The populist from another galaxy

Icon magazine introduces the most famous candidate no one's ever heard of.

Published April 6, 1999 7:00AM (EDT)

The second-anniversary (April) issue of Icon magazine scores a particularly hot scoop -- a cover profile announcing the campaign of the iconoclastic entrepreneur who may well become the first third-party president of the United States. Cortland Dahl, "moral capitalist," head of the biotech firm Sequence Corp., former drummer for Iggy and the Stooges and son of a Ku Klux Klan member -- a flawed but forthright man pundits describe as a charismatic Ross Perot -- may be the man to ride the Jesse Ventura wave of disestablishmentarianism to the White House.

How did Icon's Dana Shapiro manage the exclusive? A good reporter knows that there's only one way you nail this kind of exclusive: with sweat and moxie, hard work, shoe leather and a certain nose for a story that separates the geniuses from the two-bit column-fillers.

Either that or you just make it up.

Tipped off by Salon 21st contributor Robert Rossney, I looked into the story. Not to put too fine a point on it, but there is no Cortland Dahl. A dedicated deployment of search engines turns up a University of Minnesota student by that name, but that's about it. "Cortland Dahl" returns no hits on Lexis. There is, to all appearances, no biotech firm named "Sequence Corp.," there was no Cortland Dahl playing drums on the Stooges' live "Metallic KO," no New York Times Magazine story on Dahl-for-prez rumors, no director of the Union of Concerned Scientists named "Judy Littleton" and so forth. And despite the story's fascinating description of Dahl's guerrilla "cyberdetour" campaign strategy (in which search engines were paid to redirect users who typed certain keywords), major search engines know of no Cortland Dahl Web site. (Further hints? The issue's index contains the title "Just Kidding," keyed to the last page of the Dahl profile, on which that title does not appear.)

"There's been rumors of a Stephen Glass type of thing," said Icon's editorial director, David Getson, referencing the New Republic's notorious serial fabricator, though he stood by the story -- "I've met Cortland Dahl," he said, and contended the candidate would do talk shows "in mid-April" -- and did not seem particularly mortified about the apparent holes. (Shapiro was on assignment in Los Angeles and unavailable for comment by press time.) Explaining the numerous discrepancies revealed through simple searches of Lexis, library databases and Web search engines, Getson coyly offered, "I'm surprised about the Lexis thing; maybe it's the whole Y2K thing hitting, maybe the Melissa virus, I don't know." And yes, there was a fact-checking process, though Shapiro "was very heavily involved." All right, already!

Notwithstanding Getson's persistent, cutesy denials, the story is a fine April Fool's mini-satire of popular politics and the journalists who sell it. Dahl's platform is a soundbite-ready mix of libertarianism and no-bullshit toughness, with an eerie overtone of eugenics: He opposes motorcycle-helmet laws ("'If I feel like spreading my head across the highway, I will,' he told Imus in 1992"), believes in God but not hell and espouses decriminalization of marijuana but would treat drug dealers like murderers -- who, in the Dahl administration, would be encouraged to donate their bodies for medical research to "perfect the human condition." ("It's both moral and practical," Dahl argues.) True to form, the story is littered with assessments from talking heads and authors unknown to the Library of Congress: "Kent Sahin," a political consultant for MSNBC ("The [political] climate is morphing into something of a free-for-all") and "Thomas Kane" ("the frank media analyst who wrote the best-selling political glossary 'Watchdog'"). Dahl has even authored the necessary campaign-platform catch phrase ("Healthier Babies, Safer Streets").

The beauty of Shapiro's story is its pitch-perfect combination of sycophantic mag-profile detail ("Cortland Dahl is sitting on a bar stool, looking out the window of a downtown Starbucks, watching the sky, promoting himself ... drinking tap water from a plastic cup with ice cubes and a lemon wedge") and inside-baseball clichi-speak ("Dahl's got all his bases covered: financial support, a well-developed platform and, most importantly, charisma"). But also -- yet more apt for a time of cynicism and fourth-wall breaking -- the article has the requisite oh-so-au-courant self-consciousness about the reporter's role -- an awareness that the pol wants to generate stories just like this one ("he becomes a politician again, speaking to the readers, through me, using this article to send a message").

If we were to explore the (however remotely possible) thesis that the Dahl story is an April Fools' fabrication, we might note the hoax profile's rich tradition; George Plimpton's 1985 Sports Illustrated profile of a 168-mph fastball pitcher and Might's Adam Rich obituary ("Farewell, gentle friend") come to mind. In 1996, when Esquire published a cover story on a fictitious Hollywood hot young thing named Allegra Coleman, the magazine was deluged with calls from agents. Ironically, the story of her nonstardom jump-started the career of Ali Larter, who played Coleman for the cover story and has since gone on to appear on "Dawson's Creek" and costar in "Varsity Blues." (In fact, the Esquire piece was more effective and ultimately funnier than Icon's let's-just-suppose-it's-a-hoax because it actually proved its point -- that you can create a starlet with a magazine package -- whereas, whatever popular point you want to make about the politico-celeb machine, an invented candidate is not going to end up in the Oval Office.)

Uncharitably, one might say that this kind of gag is a little played out. So why run one? Because like the Esquire story and other past hoaxes, this kind of cover generates not only laughs but, yes, stories just like this one -- attention that Icon, on its second birthday, certainly could use. Getson founded Icon as a high-minded men's "thoughtstyle magazine," starting at the age of 25 with $10,000 of his own money and eventually securing outside investment. But although its thoughtful long profiles -- see! it's paying off already! -- have been well-received, Icon is still struggling in a crowded niche.

And according to Getson, the feature has so far generated more than 100 letters of interest plus some $2,700 in campaign donations from Icon's young readership, a response Getson attributes to his "DIY"-punk background: "Looking at what the American people are interested in, it does not seem to be political platforms or positions or history or philosophy; it seems to be notoriety and PR and profile." Politics, he says, is now full of "entertainers and nonpoliticians and people who can use their history or notoriety to get public attention ... We've gotten more response to this cover than the Johnny Depp cover."

The feature, that is, carries a serious, nuanced message about public and media cynicism. Dahl is attractive largely because he resists Clintonian, weaselly whitewashing of his past (his candor-with-a-purpose, indeed, recalls George W. Bush's) -- and he'd appeal to Ventura-whetted reporters because of his bad-boy punk background. You may not be able actually to construct a candidate out of whole cloth, but the Icon story shows how little it would take to construct a bullshit no-bullshit image in tune with the times. It's tempting to say that if Cortland Dahl did not exist, someone would have had to invent him. But fact is, there's probably one out there inventing himself right now.

By James Poniewozik

James Poniewozik is a Time magazine columnist on TV and media.

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