SUBSTANTIALLY FARTHER BEHIND THE SCENES THAN YOU’RE APT TO WANT TO BE
It’s now precisely 1330h. on Tuesday, 8 February 2000, on Bullshit 1, proceeding southeast on I-26 back toward Charleston SC. There’s now so much press and staff and techs and stringers and field producers and photographers and heads and pencils and political columnists and hosts of political radio shows and local media covering John McCain and the McCain2000 phenomenon that there’s more than one campaign bus. Here in South Carolina there are three, a veritable convoy of Straight Talk, plus FoxNews’s green SUV and the MTV crew’s sprightly red Corvette and two much-antennae’d local TV vans (one of which has muffler trouble). On DTs like this McCain’s always in his personal red recliner next to Mike Murphy’s red recliner in the little press salon he and political consultant Mike Murphy have in the back of the lead bus, the well-known Straight Talk Express, which is up ahead and already receding. The Straight Talk Express’s driver is a leadfoot and the other drivers hate him. Bullshit 1 is the caravan’s second bus, a luxury Grumman with good current and workable phonejacks, and a lot of the national pencils use it to pound out copy on their laptops and send faxes and email stuff to their editors. The campaign’s logistics are dizzyingly complex, and one of the things the McCain2000 staff has to do is rent different buses and decorate the nicest one with STRAIGHT TALK EXPRESS and MCCAIN2000.COM in each new state. In Michigan yesterday there was just the S.T.E plus one bus for non-elite press, which had powder-gray faux-leather couches and gleaming brushed-steel fixtures and a mirrored ceiling from front to back; it creeped everyone out and was christened the Pimpmobile. The two press buses in South Carolina are known as Bullshit 1 and Bullshit 2, names conceived as usual by the extremely cool and laid-back NBC News cameraman Jim C. and—to their credit—immediately seized on and used with great glee at every opportunity by McCain’s younger Press Liaisons, who are themselves so cool and unpretentious it’s tempting to suspect that they are professionally cool and unpretentious.
Right now Bullshit l’s Press Liaison, Travis—23, late of Georgetown U and a six-month backpack tour of Southeast Asia during which he says he came to like fried bugs—is again employing his single most important and impressive skill as a McCain2000 staffer, which is the ability to sleep anywhere, anytime, and in any position for 10-15-minute intervals, with a composed face and no unpleasant sounds or fluids, and then to come instantly and unfuzzily awake the moment he’s needed. It’s not clear whether he thinks people can’t tell he’s sleeping or what. Travis, who wears wide-wale corduroys and a sweater from Structure and seems to subsist entirely on Starburst Fruit Chews, tends to speak with the same deprecatory irony that is the whole staff’s style, introducing himself to new media today as either “Your press lackey” or “The Hervé Villechaize of Bullshit 1,” or both. His new trick is to go up to the front of the bus and hook his arm over the little brushed-steel safety bar above the driver’s head and lean against it so that from behind it looks as if he’s having an involved navigational conversation with the driver, and to go to sleep, and the driver—a 6'7" bald black gentleman named Jay, whose way of saying goodnight to a journalist at the end of the day is “Go on and get you a woman, boy!”—the driver knows exactly what’s going on and takes extra care not to change lanes or brake hard, and Travis, whose day starts at 0500 and ends after midnight just like all the other staffers, lives this way.
McCain just got done giving a Major Policy Address on crime and punishment at the South Carolina Criminal Justice Academy in Columbia, which is where the caravan is heading back to Charleston from. It was a resoundingly scary speech, delivered in a large airless cinderblock auditorium surrounded by razorwire and guard towers (the S.C.C.J.A. adjoined a penal institution so closely that it wasn’t at all clear where one left off and the other began) and introduced by some kind of very high-ranking Highway Patrol officer whose big hanging gut and face the color of rare steak seemed right out of Southern-law-enforcement central casting and who spoke approvingly and at some length about Senator McCain’s military background and his 100% conservative voting record on crime, punishment, firearms, and the War on Drugs. This wasn’t a Town Meeting Q&A-type thing; it was a Policy Address, one of three this week prompted by Bush2000’s charges that McCain is fuzzy on policy, that he’s image over substance. The speech’s putative audience was 350 neckless young men and women sitting at attention (if that’s possible) in arrow-straight rows of folding chairs, with another couple hundred law-enforcement pros in Highway Patrol hats and mirrored shades standing at Parade Rest behind them, and then behind and around all these the media—the actual audience for the speech—including NBC’s Jim C. and his sound man Frank C. (no relation) and the rest of the network techs on the ever-present fiberboard riser facing the stage and filming McCain, who as is S.O.P. first thanks a whole lot of local people nobody’s heard of and then w/o ado jumps right in to what’s far and away the scariest speech of the week, backed as always by a 30' x 50' American flag so that when you see B-film of these things on TV it’s McCain and the flag, the flag and McCain, a visual conjunction all the candidates try to hammer home. The seated cadets—none of whom fidget or scratch or move in any way except to blink in what looks like perfect sync—wear identical dark-brown khakis and junior models of the same round big-brimmed hats their elders wear, so that they look like ten perfect rows of brutal and extremely attentive forest rangers. McCain, who simply does not ever perspire, is wearing a dark suit and wide tie and has the only dry forehead in the hall. U.S. Rep. Lindsey Graham (R-SC, of impeachment-trial fame) and U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford (R-SC, rated the single most fiscally conservative member of the ’98–’00 Congress) are up there on stage behind McCain as is S.O.P.; they’re sort of his living Letters of Introduction down here this week. Graham, as usual, looks like he slept in his suit, whereas Sanford is tan and urbane in a V-neck sweater and Guccis whose shine you could read by. Mrs. Cindy McCain is up there too as always, brittly composed and smiling at the air in front of her and thinking about God knows what. Half the buses’ press don’t listen to the speech; most of them are at different spots at the very back of the gym, walking in little unconscious circles with their cellular phones. (You should be apprised upfront that national reporters spend an enormous amount of time either on their cellphones or waiting for their cellphones to ring. It is not an exaggeration to say that when somebody’s cellphone breaks they almost have to be sedated.) The techs for CBS, NBC, CNN, ABC, and Fox will film the whole speech, plus any remarks afterward, then they’ll unbolt their cameras from the tripods and go mobile and scrum McCain’s exit and the brief Press-Avail at the door to the Straight Talk Express, and then the field producers will call network HQ and summarize the highlights and HQ will decide which five- or ten-second snippet gets used for the nightly bit on the GOP campaign.
It helps to conceive a campaign week’s events in terms of boxes, boxes inside other boxes, etc. The national voting audience is the great huge outer box, then the SC-electorate audience, mediated respectively by the inner layers of national and local press, just inside which lie the insulating boxes of McCain’s staff’s High Command who plan and stage events and Spin stuff for the layers of press to interpret for the layers of audience, and the Press Liaisons who shepherd the pencils and heads and mediate their access to the High Command and control which media get rotated onto the S.T. Express (which is itself a box in motion) and then decide which of these chosen media then get to move all the way into the extreme rear’s salon to interface with McCain himself, who is the campaign’s narrator and narrative at once, a candidate whose biggest draw of course is that he’s an anticandidate, someone who’s open and accessible and “thinks outside the box,” but who is in fact the campaign’s Chinese boxes’ central and inscrutable core box, and whose own intracranial thoughts on all these boxes and layers and lenses and on whether this new kind of enclosure is anything like Hoa Lo’s dark box are pretty much anyone in the media’s guess, since all he’ll talk about is politics.
Plus Bullshit 1 is also a box, of course, just as anything you can’t exit till somebody else lets you out becomes, and right now there are 27 members of the national political media on board, halfway to Charleston. A certain percentage of them aren’t worth introducing you to because they’ll get rotated back off the Trail tonight and be gone tomorrow, replaced by somebody else you’ll just start to recognize by the time they rotate out. That’s what these pros call it, the Trail, the same way musicians talk about the Road. The schedule is fascist: Wakeup call and backup alarm at 0600h., Express Checkout, Baggage Call at 0700 to throw bags and techs’ gear under the bus, haul ass to McCain’s first THM at 0800, then another, then another, maybe an hour off to F&F someplace if ODTs permit, then usually two big evening events, plus hours of dead highway DT between functions, finally getting in to that night’s Marriott or Hampton Inn at like 2300 just when Room Service closes so you’re begging rides from FoxNews to find a restaurant still open, then an hour at the hotel bar to try to shut your head off so you can hit the rack at 0130 and get up at 0600 and do it all again. Usually it’s four to six days for the average pencil and then you go off home on a gurney and your editor rotates in fresh meat. The network techs, who are old hands at the Trail, stay on for months at a time. The McCain2000 staff have all been doing this full-time since Labor Day, and even the young ones look like the walking dead. Only McCain seems to thrive. He’s 63 and practically Rockette-kicks onto the Express every morning. It’s either inspiring or frightening.
Here’s a quick behind-the-scenes tour of everything that’s happening on BS1 at 1330h. A few of the press are slumped over sleeping, open-mouthed and twitching, using their topcoats for pillows. The CBS and NBC techs are in their usual place on the couches way up front, their cameras and sticks and boom mikes and boxes of tapes and big Duracells piled around them, discussing obscure stand-up comedians of the early ’70s and trading Press Badges from New Hampshire and Iowa and Delaware, which Press Badges are laminated and worn around the neck on nylon cords and apparently have a certain value for collectors. Jim C., who looks like a chronically sleep-deprived Elliott Gould, is also watching Travis’s leather bookbag swing metronomically by its overshoulder strap as Travis leans there and sleeps. All the couches and padded chairs face in, perpendicular to BS1’s length, instead of a regular bus’s forward-facing seats. So everyone’s legs are always in the aisle, but there’s none of the normal social anxiety about your legs maybe touching somebody else on a bus’s leg because nobody can help it and everyone’s too tired to care. Right behind each set of couches are small white plastic tables with recessed cup-receptacles and AC outlets that work if Jay can be induced to turn on the generator (which he will unless he’s low on fuel); and the left side’s table has two pencils and two field producers at it, and one of the pencils is Alison Mitchell, as in the Alison Mitchell, who is the NY Times’ daily eye on McCain and a marquee journalist but is not (refreshingly) one of the infamous Twelve Monkeys, a slim calm kindly lady of maybe 45 who wears dark tights, pointy boots, a black sweater that looks home-crocheted, and a perpetual look of concerned puzzlement, as if life were one unending search for clarification. Alison Mitchell is usually a regular up on the Straight Talk Express but today has a tight 1500h. deadline and is using BS1’s superior current to whip out the story on her Apple Powerbook. (Even from outside the bus it’s easy to tell who’s banging away on a laptop right then, because their windowshades are always down against daytime glare, which is every laptop-journalist’s great nemesis.) An ABC field producer across the table from A. Mitchell is trying to settle a credit-card dispute on his distinctive cellphone, which is not a headset phone per se but consists of an earplug and a tiny hanging podular thing he holds to his mouth with two fingers to speak, a device that manages to make him look simultaneously deaf and schizophrenic. People in both seats behind the table are reading USA Today (and this might be worth noting: the only newsdaily read by every single member of the national campaign press is, believe it or not, USA Today , which always appears as if by dark magic under everybody’s hotel door with their Express Checkout bill every morning, and is free, and media are as susceptible to good marketing as anybody else). The local TV truck’s muffler gets louder the farther back you go. About two-thirds of the way down the aisle is a little area that has the bus’s refrigerator and the liquor cabinets (the latter unbelievably well-stocked on yesterday’s Pimpmobile, totally empty on BS1) and the bathroom with the hazardous door. There’s also a little counter area piled with Krispy Kreme doughnut boxes, and a sink whose water nobody ever uses (for what turn out to be good reasons). Krispy Kremes are sort of the Deep South equivalent of Dunkin’ Donuts, ubiquitous and cheap and great in a sort of what-am-I-doing-eating-dessert-for-breakfast way, and are a cornerstone of what Jim C. calls the Campaign Diet.
Behind the buses’ digestive areas is another little lounge, which up on the Express serves as McCain’s press salon but which on Bullshit 1 is just an elliptic table of beige plastic ringed with a couch it’s just a bit too high for, plus a fax machine and multiple jacks and outlets, the whole area known to the Press Liaisons as the ERPP (= Extreme Rear Press Palace). Right now Mrs. McCain’s personal assistant on the Trail, Wendy—who has electric-blue contact lenses and very complex and rigid blond hair and designer outfits and immaculate makeup and and accessories and French nails and can perhaps best be described as a very Republican -looking young lady indeed—is back here at the beige table eating a large styrofoam cup of soup and using her cellphone to try to find someplace in downtown Charleston where Mrs. McCain can get her nails done. All three walls in the ERPP are mirrored, an unsettling echo of yesterday’s reflective bus (except here the mirrors have weird little white ghostly shapes embedded in the plate, apparently as decorations), so that you can see not only everybody’s reflections but all sorts of multi-angled reflections of those reflections, and so on, which on top of all the jouncing and swaying keeps most people up front despite the ERPP’s wealth of facilities. Just why Wendy is arranging for her mistress’s manicure on a press bus is unclear, but Mrs. McC.’s sedulous attention to her own person’s dress and grooming is already a minor legend among the press corps, and some of the techs speculate that things like getting her nails and hair done, together with being almost Siametically attached to Ms. Lisa Graham Keegan (who is AZ’s Education Superintendent and supposedly traveling with the Senator as his “Advisor on Issues Affecting Education” but is quite obviously really along because she’s Cindy McCain’s friend and confidante and the lone person in whose presence Mrs. McC. doesn’t look like a jacklighted deer), are the only things keeping this extremely fragile person together on the Trail, where she’s required to stand under hot lights next to McCain at every speech and THM and Press-Avail and stare cheerfully into the middle distance while her husband speaks to crowds and lenses—in fact some of the cable-network techs have a sort of running debate about what Cindy McCain’s really looking at as she stands onstage being scrutinized but never getting to say anything . . . and anyway everybody understands and respects the enormous pressure Wendy’s under to help Mrs. McC. keep it together, and nobody makes fun of her for things like getting more and more stressed as it becomes obvious that there’s some special Southeast-U.S. idiom for “manicure” that Wendy doesn’t know, because nobody she talks to on the cellphone seems to have any idea what she means by “manicure.” Also back here, directly across from Wendy, is an unbelievably handsome guy in a very green cotton turtleneck, a photographer for Reuters, sitting disconsolate in a complex nest of wires plugged into just about every jack in the ERPP; he’s got digital photos of the Columbia speech in his Toshiba laptop and has his cellphone plugged into both the wall and the laptop (which is itself plugged into the wall) and is trying to file the pictures via some weird inter-Reuters email, except his laptop has decided it doesn’t like his cellphone anymore (“like” = his term) and he can’t get it to file.
If this all seems really static and dull, by the way, then understand that you’re getting a bona fide media-eye look at the reality of life on the Trail, 85% of which consists of wandering around killing time on Bullshit 1 while you wait for the slight meaningful look from Travis that means he’s gotten the word from his immediate superior Todd (28 and so obviously a Harvard alum it wasn’t worth asking) that after the next stop you’re getting rotated up into the big leagues on the Express to sit squished and paralyzed on the crammed red press-couch in back and to listen to John S. McCain and Mike Murphy answer the Twelve Monkeys’ questions and to look up-close and personal at McCain and the way he puts his legs way out on the salon’s floor and crosses them at the ankle and sucks absently at his right bicuspid and twirls the coffee in his McCain2000.com mug and to try to penetrate the innermost box of this man’s thoughts on the enormous hope and enthusiasm he’s generating in press and voters alike . . . which you should be told up-front does not and cannot happen, this penetration, for two reasons. The smaller reason (1) is that when you are finally rotated up into the Straight Talk salon you discover that most of the questions the Twelve Monkeys ask back here are simply too vapid and obvious for McCain to waste time on, and he lets Mike Murphy handle them, and Murphy is so funny and dry and able to make such deliciously cruel sport of the 12M—
MONKEY:If, say, you win here in South Carolina, what do you do then?
MURPHY:Fly to Michigan that night.
MONKEY:And what if, hypothetically, you, say, lose here in South Carolina?
MURPHY:Fly to Michigan that night win or lose.
MONKEY:Can you perhaps talk about why?
MURPHY:’Cause the plane’s already paid for.
MONKEY:I think he means can you explain why specifically Michigan?
MURPHY:’Cause it’s the next primary.
MONKEY:I think what we’re trying to get you to elaborate on if you will Mike is: what will your goal be in Michigan?
MURPHY:To get a whole lot of votes. That’s part of our secret strategy for winning the nomination.
—that it’s often hard even to notice McCain’s there or what his face or feet are doing because it takes almost all your concentration not to start giggling like a maniac at Murphy and the way the 12M all nod somberly at him and take down whatever he says in their identical steno notebooks. The larger and more complex reason (2) is that this also happens to be the week in which John S. McCain’s anticandidate status threatens to dissolve before almost everyone’s eyes and he becomes increasingly opaque and paradoxical and in certain ways indistinguishable as an entity from the Shrub and GOP Establishment against which he’d defined himself and shone so in New Hampshire, which of course is a whole other story.
What’s hazardous about Bullshit 1’s lavatory door is that it opens and closes laterally, sliding with a Star-Trek ish whoosh at the light touch of the DOOR button just inside—i.e., you go in, lightly push DOOR to close, attend to business, lightly push DOOR again to open: simple—except that the DOOR button’s placement puts it only inches away from the left shoulder of any male journalist standing over the commode attending to business, a commode without rails or handles or anything to (as it were) hold on to, and even the slightest leftward lurch or lean makes said shoulder touch said button—which remember this is a moving bus—causing the door to whoosh open while you’re right there with business underway, and with the consequences of suddenly whirling to try to stab at the button to reclose the door while you’re in medias res being too obviously horrid to detail, with the result that by 9 February the great unspoken rule among the regulars on Bullshit 1 is that when a male gets up and goes two-thirds of the way back into the lavatory anybody who’s back there clears the area and makes sure they’re not in the door’s line of sight; and the way you can tell that a journalist is a local or newly rotated onto the Trail and this is their first time on BS1 is the small strangled scream you always hear when they’re in the lavatory and the door unexpectedly whooshes open, and usually the grizzled old Charleston Post and Courier pencil will give a small smile and call out “Welcome to national politics!” as the new guy stabs frantically at the button, and Jay at the helm will hit the horn with the heel of his hand in mirth, taking these long and mostly mindless DTs’ fun where he finds it.
Coming back up the Bullshit 1’s starboard side, no laptops are in play and no windowshades pulled, and the cleanest set of windows is just past the fridge, and outside surely the sun is someplace up there but the February vista still seems lightless. The central-SC countryside looks blasted, lynched, the skies the color of low-grade steel, the land all dead sod and broomsedge, with scrub oak and pine leaning at angles, and you can almost hear the mosquitoes breathing in their baggy eggs awaiting spring. Winter down here is damp, both chilly and muggy, and Jay alternates the heater with the AC as various different people bitch about being hot or cold. Scraggly cabbage palms start mixing with the pine as you get farther south, and the mix of conifer and palm is dissonant in a bad-dream sort of way. A certain percentage of the passing trees are dead and hung with kudzu and a particular kind of Spanish moss that resembles a kind of drier-lint from hell, but in a very nice way. Eighteen-wheelers and weird tall pickups are the buses’ only company, and the pickups are rusted and all have gunracks and frightening bumper stickers; some of them toot their horns in support. BSl’s windows are high enough that you can see right into the big rigs’ cabs. The highway itself is colorless and the sides of it look chewed on, and there’s litter, and the median strip is dead grass with a whole lot of different tiretracks and skidmarks striping the sod for dozens of miles, as if from the mother of all multivehicle pileups sometime in I-26’s past. Everything looks dead and not happy about it. Birds fly in circles with noplace to go. There are also some weird smooth-barked luminous trees that might be pecan; no one seems to know. The techs keep their shades pulled even though they have no laptops. You can tell it’s spooky down here in the summer, all moss and steam and dogs with visible ribs and everybody sweating through their hat. None of the media ever look out the window. Everyone’s used to being in motion all the time. Location is mentioned only on phones: the journalists and producers are always on their cellphones trying to reach somebody else’s cellphone and saying “South Carolina—where are you.” The other constant in most cell-calls on a moving bus is “I’m losing you, can you hear me, should I call back.” A distinctive thing about the field producers is that they all pull their cellphones’ antennae all the way out with their teeth; journalists use their fingers, or else they have headset phones, which they talk on while they type.
Right now in fact most of the starboard side is people on cellphones. There are black cellphones and matte gray cellphones; one MSNBC lady has a pink cellphone her fiancé got her from Hammacher Schlemmer. Some of the phones are so miniaturized that the mouthpiece barely clears the caller’s earlobe and you wonder how they make themselves heard. There are headset cellphones of various makes and color-schemes, some without antennae, plus the aforementioned earplug-and-hanging-podular-speaker cellphones. There are also pagers, beepers, vibrating beepers, voice-message pagers whose chips make all the voices sound distressed, and Palm Pilots that display CNN Headlines and full-text messages from people’s different 1-800 answering services, which all 27 media on BSl have (1-800 answering services) and often kill time comparing the virtues of and relating funny anecdotes about. A lot of the cellphones have specially customized rings, which in a confined area with this many cellphones in play probably makes sense. There’s one “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,” a “Hail Hail the Gang’s All Here,” one that plays the opening to Beethoven’s Symphony #5 op. 67 in a weird 3/4 up-tempo, etc. The only fly in the ointment here is that a U.S. News and W.R. photographer, a Copley News Service pencil, and a leggy CNN producer who always wears red hose and a scrunchie all have the same “William Tell Overture” ring, so there’s still some confusion and three-way scrambling for phones when a “William Tell Overture” goes off in transit. The network techs’ phones all have regular rings.
Jay, the official Bullshit 1 driver and one of only two regulars aboard without a cellphone (he uses Travis’s big gray Nokia when he needs to call one of the other bus drivers, which happens a lot because as Jay will be the first to admit he’s a little weak in some of your navigation-type areas), carries a small attaché case full of CDs and listens to them on a Sony Discman with big padded studio-quality headphones (which actually might be illegal) but refuses to speak on-record to Rolling Stone about what music he listens to. John S. McCain himself is said to favor 60s classics and to at least be able to abide Fat Boy Slim, which seems populist indeed. The only other person who listens to headphones is a 12M who’s trying to learn conversational Cantonese and whenever he’s off the Express sits way back on BS1’s starboard side with his Cantonese-lesson tapes and repeats bursts of inscrutable screeching over and over at a volume his headphones prevent him from regulating very well, and this guy often has a whole large area to himself. Travis, now again awake and in cellular contact with Todd up ahead on the Express, is in his customary precarious position at the very edge of a seat occupied by a wild-haired and slightly mad older Brit from The Economist who likes to talk at great length about how absolutely enraptured the British reading public is with John McCain and the whole populist-Tory McCain phenomenon, and tends to bore the hell out of everyone, but is popular anyway because he’s an extraordinarily talented cabbager of hot food at mealtime events, and shares. The Miami Herald pencil in the seat next to them is reorganizing his Palm Pilot’s address-book function by hitting tiny keys with what looks like an extremely small black swizzle stick. There’s also an involved anecdote underway by a marvelously caustic and funny Lebanese lady from Australia (don’t ask) who writes for the Boston Globe , and is drinking a vanilla Edensoy and telling Alison Mitchell and the ABC field producer w/ earplug-phone across the aisle about apparently checking in and going up to her assigned room at the North Augusta Radisson last night and finding it already occupied by a nude male—“Naked as a jaybob. In his altogether. Starkers”—with only a washcloth over his privates—“and not a large one either, I can tell you,” referring (Alison M. later said she presumed) to the washcloth.
The only BS1 regulars not covered so far are at the starboard worktable that’s just past the edge of the crowded couch and just behind the gang of techs at the front. They are CNN correspondent Jonathan Karl and CNN field producer Jim McM. (both of whom look about 11) and their sound tech, and they’re doing something interesting enough to warrant standing complexly balanced to watch and ignoring the slightly mad Economist guy’s irritated throat-clearings at having somebody’s unlaundered bottom swaying in the aisle right next to his head. The CNN sound tech (Mark A., 29, from Atlanta, and after Jay the tallest person on the Trail, vertiginous to talk to, able to get a stick’s boom mike directly over McCain’s head from the back of even the thickest scrum) has brought out from a complexly padded case a Sony SX-Series Portable Digital Editor ($32,000 retail) and connected it to headphones and to Jonathan Karl’s Dell Latitudes laptop and cellphone, and the three of them are running the CNN videotape of this morning’s South Carolina Criminal Justice Academy address, trying to find a certain place where Jonathan Karl’s notes indicate McCain said something like “Regardless of how Governor Bush and his surrogates have distorted my position on the death penalty. . . .” A digital timer below the SX’s 13-inch screen counts seconds and parts of seconds down to four decimal places and is mesmerizing to watch as they Fast Forward and Mark A. listens to what must be unimaginable FF chipmunkspeak on his headphones, waiting to tell J. Karl to stop the tape when he comes to what Jim McManus says are the speech’s “fighting words,” which CNN HQ wants fed to them immediately so they can juxtapose it with something vicious the Shrub apparently said about McCain this morning in Michigan and do a breaking story on what-all Negative stuff is being said in the campaign today.
There’s a nice opportunity for cynicism here re the media’s idea of “fighting words” as the CNN crew FFs through the speech, Jim McM. (who looks exactly like what Michael J. Fox would look like if Michael J. Fox had a weird blunt East-Bloc haircut) eating his fifth Krispy Kreme of the day and awaiting Mark’s signal, Jonathan Karl polishing his glasses on his tie, Mark A. leaning forward with his eyes closed in aural concentration; and right behind Mark’s massive shoulder, at the rear edge of the front starboard couch, is NBC camera tech Jim C., who has a bad case of the Campaign Flu, pouring more blood-red tincture of elderberry into a bottle of spring water, his expression carefully stoic because the elderberry remedy’s been provided by his wife, who happens to be the NBC crew’s field producer and is right across the aisle on the port couch watching him closely to see that he drinks it, and it’ll be fun to hear Jim C. make fun of the elderberry later when she’s not around. Cynicism: the fact that John McCain in this morning’s speech several times invoked a “moral poverty” in America, a “loss of shame” that he blamed on “the ceaseless assault of violence-driven entertainment that has lost its moral compass to greed” (McCain’s metaphors tend to mix a bit when he gets excited), and made noises that sounded rather like proposing possible federal regulation of all U.S. entertainment, which would have interesting First Amendment consequences to say the least—this holds no immediate interest for CNN. Nor are they hunting for the hair-raising place in the speech where McCain declared that our next president should be considered “Commander in Chief of the War on Drugs” and granted the authority to send both money and (it sounded like) troops , if necessary, into “nations that seem to need assistance controlling their exports of poisons that threaten our children.” When you consider that state control of the media is one of the big evils we point to to distinguish liberal democracies from repressive regimes, and that sending troops to “assist” in the internal affairs of sovereign nations has gotten the U.S. into some of its worst pickles of the last half-century, these parts of McCain’s speech seem like “fighting words” that a mature democratic electorate might care to hear the news talk about. But we don’t care, apparently, and so the networks don’t either. In fact, it’s possible to argue that a big reason why so many young Independents and Democrats are excited about McCain is that the campaign media focuses so much attention on McCain’s piss-and-vinegar candor and so little attention on the sometimes extremely scary Right-Wing stuff that this candor drives him to say . . . but no matter, because what’s really riveting here at BS1’s starboard table right now is what happens to McCain’s face on the Sony SX’s screen as they FF through the speech’s dull specifics. McCain has white hair (premature, from Hoa Lo) and dark eyebrows, and a pink scalp under something that isn’t quite a combover, and kind of chubby cheeks, and in a regular analog Fast Forward you’d expect his face to look silly, the way everybody on film looks spastic and silly when they’re FF’d. But CNN’s tape and editing equipment are digital, so what happens on FF is that the shoulders-up view of McCain against eight of the big flag’s stripes doesn’t speed up and get silly but rather just kind of explodes into digital boxes and cubes, and these cubes jumble wildly around and bulge and recede and collapse and whirl and rearrange themselves at a furious FF pace, and the resultant image is like something out of the worst acid trip of all time, a sort of physiognomic Rubik’s Cube’s constituent squares and boxes flying around and changing shape and sometimes seeming right on the edge of becoming a human face but never quite resolving into a face, on the high-speed screen.
WHO EVEN CARES WHO CARES
It’s hard to get good answers to why most Young Voters are so uninterested in politics. This is probably because it’s next to impossible to get someone to think hard about why he’s not interested in something. The boredom itself preempts inquiry; the fact of the feeling’s enough. Surely one reason, though, is that politics is not cool. Or say rather that cool, interesting, alive people do not seem to be the ones who are drawn to the Political Process. Think back to the sort of kids in high school or college who were into running for student office: dweeby, overgroomed, obsequious to authority, ambitious in a sad way. Eager to play the Game. The kind of kids other kids would want to beat up if it didn’t seem so pointless and dull. And now consider some of 2000’s adult versions of these very same kids: Al Gore, best described by CNN sound tech Mark A. as “amazingly lifelike”; Steve Forbes with his wet forehead and loony giggle; G. Bush2’s patrician smirk and mangled cant; even Clinton himself with his big red fake-friendly face and “I feel your pain.” Men who aren’t enough like human beings even to dislike—what one feels when they loom into view is just an overwhelming lack of interest, the sort of deep disengagement that is so often a defense against pain. Against sadness. In fact, the likeliest reason why so many of us care so little about politics is that modern politicians make us sad, hurt us deep down in ways that are hard even to name, much less talk about. It’s way easier to roll your eyes and not give a shit. You probably don’t want to hear about all this, even.
One reason a lot of the media on the Trail like John McCain is simply that he’s a cool guy. Nondweeby. In school, Clinton was in Student Government and Band, whereas McCain was a multisport jock and hellraiser whose talents for partying and getting laid are still spoken of with awe by former classmates, a guy who graduated near the bottom of his class at Annapolis and got in trouble for flying jets too low and cutting power lines and crashing all the time and generally being cool. At 63, he’s funny, and smart, and he’ll make fun of himself and his wife and staff and other pols and the Trail, and he’ll tease the press and give them shit in a way they don’t ever mind because it’s the sort of shit that makes you feel like here’s this very cool, important guy who’s noticing you and liking you enough to give you shit. Sometimes he’ll wink at you for no reason. If all this doesn’t sound like that big a deal, you have to remember that most of these pro reporters have to spend a lot of time around politicians, and most politicians are painful to be around. As one national pencil told Rolling Stone and another nonpro, “If you saw more of how the other candidates conduct themselves, you’d be way more impressed with [McCain]. It’s that he acts somewhat in the ballpark of the way a real human being would act.” And the grateful press on the Trail transmit—maybe even exaggerate—McCain’s humanity to their huge audience, the electorate, which electorate in turn seems so paroxysmically thankful for a presidential candidate somewhat in the ballpark of a real human being that it has to make you stop and think about how starved voters are for just some minimal level of genuineness in the men who want to “lead” and “inspire” them.
There are, of course, still some groups of Young Voters way, way into modern politics. There’s Rowdy Ralph Reed’s far-Right Christians for one, and then way out at the other end of the spectrum there’s ACT UP and the sensitive men and angry womyn of the PC Left. What’s interesting is that what gives these small fringe blocs so much power is the basic failure of mainstream Young Voters to get off their ass and vote. It’s like we all learned in Social Studies back in jr. high: if I vote and you don’t, my vote counts double. And it’s not just the fringes that benefit—the fact is that it’s to some very powerful Establishments’ advantage that most younger people hate politics and don’t vote. This, too, deserves to be thought about, if you can stand it.
There’s another thing John McCain always says. He makes sure he concludes every speech and THM with it, so the buses’ press hear it about a hundred times this week. He always pauses a second for effect and then says: “I’m going to tell you something. I may have said some things here today that maybe you don’t agree with, and I might have said some things you hopefully do agree with. But I will always. Tell you. The truth.” This is McCain’s closer, his last big reverb on the six-string as it were. And the frenzied standing-O it always gets from his audience is something to see. But you have to wonder: why do these crowds from Detroit to Charleston cheer so wildly at a simple promise not to lie?
Well it’s obvious why. When McCain says it, the people are cheering not for him so much as for how good it feels to believe him. They’re cheering the loosening of a weird sort of knot in the electoral tummy. McCain’s resumé and candor, in other words, promise not empathy with voters’ pain, but relief from it. Because we’ve been lied to and lied to, and it hurts to be lied to. It’s ultimately just about that complicated: it hurts. We learn this at like age four—it’s grownups’ first explanation to us of why it’s bad to lie (“How would you like it if . . . ?”). And we keep learning for years, from hard experience, that getting lied to sucks: it diminishes you, denies you respect for yourself, for the liar, for the world. Especially if the lies are chronic, systemic, if experience seems to teach that everything you’re supposed to believe in’s really just a game based on lies. Young Voters have been taught well and thoroughly. You may not personally remember Vietnam or Watergate, but it’s a good bet you remember “No new taxes” and “Out of the loop” and “No direct knowledge of any impropriety at this time” and “Did not inhale” and “Did not have sex with that Ms. Lewinsky” and etc. etc. It’s painful to have to believe that the would-be “public servants” you’re forced to choose between are all phonies whose only real concern is their own care and feeding and who will lie so outrageously and with such a straight face that you know they have to believe you’re an idiot. So who wouldn’t yawn and turn away, trade apathy and cynicism for the hurt of getting treated with contempt? And who wouldn’t fall all over themselves for a top politician who actually seemed to talk to you like you were a person, an intelligent adult worthy of respect? A politician who all of a sudden out of nowhere comes on TV as this total longshot candidate and says that Washington is paralyzed, that everybody there’s been bought off, and that the only way to really “return government to the people” the way all the other candidates claim they want to do is to outlaw huge, unreported political contributions from corporations and lobbies and PACs . . . all of which are obvious truths that everybody knows but no recent politician anywhere’s had the stones to say. Who wouldn’t cheer, hearing stuff like this, especially from a guy we know chose to sit in a dark box for four years instead of violate a Code? Even in A.D. 2000, who among us is so cynical that he doesn’t have some good old corny American hope way down deep in his heart, lying dormant like a spinster’s ardor, not dead but just waiting for the Right Guy to give it to? That John S. McCain III opposed making Martin Luther King’s birthday a holiday in AZ, or that he thinks clear-cut logging is good for America, or that he feels our present gun laws are not clinically insane—this stuff counts for nothing with these Town Hall crowds, all on their feet, cheering their own ability to finally really fucking cheer .
And are these crowds all stupid, or naïve, or all over 40? Look again. And if you still think Young Voters as a generation have lost the ability (or transcended the need) to believe in a politician, take a good look at Time magazine’s shots of the South Carolina Rave, or at the wire photos of Young NH Voters on the night McCain won there.
Then look at the photos of McCain’s own face that night. He’s the only one not smiling. Why? Can you guess? Yes: it’s because now he might possibly win. At the start, on PBS and C-SPAN, in his shitty little campaign van with just his wife and a couple aides, he was running about 3% in the polls. And it’s easy (or at least comparatively easy) to tell the truth when there’s nothing to lose. New Hampshire changed everything. The 7 Feb. issues of all three big newsmagazines have good shots of McCain’s face right at the moment the NH results are being announced. It’s worth looking hard at his eyes in these photos. Now there’s something to lose, or to win. Now it gets complicated, the campaign and the chances and the strategy; and complication is dangerous, because the truth is rarely complicated. Complication usually has more to do with mixed motives, gray areas, compromise. On the news, the first ominous rumble of the new complication was McCain bobbing and weaving around questions about South Carolina’s Confederate flag. That was a couple days ago. Now everybody’s watching. Don’t think the Trail’s press have nothing at stake in this. There are two big questions about McCain now, today, as everyone starts the two-week slog through SC. The easy question, the one all the pencils and heads spend their time on, is whether he’ll win. The other—the one posed by those photos’ eyes—is hard to even put into words.