[published: January 22, 2008]
A dispatch from the womblike hotel gyms and awkward mall rallies of the Iowa caucuses.
This is what you need to know: I cover the 2008 presidential campaign for a major media outlet. I have business cards and corporate credit. This winter I went to Iowa for more than a week to cover the caucuses. While there I my kept credentials around my neck. When a woman stared at me intently and said with self-assurance that she was voting for Mike Huckabee because They are taking God out of the schools and We need to get him back in, I jotted it down, shook her hand and smiled politely.
I wrote this under a pseudonym, for reasons that will become clear, and because I want to keep those credentials around my neck.
Here’s what I saw in Iowa: Candidates giving their empty and meaningless stump speeches over and over, sometimes to an audience made up more of press than potential voters. The candidates have no incentive to say anything revealing, so they don’t say anything revealing. There is always a camera waiting for them to slip, always a reporter looking for a YouTube moment or a Drudge link, something that our checked-out nation could seize upon to make their checked-out decision.
Still, though. When I was considering going to law school with the idea of becoming a cool, fun lawyer who cared about things, I had a friend tell me that you can only do something for so long (law) before you become that thing in some essential way (lawyer). I mention this because when I was in Des Moines, a friend and I went to exercise in our hotel gym and one of the major candidates was there, running on a treadmill.
The basement exercise room was like a womb: Soft colors on the walls, no windows, machines designed to minimize risk. The three of us chatted about the football game showing on television and didn’t mention politics, even though we knew who he was and what he could assume about us. We shared a moment of humanity despite our mutual involvement in a process designed to eliminate such things. But then he got off the treadmill and headed towards the door. I nodded goodbye. He stuck his arm straight out and sort of twisted his hand towards me while puffing up his cheeks and sending a disarmingly empathetic smile in my direction.
By that point my friend was gone. It was just me and him: A rally with one attendee.
One morning I drove a half-hour outside Des Moines to a Mitt Romney event. It was 8:30 am on a Saturday, the Wal-Mart across the street was packed, and the candidate was at a coffee shop at the end of a strip mall. He was standing on a box in the middle of the room, dressed in khakis and a purple shirt. He wanted fewer Mexicans, no terrorists, and to get things done.
When some teenage girls yelled that they had been in the closing ceremonies of the 2004 Olympics, which Mitt had been involved with, he said, dramatically, “and what a closing ceremonies they were.” People clapped. Then he said “wow,” looking off in the distance. I don’t know if he meant it.
The traveling press corps in Iowa was cynical, but usually about the wrong things. The reporters were young and white and they rolled their eyes when the candidates didn’t “make news,” which means they didn’t deviate from their standard speech or ratchet up their attacks on their rivals. When a candidate did make news, reporters lost their collective shit. Everyone seized on the same points and made the same comments. They might as well have prefaced their press conference questions with We Think.
For example: At a family restaurant in suburban Des Moines. The press had taken over the upstairs for a speech by eventual winner Mike Huckabee, and the Iowans, too polite to push their way up, stood downstairs in between the tables. It was the day Huckabee had started calling Romney dishonest, the first time Huckabee had done that.
After the candidate had made his rounds downstairs he came back up to answer questions. And for 20 minutes, almost every question centered on the dishonesty charge. What did Huckabee mean, exactly? Does he not like Mitt Romney personally? Is he calling Romney dishonest, or just saying he’s acting dishonest? So, but wait: dishonest, not honest, or just semi-honest, or what? Would he vote for an honest Democrat over a dishonest Republican? And so on.
Mike Huckabee, incidentally: Unsure-leaning-against the concept of evolution. Favors the FairTax, which would fuck the poor. Believes we need to “amend the constitution so it’s in God’s standards rather than try to change God’s standards so it lines up with some contemporary view.” Got a guy named Wayne DuMond, who had raped a distant cousin of Bill Clinton, released from an Arkansas prison because conservatives had pressured him to do so. Then Wayne DuMond raped again, and murdered for good measure.
But he said dishonest, so we were talking about that that day. The Wayne DuMond day was like a month ago. If you missed it, tough shit. Now go vote.
It’s not all on the media though. The night after Barack Obama won, I got drunk with his supporters. We were at a smoke-filled Des Moines bar and they were all coming off his big victory speech. It was a revival and the preacher had wowed the congregation with his soaring, empty words. They all hated Bush but they had forgotten that he too promised unity, change, hope. That was another time, and now there was something new to hang on to. Fuck the past, fuck the future. I raised my glass.
If you’re a journalist it’s a big risk to tell people anything outside of what everyone else is telling them. It’s generally not in your company’s interests. So no one talks about how desperate Rudy Giuliani looks up close, sweat on his forehead even in the Iowa winter, reading the chapter titles from his books as though they mattered. Or the way reporters stood in the back of events and muttered about how fraudulent the populist rhetoric from John Edwards was as crowds of union-members cheered wildly. Or how some of us are kept awake thinking about the mutually parasitic relationship between the press and politicians when our computers are off and the lights are dim and we just want to fall away into fitful hotel-room sleep.
On my last night in Des Moines, a friend and I watch a drag queen perform. Dance music played as she lip-synched and strutted onstage. People held out dollar bills until she could acknowledge the gesture and smile and flirt and palm the money. The drag queen’s name was Champaign Showers, and a framed certificate behind the bar said she had been named best drag queen in the city. Not that week, I thought, staring at the certificate. Not even close.
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