Year of the Rat: A Campaign 2008 Diary By Matt Taibbi

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Part Two: Covering the Uncoverable; Council Bluffs Likes Fred Thompson

ACCORDING TO CONVENTIONAL wisdom the 2008 presidential race is already widely considered to be a "very interesting" contest. The ostensible reason for that is that the actual winner, not only of the general election but of the respective nomination processes, will not be known long before 250 million people have two long years of their lives wasted through a relentless barrage of meaningless, masturbatory, spirit-sucking campaign muck. The press corps will therefore be relieved this time around to have something like real suspense attached to the dreary assignment of finding meaning/drama in all of this vacuous bullshit; instead of having to invent controversies and scandals out of thin air, people like me will have real ones (real at least in the context of the campaign) that they can sit back and confidently misreport as they come.

Looking at the field now, it appears that in the end the horse race will come down to three viable candidates on each side — Giuliani, Thompson and Romney on the Republican docket and Hillary, Obama and the tireless John Edwards among the Democrats. Perhaps also squeezing their way into the viewfinder before this is over will be a smattering of minor figures not yet mathematically eliminated, in particular the Christian bassist Mike Huckabee lurking behind the Republican field and, who knows, maybe Bill Richardson on the other side.

Sticking around for comic relief, at least for a little while, will be stunned-by-misfortune Arizona Senator John McCain, whose job it will be to be whaled upon mercilessly by a press corps that is always courageous and exacting when dealing with a candidate who has no chance at victory. There are similar figures on the Democratic side who could play the same role — Joe Biden comes to mind — but because the press this time around will be anxious to punish the Republicans for a disastrous Iraq war these same reporters mostly all thought was such a good idea not long ago, Democrats like Biden (who incidentally also heartily supported this war) will likely be exempted from the bulk of the gratuitous pol-bashing this time around.

Last but not least, there are parallel irritant figures on both sides in Ron Paul and Dennis Kucinich, whose jobs it will be to be roundly pilloried for wasting valuable air time (especially in debates) via their embarrassingly dead-on, pain-in-the-ass candidacies. Since neither candidate is a worn-out whore and neither candidate has cast a single vote for any of the numerous completely avoidable political catastrophes that befell the country in the last four-plus years, both will be described as "fringe" and "unserious" figures who should rightfully be assigned to the "second tier" of presidential hopefuls. Meanwhile, the press will line up to laud as exciting breaths of political fresh air a one-note B-list character actor, a southern governor who believes the earth is 6000 years old, and a hack plagiarist from Delaware with a head full of hair plugs who offers a "statesmanlike presence" and "raises the level of discourse" as he campaigns shamelessly for the Secretary of State job.

There is a dark irony waiting to announce itself as a factor in this campaign — a trap that our press corps was almost certain to fall into from the moment the Bush presidency exploded in a nightmare of incompetence and horrifying corruption. Having observed all the awful missteps of the last seven years, missteps that came as a result of having indulged and enabled a preposterous figure like George W. Bush, the national press ought naturally to have learned a whole host of painful lessons.

Questioning the logic of viciously attacking too-intellectual fringe candidates while simultaneously lionizing a baldly incurious flag-waving moron like Bush is only the most obvious; there is also the matter of mistaking meanness for substance, and falling under the spell of candidate access, and routinely blaming a dearth of issue politics on voter preference when in fact it's the news organizations themselves that more love (and, more to the point, need) the mudslinging and the horse race.

The press should have looked at the rise of blogs and the angry momentum of blog-powered insurgent candidacies like that of Paul and Ned Lamont and recognized that the mainstream political press has become, in some circles, as much of a villain as the establishment candidates themselves. It should have seen this and made changes, if only out of pure self-interest, in an effort to retain both its political power and its market share. But it didn't. Instead, the big press seems to have mainly concluded that voter discontent toward the media is based upon its having been too friendly to George Bush in particular. There is a vibe that can already be detected in campaign coverage that suggests that the media thinks that if it disavows Bush and in particular Bush's war, all will be forgiven. We journalists seem to be in a state of half-apology for having overstepped our traditional role as ideologically promiscuous ass-kissers and briefly gone over, after 9/11, into a dark side of frank and open cheerleading for Extreme Measures and Total War. We're apologizing for that, but only that; the attitude is not much different from a high schooler from the OC who thinks that if he just promises to never again get into Daddy's Porsche at 3 in the morning, it's still okay if he goes to keggers on school nights.

That's why you might notice, in campaign coverage, something that feels a little bit like nostalgia for the Clinton years, when the national political press behaved not like fascist henchmen but merely like a group of starfucking, hyperadolescent groupies. According to the curious moral calculus of this professional community, the best way to make up for being willing political accomplices to George Bush is to return to the cheerfully slavish celebrity journalism of the Clinton years. Here's the lede to an account of a recent Bill Clinton campaign appearance for Hillary by Stephen Collison of the AFP:

DES MOINES, Iowa, Sept 3, 2007 (AFP) - Bill Clinton had a weekend campaign party like it was 1992, wading through crowds and backslapping his way around the US electoral heartland, boosting wife Hillary's 2008 presidential race.

"I love not running for anything, I can say everything I want and nobody cares any more," Clinton said, with a hint of false modesty, to union workers in Iowa for whom he remains a hero.

In his element, dusting off his legendary campaign skills, Clinton marveled at a 1,000 pound pumpkin which won a contest at a country fair in New Hampshire, treating reporters to a lecture about how it got its "steroid" style girth.

That is the kind of political journalism you see on the trail now, among reporters trying to repent for the Bush years; grown men and women cooing over a mutant pumpkin with Bill Clinton, whose attention is a "treat." As for Clinton being a hero to union workers, why wouldn't he be? After NAFTA and all.

WHEN I FOUND out that I was going to be sent out on the campaign trail for another election season, I found myself struggling once again with the question of how to cover in a substantive way a story that is essentially uncoverable on its own terms. In my last book, Spanking the Donkey, I spent nearly 300 miserable pages groping around for an angle from within the self-contained, stage-managed pseudo-reality of the campaign trail, settling eventually for the not-exactly-brilliant insight that the campaign is basically a rolling bourgeois television entertainment that has as one of its chief purposes the projection of a weirdly fictional vision of American political reality — clean, healthy, positively engaged, and so bereft of real problems that it can afford to choose leaders on the strength of such questions as who looks better in a duck-hunting costume, or who can more charmingly engage an MSNBC morning anchor in a discussion about "traditional values" while squeezing a cow's teat in Wisconsin via a 5 a.m. satellite feed.

The more than half of the country that does not vote is scrupulously excluded from the picture, as are scenes of real, depressing poverty (as opposed to stylized, photo-ready poverty, the poverty implied by Howard Dean's fake graffiti backgrounds or the dreary working-class "rags" section of John Edwards's rags-to-riches "typically American" inspirational stump story), political alienation (your man on the street is either a liberal or a conservative; those who don't fit the red/blue requirement, who are too disgusted to endorse either party, are not seen), social disenfranchisement (as experienced, say, by ex-cons, illegals and prisoners), or just the general fucked-up-ed-ness of our weirdly paranoid, atomized, media-obsessed consumer culture. Our whole reality is instead defined by a narrow series of binary political issues: abortion, gay marriage, the war, health care, immigration, on which an endless series of credulous and interested "men on the street" cast their vote in one direction or another.

The campaign therefore becomes mainly a story about the interplay, or non-interplay as it were, between two worlds: the absurd fake world inside the campaign bubble, in which 250 million adults are depicted as gravely caring about such concepts as "likeability," and the much weirder real world outside the bubble where the rest of us actually live. This schizophrenic national self-image has become an even bigger issue in the years since the last campaign, especially since the country is now engaged in an overseas war where the schism is physically visible; in Iraq we actually built a vast archipelago of walled-off Americana in which one media-ready reality is visible inside the base walls while another, far less palatable reality rages out of control outside the gates of those bases.

Going into 2008, the American electorate is now divided along a clear fault line. One side, the side that believes the Iraq war is a cruel and unwinnable mess, recognizes the outside-the-walls reality as the truth. The other side, meanwhile, chooses instead to recognize the artificial inside-the-base reality as gospel; it listens to the pronouncements of the likes of General Petraeus and to the tales of returning wounded who want only to go back to the front because "they know we're making progress."

The campaign, to me, is sort of the same thing. There's the on-TV world that rolls into towns for a mechanized stump speech, plunges into a roped-off hand-picked audience zone for a half-hour, and then races away with tales of having visited "Des Moines" or "Council Bluffs" or "Nashua." On the other hand, there are actually those places: Des Moines, Council Bluffs, Nashua. My idea going into the campaign was to do a running diary from both worlds, checking in regularly with fixed sets of characters from both settings — the candidates on one side, and some campaign-excluded ordinary human beings on the other. I wasn't sure what that would accomplish, but it would be a hell of a lot more interesting than sitting on that goddamn bus and listening to those same goddamn speeches for 400 days or whatever.

WHEN THE BUS got into Sioux City that night I immediately turned around drove back to Council Bluffs in a rental car, where I found Dot and Jamie sitting at Mohm's, a private soup kitchen located on Creektop road and near a highway underpass, where the city's 150-odd strong community of homeless visits once a day for a free meal. Jamie, who smokes little mini-cigars when he can get them, was sitting on a curb on the side of the building and seemed stoked to tell me something when I got there.

"Hey," he said. "Remember that kid Blakeman you were talking to?"

"Yeah," I said.

"I got back to Mohm's after the event and I saw his face on a missing juvenile poster. We just got done calling his parents. Guess that's all settled. Weird, huh?"

I agreed, it was weird. He and Dot then asked me what the hell I was doing back in Council Bluffs. I explained that it was either this or listen to the same candidate's speech five or six more times.

"Who is that guy, anyway?" asked Dot. "The one running for president I mean."

I explained that he was an actor who played on a TV show called Law and Order. The two both frowned at that, not impressed with the show's title.

"Does he know what it's like to live on the street?" Dot asked. "What it's like to eat just once a day?"

"I doubt it," I said, adding nonsensically: "He was in a movie with Alec Baldwin once."

"I been on the street three and a half years," she said, not listening to me. Then she went into her story. This crew of homeless people in Council Bluffs doesn't have much in the way of material possessions — at least not that they have access to — but they all have stories and you get them pretty fast. Dot, who's Native American and a member of a local tribe, had been put out on the street back in 2004, when her husband took to beating her past the limit of tolerability. She walked out the door, and, not having family around to take her in, ended up on the street. She's been there ever since, winters and all. At least that was the version I heard.

Her tenure without a roof over her head is longer than just about everyone else's among those who frequented Mohm's, and that status has allowed her to take up a sort of unofficial role as the community historian. Dot's thing is giving nicknames to all the homeless. Impressively, everyone seems to use the nicknames she gives. There is, for instance, a black guy she calls Three Blind Mice, because he walks around with sunglasses and a cane. Then there's Marky Mark, who got his name after Dot thought she caught him eating some pills she had given him to hold. She ran after him and whacked him on the ribs with Three Blind Mice's cane. His sides were all marked up from the cane lashes after that — hence the name Marky Mark.

The big hulking Doomsday got his name for being a rough dude — he was currently on the lam for breaking his brother's jaw a few days before, and with a warrant out on him was set to go to jail for real time as soon as the cops caught up to him. He walked right by us and on past some nearby train tracks later that night, as a bunch of us sat squatting in the dark in some high weeds drinking Budweiser.

Dot's own nickname for herself was Smally Parton.

"Guess why?" chuckled Jamie, reaching over and grabbing one of her tits demonstratively.

"I ain't got no tits," laughed Dot. "So I'm Smally Parton."

As it got dark the three of us walked away from Mohm's and set up shop in the unmowed lawn of a local male nurse who had made a deal with Jamie to let him hang out there at night. When we got there Dot started telling me her plan. All of the members of this crew seemed monomaniacally focused on that one Next Move they all planned on making real soon that was going to solve all their problems. Most of those stories involved reclaiming something that had been wrongfully taken away from them.

Jamie, for instance, had had his family home taken away by eminent domain when the town decided to build an overpass over his neighborhood. They'd offered his father $25,000 for the place, but they waited too long and when his father passed away, the offer suddenly went down to $8000. He'd taken that offer only to find himself subsequently fined nearly six grand for having fire damage on the house's exterior, leaving him with a little over two thousand for the whole nut. The story didn't make a whole lot of sense to me, but it seemed like it was true somewhere underneath there, with a lot of other missing facts left out, of course. Jamie was now trying to get back on his feet by doing occasional construction work, but "there isn't much of it. Not so it's more than four or five days here and there."

Dot, meanwhile, claimed she had a parcel of tribal land up north she wasn't allowed to sell but was allowed to lease for commercial purposes. "It's worth ten thousand to me," she said. "I've just got to get a ride up north to the tribal office." She insisted that all she needed to get that ten grand was one one-hour ride, and she hadn't been able to get that ride for three and a half years.

I had gone out earlier in the evening and bought both of them new ten-buck Champion sweatshirts and a big bag of fast food. I also bought a case of beer and left it in the car, not wanting to be caught assuming right from the start that they wanted to get drunk. So as night fell the three of us sat in the weeds in the nurse's backyard, covering our ears every eight or nine minutes as enormous cargo trains rolled along the tracks nearby. Dot and Jamie picked at their food and it was just about an hour after dusk — halfway down the large order of fries in McDonald's time — that they started wondering aloud about where they might get beer.

So I went off and got the case, then came back and listened as they traded stories about the various nightmares they'd been involved in, just in the last 36 hours or so. We were soon after joined by an older bearded guy in faded jeans, with no shirt on over his lean body; his name was Chuck, but everyone called him Rich. He looked a little like Willie Nelson and talked in a wind-blown twang tinged with theatrical slowness, mostly telling stories about being forced against his will to hit people with bricks and hammers. Like Dot and Jamie, he was the owner of lost treasure, hence the nickname. Chuck was "Rich" because he had an occasionally-functioning credit card (just two days before he had successfully bought eighteen beers with it) and a bank account that, legend had it, had over $4700 in it.

"But I can't get the fucking money," he said. "Because I don't have any ID. I go to the bank and they say, you can't have that money without photo identification. My girlfriend, she did this to me, the bitch."

Rich's girlfriend story was a doozy, something about her coming home with another guy and him eventually trying to hit the guy with a hammer — except he missed, and his girl ended up with the hammer, and she took a swing at him and got him on the leg.

I kept trying to interrupt to ask if he had been concerned at all about killing someone with that hammer, but he wasn't having any of it and switched gears to another story, this one about how he'd almost scored some beer from a local pervert who had recruited him earlier that day to find a couple of homeless men who would be willing to take a bath together in his house while he (the pervert) watched. "He wanted to get a couple of boys to take a bath up there," he said. "And he wasn't going to join in, although he wanted to, you know, soap up his dick a little."

"That's fucking disgusting," I said.

"Yeah, and hard. I couldn't find anyone," he said.

"I know what you mean," Dot nodded, and launched into a story about how she had just spent the morning trying to find, for a $40 fee, a 24 year-old girl who would be willing to give a blowjob to another local guy she knew. The guy was some kind of respectable citizen. She found the girl, but somehow the deal fell apart and she didn't get the forty bucks.

"I wasted all morning," she said, shaking her head.

"Jesus," I said.

"That's life out here," she said. "That's what it's like."

I looked down and noticed that the case of beer was almost gone — like instantaneously almost gone. Very soon after I was dispatched to get another one. By the time I got back, all three of them were deep into some reminiscences about mutual friends. The conversations seemed to go in three different directions at once and Jamie, for sure, was starting to fade. But they all rallied for one last discussion of someone they all knew intimately, a certain woman who had some kind of house on Creektop:

JAMIE He's trying to bone Joanie. DOT And she's wacko. MATT Who's Joanie? DOT She's a mental case. Flippin flippin flippin fuckin flippin flippin flippin. RICH Who? DOT Joanie. That lives on Creektop. She's flippin flippin flippin flippin flippin. That's what she says all the time. MATT (stupidly) What, is she British? DOT No, she's just whacked. JAMIE I slept at her house one night. Me and Mark. She wouldn't let me leave. MATT Yeah? JAMIE She locked the door. And then she sneaks into the bathroom. And I'm trying to get out, she runs back, locks the door. MATT (Naively) What did she want from you? DOT To screw. RICH I stayed at her place one night. She goes Chuck, you can sleep on the couch. I go, okay. JAMIE Who, Joanie? RICH No, I don't know who the fuck this bitch was. She goes, you can stay here. DOT The blonde? Who volunteers down at Mohm's? RICH She's a dark-haired girl. Didn't have a bad build on her. But the fucker was like nuttier n' that tire on that bike. JAMIE That's Joanie. DOT That's Joanie! RICH Anyway, I'm sitting on her couch. DOT She's flippin, flippin, flippin. RICH She goes to the bathroom. She comes out, stark-ass fuckin' naked. I'm laying there on the couch, she comes right up to me and says, do you see anything that you like? JAMIE That's Joanie. DOT That's Joanie. RICH I go, you know what, I have not seen nothing that I like, and I'm still not seeing anything that I like. DOT Oh, God.

A few minutes later Jamie semi-passed out. He'd been looking depressed. Towards the end of the night he'd been telling me about his baseball trophies from high school. He was really proud of those trophies. Didn't have them anymore, though. Then I offered to drive him and Dot up to the reservation to get the missing ten grand next time I came through Council Bluffs. He liked that idea a lot and wanted to get started on the plans right away. But he couldn't really stay awake and when he tried to stand up to get on his bicycle, he kept falling over. The other two of us helped him on his bike finally, and he rode away all wobbly-like, apparently to go to an empty apartment someone had found a few blocks away. "I'll be alright," he said, to no one in particular.

Dot and Rich, meanwhile, started talking about politics, specifically about the presidency. But the candidate they were interested in wasn't Fred Thompson but Will Deport. Both decided that he would make a lousy president, mainly because he spent too much of his time getting baked and "smoking the bubble."

"Motherfucker doesn't even have frames on one whole side of his glasses," complained Rich. "A guy like that, he can't be president. Motherfucker'll be like reaching for the button and fucking missing." "Plus, you can't win just by buying beer for the homeless," added Dot sagely. "That's no way to do things. As a strategy."

"Fuck him, let him try," said Rich. "I can think of at least twelve votes he'd get."

"Twelve won't do it," Dot added quickly.

I tried to get them to talk about the real candidates, but they were really far from being the least bit interested. They were more interested in explaining how Union-Pacific had their own police who wouldn't let you walk across the train tracks even though that made it hard to search for empty cans on the other side of town. Someone should do something about that, they decided.

"There's only two places you can cross," Dot said, "unless you have a car. Do I look like I have a car?"

"No," I said.

"I tell you, I've jumped between train cars. I've jumped under cars," she said.

"I done that, too," said Rich.

"Ain't no other way to get over there," she said, shaking her head. "It's dangerous, but there ain't no other way."

Finally I offered to go "canning" with Dot the next morning. This was her full-time job; she sometimes cleared eight bucks a day. She seemed excited to take me on a tour and told me to meet her in a few hours, at 5:30 a.m., at the intersection of 8th and 2nd, where she planned to be sleeping on a recliner chair some guy she knew kept on his porch. I agreed and disappeared for a little while to take a nap in my car.

At the appointed time I got up, got coffee at a convenience store, and looked for Dot at the agreed-upon spot. But she wasn't there or anywhere nearby; and in fact there was some other scary-looking guy with a black beard sleeping in "her" recliner. I cruised the streets looking for her, but she was gone. Rich too. So I drank the coffee and drove back to Sioux City, just in time to hear Thompson make a joke about those derned New Yorkers in for a tightly-wound convention center crowd of middle-class white Iowans. All the Republican candidates pick on New York in red-state stumps, even Giuliani. It's the easiest hit there is. John McCain, in South Carolina, started off one section of his speech by saying, "I'm sure most of you don't read the New York Times and then smiling and waiting for the hisses. It's cookie-cutter campaigning; the jokes come with your conservative campaign kit. Thompson's riff was about having to work with all them Yankees on Law and Order.

"My mama always wonders why I'm the only one in the show who talks normal," he said, to cheerful applause.

"I like him," an older woman named Rita said afterwards. "He's a straight shooter."