Matt Taibbi

My favorite political writer is Matt Taibbi, who writes for Rolling Stone and is often compared to Hunter S. Thompson and PJ O’Rourke. He’s a cynical “gonzo” journalist of a sort who covers the story behind the campaign story better than anyone. It ain’t pretty.

I usually find his columns on Alternet or Huffington Post or somewhere else in cyberspace.

I’ll do my part by passing on a segment of his latest (it’s from here and it’s worth reading in its entirety):

Every reporter who spends any real time on the campaign trail gets wrapped up in the horse race. It’s inevitable. You tell me how you can spend nearly two years watching the dullest speeches known to man and not spend most of your time wondering about the one surefire interesting moment the whole thing has to offer: the ending.

Stripped of its prognosticating element, most campaign journalism is essentially a clerical job, and not a particularly noble one at that. On the trail, we reporters aren’t watching politics in action: The real stuff happens behind closed doors, where armies of faceless fund-raising pros are glad-handing equally faceless members of the political donor class, collecting hundreds of millions of dollars that will be paid off in very specific favors over the course of the next four years. That’s the real high-stakes poker game in this business, and we don’t get to sit at that table.

Instead, we get to be herded day after day into one completely controlled environment after another, where we listen to an array of ideologically similar politicians deliver professionally crafted advertising messages that we, in turn, have the privilege of delivering to the public free of charge. We rarely get to ask the candidates real questions, and even when we do, they almost never answer.

If you could train a chimpanzee to sit still through a Joe Biden speech, it could probably do the job. The only thing that elevates this work above monkey level is that we get to guess who wins.

For most of us, this is a guilty pleasure. But some of us get so used to being asked who should be running the world that our brains start to ferment. I’ve seen it happen. The first few times a newbie comes on the campaign trail, he’s watching all the flag-waving and the soldier-humping and he’s writing it all down with this stunned expression, as if to say, “Jesus, I went to college for this?” Two months later, he’s doing six hits a day on MSNBC as a Senior Political Analyst and he’s got this weirdly pissed-off look on his face, like he’s mad that the world woke up and forgot to kiss his ass that morning. This same meek rookie you saw bent over a steno book just months ago is suddenly talking about how Hillary Clinton needs to do this, Barack Obama needs to do that — and he’s serious! He’s not kidding! Next thing you know, he’s got an eight-figure book deal and a ten-foot pole up his crack, and he’s wearing a tie and loafers to bed. In other words, he’s Jonathan Alter.

I call it the Revenge of the Nerds effect. Give an army of proud professionals nothing but a silly horse race to cover, and inevitably they’ll elevate even the most meaningless details of that horse race to cosmic importance.

This is how you end up getting candidates bludgeoned to death on the altar of such trivialities as “rookie mistakes” and “lack of warmth”; it’s how you end up getting elections decided because candidates like John Kerry are unable to overcome adjectives like “looks French” and “long-faced Easter Island statue.”

That’s what happened in Iowa. For once, voters tried to say that they were perfectly capable of choosing a president without us, that they could do without any of this nonsense. But they were wrong. Nonsense would have its day!

Into the wild

I couldn’t stop reading last night until way past my bedtime. It rarely happens that I can’t put a book down. The book was Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer. You might remember the 20-something kid who died of starvation in an abandoned school bus in the Alaskan wilderness. Krakauer researched his story and went to the scene and talked to his family and a bunch of people the guy (Chris McCanless, who went by the name Alexander Supertramp) met in two-plus years of drifting before heading off to live off the land.

McCandless was universally scoffed at as an unprepared idealist, but Krakauer ends up defending him, largely because Krakauer himself did some really stupid things as a youth and lived to tell the tale — more through luck than skill or preparation. I identified with McCandless, too, partly because we read the same books and visited a lot of the same places and had the same major. I also did plenty of stupid things and even lived in the woods for three months, trying to eat wild plants like Chris did, and hitch-hiked around the West. I wasn’t quite as crazy (or fearless) as he was but always stayed within a couple days’ walk of civilization.

Krakauer concludes that Chris didn’t starve to death out of lack of preparation or stupidity or underestimating the wilds of Alaska. He speculates from some of Chris’s notes that what killed him were poisons from a plant that was not listed in his field guide as being poisonous. Somehow the alkaline in the plant made him too sick to eat, and what food he did eat was not metabolized right because of the chemicals in his body.

Anyway, it’s a great book that has been made into a movie directed by Sean Penn. It’s gotten rave reviews, and I can’t wait to see it.

Good Sunday

Once in a while I have a productive day. Today I took Cedar to a fundraiser pancake breakfast, took Cedar and Leif to Pamida, stopped to see my mom but she wasn’t home, came home and wrote a story, visited with my brother and sister-in-law, went skating with Leif, went skiing with Diane, wrote a column, and went to a movie with Diane and Leif.

We saw Juno at our favorite theater in Foley, the Brickhouse Cinema, which I’ve written about before. Juno was everything it was cracked up to be. It exceeded my high expectations. The dialogue really was brilliant and fast and funny. Juno is one of the most memorable and unique characters I’ve ever seen in a movie. Every character was well drawn and well acted and likable and good (except one, who turned out to be a jerk but even so was sympathetic). I don’t give five stars very often, but this one was five stars. I want to see it again already.

Senate candidates

Went to see the Democratic candidates for Senate this morning in Onamia. All four were there: Al Franken, Mike Ciresi, Jack Nelson-Palmeyer and Jim Cohen. All four were good speakers, seemed competent and passionate, interesting, etc. I was there as newspaper editor, but most people know I used be a DFL county official, so I saw a lot of old friends.

Jack had the best prepared and best delivered speech. He took very clear stances and stated his priorities — health care, ending the war, environment, education. Good DFL principles, but as a peace studies professor with a hyphenated name, I’m not sure he has what it takes.

Al told personal stories but also talked policy and had a pretty inspirational riff about “American is only a great country when it’s a good country, and we’re not a good country when we torture.” He told a good story about how his wife’s family succeeded as a result of social security, higher education grants, and the GI Bill.

Ciresi also came across as very passionate and sincere. He talked about when his mom died of breast cancer when he was 12, and his father’s insistence on providing health care to his employees. He talked about the tobacco lawsuit, his real claim to fame, and made a good case that it was more than just a claim to fame — The state gets 200 million dollars a year as a result, and would’ve had more than that if Pawlenty hadn’t raided it to pay off the deficit.

Jim Cohen seems experienced and passionate too, but he’s not from here, and there’s not much to distinguish him, even though he has a good track record of public service. Mostly he talked about himself instead of the issues, which got old.

I took some video. Maybe I’ll post some to my youtube site, or to this page.