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The Election

The Break-Up

Elections once conferred a larger knowledge that made us feel more connected to what’s important. But this cycle’s meaningless content overload has delivered little more a desire to unplug.

Credit: Don Relyea

I did not watch any of this year’s debates. These are the first presidential or vice-presidential debates I have missed since 1984, when I was still too young to vote, but was nonetheless devastated when Gary Hart self-immolated in the primaries and we were left with Walter Mondale to face down Reagan, whom I was convinced wanted to end the world with a Strangelovian hail of ICBMs.

I did not watch the debates because I have no interest in exposing myself to programming that is simultaneously stultifying and nerve-wracking. In short, I knew I couldn’t take it.

For the final debate, I had the distraction of my Chicago Bears facing off against the Detroit Lions. While Jay Cutler makes me nervous, in Lance Briggs and Brian Urlacher we can trust.

For the first debate I instead watched a Judging Amy rerun while reading Andrew Sullivan’s liveblog.

As Sullivan’s hysteria over President Obama’s inert performance hit DEFCON 5, tears welled in my eyes, and it wasn’t because Judge Amy Gray had to make a particularly difficult custody decision. Sullivan and I were having simultaneous mental breakdowns, his watching the president, me reading about him watching the president.

I unplugged my wireless router.

 

There is a family story about a trip to Washington, DC, in 1973, when I was somewhere around three years old, and upon deplaning, I turned to the flight attendant1 and asked where the Watergate was.

Hilarity apparently ensued. Politically astute and funny, even as a toddler.

I have no memory of that, but I do remember watching the election returns on television in ’76, Ford v. Carter, looking at the electoral map with as much intensity as I gave to studying the Cubs’ box scores. I was rooting for Ford because he was a Michigan man, like my father, and I’d seen a picture of his old Wolverine football helmet in the Oval Office. The election was very close, the popular and electoral votes flipping upward on old-school tote boards behind the anchors. I have a memory of Barbara Walters and her helmet hair on scene, but I could be wrong. I’m pretty sure I got to stay up well past my bedtime.

I’ll never forget the slack look of shock bleeding through her facelift when her Ronnie finished third. I’m sure she wondered if we were some kind of bellwether for our parents’ voting sympathies.

In 1980, I was the campaign manager for John Anderson in my grade school’s mock election. A moderate Republican running as an Independent who would qualify as a socialist by today’s standards, Anderson was a supporter of gun-control legislation and had proposed a 50-cent-a-gallon gas tax. For periods of the campaign, he polled in the mid-to-high teens, but collapsed back to 6.5 percent of the popular vote by Election Day.

Under my management, however, his Greenbriar School campaign thrived. The gun control message was a hit among the too-young-to-buy-firearms-anyway crowd. Our village president, who also happened to be a Reagan delegate to the national convention, was called in to announce the results for the fifth grade. I’ll never forget the slack look of shock bleeding through her facelift when her Ronnie finished third. I’m sure she wondered if we were some kind of bellwether for our parents’ voting sympathies. If fist-pumping was something we did back then, picture me doing it.

I don’t remember ever thinking that I “loved” politics, but I knew them as something interesting and valuable, something worth my time and attention that in turn provided rewards. Politics made me smarter, more engaged with the world. As a kid, it made me seem—and maybe even be—more adult. When Reagan was wounded by John Hinckley, I remember joking with my friends how disastrous it would be if George Bush became president, because even in sixth grade, I knew, at the time, he was viewed as a lightweight.

I reflected on this as I filled out my absentee ballot for then-Vice President Bush in the first election in which I could vote.2

Elections were battles for sure, but they also felt like times when the country came together and made a decision, and we could all shake hands at midfield afterward and agree to do it again in four years.

Maybe this was just youthful naïveté, but politics seemed like a good thing, a pillar on which other things could rest.

 

In the words of Chico Escuela, professionally speaking, making fun of politicians has been “berry berry good to me.”

Early 2000, I was a guy with a low- to mid-level job at a marketing research firm with a couple of small publishing credits under his belt. Every day I put on my business casual uniform and went to work and wrote reports about ways a fast food franchise that rhymes with “Schmarby’s” could sell more turkey sandwiches.3

This was during the Web 1.0 explosion, where venture capitalist manna sprinkled down to “content providers,” one of which was called Modern Humorist.

Working with my friend Kevin Guilfoile, some of the content I provided was a series of “diaries” by George W. Bush from the Republican National Convention. Written and illustrated as though George W. was a not-terribly-bright second-grader, these ultimately turned into our book under the Modern Humorist imprint, My First Presidentiary, which was excerpted in Gear4 magazine, and became an actual bestseller5.

I also became known for a series of parodies of a popular children’s book involving a boy detective, where I would throw him and his sidekick into unlikely political scenarios, like finding Saddam Hussein’s missing weapons of mass destruction. I would talk more about this, but it risks a lawsuit.6

The actions of the Bush administration frequently angered me, and I channeled this anger into the humor, including a series of epistolary opinionating with Kevin on this site leading up to the 2004 election, trying my best to write things that were both funny and true, and in doing so, it gave that anger some measure of release. My anger and response felt proportional, in balance. I didn’t imagine that what I had to say was consequential in any grand scheme of things, but it mattered to me, and maybe to the handful of people who read it as well.

Unlike a lot of other stuff I was trying to write, it also paid. To the extent that I could offer tangible proof of being a writer, I had politics to thank.

Plus, I enjoyed it. It gave me an excuse to marinate in one of my obsessions, to click on Andrew Sullivan 30 times a day. To check out Drudge and even Free Republic to get clued into the latest right-wing fever dream that, at the time, I could still manage to ruefully chuckle over.

 

Something changed, though, and I’m thinking it might’ve been the Swift Boaters.

Karl Rove’s signature ability as a political consultant has been to turn up into down, to create a bizarro universe and sell it as the real one, and his signature masterpiece was turning John Kerry, a thrice-wounded war hero, into the coward, and George W. Bush, middling Texas Air National Guard pilot, into the hero.

Sure, there were dirty tricks before that, but there were rules, right? Lines that generally would not be crossed? We had Watergate, but a president was forced to resign over it. We had Lee Atwater dropping Willie Horton on Dukakis, but there was general agreement that this was kind of scummy and mostly just for the racists, not a broad attempt to disqualify an opponent.

The Greenbrier School campaign manager in me believed in the country’s ability to right itself, to cast off its George Wallaces and Joseph McCarthys and Richard Nixons. We go off course, but then there is a correction. That wasn’t happening this time around.

Instead, Rove’s savvy was admired, his strategy in targeting an opponent’s perceived strength7 was praised as astute. Rather than condemning the attack as fundamentally false, and marginalizing it to the fringes (as has happened, albeit slowly) with the “birthers” the Swift Boat smears became an argument for President Bush’s re-election because it showed that he, and his team, knew how to win elections8.

I didn’t do this in an effort to be funny or to entertain, or even to convince someone to come over to my side of the debate, but to discredit, humiliate, and destroy.

While I soldiered through the 2004 election season, I think these events took root as a kind of delayed-release poison that seeped into my consciousness. The world’s outcomes had become untethered from reality as we entered a post-truth political world9.

The anger I felt initially, evolved into sadness and anxiety.

That anger and sadness and anxiety turned into a kind of self-righteousness mixed with fear that showed up in 2008 in unhealthy ways, at evidenced by my epistolary dispatches with Kevin that time around.

In these articles, I compared Hillary Clinton to both a schoolyard bully who refuses to show up for a scheduled fight, and a child being dragged through Toys “R” Us begging to be bought something. I indicated that if Hillary Clinton defeated Obama in the primaries (likely though some nefarious Clinton scheme I was sure), I would strongly consider voting for John McCain. I didn’t do this in an effort to be funny or to entertain, or even to convince someone to come over to my side of the debate, but to discredit, humiliate, and destroy.

I figured I was somehow above or outside the freak show, that my ability to wax semi-humorously about the state of the race indicated that I had not been co-opted, had not been infected by the disease, but the way I spoke about Hillary Clinton’s candidacy says otherwise. I was as willing to get into the muck as anyone, to invoke apocalypse and disaster if my preferred candidate didn’t win.

On the positive side, I correctly labeled Mitt Romney a “plastic douche,” and lamented the devolution of the electoral process into a ridiculous freak show. I called the political process “diseased” and I was right about that.

Recently, my editors here at The Morning News approached Kevin and I, asked us if we might want to reprise our dialogs this time around, but the thought of doing so filled me with fear and loathing. Where writing and thinking about politics once brought out my best, it now conjures my worst.

 

What I’ve learned is that the internet needs content like Donald Trump needs scalp glue.

With this bottomless need for content, the most insignificant bits of news become posts and articles and memes and -gates and take off like fireworks, bursting and delivering our momentary oohs and ahhs before we turn our attention to the next launch.

For me, the sadness is no longer just about what I see, but how much of it I expose myself to, its volume and intensity. We are drowning in content.

I am, anyway. There are my Facebook and Twitter feeds, reliable sources of liberal outrage10. There is Andrew Sullivan and Slate and Salon and Nate Silver’s 538 Blog, and Daily Kos, and Talking Points Memo, and all the places my core content deliverers link to.

Every day brings a dozen polls, national and battleground, each one a tealeaf to be read down to the finest grains.

I have come to dread each day’s arrival of the recently Obama-unfriendly Gallup tracking poll. The latest news on the gap manages to penetrate even my most diligent attempts to avoid it. Upon seeing Romney up seven, I dig for analysis to tell me why it has to be wrong, and finding it, feel slightly better until I realize what I’m spending my time on.

Very little of this content is actually enlightening because it is almost all fueled by outrage. Even the entertaining bits, like the Romney binder meme leaking into the customer reviews at Amazon is about scoring cheap points and fueling liberal self-congratulation. The current battleground is, literally, about whether or not it’s important that Marines still use bayonets.

When Romney biffed his Libya moment in the second debate, reading through it the next morning, I could see that my Twitter feed lit up with joy.

It’s a winner for President Obama because it diminishes and ridicules Romney, so we should keep it going, right?

Except that in this election we have perhaps the clearest distinction between what candidates propose for the country since 1980, an election that will remake government in ways that will extend to the end of my lifetime,{fn-12} and yet we spend most of our energy on trivia.

It’s my fault. I join in the noisemaking. I post and retweet. I feed the maw. I could very well be doing it now.

I recognize that all of this may also very well be necessary to win this election where we all agree the stakes are so high. My preferred candidate may have to diminish himself campaign stop by campaign stop telling the same lame joke about “Romnesia.”

I’m going to call it what it is: a kind of soul sickness.

 

In reading the accounts of those who watched the first debate, I wonder if President Obama wasn’t experiencing some similar emotions as me, only magnified a gazillion times since instead of watching the polls and wondering why half of America can’t see through Romney’s transparency, he has to preside over the most important office in the free world.

Maybe his disengagement was necessary in order to keep him from ripping off his suit coat, looking into the camera and saying something like, “fuck this fucking bullshit, I’ve got work to do.”

In the end, President Obama’s first debate performance is perhaps an indicator of a sane person operating in an insane world.

I admire his ability to rally and, at least according to most of the commentary, win the final two debates on both substance and style.

He has both an integrity and a fortitude that I lack. I would like to say that I am conscientiously objecting, except that given the stakes I don’t think checking out is conscientious so much as necessary to protect my mental equilibrium.

I am glad that Barack Obama is the president and I desperately hope he wins, but I just can’t take it anymore.

I will be voting. I like voting. I like the supremely old people that man the rolls, flipping through the printouts in search of my name. They always use a ruler to help guide them because this is what we were taught to do when information came on paper, rather than screens.

I like that we do it as a community, even though as a liberal in a district that will go 70-30 for Romney, I am a definite outsider.

But on Tuesday, Nov. 6, once the results start to come in, I’ll be at the movies, probably a double feature.

Footnotes

  1. Stewardesses then.
  2. This was my first and last vote for a Republican for the highest office, though I did pull the lever for Republican Peter Fitzgerald over Carol Moseley Braun in the 1998 Illinois senate race because Moseley Braun was a dishonorable person and had been a terrible senator. Fitzgerald ran afoul of his own state delegation by opposing funding of a bloated no-bid pork project that was a favorite of former Illinois Governor George Ryan (currently imprisoned on federal corruption charges) and Dennis Hastert, former Speaker of the House. Generally disgusted with politics in general, and his own party in specific, Fitzgerald left after one term. His open seat was claimed by Barack Obama.
  3. This is actually impossible.
  4. Remember Gear? Me neither. I had to pull a moldy issue out of my “archives” to remind myself of the name.
  5. Number one on the Washington Post paperback list for one week. Even though the book was returned to the publisher en masse following the 9/11 attacks, it has probably sold more copies than my other three books combined.
  6. The parodies were popular enough that I was commissioned to collect them into a book. The publisher of the original series moved to stop this, successfully, because they are a multinational conglomerate and I am not interested in standing on the street corner wearing a barrel held up by suspenders begging for my next meal.
  7. Lest we forget Kerry’s military credentials were viewed as important by Democrats, when he first appeared on stage at the Democratic National Convention Kerry saluted the audience.
  8. The meta-narrative on the quality of the campaign is now the obviously dominant story of elections. When Romney’s fortunes were looking dire prior to the first debate, the coverage was mainly about how bad his campaign was, rather than exploring the idea that maybe his policy positions might be unpopular.
  9. The examples for this are numerous and manifest, from the Birthers to the portrayal of President Obama as a socialist radical, but it is perhaps best emblemized in the Romney campaign’s famous assertion that “We’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers.”
  10. Which I often happen to agree with, not that it makes me feel any better.
  11. Not to mention the makeup of the Supreme Court.
biopic

TMN contributing writer John Warner’s first novel, The Funny Man was recently published by Soho Press. He teaches at the College of Charleston and is co-color commentator for The Morning News Tournament of Books. More by John Warner