This is the first installment of Matt Taibbi’s new 2008 presidential campaign blog.
Part 1: Fred Thompson’s Wocket’s Wed Gware; no toilets in Council Bluffs; the homeless discuss the race
I was only back on the campaign trail for about four hours before I started to feel unhappy again; this was back a few weeks ago, on actor Fred Thompson’s kickoff tour (see “Running on Empty” in the current Rolling Stone), specifically on a bus run between Des Moines and Council Bluffs on the afternoon of Thompson’s first day of campaigning.
Thompson had had a rough start to his presidential experience. His people had chosen to start things off by having a cow-eyed former Miss Iowa named Carolyn Haugland sing the national anthem for the large crowd of press and supporters gathered at a Des Moines convention center. Haugland is something every state should have — a right-wing beauty queen with a Hannitoid political blog (“That’s when it dawned on me,” she writes, “Bin Laden isn’t just a terrorist. He’s worse — a liberal!”) who eschews post-pageant catalogue work for stridently patriotic campaign performances. Her anthem would have been fine, except that she has a mild lisp. She ended up sounding like Robin Williams doing Elmer Fudd doing Bruce Springsteen doing “Fire.”
“Oah de wam-m-m-pahts we watch,” she belted. “Wuh so gaow-want-wee stwee-e-e-e-ming. And de wockets wed gware.”
From there Thompson’s handlers cued his campaign video, entitled “The Hunt For Red November.” The signature propaganda piece in a campaign that labors openly to blur media fantasy and political reality, the video is additionally confusing in that it starts off with a photo array of Democratic candidates Edwards, Hillary and Obama, interspersed with a dramatic HUNT FOR RED NOVEMBER title frame set against a frankly “Red” background. I thought they were trying to say something about the “Reds” on the other ticket, and so did someone in the crowd behind me. “Do they mean communiss? I heard someone whisper in an Iowan twang.”
So I ran to Todd Harris, the Thompson campaign’s press guy, just to check. He seemed pissed by the question. “No,” he sighed. “Red November, red state. Republican.”
“Right, but in the original movie, it was Red like Lenin Red, and you’ve got Hillary and Edwards there all covered in red. Do we want a Red November, or do we not want a Red November?”
“We want it. Now it means Republican,” he said, trying to smile, then walked away.
After that Thompson gave his first stump speech, an understated thing designed to cast him, in stark contrast to the other flawed candidates of his party, as a pure nice-guy conservative. A good actor, Thompson’s aw-shucks demeanor and near-constant emphasis on his humble roots and decided lack of megalomaniacal instinct makes his stump speech into a kind of political version of the late Phil Hartman’s famous “I’m just a simple caveman!” SNL skit, which when you think about it is a near-perfect sales pitch for Red State voters. The other reporters were bitching about how vapid it was, but I thought it was going over well — until a woman just a few feet to my left collapsed unconscious on the ground with a fainting fit near the tail end of Thompson’s presentation. Seeing the fracas in the back of the room, the candidate cut his speech short abruptly, forcing his campaign-opening rhetorical salvo to end not with hoots and cheers and resounding applause but ambiguously, with whispers and murmurs and frantic rubbernecking at the back of the room. The woman got up after about ten minutes and walked away, apparently okay.
After the speech I retreated along with the rest of the reporters to a cavernous filing room a floor below and immediately fell into a glum mood. The presidential campaign ritual in this country has obviously devolved into a deeply flawed phenomenon, one that tends to produce incompetent or inappropriate leaders and fails to really touch the population on any level anymore beyond disgust and resentment. Two straight (well, one-and-a-half straight) victories by the lunkhead George Bush are only part of the evidence on that score. Even more ominous were the 2006 midterm elections, a revoltingly idealism-free spectacle in which 80% of the money spent on television advertising across the country during the campaign season was devoted to negative ads.
The numbers released by the CQ Political Moneyline group following that race are startling. In 2004, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spent $13.8 million on ads for congressional races; 99% of that money was on “positive” ads. In 2006, they spent $14.4 million, but only 17% on positive messages; an amazing 83% went for attack ads.
The Republican numbers were similar. In 2004, the NRCC spent $19.5 million on ads, and the split was 54-46% positive-negative. In 2006, they nearly doubled the money spent, burning $33 million, and the numbers were 89-11% in favor of attack ads. By 2008 the process of turning national elections into a vote against this or that much-loathed candidate should be more or less complete.
This is why I hate showing up at functions like this Thompson thing and seeing everyone, from campaign staff to press reps to audience members, looking so content of disposition and cheered of conscience, like they’re joining up with a neighborhood can drive. Like there isn’t something totally fucked up and insane about the whole thing. In the filing room after the event the reporters sleepily puttered around the buffet table in between sessions at their computers sending the nothing details of Thompson’s nothing speech out into the world; there were chuckles as CBS radio reporter Peter King screamed his way through fifteen or twenty takes of a four-sentence remote report on Thompson’s debut, while a pair of TV guys in the back joked about the culinary shortcomings of this campaign. “I hope it isn’t warm cheese cubes again tonight,” one cracked, as he stared at a sad little plastic mini-plate of warmed jalapeno jack. “I hate warm cheese cubes.”
In advance of Council Bluffs some of the hacks on the bus commiserated about their reporting strategies. A loud British reporter two seats in front expressed hope that he’d get something really real. “I hope we get some real, you know, interaction with a voter,” he gushed. Others were talking with editors via cell phone about their pre-fab article theses — Thompson as the only guy who can beat Hillary, Thompson as Reagan, Thompson the too-late candidate. Then I watched as we actually poured out into the crowd at Bayliss Park in downtown Council Bluffs, and these same guys went from Iowan to Iowan in search of the needed quotes, literally shaking audience members like fruit trees until they coughed up the right answers. The only-Thompson-can-beat-Hillary guy — actually a female wire reporter — was moving quickly, trying in the 30-odd minutes we had on the ground to get at least one or two folks to say that they were supporting Thompson for the right reasons.
“Do you think Thompson is the only guy who can beat Hillary?”
“Uh, I don’t know.”
At that the reporter frowned and quickly moved on to the next local:
“Why do you support Thompson?”
“I just think he can beat Hillary.”
“Why do you think he can beat Hillary?”
And so on. I walked away. At the back of the event, behind the main crowd, there was a scraggly group of what looked like vagrants, all holding signs in support of a local lunatic presidential candidate who goes by the stage name Will Deport (his real name is Tom). Deport is a youngish guy who looks like a walking ONDCP don’t-do-crank ad; he can’t stand still for a second, appears not to notice that he’s wearing glasses that are missing part of their frame, and talks in utterly nonsensical rants delivered at supersonic speed.
“I’m a loser with no medical benefits! he shouted. “A loser!”
“Okay, I said.”
“Oh, a double-doses of Viagra, Cialis, trans-fats, Rabbit’s Foot, uh, Lucky Charms, that’s what leads to something!”
“Leads to something,” I wrote.
“So keep your fingers crossed, that’s what I say.” He then went on into a long rant about commercials during the Super Bowl. He was still talking when I moved over to some of the vagrants and street kids who, I later learned, Deport had bribed with six-packs of beer to hold up signs that said strange things like “THANK YOU PUBLIC SERVANTS.” A youngish kid with long hair and a red t-shirt in this crowd started telling me his story, about how he’d been busted for possession of drug paraphernalia. “It was a couple of pipes. he began.”
I waved him off and explained that, as a member of the national campaign press, I was here to write about what I wanted him to say, not what he wanted himself to say. “Look,” I said, holding up a bill. “I’m willing to pay twenty bucks to the first person who’ll say whatever I want him to say about Fred Thompson.”
About ten sets of hands flew up, including the kid in front of me. I held up the twenty.
“Name,” I barked.
“Gary Blakeman,” he said.
“Age,” I said.
I wrote that down. “Gary, does Fred Thompson look like a pedophile to you?”
He looked at me pleadingly. “Yes, right?”
“Right,” I said.
“Yes, he does,” he answered.
“So what you’re saying, Gary,” I prompted, “is that you wouldn’t be at all surprised to walk into a room and see this candidate’s penis in a four year-old child?”
“Of course not! the kid said. “Because he looks like a fucking pedophile, dude!”
“Mmm-hmm,” I said. “And what kind of face would you expect him to be making at that moment?”
The kid grit his teeth and strained his neck muscles. “He’d be like, unnnnhh!” he shouted.
“Thanks,” I said, handing him the twenty. He took it and walked off with his hands over his head in triumph. I looked over at the wire-service girl, who was still humping an old couple about the Hillary thing. Amateur, I thought.
Just then the bus horn honked and the driver announced that the campaign was rolling out of Council Bluffs. The reporters finished their in-crowd scramble and raced back toward the vehicle. Every time I see this, it boggles my mind that no one wonders about how ridiculous this whole ritual is . Anyway I was on my way back there, too, when two of Deport’s “volunteers,” a homeless couple named Dot and Jamie, stopped me. Jamie, a red-haired guy in his mid-thirties with a beard, ratty yellow sweatshirt and reversed baseball cap, explained that the two of them basically lived in this park, when they weren’t being chased away three and four times a night by police. He asked who the candidate was and asked if I could ask him to put in a word to someone about getting a public toilet installed. Dot, a slightly older woman with a street-tanned face and long stringy hair, concurred and added that she wanted to get her blood pressure taken.
“I can’t even afford that,” she said. “I show up at the clinic and they tell me I have to pay. You should ask him about that.”
I shrugged and said I wasn’t sure how easy that would be, then arranged to come back and meet them at a nearby soup kitchen at a later date. The horn then honked again and I raced back to the bus-bubble, where the reporters were already filing their new story updates. The big news at this event was that Thompson had been mistakenly introduced by a local pol as “Senator Fred Roberts.” The Brit typed away, apparently having gotten his “interaction.”
Finally the bus rolled out of town. As it got dark, a Thompson aide sitting next to me began searching on his blackberry for news of that night’s Indianapolis-New Orleans football game. He was a very recent import from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s press office, and he was hoping the campaign turned out to be worth it from an experience point of view.
“I figure I won’t be able to do this kind of thing once I get married, you know?” he said. “It’s just great to be able to do all this travel.”
“Uh-huh,” I said, looking back and wondering vaguely if the cops had already begun sweeping the vagrants out of Bayliss Park.
He looked down at his blackberry. “Seven-all, second quarter,” he said.
An hour or so later we pulled into Sioux City for the night.
Note: Although I originally reported otherwise in this piece, Howard Fineman and Todd Harris insist that they have never spoken on the telephone. It appears I misheard a conversation on the Thompson bus, and for this I apologize to Mssrs. Fineman and Harris. — M. Taibbi