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Looking Forward To It

Looking Forward To It

by Stephen Elliott

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Stephen Elliott does not know what to think of American voters, this year's desperate and heated run for presidency, or the legitimacy of the political system. He doesn't know whether to love John Kerry or try to love Howard Dean or try, simply, to get excited about Politics. But what he does know is that most Americans are as confused, taxed and broken-hearted as


Stephen Elliott does not know what to think of American voters, this year's desperate and heated run for presidency, or the legitimacy of the political system. He doesn't know whether to love John Kerry or try to love Howard Dean or try, simply, to get excited about Politics. But what he does know is that most Americans are as confused, taxed and broken-hearted as he is.

Looking Forward To It is the chronicle of one ordinary fellow's skeptical -- and hilarious -- journey through the election process. It is on the campaign trail that he will meet washed-out campaign managers, idealistic publicists, corrupt journalists, world-weary auditorium janitors, recovering drug addicts, and, of course, politicians. His report documents a journey into the center of "the thing", our country, where Americans high and low come together to participate in the most profound gesture of democracy: the election.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“Stephen Elliott is one of the most versatile and gifted young writers we have. His fiction is wrenching, raw, and unsafe. His political writing, on the other hand, is savvy, loose, very funny and -- truly full of rare insights. Also: he is quite hairy.” —Dave Eggers

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Publication date:
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First Edition
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5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.72(d)

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Looking Forward to It

By Stephen Elliott


Copyright © 2002 Picador, LLC
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-312-42415-9

Chapter One

Looking Forward to It A nation is a group of people united by a mistaken view about the past and a hatred of their neighbors. -Ernest Renan

July 2-3 No Time for Explanations; Cedar Rapids, Iowa City, Washington; Davenport; Cedar Rapids, Car Politics

It's been a long, boring summer and it's only July. July 2003, to be exact, nearly a year and a half before two people you would never invite over to dinner, and probably wouldn't want to live in your town, will come head to head in the 2004 presidential election.

The weather never changes in San Francisco, it's always sweater weather, never cold enough for a coat, and for the past two months I've been dating Wilhelmina, a demon woman down in San Leandro who eats at places like Applebee's and swears if I ever write anything about her I'll be sorry. She's already cut me four times with a scalpel. When things started to go bad between us, after she nearly tore my rotator cuff at 10:30 on a Saturday morning, I told her I was running off to join the campaign trail early. She said I'd be back. She didn't even question why someone would get on the trail a year and a half before the election. Just a couple of weeks ago she had told me that I better not cheat on her, but then followed it by saying she knew I wouldn't anyway. She said I wanted her to be angry, but she wasn't going to indulge me in that.

I could write about politics from my studio in San Francisco, but San Francisco doesn't matter when it comes to the big game. Whatever washed over San Francisco forty years ago, back when they were running naked in Golden Gate Park and killing people at Rolling Stones concerts and getting Clean for Gene, has left a residue of gray political impotence, a city so far Left it has ceased to exist. San Francisco liberals, they call them. In political circles it's the worst thing someone can say. It means you don't matter, you're worthless, you're dog shit, get out of my way. The country doesn't care what San Francisco thinks. No, I need to go where the action is, the fertile plain, the glistening bio-diesel stalks of Iowa, the libertarian hills of New Hampshire.

I meet my photographer, Stefan, at Eastern Iowa Airport, and we pick up an Enterprise economy and beeline to the University of Iowa, home of the Hawkeyes. Howard Dean is scheduled to speak at seven p.m. "Do you think he has a chance?" Stefan asks me. He's more of a realist than I am. We met in Israel, where I was spending time with rock-throwing children, putting together an article for a magazine nobody's ever heard of. Stefan was on the other side of the line taking pictures of settlers for The Washington Post. Stefan's smiling a little because he lives in Washington, D.C., and probably already knows how all of this is going to turn out. What he doesn't know is that I'm writing for a magazine that doesn't carry photographs.

"What do I know about winners," I tell him. "I haven't voted for a winner since I started voting, which wasn't as long ago as it should be."

When Howard Dean comes into the small room with the low ceiling on the third floor of Memorial Hall, the students who are still in school for the summer let out a mad cheer. The room is packed with close to two hundred supporters. Dean is a small man with a long torso and a square head. He walks in smiling and shaking hands. I shake his hand and tell him I'm going to be shadowing him for the next eight days. I say I'm writing for GQ, which is a lie, but I can't help it. "Oh, good," he says. "I'm looking forward to it." I'm not sure what he means. Then he goes on to the next person. He seems a little uncomfortable, a little surprised, a little too short to be a professional quarterback. Why do I keep thinking of Doug Flutie? Throw the long ball, Doug!

This is the first time I hear Dean talk on his big topics: the budget (Republicans don't know how to handle money or balance the budget), universal health care (for people up to age twenty-three), services instead of tax cuts, foreign policy (we need a foreign policy that is consistent with American values), education (more), Dean Core (volunteers representing in blue "Dean" shirts while working for Habitat for Humanity). If you've ever followed a politician, you know how amazing it is that he's saying what he's saying. That is, when he says, "We need a foreign policy that is consistent with American values," most politicians stop there. But Dean continues. He says we shouldn't have invaded Iraq and we should be in Liberia. But most people don't listen that closely when politicians talk, so they're unlikely to notice the difference.

After the meeting, half of the people leave, but half of the people stay to have a Meetup. Every month across the country there are Meetups where groups of people get together and decide what they can do to help Howard Dean. It happens through meetup.com, completely independent of the campaign. His campaign is making meetup.com an enormous success. But whether Dean can harness the grassroots energy of the fifty-five thousand signed-up Dean supporters will probably be the difference between whether he gets to be the next George McGovern or the next Bill Bradley.

In a room in the back, Jeffrey Zeleny is interviewing Howard Dean. Sarah Leonard is guarding the door. Sarah Leonard, the Iowa communications director, is a long, tall drink of water. Stefan has brought a picture of her leaning over a table during the Gore campaign. She's got the big smile and unhealthy glow of a compulsive exercise-the kind of person who orders a banana at an ice-cream stop (of which there will be plenty). We say hi early, but she turns away. And when Dean goes into a private room, Sarah shuts the door on me. But her fingers still wrap the edge, and if I pulled slightly, she'd let out a yell and that would get some attention. She closes the door all the way and sits down, leaning on the table in her shirtsleeves and long gray skirt, while Zeleny, national correspondent for the Chicago Tribune, his button-down shirt tucked, calmly prods the candidate with a three-hundred-dollar tape recorder between them. Look at me, Sarah, I think, look at me.

At a brick bar near the Iowa City Sheraton, Stefan and I meet with some of the kids volunteering on the campaign. They are enthusiastic and come from all over the country. They are young and good and not quite so freaky as some of the weirdos who showed up on the Nader trail. We buy them a bunch of pitchers ($3.50 per), and afterward Stefan and I head toward Washington, Iowa, a town of not many, where Dean will be meeting the breakfast crowd at Buc's Steakhouse at eight in the morning.

"On a scale of one to ten, how charismatic is Howard Dean?" I ask Stefan.


"That sounds about right." We drive on a little farther. "There's something wrong with him. He's stiff."

"I know," Stefan says. Stefan has photographed every Democratic candidate, so he knows something. "You meet Gephardt or Edwards or Kerry-these are guys who were popular in high school. But Dean, you know, he wasn't unpopular, but I don't think he was popular, either. He was probably middle." It's well past midnight, I'm driving, and I almost run into a chicken truck.

"What the fuck are you saying?" I say.

"I'm saying those guys are golden. They walk around, you watch them, they're all shiny. They have charisma. Dean doesn't seem like he deserves it. Like, if Dean won, he'd be surprised, because he doesn't really feel like it belongs to him."

I think for a minute about what Stefan has said. "You don't know anything," I tell him.

"You don't know anything," he mimics back.

"That Dean Core thing," I say. "It's not going to work. It's a pipe dream. Kids doing volunteer projects, wearing blue 'Dean' shirts. He's going to get suckered into building a townhouse for Charles Taylor."

"Kucinich wants a Cabinet-level department of peace."

"Kucinich is a menace," I say. I briefly remember Nader and the lambasting I still get on a regular basis for my role in the Deep South during the 2000 presidential election. I drove a big van with an enormous sign plastered on both sides that read "Corporate Clean Up Crew." It looked like a box of Tide on wheels. I took my instructions from Washington and Nader signed my paychecks. I gave speeches on Nader's behalf in Athens, Shreveport, Platt, and Charlotte to bearded hippies and tree-huggers in see-through summer dresses who had just graduated college. Like most liberals, I have swung to the right since then, hardly even noticing the Kucinich speed bump on the road through Ohio. "Nobody in his right mind would vote for a vegan," I say.

"A pro-life vegan," Stefan says.

"Don't even get me started."

We bunk down in the Hawkeye Hotel. The sign in the bathroom reads "Ambath Corp. of Phoenix Arizona installed these bathtub liners but will not honor their warranty. There is a tub under the liner, it is safe and will not leak." The room smells of cigars and other things. Some of us know that there is nothing in the world better than an American presidential campaign. To say it's better than sex wouldn't even be halfway to the truth. How many stalks of corn in this state; how many voters? I have a friend from this state, Chris Cooney, but he moved out to California with a stud finder and a drill to hang drywall for rich people in Marin County. Do the Iowa caucuses even matter? We should know that by what happened to Pat Buchanan in 1996 and John McCain in 2000. But what does matter? That's the key. That's what keeps people guessing. Nobody really knows how to win these things, and the rules get rewritten every four years. Presidential politics is the beauty of the grotesque and the passion of apathy. I'd do this for free. I practically am.

In the morning we get to Buc's Steakhouse early for smothered hashbrowns and biscuits and thin Middle-America coffee. Washington, Iowa, is a small Republican town with a few brick buildings built around the square. The locals call it "the other Washington." There are two rooms in the restaurant, smoking and non-. A group of old men hang out around a table in the front; they've been meeting here for an hour every morning for twenty-five years. Dean glad-hands the crowd. Asked about alternative energy, he responds that the Bush policy is not a policy at all and assures the restaurant that he's in favor of making gasoline from pig shit and corn, and the farmers give him a warm hand. It's what they really wanted to know. They don't care about saving the environment, they care about making money. But then Dean says something unexpected: what small-town Iowa needs is broadband, the days of the pig farmer will not return.

"I like him. And yet ...," I say on our way to the next event, a grammar school in Davenport. "He's at least five feet nine, but he seems so short."

"He's your height," Stefan says.

"There's that second before he answers a question. What's happening there? He's fighting an urge. He doesn't go off-the-cuff like McCain or Nader or Buchanan. He stops and thinks about it. I wish he was more charismatic. If he was more charismatic he could win."

"Yes," Stefan says. "There's a word for that. What's the word? Turgid."

"No, not turgid."

At the school, the children surround the candidate. "Monsters," I whisper. I don't like children, but I know in politics liking children is important. They all want to be on television, and they're jumping and waving their hands, and at one point the pile falls forward and the governor laughs and I think what a great family doctor he would make. Then they get in line to play basketball, and Dean joins the line. He looks happy. He looks like he likes children. But he doesn't shoot the ball very well. Then there's Q and A.

One of the kids asks Dean if he's ever done drugs. "Not in a long, long time," the governor responds.

Stefan and I follow the candidate from the school. He's supposed to be at a meeting downtown but makes an unannounced stop at Whitey's Ice Cream to meet with three Iowa politicos. Sarah Leonard tells me this ice-cream stop is strictly off-the-record, but I don't agree to that. The governor orders an Almond Joy milkshake. This is my first encounter with the governor's sweet tooth.


Stop; A Break in the Diary; The Secret That Everybody Knows; The Iowa Caucus and the New Hampshire Primary; Politics Without Consequences

It was 1972 when Iowa and New Hampshire worked out a deal by which Iowa would get the first caucus and New Hampshire would get the first primary. Until January 27, 2004, the date of the New Hampshire primary, the bulk of each candidate's time will be spent in these two states, the way it always is early in the presidential election cycle. On January 19, voters will caucus in Iowa. Unlike a primary, a caucus is a big time commitment. You can't just go into a booth and pull a lever, then go home to your warm television. Only a small percentage of Iowa voters participate in caucuses, giving no indication of what the larger pool will actually do come November. They drive through knee-high snow to meet in gymnasiums, pig farms, and fire stations. Within a half hour of the start time, people have to declare what candidate they are in favor of. The Republicans caucus with secret ballots. Democratic caucuses divide into groups, and if your man gets less than 15 percent, you can go with another candidate or you can go home. Undecideds are wooed publicly, their fellows calling out to them in a process I call "mooing." Mooing sounds like this: "Hey Jay Bob, honey pie, come over to Gephardt country and get yourself some good loving." To caucus is to take two hours out of your day, at least, and travel to some forlorn destination in deep winter snow and still not have your vote counted. Based on the percentages, each caucus sends a certain number of representatives to a county convention from which the results are phoned in to the Iowa Democratic headquarters. Because of the heavy demands of the caucus, only two types of people attend: the politically committed and the chronically lonely.

In years past, if you won Iowa you could be the front-runner for three weeks. But now the New Hampshire primary, whose first-in-country primary is written into the state constitution, comes only a week later. So any real money is likely to sit on the sidelines. The other states, jealous of the attention still lavished on Iowa and New Hampshire, have moved up their primaries to get a piece of the political pie. So now, within seven days of the New Hampshire primary, you have primaries in Arizona, Delaware, Missouri, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Virginia. The question that's going to haunt a state-by-state candidate like Dean is how to get a fully functioning political apparatus full of rented strangers up and running in eight states simultaneously by February 3. The answer, of course, is money. And so far Dean's doing OK in that department. Four years ago George W.


Excerpted from Looking Forward to It by Stephen Elliott Copyright © 2002 by Picador, LLC. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Stephen Elliott is the editor of the anthology Politically Inspired. He is also the author of four novels, including What It Means to Love You and Happy Baby. A contributing writer for The Believer, the San Francisco Chronicle, Newsday, The Village Voice, and McSweeney's, Elliott is the Jones Lecturer at Stanford University and lived, before this year, in San Francisco.

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