiet older men of military bearing.

The one obvious conclusion anyone making a demographic study of the Cornerstone Church population would come to would be that it's a solidly middle-class crowd. These are folks who are comfortable eating off paper plates and drinking out of gallon jugs of Country Time iced tea over noisy dinners with their kids. They're people who grew up in houses with back yards and fences, people with families. This particular journey to God is not a pastime for the idle rich or the urban obnoxious.

I sat down next to a frankly obese Hispanic woman who was carrying what both looked and smelled like a paper bag full of cheeseburgers.

"Some weather we're having, with this rain," I said.

"Tell me about it!" she said, introducing herself as Maria. "It truly is an act of God that I even made it here today." She told a story about having to drive down from Austin in bad weather. God had helped her four or five steps along the way. "It just seems like God really wants me to come on this trip," she said. "Otherwise, I would never have made it."

"It looks like God is going to give us a rainstorm all the way to Tarpley," I heard a voice behind me say.

This oddly uniform style of dialogue ringing all around me made me shift in my seat. I felt nervous and unpleasantly certain that I was about to be found out. When Maria asked me why I'd come on the retreat, I bit my lip. When in Rome, I thought.

"Well," I said, "since the new year, I've just been feeling like God has been telling me that I need to get right spiritually. So here I am."

I paused, wincing inwardly. An outsider coming into this world will feel sure that the moment he coughs up one of those "God told me to put more English on my tee shot" lines, his dark game will be instantly visible to all, and he'll be made the target of one of those Invasion of the Body Snatchers-style point-and-screech mob scenes. But nothing could be further from the truth. You simply cannot go wrong praising God in this world; overdoing it is literally impossible. I would understand this better by the end of the weekend.

Maria smiled. "I feel the same way. Have you ever been to one of these Encounters?"

"No, I haven't," I said.

"Me neither," she said. "I'm really excited."

"They're wonderful," said the matronly Mexican woman in front of me, turning around. "They really change you forever."

I slunk in my seat, trying to look inconspicuous. My disguise was modeled on other men I'd seen in church -- pane glasses and the very gayest blue-and-white-striped Gap polo shirt I'd been able to find that afternoon. Buried on a clearance rack next to the underwear section in a nearby mall, the Gap shirt was one of those irritating throwbacks to the Meatballs/Seventies-summer-camp-geek look, but stripped of its sartorial irony, it really just screamed Friendless Loser! -- so I bought it without hesitation and tried to match it with that sheepish, ashamed-to-have-a-penis look I had seen so many other young men wearing in church. With the glasses and a slouch I hoped I was at least in the ballpark of what I thought I needed to look like, which was a slow-moving hulk of confused, shipwrecked masculinity, flailing for an Answer.

One of the implicit promises of the church is that following its program will restore to you your vigor, confidence and assertiveness, effecting, among other things, a marked and obvious physical transformation from crippled lost soul to hearty vessel of God. That's one of the reasons that it's so important for the pastors to look healthy, lusty and lustrous -- they're appearing as the "after" photo in the ongoing advertisement for the church wellness cure.

In these Southern churches there are few wizened old sages such as one might find among Catholic bishops or Russian startsi. Here your church leader is an athlete, a business dynamo, a champion eater with a bull's belly, outwardly a tireless heterosexual -- and if you want to know what a church beginner is supposed to look like, just make it the opposite of that. Show weakness, financial trouble, frustration with the opposite sex, and if you're overweight, be so unhealthily, and in a way that you're ashamed of. The fundamentalist formula is much less a journey from folly to wisdom than it is from weakness to strength. They don't want a near-complete personality that needs fine-tuning -- they want a human jellyfish, raw clay they can transform into a vigorous instrument of God.

I was very, very, very good -- at everything!" shouted our hulking ex-paratrooper pastor, Philip Fortenberry, into the barely visible mouth mike that curled around his ruddy face. "I was a Green Beret -- top of the class. Six feet four, 225 pounds. A star athlete, basketball player. Starting outside linebacker on the varsity football team..."

The crowd cooed as our spiritual leader rattled off his macho credentials. Our supercowboy pastor was the perfect foil for the Revenge of the Nerds-style crowd of fatties, addicts, loners and broken-home survivors populating the warehouse-size building where we were all destined to spend the next three days together. In his introductory speech, Fortenberry did everything but tape-measure his biceps. His autobiographical tale of an angry overachieving youth who fell into a young adulthood of false pride, only to rebound and be reborn as a turbocharged, Army-trained enemy of Satan ("A friend of mine once joked that he saw my picture hung up in a post office in Hell," he quipped), was to serve as the first chapter of our collective transformation -- and to work it had to impress the hell out of us scraggly wanna-be's.

It did. "I'm going to start tonight by telling y'all two stories," he began.

The first was a story from his Army days, about having to take a training flight in the Pacific Northwest as a young man and being trapped in the back of the transport plane when the landing went wrong and the plane ended up crash-bouncing along the runway. "If you've ever been in the back of a C-130, you know what I mean," he said, and I saw nodding heads all through the audience. The pastor subsequently would not miss a single chance to drop the name of a piece of military equipment.

The second story was more personal. It was about being a little boy in a small Southern town whose father ran around on his mom with a local barmaid. Dad used to bring little Junior to play golf with him, keeping his arm around the barmaid in the golf cart for the entire eighteen holes; finally Dad left Mom to shack up with the barmaid in a house down the road. Dad was so busy with the barmaid that he never came to see Junior's ballgames. But from time to time he would come back home to Mom, moving back into Junior's world, turning his life upside down.

"And every time he came back," the pastor said, waving his hand up and down and his voice fairly breaking with tears, "it was like one more bounce along that runway, bouncing in that C-130, tearing my little boy's world apart."

The pastor fell silent, still using his hands to demonstrate that bouncing transport plane of fate, as he surveyed his hushed audience. Fortenberry then stood staring at his audience in full pre-weep, his eyes wrinkling with incipient tears. The grown macho man unashamedly breaking into boyish tears in public is one of the weirder features of the post-Promise Keeper Christian generation, and Fortenberry -- himself a Promise Keeper, incidentally -- had it down to a science. "You never came to my ballgames, Dad," he'd screech, his face wrinkling like a raisin with grief at the word "ballgames."

I heard sniffles coming from the audience.

Sensing he had his crowd in an emotionally vulnerable state, the pastor then plunged into a story about how his bitterness at his father's abandonment had pushed him, in high school, to become just about the best basketball player you could imagine. Young Fortenberry, we learned, had scored lots and lots of points in high school and had many great games.

How great were those games? Well, he told us, they were really great. Some of the stories wandered irrelevantly into the specific stats of some of those games; he also punctuated his storytelling with oddly vigorous and adept pantomimes of jumpers and hook shots. It was a weird scene, like listening to a married man wax poetic to a mistress in a roadside motel room. "But after a while I realized that all those thousands of jump shots" -- here he mimicked a jump shot -- "and all those thousands of moves" -- he ducked his head back and forth, Tim Hardaway-style -- "hadn't brought me any closer to Dad."

The program revolved around a theory that Fortenberry quickly introduced us to called "the wound." The wound theory was a piece of schlock biblical Freudianism in which everyone had one traumatic event from their childhood that had left a wound. The wound necessarily had been inflicted by another person, and bitterness toward that person had corrupted our spirits and alienated us from God. Here at the retreat we would identify this wound and learn to confront and forgive our transgressors, a process that would leave us cleansed of bitterness and hatred and free to receive the full benefits of Christ.

In the context of the wound theory, Fortenberry's tale suddenly made more sense. Being taken on that eighteen-hole golf trip with the barmaid, and watching his family ditched by Dad, had been his wound. It was a wound, Fortenberry explained, because his father's abandonment had crushed his "normal."

"And I was wounded," he whispered dramatically. "My dad had ruined my normal!"

The crowd murmured affirmatively, apparently knowing what it was to have a crushed normal.

After introducing us to the concept of wounds and normals, Fortenberry told us one last cautionary tale before sending us to our first group session. It was about a paratrooper who had done a tandem jump with a training dummy for some Army exercise or other, only to have the dummy's chute fail to open. The dummy had plunged to the ground, crashing through the trees and landing with a thud in a bush. Fortenberry's Army buddy had taken advantage of the situation to have a little joke at the expense of some other exercising soldiers on the ground who weren't privy to the fact that the troopers were jumping with dummies. The Army buddy had cried and wailed in asking where the "body" had fallen, leaving the soldiers on the ground to think that someone had just been killed.

The soldiers had felt guilty, Fortenberry explained, because they'd failed to help what they thought was a fallen comrade. Why? Because they'd been afraid to look behind the bush.

"So I'm telling you now, as you go into your groups," the pastor explained, "don't be afraid to look behind the bush."

I wrote in my binder: "LOOK BEHIND THE BUSH." Then I waited as my name was called out for group study.

The groups were segregated. Men with men, women with women. Each group was led by a life coach, who was actually a recent graduate of the program. At the beginning of the group stage, the coaches were all called up to the front of the chapel, and Fortenberry would call out the coach's name first, then the names of his group members.

My coach's name was Morgan. Morgan was a big man, ex-military, with curly black hair, a black mustache and a softening middle. He looked a little like a post-rehab version of Keith Hernandez -- soft-spoken, deferential, all nose and mustache.

There were four other men in our group. Besides myself, there was Jos, a huge Mexican with a sheepish expression and a steam-boiler body; Aaron, a squat and alert Pennsylvanian with a clean-and-jerker's build; and Dennis, a somewhat vacant and medicated-looking man pushing forty with a bald head and stubbly beard. Dennis looked like a distantly menacing version of Homer Simpson after electroshock therapy. Seated just a few feet away from us in our tight circle, he gazed out at us like he could barely make out our faces.

Once Morgan had us all gathered together, we looked for table space in the cafeteria area of the main building. Ominously, each of the cafeteria tables had a fresh box of Kleenex resting on top of it.

"Well," Morgan said, "I think what we're going to do to start is this. I'm going to tell you my story about my wound, and then we're going to go around in a circle, and each of us is going to just tell his story. Is that OK?"

Everyone nodded. I noted with displeasure that I was seated first after Morgan in clockwise order. Already I was panicking; what kind of wound could a human cipher like myself possibly confess to?

Morgan told his story. Even a perfunctory look at my fellow group members told me that we had people here with some very serious problems, and yet Morgan's wound was a tale that wouldn't have even ruined a week of my relatively privileged childhood, much less my whole life -- something about being yelled at by his dad while he was out playing with remote-controlled airplanes with his friends as a thirteen-year-old. He hammed up his trauma over the incident in classically lachrymose Iron John-in-touch-with-his-inner-boy fashion (again, there is something very odd about modern Christian men -- although fiercely pro-military in their politics and prehistorically macho in their attitudes toward women's roles, on the level of day-to-day behavior they seem constantly ready to break out weeping like menopausal housewives), but his words were bouncing off a wall of unimpressed silence radiating from the group.

Blank stares. This was a tough crowd. Five minutes into our group acquaintance, we were at a full 9.5 out of 10 on the International Uncomfortable Silence scale.

Morgan turned, glanced again at my name tag and sighed.

"Well, uh, OK, then," he said. "Matthew, do you want to tell your story?"

My heart was pounding. I obviously couldn't use my real past -- not only would it threaten my cover, but I was somewhat reluctant to expose anything like my real inner self to this ideologically unsettling process -- but neither did I want to be trapped in a story too far from my own experience. What I settled on eventually was something that I thought was metaphorically similar to the truth about myself.

"Hello," I said, taking a deep breath. "My name is Matt. My father was an alcoholic circus clown who used to beat me with his oversize shoes."

The group twittered noticeably. Morgan's eyes opened to tea-saucer size.

I closed my own eyes and kept going, immediately realizing what a mistake I'd made. There was no way this story was going to fly. But there was no turning back.

"He'd be sitting there in his costume, sucking down a beer and watching television," I heard myself saying. "And then sometimes, even if I just walked in front of the TV, he'd pull off one of those big shoes and just, you know -- whap!"

I looked around the table and saw three flatlined, plainly indifferent psyches plus one mildly unnerved Morgan staring back at me. I could tell that my coach and former soldier had been briefly possessed by the fear that a terrible joke was being played on his group. But then I actually saw him dismissing the thought -- after all, who would do such a thing? I managed to tie up my confession with a tale about turning into a drug addict in my mid-twenties -- at least that much was true -- and being startled into sobriety and religion after learning of my estranged clown father's passing from cirrhosis.

It was a testament to how dysfunctional the group was that my story flew more or less without comment.

So it began. Our meetings were a prolonged, cyclical course of group-directed confession and healing that began on Friday evening and continued almost without interruption through Sunday afternoon. The basic gist of our group exercises was this: We were each supposed to reveal to one another what our great childhood wounds were, then write a series of essays and letters on the wound theme, taking time after the writing of each to read our work aloud. The written assignments began with an autobiography, then moved on to a letter written to our "offenders" (i.e., those who had caused our wounds), then a letter written to Jesus confessing our failure to forgive our tormentors.

Unfortunately, my one fleeting error of judgment about my circus-clown dad had left me shackled to a rank character absurdity for the rest of my stay in Texas. I soon found myself reading aloud a passage from my "autobiography" describing a period of my father's life when he quit clowning to hand out fliers in a Fudgie the Whale costume outside a Carvel ice cream store:

I laugh about it now, but once he chased me, drunk, in his Fudgie the Whale costume. He chased me into the bathroom, laid me across the toilet seat and hit me with his fins, which underneath were still a man's hands.

Again no reaction from the group, aside from an affirming nod from Jos at the last part -- his eyes said to me, I know what you mean about those fins.

After each of these grueling exercises we would have lengthy, fifteen-to-twenty-minute sessions singing unbearably atonal Christian hymns. Then we would have teaching/Bible-study sessions led by Fortenberry on the theme of the moment (e.g., "Admit the Truth About Our Wounds") that lasted an hour or so. Then, after Fortenberry would waste at least half the session giving us the Marlboro Man highlights of his professional resume ("I was the manager of the second-largest ranch in America, 825,000 acres...") and bragging about his physical prowess ("If someone was to slug me, I could whip just about anyone here"), we would go back to the group session and confess some more. Then we would sing some more, receive more of Fortenberry's hairy lessons, and then the cycle would start all over again. There were almost no breaks or interruptions; it was a physically exhausting schedule of confession, catharsis, bad music and relentless, muscular instruction. The Saturday program began at 7:45 a.m. and did not end until ten at night; we went around the confess-sing-learn cycle five full times in one day.

We were about a third of the way through the process when I began to wonder what the hell was going on. Fortenberry's blowhard-on-crack-act/wound gobbledygook were all suspiciously secular in tone and approach. I had been hearing whispers throughout the first day or so to the effect that there was some kind of incredible supernatural religious ceremony that was going to take place at the end of the retreat ("Tighten your saddle, he's fixin' ta buck" was how "cowboy" Fortenberry put it), when we would experience "Victory and Deliverance." But as far as I could see, in the early going, most of what we were doing was simple pop-psych self-examination using New Age-y diagnostic tools of the Deepak Chopra school: Identify your problems, face your oppressors, visualize your obstacles. Be your dream job. With a little rhetorical tweaking and much better food, this could easily have been Tony Robbins instructing a bunch of Upper East Side housewives to "find your wounds" ("My husband hid my Saks card!") at a chic resort in Miami Beach or the Hamptons.

True, I could see some other angles to what was going on as well. Virtually all of the participants of the Encounter identified either one or both of their parents as their "offender," and much of what Fortenberry was talking about in his instructional sessions was how to replace the godless atmosphere of abuse or neglect that the offenders had provided us with God and the church. He was taking broken people and giving them a road map to a new set of parents, a new family -- your basic cultist bait-and-switch formula for cutting old emotional ties and redirecting that psychic energy toward the desired new destination. That connection would become more overt later in the weekend, but early on, this ur-father propaganda was the only thing I could see that separated Encounter Weekend from the typical self-help dreck of the secular world.

But then, midway through Saturday, Fortenberry and the coaches started to show us glimpses of the program's end game. The wound, it turned out, was something that was inflicted upon us because of a curse, a curse that perhaps spanned generations in each of our families. Alcoholic parents abused their children, who in turn carried their parents' curse to their adult lives and became alcoholics themselves -- only to have children and continue the pattern again. Now, why was that curse there to begin with? Here was where we could get into religious explanations, see the footprint of Satan, etc. We were unhappy because of earthly troubles from our childhoods, but those troubles were the work of a generational curse, inflicted upon us by devils and demons -- probably for unbelief, bad behavior, disobedience, worship of the wrong gods and so on.

This little bit of semantic gymnastics helped transform all of us at the retreat from being merely fucked up to being accursed carriers of demons. Having ridden an almost entirely secular program to get our biographies out in the open in a group setting, Fortenberry could now switch his focus to the real meat and potatoes of the weekend: Satan and the devils inside us.

He started off slowly, invoking the godly curses of Genesis -- the sweat on Adam's brow, the pain of Eve's childbirth, etc. -- the punishments for eating of the tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil. "How many of you women out there have had babies?" Fortenberry asked. "Can I see some hands?"

A dozen or so hands raised.

"Now, did it hurt?" he asked.

Laughter. Of course it hurt.

"Let me ask you a question," he said. "Why do alcoholics give birth to alcoholics? Why do the fatherless give birth to the fatherless?" He paused. "There are some people out there who will tell you it's genetics. It's in our genes, they say. Well, I tell you, it's not genetics. It's a generational curse!"

Fortenberry then started in on a rant against science and against scientific explanations for cycles of sin. "Take homosexuals," he said. "Every single homosexual is a sexual-abuse victim. They are not born. They are created -- by pedophiles."

The crowd swallowed that one whole. One thing about this world: Once a preacher says it, it's true. No one is going to look up anything the preacher says, cross-check his facts, raise an eyebrow at something that might sound a little off. Some weeks later, I would be at a Sunday service in which Pastor John Hagee himself would assert that the Bible predicts that Jesus Christ is going to return to Earth bearing a "rod of iron" to discipline the ACLU. It goes without saying that the ACLU was not mentioned in the passage in Ezekiel he was citing -- but the audience ate it up anyway. When they're away from the cameras, the preachers feel even less obligated to shackle themselves to facts of any kind. That's because they know that their audience doesn't give a shit. So long as you're telling them what they want to hear, there's no danger; your crowd will angrily dismiss any alternative explanations anyway as demonic subversion.

A team of twenty of the world's leading scientists wouldn't be able to convince so much as one person in this crowd that homosexuals are not created by pedophiles.

Fortenberry told a story about a nephew of his who called him up one night. "Both of his kids had fallen on the ground in respiratory distress, half-conscious, writhing around, gasping for air," Fortenberry said. "And I said to my nephew, I said, 'It isn't something they've done. It's something you've done.' "

The crowd murmured in assent.

"I told my nephew to look around the house," Fortenberry continued. "I said, 'Do you have a copy of Harry Potter?' And he said yes. And I said, 'That's your problem.' So I told him to go get that copy of that book, tear it in half and throw it out the window. So he does it, and guess what? Both of those kids stood up completely recovered, just like that."

He snapped his fingers, indicating the speed with which the kids had jumped up in recovery. The crowd cooed and applauded. I frowned, wondering for a minute what life must be like for a person mortally afraid of toothless commercial fairy tales. It struck me that Phil Fortenberry's nephew was probably more afraid of Harry Potter than Macbeth, which to me said a lot about this religion and about America in general.

Here I have a confession to make. It's not something that's easy to explain, but here goes. After two days of nearly constant religious instruction, songs, worship and praise -- two days that for me meant an unending regimen of forced and fake responses -- a funny thing started to happen to my head. There is a transformational quality in these external demonstrations of faith and belief. The more you shout out praising the Lord, singing along to those awful acoustic tunes, telling people how blessed you feel and so on, the more a sort of mechanical Christian skin starts to grow all over your real self. Even if you're a degenerate Rolling Stone reporter inwardly chuckling and busting on the whole scene -- even if you're intellectually enraged by the ignorance and arrogant prejudice flowing from the mouth of a terminal-ambition case like Phil Fortenberry -- outwardly you're swaying to the gospel and singing and praising and acting the part, and those outward ministrations assume a kind of sincerity in themselves. And at the same time, that "inner you" begins to get tired of the whole spectacle and sometimes forgets to protest -- in my case checking out into baseball reveries and other daydreams while the outer me did the "work" of singing and praising. At any given moment, which one is the real you?

You may think you know the answer, but by my third day I began to notice how effortlessly my soft-spoken Matt-mannequin was going through his robotic motions of praise, and I was shocked. For a brief, fleeting moment I could see how under different circumstances it would be easy enough to bury your "sinful" self far under the skin of your outer Christian and to just travel through life this way. So long as you go through all the motions, no one will care who you really are underneath. And besides, so long as you are going through all the motions, never breaking the facade, who are you really? It was an incomplete thought, but it was a scary one; it was the very first time I worried that the experience of entering this world might prove to be anything more than an unusually tiring assignment. I feared for my normal.

On the final morning of the weekend, we gathered in the chapel for the Deliverance. Fortenberry, dressed in his standard Western shirt and hiked-up jeans, sauntered up to the lectern wearing a solemn and dramatic expression. "This is fixing to be the biggest spiritual battle that ninety-nine percent of you will ever face," he said. "But let me tell you something. It's already been won. It was won 2,000 years ago."

The crowd cheered. As the applause tailed, he held his hands up Mussolini-fashion, asking for quiet. The crowd complied. It was quite dramatically done, this whole business, whatever we were working toward. And at that moment, I spotted a younger kid who had been at the retreat all weekend working a soundboard for the musical parts zipping behind the crowd to some kind of dimmer panel. He turned a switch and the lights dimmed slightly; though it was morning, the light in the building suddenly turned unnatural, like the light during a partial eclipse.

Throughout the whole weekend, Fortenberry had been setting himself up as an athletic conqueror of demons. Now, on the final morning, he looked like a quarterback about to take the field before a big game. The life coaches assembled around the edges of the chapel, carrying anointing oil and bundles of small paper bags.

Fortenberry began to issue instructions. He told us that under no circumstances should we pray during the Deliverance.

"When the word of God is in your mouth," he said, "the demons can't come out of your body. You have to keep a path clear for the demon to come up through your throat. So under no circumstances pray to God. You can't have God in your mouth. You can cough, you might even want to vomit, but don't pray."

The crowd nodded along solemnly. Fortenberry then explained that he was going to read from an extremely long list of demons and cast them out individually. As he did so, we were supposed to breathe out, keep our mouths open and let the demons out.

And he began.

At first, the whole scene was pure comedy. Fortenberry was standing up at the front of the chapel, reading off a list, and the room was loudly chirping crickets back at him.

"In the name of Jesus, I cast out the demon of incest! In the name of Jesus, I cast out the demon of sexual abuse! In the name of Jesus..."

After a few minutes, there was a little twittering here and there. Nothing serious. I was beginning to think the Deliverance was going to be a bust.

But then it started. Wails and cries from the audience. To my left, a young black man started writhing around in his seat. In front of me and to my right, another young black man with Coke-bottle glasses and a shock of nerdly jheri curl -- a dead ringer for a young Wayne Williams -- started wailing and clutching his head.

"In the name of Jesus," continued Fortenberry, "I cast out the demon of astrology!"

Coughing and spitting noises. Behind me, a bald white man started to wheeze and gurgle, like he was about to puke. Fortenberry, still reading from his list, pointed at the man. On cue, a pair of life coaches raced over to him and began to minister. One dabbed his forehead with oil and fiercely clutched his cranium; the other held a paper bag in front of his mouth.

"In the name of Jesus Christ," said Fortenberry, more loudly now, "I cast out the demon of lust!"

And the man began power-puking into his paper baggie. I couldn't see if any actual vomitus came out, but he made real hurling and retching noises.

Now the women began to pipe in. On the women's side of the chapel the noises began, and it is not hard to explain what these noises sounded like. If you've ever watched The Houston 560 or any other gangbang porn movie, that's what it sounded like, only the sounds were far more intense.

It was not difficult to figure out where the energy was coming from on that side of the room. Some of the husbands glanced nervously over in the direction of their wives.

"In the name of Jesus Christ, I cast out the demon of cancer!" said Fortenberry.

"Oooh! Unnh! Unnnnnh!" wailed a woman in the front row.

"Bleeech!" puked the bald man behind me.

Within about a minute after that, the whole chapel erupted in pandemonium. About half the men and three-fourths of the women were writhing around and either play-puking or screaming. Not wanting to be a bad sport, I raised my hand for one of the life coaches to see.

"Need .. a .. bag," I said as he came over.

He handed me a bag.

"In the name of Jesus, I cast out the demon of handwriting analysis!" shouted Fortenberry.

Handwriting analysis? I jammed the bag over my mouth and started coughing, then went into a very real convulsion of disbelief as I listened to this astounding list, half-laughing and half-retching.

"In the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, I cast out the demon of the intellect!" Fortenberry continued. "In the name of Jesus, I cast out the demon of anal fissures!"

Cough, cough!

The minutes raced by. Wayne Williams was now fully prostrate, held up only by a trio of coaches, each of whom took part of his writhing body and propped it up. Another bald man in the front of the chapel was now freaking out in Linda Blair fashion, roaring and making horrific demon noises.

"Rum-balakasha-oom!" shouted Fortenberry in tongues, waving a hand in front of Linda Blair Man. "Cooom-balakasha-froom! In the name of Jesus Christ, I cast out the demon of philosophy!"

Philosophy?

It was obvious that virtually everyone in the crowd was playacting to some degree or another. I was reminded of the Tolstoy story "The Kreutzer Sonata," when the male narrator described marriage as being like the bearded-lady tent in a French circus he'd seen. You pay a few francs to go in, and when you come out, and the carnival barker shouts at you, "Was that not the most amazing thing you've ever seen, monsieur?" -- well, you're too ashamed to admit that you've been had, and so you nod your head and agree: Oui, monsieur, it was really something! That's how people come to say marriage is a blessing, and that's how you can get fifty-odd high school graduates puking demons into three-cent paper bags for a Deliverance.

The whole thing -- the demonic expulsions, the trading of miraculous wives' tales, the crazy End Times theology based on dire predictions that come and go uneventfully once a year or so -- it's all a con that is done with the consent of the conned. Which is what gives it strength. If everybody agrees to believe, it is real.

The hooting and howling went on seemingly forever. It was nearly an hour and a half before Fortenberry was done. He had cast out the demons of every ailment, crime, domestic problem and intellectual discipline on the face of the Earth. He cast out horoscopes, false gods, witches, intellectual pride, nearsightedness, everything, it seemed to me, except maybe E. coli and John Updike novels. At least four of the men and about six of the women writhed and screamed and fussed themselves into sheer physical exhaustion, collapsing in chairs by the time it was over. Several of the coaches actually had to bring Wayne Williams and the other young black man behind the chapel to subdue their demons. By then most of us men were just sitting there mute, looking around absent-mindedly, waiting for it to end. I was sitting there, clutching my demon vomit bag -- perhaps the single greatest souvenir of my journalistic career -- when I made the mistake of closing my mouth. A coach rushed over to me.

"Matthew!" he snapped. "Keep your mouth open! Let the demons out!"

"Oh, right!" I said. I straightened up and opened my mouth in the shape of a letter O.

Meanwhile, Fortenberry was tiring.

"I cast out .. uh .. In the name of Jesus, I cast out the demon of pornography. I cast out, in the name of Jesus, the demon of disconnect."

Fortenberry shook his head as though trying to revive himself. He had been at this for a long time. His stamina really was astounding, a testament to his military training.

Afterward, a frightening thought shot through my head. It occurred to me that over the past decades, any number of our prominent political leaders (from Jimmy Carter to Chuck Colson to W himself) had boasted publicly of their born-again experiences, broadcasting to Middle America an understanding of their personal relationships with God. But whereas once these conversions were humble things -- Billy Graham whispering and putting his hand on W's shoulder in Kennebunkport, or even (in the case of Tom DeLay) a flash of recognition while watching a televangelist program -- the modern version might very easily be this completely batshit holy-vomitus/demon-exorcism deal. The thought that any politician could claim this kind of experience and not be immediately disqualified from public service seemed utterly terrifying.

We were called back to chapel, and this time the drill was speaking in tongues. We were asked to come up to the front of the chapel and let a life coach anoint us with oil, hold our heads and speak to us in tongues. Fortenberry instructed us to "just let it out. Just let it out and it'll come out."

He didn't come right out and say, "Just act like you're speaking in tongues." But it was damned close. Once again, Fortenberry greased the process by telling us a story about how he'd once been at a service where folks were speaking in tongues, and he was skeptical, but it had just flown right out of him -- and now it just shoots right out of him, almost on command.

I went to the front. One of the coaches grabbed me by the shoulder and sploshed a big puddle of oil on my forehead. Then he began to speak in tongues:

"Gam-bakakasha. Hoo-raaa-balalakasha... Come on, Matthew, let it out."

American Christians who speak in tongues basically all try to sound like extras from the underworld set of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. If you want to pull it off and sound like a natural, just imagine you're holding a rubber replica of Harrison Ford's heart in your hands: Umm-harakashaka! Loo-pa-wanneee-rakakakasha, Meester Jones!

But I didn't think of this at the time and just went another route.

"Let it out, Matthew," the coach repeated, clutching my forehead. "Just open your mouth."

I shrugged and rattled off the lyrics to the song "What is Autumn?" by the Russian rock band DDT:

What is autumn? It's the sky The crying sky below your feet. Flying about in puddles are the birds and clouds. Autumn I've not been with you for so long!

It's actually a beautiful song, but with my eyes rolled back in my head and recited in Russian it sounded demonic enough.

"Hmm, very good," my coach said. "Good job, Matthew."

I kept going, on to the next verse. "What is autumn? It's a stone..."

"OK, that's good," the coach said, annoyed, moving on to the next guy.

"It's important that you practice," said Pastor Fortenberry. "It sounds silly, but when you're at home, when you have a little time, just try to let it out. You'll get used to it, and soon you'll be speaking in tongues like nobody's business!"

He then pronounced us baptized in the Holy Spirit and fully qualified now to cast out demons.

He held up his hands in triumph.

"Hallelujah!" he shouted.

The crowd jumped up, and we all threw up our hands.

"Hallelujah!"

He called out Hallelujah! again. We repeated after him. And we repeated after him again. Arms in the air. Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!

I felt a twinge of recognition from somewhere as I threw my arms up over and over again.

We had graduated.

By the end of the weekend I realized how quaint was the mere suggestion that Christians of this type should learn to "be rational" or "set aside your religion" about such things as the Iraq War or other policy matters. Once you've made a journey like this -- once you've gone this far -- you are beyond suggestible. It's not merely the informational indoctrination, the constant belittling of homosexuals and atheists and Muslims and pacifists, etc., that's the issue. It's that once you've gotten to this place, you've left behind the mental process that a person would need to form an independent opinion about such things. You make this journey precisely to experience the ecstasy of beating to the same big gristly heart with a roomful of like-minded folks. Once you reach that place with them, you're thinking with muscles, not neurons.

By the end of that weekend, Phil Fortenberry could have told us that John Kerry was a demon with clawed feet, and not one person would have so much as blinked. Because none of that politics stuff matters anyway, once you've gotten this far. All that matters is being full of the Lord and empty of demons. And since everything that is not of God is demonic, asking these people to be objective about anything else is just absurd. There is no "anything else." All alternative points of view are nonstarters. There is this "our thing," a sort of Cosa Nostra of the soul, and then there are the fires of Hell. And that's all.

Adapted from the forthcoming book, "The Great Derangement" by Matt Taibbi. Copyright 2008 by Matt Taibbi. Published by Spiegel & Grau, a division of Random House Inc. Reprinted with permission. Names of Encounter Weekend participants have been changed to protect their privacy.


Response to readers from Matt Taibbi:

Dear Readers,

I've received a number of letters complaining about the scene in which I saw some "weatherbeaten black folk" whom "I immediately pegged as in-recovery addicts." Perhaps understandably some, minus the context, saw in this a racist attitude. To clarify why I was able to make that judgment:

1) I myself am an in-recovery addict, and as such I generally know one when I see one. I do mention this later in the piece, and in my other writings, but the point isn't made during that specific passage, so I can understand the confusion.

2) I also happened to know, as a member of the church, that the church sought out converts among homeless drug addicts. Most of the churchgoers at Cornerstone were middle-class, healthy, and white. Whenever I saw people who looked like they hadn't eaten a good meal in a year, wore clothes with holes in them, and perhaps additionally were not white, it was logical to make assumptions about how these people and this predominantly white suburban church found each other. I was correct about those people on the bus, incidentally.

Minus this context, I can see how some people reached the conclusions that they did. I apologize for the misunderstanding and certainly don't mean to imply that all black people are drug addicts. That would be outrageous and absurd, given my own situation.

Sincerely
Matt Taibbi

Hillary Serves out the Pork

One Sunday about three months ago -- on the day before Martin Luther King Jr. Day, in fact -- I got out of bed very late and lazily switched on CNN. On the TV screen, Sen. Hillary Clinton was smiling broadly and wearing a black jacket over some strange Oriental get-up. She was standing next to influential black pastor Calvin Butts, in front of the latter's famous Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. Camera bulbs were flashing. An important announcement was about to be made.

Butts, it turns out, was endorsing Hillary over Barack Obama in the upcoming New York primary. I raised an eyebrow. It's not that I expected Butts -- perhaps the most prominent black minister in New York -- to automatically endorse Obama simply because he is black. But I certainly didn't expect to see Butts go on national television and make swipe after thinly veiled swipe at Obama, sounding like he was reading a script prepared for him by Hillary's campaign team.

"This is no time for waiting or hoping for solutions," quipped Butts, making an obvious reference to The Audacity of Hope author Obama and echoing the hope-ain't-shit theme that had been pounded on the campaign trail by the Clinton camp over and over again.

The predominantly black crowd barely had time to scratch its collective head and ask what the hell was going on before the endorsement party abruptly ended, leaving the stunned audience to break out in scattered boos and dueling chants of "Harlem for Obama!" and "Hillary! Hillary!" The strange scene left some in the audience wondering what exactly they'd just seen. "What's frustrating about ministers endorsing candidates," an Obama supporter named Rafael Mason wondered to a reporter, "is it makes you question if their decision is representative of the church or if there's a backroom discussion going on."

Months later, while researching pork-barrel spending by the presidential candidates, I came across three federal budgetary awards requested by Hillary Clinton in this fiscal year:

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How Trivial Can the Media Make the Presidential Race?

December 28th, a beastly-cold afternoon in Story City, Iowa. Another school gym full of polite, placard-bearing Iowans herded in to support yet another pomp-and-ceremony-promising presidential candidate, in this case Hillary Clinton.

Hillary's late, however, so the campaign decides to pass the time by sending a pair of central-casting Adorable Local Children onstage to chuck HILLARY '08 T-shirts into the crowd. A young Hillary volunteer in a standard-issue Pale Blue Button-Down Shirt (the mandatory uniform of all campaign volunteers) takes the mike to introduce the kids.

"There's something you should know about these two," Pale Blue Shirt shouts. "They only respond to NOISE!!! Whoever makes the most noise gets a T-shirt!"

Robotic cheers as the kids hurl shirts in every direction. Last time I saw this act, it was New Jersey Nets mascot Sly the Silver Fox shooting tees with a slingshot to "Who Let the Dogs Out" during halftime at the Meadowlands. This time, the soundtrack is Tom Petty's nauseatingly Hillary-specific "American Girl." Some reporters are rolling their eyes, but every camera is dutifully following each flying T-shirt.

"Make sure you get that," a TV guy to my left whispers to his cameraman.

"Got it, got it," the camera guy says.

There must be a hundred reporters here, and every last one has lined up to capture this event in all its stage-managed glory. There are two camera risers, both packed to the gills with network shooters. Hillary's lectern is planted squarely between two enormous American flags; this way, every shot is sure to make her look like George C. Scott in Patton, with every curve of her ample jowls bathed in the iconic stripes of Old Glory. Campaigns pay top dollar for such images in commercials, but the free press literally fights for space on the risers, for the right to transmit those juicy images for free.

And when Hillary finally arrives, her speech turns out to be the same maddeningly nonspecific, platitude-filled verbal oatmeal that every candidate has spent the last year slinging in all directions -- complete with the same vague promises for "change" we've heard from every last coached-up dog in this presidential hunt, from Barack Obama to Mitt Romney.

"Some people think you get change by demanding it," says the former first lady. "Some people think you get change by hoping for it. I think you get change by working hard for it every single day."

I see reporters frantically writing in their notebooks and laptops. The line was the money shot of this whole presentation, tomorrow's headline.

In a vacuum, of course, this is the most meaningless kind of computer-generated horseshit, the type of thing you would expect to hear coming out of the mouth of a $200-an-hour inspirational speaker at a suburban sales conference. But in this tightest of presidential races, Hillary attacking "hope" amounts to a major rhetorical offensive. "Hope," after all, is Barack Obama's own personal spoonful of oatmeal, and by disparaging it, Hillary has given this gym full of political hacks tomorrow's sports headline.

And the hacks deliver, right on cue. AN OBAMA-CLINTON TEMPEST BREWS roars The Los Angeles Times, noting that Hillary's shot at "hoping for change " is directed at Obama, while "demanding change" is code for John Edwards.

The next stage in this asinine process is the obligatory retorts. Obama responds by crowing, "I don't need lectures about how to bring about change." The "change-demander," Edwards, stakes out his own platitudinal turf, insisting that change isn't about work or hope at all, but about "toughness" and "courage."

Reading all of this crap the next day, I'm amazed. Here we are, the world's lone superpower, holding elections at a time when we're engaged in a catastrophic war in Iraq, facing a burgeoning nuclear crisis in Pakistan, dealing with all sorts of horrible stuff. And at the crucial moment, the presidential race turns into something from the cutting-room floor of Truly Tasteless Jokes #50: "Three change-promisers walk into a bar ...."

I mean, is this a joke, or what? What the hell is the difference between "working for change" and "demanding change"? And why can't we hope for change and work for it? Are these presidential candidates or six-year-olds?

This 2008 presidential race looked interesting once, a thrillingly up-for-grabs affair in which real issues and real ground-up voter anger threatened to wrest control of America's politics from the Washington Brahmins who usually puppeteer this process from afar. And while the end result in Iowa -- a historic and inspirational Obama victory, coupled with a hilariously satisfying behind-the-woodshed third-place ass-whipping for status quo gorgon Hillary Clinton -- was compelling, the media has done its best to turn a once-promising race into an idiotic exchange of Nerf-insults, delivered at rah-rah campaign events utterly indistinguishable from scholastic pep rallies. "If there's policy in this race," one veteran campaign reporter tells me with a sad laugh, "I haven't noticed it."

And while it's tempting to blame the candidates, deep in my black journalist's heart I know it isn't all their fault.

We did this. The press. America tried to give us a real race, and we turned it into a bag of shit, just in the nick of time.

Every reporter who spends any real time on the campaign trail gets wrapped up in the horse race. It's inevitable. You tell me how you can spend nearly two years watching the dullest speeches known to man and not spend most of your time wondering about the one surefire interesting moment the whole thing has to offer: the ending.

Stripped of its prognosticating element, most campaign journalism is essentially a clerical job, and not a particularly noble one at that. On the trail, we reporters aren't watching politics in action: The real stuff happens behind closed doors, where armies of faceless fund-raising pros are glad-handing equally faceless members of the political donor class, collecting hundreds of millions of dollars that will be paid off in very specific favors over the course of the next four years. That's the real high-stakes poker game in this business, and we don't get to sit at that table.

Instead, we get to be herded day after day into one completely controlled environment after another, where we listen to an array of ideologically similar politicians deliver professionally crafted advertising messages that we, in turn, have the privilege of delivering to the public free of charge. We rarely get to ask the candidates real questions, and even when we do, they almost never answer.

If you could train a chimpanzee to sit still through a Joe Biden speech, it could probably do the job. The only thing that elevates this work above monkey level is that we get to guess who wins.

For most of us, this is a guilty pleasure. But some of us get so used to being asked who should be running the world that our brains start to ferment. I've seen it happen. The first few times a newbie comes on the campaign trail, he's watching all the flag-waving and the soldier-humping and he's writing it all down with this stunned expression, as if to say, "Jesus, I went to college for this?" Two months later, he's doing six hits a day on MSNBC as a Senior Political Analyst and he's got this weirdly pissed-off look on his face, like he's mad that the world woke up and forgot to kiss his ass that morning. This same meek rookie you saw bent over a steno book just months ago is suddenly talking about how Hillary Clinton needs to do this, Barack Obama needs to do that -- and he's serious! He's not kidding! Next thing you know, he's got an eight-figure book deal and a ten-foot pole up his crack, and he's wearing a tie and loafers to bed. In other words, he's Jonathan Alter.

I call it the Revenge of the Nerds effect. Give an army of proud professionals nothing but a silly horse race to cover, and inevitably they'll elevate even the most meaningless details of that horse race to cosmic importance.

This is how you end up getting candidates bludgeoned to death on the altar of such trivialities as "rookie mistakes" and "lack of warmth"; it's how you end up getting elections decided because candidates like John Kerry are unable to overcome adjectives like "looks French" and "long-faced Easter Island statue."

That's what happened in Iowa. For once, voters tried to say that they were perfectly capable of choosing a president without us, that they could do without any of this nonsense. But they were wrong. Nonsense would have its day!

Saturday, December 29th, Indianola, Iowa. Bucking the usual late-in-the-Iowa-race trend, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee shows up an hour early for a midday rally at a crowded lunch spot in this small town south of Des Moines. But the switcheroo does nothing to shake the massive crowd of press this self-made front-runner now carries around with him like the clap everywhere he goes.

With less than a week before the caucus, it's Huckabee's turn to endure one of the most crucial tests any presidential hopeful faces, the all-out full-court media press that always gets thrown at the pole position candidate. Locked in a tight race with Mitt Romney, he has so far taken the high road, refusing to mention his opponent by name, even though Romney has been whaling on Huckabee's tax record in recent days with a series of savage negative ads.

For that offense against the unwritten laws of campaign-trail horseshit, Huckabee, the one-time media darling of this race, has lately been taking a beating in the press. Reporters aren't interested in the real story line -- Huckabee the innovative economic populist against Romney the unapologetic Wall Street whore, the Republican who mortified party leaders by talking sympathetically about the poor versus the coifed speculator for whom injustice means the capital gains tax. What the press wants out of Huckabee isn't more detail about his economic ideas, but evidence that he is willing to "fight back" against Romney. "Can Mr. Nice Guy go on the offensive?" wondered Politico.com, a weirdly aggressive torch-waving newcomer to the media witch-hunt game. "That's the question facing the surging Mike Huckabee. ..."

That's the question. ... The passive structure of the Politico lede is the standard method that campaign trail journalists use when disguising value judgments as statements of fact. There's no data backing up the notion that this really is the question facing Huckabee; the press is simply making sure Huckabee can be counted on to jump through any hoops they might decide to hold up for him, no matter how asinine these tests might be.

And jump he does. In Indianola, Huckabee not only mentions Romney by name, he unleashes a torrent of anti-Romney abuse. Previously smiling and Muppet-like in most of his stump addresses, Huckabee today is positively monomaniacal in his fixation on Romney -- he sounds like a late-stage Lenny Bruce ranting about cops and Francis Cardinal Spellman. "I did not grow up privileged," he croaks. "I did not grow up with a last name that opened the door. In fact, my last name probably closed a few. Never in my life did I ever remember somebody asking my dad would he be willing to come out and endorse a candidate."

To me it's Huckabee's worst performance, but the press reviews the next day are exultant. NICE-GUY HUCKABEE FIRES BACK IN IOWA shouts the Baltimore Sun. HUCKABEE DROPS 'R-BOMBS' IN IOWA seconds a satisfied Politico.

This scene is a perfect example of the dynamic that dominates virtually all campaign coverage. No matter which issues or grass-roots support elevate a candidate to the limelight, in order to stay there he ends up having to play this game, a sort of political version of Fear Factor in which candidates must eat bowl after bowl of metaphorical worms to prove their worthiness.

The Huckabee episode is significant because Obama went through the same thing in the months leading up to Iowa. His refusal to "mix it up" with Clinton infuriated reporters. "Obama continued to shy away from a real fight with his Democratic rivals," complained Newsweek, wondering if he knew how to pursue politics "as a game, played to win."

When Obama responded with a series of parries at Hillary, the press applauded. OBAMA: BYE-BYE MR. NICE GUY? gushed the Chicago Tribune. OBAMA IN IOWA: GLOVES OFF! roared ABC.com. Shit, even Rollingstone.com got into the act (OBAMA TAKES THE GLOVES OFF).

The hilarious thing is that while Obama and Huckabee were blasted for not providing the press with enough boxing-metaphor material, Clinton was getting the business for being too feisty. IS SEN. CLINTON WARM ENOUGH TO WIN? wondered Slate. Just like the others, Hillary quickly proved her willingness to eat as many worms as we could dish out, hilariously releasing a whole Web site where Friends of Hillary lined up to swear on a stack of Bibles, that despite what you might think, the candidate isn't a crabby old battle-ax in private.

This relentless fragging from the media led to state of affairs in Iowa, in which all of the candidates were enjoined in a seemingly endless piss-fight over the most mind-numbing minutiae imaginable. Clinton and Obama spent days haggling bitterly over, of all things, tea. When Obama insisted that his foreign experience went beyond who "I had tea with," the Hillary camp actually went through the trouble of releasing a statement from Madeleine Albright insisting that Hillary, in fact, drank many different beverages in her travels.

On the Republican side, the Romney-Huckabee war turned increasingly bitter, with "Nice Guy" Huck calling Romney "dishonest" on the Monday before the vote. Romney responded by obliquely comparing the Huckabee record on pardons to that of another Arkansas governor, leading to amusing headlines like ROMNEY ALMOST COMPARES HUCKABEE TO BILL CLINTON.

How did one of the most genuinely interesting primary contests in American history devolve into a Grade-D smack-down that even Vince McMahon would be ashamed to promote? The real story of the campaign has been its unprecedented unpredictability -- and therein lies the problem. On both tickets, the abject failure of media-anointed front-runners to hold their ground was due at least in part to voters having grown weary of being told by the press who was "electable" and who wasn't. Both the Huckabee and Ron Paul candidacies represent angry grass-roots challenges to the entrenched Republican party apparatus, while the Edwards candidacy is a frank and open attack on his own party's too-cozy relationship with corporate America. These developments signaled a meaningful political phenomenon -- widespread voter disgust, not only with the two ruling parties, but with a national political press that smugly enforced the party insiders' stranglehold on the process with its incessant bullying of dissident candidates.

But there was no way this genuinely interesting theme was going to make it into mainstream coverage of the campaign heading into the primary season. It was inevitable that different, far stupider story lines would be found to dominate the headlines once the real bullets started flying in Iowa and New Hampshire. And find them we did.

A month ago, I was actually interested to see who won these first few races. But now that this whole affair has degenerated into a mass orgy of sports clichés and celebrity catfighting, I find myself more hoping that they all die in a fire somehow. And something tells me that most of America would hope that my colleagues and I burn up with them.

Obama on the Rise


All love stories are beautiful at the beginning, and what we're witnessing now is the beginning of a new one: America and Barack Obama. The story begins with the world spinning off its axis, the country mired in dark times and the way of the fresh-faced savior seemingly blocked by a juggernaut agent of the Status Quo. Only in the end, in the moment that sportswriters die for and that comes once a generation in politics if we're lucky, the phenom rises to the occasion, gets the big hit in the big game and becomes a man before our very eyes. The old power recedes, and the new era is born.

That's grand language for a forum as vulgar and profane as presidential politics, but this is the moment that Barack Hussein Obama was born for, and it really is happening before our very eyes. Like Kennedy or Reagan or even Bill Clinton, Obama is a politician whose best chance for success has always been on the level of myth and hero worship; to win the Democratic nomination, he must successfully sell himself not just as a candidate but as an icon, a symbol of the best possible future for twenty-first-century multicultural America and an antidote to both the callous reactionary idiocy of the Bush administration and the shrewd but soulless corporatism of the Clinton machine.

With just weeks to go before Iowa, Obama is succeeding at that sales job, thanks in part to an unexpected avalanche of positive press and in even greater part to Hillary Clinton's recent performance as a creaky, suddenly vulnerable establishment villain. In just a few weeks, the first real votes in this insufferably long process will finally be cast, and when they are, the Powers That Be may find that they waited too long to get the real show started -- that the long wait gave America just enough time to decide that it's ready to move on to something new.

For most of this campaign season, I doubted that Obama really was that new something. Now I'm not so sure he isn't. Whoever Barack Obama is, there's no doubting the genuineness of his phenomenon. And maybe, who knows, that's all that matters.

After debacles in Iraq and New Orleans and mushrooming scandals that exposed much of Congress and the Cabinet as a low-rent crime family hired to collect protection money for the likes of Halliburton and Pfizer, people simply do not trust the politicians they vote for to be anything less than an embarrassment. You get the sense they approach the upcoming election with the enthusiasm of a two-time loser offered a selection of plea deals.

People hate the mechanized speeches, they hate the negative ads, and they especially hate venomous news creatures, myself included. It's now so bad that a poll last month found that fifty-six percent of all likely voters agreed with the phrase that the presidential race is "annoying and a waste of time" -- a shocking number, given that it excludes the forty to fifty percent of Americans who already don't vote in presidential races.

People don't want to feel this way, but the attitude everywhere is the same: What choice do these assholes give us? And it's that grim prejudice that has pervaded this process for a generation, forcing the public to choose from an endless succession of lesser evils and second- raters of the Kerry-Dole genus, stuffed suits who offered nothing like a solution to the main problem of feeling like shit about the American civic experiment.

Until now. Emphasizing that this is not necessarily a reflection of who or what Obama really is, he unmistakably and strikingly attracts crowds that, to a person, really seem to believe that his election will fundamentally change the way they feel about their country.

"I just want to see if there's going to be a difference with this cat," says Richard Walters, a forty-three-year-old New Yorker, who had come to hear Obama give a speech at Harlem's famed Apollo Theater. "Because if there's something different, we need it -- now."



"At this point, I'd be glad if he recited the alphabet correctly," says Xiomara Hall, another New Yorker. Laughing, she and her friend add, "We got hope. Change is goood!"

"I just want to see if he can do something, anything, to change things," says Shirley Paulino, another visitor to the Apollo event. "See if he is what he says he is. We just -- we need it, you know?"

Normally the sight of prospective voters muttering platitudes about "hope" and "change" would make any reporter erupt with derisive laughter, but at Obama events one hears outbursts of optimism so desperate and artless that I can't help but check my cynical instinct. Grown men and women look up at you with puppy-dog eyes and all but beg you not to shit on their dreams. It's odd to say, but it's actually moving.

An important component of this phenomenon is that the Obama crowds are surprisingly free of the usual anti-Republican venom. As much as anything, his rise is a reflection of the country's increasing boredom with partisan hatred.

"I'm so tired of the president just talking to one part of the country, or one group," says Malia Scotch-Marmo. "I was in my twenties with Reagan, but I felt he talked to me, even though we were all Democrats. It would be great to have a black president. It would be great for kids to see. It would be a nice mind shift."

It's a mood thing, not an issue thing, and it stems entirely from Obama's unique personal qualities: his expansive eloquence, his remarkable biography, his commanding physical presence. I saw this clearly on display at an event in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. It was a foreign-policy discussion arranged by his campaign that I thought was going to be a disaster. The candidate's handlers had announced a start time of 8:30 a.m., but when dozens of reporters and a hundred or so audience members arrived, we learned that the candidate wouldn't be showing up until eleven. Up to then, the room had to listen to a panel of academic corpses blather about the Middle East.

By 10 a.m., the press section was afire with sarcastic ripostes. "I slept in the car," said one hack. "I had to. I already checked out of my hotel in Manchester."

But once Obama showed up, the sarcasm evaporated. There was nothing remarkable about Obama's speech and subsequent Q&A session, except that he delivered every line with the force and confidence of someone who's already been president for years. Obama's shtick is to sell his future presidency as one that would recast America as the good guy of the world, one that would be guided by the principles of basic decency ("This isn't just about drawing contrasts. It's about doing what's right"), openness ("Not talking [to other countries] doesn't make us look tough. It makes us look arrogant") and a vision that embraces the challenges of this century ("The task of the next president is to convince the American people that global interdependence is here to stay. Global trade is not going away. The Internet is not going away"). His presentation is deliberately vague on most counts, but the overall effect is augmented by his emphasis on easily remembered concrete positions -- like his promise to withdraw all combat troops from Iraq within sixteen months.

But mostly, Obama is selling himself. When he talks about "showing a new face to the world," it's not exactly a mystery that he's talking about his face. In person, Obama is a dynamic, handsome, virile presence, a stark contrast to the bloated hairy shitbags we usually elect to positions of power in this country.

Moreover, he completely lacks that air of grasping, gutter-scraping ambition sickness that follows most presidential hopefuls around like a rain cloud -- the vengeful impatience that hovers over Rudy Giuliani, or that creepy greediness for media attention that strikes one like an oar in the face in the presence of Mitt Romney. To use a sports cliché, Obama acts like he's been there before, and his handlers are aware enough of how well their candidate is wearing his climb to power that they've consciously chosen to contrast it with that of his rivals.

In particular, the Obama camp harps incessantly, without naming names, on the sense of entitlement that infects Hillary Clinton's campaign persona. Poor Hillary: While Obama glows like the chosen one, taking Kennedy-esque flight on the wings of destiny, next to him Hillary sometimes comes off like an angry drag queen, enraged that some other tramp has been allowed to "Danke Schoen" in her Las Vegas. Obama sees this and isn't above pointing at her Adam's apple. "I'm not running for president because I think this is somehow owed to me," Obama says. And people believe it. In Portsmouth, the same crowd that had to suffer through a two-and-a-half-hour wait sent Obama back on the road with a standing ovation. "There's just something about him," says one middle-aged gentleman. When I suggest that his comment was vague, he shrugs. "Yeah, but it's good vague."



Of course, underneath the veneer of fresh-faced optimism that Obama is pushing -- note that the word "idealism" isn't appropriate here, because Obama isn't selling idealism so much as a kind of reinvigorated, feel-good pragmatism -- there operates a massive, well-oiled political machine no less ruthless and ambitious than that of his establishment rival, Hillary Clinton. Obama has raised $80 million, and it would be a grievous mistake to describe his candidacy as a grass-roots affair, particularly when he counts among his bundlers many of the lobbyists and political-finance pros who buttress the Clinton run.

Even a cursory glance at Obama's money men is enough to confirm that fact. The list includes Wall Street hotshots from Lehman Brothers, Oppenheimer and Co., and Citigroup, a smattering of Hollywood players and Native American casino interests, representatives of big pharmaceuticals and the insurance sector -- in short, all the major food groups of reviled corporate influence-hunters.

Worse still, Obama's financial backing is reflected in some of his Senate votes and campaign positions, including most notably his support for expanding NAFTA to Peru, limiting the ability of injured workers and consumers to sue for damages, and pouring federal funds into E85 corn-based ethanol, an alternative fuel for which the market is dominated by the Illinois-based Archer Daniels Midland Company. More than once I heard Obama give stirring speeches, only to mar them with plugs for ethanol.

Obama's massive war chest allows him to compete not merely in the areas of personal charisma and "hope" but in the trench warfare of local pavement-pounding staff. He boasts thirty-seven offices in Iowa, maintaining a presence in towns with populations as low as 1,400.

In Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, three early-primary states, Obama has trotted out endorsements from an impressive cast of local pols -- support that came under fire when it was learned that many of the politicians had received campaign contributions from Obama's cornball-titled political action committee, the "Hopefund." But here's the funny thing: When the Clinton campaign decided to take aim at Obama for "using his PAC in a manner that appears to be inconsistent with the prevailing election laws," the criticisms fell on deaf ears even among crusaders for campaign-finance reform. "Obama is being held to a higher standard," says Craig Holman of Public Citizen. "It's hard to criticize him as long as everyone else is doing it."

Indeed, it's Hillary Clinton -- who, if not for Obama, would be the story of historic change in this race, the first woman ever to make a serious run at the Oval Office -- who has been left to carry the million-pound cross of all the ugliest recent sins of the Democratic Party, dragging to Iowa her Iraq War vote, the Clinton record on NAFTA, and a list of corporate sponsors that could keep Bruce Reed and Al From hard all night long.

In what may turn out to be the final cruel irony in a career full of them, Hillary, at the climactic moment of her political life, now sees herself transformed into a symbol of the corrupt status quo. At multiple stops on the campaign trail, I've heard Obama voters say they rejected Hillary because she represents the "old-boys' network." The irony is doubly cruel because the same cozy coalition of moneyed insiders that foisted waffling yahoos like John Kerry on the party rank-and-file and urged Democrats toward cynical moves like support for the Iraq War, all in the name of "electability," now find their wagons circled around a candidate -- Hillary -- who may be the least electable of the Democratic contenders. In a stunning Zogby poll whose release coincided with Obama's recent charge to the top, a survey of prospective voters showed that Hillary would lose to all the top five Republicans in the election, while either Obama or John Edwards would defeat or tie every single one.

As for Edwards, he too lurks as a crucial character in a possible Hillary death drama, a passionate Cassius to Obama's coolly pragmatic Brutus. In town hall after town hall, in the remotest corners of states like Iowa and New Hampshire, Edwards casts Hillary as an elitist creature of political privilege bought off by lobbyists and indistinguishable from George Bush, charging audiences not to "trade corporate Republicans for corporate Democrats." Edwards delivers this argument with a healthy and convincing dose of class resentment -- he is flawlessly playing the part of the small-town favorite son returned from the big city full of devastating tales of aristocratic treachery. He leaves behind crowds that are jazzed and angry and suddenly wanting no part of the Hillary-Evrémondes in charge of "their" party. But while Edwards is running the more revolutionary campaign, it's Obama (whose "differentness" is more visible on TV) who's getting traction as the candidate of "change."

All of which adds to the whiff of destiny that lately seems to surround Obama. At the outset of the campaign season, he was treated as a not-ready-for-prime-time sideshow, with media pundits all in one voice bitching about his "rookie mistakes" and "lack of aggressiveness." But now that he's got the numbers and the momentum, even the most hardened political cynic has to ask -- why not this guy? Would it be such a terrible thing for America to show that it's big enough to elect a black president? Wouldn't that be something all by itself? The very fact that the public, mostly on its own, has lifted Obama past an arrogant establishment consensus adds to his appeal as a symbol of the idea that not everything in our politics is rigged, that not everything that they tell us is impossible really is.

So maybe it's OK to let the grandiose things that an Obama presidency could represent overwhelm the less-stirring reality -- i.e., Obama as more or less a typical middle-of-the-road Democrat with a lot of money and a well-run campaign. Maybe it's OK because it's not always about the candidates; sometimes it's about us, what we want and what we want to believe. And if Barack Obama can carry that burden for us, why not let him? Seriously, why not? The happy ending doesn't always have to ring false.

Mike Huckabee Is Not a Sane Man

Mike Huckabee, the latest it girl of the Republican presidential race, tells a hell of a story. Let your guard down anywhere near the former Arkansas governor and he'll pod you, Body Snatchers-style -- you'll wake up drooling, your brain gone, riding a back seat on the bandwagon that suddenly has him charging toward the lead in the GOP race.

It almost happened to me a few months ago at a fundraiser in Great Falls, Virginia. I'd come to get my first up-close glimpse of the man Arkansans call Huck, about whom I knew very little -- beyond the fact that he was far behind in the polls and was said to be very religious. In an impromptu address to a small crowd, Huckabee muttered some stay-the-course nonsense about Iraq and then, when he was finished, sought me out, apparently having been briefed beforehand that Rolling Stone was in the house.

"I'm glad you're here," he told me. "I finally get to tell someone who cares about Keith Richards."

Before I could respond, Huckabee plowed into a long and very entertaining story -- one that included a surprisingly dead-on Pirates of the Caribbean-esque impersonation -- about how Richards and Ron Wood got pulled over for reckless driving while on tour in Fordyce, Arkansas, a million and a half years ago, in 1975. Richards ended up getting a misdemeanor conviction -- an injustice that stood for thirty-one years, until Huckabee, a would-be rock musician himself, stepped in and pardoned Richards last year.

"It's a long process, pardoning," Huckabee said, placing a hand on my shoulder. "It takes a lot of paperwork. And the funny thing is, people said to me afterwards, 'Governor, you'll do that for Keith Richards, but you wouldn't do that for an ordinary person.' And my answer to that is always, 'Hey, if you can play guitar like Keith Richards, I'll consider pardoning you, too.' "

Huckabee, who in recent years has lost 100 pounds, has the roundish, half-deflated physique of an ex-fatty. With his button nose and never-waning smile, he looks slightly unreal, like an oversize Muppet. I was so taken aback by his appearance that I checked his hands to make sure they had the right number of fingers. After the Richards tale, he went on to tell me about the band he plays bass for, and how he has jammed with the likes of Percy Sledge and Grand Funk Railroad, and how he prefers John Entwistle to Flea's slap-and-pop style of bass-playing. Ten minutes later, driving away from the fund-raiser, I caught myself thinking: Hey, this guy doesn't seem like a total dickhead. I can almost see him as president. ...

Then I woke up and did some homework that changed my mind. But I confess: It took a little while. Huckabee is that good.

Ever since Huckabee turned in a dominating performance at a summit of Christian voters in Washington a few weeks ago, he has been riding a surge among likely Iowa voters (he's now second to Mitt Romney, and gaining). The media, like me, have been charmed by their initial impression: "It's hard not to like Mike Huckabee," gushed Newsweek. Even The Nation said he has "real charm."

But all the attention on his salesmanship skills obscures the real significance of his rise within the Republican Party. Mike Huckabee represents something that is either tremendously encouraging or deeply disturbing, depending on your point of view: a marriage of Christian fundamentalism with economic populism. Rather than employing the patented Bush-Rove tactic of using abortion and gay rights to hoodwink low-income Christians into supporting patrician, pro-corporate policies, Huckabee is a bigger-government Republican who emphasizes prison reform and poverty relief. In the world of GOP politics, he represents something entirely new -- a cross between John Edwards and Jerry Falwell, an ordained Southern Baptist preacher who actually seems to give a shit about the working poor.

But Huckabee is also something else: full-blown nuts, a Christian goofball of the highest order. He believes the Earth may be only 6,000 years old, angrily rejects the evidence that human beings evolved from "primates" and thinks America wouldn't need so much Mexican labor if we allowed every aborted fetus to grow up and enter the workforce. To top it off, Huckabee also left behind a record of ethical missteps in the swamp of Arkansas politics that make Whitewater seem like a jaywalking ticket.

All of which begs the question: If this religious zealot's rise represents the end of corporate dominance of the Republican Party, is that a good thing? Or is the real thing even worse than the fraud?

On October 30th, fresh off new polls showing him gaining ground all over the country, Huckabee holds an informal round-table luncheon with reporters at a posh restaurant on the Hill called the Monocle. This is the aristocrat political press, the esteemed Washington bureau reps of the big dailies and the newsweeklies, all white and mostly all in suits and silk ties. It's something of a coming-out party for Huckabee, who has put this thing together to give the Beltway big dogs a sniff of his surging newcomer ass.

The luncheon starts out friendly, with reporters tossing Huck softballs about his newfound momentum and his suddenly beefed-up war chest. But once they run out of bullshit horse-race questions, they start in on him about his credentials as a right-winger. One reporter asks how his support of the "fair tax" (an alternative to the flat tax that some conservatives believe is skewed in favor of low-income Americans) qualifies as conservative; two others badger him about raising taxes to build roads in Arkansas; and a third, remarkably, asks Huckabee if it's proper for a conservative to even talk about poverty on the campaign trail.

What the press doesn't understand is that Huckabee has changed the equation of party-specific orthodoxies. A generation of GOP candidates have used the poor as a whipping-post stage prop, complaining about lazy, frantically copulating homeless fiends living in cars, fucking up the property values of Decent Folk. Huck turns that rhetoric around by saying, "We shouldn't allow a child to live under a bridge or in the back seat of a car." It's a brilliant innovation for a candidate like Huckabee, who recognizes that the only thing he has to lose by talking about poverty and high CEO salaries is the support of the big-money wing of his party -- something he doesn't have anyway.

Choosing that strategy also allows Huckabee to do what no evangelical since Jimmy Carter has, which is talk about his faith in terms of sympathy for the underprivileged. "You can't just say 'respect life' exclusively in the gestation period," he says. Huckabee also edges openly into class politics, criticizing his own party for harping on the supposed success of the overall economy. "The reality is, there are many families that really are working as hard or harder than they've ever worked in their lives, and they're not seeing that pay off," he says.

For Huckabee, such lines aren't just lip service. As governor of Arkansas, he outraged Republicans with his plan to expand health coverage for children, his embrace of refugees from Katrina and his support for subsidized higher education for the children of illegal immigrants. Worse still, from a Republican standpoint, Huckabee showed little hesitation in raising taxes to pay for such programs -- one analysis claims that new taxes initiated during his tenure resulted in a net tax increase of $505 million. Even Max Brantley, editor of the Arkansas Times and one of Huckabee's most ferocious critics, concedes that the candidate's populism isn't an act. "I don't question his sincerity on that," he says of Huckabee, who, like Bill Clinton, grew up in modest circumstances. "He identifies with ordinary people."

Patrician conservatives of the Bush school are alarmed by Huckabee's challenge to traditional Republican thinking. "His record is really one of expanding government and raising taxes," says Pat Toomey, president of the influential Club for Growth. Adds conservative pollster Frank Luntz, "Huckabee has an anti-CEO message that resonates with small-business conservatives. He's the only Republican who regularly talks about Wall Street accountability."

While a few Republicans have played with populist rhetoric in the past -- Pat Buchanan comes to mind -- it's been ages since conservative voters had any viable alternatives to the soak-the-poor elitism of Newt Gingrich and George Bush. But that may be changing. Huckabee's current surge on the national scene mirrors the rise during the 2006 midterm elections of so-called "Blue Dog" Democrats -- candidates like Indiana's Brad Ellsworth and North Carolina's Heath Shuler who helped unseat the Republican majority in Congress with a mix of populist economics and religious dogma. "Huckabee's exactly like the Blue Dogs," says Brantley. "They have the same message."

Coupled with his apparent gift for wooing the star-fucking national media class, Huckabee's seizure of political territory long claimed by the corporate right is what makes him so dangerous. Because for all his political waffling in other areas -- Huckabee has flip-flopped on a host of earthly political issues, from taxes to local control of school boards -- he leaves absolutely no doubt about his commitment to religious wackohood.

George Bush and John Ashcroft were religious in a scary way, but the rational among us could always take heart that, deep down, the Bush administration was more cynical than messianic. But it doesn't take much exposure to Huckabee to see that this former understudy of a Texas televangelist is deadly serious about the God thing. On the trail, Huckabee is most animated when he's talking about religious issues. In the first Republican debate in New Hampshire, Huckabee, apparently unaware that human beings are primates, responded to a question about evolution by saying, "If anybody wants to believe that they are the descendants of a primate, they are certainly welcome to do it."

Huckabee gave an even more damning glimpse into his inner batshit self in a recent appearance at the Prestonwood Baptist Church near Dallas, where he told audiences that Christians are sitting in the pole position of the race to Armageddon. "If you're with Jesus Christ, we know how it turns out in the final moment," he said. "I've read the last chapter in the book, and we do end up winning."

Winning? I ask Huckabee when, exactly, he thinks victory will arrive. "When I was eighteen, I thought I had it pretty well figured out," he says. "I thought the end of the world was coming at any moment." But when I ask how his views have changed, he says only that he is "less adamant now." Huckabee, with the wisdom of age, apparently believes we have at least a day or two left until the end of the world.

The troubling thing about Huckabee's God rhetoric is that a man who is glad that Christians will "win" at Armageddon must be happy about the rest of us losing. When I press him on whether he believes all non-Christians are eternally damned, Huckabee is evasive. "Being president isn't about picking who goes to heaven and who goes to hell," he says. When none other than Bill O'Reilly hammered him on the same point a day later, Huckabee conceded that "I believe Jesus is the way to heaven."

This God stuff isn't just talk with Huck. One of his first acts as governor was to block Medicaid from funding an abortion for a mentally retarded teenager who had been raped by her stepfather -- an act in direct violation of federal law, which requires states to pay for abortions in cases of rape. "The state didn't fund a single such abortion while Huckabee was governor," says Dr. William Harrison of the Fayetteville Women's Clinic. "Zero."

As president, Huck would support a constitutional amendment banning abortion and would give science a back seat to religion. "Science changes with every generation and with new discoveries, and God doesn't," he says. "So I'll stick with God if the two are in conflict." Huckabee's well-documented disdain for science was reflected in the performance of the Arkansas school system when he was governor; one independent survey gave the state an F for its science standards in schools, a grade that among other things reflected Huckabee's hostility toward the teaching of evolution.

Huckabee at most times is gentle and self-deprecating in his public address, but when he talks about religion, he gets weirdly combative and obnoxious, often drifting into outright offensiveness. At one appearance, Huckabee -- who's been known to make fart jokes in front of the state legislature -- said he would oppose gay marriage "until Moses comes down with two stone tablets from Brokeback Mountain saying he's changed the rules." And he recently scored a rare offend trifecta, simultaneously pissing off immigrants, Jews and the pro-choice crowd when he ludicrously claimed that a "holocaust" of abortions had artificially created a demand for Mexican labor.

Huckabee also has a televangelist's knack for getting caught with his fingers in various cookie jars. In his first year as governor, Huck used a $60,000 taxpayer fund for personal expenses like dog food, pantyhose and meals at Taco Bell. (One of his sons -- also a very heavy man, as his father was -- reportedly joked that "there's not a Huckabee alive that can eat at Taco Bell for seven dollars.") The governor also tried to keep $70,000 in furnishings for the governor's mansion supplied by a local cotton grower, and used inaugural funds to pay for clothes for his wife. "Mike is first and foremost about Mike," says Brantley. "He'll nickel-and-dime whoever he can to line his pockets."

Huckabee has also been accused of paying himself as a consultant to his own senatorial campaign, allowing special interests to pay for airline tickets for his daughter, receiving a canoe from a Coke bottler and -- hilariously, if you're wont to laugh at the sheer small-town gauche greediness of it all -- setting up a "wedding registry" at Target and Dillard's department stores so citizens could lavish the Huckabees with gifts as they renewed their marriage vows. The long list of desired goodies included twenty-four settings of Lenox "Holiday Nouveau" china, a KitchenAid mixer and a "Jack La Lanne power juicer." If you didn't want to pick out something yourself, the Huckabees were glad to take straight cash. "Message from the couple," the registry noted. "Target GiftCards are welcome."

Brantley suggests that a lot of this behavior stems from a Southern tradition of ponying up to the local preacher. "If you're the pastor of a church and you've got a guy who owns a men's clothing store, you expect the guy to give you a couple of new suits every year," says Brantley. "But Huckabee continued on like that as governor."

The Arkansans I spoke with about Huckabee invariably describe him as thin-skinned and petty. One evangelical Arkansas Republican who has worked in several GOP campaigns says a family member provided free services to Huckabee just as he had for other preachers, believing that he was helping out someone who was "doing the Lord's work." But the extent of Huckabee's gift-gouging, the man says, was unprecedented: "It's never been understood that that's what you do for politicians."

So far, Huckabee's greedy past hasn't prevented him from surging in the polls. Unlike the rest of the woefully underwhelming field of Republican candidates, Huckabee is a sincere, ideologically in-tune champion of a massive and frustrated conservative demographic. The fact that he is succeeding in spite of his obvious and undisguised lunacy is a testament to the desperation of the voting public, which is so hungry for a candidate who actually responds to its needs that it may be willing to overlook extraordinary levels of kookiness. That might also explain the stubbornly high levels of support for Ron Paul and Dennis Kucinich, who, though comparatively saner than Huckabee, have still been cast as the nutty uncles of the campaign's interminable family drama.

Make no mistake, Huckabee can win this thing. None of his four main rivals -- Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney, Fred Thompson and John McCain -- can claim to represent the Christian right. His biggest problem is money: Apart from a few prominent bundlers culled from the ranks of Arkansas-based Wal-Mart, Huck has largely been ignored by the big-money players in his own party. But even here he is steadily gaining: After raising $6,000 a day in the first quarter, he is now racking up $30,000 a day, much of it from small donors. That money could enable Huckabee to compete hard in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, where his relentless God-humping figures to score big at the polls. "We've got to do well in the early primaries," he says. "If we do, there'll be a total upheaval of the process."

When Huckabee talks like this, he sounds like what he is -- the Howard Dean of the Republican Party, an insurgent candidate who shot toward the top by appealing to a disaffected base. But Dean, who ended up stumbling out of Iowa with his balls stuffed in his mouth, learned the hard way that populist campaigns have a way of imploding under the glare of the modern campaign process. Which means: Charm only goes so far if you're full-bore nuts. Huckabee may be able to get away with saying he's not a primate, but he'd better not scream it.

Will Fiendish Giuliani Be Bush III?

Early Wednesday, May 16th, Charleston, South Carolina. The scene is a town-hall meeting staged by GOP presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani, only a day after he wowed a patriotic Republican crowd at a nationally televised debate with a righteous ass-kicking of the party's latest Hanoi Jane, terrorist sympathizer Ron Paul. A bump in the polls later, "America's Mayor" is back on the campaign trail -- in a room packed with standard-issue Adorable Schoolchildren, in this case beatific black kids in elementary school uniforms with wide eyes and big RUDY stickers pinned to their oblivious breasts.

Giuliani has good stage presence, but his physical appearance is problematic -- virtually neckless, all shoulders and forehead and overbite, with a hunched-over, Draculoid posture that recalls, oddly enough, George W. Bush, the vestigial stoop of a once-chubby kid who grew up hiding tittie pictures from nuns. Not handsome, not cuddly, if he wins this thing it's going to be by projecting toughness and man-aura. But all presidential candidates have to play the baby-kissing game, and here is an early chance for Rudy to show his softer side.

"So," he whispers to the kids. "What do you all want to be when you grow up? Do any of you know?"

A bucktoothed boy raises his hand.

"I wanna be a doctor," he says, "and a lawyer."

The crowd laughs, then looks at Rudy expectantly. The obvious line is "A doctor and a lawyer? Whaddya want to do, sue yourself?" and you can see Rudy physically straining for the joke. But this candidate's funny bone is a microscopic thing, like one of those anvil-shaped deals in the ear, and the line eludes him.

"A doctor and a lawyer, huh?" he says, grinning nervously. "Uh ... whaddya want to do, sue the doctor?"

My notes from that moment read: Chirping crickets.

Rudy moves on. "How about you?" he says to the next boy.

"I want to be a policeman!" the kid says.

Rudy smiles. Then the next boy says he wants to be a fireman, and the crowd twitters: Wow, a fireman and a policeman, in the same room! Rudy is beaming now, almost certainly aware that every grown-up present is suddenly thinking about 9/11. His day. As he leans over, the room is filled with popping flashbulbs. Then, instead of capitalizing on the sense of pride and shared purpose everyone is feeling, Giuliani utters something truly strange and twisted.

"A fireman and a policeman, huh?" he says. "Well, the first thing that I want to do is make sure that you two get along."

Huh? Amid confused applause, Rudy flashes a queer smile, then moves on to the heart of his presentation, a neat little speech about how the election of a Democratic president will result in certain nuclear attack and the end of the free market as we know it. I'm barely listening, however, still thinking about the "make sure you get along" line.

Although few people outside of New York know it yet, there is an emerging controversy over Giuliani's heroic 9/11 legacy. Critics charge that Rudy's failure to resolve the feuding between the city's police and firefighters prior to the attack led to untold numbers of deaths, the most tragic example being the inability of firemen to hear warnings from police helicopters about the impending collapse of the South Tower. The 9/11 Commission concluded that the two departments had been "designed to work independently, not together," and that greater coordination would have spared many lives.

Given all that, why did Rudy offer this weirdly unsolicited reference to the controversy now? Was he joking? And if so, what the fuck? It was a strange and bitter comment to make, especially right on the heels of his grand-slam performance in the previous night's debate. If this is a guy who chews over a perceived slight in the middle of a victory lap, what's he going to be like with his finger on the button? Even Richard Nixon wasn't wound that tight.

--

Rudy giuliani is a true American hero, and we know this because he does all the things we expect of heroes these days -- like make $16 million a year, and lobby for Hugo Chávez and Rupert Murdoch, and promote wars without ever having served in the military, and hire a lawyer to call his second wife a "stuck pig," and organize absurd, grandstanding pogroms against minor foreign artists, and generally drift through life being a shameless opportunist with an outsize ego who doesn't even bother to conceal the fact that he's had a hard-on for the presidency since he was in diapers. In the media age, we can't have a hero humble enough to actually be one; what is needed is a tireless scoundrel, a cad willing to pose all day long for photos, who'll accept $100,000 to talk about heroism for an hour, who has the balls to take a $2.7 million advance to write a book about himself called Leadership. That's Rudy Giuliani. Our hero. And a perfect choice to uphold the legacy of George W. Bush.

Yes, Rudy is smarter than Bush. But his political strength -- and he knows it -- comes from America's unrelenting passion for never bothering to take that extra step to figure shit out. If you think you know it all already, Rudy agrees with you. And if anyone tries to tell you differently, they're probably traitors, and Rudy, well, he'll keep an eye on 'em for you. Just like Bush, Rudy appeals to the couch-bound bully in all of us, and part of the allure of his campaign is the promise to put the Pentagon and the power of the White House at that bully's disposal.

Rudy's attack against Ron Paul in the debate was a classic example of that kind of politics, a Rovian masterstroke. The wizened Paul, a grandfather seventeen times over who is running for the Republican nomination at least 100 years too late, was making a simple isolationist argument, suggesting that our lengthy involvement in Middle Eastern affairs -- in particular our bombing of Iraq in the 1990s -- was part of the terrorists' rationale in attacking us.

Though a controversial statement for a Republican politician to make, it was hardly refutable from a factual standpoint -- after all, Osama bin Laden himself cited America's treatment of Iraq in his 1996 declaration of war. Giuliani surely knew this, but he jumped all over Paul anyway, demanding that Paul take his comment back. "I don't think I've ever heard that before," he hissed, "and I've heard some pretty absurd explanations for September 11th."

It was like the new convict who comes into prison the first day and punches the weakest guy in the cafeteria in the teeth, and the Southern crowd exploded in raucous applause. Coupled with yet another implosion by aneurysm-in-waiting John McCain a few days later ("Fuck you! I know more about this than anyone else in the room!" McCain screamed at a fellow senator during a meeting about immigration), the Ron Paul ass-whipping revived Giuliani's standing among conservatives who lately had begun to abandon him over his pro-choice status.

The Paul incident went to the very heart of who Giuliani is as a politician. To the extent that conservatism in the Bush years has morphed into a celebration of mindless patriotism and the paranoid witch-hunting of liberals and other dissenters, Rudy seems the most anxious of any Republican candidate to take up that mantle. Like Bush, Rudy has repeatedly shown that he has no problem lumping his enemies in with "the terrorists" if that's what it takes to get over. When the 9/11 Commission raised criticisms of his fire department, for instance, Giuliani put the bipartisan panel in its place for daring to question his leadership. "Our anger," he declared, "should clearly be directed at one source and one source alone -- the terrorists who killed our loved ones."

Whether Rudy believes in this kind of politics reflexively, as the psychologically crippled Bush does, or as a means to an end, as Karl Rove does, isn't clear. But there's no question that Giuliani has made the continuation of Swift-Boating politics a linchpin of his candidacy. His political hires speak deeply to that tendency. Chris Henick, formerly Karl Rove's most trusted deputy, is now a key aide at Giuliani Partners, the security firm set up by the mayor to cash in on his 9/11 image. One of his top donors, Richard Collins, is a longtime Bush supporter who was instrumental in setting up "Stop Her Now," a 527 group modeled on Swift Boat Veterans for Truth that will be used to attack Hillary Clinton. And the money for the smear campaign comes from the same Texas sources behind the Swift Boaters, including oilman T. Boone Pickens and Houston home builder Bob Perry.

To further emulate the Bush-Rove model, Giuliani has recruited some thirty Bush "Pioneers," the key fund-raisers who served as the president's $100,000 bagmen. In addition, he hired the woman who spearheaded the Pioneer program to be his chief fund-raiser. "Rudy definitely got some of Bush's heavier hitters, including all the Swift Boater types," says Alex Cohen, a senior researcher at Public Citizen, who tracks the president's top donors.

--

Rudy's stump speech on the trail these days is short and sweet. He talks about two things -- national security and free-market capitalism -- and his catchphrase for both is "going on offense." When he talks about "economic offense," Giuliani is ostensibly communicating the usual conservative contempt for taxes and big government. But he means more than that. Like the Bush-Cheney crew, Rudy believes everything should be for sale, even public policy -- particularly when he's in a position to do the selling.

In his years as mayor -- and his subsequent career as a lobbyist -- Rudy jumped into bed with anyone who could afford a rubber. Saudi Arabia, Rupert Murdoch, tobacco interests, pharmaceutical companies, private prisons, Bechtel, ChevronTexaco -- Giuliani took money from them all. You could change Rudy's mind literally in the time it took to write a check. A former prosecutor, Giuliani used to call drug dealers "murderers." But as a lobbyist he agreed to represent Seisint, a security firm run by former cocaine smuggler Hank Asher. "I have a great admiration for what he's doing," Rudy gushed after taking $2 million of Asher's money.

As mayor, Rudy had a history of asking financially interested parties to help shape important government policies. At one point, he allowed a deputy mayor who was on the payroll of Major League Baseball to work on deals for the Yankees and Mets; at another point he commissioned a $600,000 report on privatizing JFK and LaGuardia from a consultant with ties to the British Airport Authority, Rudy's handpicked choice to manage the airports.

And let's not forget Bernie Kerik, Rudy's very own hairy-assed Sancho Panza, who was nixed as director of Homeland Security after investigators uncovered a gift he received from a construction firm with alleged mob ties that wanted to do business with Giuliani's administration. It is a testament to the monstrous breadth of Rudy's chutzpah that he used his post-9/11 celebrity to push his personal bagman for a post that milks the world's hugest security-contracts tit -- at the very moment when he himself was creating a security-services company.

Then there's 9/11. Like Bush's, Rudy's career before the bombing was in the toilet; New Yorkers had come to think of him as an ambition-sick meanie whose personal scandals were truly wearying to think about. But on the day of the attack, it must be admitted, Rudy hit the perfect note; he displayed all the strength and reassuring calm that Bush did not, and for one day at least, he was everything you'd want in a leader. Then he woke up the next day and the opportunist in him saw that there was money to be made in an America high on fear.

For starters, Rudy tried to use the tragedy to shred election rules, pushing to postpone the inauguration of his successor so he could hog the limelight for a few more months. Then, with the dust from the World Trade Center barely settled, he went on the road as the Man With the Bullhorn, pocketing as much as $200,000 for a single speaking engagement. In 2002 he reported $8 million in speaking income; this past year it was more than $11 million. He's traveled in style, at one stop last year requesting a $47,000 flight on a private jet, five hotel rooms and a private suite with a balcony view and a king-size bed.

While the mayor himself flew out of New York on a magic carpet, thousands of cash-strapped cops, firemen and city workers involved with the cleanup at the World Trade Center were developing cancers and infections and mysterious respiratory ailments like the "WTC cough." This is the dirty little secret lurking underneath Rudy's 9/11 hero image -- the most egregious example of his willingness to shape public policy to suit his donors. While the cleanup effort at the Pentagon was turned over to federal agencies like OSHA, which quickly sealed off the site and required relief workers to wear hazmat suits, the World Trade Center cleanup was handed over to Giuliani. The city's Department of Design and Construction (DDC) promptly farmed out the waste-clearing effort to a smattering of politically connected companies, including Bechtel, Bovis and AMEC construction.

The mayor pledged to reopen downtown in no time, and internal DDC memos indicate that the cleanup was directed at a breakneck pace. One memo to DDC chief Michael Burton warned, "Project management appears to only address safety issues when convenient for the schedule of the project." Burton, however, had his own priorities: He threatened to fire contractors if "the highest level of efficiency is not maintained."

Although respiratory-mask use was mandatory, the city allowed a macho culture to develop on the site: Even the mayor himself showed up without a mask. By October, it was estimated, masks were being worn on site as little as twenty-nine percent of the time. Rudy proclaimed that there were "no significant problems" with the air at the World Trade Center. But there was something wrong with the air: It was one of the most dangerous toxic-waste sites in human history, full of everything from benzene to asbestos and PCBs to dioxin (the active ingredient in Agent Orange). Since the cleanup ended, police and firefighters have reported a host of serious illnesses -- respiratory ailments like sarcoidosis; leukemia and lymphoma and other cancers; and immune-system problems.

"The likelihood is that more people will eventually die from the cleanup than from the original accident," says David Worby, an attorney representing thousands of cleanup workers in a class-action lawsuit against the city. "Giuliani wears 9/11 like a badge of honor, but he screwed up so badly."

When I first spoke to Worby, he was on his way home from the funeral of a cop. "One thing about Giuliani," he told me. "He's never been to a funeral of a cleanup worker."

Indeed, Rudy has had little at all to say about the issue. About the only move he's made to address the problem was to write a letter urging Congress to pass a law capping the city's liability at $350 million.

Did Giuliani know the air at the World Trade Center was poison? Who knows -- but we do know he took over the cleanup, refusing to let more experienced federal agencies run the show. He stood on a few brick piles on the day of the bombing, then spent the next ten months making damn sure everyone worked the night shift on-site while he bonked his mistress and negotiated his gazillion-dollar move to the private sector. Meanwhile, the people who actually cleaned up the rubble got used to checking their stool for blood every morning.

Now Giuliani is running for president -- as the hero of 9/11. George Bush has balls, too, but even he has to bow to this motherfucker.

A Timetable for Politics as Usual

In medicine they call it "drug-seeking behavior." A guy shows up at three different regional hospital emergency rooms in the space of a month, each time complaining of severe but non-specific lower back pain. Suspiciously, he is well-versed in the various milligram dosages of commercial hydrocodone. Ask him to wait an extra hour in the exam room, he starts bouncing his knees, and his forehead starts to pour sweat ...

Does this man's back really hurt? Maybe it does. You have to give him the benefit of the doubt, at least the first time. But the moment that orgasmic smile flashes across his face as soon as you hand him his Oxy scrip, you have to wonder. Just like I'm wondering right now, after watching what looked very suspiciously like a carefully-orchestrated congressional vote-seeking charade, i.e. the recent "controversial" scheduled-withdrawal/Iraq-timetable vote in the Senate.

As of this writing, it's been less than a few hours since the Chris Matthewses of the world received the "breaking news" that Mississippi Republican Thad Cochran has fallen short in his valiant attempt to block the Democrat-sponsored vote, a measure calling for a withdrawal of all troops from Iraq by next March. Cochran's gambit failed when Nebraska Republican Chuck Hagel decided to publicly sell out the President, noting about four years too late that Iraq was basically "Bush's war" (of course, it was also very much the Senate's war back when the polls happened to support it) and that the president's strategy was borne of "arrogant self-delusion reminiscent of Vietnam." Taking a direct swipe at Dick Cheney, who as recently as last week emerged from his haze of coronary disorders to decry war detractors as traitors and terrorist enablers, Hagel also said that "this idea that somehow you don't support the troops if you don't continue in a lemming-like way to accept whatever this administration's policy is, that's what's wrong, and that is dangerous."

Of course it would have been nice if Hagel had taken on the administration's shameless witch-hunting and red-baiting of war opponents at a time when such a stance would have required actual political courage, and not when the poll numbers on a firm Iraq withdrawal are running about 60-38 in favor. But that's where we are right now. Hell, Hagel's main ally in the House these days is none other than North Carolina Republican Walter Jones; the two men are the leading anti-war conservatives in their respective houses. Back in February, the two men spent an enormous amount of time blowing kisses at each other in the pages of papers like The Washington Post, with Jones calling Hagel "one of my heroes" and Hagel lauding Jones's brave efforts to rally conservatives to vote against the Bush "surge." But Jones, careful observers might recall, is the same spineless dingbat who came up with the "Freedom Fries" Franco-bashing campaign when the French bailed on the Iraq invasion in early 2003.

So that's where we are: the very people who were leading the Crucible-like campaign against war dissent are now chanting "Not in our name!" and refusing to be "lemmings" for Dick Cheney. We all know what's going on here. Hagel is positioning himself as the antiwar Republican in the '08 presidential race, while the conservatives from "safe" 60-40-type states, people like Cochran and male impersonator Mitch McConnell, are still beating the victory drum. John McCain gets to use the vote as a forum to bash both Democrats and Republican war traitors like Hagel ("Setting a date for withdrawal is like sending a memo to our enemies that tells them to rest, refit and re-plan until the day we leave," he said) while Democratic caucus members Joe Lieberman and Mark Pryor (who may face a serious primary challenge from Lieutenant Governor Bill Halter in '08) came out looking electably hawkish when they broke ranks with the leadership to cast nay votes.

As for everyone else -- specifically, the Democrats who sponsored and passed the timetable measure -- they benefited from the bill most directly, riding a crest of antiwar sentiment and setting the Democrats up as the party that will look the best in the eyes of frustrated, war-fatigued voters in 2008. But lost amid all of this antiwar posturing were a series of inconvenient truths. One was that the bill was always going to be meaningless because Bush was always going to veto it, there were never going to be enough votes to override the veto, and everybody knew there were never going to be enough votes to override the veto. The second is that the timetable measure was buried in an emergency spending bill to pay for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, a bill that ended up authorizing $122 billion in spending when the supposedly evil, warmongering, politically isolated Bush White House only asked for $103 billion. In other words, the outwardly combative Democratic leadership not only refused to do anything substantive to bring the troops home, it actually tossed Bush an extra $20 billion or for the war effort without prodding.

In my visits to Washington in the past few months I've heard different stories from Democratic congressional aides about what the party's intentions are. Some say they think the leadership is just going to stall and pass a bunch of non-binding, symbolic, Kumbayah horseshit to help propel whoever the Democratic candidate is into the White House two years from now. Others claim with a straight face that all of these non-binding resolutions are only a start, that the strategy is to really end the war via a death-by-a-thousand-cuts type of legislative grind, with the leadership sending to the floor bill after bill after bill designed to eat away at either war policy or war funding. They claim that all of these votes are exercises in coalition-building, necessary steps to gathering the support needed to pass real biting measures later on.

But I'll believe that when I see it. Right now, it all looks too convenient. With Bush a thrashing, drowning lame-duck whose endorsement in '08 will almost certainly be political poison to whomever has the misfortune to earn it, Republicans like Hagel and Oregon Senator Gordon Smith are conspicuously free to break ranks and save themselves. Moreover, the Democratic measure is crafted in such a way that the Hagels and Smiths and Ben Nelsons of the world can safely get on a soapbox about the war without having to face accusations of depriving the troops of equipment and "what they need" to fight, which just so happens to be the leitmotif/preoccupation of the Rush/Hannity talk shows of late. While Rush and the rest of the radio monsters blast Nancy Pelosi and Hillary for being army-haters ("These people are not just against victory. They are against the military," sez Rush), Hagel et al can say that they voted for both a scheduled withdrawal and a $20 billion increase in war funding. That is called having one's cake and eating it too, and folks on the Hill love that kind of political diet. There's a reason why there are not many skinny Senators.

You'll know that something real is going on in Washington when either a) the Democrats force the "antiwar conservatives" to actually cast a vote on whether or not to cut off spending for the war, or b) a dozen or so more Republicans cross the picket line to set up a possible override of a Bush veto. Until and unless one of those unlikely moments arrives, it sure looks like what we've got is one of those rare "good for both teams" baseball trades, an arranged standoff in which everybody gets to suck a little of that hot nourishing blood in the ballooning antiwar poll numbers.

My sense of this whole ballet from the start has been that with each passing season, as the antiwar rhetoric increases both among the public and in Washington, we'll see a corresponding increase in both financial and personnel commitment in the Iraq theater. The logic here is irresistible; Bush will not preside over what he perceives to be a surrender, and the Democrats will not cast a vote "against the troops" in an election season. So what we'll get is a lot of what we just saw -- non-binding antiwar votes hitched to troop increases and/or "short-term" funding boosts. It's worth noting that the same political logic that led the Bush White House to fund the war as an emergency long after it ceased to be an unexpected expenditure will now appeal to the Democrats, and for the same reason; so long as the money is in an "emergency" bill, they will be able to pretend, before voters, that the commitment is temporary.

What worries me about this state of affairs is that presidents don't like to see military losses land on their watch. If a Democrat wins in '08, bet on it, an excuse will be found to keep the troops there. The first day after her inauguration, when Hillary Clinton wakes up with a champagne hangover to hear Mark Daley (or whoever her chief of staff ends up being) tell her that 67 Marines have been slaughtered in a raid outside Ramadi, she is going to be powerfully tempted to prove that she has the stones to deal out the necessary payback. She'll ask for 10,000 extra troops and six months to "stabilize" the situation before initiating a withdrawal.

And once that happens, we'll be right back where we are now -- pretending we're against it, but without a way to actually make it happen while covering the requisite number of Washington asses. That's always what it comes down to, after all. And no matter how encouraged everyone seems to be by this withdrawal vote, I still haven't heard anyone tell me how the real pullout is going to work, politically that is. Because it's not enough that everyone knows it's necessary.

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