Issue #22/77, November 5 - 18, 1999  smlogo.gif


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Moscow Babylon
Book Review


on the Campaign Trail

by Matt Taibbi

Ah, New Hampshire... The Granite State. Live Free or Die. In autumn, a peaceful land of turning leaves, freshly laundered sweatshirts, and those toasty houses with black shutters set far back from the road. It's so quiet here, in fact, that you'd almost never know there was a presidential primary campaign going on here, unless you happened to cross paths somehow with one of the candidates on the campaign trail.

Actually, even then, you can't always be sure. A couple of weeks ago I was here, and actually ran into Elizabeth Dole--at the time still an active candidate--at some municipal-fair-type function (raffles, watermelon stands, Jaycees booths, etc.) she was crashing in the southern town of Derry. I'd been tailing Dole all day and I think she finally got tired of feeling me slinking around behind her, because no sooner had she arrived in Derry than she decided, suddenly, to zip around to face me head on.

"You! You need a yellow t-shirt!" [Dole's volunteers wore yellow t-shirts.]

She took my hand and squeezed.... Caught off guard and mesmerized by the slow advance of Dole's creepy female-impersonator face, I blurted out the first thing that came to mind--which turned out to be: "I already have one!"

I did? What the hell was I talking about? I myself had no idea, and for the duration of what turned out to be an unpleasantly long handshake the two of us had a genuinely weird moment on our hands. Dole wisely decided to shake free of the rapidly worsening bad vibe and stormed off for a photo op with a cardboard cutout of astronaut Alan Shepherd. Shepherd, it seemed, had grown up in Derry. Well, not Derry proper, as I later learned, but North Derry, another town a few miles off. But whatever, CNN was there, and it was close enough....

After this incident I spotted one of the yellow-shirted Dole volunteers in the crowd and decided to have a chat. In obvious contrast to the rest of the aggressively middle-aged Dole crew, this was a young and even somewhat attractive blonde girl in her early twenties. I told her I was writing a book about the campaign and just wanted to talk briefly, but that wasn't good enough for her: she demanded to see several forms of ID proving my reporter credentials (maintaining a nakedly standoffish Mop-n-Glo-commercial-TV-housewife-smile throughout my fumbling search) before agreeing to talk. Finally appeased, she said her name was Sarah Pelican, a student at the nearby University of New Hampshire.

"So," I said. 'What do you do for the Dole campaign?"

"I'm the state youth coordinator," she said. "I recruit college students for the campaign."

"I see," I said. "And what was it about Dole that attracted you to her campaign? For instance, which position of hers on which issue do you like?"

In response to this question I was privileged to witness what the Russians would call a "strong picture." The girl shifted from side to side, shuffled her feet, pouted a little, sighed, and bit her lip, then finally looked up at me with pissed-off eyes and said--throwing up her arms for emphasis--"Okay. You got me."

Then she ran off. I stared at her, amazed--one of a major candidate's own senior volunteers didn't have a clue what her candidate stood for. It occurred to me suddenly to wonder: if even the participants don't know what's going on, how much do people who AREN'T campaign volunteers know about who and what they're supposed to be voting for in this election?

The obvious answer is, not much. Why? There are plenty of reasons, but the press has to be the biggest one, as far as I'm concerned. In fact, earlier that summer, I'd already found reason to suspect that the American press was bent on creating the most uninformed electorate in history in preparation for the 2000 elections.

In July, I remembered, my father came to visit me in Moscow, and when he left, he left a few things behind in my apartment. One of them was a copy of The Washington Post's weekly "Outlook" pullout section. I don't get to see print versions of these things very often, so I started flipping through it.... Among other things, it contained feature profiles of Hillary Clinton, Bill Bradley, and George W. Bush. The articles gave overviews of each of the candidates' campaigns, discussed the challenges they faced, evaluated their chances, etc. I read the whole thing through with mild interest before suddenly realizing, in shock, that none of the articles I'd read appeared to have told me anything about what any of the candidates stood for.

I went back and looked: I was right! Only in one small section of the Bradley article, which noted vaguely that Bradley favored restrictions on handgun purchases, was there any mention of any specific position held by any of the candidates on any issue. The rest of it was all speculation about whether or not the candidates had enough money, or enough "winnability," or few enough skeletons in their closets, to have a chance to win at the Big Dance.

Gamesmanship has replaced issues in our national political discourse. Look in the newspapers. On almost any given day lately, you can look in the front pages and be treated to a spectacle weirder than the weirdest science fiction--lengthy tracts of political journalism, only with the politics skillfully removed. Take a look at another Washington Post article, this one published last Tuesday, October 26, by staffer Ceci Connolly. Entitled, "'Normal Guy' Gore Starts Connecting (Heeding N.H. Warning Signs, Candidate Knocks on Doors and Lingers at Meetings)," it is a very typical example of mass-market media campaign trail journalism. It leads as follows:

NASHUA, NH, Oct. 25--No one was home at the Belangers' this evening, so Vice President Gore scribbled a note on a red brochure and tucked it into their front door: "Sorry I missed you, Al Gore. P.S. I'd like your vote."

For at least a few moments, Al Gore was as far away from vice presidential seals and black limousines as his political team could get him, executing what they say is their new claw-back-into-contention strategy for the state that casts the first primary votes of 2000.

"We're trying to allow people to see him as a person rather than in the role of vice president," said Gore's New Hampshire press secretary, Doug Hattaway.

Over the years Americans have grown so used to this sort of thing that it no longer strikes them as strange. But if you look closely, Connolly's lead is actually an effort in propaganda so perversely paradoxical in message and dystopic in vision that George Orwell himself might have been moved by it to sigh in admiration.

Note the particular chronology of the action described. Al Gore, accompanied by handlers and by a reporter from The Washington Post, writes a personal note and sticks it on a door, the simple, friendly act of a "normal guy." But two paragraphs later, his aides will all but admit that the idea of writing the note probably came from Gore's handlers, not from Gore himself--meaning that this display of "normal guyness" in the lead is left undisguised for the rest of the piece as a transparently meaningless tactical ploy.

By the end of the third paragraph, I was already confused about what was supposedly going on here. The Gore handlers had obviously invited the reporter along to observe Gore in the wild acting like a "normal guy." They seemingly did so in the hope that scenes like the Veep putting the note on the Belangers' door would appear in Connolly's story as earnest, warm portraits of the "real" Gore--which is exactly what happened.

But logic would seem to dictate that the Gore handlers, having gone through all that effort, would then go on to play it straight in their own public statements. You'd expect them to bombard the reporter with quotes like "Gore is really tired of Washington society.... He never felt like the Beltway crowd accepted him.... He's really a small-town Tennessee boy at heart, and he misses talking to ordinary folks like himself."

But that's not what the handlers did. Instead, they spoke candidly of the note-scribbling incident not as spontaneously appearing evidence of Gore's heretofore unseen and unappreciated human qualities, but as an expected part of a carefully plotted and grandly named "claw-our-way-back-into-contention" political strategy.

Now here comes the weird part. The Gore handlers' comments turned out not to be injudicious slips at all. The seemingly clumsy shift away from Gore's would-be sincere "normal guy" pose, and swift refocus of attention to the paid operatives who manufactured the image, was not accidental. It was intentional: they were intentionally calling attention to the strategizing behind the lead image. Gore's handlers in this article, it turns out, are not attempting to campaign on the strength of the Gore image. They are, instead, campaigning on the strength of Gore's handlers--themselves! With Connolly's help, they are attempting to make the Gore team's abilities in the areas of spin-doctoring and imagemaking a centrally important issue in the determination of Gore's worth as a candidate.

The handlers' argument, if they were to articulate it, would probably go something like this. "Listen to what a good job we're doing as handlers. Gore might be a stiff candidate, but in our hands, he can be a winner. He might falter, but we won't. One man does not a candidacy make. It's the team that inspires confidence. With us, he's got the look of a winner again. Vote for the winner."

Whatever they were thinking, it worked. Connolly went on to dutifully write a piece that focused entirely on the handlers and their new "normal guy," "Claw-back-into-contention" strategy. Connolly asks the rhetorical question: is the "normal guy" thing working? Hard to say, muses Connolly, but he finds evidence that it is. And will it increase or decrease Gore's chances of beating rival Bill Bradley? Connolly's answer: maybe! Finally, and most importantly, does the new strategy make Gore seem more or less of a winner? Connolly's conclusion: "Increasingly, Gore is shedding some of the reserve and seeming pompousness that has distanced him from voters." Translation: he looks more like a winner.

Here's more of Connolly's article. Again and again the focus is on whether Gore is making the changes he needs to make to seem more like a winner:

Shell-shocked by Bill Bradley's steady climb in the polls here, Gore is racing to remake his image. "Let me get to the bottom line right away: I want your votes in the New Hampshire primary," he told about 200 people at an open forum here tonight. "I hope that you will use this opportunity to resolve any doubts that you have in your minds." Before hosting his second open meeting at Fairgrounds Junior High School, Gore walked along Lynwood Street here, shaking hands. "The kind of campaigning he's doing now will make people realize he is a normal guy," said Jim Demers, a Concord lobbyist advising the Gore camp.

At several stops in recent days, voters have remarked with some surprise that Gore is now walking local streets and lingering at open meetings until the lights are turned off, and is far more accessible and personable than his stand-offish persona. "It's wonderful to meet somebody with character," Philip Forrest said after shaking Gore's hand today. "His upbringing and way of life is something the presidency needs."

I find myself asking; What's the point of all this? None of this tells us anything about Gore; for the average person, it's not really informative at all. If anything, it's kind of off-putting. Personally, it makes me feel like a putz to think that this hack Connolly actually expects me to be a sympathetic and patient consumer of news that some politician is finding more effective ways to manipulate me. That's particularly if I also remember that I ostensibly picked up the article in search of information I really need to make an electoral decision.

So what about providing some of that necessary information? Connolly's effort in that direction is downright insulting:

For 2 1/2 hours tonight in the school auditorium, Gore spoke at length about gun control, health care reform, campaign finance laws, foreign policy and his general election plans.

That's it. Connolly mentions that Gore talked about these issues, but, amazingly, he doesn't even bother to say what Gore's positions on any of them are. What balls! It reminds me a little of a gag we here at the eXile played on our readers in the fake issue of the Moscow Times we put out a few years ago. The issue came out on the day after the NCAA basketball final, and we blurbed the game on the cover banner: "NCAA Final Ends in Thriller."

Readers opened to the sports page in search of a result, but the article there told them nothing except that the game had gone to triple-overtime and had been hugely entertaining. A pretty annoying trick, but it was April Fool's Day, after all. Here, however, Cecil Connolly of The Washington Post is doing it in utter seriousness, in October! It would hardly be possible for him to do more to show his contempt for his readers' genuine desire to be educated.

Connolly's article isn't the exception. It's the rule. A huge portion of the campaign trail stories that come out in America's newspapers today follow exactly the same formula, concentrating on issues like "winnability," campaign strategy, and the media techniques used by the candidates. For another brief example, let's look at a September 5 campaign trail piece (this one filed from Iowa) by Todd J. Gillman of The Dallas Morning News.

Gillman's article focuses on George W. Bush's claim that he is a "Compassionate Conservative." His angle is exactly the same as Connolly's: are voters responding well to the whole "compassionate conservative" business? Can Bush ride that self-applied label to victory? Does this strategy make him look more or less like a winner?

Gillman relates various man-on-the-street reactions to the compassionate conservative thing, noting that some people say they don't know what it means--while others, on the other hand, say they do:

Many conservative Iowans liked what they heard. Others in the 400-strong crowd left befuddled.

"The compassionate part - I'd like to ask how much big government is involved in that," said college marketing instructor Becky Nash, 57.

But Dr. Tom Smith, a 33-year-old chiropractor who calls himself a conservative Christian, found the formulation appealing, especially because Mr. Bush prefers compassion to flow from business and religious groups rather than government.

"If I apply the principles of the Bible, you have to help the poor," Dr. Smith said. "He allayed some of my concerns. I'm a little more confident after hearing that we would not be saddled with a lot more government."

That Gillman's piece is all about strategy, and not about politics at all, is clear from the fact that he makes no attempt to clear up this confusion shown by his interview subjects. After all, he's the journalist here. He's allowed--in fact, he's probably even obligated, from a professional standpoint--to ask Bush's people questions like "How much big government is involved in that?" But Gillman declines to help out, leaving readers with a piece that essentially says: "An important person said something today, and the people were confused. No word yet on whether or not this works in the Important Person's favor." Now, what the hell kind of reporter writes a story like that? A reporter who has no interest in informing his readers, that's what kind.

Gillman in his piece is limiting himself entirely to addressing one question: is the compassionate conservative thing getting over? He stands far back from his subject, cozily dressed in the guise of the nobly dispassionate observer, clearly giving no more thought to participating in the debate himself than he would to jumping on the field at a Texas-Oklahoma football game. And just like Connolly, he ends up telling his readers pretty much nothing at all that they actually need to know. Would-be voters don't need to know how Bush is doing--they need to know what the hell he stands for.

The weird thing is that Gillman knows his voters are starved for information. But his only take on that is that this might be a good thing for Bush:

Often coupled with that is the view that the Texan hasn't gone out of his way to appeal to such voters - he's just been careful not to anger them.

Reporters like Gillman and Connolly get away with this stuff because the public has allowed reporters to sell the election to them as a sort of suspenseful sporting event, not a political process that the readers themselves have a stake in. Whether it's because most people already feel like nothing in America ever changes no matter who's President, or whether they've become gradually accustomed to having the media ignore their concerns, or whether they're just stupid and prefer it that way--the fact is that most people in the States mostly view their role in the elections as a spectatorial one. Listen to the way your friends or people at work talk about elections--the only interest most Americans have in the whole damn thing is a sporting one. People are curious to see who's going to win. Beyond that, they mostly don't give a shit. Why should they? Nothing would change if they did.

Bread and Circus, that's what it's come down to. Yankees on the back page, Bush on the front. Will leaving Hidecki Irabu in the starting rotation turn out to be smart? Will this "normal guy" thing work for Gore? Who's ahead in Daytona after thirty laps? Who's ahead with three months before the primary? It's all the same crap.... True, maybe it really is all the public wants, but there's no law that says reporters always have to give us what we want. Particularly if those same reporters plan on living for much longer in a country with a generation of Sarah Pelicans waiting in the wings to take over.

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