The Boys On The Bus
The phone rang at 5:30 in the morning and unfortunately I was already awake to answer it. In fact, I’d been more or less conscious for 72 hours, riding out the effects of a Human Growth Hormone/Viagra cocktail. Hey, I’ll try anything twice. I couldn’t find my pants. There appeared to be blood-spatters on the walls, and road-kill of indeterminate origins on the coffee table across the room. Or was that a coonskin cap? I hazily remembered ordering the members of Verbicide’s National Affairs staff to don said lid as part of a new dress code I was instituting. That was just before they quit en masse. It took me a second to figure out what end of the phone to talk into, but then I could hear Jackson informing me that the ban on my press credentials had mysteriously been lifted, and I was once again cleared to cover the presidential campaigns. His last words: “Don’t fuck this up.”
Frankly, I was shocked. Even though I never laid a hand on Chelsea Clinton, the TRO said I wasn’t to be seen within three miles of her mother’s campaign. When word got out, the other candidates followed suit. But now I was back in the game. American presidential politics — my favorite blood sport. If you’re a crack political journalist, there’s nothing quite like being one of the “Boys on the Bus.”
Suffice it to say, I was pissed when the messenger dropped off my credentials and I found out that I was covering the Dennis Kucinich campaign. Kucinich: the closest thing to a Hobbit in the race. In fact, what does the Constitution say about Hobbits running for office? I don’t remember them even being mentioned. And anyway, Dennis and I hadn’t gotten along since I spiked his herbal tea with Jose Cuervo and hit on his wife. It wasn’t one of my better moments. But as my old grandmother used to say, beggars can’t be choosers. This was my ticket back in and I wasn’t about to blow it. The good news was I was to catch up with the campaign outside of Buffalo. The press bus was supposed to take us to some undisclosed location on the shores of Lake Erie where DK was making a big environmental speech. That was only a couple of hours away.
When I got to the scene, I was shocked to see a veritable “who’s who” of the political press. There was Wolf Blitzer, David Shuster, Chris Matthews, Nora O’Donnell, George Stephanopoulos, Cokie Roberts, and Jeff Greenfield. Even Tim Russert was there. It was mind-boggling. There hadn’t been one meaningful article written about Kucinich during the entire campaign. He’d been ignored by the so-called mainstream press and kept out of most of the debates. But here was the crème de la crème of the corporate media milling around like they were at a fraternity mixer.
“Yo, Blitzer! What the hell are you doing here?” I yelled as I got out of the cab. Wolf Blitzer had been chatting up Nora O’Donnell, but when he saw me all the blood drained from his face.
“Jesus Christ, Huddle, I thought you were dead.”
“Sorry, cowboy, the rumors of my demise were much exaggerated. Now, why don’t you tell me why you corporate parasites are here covering this sideshow?”
“Ah, we were all headed out west to cover Obama and Clinton, and our plane broke down in Cleveland. No one could get a flight out of this shithole until tomorrow, and some dumbass decided we had time to fill for tonight’s broadcasts, so here we are. What a waste of time.”
“Why is it a waste of time?” I asked. “Kucinich may not be the most compelling candidate. In fact, I’m not sure he’s even the same species. But he’s got a ton of good ideas.” For a quick second I made eye contact with Russert. He quickly went scurrying off in the other direction, no doubt remembering he owed me money.
Wolf Blitzer started to laugh. “Ideas? What ideas?”
“Oh, I don’t know, Wolf, how about he’s right on the war, right on universal healthcare, right on campaign reform. His campaign is nothing but ideas.”
Blitzer shook his head and smirked.
“Exactly. What the hell do ideas have to do with being president? I swear, Huddle, you sound like some schmuck right out of journalism school. There are only two candidates in the Democratic race: Clinton and Obama. Do you really think either of them has anything original to say? Shit, that’s the kiss of death anyway. Say something original and then people might actually hold you to it. I mean, honestly, have you read The Audacity Of Hope? It’s 300 pages long and there isn’t one idea in the entire book.”
I was seriously considering biting Wolf Blitzer’s ear off, but then one of Kucinich’s shills told everyone that it was time to get on the bus. We filed into the vehicle. I plopped down next to Nora O’Donnell, who suddenly looked as if she’d discovered dog shit on her pumps.
“My God!” she exclaimed. “What is that awful stench?” She was right — there was something wrong here. I began to hear protests from all over the bus.
“It’s alright, people,” Kucinich’s staffer called out. “To show his support for biofuels research, Dennis’s bus runs on cooking oil.” There was a collective groan from the assembled journalists. Stephanopoulos looked like he was going to hurl. David Shuster was screaming into his cell phone, “My $1,000 Armani suit is going to smell like I’m the damn fry cook at McDonalds!” He was right. We would all smell like French fries by the end of this journey. By the time we were on the highway, it was like a donut shop had exploded.
I turned back to Blitzer: “So, Wolf, if ideas don’t matter, how do people get themselves elected to the most powerful office in the world?” Nora O’Donnell chuckled beside me. Blitzer was shaking his head with a look of pity on his face.
“It’s all about the money, my son, all about the money. The only candidates who really matter in this race are the ones who can raise the requisite $150 to $250 million that it will take to stay in the race. It’s a war of attrition.”
In fact, he was right. At the end of 2007, 11 months before the election, the candidates had already spent more money than was spent in all of seven of the last eight presidential elections. Only the 2004 campaign was more expensive, and the candidates are on a pace to smash that record*.
“But doesn’t that mean we’re selling our highest office to the highest bidder?” I asked.
“Of course it does,” piped up O’Donnell.
“Then why don’t you people ever talk about that? Isn’t that the story of this campaign? We’re looking at the first billion dollar campaign in American history and I watch your newscasts every fucking night and you never mention it!” I realized that I was yelling at them and others were now listening. There were titters of laughter rising from all over the bus.
Blitzer started to answer, but Tim Russert cut him off.
“Huddle, you have smoked yourself retarded. Do you honestly believe that any of us would bite the corporate hand that feeds us? This is the real world, son. Oh, sure, we’ll tell you it’s all about history — that it’s about a woman and an African-American competing to be the nominee of their party. But the fact of the matter is the only thing that makes them the least bit relevant is that they can raise the hundreds of millions of dollars they’ll need to stay in the race. Hell, if Shirley Chisholm or Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton could have raised a hundred million clams, we’d be talking about them instead of Obama or Clinton.”
I started to protest, but then the bus pulled into a large parking lot connected to a strip of beachfront along Lake Erie. We filed off the bus and took our places just as Kucinich’s campaign workers finished piling up the old phone books necessary for the candidate to see over the podium.
Kucinich, ears flapping in the wind, was already making his way to the microphone when the first gull struck.
That’s right, the first gull. I didn’t actually see the attack, but it was Cokie Roberts who bore the brunt of it. The offending seagull swooped in and knocked her to the ground. It was just a fluke, right? Just a random act of nature? Hell, no. We all reeked of fried donuts and the seagulls were driven mad by the stench. To them we looked just like the breakfast bar at the local Denny’s. Before George Stephanopoulos could say, “It’s the economy, stupid!” the gulls were swarming.
Chaos ensued. I saw Chris Mathews grab Jeff Greenfield and use him as a human shield. The birds went right for his eyes. Wolf Blitzer was running for the bus but he was too slow. He fell, and suddenly gulls were on him. His screams still haunt my sleep. Nora O’Donnell was surprisingly fast in her six-inch heels. She ran down Russert and pushed him out of the way. A flock of the crazed birds were on him like a fat kid on a chocolate cake. One gull — their king, I think — was parading around the lot with Russert’s tongue in his beak.
I’ve been in war zones all over the world, but I swear this time I thought I was a goner. But then, suddenly, Dennis Kucinich leapt into the fray. His arms outstretched, he seemed to be mumbling an incantation. He was speaking in a language that I didn’t recognize. (Only later did I hear from one of his staffers that it was Elvish.) The seagulls seemed to understand. One by one they took flight, circling the beach for a few seconds and then flying off — no doubt looking for other members of the Fourth Estate to punish.
I’d like to say that there were lessons to be learned from these horrific events. Of course, those of you who follow politics will say you never heard anything about this sorry episode. And you’d be right, and that is exactly the point: there are many stories — important stories — pertaining to this campaign cycle that you’re never going to hear about. Some of those stories deal with carnage and human degradation, but most of the tales you’ll never hear about deal with ideas. Ideas, unfortunately, in a political system dominated by money, just don’t seem to matter.
Mark Huddle is the Editor of the National Affairs Desk of Verbicide. He teaches and writes from western New York. Check out his blog, “Trotsky’s Cranium,” at trotskyscranium.blogspot.com, or on Myspace at myspace.com/trotskyscranium. He can be contacted at email@example.com.