It was hot, it was dirty and it took a very long time to be over — but it’s finally time to light that cigarette after the 2008 presidential race. In the end, this strange and bitterly fought campaign season was really about two things: the unbelievable, almost inexpressible incompetence of the Republican Party, and the commensurate rise, on the other side, of the remarkable figure Barack Obama. The latter wouldn’t have happened without the former, and in that sense Obama is a creature of circumstance. In a different era, his hypercautious, corporate-friendly policies wouldn’t have moved the world an inch in any direction. Instead, his rise came in a year when policy and ideology are almost irrelevant. Had he come out four years later or earlier, he might have been Geraldine Ferraro or John Kerry.
What makes the Obama story so powerful isn’t just the fact that as a half-white, half-black man, his public journey to the top visibly tied together some of the more painful frayed ends of our past. It’s that he ran his race with dignity and honor against people who didn’t return the favor, facing a succession of opponents who feared losing more than shame and gave in to pretty much every possible temptation to go low and appeal to the worst in us.
I didn’t always see it at the time. But thinking back on it now, I realize what an extraordinary accomplishment his getting this ~ far has been. A man who wasn’t great would have blown this a hundred times along the way. So would a person who wasn’t extremely lucky. The historical seas literally parted for this Obama guy, with inconceivable idiocy and villainy littering the political shores on either side of him as he ascended to the pantheon of all’ time American heroes simply by walking straight ahead and not being a dick. Looking back at my campaign notebooks, here are a few of the most memorable moments that illustrate the odd journey.
THE MUTANT FREAK
Merrimack, NH · October 2007
I’m in a little church where Mitt Romney is plowing through his umpteenth town hall with the enthusiasm of an Amway salesman. You know there’s a problem, political-dynamics-wise, when the candidate enjoys the crowd attention more than the crowd enjoys listening to him. Romney on the trail blabbers like a boy who’s just rushed home to tell his mommy about every last boring freaking thing that happened at school. Finally, to the relief of the audience, the moderator leans into a microphone and says, “Governor Romney, this will be the last question.” To this point in the campaign, all the Republican candidates have come off like Vegas stand-up routines. The collapse of the Bush administration left the Republican Party utterly bankrupt of ideological advantage. The Bush era made it impossible to sell the party as fiscally conservative ($10 trillion deficit), militarily superior ($12 billion a month fighting a handful of Arabs in sandals to a bloody draw), or even as the party of “moral values” (a raft of Republicans caught offering to suck off strangers in restrooms or texting little boys on the Internet). So the 2008 presidential candidate lineup was a collection of second’ rate buffoons — Romney, Rudy Giuliani, Tom Tancredo, Mike Huckabee, Fred Thompson, John McCain — who spent most of the primary season running against Mexicans and the state of Iran. I heard one GOP operative describe them as “a bunch of Nuremberg defendants.”
Romney was, in his way, the worst of the bunch. His plan, apparently, was to run out the clock — to hold his breath and rely on his superior Mormon moral conditioning while he waited for all the other mutants in the race to die of their genetic vulnerabilities. Not a bad strategy. What undermined him was that if you weren’t already a Romney supporter, it took about five seconds in his toothy, celluloid presence before you started feeling a profound urge to wizard-kick him in the face. You could see that phenomenon everywhere, even in the eyes of the other Republican candidates.
So now, in the church in Merrimack, Romney is finally wrapping up. As usual, he’s jacked up like a skate tweak, and as a member of the audience poses the last question, he flinches histrionically at the sound of the microphone and starts mock-scanning the ceiling of the chapel for the source of the voice. “Whoa!” he says. “That sounds like someone up there.” Is Romney, who generally makes a point of avoiding religion and sticking to his business credentials, about to go all Christian on us?
“It’s like, you know — ‘Attention, Kmart shoppers!'” he finishes.
The crowd stares at him in silence.
And I’m thinking to myself, “Are these guys trying to lose?” How is it possible that the Republicans can’t find even one candidate who isn’t the goofiest motherfucker in the room every place he goes? Is this some kind of trap? More to the point, how can the Democrats possibly blow it this time? But then you remember — they’re the Democrats.
HUCKABEE IN LOVE
Washington, DC · October 2007
Of all the GOP candidates, Huckabee seemed the least retarded, and the only one who promised anything like a way out of the seeming dead end that is modern Republican politics. He hinted at shedding the party’s legacy of laissez-faire whoring, and replacing it with a more populist economics to go with the still-resonating batshit religiosity. But Huckabee had no money, and when the spotlight swung onto him, he proved not quite ready for prime time. At a private lunch he held for reporters in a fancy restaurant in Washington, we all listen in shock as he hails the endorsement of Chuck Norris as a game-changing event.
It sounds like he’s kidding at first, but he’s, uh, not kidding. “Chuck Norris is just an amazing, amazing presence on the Internet,” Huck says. “His intellectual superiority exceeds even his physical superiority.”
From there Huck and Chuck turn into the greatest American gay love story since Beavis and Butthead. Soon Huckabee is appearing on commercials saying things like, “There’s no chin behind Chuck Norris’ beard — only another fist.” Or leaning swooningly toward a black-turtleneck-clad Norris at a D.C. press luncheon while his wife sits grimly by his side, trying to ignore the weird, uncomfortable circus being enacted right next to her. And this guy was the best candidate in the Republican field, by leaps and bounds.
THE PENN SPIN
Las Vegas · January 2008
The Democratic race has already turned ugly. Through surrogates, the desperate Clinton campaign made very public whispers about Obama’s teenage drug use and circulated e-mails accusing him of being a Muslim bent on “destroying America from the inside and out.” Arguing the virtues of being a “doer” instead of a “talker,” Hillary went into race-tense South Carolina after having mentioned casually that “it took a president” to make Martin Luther King’s civil rights dream a reality.
It’s classic dog-whistle race politics that has spread like a cancer across the Internet. The mainstream media, meanwhile, are eagerly swallowing like so many delicious Scooby Snacks the campaign’s innocuous-sounding attempts to reduce the entire race to an idiotic farm metaphor, pushing “workhorse” Hillary over “show horse” Obama.
Now, after a debate in Las Vegas, I’m listening to Hillary Clinton’s porcine top adviser, Mark Penn, ramble on in this preposterous vein and wondering how long this lunacy can possibly go on.
“Senator Clinton is a workhorse,” Penn is saying. “She’s an absolute workhorse.” “Are you implying,” snaps one reporter, “that Barack Obama is not a workhorse?”
This is what qualifies as a tough question on the campaign trail. The press performance in this election year would ultimately prove to be the worst of all time by miles and miles. Example: After thousands of reporters sat around for months on end listening first to Hillary’s and then John McCain’s people blather on about Obama’s connection to former Weather Underground member Bill Ayers, it would take David Letterman — David Letterman! — to challenge either candidate on the matter. “Are they driving cross-country?” Letterman asked, after finally having gotten McCain to squirm about his own relationship with equivalent extremist G. Gordon Liddy.
In a society of grown-ups, Brian Williams and Katie Couric and Wolf Blitzer would have done that from the start. But they didn’t — they treated the mudslinging like it wasn’t vile horseshit to be laughed at, but something real to be discussed with furrowed brows, debated. So it persisted.
Penn smiles at the querying reporter. “All I’m saying,” he says, “is that Senator Hillary Clinton is a workhorse.”
A different reporter next to me shakes his head. “A horse?” he whispers. “What the fuck am I going to do with that?”
Philadelphia · April 2008
On my way to the bathroom at Clinton’s celebration in the Park Hyatt ballroom on Pennsylvania primary night, I’m stopped by a woman in her late 40s/early 50s, long gray hair and some kind of corduroy vest with Hillary buttons all over it. She asks me if I’m that guy from ROLLING STONE.
This question doesn’t have as obvious an answer as you might think. Already in this race I’ve had some shocking moments with Hillary supporters. In Washington, a woman I wasn’t even interviewing stepped in front of me and gave me the finger when she overheard a question about Hillary’s trade policies I was asking someone else. An offhand description of Hillary’s “flabby” arms in one article led to an online flap with ancient plastic surgery survivor/sex novelist Erica Jong — who contended the description proved I secretly wanted to fuck the unattainable mother Hillary represented — which in turn led to an avalanche of angry mail that continued all through the summer. Here in Philly, I consider trying to pass myself off as George Stephanopoulos, but it’s too late, this woman is not going to buy it.
“I just want to say, fucking fuck you!” she says. Then she starts laying into (in order): me, sexism and Obama.
Now, I get the anger toward me, and toward the media in general. But the anger of Clinton supporters toward Obama, whose worst offense to date was calling Hillary “likable enough,” is as mysterious as it is powerful. When I ask this woman what her issue with Obama is, she says, “His health plan would leave 15 million people uninsured!”
The woman is shaking with anger.
“And that has you this mad?” I ask. “Were you this angry with every other Democrat who didn’t deliver health insurance?”
“He’s a liar!” she says. “He promised universal health insurance. It’s not universal!”
The “missing 15 million” is basically the only real policy difference between Hillary, who proposes a complete mandate for health insurance, and Obama, whose proposal covers only children. In the overall scheme of things, it’s a policy difference so small as to be almost invisible to the naked eye — but the Clinton campaign has managed to steer the genuinely bloodcurdling rage of millions into this tiny crevice. There is even an online petition started by Hillary supporters to raise a dollar for every American Obama left uninsured. Online chatter on the topic recalls Armenian-Azerbaijani ethnic invective.
“Obama is becoming cockier by the day,” one Hillary supporter writes. “I cannot wait until the day he falls. I have no mercy.” Another gloats about the “punk” being “exposed,” saying, “WHAT AUDACITY! Fifteen million people left out and his response is ‘Some people can’t afford it.'”
New Orleans · June 2008
McCain has just given the worst speech of his campaign, a roundly panned halt-and-stammer job on the night Barack Obama first claimed victory over Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination. Reporters spent much of their time mocking the putrid lime-green backdrop behind McCain, but from where I stood, the crowd was the bigger problem. I’m arguing with a group of three women who insist that Obama’s plan to require Americans to buy private health insurance is “socialist.” I ask the McCain supporters if they consider the private insurance they have to buy for their car socialism.
“Cars aren’t socialist,” one woman says.
Hillary’s smear-heavy, attack-at-the-knees campaign has morphed seamlessly into McCain’s campaign. It is amazing to watch both of these political warriors reach the same political crossroads and make exactly the same doomed bargain for their political lives. Both made their careers as triangulating centrists. Both were previously the victims of some of the dirtiest politics in modern times, with McCain felled by a smear campaign about an illegitimate black daughter, in South Carolina in 2000, and Hillary bashed by right-wingers for her associations with “communist” Bella Abzug and her ties to a “communist front,” the National Lawyers Guild.
But when push came to shove, both politicians went completely Tonya Harding on Barack Obama. In an April debate in Philadelphia, the same Hillary who spent her husband’s presidency unfairly bashed as a Marxist pariah squawked about Obama’s relationship to Bill Ayers, pointing out that Ayers said on 9/11 he wished he had “done more.” Months later, McCain said the same thing, wailing about how Ayers wished he had “bombed more.” From Jeremiah Wright, to Obama’s supposed vote for graphic sex ed for kindergartners, to the photos of Obama in Muslim garb Hillary’s camp reportedly sent to the Drudge Report, to the “scandalous” information about Obama Bob Novak claimed the Hillary camp was holding, to Obama’s connections to ACORN, to the constant lies and innuendo about Obama being a Muslim (he isn’t, “as far as I know,” Hillary told 60 Minutes), the Clinton and McCain campaigns were one long, unabashed, scorched-earth attempt at character assassination.
Here in New Orleans, a man is calling Obama dishonest. I ask how. “He exaggerates,” he says mysteriously. I again ask how. The problem turns out to be Obama’s mention of his white mother and white grandmother, “like that qualifies him to know what it’s like to be white.”
Hempstead, NY · October 2008
At Hofstra University, in the final debate, McCain rails on about Ayers and accuses Obama of voting to deny treatment to fetuses “born alive.” In Obama’s place, I would have lunged at McCain’s throat. But Obama isn’t interested in jacking up mine or anyone else’s bloodlust. He calmly answers the questions and moves on, simultaneously putting McCain and me in our places.
This is called being better than your supporters, and it’s a new thing in modern American politics. Year after year, even the president of our country has been consistently too small and too cheap to stand up and face his problems like a grown-up, forever passing the buck to this or that group of Americans. If it wasn’t Reagan crying about “freeloaders” or George H.W. Bush blasting the “apologize for America” crowd, it was the Clintons whining about the “vast right-wing conspiracy.”
We were all educated in this culture of blame-the-other-sap, and that’s why we Americans are always whining about getting jobbed by someone: the media, Hollywood, Big Tobacco, anybody. But this year, the more the other side whined and pointed fingers, the higher Obama’s star climbed. It’s reassuring to see that someone in this country is finally doing some growing up. Let’s hope that it says as much about us as it does about the presidency.