Spanking the Donkey: Dispatches from the Dumb Season

Spanking the Donkey: Dispatches from the Dumb Season

by Matt Taibbi, David Rees

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The 2004 Election Was a Circus, and Matt Taibbi enjoyed a Front-Row Seat.

As a correspondent for the New York Press, The Nation, and Rolling Stone, Matt Taibbi scoured the political landscape for hard-hitting news stories. But the closer he got to the politicians, the more pompous and vapid they appeared. How could he write anything

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The 2004 Election Was a Circus, and Matt Taibbi enjoyed a Front-Row Seat.

As a correspondent for the New York Press, The Nation, and Rolling Stone, Matt Taibbi scoured the political landscape for hard-hitting news stories. But the closer he got to the politicians, the more pompous and vapid they appeared. How could he write anything meaningful about these puffed-up martinets, much less vote for them? Nevertheless, Taibbi forged on and continued his responsibilities as a serious campaign reporter—though not without frequent bouts of blind panic, drug use, and donning a gorilla suit.

Spanking the Donkey indicts the surreal irrelevance of today’s mainstream politics with barbed wit and caustic intelligence. Follow Taibbi as he covers the primary for the 2004 presidential election, joining him for a spot on John Kerry’s campaign plane, face-to-face encounters with John Edwards’s pancake makeup, enough Howard Dean press conferences to memorize the good doctor's stump speech by heart, and—just to spice things up—a two-month stint working undercover in a Republican campaign office in Orlando, Florida. Brimming with uncensored opinions and total truth, Taibbi captures the real American political mind; as a patron at Flo’s Bar in Manchester, New Hampshire, eloquently puts it: “They all suck . . . who’s running?”

“Gonzo journalist Matt Taibbi will do anything . . . to bring political reporting back to life. Spanking the Donkey is all the more necessary in the aftermath of an election that harnessed enough liberal outrage to light the Vegas strip, cost more than a billion dollars, absorbed hundreds of hours we will never get back, and achieved absolutely nothing.” —Salon

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"The funniest angry book and the angriest funny book since Hunter S. Thompson roared into town." —James Wolcott

“Catch one of the funniest and most honest American political journalists argue that the electoral system is seriously, seriously busted.” —Philadelphia City Paper

“Taibbi may be the only political writer in America that matters.” —Hartford Advocate

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At the D.C. Rallies, a Few Hundred Thousand Go Missing

Originally published in The Beast, this piece about the February 2003 anti-war rally in Washington is included here to show one side of the beginning of the campaign season—when there was an enormous amount of idealistic political energy organized against the war. By the end of the campaign, this energy would be mostly gone—replaced with a more confused show of support for a candidate who had supported the war, John Kerry.

Washington, D.C., Saturday, January 17, 2003—It is cold as a bitch out here. Journalism of any kind, in fact, is practically impossible. Less than ten minutes after arriving here at this small tree-lined park in the shadow of the Washington monument, I had to ask Beast publisher Paul Fallon for an extra pair of gloves to put on over the thin leather ones I was wearing. If you've ever tried to take notes on a legal pad in below-freezing temperatures while wearing two pairs of gloves at the same time, you can understand the obstacles I've faced.

It's been a difficult morning. We had come out early that morning for the first—and most disturbing by far—of the weekend's Iraq-related protests. The main event, the anti-war protest at the mall sponsored by International A.N.S.W.E.R. (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism), was due to start at 11 a.m. This pre-event, scheduled for 9 a.m., was the day's journalistic appetizer, a freak show too tantalizing for any responsible press organ to ignore. It was the prowar demonstration, run by one of the most amazingly named organizations in the history of American activism.

MOVE-OUT stood for Marines and Other Veterans Engaging Outrageous Un-American Traitors.

The MOVE-OUT protest was like a caricature of a left-wing paranoid's idea of a staged CIA diversion. It had all the elements of a low-budget piece of fake political theater: a suspiciously high level of press participation (according to our careful count, there were eighty "protesters" and forty journalists), a pile of carefully rationed "protest" placards with high production values (a nicely airbrushed painting of George Bush in a muscle-bound Uncle Sam pose), a near-total absence of local protesters, and, last but not least, a single well-dressed, smiling, traitorous black person representing the "cause" (Kevin Martin, head of the "African-American Republican Leadership Council"). This thing was about as spontaneous as the applause for Comrade Stalin at the Fifth Party Congress. Offered the chance, I would have bet serious money that at least half of the protesters were secretaries and janitors from the NSA offices.

My hands were numb because I had kept them out of my pockets for long stretches in a frantic attempt to record for posterity the amazing rhetoric of the MOVE-OUT speakers. Some of the speeches were of a type not seen since Bluto rallied the troops in Animal House. Only this wasn't slapstick comedy; this was real. Martin gave a typical speech: "Our troops have always been there for us," he said, "from the time of World War I, when our soldiers beat back the fascists in France. . . ."

I turned to Paul. "France?" I said. "Fascists? What the fuck is he talking about?"

Paul shrugged. "Forget it," he said. "He's on a roll."

Paul and I had come down here from Buffalo to take part in the A.N.S.W.E.R. anti-war rally, and I have to admit that my expectations were low. Like most young Americans, I've been trained to think of protests and demonstrations as something shameful and vaguely embarrassing—something one outgrows, like Journey albums, or those hour-long showers you took when you were eleven and twelve.

It's not hard to see why people my age (in their early thirties and younger) think that way. Our parents were all part of a scrupulously documented protest generation that they subsequently renounced. Oliver Stone aside, the movies and documentaries the people from our parents' generation made about the 1960s inevitably describe a generation that was maybe well-meaning in a bluntly stupid kind of way, but on the whole extremely indulgent, narcissistic, and naive, a bunch of rich jerks flinging their braless chests and stinky beards in the direction of their parents' grim, sexually repressed, business-driven world.

Our parents are ashamed that they left behind all those movies of them burning their bras and eating acid at Monterey. They're ashamed because they ultimately became everything they were against back then: cynical, greedy careerists. That's why they created this atmosphere that celebrates the uncompromising protest of Mohandas Gandhi on the faraway Asian continent as brave and principled, but teaches us that protest in our own country is just something that's nice to try when you're young, before you get a real job. To be socially conscious today, the older generation tells us, all we have to do is watch Silkwood a few times, and recycle. All the really hard work here, after all, was already done in the 1960s.

I admit to being influenced by all of this. My previous experiences with protests have all tended to confirm the worst stereotypes about modern activism. In anti-globalization, pro-environment, and anti-Kosovo War rallies I saw almost exclusively well-off people of my age and class dressed down and plainly living out some revolting Oliver Stone-inspired 1960s fantasy (the most damning evidence of which, incidentally, is the tendency of these protesters to run to the cameras and start mugging in John-and-Yoko poses as soon as TV crews arrive). More than once I've come across protesters who barely even knew what they were protesting; the important thing, obviously, was the protest itself, the poetic act of participating.

But the most glaring problem with all of these protests I've seen is this sense that no one involved in them actually hoped to accomplish anything. At so many of the protests of our generation, you can sense a sort of willingness to comply with the wishes of our parents—protest, sure, but only do it for the "experience," as something to do. Turn it into a sort of street theater, a way to meet girls. Whatever you do, don't make it matter. In a glib, permissive age where dissent, protest, certain forms of civil disobedience, and even the occasional arrest are superficially acceptable and even encouraged, the only real taboo when it comes to having political convictions today is meaning it. And in thirty-two years I haven't seen anyone break that taboo on any real scale.

Washington would be a little different. Not that it mattered. In order to even hear what happened there, you had to be there. Our illustrious national press corps saw to that.

At the MOVE-OUT protest in the morning I had gotten into an argument with some of the mainstream reporters covering the event. Not that that was surprising. A blatantly staged media event like the MOVE-OUT demonstration is the kind of thing that any journalist with even a sliver of a conscience left is bound to be extremely defensive about having attended.

After all, one would be hard-pressed to think of any circumstance not involving a progovernment counterdemonstration in which forty journalists from major news organizations would attend a 9 a.m. weekend rally involving eighty illiterate morons. To use the Russian expression, crayfish will whistle in the mountains before eighty environmentalists in a park on a Saturday morning draw so much as a college radio intern, much less forty of the country's heaviest press hitters. The mere presence of so much press at the MOVE-OUT demonstration was monstrous.

So when I arrived at the scene I thought it would be amusing to count the total number of journalists, as opposed to actual protesters. And wouldncha know it, some members of the working press were offended by the exercise.

"You shouldn't be doing that now," a bearded Reuters hack told me, after suffering the indignity of being counted. "It's too early. The bulk of the crowd won't show up until later. Like around ten-thirty."

"Well," I said. "The Washington Post said this thing was supposed to start at nine. It's now nine-thirty."

"The Post was wrong," the Reuters man snapped. "If you want to be honest, you'll do this later."

"Let me get this straight," I said. "You're actually worried that I'm going to undercount these yahoos?"

"I'm saying," he said, "that if you want to be fair, you'll count when the crowd really shows up."

Next to the Reuters man stood a young blonde woman in black horn-rimmed glasses who identified herself as a reporter for the New York Times. She didn't offer her name, but another reporter there later told me that she was an assistant to Times reporter Lynette Clemetson. She'd been listening to my exchange with the Reuters man and decided to chime in.

"And the important thing isn't the numbers," she said. "This demonstration has more Vietnam veterans."

I shook my head, stunned. "Are you kidding?" I said. "The other demonstration will have a hell of a lot more vets than this one, I'm sure of that."

She frowned. "No," she said. "That one's going to be mostly college students. Kids."

"Maybe so," I said. "But just in terms of sheer numbers . . . I mean, even half a percent of 100,000 is going to be ten times more vets than we're seeing here. There are about fifty people here, for Christ's sake."

"No," she said, not convinced. "No, this one will have more."

A third personage, a scrawny redneck protester in a baseball cap and a Gore-Tex face guard, was listening in. "That's the slimiest journalism I've ever seen," he said, jumping in. "You're in here and you're going to count us before we're even here. You wait until ten-thirty, then you'll see how many of us there will be. You're yellow journalism scum."

"Settle down, Beavis," I said.

"You wait until ten-thirty, you liberal bastard," he said.

I shrugged and walked away. An hour later, after suffering through numerous historically confused speeches about our victories over fascists in France and our spectacular, as-yet-unrecognized military successes in Vietnam, I counted all over. The final tally, again, was eighty protesters and forty journalists, and that included the five-man Guardian Angel security entourage that followed speaker Curtis Sliwa. I sought out a Gore-Tex face in the crowd.

"Hey, Chester," I said. "Eighty to forty. Nice turnout."

"Fuck you," he hissed. "We represent the real America."

"You know," I said, "I once went to a Suzanne Somers book signing. There were like three hundred people there. It was a book of poetry."

"Fuck you," he repeated.

A few yards away, a mealy-faced young man in a blue button-down shirt named Eric DuVall was quietly taking notes. An intern under Washington-based reporter Jerry Zremski, he was the representative of the Buffalo News. We would later spot him in the crowd at the main demonstration. Like me, he was observing the crowds. Only his conclusions would be a little different from mine.

Right from the start, there were two things about the A.N.S.W.E.R. demonstration that were startling. The first was its staggering size. I'd read about the last demonstration in November and had tended to believe the conservative estimates of the crowd size, not believing that more than a very small number of people like me would be sufficiently motivated to go anywhere to protest the inevitable. But the crowd at Washington last weekend was truly gargantuan.

Police admitted to the Washington Post that it was the largest anti-war rally since the Vietnam era, and that it was much larger than the October rally. I personally could not see the end of the crowd. It took a good half-hour to make my way to the front of the crowd, and from a speaker platform up on the press podium I was able to get a look at the gathering as it stretched back along the Mall. Even from an elevated position, I couldn't see the end.

Later on, when the crowd filed out to march to the Navy Yard, it proved impossible to determine how far the line of people stretched. The length of the march was several miles, and, again according to the Washington Post, the crowd was still entering the beginning of the route at the Mall when the first marchers at the front reached the Navy Yard.

From where I sat, there was no question that there were at least 200,000 people present, and probably closer to 300,000. The extraordinary turnout was the chief topic of conversation along the march: time after time, I spotted marchers turning to look back, shaking their heads at the trailing crowd, and saying, "Holy shit!" Walking in a gathering this size, you get a sense of its building kinetic energy and potential destructive power: a chain-link fence near the Mall that obstructed a group of shortcut seekers, for instance, simply blew away like dandelion fuzz once the crowd decided to walk through it. This was far different than the feeling one gets exiting an NBA game, for instance.

Back to the size later. The second thing that was striking about this crowd was that, despite the fact that it was composed largely of middle- to upper-middle-class whites, there was no name politician from either major party there to address it. Given that a Pew survey taken this week showed that a majority of Americans (52 percent) felt that President Bush had not yet made a convincing case that war was necessary, one would have thought that at least some opportunistic politician from the Democratic Party would have decided to attach his or her name to the anti-war effort. But the only politician of any stature at the event was the Reverend Al Sharpton, a doomed candidate for president with too much political baggage to really be an effective champion for anything.

Put two and two together and what you get is the amazing realization that this crowd, perhaps the largest to gather in Washington in the last thirty years, has no political representation whatsoever in today's America. Almost certainly representing a vastly larger number of people in the general population, the anti-war crowd has simply been excluded from the process.

The eighty nitwits at the MOVE-OUT event could reasonably claim one sympathetic U.S. senator per demonstrator: the 200,000+ at the A.N.S.W.E.R. event couldn't claim even one. The only real clout it could claim was its own physical presence at that particular moment.

All of which makes sense, because from the very beginning, the character of this war has been that of a giant end-run around common sense, around international law, around political reality, even around basic human logic. When you've spent half a year getting your head around the idea that a terrorist attack by Islamic fundamentalists somehow necessitates the immediate invasion of an unrelated secular dictatorship, or that opposing an offensive war is somehow evidence that one "hates America" and is a traitor, it isn't hard to see how 250,000 people in this country these days can actually, in real terms, be numerically fewer than 80.

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