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Matt Taibbi is a natural provocateur. He has an uncanny knack for kicking up storms of indignation, and occasionally stumbles into an uproar he didn’t even mean to stoke. This happened most recently when he made light of Pope John Paul II’s imminent death — and the saturation coverage sure to accompany it — in a New York Press cover story titled “The 52 Funniest Things About the Upcoming Death of the Pope.” His piece infuriated what seemed to be more people than the paper has readers, and provoked a storm of humorless condemnation from a panoply of local pols like Sen. Chuck Schumer and Rep. Anthony Weiner, the mayoral longshot who urged New Yorkers to gather up bundles of the free paper and throw them in the trash.
That Taibbi found himself embroiled in such a brouhaha was no surprise to anyone familiar with his work. When I met him, in 2001, I mentioned that I liked the newspaper he published in Moscow, the eXile, which I had read online. Precisely the sort of operation that libel law and common decency disallow in the United States, the eXile, an English-language weekly, was an unstable concoction, equal parts uproarious and offensive. A newspaper on amphetamines, it ran serious press criticism salted with vicious personal attacks on reporters — as in an NCAA-style tournament held to crown “Moscow’s Worst Journalist” — and its lengthy reported pieces shared space with nightclub listings designed to guide the discerning Western businessman to Moscow’s finest sex retailers.
After I told Taibbi I read the paper, he excitedly pulled from his bag a foul-looking photograph of a man with pie all over his face. The pie-faced fellow in the snapshot was the “winner” of the tournament of journalists, and Taibbi had thrown the offending dessert that was splattered all over him. “The pie,” Taibbi calmly explained, “is made of horse sperm.”
After a decade of Moscow troublemaking, Taibbi returned to the States in 2002 to settle down in Buffalo, N.Y., where he started an alternative newspaper, the Beast. But Taibbi, whose fans and enemies alike have a habit of comparing him to Hunter S. Thompson, soon found himself on the presidential campaign trail, filing dispatches for Rolling Stone, the Nation, and the New York Press, where he writes a weekly column — trying to do for 2004 what Thompson did for 1972. He insists that he failed, and indeed, “Spanking the Donkey,” his campaign diary, is a riotously funny account of that failure. It’s a kind of “Network” by way of Kafka, with our furious protagonist trapped in the bowels of a campaign he loathes and cannot comprehend, trying to make sense of what he calls a “tour de force of lies” in which, to his horror, he can find not a shred of humor.
Frequently touted as the most important election of our lives, the ugly Bush-Kerry clash was an episode many of us would now prefer to forget. But “Spanking the Donkey” is all the more necessary in the aftermath of an election that harnessed enough liberal outrage to light the Vegas strip, cost more than a billion dollars, absorbed hundreds of hours we will never get back, and achieved absolutely nothing. Nothing, that is, except to convince thousands of media types that, just as the right has long alleged, they are “out of touch” with the values of Middle America, thus enshrining forever in our political discourse the idiotic construct of a country depicted in two Crayola camps. “When one hundred million people don’t vote,” Taibbi quips, “the nation is not bitterly divided. The nation mostly doesn’t give a shit.”
With the country peacefully restored to its natural state of apathy, Taibbi’s scabrous complaints about the 2004 race — “one of the greatest and most prolonged insults to human dignity the world has ever seen” — are not only a hysterical catharsis, a kind of laughing cure, they are essential reading for anyone who’s been wondering where John Kerry’s vaunted electability got us. Taibbi took a moment to speak with Salon about his inimitable approach to media criticism, Soviet America, and whether anyone got laid on the Kerry press plane.
Your writing is unlike typical campaign journalism, which is often a bit formulaic — you’re playing pranks, and working in barbs and jokes alongside your reporting. How did you fit in on the plane with all the straight-laced Times and Post types?
All the reporters on the trail kind of go through the same thing. When you first show up, it really is like the first day of school. On the campaign trail, the popular kids are the reporters who have been on the trail the longest, and they literally sit at the front of the plane, all together. The further back on the plane you are, the bigger a loser you are. It’s so much like high school, because the big hitters don’t want to talk to you, they don’t want to be seen talking to you, and so you have to work your way up just to be able to socialize. And, of course, because I worked for sort of a disreputable organization at the beginning — the New York Press — nobody even thought about talking to me. Of course, as soon as I started working for Rolling Stone, it was different.
You set out to report on the press as much as on the candidates. Was that a reasonable goal? Did asking questions of other reporters set you apart from the rest of the press corps?
Everybody was so conscious of “The Boys on the Bus” [Tim Crouse's book about the reporters covering the 1972 election] — it’s a clichi that people talk about constantly. I was asked, again and again, “Are you doing a ‘Boys on the Bus’ thing?” It was on everybody’s mind all the time. I tried to ask some questions of the reporters on the record. But as soon as one journalist starts asking another journalist questions about how they’re doing their job — forget it, you’re a pariah. Many days passed before anybody would talk to me after that. The news traveled so fast that when we went from Wisconsin to Las Vegas, I was in the middle of the plane, and then the next morning, when we got back on the plane, I had been reassigned to the rear. Maybe I’m being paranoid, but it sure seemed to me that somebody talked to the Kerry people and said, put this fucking guy in the back.
At the time of “The Boys on the Bus,” that kind of reporting hadn’t been done before: Nobody was worried about what Crouse was going to write, so they had their guard down. The modern press corps is a lot of company men, and I think back then there were more, well, unwieldy individuals. You would never have had a phenomenon like McGovern’s Zoo Plane on today’s campaign — that’s what they called the plane they put the press on. Legendary wild parties went on in there, drugs, sex acts. I would doubt that so much as one sex act occurred during the entire Kerry campaign.
Not even a hand job?
Well, maybe a hand job. I don’t know. It certainly wasn’t a fun gig.
It seems like everyone these days is a press critic, but you take what we might call a more activist approach. The book contains your Wimblehack series from the New York Press, which attempted to determine who was the worst journalist on the campaign trail. [Elisabeth Bumiller of the New York Times, who recently filed a dispatch about the songs on Bush's iPod, was the eventual winner.] Did that make people angry?
There was one guy from the Times who actually asked me to step outside. He complained that I had insulted Jodi Wilgoren because I said she looked like Ernest Borgnine, and he sent me an e-mail basically saying, “Let’s fight.”
I think that normal press criticism is great: It makes people aware of the media to a degree that they never were before, but it doesn’t have a whole lot of practical effect. FAIR will issue a press release pointing out an error, or some unethical practice, or some pattern in press coverage. So what? It’s not going to change anything. My thinking, going back to the eXile, is that reporters are people too; they’re sensitive and they’re vain, and if you make it personally painful for them, it can have a bit of a prophylactic effect. That’s not the reason I do it; mostly I do it because I’m just a little bit of an aggressive person.
Did you see any results with this approach?
I have to be honest, no. But when I was in Russia, we certainly had an effect on the American press corps in Moscow. When we threw a pie made of horse sperm into the face of the New York Times Moscow bureau chief, who had won our “Worst Journalist in Moscow” tournament, that was something that all the journalists in Moscow noticed.
There used to be different kinds of people who were journalists. There were real cynics, there were drunks, there were hardened smokers, and now there’s this glamour and glow that goes along with being a part of the press corps. I guess what I’m trying to do is take away some of that glow and make it clear it’s not quite as cool as they make it out to be. I don’t know if that has an effect or not, but that’s sort of the strategy.
You often make reference to Russia in your writing about American politics — is that a lens through which you see things?
I was there for 10 years — I basically grew up in Russia, considering that I went in my early 20s. When I came back I was a little shocked to find that what I saw looked a lot like Russia, particularly the lingering Soviet aspects of Russia: the celebration of stupid ideas as though they were new and original, the dumb patriotism — the style of the patriotism. You can go to any town in America today, and you see the same Blockbuster Video, Wal-Mart, McDonald’s, or Jack in the Box — every place looks the same, they all have the same strip malls, and so on. This is how it was in communist Russia: You could go to any city in the country, and you saw the same Meat and Fish Store No. 6 or Gastronome No. 4 that was in your hometown; even the street names were the same.
The Bush scene on the aircraft carrier was straight out of Soviet Russia: the sailors in their colored sweaters rushing out to greet the leader who himself hasn’t served in the military. It made me think of Brezhnev, who wore a zillion fucking medals and was probably the only person in Russia who didn’t know how to put together a Kalashnikov.
The genius of the Russian system was its appeal to people’s laziness. They said, “Look, get drunk, don’t do any work at all, we’ll give you just enough money to live, and we’ll take care of everything else.” That’s what Soviet Russia was all about: Live in your shitty village, we’ll give you cheap vodka, and we’ll take care of your medical bills, and you don’t have to worry about all that other stuff. They counted on the fact that Russians would rather wallow in their own shit than organize and protest anything that’s actually happening in their country. It is really kind of similar to what’s going on here. People bitch and moan, but basically all they really want to do is sit in front of their televisions and watch the football game. Even people on the left who complain about Bush, when it comes right down to it, they don’t really want to do anything. If they do go to protests, they go, and then they come home, and it’s all over.
You mention that in Russia you could take things less seriously because it wasn’t your country. Were you surprised to find yourself affected by what you were covering on the campaign?
Being on the plane, it was just nuts to me. It seemed like absolute madness that the candidate gets up, mouths a lot of platitudes, and everybody just sits there and reports it, doesn’t even think what’s happening. As a citizen, I want people to be saying, “What the hell are we doing here?”
The biggest problem with the campaign was that it was so condescending. John Kerry is not a stupid guy. He’s been in the Senate for 20 years, sitting on important committees. But then all he does is get up on stage and say, “John Kerry, reporting for duty.” It’s just condescending. This is a conscious choice on his part — the ethos of the campaign is that you have to talk down to people, you have to appeal to the basest instincts of voters, their laziness — their intellectual laziness. An important thing about the candidates is that they don’t tell you anything: All they want to do is hit those dial survey words they know are going to impress voters. Change. Leadership. Strength. These are literally infantile concepts that they want to communicate to you.
The kind of journalism I do is supposed to be funny, but in kind of a horrifying way. I figured the presidential election would be a great subject. But I had never covered a story where I couldn’t find a way to express how bad it was. In Russia, I would see these horrible, ridiculous things, and at some level I was actually amused by them. I was able to find them funny but also horrible. In America I didn’t really find it amusing; it was just horrible.
Your piece in the New York Press about the impending death of Pope John Paul II — and the predictable torrent of round-the-clock death-watch coverage in the media — seems to have attracted a lot of attention. I even saw [NY Press editor] Jeff Koyen on MSNBC, battling it out with Catholic League honcho William Donohue, who called the paper home to “male and female perverts, ACDC, switch-hitting, pineapple, upside-down cake, fruity-tooty people.”
The pope article was a one-off, a little tiny spoof that I wrote in a Vicodin haze. It was put on the cover of the paper, which made a big difference — if it had just been my column, I don’t think it would have been a big deal. What I thought was interesting was that Matt Drudge put up a link to it, and within an hour, every elected official in New York was saluting. The whole thing was absurd.
Obviously it was just a joke — I talk in the piece about how my own head is going to be chopped off. If there was a point, it was like, the pope is a man, he dies and he rots like the rest of us. That’s the joke.
Are you afraid that people are going to know you for the rest of your life as “the guy who mocked the pope dying”?
If that’s what people are going to remember me for — if that’s the only thing that I produce between now and the end of my life — then I deserve it. But I’m not worried about that.
Going back to the campaign, what was the atmosphere like inside the Democratic machine?
When you hang around a Democratic campaign office, you feel like you’ve walked into an episode of M*A*S*H or something, with an ensemble cast witticizing all the time. There were actually some funny people in the Kerry campaign, but most of the aides I talked to on all the campaigns were really, really interested in things that had nothing to do with what their candidate allegedly stood for. One guy would be rhapsodizing about how well his town halls went as opposed to somebody else’s town halls. I mean, meaningless bullshit, like the plastic grass in Howard Dean’s “Grassroots Express” plane. Somebody thought that up and they were really pleased with themselves about it. It’s just like a big frat prank for these people running for president. I have to really give credit to the Bush people; for them it was really about the politics, the candidate, “values,” all those things. Among the Democrats, it was like, are we going to get over? Are we doing enough to get over?
You got to spend some time with the Bush people — what was that like?
Rolling Stone sent me to be a campaign operative for George Bush. I moved to Orlando, Fla., and I volunteered for the Bush campaign. In fact, I arrived in town early enough in the campaign that I ended up as a manager in one of the Orlando offices. I was a fairly important person in the Bush campaign in Florida, and I’m proud of this — we did very well. The I-4 corridor [which includes the Tampa and Orlando metropolitan areas] really turned out for Bush, so I like to think I did my part to help him win. I definitely worked very hard.
What was your cover?
I was under a fake name; my story was that I was a New York City schoolteacher who had a girlfriend in Orlando, so I was down there for the summer. I told them all sorts of horror stories about how the New York City schools were overrun with perverts and faggots. Everybody loved that.
Did you notice a difference between Democrats and Republicans? A personal difference?
The Republicans were a lot nicer than I expected. A contrast between being with the Democrats and with the Republicans is that being around the Democrats was so much like high school — you had to be cool all the time. In Orlando, you could just walk into a Bush office, and so long as you were committed to the president, it didn’t matter if you were a total fucking loser, they’d love you for it.
Did you hear from the Orlando office after the article was published?
Oh yeah. I got plenty of calls. I didn’t pick up the phone if I saw a call was from the Orlando area code, but I did get a lot of angry e-mail. My immediate boss at the campaign office called me up after Bush won the election and left a message that said something like, “Mr. Taibbi, the God that you do not believe in has blessed our president with victory.” She kept leaving messages like that for a few days. They were mad. I don’t think I’ll be going back to Orlando anytime soon.
What did you do on election night?
I was in Mexico, stoned.
Did you watch on television?
I did. But I was surprised at how depressed I was. I was sure Bush was going to win, and I really hate Kerry. But when Kerry lost, I was a little bit bummed out. As were you, I’m sure.
After Kerry lost, I had this feeling of great shame — I thought, I can’t believe I bought into this, I should have known better than to put any hope in this guy.
I couldn’t believe that they picked Kerry. When I was in Florida volunteering for Bush, this came up quite a bit. Everybody there was so glad Kerry was the nominee. They all said the same thing: Thank God it wasn’t Howard Dean. They felt Dean would have turned out the kids. It was clear even people who were going to vote for Kerry weren’t enthusiastic about him. I traveled with Dean, and I could see, from a horse race perspective, his electoral weaknesses. But this guy was turning out crowds of 10,000 people in the summer of 2003. If you went to a Kerry rally late in the primaries — after he was already the nominee, basically — you’d be lucky to find 300 or 400 people.
In New Hampshire, I saw Kerry, many times, just go up to anybody who had on an Army outfit and start talking about Vietnam — he had such a hard-on for his Vietnam past that he was always looking for any pretext to bring it up. So I started showing up at campaign events with POW-MIA shirts on, stuff like that, hoping that I would fall into his line of fire long enough for him to pull that stunt with me. I did it four or five times, but he never talked to me.
I did see him go up to another guy — I had my POW-MIA costume on, but there was another guy in a hunting outfit, all orange, big orange hat, vest, everything. Kerry went up to that guy and said, “Were you in the service?” “No,” the guy replied, “I’m a fucking hunter.”
What did you discover out traveling with the candidates? Did the reality of the campaign match your expectations?
I thought I was going to really see America — travel around the country, meet different kinds of voters, and really get a sense of what people are thinking. But in fact, the campaign is so totally isolated that you never actually talk to anyone who isn’t on the plane, or attending a campaign event — people who’ve been recruited by the campaign to be in the audience. So you can travel with a candidate for weeks at a time and never encounter anyone who isn’t connected to the campaign in some way. The whole thing could easily be done in a movie studio.
If you look at the campaign, it’s not an interaction between the candidate and the voters. The media is selling the campaign to its audience. It’s a top-down process. The only time the public even appears is through poll numbers. It really is a giant commercial, and I spent most of my time trying to figure out what it was a commercial for.
Jonathan Shainin is on the staff of the New Yorker.More Jonathan Shainin.