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Thursday, May 26th, 2005


Spanking the Donkey: Dispatches from the Dumb Season

by Matt Taibbi

Stage Left

A review by Hope Glassberg

In her incisive take on the 1988 presidential race, Political Fictions, Joan Didion accurately captured the staged nature of electoral politics, describing the campaign trail as an elaborately designed series of sets. They are sets, she said, with all the conventions of theater, from its hierarchies (the politicians and their handlers) to its tedium (endless hours of waiting for campaign appearances to be staged).

In Spanking the Donkey, Matt Taibbi, like Didion and a long line of political outsiders who have joined the campaign trail (see Hunter S. Thompson, et al.), dismantles the 2004 presidential race, and the Democratic candidates in particular, set-piece by set-piece. That dismantling is, in many ways, pointed and funny -- Taibbi engages in a variety of humorous antics that effectively lay bare the artifice of modern politics. At one point on the campaign trail, he dresses up like a veteran, stopwatch in hand, to see just how quickly Kerry will approach him at an event and play his well-worn vet card. Toward the end of the book, he stages a contest between Washington correspondents to see who can insert the most meaningless campaign phrases into their articles (Elisabeth Bumiller of The New York Times wins).

It's too bad, then that Taibbi's critique of the campaign process serves chiefly as a cover for his own ideological differences with the candidates. Taibbi, a writer who has a seemingly insatiable penchant for drugs, alcohol, and general disorder, not surprisingly leans far left on the political spectrum. He suggests (only half-jokingly) that Democrats scoop up the Green Party vote by renouncing the WTO and NAFTA, creating a universal-health-care system, and slashing the defense budget. He lambastes the Dems for supporting the Patriot Act, the No Child Left Behind Act, and two wars. Finally, he criticizes the Green Party for selling out by selecting a candidate, David Cobb, who agreed not to campaign in states where the race between Democrats and Republicans were too close. All of these criticisms show that Taibbi's real problem with the Democrats is that they, and even the Green party, just aren't left enough.

Taibbi uses the same sort of misdirection in his handling of the press, which he accuses of validating the political doublespeak of candidates like Kerry while ignoring or ridiculing more straightforward, if unconventional, candidates like Kucinich. But it becomes rapidly clear that what really bothers Taibbi is not that the press doesn't take candidates with a coherent, forthright agenda seriously but that the press doesn't take straightforward candidates with his politics seriously. After all, the press treated Joe Lieberman, a candidate whose hawkish foreign policy was manifest, not to mention unpopular with Democrats, as a viable contender for president. But Taibbi doesn't mention Joltin' Joe's war stance, instead reserving his critique for Lieberman's mother, whom he says resembles Danny Devito and cries on cue at campaign appearances. Taibbi also makes no mention of John Edwards's plain feelings on outsourcing, which were a touchstone of campaign debate. Instead he mocks Edwards's smarmy grin and exaggerated Southern charm.

The ad-hominem attacks are a frequent rhetorical device for Taibbi, who seems more interested in proving his own cleverness than in truly delving into problems with the campaign process and its media coverage. Sometimes he's just absurd, like when he eats a tab of acid and dresses up like a Viking to interview a Kerry staffer. Often he's just mean -- writing that New York Times reporter Jodi Wilgoren "weighs 500 pounds and has the face of Ernest Borgnine."

Who does Taibbi like? He grudgingly supports Kucinich, whose quixotic race never gains traction with the masses, but whose convictions seem genuine, and, more importantly, align with Taibbi's leftist, anti-war leanings. Taibbi also spends a good deal of time talking up weirdo candidate Harry Braun, whose entire campaign rests on the capacities of hydrogen power to solve the world's ills. Since Taibbi's politics are so far to the left of the mainstream--of the party and the country -- that only a very small percentage of Americans are inclined to take them seriously, why should the press? That's a question he never answers.

Taibbi's point that journalists play into the drama of the set and too often fail to question the process, is a good one. Moreover, directness, vision, and uncommon intellect are the qualities we should look for in a leader, but in practice belittle, as Taibbi notes. Journalists and the audience have come to accept politics as theater -- and to reward those who are most adept at its superficial play, while punishing those who veer from the script. But it is easy to make fun of the stagehands, much harder to write a good show.

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