Politics as crack cocaine

Novelist Stephen Elliott talks about John Kerry the guitar strummer and avid reader, George W. Bush the magnetic caveman, and his own loopy new book about the 2004 campaign.

By Alex Mar
October 28, 2004 12:00AM (UTC)
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Stephen Elliott is the author of "Happy Baby," a dark, lyrical novel about juvenile institutions, drugs, abuse and S/M, inspired in part by his childhood as a ward of the state of Illinois. (Salon's review called it "a most impressive little novel ... heartbreakingly and bewilderingly alive.") In the summer of 2003, having garnered attention for his essay on Howard Dean in the Believer, Elliott improbably turned political commentator, dropping everything to follow the candidates and bring together two great American traditions: the presidential election and the cross-country road trip. His deeply unconventional and heartfelt book on the campaign, "Looking Forward to It: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the American Political Process," was released this month by Picador, and the result is a gonzo, do-it-yourself look at the winding road to Election Day.

When you wrote the piece about Dean last September, were you thinking of it as a one-off, or the beginning of something bigger?


Ever since 2000, when I followed [Ralph] Nader, I wanted to get back on the trail, to write a book about it. I was ready to walk away from everything I had to go follow this campaign on my own dime. I thought, I've got $20,000 in the bank, and I could just go blow it! Fortunately, when the article came out, I was able to get an actual book advance.

How much was that?

Fifty thousand dollars -- which surprisingly doesn't go that far when you're trying to keep up with the candidates. Alex Pelosi [director of the documentary film "Journeys With George"] told me that her travel cost half a million dollars, which I could never afford. I would be the only guy on the campaign bus who wasn't getting on the plane. I've read "Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail" six or seven times -- it's a kind of gold standard -- but Hunter Thompson had total access, and all I had was my advance.


What was it about the 2000 campaign that made you think, OK, next time around I've got to do this?

It was my first time writing nonfiction. I was traveling through the deep South, and I'd send these e-mails from the Nader trail, just dispatches to my friends. And the editor from the Sun literary magazine [in North Carolina] got in touch and said he wanted to run my e-mails. It was the first moment of, "Oh, I can write nonfiction like that?" Because I didn't think that that was a publishable thing that I was doing -- just off-the-cuff, full of lies and creativity. For instance, I wrote one dispatch about how I was at a press conference with George Bush, and he had just come from executing somebody in Texas. And he'd pulled the switch on the guy, but the switch didn't work. So he had taken out a pocket knife and stabbed the guy instead -- and he'd shown up at the press conference covered in blood. And Gore responded to this by promising to clean up pornography on the Internet. So I'd send out dispatches like that: partly what I was doing, and partly this made-up thing.

At any point did you think, OK, now I'm a journalist?


Selling the book, probably. But then I had to actually write it, and I totally didn't know what I was doing at all. The first week on the campaign I thought, I don't see how this can possibly work. And even if I can do this, how can I do this for a year?

Was this the same moment at which you realized the other journalists weren't really going to let you crash on their hotel room floor?


Right! They had no respect for me -- I was definitely way down at the bottom of the totem pole. Nobody gave a shit -- "Oh, you write novels? Isn't that interesting. I'm going to be the next Adam Nagourney." I'd done nothing in my life that would have impressed them. I'm thinking, "What am I doing here? Everyone hates me, I'm alone, it's fucking cold, and the people in New Hampshire suck."

You do come across in the book as the scrappy outsider.

These guys, they travel with all these bags! I never brought more than two changes of clothes even if I was on the road for a month. I gave up my apartment. You get so lonely. And let me tell you, you start to freak out. So I called my girlfriend, and she broke up with me.


Is this the person you call "demon woman"?

Yeah. She broke up with me on Super Tuesday -- on the day Dean finally won his first state. Can you believe it? She was always trying to undermine the book.

You wrote that "politics is about getting outside of yourself and your own problems for a little while and fully immersing yourself in the lies and deceit of others." Is that the appeal of following a presidential campaign?


People who don't want to deal with their own issues get into politics. It's completely consuming, like compulsively washing your hands. Once I was hooked on presidential politics, I was totally fucked forever. It's like crack.

Seriously, how did you end up becoming politically active?

Being a ward of the court, I had an intimate relationship with the state -- I've seen firsthand what effect the state has on the people that are in its charge. So when the state is low on money, I know what budget cuts mean: When you're a ward of the court, it means worse food, less staff, unhygienic facilities and home closures. I know the direct impact of all these things. So that may be what drove me to politics.

You've mentioned as a personal turning point California's Proposition 21, which made it easier to try young offenders in adult court.


Prop. 21 was started to help [former California Gov.] Pete Wilson in his 2000 presidential run. And once he wasn't running anymore -- nobody wanted him -- it stayed out there like a weed. It came up for a vote and passed, and tens of thousands of children went to jail as adults and the judges couldn't even stop it from happening. So you have all these kids now who don't belong in adult institutions -- which is actually much more expensive than putting them in the children's facilities -- and the children are coming out damaged, more likely to be repeat offenders. Outrageous. And I just realized that if I had worked full-time, I could have stopped that bill. But I didn't have anything to do with it. It was my wakeup call: If you're not political, and you don't pay attention, bad things happen, there are consequences. And if you participate, you can have an effect.

What was your situation like growing up?

I left home when I was 13, after my mother died, and slept on a rooftop for a year. I got arrested, and since I didn't know my father's new address, the state took custody of me. The first place they put me in had 30 kids to a room. Everyone thinks it's about inspiration and volunteers -- it's not! It's about money, and getting more funding, which we won't under this administration.

Is this book meant to be consciousness-raising, or your own personal journey, going on this road trip for yourself in a way?


I was doing this to figure out where I stood. I was trying to understand what my feelings were about the American electoral process and about this campaign and about the last campaign. Could I live with what happened in 2000, and could I live with what would happen in 2004 without participating in it? Could I vote for these guys -- for Kerry or Dean or any of these people who seem so far removed from my ideals, which are, you know, slightly left of the Haymarket riots? And what makes the campaign so much fun is that you're learning at such a pace, immersed in information all the time. So I went out to figure out who I am, to have a great time, and somebody's given me the money to do what I want. But I was aware that I would also be educating readers.

From the start, you were much more excited about Dean than Kerry.

I think a lot of liberals were so disappointed with Bush, with our actions in 2000 -- we didn't pay attention, didn't think there was a difference between Bush and Gore, and we were proven drastically wrong -- that we pinned our hopes on Dean. We made him out to be more than he was. He was never the hero of the story. He was the antiwar candidate, but he never had to vote against the war, never had to take a stand. If he had been in Kerry's position, would he really have voted against it?

But you seemed so skeptical of Kerry, at least initially.


A politician to the core. He's such a boring person to listen to, and I was like, if he wins, I'm going to have to spend a lot more time with him, and that's going to really suck. And he ran such a dirty campaign in Iowa against Howard Dean. But then you get involved in the general election, and you see that however Kerry was fighting Dean, it's nothing compared to how dirty a fighter Bush is. To paraphrase Hunter Thompson, the worst thing that Kerry has ever done Bush does every day of his life as a matter of policy. [Laughs.] Plus, when I had a chance to talk to Kerry on the bus one-on-one, I did like him. He'd play guitar for us on the road. And he's a voracious reader: He's always got six books going at a time.

What was he reading when you last saw him?

Actually, "Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail."

You were there for the demise of the Dean campaign in Iowa.

To bring all these people from out of state to knock on everybody's doors -- 4,000 kids in orange hats -- nobody ever told these kids to shave, nobody trained them. I mean, clean them up! Now I think Kerry was truly the best pick to go up against Bush.

But how do you feel about this business of voting for the candidate who seems most likely to win?

It's totally screwed up. That was one of the ideas I wrestled with on the trail: If we vote for someone because they're electable and then they don't win, then we've fucked ourselves, we totally threw away our vote. Everyone who voted for Gore over Bill Bradley because they didn't think Bradley could win, well, they got screwed.

I have to admit that I've always bought into the idea of the campaign being seamless, this polished political machine that you see glamorous glimpses of on the nightly news. But there are truly unsexy scenes in your book, where you go to see Kerry give a stump speech in some dingy venue, and there's nobody there ...

There were moments when less than 10 people showed up, and you're on the outskirts of some tiny town. Like at the College Convention, all these kids were there for Kerry, waving signs and shouting, "Go, Kerry, go!" And he comes running down from the green room, and he's supposed to turn right and head to the stage -- but instead he runs left and bails through these students and heads straight to the bathroom and closes the door. And he's in there for, like, 20 minutes, and these kids are shouting, "Go, Kerry, go!" cheering on the candidate in the bathroom. These are not moments you see on television.

You told me that at one point you were sleeping in your car.

Oh, I did a lot of that. But when I was on the bus I would stay at a hotel with the candidates because that's where the press were staying, and if I was going to get any good information it was going to be over awful garlic chicken wings with Jodi Wilgoren at the hotel bar in Cleveland while Al Gore's upstairs giving John Kerry $6 million. But when I wasn't on the bus, I'd be in my car, trying to keep up, hitting 100 when I know the president's going 90 just to stay ahead.

What did you think of Bush in person?

I kept thinking how strong he is -- like, if we were cavemen, I would want him to guard my cave. In the audience at Bush events, there's a lot of anger, but with Bush himself there's this calm, this animal magnetism.

Actually, the chapter about trailing Bush is structured in this very conscious, literary way, with shifts in perspective: Second, then first, then third person ...

I liked the idea of pretending that the reader's getting three different points of view when they're all really coming from the same voice, the same person. You can have so much fun with the narrative in these things -- and still, I felt that what I was doing was more honest than most journalism.

So you do think that.

I've decided! Because these people feel like they have to give equal time to the people who are telling the truth and the people who are telling lies. So you open up USA Today, and here's the press release I got this morning from one of the campaigns, and here's a quote from the spokesperson for the Bush campaign -- these are people who are paid to lie, so calling them for a quote is ridiculous. At least with my book, if I think somebody's lying I say that I think they're lying.

But that's partly due to the fact that you're writing this one long project, and you don't have to maintain any of these relationships.

That totally freed me up -- I didn't have to make friends, I wasn't constrained in that way with these sources.

How do you see the divide between your nonfiction and your fiction?

The nonfiction is happy-go-lucky, and the fiction is really dark -- and I don't know which is truer to who I am. My fear is that the fiction is me, and the nonfiction is who I pretend to be.

The tone of your fiction is so personal, and much of it deals with S/M "Happy Baby," in particular. Do you consider yourself a submissive?

What? It's complicated. Maybe? Yes? I'm blushing!

Is there a link between S/M and politics?

Oh, completely! People who have that incredible need for power are often the ones searching for, you know, the punishing mother figure. With Republicans especially, there's all this guilt associated with sex, and S/M feeds on that. And hypocrisy.

You told me that your next book may be a novel told from the perspective of a human shield in Iraq. You even thought for a brief time that you would go over and join them.

I felt this was masochism in the political process: This is the way masochists protest, lying spread-eagled on top of a building while waiting for a bomb to fall on them. You just go to this place where you sit and you wait -- a month, two months, maybe the bomb comes. And there's something weird and beautiful about that, I think. I just thought, Wow, I can understand that. I was a hair away. But it was too great a sacrifice. I wanted to protest -- but you have to have a life to come back to.

Alex Mar

Alex Mar is an editor at Rolling Stone.


Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Author Interviews Books George W. Bush John F. Kerry D-mass.