“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
Looking Forward To Itby Stephen Elliott
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.
“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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I. 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.
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.(1) 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.(2) "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 0 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 exerciser---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."(3)
"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."(4) 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.
rdOne 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. Bush rented enough strangers to effectively crush the straight-talking juggernaut that McCain launched successfully in New Hampshire. In the past six elections the challenging, non-incumbent presidential candidate has won the New Hampshire primary only once. Michael Dukakis got beaten that year in Iowa by Dick Gephardt. Iowa and New Hampshire are political myths perpetrated by people who woke up missing kidneys in hotel bathtubs filled with ice. No professional politician has ever agreed with me on this point. But they've got jobs to protect. And because of their commitment to Iowa and New Hampshire these two states stay relevant, even though they shouldn't be. Deep down they know Iowa and New Hampshire don't matter any more than a cup of sand in the desert.
Back to the Story I'm Supposed to Be Writing; A Missed Parade in Merrimack Where the Governor Handed Out Tongue Depressors; The Opening of an Office in Nashua, New Hampshire; House Parties in Munsonville, Atkinson, and Deerfield; Dean Headquarters, Burlington, Vermont
Howard Fineman writes a front-page article for Newsweek.com claiming that Dean may have peaked too soon. It's one of those things reporters say when they don't know what else to say, and when there isn't anything else to say. Journalists call it a "non-point." Fineman finishes his article with a list of similarities between Bush and Dean, starting with their height. Drawing parallels between Bush and Dean is absurd. True, they both went to private schools, but to say they both had a privileged upbringing is really missing something. In fact, it's intentionally misleading. But Fineman's been around for a while and knows how to turn fifty cents into a buck. I'm convinced that I'm not going to have enough in the seven days I had planned to make a decent article so I resolve to stay on the trail an extra five days and meet the other candidates to get a feel for the competition.
0While comparing Bush with Dean doesn't make sense, the comparisons between Dean and the sad George McGovern are a lot more accurate. But Dean doesn't want to be called a liberal. Every time I ask someone in the campaign, they say he's a moderate. Even Kate O'Connor, the most honest person you will ever meet in politics, insists he is a moderate.(5) But the liberals clearly form his base. The fifty-five thousand supporters who signed up on meetup.com did so with no help from the campaign. It's the Nader Effect. The liberals got their ass handed to them when their support of Nader led directly to Bush's election and the clear-cutting of every major liberal victory of the past fifty years.(6) The liberals want a candidate who can beat Bush in order to correct the wrongs that still haunt their dreams. Which is why they're not flocking to Kucinich's campaign. Which is why, if Nader runs, he'll get a fraction of the vote he got last time, presuming one of his own followers doesn't slit his throat during a bathroom break on a Southwest flight between Dulles and Dallas. Dean is the liberal compromise. He's strongly in favor of gay rights, including gay civil unions; he's against the tax cut; and probably most important for the liberals, he's the antiwar candidate. He never supported the Iraq war. Unlike Edwards and Kerry, he's been against the war from the beginning. Edwards is still in favor of the war. Coming from state politics, Dean's never had to vote on one of the president's initiatives. On the other hand, Dean believes gun control is a state issue and has an A rating from the National Rifle Association. He insists over and over again that he is not against using military force, and he strongly backs a U.S. intervention in Liberia. He's fiscally very conservative. He doesn't support medical marijuana. The liberals, hat in hand, are accepting this, which is why in the Moveon.org primary Dean took 43 percent of the vote. It might not mean anything to win a vote on the Internet, but more people voted in that "virtual primary" than will vote in the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary combined. Dean's message to the liberals has been, You can have me, but I won't have you. You can help but don't ask me for anything. But Dean's a straight shooter. The liberals, like a broken union, are going to take what they can get. The rest of the Democrats are trying to decide which horse has wings.
I miss the parade in Merrimack, where Dean marches, as does Massachusetts Senator John Kerry. The New York Times quotes Joseph Lieberman saying of Dean, "I think the policy of opposing all tax cuts, opposing the war, et cetera, et cetera, is a ticket to nowhere for the chDemocratic Party." In Nashua, Dean repeats his platforms, but he's better than most politicians in that he shakes up the order a little bit, so you don't feel like you're hearing exactly the same speech you've heard before, though mostly you are. He punctuates every third sentence by saying, "We can do better than that." He also adds a couple of new points, calling Bush a racist for a quota comment regarding the University of Michigan. It's a stretch. After Dean's speech he treats his staffers to ice cream.
The governor loves sweets. When he sees a table piled with candy his eyes light up and he presses his fingers together. I will see this time and again through ten days on the campaign trail, illicit ice-cream stops, rolling his shirtsleeves to his elbows and reaching into a stack of glazed Krispy Kremes. His sweet tooth adds to his childlike quality, supported by his unelectable innocence, his smooth skin and boyish good looks, and makes me think of a bunny about to be eaten by wolves. Which is not to say I won't vote for him. I will, by absentee ballot, foreshadowing his doom.
But what's wrong with innocence, if that's the right word? What's wrong with honesty and a guy who lacks polish and sometimes puts his foot in his mouth? Why do people think Dean is unelectable? Why do I think Dean is unelectable?
At a house party in a sunny backyard in Atkinson, I hobnob with Alex Pelosi---the documentarian daughter of Representative Nancy Pelosi of California---and a freelance CNN crew from Atlanta.(7) In the excitement I almost miss Dean getting hit with a one-two liberal punch. In response to a question about Palestine and Israel, Dean answers that the terrorism has to stop. He also talks about how much better the Palestinians had it before the Second Intifada. "Who funds terror?" Dean asks. "Syrians, Iranians, Saudi Arabians." What he doesn't mention are Jewish settlements. He seems to think the intifada is a plan hatched by extremist Iranians against innocent Zionists at the expense of an unsuspecting Palestinian population. It's a clear right-wing aversion of the real issues. I ask the questioner if he's satisfied with Dean's response.
"A president couldn't bring up the Palestinians right now and hope to appeal to the average American," he responds. This makes me wonder why he even asked. He tells me he's half Muslim.
The second question involves the death penalty. Vermont doesn't have the death penalty, so I expect Dean to be against it, or at least in favor of a moratorium, à la George Ryan. Instead he says he is in favor of the death penalty in three situations: in cases of multiple homicides, in cases when children are killed, and in cases when police officers are killed. I'm slightly shocked by the absurdity and political expediency of his answer. On the one hand, it would take 90 percent of the people off death row. On the other hand, he'll be painted as being soft on crime anyway. It will be difficult for people to follow an argument about executing someone for stabbing a cop but not for raping and murdering dear old grandma. It's an attempt to find a middle where there isn't one, with an unintelligible argument that reminds me of Gore at his vote-losing worst. But here's the grim truth. Dean is honest, this is a rare lapse of political blather, and the campaign professionals have not yet moved in to put a tight lid on things. And they won't if he blows it on Meet the Press again.(8)
I fish a beer out of the tub, and when I look around I see that Pelosi and CNN and all the other opinion makers are gone. Dean is shaking hands and moving steadily to his car and a five-o'clock house party where he'll do it all over again. The only thing to do now is to get my head straight, journey up to the northern Vermont hills, and hide away with my old mentor, Lewis Rickel, a Vermonter and foremost expert on Vermont politics, currently waiting on a work permit for Australia. Apparently he's got a cozy shack on a lake in the woods without electricity or a toilet. I lived with Lewis in Chicago during the summer of 1995, the hottest summer on record.9 The elderly were dying in droves in the brown nursing homes along Touhy Avenue. Lewis and I were like seals on the beach that summer. He introduced me to gambling and heroin. We had great times.
Three Days Disappear; A Naked Dip in Lake Eden; A Long Quote from Lewis Rickel on Vermont Politics; Bernie Sanders and the Rise of the Vermont Liberal Machine
"It's pre-1980, and Burlington is a sewer. Mayor Gordy Paquette is a machine Democrat similar to the senior Daley at the time of the Wet the Blacks campaign. Basically, Burlington was the kind of small city where most of the important decisions were made after the council meeting was over. Market Place was a one-way drag strip. On the corner where Main and Church come together was Uptons, and we knew it as Corruptions. Video games and cigarette smoke was what you could get there.
"So, Bernie Sanders, pre-1980, a perennial candidate for governor. The guy always got 2 percent, 3 percent. It seemed like he would never win, and like the two-party system would always be in place. But he organized; he got students declared as residents of Burlington. Then he campaigned really hard with the students. He had a strong group of canvassers, known as the Sanderistas, and he won mayor of Burlington by ten votes.
"The city got better almost immediately. People energized. After-school day care. Things that were always considered too expensive, Bernie made them work. He got reelected over and over. His supporters were elected to city council.
"A big thing that happened to Burlington during this time was assuming a chunk of land by the waterfront owned by a railroad company. We used to go there and have fires; homeless people camped out there. The city had tried to cut deals with the railroad before and failed. Then this guy Franco, the city lawyer maybe, found a ruling from way back. The result was the city got the land for not even a dime. So now they had this beautiful waterfront they could develop. Make it accessible to the people.
"So, uh, Bernie ran for Congress, leaving behind a handpicked mayor, Peter Clavelle. And Bernie's been in Congress ever since. Essentially doing nothing, because he's an independent, so the Republicans and Democrats ignore him. Massive margins reelect him every year. They won't even run against him.
"The history of Bernie Sanders sets the stage for the defection of Jim Jeffords. Imagine if Jeffords had tried that in some bloodthirsty hamlet like Arkansas. People feel that Jeffords stood on conviction. Bernie Sanders made Vermonters more comfortable with liberals and independents. The ones that don't like it move to New Hampshire, and you've seen what a dump that place is.
"But Dean wasn't like Sanders. He came through the ranks. He was a legislator---I don't know if you would say machine Democrat, but you know, part of that establishment. Bernie is a true liberal, an avowed Socialist. Dean's always been a Democrat. Dean was elected to lieutenant governor: kind of a toothless job, at the very best a stepping-stone to governor. Then, when Snelling died, Dean took over, won five terms at two years apiece. He had the good fortune to be governor during some of the best economic times the country has ever known.
"In Vermont, Dean had a reputation for being a bit of a bulldog. Likes to get shit done when it's supposed to get done. When action was needed, he, well, you know, he got stuff done. And controversial stuff: the environmental impact act, the distribution of money from rich towns to poor towns.
b"What you should know is that Bernie Sanders is the guy in Vermont politics. He's the one who made grassroots happen. Dean is not a grassroots candidate historically. He was a family doctor who happened to be lieutenant governor when somebody croaked. So, in terms of the presidency, given the fact that Dean is such an outsider, who is basically unknown nationally, the best chance he has is to work that Bernie magic. But I don't think he has that. Because Bernie, when you consider the Bernie magic . . . [w]as it Plato who said you need a maximum of 1,500 hundred people in a republic? A politician like Sanders doesn't come along too many times and more often than not gets Trotskyed with an ice pick in the head."
The Other Candidates; Kerry Won't Return My Phone Calls; Journeys with Wolves; More Butter More Syrup; The American Federation of Teachers; Concord, Boston, New York, Washington, D.C.
I've been calling Senator Kerry's office for days and they won't return my calls. Rumor has it he's gone into hiding with the remnants of the Gore 2000 campaign. A Time photographer finally gets me through to his office, and I ask the receptionist if Kerry has any public events scheduled.
"I'll transfer you to the press secretary."
"Why don't you just tell me yourself? I just want to know if he's going to be giving any town hall-style meetings or anything like that."
"Hold, please, I'm transferring you to the press secretary." Twenty-four hours later I finally get his schedule. I'll have to meet him in Washington, D.C.
The common wisdom is that only a right-wing Democrat can beat a Republican. For evidence, people draw on Dukakis and Walter Mondale and point out that Jimmy Carter handed the country to a B-movie actor with late-stage Alzheimer's. The only Democrat to win two full terms since Franklin D. Roosevelt got there by killing welfare and locking up every pothead between Miami and Seattle. Call it the Clinton Lesson: you beat the Republicans by pretending to be one, even if you're not. But it didn't quite work that way in 2000, when eight years of peace and prosperity lost to retirement privatization, school vouchers, and gun rights. Then, in 2002, Democratic representatives and senators egged on by Gephardt campaigned for reelection on a platform of voting 80 percent with President Bush. The voters responded that if they were going to get 80 percent, why not make it 100?
n0On the way to see Senator Edwards at the Conant School in Concord, New Hampshire, I do a double take at a pair of blue-shirted youths in front of a bloodmobile with handwritten signs that read "Give Blood for Governor Dean. Dean Core."
Edwards's team has layered the streets in signs leading to the high school where the senator will hold a town-hall meeting. When I approach someone on the staff to ask what the turnout was like earlier, I'm referred immediately to the press secretary. This is the difference between the big-time campaigns and movements like Dean's, where Web bloggers give you their home phone numbers and encourage you to call if you have any questions. Only a handful of Edwards's staff are allowed to speak. I wonder if Dean will continue his bottom-up management style when things get hot in December, and I consider pitching an article to Fortune magazine about the different business-management styles of the campaigns.
When Edwards walks in I'm struck dumb. He's glowing. He reminds you of whoever that was that you once knew, the most charismatic guy you ever met. Wow! What a smile. And those teeth. And what fun he's having. He launches straight into a talk about his father, a mill worker. And how his father believed in American Values. He talks about a country where the son of a mill worker can run against the son of a president. "I want questions," he says. "I'd love to hear from you." But then he continues his talk. His shoulders soft and at ease, in the hot room he's dripping with relaxation. I want to kiss him, or perhaps just run a comb through his golden hair while he says over and over again in that easy Carolina drawl, "People like my father."
He talks about people needing medicine. CEOs making too much money. "Wealth disparity is wrong," he says. Talks about a free first year of public college for kids willing to work ten hours a week. "The work won't hurt 'em," he says, smiling. "I worked myself in college, loading trucks for UPS."
The room must be a hundred degrees, but nobody seems to notice. Under questioning Edwards responds with things like, "I've heard you, now hear me." Asked about the Patriot Act, which he voted for, he says the problem is not with the act itself, though it could be improved. "[But] we cannot allow people like John Ashcroft . . ." He takes on the easy targets and I wonder, if I had a slice of bread, if I wouldn't butter it with his sweat. It takes me nearly two hours to realize that he hasn't really said anything, except something about "tax cuts for the middle class . . . helping farmers . . . American Values, it's about dignity and respect . . . the kind of people that I grew up with don't have lobbyists." I've never seen so much sincerity; it emanates every time he squints and places a foot on a chair and looks into the questioner's eyes.
I have seen Howard Dean's end, and his name is John Edwards. What have I been doing marching with Dean for the past week when I could have been dancing with my eyes closed to Edwards's sweet Southern music? I think of the lady I met in Dean's office who had sold everything she owned and moved out from Utah to answer Dean's e-mail. Rest in peace, Governor Dean, I believed in you.
Edwards' press secretary is Jennifer Palmieri, and she was the deputy press secretary for eight years under President Clinton. "He's better than Clinton," she tells me. "He connects with people."
"He's incredibly smooth," I say.
Palmieri wrinkles her brow at this. I see a string of adjectives run across her forehead like a ticker tape. "No, not smooth. Confident. Empathetic. Clinton dazzled. Edwards isn't interested in dazzling. Amazing powers of empathy . . . [spin spin spin] . . . It comes across . . . [spin spin spin] . . . He has an understanding of what their lives are like . . . [spin spin spin] . . . He's the only one that can beat Bush."
I want to ask Palmieri if she believes herself, but of course she does. Every great salesperson is also a sucker. You have to believe entirely in your product if you're going to push it on anybody else. But I'm always amazed by the kind of energy and ambition professional politicos bring to their game. It's not about money, it's about something else. Washington, D.C., is like Hollywood for ugly people.(10)
Outside, it's a hot New Hampshire night. A couple of the kids from the campaign are holding signs, greeting people as they leave. "What do you do?" I ask one of them, a fat kid with a neo-Beatles haircut.
"I'm an intern."
"Oh yeah? What got you involved with the campaign?"
His eyes widen. "You're with the press, aren't you?"
"I suppose so," I tell him. "But we can talk off-the-record. I just want to get a feel for the culture of the campaign. I want to know what's driving you."
"I can't talk to you without the press secretary present."
"C'mon, I don't want to talk politics. I want to talk about you." He edges closer to the other sign holder, who smiles painfully. The two lean together, shoulder to shoulder, like they're ready to bite. "Take it easy now. I'm here to help," I tell them.
"What's going on out here?" It's Tait Sye, the press coordinator for Edwards New Hampshire.
"Nothing, man. I just thought we'd have a talk. I just thought I'd talk to these kids."
"Where are you from?"
"GQ." Dammit, why do I do that?
"Well, we have rules, you know."
"Yeah, I do," I say, waving, wading out into the parking lot and the long row of red-and-white signs toward my economy rental car. A mosquito bites me right between the eyes, and I smear its bloodstained carcass across my forehead. "I know all about your rules."
After Concord there's an uneventful night in Boston and a couple of days in New York, where I start to go through detox. Detox on the road is when you start calling your friends and telling them you're lonely. You can only do that once per friend, and associates are off-limits unless you can think of something specific you need to tell them. When I can't take it anymore, I get on a double-fare high-speed train into the nation's capital.
Washington, D.C., is political crack, the place where heavy users go to get their fix, and this is where I plan to finish stuff. In any bar at night, you see young men and women in pressed suits sitting around circular tables, their various passes and credentials still swaying on their necks like jewelry. At six a.m. you might see a woman on a train, so beautiful that in any other city she wouldn't have to work, heading off to some campaign headquarters to put in a twelve-hour day as a marketing assistant. Connecticut Avenue and New Hampshire bump against Dupont Circle like coke straws. In 2000 I was one of the organizers here for the most ineffectual inauguration protest since Nixon's; they confined us to a patch of grass between Starbucks and a movie theater, two miles from where the real action was. This is my first foray back into politics since that humiliating day.
I meet Senator Kerry at the American Federation of Teachers conference. Papers have recently been calling him the front-runner, and it's a huge crowd, and he speaks at length,
qltouching on points that are important to teachers. He says, "There are no more important promises than the promises adults make to children." He mentions his sister, who is a schoolteacher, and the problems she's having. He mentions another teacher, voted teacher of the year and then laid off because of Bush's tax cuts. He hits the familiar topics that every Democrat is going to hit; he says that Bush gave away all of our money to rich people.
This is my impression of Kerry: he looks like a president. He's tall and stately. I think he's wearing a wig; in fact, I'd bet a dollar on it.(11) He speaks in this way that you figure Abe Lincoln probably spoke, his voice rising in timbre. He's a politician to the core. He makes his point by citing individual cases, which, because they are individual cases as opposed to heavy statistics, don't actually mean anything, but have been polled to be the only things the electorate understands. He does this thing where he points at you with just the tip of his thumb laying barely over the bridge of his index finger. Watch the big politicians: they all do this, the thumb-wrestling thing. I corner him after his speech.
"Stephen Elliott, GQ," I say. And this time I have credentials issued by the ATF to prove it. "When you say roll back Bush's tax cut, did you mean you would completely kill Bush's tax cut?"
"No," he replies. "Just for the wealthy."
"So what percent? Eighty-five percent?"
"We don't want to lose the credits for poor people," he says. And I wonder if I could ever vote for a person like him,(12) and I wonder about tax cuts during a down economy and a war whose price tag has risen to four billion dollars per month. But then, economics is like sports, which is like politics, and nobody really knows anything until it's over and then only in retrospect.
I follow him and his valet down a secret hallway in the hotel basement. They glance back to see me stalking them with my large Mead composition pad pressed into my palm. I don't look like I write for GQ. I'm wearing sandals, green cargo pants, a blue T-shirt that reads "Alameda Juvenile Department of Corrections," and a dangling peace-sign earring. Someone recently called my haircut "Michael Bolton + frizz."
Kerry and his valet step into an elevator with an armed guard. If I had courage, if I were a real journalist, I would jump in that elevator with them. But then what would we do? Slather up in lard and rub our cheeks into the mirrors? I could press the button and stop the elevator between floors, the guard's fist wrapped over the handle of his gun. "Tell me," I would say, and Kerry would let out a little laugh. A little I-don't-know-what-you're-talking-about kind of thing. And I would say, "You do know. You know. And I want to know." And he would get serious for a moment, his smile dropping toward his collarbones, and the valet and guard would relax and maybe share a smile or something while Kerry dipped into his pocket and extracted what looked like a silver pen with no tip. "OK. You're not going to remember anything after this," he'd say, like a father reprimanding a small child, gently twisting the cap, exposing a thin beam of purple light. That's when the big sadness would come. With knowledge comes sadness. It's always a sacrifice. "You'll understand everything you want to understand, but your past will completely disappear. Everything you thought you believed will be reevaluated in a matter of seconds and your personality will completely change. You'll lose that twitch."
"I've always twitched."
"You will be a completely different person. You need to know you don't have to do this. As of this moment you still have a choice. If you do this you'll never see your family again, but you'll have a lot more friends. Or you could press that button and we could all get off at the next floor and you could write this off as some strange, deniable incident that nobody would ever believe anyway."
"I don't have a family," I would say as the warm beam began its gentle, fuzzy roll across my eye sockets, the light stretching over my cornea.
What Was That All About; The National Organization for Women; Kucinich, Moseley Braun, Sharpton, Dean; A Shoulder to Cry On; You Say "Metaphor," I Say "Tangent"; A Violent E-mail from San Leandro
I haven't seen Dean since a well-meaning intern shut the door on me at headquarters in Burlington, Vermont, four days ago. Frankly, I miss him, a lot. I'm searching for closure. I'm way over budget with no chance of being reimbursed. Tonight is my final stop, a forum sponsored by the National Organization for Women (NOW). Dean will be there with three candidates on his left: Kucinich, Carol Moseley Braun, and Al Sharpton.
Crystal City, Virginia, where the forum will be held, is a suburb of Pentagon City, if you can fathom such a thing. Twenty-two minutes from the Capitol by Metro. The architecture is reminiscent of the Soviet Bloc style popularized during Stalin's second five-year plan. The buildings are like housing projects, except they're actually hotels and condos, and people pay to live here. The city is built atop an enormous underground shopping mall. The buildings scratch a sky that is sickly and gray with white noise from the highways. Military men walk steadfastly in full-length camouflage and combat boots along black rubble paths. Children are kept indoors.
When I called NOW's national press office, I told Rebecca Forno I was writing for The Believer. She'd heard of it. "Isn't that the new magazine? I love it. You're in." I've turned over a new leaf and stopped lying about my credentials. It makes me think that maybe it's important: if I'm going to go around following politicians, then I shouldn't be a liar myself. It's no wonder nobody trusts the press. Or maybe it's just a matter of what you have to gain. Don't sell yourself for less than you're worth, that kind of thing. At any rate, I'll be back home soon, where the air's cleaner, and I'll write this off as a summer vacation. We all get off on different things.
Kucinich, Moseley Braun, and Dean sit at a long table across from a row of panelists, and the room is crowded with close to five hundred angry women.(13) They like Moseley Braun, whose comfortable campaign pitch seems to be that she's qualified and should be given a chance. Dean and Moseley Braun are good friends, and they hold hands a lot and whisper in each other's ears while the others are talking, and I think that they are either having an affair or he is offering her the vice president slot. Sharpton shows up late and makes a joke about having a male driver, which gives the audience a good laugh. In his talk Sharpton says he wants three constitutional amendments, and one of them would be that every child gets a quality education. As long as we're throwing amendments around I'd like to add a fourth one that states it's not OK to accuse your mentor of smearing himself with Martin Luther King Jr.'s blood for political gain.(14) Dean hits his normal points but is noticeably less smooth than the other three candidates. He doesn't, however, do the thumb thing that Kerry and Moseley Braun do, and I love that about him.(15) And while not a great orator, he clearly has a firmer grasp than some he's sharing a stage with.
Kucinich starts in a high voice that becomes steadily more resolute. This is my first meeting with Dean's closest challenger on the Left. Kucinich looks like the kid who ratted me out for smoking pot in the locked facility when I was fourteen. I had befriended him and encouraged other kids not to beat on him too much. I remember giving him dirty looks when we were all on lockdown, and he marched right up to me and squinted and said, "I'm not afraid of you." He was a little guy with spiky hair and was caught in the system after a botched suicide attempt. He didn't have any reason to be afraid of me. I looked around at my friends. "Do you know this person?" I asked. I wasn't very tough. I got out a couple of weeks later, knowing he was stuck in an institution full of thugs, none of whom respected a snitch, and maybe the next kid he went toe-to-toe with would be Larry or Terrance or Lonnie Pope, and they would break every bone in his body that night with the one lone staff member locked in the nurse's station, because that's the kind of kids they were.
None of that has anything to do with presidential politics except that every politician will remind you of someone you met in school once, and you might want to ask yourself why that is. Or you might not. When Kucinich addresses the crowd at the NOW convention, he pounds the table and cries out to his "brothers and sisters." He talks about slashing the Pentagon's budget, giving power back to the people, getting the private sector out of health care. Kucinich believes all of the things you want to believe but know aren't true. The power of love, that kind of stuff. Then the issue of Liberia comes up.
Dean pipes in quickly that he would send troops, because the situation threatens genocide. Sharpton says he is leaving on a fact-finding mission tomorrow with Cornel West. And Kucinich talks about helping, giving support to, an international coalition and, uh, what they want to do, we'll follow their lead. His feelings that America is morally deficient are sustainable, but if we are morally deficient, and we are, and if all people are created equal, which is probably true, then all people are morally deficient. There's no reason to think ECOWAS or Nigeria are any less god-awful than we are.
I find Kate O'Connor, Dean's travel companion, at the back of the room and tell her this is the last I'll be seeing of her.(16) She's the closest I've come to having a friend inside the campaign. I wish she were my stepmother, but you don't get to pick who your stepmother is. I tell her about the things I've seen in the other camps, the strange pagan rituals, bloodletting, women who sleep in full-length dresses, interns from foreign countries you can't find on any map. I urge her to keep the campaign open, to stay bottom-up instead of top-down. "You're from Vermont," I say. "You don't understand what goes on in these places, what these people are capable of. It's your only chance. And really, I don't think you have much of a chance." 20She assures me things won't change on the campaign, but things are a long way off yet.
What are we doing here? When the forum ends, O'Connor and Dean are quickly engulfed by the crowd. The seats disappear, and the audience circles together in a sea of faces and hands, many of them pumping signs in the air. Cameras and boom mikes hang over the swarm. It's a small, tight room. I climb over a table and peer across the monitors and screens now gone black. I note the men at the rear of the room locking audiovisual equipment into steel cases. I look to say good-bye to Dean and maybe ask him if he has an appropriate metaphor to end this on, but he's gone.
I'm heading west via Phoenix. It's nighttime already, and I've taken ten milligrams of Adderall and chased it down with four cups of coffee. It cost me $150 to upgrade to first class, and I keep squirming in the large seat. Ever since 9/11 I've been certain I'm going to die in a plane, and so each time I fly I write a short tale about the plane going down and record it in a document titled "Plane Crash Stories." The woman next to me has her headphones on and is watching Queen Latifah on the small screen, and I'm remembering my first political experience.
When I was in third grade I started a petition to give everyone eight years and older the right to vote. I'm not sure what I was angry about or what I was looking to be empowered against. I clearly didn't want to do anything for the second graders, a year below us, whom I probably saw as childish incompetents. My classmates wouldn't sign my petition, even when I pleaded with them. They said we were too young to vote. "That's what they want you to think," I replied. "You're like sheep."
I didn't know at the time that democracy didn't always work. Better than Communism, I suppose, but nowhere near as efficient as a good king. Anyway, what I knew was that we kids had less money and earlier curfews than another part of the population who exercised, it seemed, unearned power over us. Why should we follow their rules? What made them so smart? Did they really have our best interests in mind? The only one who would sign my petition was Mark Holtzman, a weird and unpopular kid who ate from the garbage cans and shot chocolate milk from his nostrils during lunch. Mark was a discipline case with a lenient single mother. Our teacher was Ms. S., a kind spinster with gray hair in a bun and short black shoes. Mark gave Ms. S. a hard time all year, and at the end of the year, after spring had taken hold and after Mark said something he shouldn't have (and I only wish I could remember what it was), Ms. S. leaped from behind her desk like an elderly, blue-veined squirrel. She grabbed Mark in her claws, punching him in the face. He burst into tears immediately. We watched in disbelief as she pulled him to the floor and laid into him with the pointy toe of her shoe as he tried to curl into a ball. She didn't stop for a long time. She beat that kid within an inch of his life.
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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