Monthly Archives: May 2012

The Big Enchilada by Mitt Romney’s Chief Strategist Stuart Stevens

Part of an on-going attempt to illuminate the life and career of a political consultant, in this case, Stuart Stevens; other posts include “He Hates You”, a summary profile, a brief look at his China travel memoir, Night Train to Turkistan, a look at his travel memoir Malaria Dreams, an analysis of his novel Scorched Earth, an analysis of his book Feeding Frenzy, his interview with Charlie Rose promoting Feeding Frenzy, Stevens and Jon Hinson, an analysis of an episode of “Commander in Chief” which he co-wrote, and his defense of Newt Gingrich on “Charlie Rose”. Outside profiles and mentions, all excellent, are “Building a Better Mitt Romney-Bot” by Robert Draper, “An Unconventional Strategist Reshaping Romney” by Ashley Parker, “The Coming Tsunami of Slime” by Joe Hagan, and “Mitt Romney’s Dark Knight” by Jason Zengerle.

(This is a revision of an earlier overview of the book, the first attempt too shrill and venomous. Some writers must work very little to avoid descending into gracelessness, while I must work very hard to keep an adequate deftness. This draft contains a look at more material from The Big Enchilada, a look maintained with a cooler eye, where the previous overview had the tenor of a member of the Committee For Public Safety. Some may read this blog and think I am a radical, when I believe I am nothing of the kind. I do not believe that financial casinos, which produce nothing, barely provide the primary purpose of investment capital, should control so many of the political and economic levers of the country, and for that, I am a radical. I do not believe people should be starved into submission until they are forced to leave the country. That, at the present time, is a radical position. That women's biology should not be placed on the table every few years for a pile of cheap, rabid votes is my position: again, supposedly, a radical one. That marriage contracts should be indifferent to the gender of the parties: a radical one, now. The vast poverty of children, the labeling of such poverty as deserving, that this labeling is mostly by those who have known nothing but gilded lives: this revulsion to all this makes you radical. That science, reason, rationalism are not flimsy things to be taken up and dropped at one's convenience: these simple ideas make you Emma Goldman, now. This review is in large part non-ideological, first and foremost an attempt to glean information on how the process is seen by one of the process makers, a perspective very different from those on the other side of the curtain. Reading this man's books, has aroused a contempt in me for him, but it is contempt untied to ideology, a contempt I do not want or take pride in, a contempt that poisons me, a contempt for a man richly rewarded for treating something as a joyful challenging game, a game whose consequences this man does not feel at all, yet whose consequences the rest of us will pay for with every quality of our lives, and sometimes life itself. I do not want this contempt, but I will take it: that I feel such anger when the suffering of others is only granted opportunism and exploitation, this anger sometimes makes me feel more human than I've ever felt. The original analysis of this book is appended at the end of its successor.)

The Big Enchilada is the story of the 2000 Bush campaign for the presidency, up to election night and the contested re-count, told from the perspective of one of its key participants, Stuart Stevens, current media strategist for the Mitt Romney campaign, then media strategist for George W. Bush, the man primarily responsible for all attack ads, promotional material, convention planning, and debate prep. It is has the interest of all stories of this kind, whether it be John Gardner’s Grendel or Gregory Maguire’s Wicked of giving the villains’ perspective. Yet its primary interest is providing an angle unknown and ignored to us, a consultant’s view unmediated by any attempt to accommodate a common voter’s perspective. It is something like falling into a dog’s world where everything is determined by scent, where you might have assumed that the world was ruled by sight. More germanely, the difference between this book and a journalist’s account of an election is the distinction between the perspectives of a movie’s producer and its critics: those discussing the film will talk about its characters and plot, or lack thereof. The producer’s perspective will be what financing will be available, what stunt people and cars can be secured and which can be blown up, what buxom actress can take her top off and what will be the payment, etc. – all decisions where one might think in terms of immediate revenue impact. Plot and character can be built around these elements. It is similar in this book: those things that one thinks of crucial importance in an election, which are mentioned again and again – the issues – are not important at all.

I begin with what is the most stunning moment in the book for a naif such as myself: that the goal of this consultant is simply to elect the man to office, that promises will be made in an effort to achieve that goal, and the expectation is that those promises will be broken. This time it will be different, according to others on the campaign team, a point that Stevens considers “terribly unnecessary”:

candidates keep their promises part one underlin candidates keep their promises part two underlin

As I settled into the Bush world, I was astonished to realize that there was an assumption throughout the campaign that the policy would actually be used to govern once Bush was elected. This struck me as highly admirable and terribly unnecessary. For a while I tried to point out to Josh and his crew that once a candidate was elected nobody really expected that campaign policy proposals would be used to govern any more than promises made in a courtship were expected to be the guiding principles of a marriage when suddenly both partners are working and kids are running around the house.

Supporters of Mitt Romney can now take heed: one of the top men attempting to elect him as president fully expects him to break any and all of the election promises he makes, and he does not expect you to mind.

The book then, is an account, more of less of an advertising campaign, an advertisement for a man. This point is made explicit early on, when discussing ways to write a tax cut proposal as a pithy pitch for a TV ad. Given that this is a presidential candidate, I give bolds to the most striking parts:

convention speech underlined

[George W. Bush] read the final line of the script. “‘I believe we ought to cut tax rates to continue economic growth and prosperity.’ We should change this. It makes it sound like all I want to do is continue what Clinton has done. We can do better than that and we ought to say it. The whole idea of the tax plan will be to eliminate taxes for people at the bottom of the spectrum.”

In a thirty-second spot, you can comfortably get in seventy-five to eighty words, depending on the speaker’s natural cadence and accent. That’s it. There’s a terrible tyranny and a forced efficiency to trying to convey complicated ideas with so few words. It was both a discipline and an art, a form of poetry if executed properly. There’s a reason great copywriters make a gazillion dollars a year and end up in the Copywriters Hall of Fame – which actually exists and is not the punch line to a nasty joke about failed writers. So what if the spot is about mouthwash or deodorant, that’s not the point any more than, say, tennis is about hitting a little white ball over pieces of string or chess is about hitting little stick figures on a checkerboard. The demands of the process – arbitrary, difficult, without meaning – are what make it admirable, and, ultimately, if you get it right, rewarding.

That policy must be shaped in a way that it fits a thirty-second spot no doubt shapes policy; yet this a game of no consequence to the book’s writer. It is simply an abstract challenge, like Sudoku, of fitting the proper numbers in a pattern. That it remains an abstract challenge, an attempt to sell one product, a president, rather than another, like mouthwash or deodorant, is in part due to the writer himself; he is a very wealthy man. When you are that far up the tax bracket, you have the luxury of being indifferent to what policies are shaped in advertising or which promises are broken.

Here is the scene which outlines the coming campaign. It has nothing to do with any urgent or pressing issue, only what can be sold in an advertising campaign which can help to win the presidency.

bullet points part one underlined bullet points part two underlined

We’d been kicking ideas around for fifteen minutes when Karl [Rove] got to the point and simply asked “What are the basic goals we want these first ads to accomplish?” He then proceeded to outline the foundation of an entire campaign’s worth of spots. Mark wrote it down on a sheet of poster board hanging on an easel that we had set up to make it look like a real meeting. The goals read something like this:

  • Future not past. Focus more on what he will do than what he’s done in Texas.
  • Build Credentials. Bush = successful, big-state governor. Leader.
  • Win Education. Capture Bush passion. Make education a defining issue.
  • Win Taxes. Appeal to economic conservative base; use taxes to define compassionate conservative approach.
  • Rebuild military
  • Change the tone in Washington.
  • Social Security reform. Back up the Bush plan once announced.

I do not exaggerate the emphasis on advertising for shock value, it is made clear in the description of the process itself. Here is a group session with Jim Ferguson, former creative director of Young and Rubicam, at the time one of the top names in the advertising world, and Janet Kraus, a copywriter for Y & R, coming up with various ad pitches, no different than voiceovers for movie ads or sneakers, only much less hip and far more sentimental. The excerpt is lengthy to make obvious the similarities to any other ad campaign:

ad campaign part one ad campaign part two

Janet and Fergie both came up with scripts while we were in Kennebunkport. Janet had written three spots taken from her “now’s the time to do the hard things” theorem, one on education, one on Social Security and one that she called an “anthem” for the campaign.

“An anthem?” I asked her. “Really?”

We were having breakfast before the shoot at the terribly cute inn in Kennebunkport where we were staying. Janet was smoking and looking a lot more chic than anyone else in Kennebunkport.

“Yeah, you know. Anthem.” She shrugged. “Do you think I’m not supposed to smoke in here?” she asked.

I loved these guys. They knew how to package everything. We would have called it just another spot, but when you styled an ad as an “anthem,” it automatically sounded grander, more powerful.

“Don’t you call big theme spots anthems?” she asked.

“I will now,” I promised.

Janet’s scripts were neatly printed out; somewhere she had found a printer to hook up to her computer. She handed them to me.

GOVERNOR BUSH on Camera; TV 30;

“Hard Things – Education”

How come the hard things don’t get done?

Because they’re hard.

If we really want to make sure no child gets left behind in America, we need the courage to do some tough things.

We need to raise standards in our schools.

We need more accountability, more discipline.

And we need to stop promoting failing kids to the next grade because we’ve given up on them.

It’s easy to spend more.

Let’s start by expecting more.

GOVERNOR BUSH on Camera; TV 30;

“Not Afraid”

Social Security.

For too long, too many politicians have been afraid to touch it.

I’m not.

Because we need to strengthen it, right now.

We need to give people more choices in how they build their nest eggs.

I have a plan.

Protect the benefits of retirees and near-retirees.

You earned it. You get it. No change. Period.

And if you’re part of the next generation, you should have the choice to put some of your Social Security in a personal retirement account you control.

It’s time to make Social Security more secure.

GOVERNOR BUSH on Camera; TV 30;

“Moment in History”

There aren’t many moments in history when you have the chance to focus on the tough problems.

We’re in a moment like that now.

But to make schools better for all children – it takes fresh ideas.

To strengthen Social Security – it takes the courage to try something different.

It’s not always popular to say, “Our kids can’t read.”

“Social Security isn’t doing all it could.”

“We have a budget surplus and a deficit in values.”

But those are the right things to say.

And the right way to make America better for everyone is to be bold and decisive, to unite instead of divide.

Now is the time to do the hard things.

A few moments later Fergie handed us his place mat.

“Here’s mine,” he said. At the top, he’d scribbled “Something’s Missing.” It went like this:

Something’s missing in America.

Something’s just not quite right.

It’s hard to say exactly what. But Americans know it…deep down.

Our wallets are full but our hearts are empty.

It’s a time of peace but we’re not at peace.

Our national symbols are no longer symbols of pride.

It’s time we put the heart back into America.

Time to take accountability in our actions.

Time to make Social Security secure again.

Time to educate our children.

Time to be proud again.

Now’s the time to elect George W. Bush President of the United States.

I read it over. I loved it. “Is the governor talking?” I asked.

“Are you nuts? It’s an announcer, for Chrissake. Can I get sausage here?”

By the end of the terms of the man Stevens helped elect, then re-elect, the budget surplus was gone, the vile deceitful actions of a president and vice-president had put national symbols in disgrace, the military, through opportunistic and profligate use, had been shredded to pieces, and americans were buried in debt to fund tax cuts for Stuart Stevens, Mitt Romney, and George W. Bush. Promises were a joke, promises were broken, more people felt misery than had felt it in decades, but: Stuart Stevens remained a happy, wealthy man. The life promised to others in advertising is always there for the lucky few in the topmost incomes.

The man at the center of this campaign, George W. Bush, has those qualities suitable for a low-rent pitchman. He is affable, jokey, twinkly eyed, warm hearted bullshit artist. That he lacks anything like vital life experience, a business position earned through merit rather than family association, or anything like in-depth knowledge of political policy or history is irrelevant. Those qualities may well be an impediment rather than an asset for an ad campaign, just as a brilliant actor may make a worse spokesman than a glib mediocrity. The quality that Bush can project, and felt by some, is friendly warmth, and this a powerful asset in an ad campaign.

I make a useful digression to George W.S. Trow’s Within The Context Of No-context, the striking note-form analysis of television in culture, still relevant in the campaign of twelve years ago, still relevant now.

The product as celebrity.

The most successful celebrities are products. Consider the real role in American life of Coca-Cola. Is any man as well loved as this soft drink is?

On the impact of television.

Two grids remained. The grid of two hundred million and the grid of intimacy. Everything else fell into disuse. There was a national life – a shimmer of national life – and intimate life. The distance between these two grids was very great. The distance was very frightening.

Because the distance between the grids was so great, there was less in the way of comfort. The middle distance had been a comfort. But the middle distance had fallen away. The grid of national life was very large now, but the space in which one man felt at home shrank. It shrank to intimacy.

So, there is this great loneliness because of television. The very antidote for this loneliness will be through products that will provide comfort, brief, fleeting comfort, that compels one to seek more products that give such warmth. A presidential candidate, therefore, should ideally be a product that conveys this comfort and warmth:

Things very distant came powerfully close, but just for a minute. It was a comfort. And useful to men who wished to enforce childish agreements, because the progress of the advertisement is toward the destruction of distance between the product and the person who might consume the product.

A product consumed by a man alone in a room exists in the grid of one, alone, and in the grid of two hundred million. To the man alone, it is a comfort. But just for a minute.

What is sought is this intimacy, intimacy with someone or something great. For this intimacy to have consequence, it cannot simply be warmth from anyone, but must be an individual with an aura of grandeur about them, a grandeur of fame. Daniel Boorstin, in The Image points to the utter inconsequentiality of most celebrities, that they are very much like others, unmarked by distinction or achievement, and George W. Bush can be said to belong to this group. He is markedly unsuccessful in just about every field, his only distinctions a prominent father and, just like Paris Hilton, vast wealth. These details, however, are enough to make him “prominent” and “important”. The sight of tears of a slum dweller or an overwhelmed stranger are an unwanted intimacy. The tears of a man “prominent” and “important”, though his prominence and importance has nothing to do with anything he’s done, are an intimacy sought, they are important tears for the same reason the tears of any Kardashian are more worthy of attention than yours:

george w bush in tears underlined

Mark [McKinnon] started out with some general questions about growing up in Midland. We weren’t sure how we would use this, but it was familiar terrain and a way to start a conversation. Bush loved Midland and you could see his eyes soften and his whole body relax when he talked about what it was like to grow up in a place with few trees and a ton of oil wells.

They moved on to the standard issues, tax cuts and then the military. When talking about how important it was for America to be respected around the world, his tone shifted and he looked off camera for a moment and for a beat I thought he might tear up. It surprised me. What was he thinking, feeling?

“You know,” he said, “everywhere I go in America, everywhere I’ve gone on this fantastic journey so far, people walk up to me with pictures of their children and say, ‘Governor, I want my child to look at the White House and be proud of what he or she sees.’”

Then he stopped and a hint of tears did come. The room was utterly silent, with only the faint hum of the 35-millimeter film running through the camera.

In the editing room a week later, we used what he said in a spot we called “Pictures.” It was always my favorite.

When I read that the public was told that George W. Bush was more “likable” than Al Gore, I am reminded of this note from No Context:

No one, now, minds a con man. But no one likes a con man who doesn’t know what we think we want.

That these images are false, in discordance with how these men may act, is an obvious possibility. That the images presented have nothing to do with actual policies necessary and helpful to people, the very thing that should be most crucial to voters, is obvious as well.

Here are two brief assessments by Stevens of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, assessments so utterly wrong, through blindness willful or not, as to be grimly, grimly funny. The first is a contrast between Bush and the democratic nominee Al Gore, stressing Bush’s calmer, more rational qualities:

lets bomb some country

The [Gore campaign] loved to make fun of Bush as a slacker, but in truth, I bet Gore’s hyperkinetic, meddlesome nature drove them nuts. Here was a guy who woke his staff up at 4 A.M. to insist they make the spot he just wrote on a nuclear arms treaty right now. This is quality that is amusing in poets but downright dangerous in a president. Hey guys, wake up, I’ve got a great idea! Let’s bomb some country!

Here is a passage on the impossibility of Dick Cheney being hated:

dick cheney part one dick cheney part two

They had two lines of attack – trying to paint Dick Cheney as a rabid right-winger and going after Bush’s Texas record.

The Cheney attacks, we were convinced, were a total waste. The notion that somehow they were going to turn the low-key amiable Dick Cheney into a hated figure was preposterous. It wasn’t going to work. The guy you saw on television on Meet the Press came across as eminently reasonable; plus, the press liked Cheney. They weren’t going to participate in some feeding frenzy to demonize him. The attacks were based on votes Cheney had cast years earlier as a congressman and as attacks go, they were awfully weak stuff. First, nobody outside of Wyoming even knew that Dick Cheney had been a congressman. To the extent he had a public profile, it was as defense secretary during the Gulf War. So, first the Dems had to educate people that he had been a congressman, then convince people he had done terrible things as a congressman, then try to establish why this mattered fifteen years later and, by the way, forget about the Dick Cheney you came to respect and admire during the Gulf War.

A final few notes from No Context, concerning game shows, but applicable to a presidential contest:

Art requires a context: the power of this moment, the moment of the events in the foreground, seen against the accumulation of other moments. The moment in the foreground adheres to the accumulation or rejects it briefly before joining it. How do the manipulators of television deal with this necessity?

By the use of ad-hoc contexts. Just for the moment. We’re here together, in a little house. It makes such good sense. But just a moment. We’re playing “Password”!

Game shows have come to admit that they refer only to themselves. (“For ten thousand dollars and a chance to join the one-hundred-thousand-dollar playoff, according to what you just said, what did you say?”)

A presidential campaign, is sometimes seen by many of its participants as an entirely self-contained game, and to view it as such does not mean you will be unsuccessful at this game. When the president says the simple sentence that the private sector is doing fine, it is considered a mistake that will count, “Obama’s political gaffe will be fodder in general election”. What connection does this small sentence have to do with the condition of the economy and the various blocked plans to do anything for relief? Nothing. Why must it count? Because Chris Cillizza says it will count. A similar event takes place with the point of the “war on women”, the various attempts to block abortion, contraception, and equal pay. Why was it over? Because Hilary Rosen declared a “war on moms”, so now women have nothing to worry about: “The “War on Women” Is Over”. But have things improved in any of these areas for women? No. The war on women is over because the referees say it is over. The war on women can also be redefined as almost exclusively about abortion, as Conor Friedersdorf does in “In Defense of Stay-at-Home Moms”. Is this mis-statement a gaffe? No, silly. The referees can say whatever they want. If you find this whole closed loop utterly meaningless, as Joan Didion did in “Insider Baseball”, then you might be told with rolled eyes, “You don’t get how game shows work.” A hopeful sign is that the game show format is rapidly losing its appeal.

The advertising for the campaign, it should be stressed again, is not used as an attempt to present the policy which the president is in favour of. The advertising exists in and of itself, to elect the president, with the policy incidental, and only to be made clear after the election. Here is a discussion of tax policy and budgets for a Bush ad. The budget impact of massive tax cuts goes unmentioned. What is crucial for an ad is that taxes being cut, social programs for the elderly, a key Republican constituency, be preserved, and national defense spending, always a red meat issue for conservatives, be kept intact. The rest, are just numbers to be settled later, after November. Whether it all adds up is unimportant for the ad.

whether it adds up underlined

“I believe that once top priorities have been funded, we should pass money back to the taxpayers,” he continued to read. “That’s what I’ve done in Texas. I signed the two largest tax cuts in Texas history.” He paused. “Lot of Texas in here.” He made some notes and tried it again. “I signed the two largest tax cuts in our state’s history.”

“Does it bother anybody that it sounds like that if it’s not Medicare, Social Security or defense, it won’t get funded?” I asked.

“I thought that was the point,” Mark said.

“What are you worried about?” Bush asked.

I shrugged. “That it makes you sound like that if you’re president you’ll pay for these three or four things but that’s it.”

“Republicans love this stuff, don’t they?” Mark said. “Isn’t that what they want?”

Bush laughed.

“Are people going to think that you won’t pay for roads or airports or-”

“Roads?” Bush teased. “You want roads in here?”

“No, I mean-”

“You want some roads, we can put some roads. ‘As your president, I promise to finish I-Thirty-five, so help me God.’”

“You know what i mean.”

“Don’t count on it.” Then Bush continued, “It’s an ad, not a budget. We can write the budget later.”

In “Making Mitt Romney: How to Fabricate a Conservative” by Ken Silverstein, there is a parenthetical aside on confetti services, highlighting the absurdity of the heightened importance for this frivolous effect, for what should essentially be a contest of different policy approaches1. These effects, such as the confetti, from the perspective of a consultant like Stevens are not inessential at all, but entirely the essence of the process. Here he is watching a McCain rally with a fellow consultant:

confetti underlined

“You know what bothers me the most about McCain?” I said to [Mark McKinnon, another Bush political consultant].

“I don’t want to hear this.”

“His confetti. This guy has the best confetti I’ve ever seen.”

We watched in silence for a while, brooding.

“That is great confetti,” Mark said.

The confetti was shooting out in great cannon loads, exploding at just the right arc, showering McCain and his wife in a blizzard of bright paper.

“If we had confetti like that this race would be over,” I said.

“This is a character test,” Mark said. “Anybody can win with great confetti. It takes a genius to win with so-so confetti.”

This could be taken as a joke. However, when we arrive at a central point of a campaign, the nominee’s speech, whose text is supposedly of primary importance as a guideline for the identity of the candidate and what his presidency might be like, its content goes entirely unmentioned. Only the effects surrounding the speech are spoken of, the words themselves of no importance. A lengthy excerpt, with the candidate entering a dark stage while his campaign film ends:

speech part one speech part two

I was so involved in the last frames of the film that I almost missed seeing Bush walk out onstage. It went perfectly – the crowd didn’t notice him until the film ended and the back lights came up, highlighting him, just as we had planned. The hall exploded.

In the theater, there’s a phrase directors use called “holding the moment.” It means knowing how to work with the audience’s attention, not hurrying it, playing off the crowd but not overplaying your hand. Not many untrained actors do it well, and often Bush seemed a touch embarrassed by the adulation of large crowds and either hurried through the moment or sort of hammed it up in some fashio, laughing and joking around.

But that night he held the moment. He looked happy but serious, without the boyish “aw shucks” quality that was part of his charm. If I had been a Gore guy, hoping that Bush would boot the speech, I would have given up any hope right then. He was going to give the best speech of his life – you could just smell it. Jim Ferguson and Janet Kraus were up in the lighting booth with me and Fergie leaned down and yelled over the applause, “He’s gonna goddamn slay ‘em.”

We had decided to keep the convention hall dark during Bush’s speech. The idea was to increase the drama of the moment and to make it difficult for the network cameras to focus on anything but the guy who was standing on the stage. Normally the convention hall remains well lit and it enables to cameras to roam at will, looking for the best reaction shot. Or what the networks think is the best reaction shot – it could be someone crying, but it could just as easily be someone looking bored or distracted. That was the problem with staging a convention – you couldn’t cast the damn thing. If we could have filled the hall with actors, I wouldn’t have been so worried. But real people, well, they were unpredictable and this was not a moment to leave anything to chance.

Bill Klages was the convention lighting designer, the winner of seven Emmys. I was standing next to him with a text of the speech, trying to cue him when to expect the crowd to react so that he could trigger a starburst light effect that would sweep the convention hall with flashing, staccato lights, which invariably made the crowd roar even louder. It’s the sort of thing they do at rock concerts all the time and was borderline inappropriate for this kind of speech, a bit like using a disco ball at church and spinning it during the really good parts of the sermon. But the speech was going to be an hour long and it was better to use every trick in the book to keep the level of excitement high than to run the risk of having reporters sense that the crowd’s interest had lagged.

We were five minutes into the speech when the networks started phoning, raising hell about the hall being too dark for their reaction shots.

“What do you think we should tell them?” Klages asked me, covering the phone with his hand.

“I think it looks great,” I said.

“So do I,” he nodded, then, into the phone, “We thought about it and we’ve decided you can go screw yourself. Okay?” He hung up the phone. “What’s our next cue?” he asked.

When the speech was over and the first balloon drop was coming down and the fireworks were starting to go off inside the hall – that was one of [long-time Republican National convention organizer] David Nash’s little tricks, using fireworks inside the hall, which had not pleased the Secret Service – Bush stepped back and the podium dropped down.

We see here a process conducted entirely in images, and in an augury of what would take place under the Bush presidency, the maintenance of an iron grip on these images. That the process consists only of images is not viewed by Stevens as a liability. He does not think the scrutiny of newspapers and reporters as a good thing, but a detriment to the electoral process. This point is made in his novel “Scorched Earth”2, as well as this memoir. The relevant sections are bolded.

organization rather than paid media part one organization rather than paid media part two

He [George W Bush] gave a speech to a lunch crowd of about four hundred people and afterward, I ran into Davis Yepsen, the Des Moines Register‘s lead political reporter. Every four years Yepsen becomes a familiar face on television, being generally recognized as the guy who knows more about the Iowa Caucuses than anyone else alive. Which might even be true.

“So what did you think?” I asked him outside the small auditorium.

Yepsen has that permanently rumpled look that reporters probably think makes them look like Dustin Hoffman playing Carl Bernstein in All the President’s Men.

“I just don’t know if Bush has the organization to win big.” Ahhh…I knew it would come down to this. Organization. Yepsen was obsessed with the notion that organization rather than paid media was the key to winning the Iowa Caucuses. This had become the conventional wisdom ever since Jimmy Carter put the Iowa Caucus on the map by outworking and outorganizing the field in 1976.

Essential to this view of the world was the idea that paid media – television an radio – would not carry a candidate to caucus victory. If anybody was ever able to rely more on media than organization and pull off an Iowa victory, it would go a long way toward reducing the value on an insider like David Yepsen. Then the Iowa Caucuses would become just like any other big statewide race, with the likely outcome determined by media buys and easily digestible polls. The voodoo of the caucus systems would be exposed as, well, voodoo.

The campaign which makes the most media buys, the wealthiest campaign is the one that should win. This is Stevens’ vision. Media is not intended to transmit one’s policies, but only to elect an individual, and actual policy positions may endanger the goal of electing the candidate. Again, we have election as a closed process, like a gameshow, nothing outside or after touching it:

media consultants and policy wonks

In most campaigns, there is a gulf between strategy/tactics/media and policy, with each side viewing the other as a necessary evil. Media guys like me tended to look on policy as that stuff you had to have a little of to be credible but too much was either distracting, consuming valuable time and resources without attracting votes or highly dangerous, exposing the candidate needlessly to positions that might alienate potential voters. Policy wonks see media consultants and campaign operatives as nasty and brutish tools regrettably required to get through that awkward stage of actually getting elected so that the world can embrace their brilliant ideas.

PERSONAL DETAILS

I end with two mysterious aspects of Stuart Stevens that reccur in his books. The first deals with his education. He is eighteen in 1972, and in 1978 starts work on his first congressional campaign, putting the length of his education at six years. Based on his writings, during these six years, he attended five schools: a college in the United States3, Oxford as an undergrad student4, Oxford as a graduate student5, two film schools6, including UCLA7. However, these are entirely his own statements: the only time UCLA is mentioned as a school is in an old profile, “Image Makers Hard at Work In the Selling of a Candidate”, in the New York Times, with Oxford unnamed, and Oxford never named in any book jacket of his five books. His Oxford education is not mentioned at all in The Big Enchilada. These details, rightly or wrongly, tend to cause my antennae to buzz that there may be something false in this account. I have already written here in this analysis of Stevens’ book Malaria Dreams that I think there is some basis that parts of it are manufactured.

The other recurrent detail is his wife. Stevens has been married to this woman for at least thirty years, meeting her in the New Orleans club Tipitina’s, and is with her in Switzerland during the early ’80s where he coaches rugby while she teaches8. Since then, he writes five books (Night Train To Turkmenistan, Malaria Dreams, Feeding Frenzy, Scorched Earth, and The Big Enchilada), none of which carry a dedication to a wife. In two of those books, Malaria Dreams and Feeding Frenzy he travels, respectively, through Africa and Europe with a beautiful, open-minded woman, his wife not even mentioned in Frenzy, his wife, always off-screen, racing to meet him at the end of Malaria. The Big Enchilada continues this tradition, with his wife accompanying him to Austin, Texas for the purposes of the campaign, but almost entirely unmentioned, except for her admiration for Karl Rove’s pens9. At the very end of the book, Stevens briefly seems to forget that he’s married10.

A relevant life for this last detail is Jon Hinson, a good friend of Stevens, on whose campaign Stevens does his first work as a political consultant. Jon Hinson led a fascinating and sometimes brave life, some of whose details are mentioned here. That this life may have provided a lesson to others, including Stevens, goes without saying. Those who read this and are able to make the obvious deductions, might ask: do you not feel vile bringing this up? And the answer is, yes, I do.

But I will ask in turn: why have we arrived at this point? Why do men like Jon Hinson need to live like hunted animals? Is it the policies of Stevens’ candidates or mine? Stevens’ attitude toward the electoral process is that it is total war, a case of fight, fight, fight, no stone unthrown, no arrow unflown. Then it should be expected that people who are fighting for their lives, not their political lives, but their lives, will fight back in turn, will fight back hard. Stuart Stevens may think the lives of those outside the process are worthless chaff, but we will make clear by how hard we fight for our lives that they have the same value of Stevens or any potentate he works for.

1 From the Harper’s piece:

Romney has employed a number of firms to stage his campaign events, among them Political Productions, which was paid $20,800 to help choreograph his announcement ceremony in February. The firm is headed by David Grossman, who has handled rallies for President Bush, produced and designed the 2001 inaugural parade, and helped prepare the Desert Storm victory celebration in Washington during the term of George H.W. Bush. (Political Productions is also, according to its website, “the leader in confetti services for the political production market,” and its team of professional confetti-releasers assures that a “synchronized event” will come off flawlessly “with all elements occurring on cue when and where you want. With only 20 to 30 seconds following each speech available for a headline photo opportunity or a video lead-in clip, why chance your production to anyone but the leader in political production?”)

2 From the novel Scorched Earth, a meeting between the protaganist consultant and a reporter, Robert Newsome:

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

“You know what it is about you reporters, Newsome?” Matt asked. Newsome was busy scrubbing furiously at his suit pants with a wet towel. “You’re fundamentally conflicted about this campaign stuff.”

“Conflicted?” Newsome muttered.

“You guys talk all the time about how you hate dull campaigns and spend God knows how much energy trying to get two candidates to bash each other’s brains out-”

“What other fun is there?”

“Exactly. And then if a campaign should finally catch fire and start exploding on you, all of a sudden you start to condescend and rip into us for lack of decorum. Decorum. Hah!” Matt laughed loudly. Heads turned. “On the one hand, you want democracy to be a great popular sport, everybody involved and cheering wildly. But as soon as it starts to happen, you’re horrified. It’s like you want everybody to come to the party but only if they dress just so. You complain about how nobody votes anymore. Big deal! Ninety percent of the people in Italy vote. You want a country like that? And all this BS about how television ads are ruining campaigns! You know why editorial writers don’t like television spots? Because they take power out of their hands! They want a few dinky debates, a polite campaign, and then for everybody to sit at home on Sunday waiting for the editorials to know which way to vote. Instead, some jerk like me can muck things up! You want twenty percent of the people to vote instead of fifty! Just take campaign commercials off the air. You’ll bore everybody to death!”

3 From “Thank God, This Will Only Get Worse” by Stuart Stevens.

I’d tried it once in college when an exceptionally gorgeous girl of a Nordic type suggested a trip up Pikes Peak in Colorado as something of a first date. (That sort of squeaky-clean approach was popular at that time and place, a phase I hope has passed for those still dating in Colorado.)

4 From Feeding Frenzy:

oxford

We were in a little restaurant on the side of a cliff in a town called Eze, wedged between Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat and Monte Carlo. I was nineteen, I think, and on one of the many interminable vacations that Oxford likes to provide. She was a few years older, an American, but she had lived in France for a while, which seemed very impressive and somehow important. It was late March and not far away there were almost nude women lying on rocks they called a beach.

5 From “My Secret Life As A Muslim” by Stuart Stevens:

From my formative years as a grad student at Oxford, where there were many Muslims, there exist photographs of me attending a lecture entitled, “The History of Islam.” I was spotted many times riding my motorcycle in the vicinity of the Mosque on Bath Road. That I was visiting a girlfriend who lived nearby may only have been a clever deep cover deception. As proof of my success as a Muslim organizer, there are now four Mosques in Oxford, where there was only one when I was a student.

6 From The Big Enchilada:

film school part one film school part two

Then a friend called just as I was finishing film school. He was running for Congress in Mississippi against Senator John Stennis’s son and couldn’t afford to hire anybody to make ads for him. So he asked me to do it. I explained that I didn’t have the slightest idea how to make commercials and when he protested that I had just been to two of the fanciest film schools in the country, I tried to tell him that mostly what I did was watch old films and write little essays and listen to people like Vincente Minnelli tell us how it used to be. (Minelli wore a blazer the color of a canary yellow Post-it note. Perfect.)

7 From “Image Makers Hard at Work In the Selling of a Candidate”. Stevens has done writing and producing work for television; he is unmentioned among UCLA alumni of writers, producers, or documentary film-makers.

This free-form approach reflects the philosophy of the 40-year-old Mr. Stevens. Unlike most political consultants who rose from campaign ranks, he went to film school at the University of California at Los Angeles and has published fiction.

8 From “Thank God, This Will Only Get Worse” by Stuart Stevens.

It happened in my late 20s when I was living in Switzerland, where my wife was teaching. I coached the school’s rugby team, but it would be a charitable understatement to say that I had a lot of time on my hands. One of the faculty members had raced cross-country at Middlebury, and he convinced me to tag along to a nearby ski area for a training session.

9 These are the references to Stevens’ wife in Big Enchilada:

taste in pens and paper

With one of his elegant fountain pens – Karl had better taste in pens and paper than any man she knew, my wife maintained – Karl diagrammed the campaign structure.

A reference to a shared domiciles in a brief scene with Yvette, a campaign worker:

our house

I loved Yvette. She was funny and wicked smart and was always a calming presence, which is invaluable in a campaign world where it’s easy to believe that death and destruction lurk around every corner. She had stayed in our apartment in New York on a weekend trip to see the Yankees – she was a fanatical baseball fan – and stayed in our house in Austin to take care of our cats whenever we went out of town.

This is her, just out of reach, in Austin, on the night of the 2000 election after which the electoral result was held suspended for weeks.

my wife had taken it home

But when I walked out on Congress Street I realized I didn’t have my car after all, that my wife had taken it home around 1 A.M., a lifetime ago. I walked down Congress Street in the rain looking for a cab.

10 The forgetting of a wife takes place in the movement from “our” apartment to “my” apartment in New York City. A brief scene with Yvette, a helper on the campaign:

our house

I loved Yvette. She was funny and wicked smart and was always a calming presence, which is invaluable in a campaign world where it’s easy to believe that death and destruction lurk around every corner. She had stayed in our apartment in New York on a weekend trip to see the Yankees – she was a fanatical baseball fan – and stayed in our house in Austin to take care of our cats whenever we went out of town.

Here is Stevens leaving Austin. We are not told of his wife leaving before him. Again, my bold.

our place in austin

I left Austin right after the certification, thinking it was all over. The lease was up on our little limestone cottage and it seemed silly to move into a hotel. The truth was, I had come to hate the recount period, hated the way it made me feel like some kind of hanger-on. Karl was starting to focus on the first hundred days of the new administration, but that wasn’t what I did. I was a campaign guy and no matter what Bill Daley said, the campaign had ended on November 7, 2000.

Next page, now he’s back in New York. My bolded emphasis.

my apartment

The night it finally ended, Wednesday, December 13, I watched the speeches on television just like everybody else. I was back in my apartment in New York, ready to resume my life, but still held in some kind of suspended animation by this horrible, tedious process. But now, yes, it was over.

“Our” apartment is now “my” apartment.

(Small edits have been made to this post for aesthetics, grammar, and spelling since its original publication. On April 24th, 2013, I noticed that, through some error, some scanned images of Enchilada were blurry and not underlined; I replaced them with clearer, underlined scans.)

(What follows is the original post on this book.)

The Big Enchilada is an account of Stevens’ time in the campaign to elect George W. Bush in 2000, published in 2001, after the re-count, before the September 11 attacks. This entry is brief and unfinished.

OXFORD AND JON HINSON

When you read a Dashiell Hammett story, you wait in suspense over who’ll die first and when someone will have the first drink. In a book by Stuart Stevens, you’re held taut on whether he’ll mention going to Oxford and when. He writes of attending as an undergraduate in Feeding Frenzy, as a graduate in this Atlantic piece, and general attendance is mentioned in Malaria Dreams.

In The Big Enchilada, we get an overview of his post secondary education. Two of the best film schools, nothing else. He helps out a friend in a congressional race in 1978, when he is twenty five, no further education is cited. I bold what might be a significant sentence.

film school part one film school part two

Then a friend called just as I was finishing film school. He was running for Congress in Mississippi against Senator John Stennis’s son and couldn’t afford to hire anybody to make ads for him. So he asked me to do it. I explained that I didn’t have the slightest idea how to make commercials and when he protested that I had just been to two of the fanciest film schools in the country, I tried to tell him that mostly what I did was watch old films and write little essays and listen to people like Vincente Minnelli tell us how it used to be. (Minelli wore a blazer the color of a canary yellow Post-it note. Perfect.)

But my friend was insistent.

The congressman from Jackson, my hometown, was Thad Cochran and he was running for the Senate, opening up the seat my friend was trying to win.

It wasn’t as though I had a lot of offers after film school and I had to admit it did sound like fun. So I went back to Mississippi and somehow we stumbled our way to victory in what was seen as a major upset. Then I discovered other people would pay me money to make commercials for them.

So I became a media consultant.

Why not? It’s a profession of charlatans. You want to be a media consultant, just say you’re one.

Oxford is mentioned once, in discussing a location for a campaign ad:

oxford not ames iowa

The whole building felt more like Oxford than Ames, Iowa, with lots of high arches, flared valence lighting and windows with heavy ironwork dividing the panes.

You would think a building that looks like the school one attended in one’s youth might trigger a reminiscence, some anecdote of some kind, but there’s nothing. Gee, I wonder why.

So, if these mentions of Oxford attendance in two books and an article are deceptions, I wonder if this is to be the Romney campaign’s solution to the problem of student debt: that students should not spend money to attend schools, but simply state that they went to those schools anyway. To act like…what’s the word? Oh, yes: charlatans.

I do not stress this point out of any great devotion to an alma mater. Like Shakespeare, perhaps like Stevens, I’m a non-Oxfordian. I only wonder at what point the rules that apply to each one of us finally apply to the same chattering class which happily tosses these rules down on us. For if I were asked why Stevens thinks he can state that he went to Oxford when he did not, which, if it were the case, is a lie, and why he thinks he can write a memoir like Malaria Dreams with a timeline so scrambled that, outside other possible explanations, suggests a series of lies, I believe the answer is that he has enough contacts within this chattering class that any deep scrutiny can be avoided. While those of us outside this chattering class will have our smallest shortcomings punished with financial austerity, Stevens is given grace, because he knows people we do not.

In fact, I wonder if I might be able to find somewhere in Enchilada where we see Stevens in close, incestuous contact with someone who might render judgment, but also someone who praised the Paul Ryan austerity budget, an intertwining of the politico-media class that Stevens will describe as incestuous. Why, yes, I believe, my humble brain can find such a thing.

jacob weisberg

Jacob Weisberg, who writes for Slate magazine, was with me. He’d heard through the incestuous grapevine of journalists and political operatives that I was planning to sneak away for a few hours on election morning and asked if he could come along.

“I was on the Yale cross-country ski team,” Jacob told me, then added, “We were terrible, don’t be impressed.”

Driving up, Jacob started telling me about the first time he had met John McCain. “It was at Michael Lewis’s wedding,” he explained. “At my house.”

Jacob Weisberg is now chairman and editor-in-chief of the Slate. Here he is praising the Ryan budget as “brave, radical, smart”. I think he’s a good writer and a good editor. If I feel revulsion at all this, it is not at him but at a distance which exists between those who struggle for the simplest things, and those who apart, seemingly hear only themselves talk. Those who would suffer most under the Ryan budget will not be on the Yale ski team, they will not be at the wedding of Michael Lewis, they will not get to ski with Weisberg and Stevens. They will never get to explain their mistakes, their difficulties, their lives. They are not like others, who have networks, have contacts, have ins.

I return to a point from the lengthy excerpt on Stevens’ education and his beginning in politics.

Then a friend called just as I was finishing film school. He was running for Congress in Mississippi against Senator John Stennis’s son and couldn’t afford to hire anybody to make ads for him. So he asked me to do it.

The congressman from Jackson, my hometown, was Thad Cochran and he was running for the Senate, opening up the seat my friend was trying to win.

It wasn’t as though I had a lot of offers after film school and I had to admit it did sound like fun. So I went back to Mississippi and somehow we stumbled our way to victory in what was seen as a major upset.

For whatever reason, Stevens leaves this friend unnamed. He names the man who first got him into politics, William Winter, a former segregationist who became a force for racial reconciliation in Mississippi, described by Stevens as the best governor the state had in thirty years, but this next man, the subject of his first campaign, goes unnamed, though he can easily be looked up. It’s Jon Hinson, some of whose brave, tragic life is described in this post. And for whatever reason, almost all the significant details of that life are omitted in his brief unnamed mention in Enchilada. It is a life that may have some especial significance on this day1.

That both characters, Winter and Hinson, are given brief emphasis back to back in this book, makes an overspeculative man like me speculate that perhaps two characters in Stevens’ novel, Scorched Earth, about Mississippi born political consultant Matt Bonney, are in fact based on these two. Powell Bonney, the political consultant’s father, a former segregationist who goes on to be an excellent governor, with Luke Bonney as the consultant’s brother, a man just like the consultant, his near twin in fact, whose first campaign was managed by Matt Bonney.

INCIDENTAL NOTES

Observations of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney from 2000 that fill me with grim laughter. Here is Stevens comparing the temperament of Al Gore unfavourably to that of Bush:

lets bomb some country

The Gore people loved to make fun of Bush as a slacker, but in truth, I bet Gores hyperkinetic, meddlesome nature drove them nuts. Here was a guy who woke his staff up at 4 A.M. to insist they make the spot he just wrote on a nuclear arms treaty right now. This is quality that is amusing in poets but downright dangerous in a president. Hey guys, wake up, I’ve got a great idea! Let’s bomb some country!

Well, it’s a good thing Bush got elected, and not some guy who decided to make a rash and utterly baseless decision to go to war with another country.

Here is Stevens ridiculing various attempts by democrats to defame the potential vice president. I bold the part I laughed hardest.

dick cheney part one dick cheney part two

They had two lines of attack – trying to paint Dick Cheney as a rabid right-winger and going after Bush’s Texas record.

The Cheney attacks, we were convinced, were a total waste. The notion that somehow they were going to turn the low-key amiable Dick Cheney into a hated figure was preposterous. It wasn’t going to work. The guy you saw on television on Meet the Press came across as eminently reasonable; plus, the press liked Cheney. They weren’t going to participate in some feeding frenzy to demonize him. The attacks were based on votes Cheney had cast years earlier as a congressman and as attacks go, they were awfully weak stuff. First, nobody outside of Wyoming even knew that Dick Cheney had been a congressman. To the extent he had a public profile, it was as defense secretary during the Gulf War. So, first the Dems had to educate people that he had been a congressman, then convince people he had done terrible things as a congressman, then try to establish why this mattered fifteen years later and, by the way, forget about the Dick Cheney you came to respect and admire during the Gulf War.

No doubt that will be Dick Cheney’s lasting impression, a low-key amiable man. Stuart Stevens, the oracle of Delphi.

In an otherwise funny passage on trying to book musical acts for a republican convention, Stevens trips up and unleashes a little malice, letting us know that he thinks Ireland is a country that can’t govern itself – this was said during the celtic tiger era, so he perhaps is talking about some deeper issue of independent rule, away from a mother nation.

ungovernable ireland

Nobody had actually asked Elton John (who probably hated Republicans more than he hated growing old) or U2 (who, despite the fact they come from a country that can’t govern itself, seemed to have quite a few opinions on how to perfect the world) whether they would love nothing more than to perform in front of a few thousand Republican yahoos in Philadelphia for free. These conference calls were like talking to people on hallucinogenic drugs, only they didn’t realize they were on drugs.

On the identity of the republican party at the time, and the limits of its appeal.

We had to face reality: The Democrats had been wildly successful in painting the Republican Party as a natural home for right-wing lunatics and nutballs of all stripes. And the party hadn’t helped itself with antics like shutting down the government or failing to denounce the wackos who were busy circulating pictures of Clinton behind the grassy knoll in Dallas. “Compassionate conservative” was the shorthand that would signal to the world that Bush was different. We wanted people to hear it and think that yes, Bush was a conservative, but he cared about education, cared about the poor and lower-middle class, cared about finding new solutions to vexing problems of inequality. There had been a lot of back and forth over who actually coined the term but there’s no question it was Rove and Bush who had latched onto it and wrapped the Bush candidacy around the concept. If it worked, compassionate conservatism would be the way to cut the Gordian knot that was holding back the Republican party. Like the Democrats in the 1980s, the Republican party’s growth was bounded by its extremes.

In regard to this attempt to transform the republican party from a haven for lunatics and nutballs of all stripes, I think it is apt to quote Stevens’ former boss, and say: “Mission Accomplished.”

A relevant excerpt on Republican candidates:

four slots

So driving back, I explained to Chuck what I called McInturff’s Law. It was named after one of the smartest pollsters in America, Bill McInturff, and it went like this: The Republican party has basically four slots for a candidate to fit into. There’s the Establishment slot, the Economic Conservative slot, the pro-life/Christian Conservative slot, and the Businessman/Outsider slot. To win the Republican nomination, you had to fit into at least three of those slots. Bush fit into all four. McCain? He really only fit one – the Businessman/Outsider slot. That limited his appeal such that he could never really get traction.

It seems that Mitt Romney fits only in one slot as well, that of Businessman/Outsider, with his two most formidable challengers, Rick Santorum and Ron Paul, fitting into all three, hence the lack of enthusiasm for this nominee.

In Stevens’ view, the enthusiasm of supporters and their ability to organize is irrelevant. The great importance is ultimately media buys, and whoever has the most media buys, wins. An unspoken corollary is here also: it is the campaign with the most available money for media buys that will always win.

This perspective is given here, in a conversation with an Iowa journalist. I bold the significant parts:

organization rather than paid media part one organization rather than paid media part two

He [George W Bush] gave a speech to a lunch crowd of about four hundred people and afterward, I ran into Davis Yepsen, the Des Moines Register‘s lead political reporter. Every four years Yepsen becomes a familiar face on television, being generally recognized as the guy who knows more about the Iowa Caucuses than anyone else alive. Which might even be true.

“So what did you think?” I asked him outside the small auditorium.

Yepsen has that permanently rumpled look that reporters probably think makes them look like Dustin Hoffman playing Carl Bernstein in All the President’s Men.

“I just don’t know if Bush has the organization to win big.” Ahhh…I knew it would come down to this. Organization. Yepsen was obsessed with the notion that organization rather than paid media was the key to winning the Iowa Caucuses. This had become the conventional wisdom ever since Jimmy Carter put the Iowa Caucus on the map by outworking and outorganizing the field in 1976.

Essential to this view of the world was the idea that paid media – television an radio – would not carry a candidate to caucus victory. If anybody was ever able to rely more on media than organization and pull off an Iowa victory, it would go a long way toward reducing the value on an insider like David Yepsen. Then the Iowa Caucuses would become just like any other big statewide race, with the likely outcome determined by media buys and easily digestible polls. The voodoo of the caucus systems would be exposed as, well, voodoo.

This is entirely the same opinion given in Scorched Earth, Stevens’ novel about a senate race in Mississippi. A conversation between a political consultant, Matt Bonney, and a journalist, Robert Newsome:

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

“You know what it is about you reporters, Newsome?” Matt asked. Newsome was busy scrubbing furiously at his suit pants with a wet towel. “You’re fundamentally conflicted about this campaign stuff.”

“Conflicted?” Newsome muttered.

“You guys talk all the time about how you hate dull campaigns and spend God knows how much energy trying to get two candidates to bash each other’s brains out-”

“What other fun is there?”

“Exactly. And then if a campaign should finally catch fire and start exploding on you, all of a sudden you start to condescend and rip into us for lack of decorum. Decorum. Hah!” Matt laughed loudly. Heads turned. “On the one hand, you want democracy to be a great popular sport, everybody involved and cheering wildly. But as soon as it starts to happen, you’re horrified. It’s like you want everybody to come to the party but only if they dress just so. You complain about how nobody votes anymore. Big deal! Ninety percent of the people in Italy vote. You want a country like that? And all this BS about how television ads are ruining campaigns! You know why editorial writers don’t like television spots? Because they take power out of their hands! They want a few dinky debates, a polite campaign, and then for everybody to sit at home on Sunday waiting for the editorials to know which way to vote. Instead, some jerk like me can muck things up! You want twenty percent of the people to vote instead of fifty! Just take campaign commercials off the air. You’ll bore everybody to death!”

We see some of the flaws with this approach in the current race. The very well financed Romney campaign appears to be threatened by the very, very well organized Ron Paul supporters who have taken advantage of every edge in the caucus rule book to obtain a winners’ share of the delegates in Iowa and elsewhere, so they might hiss up as a poisonous asp in the elysium of the GOP convention.

That media buys are essential to a campaign dovetails with Stevens’ later observations on the distinctions between policy and media in the course of a campaign. Karl, of course is, well, you can guess who Karl is.

media consultants and policy wonks

In most campaigns, there is a gulf between strategy/tactics/media and policy, with each side viewing the other as a necessary evil. Media guys like me tended to look on policy as that stuff you had to have a little of to be credible but too much was either distracting, consuming valuable time and resources without attracting votes or highly dangerous, exposing the candidate needlessly to positions that might alienate potential voters. Policy wonks see media consultants and campaign operatives as nasty and brutish tools regrettably required to get through that awkward stage of actually getting elected so that the world can embrace their brilliant ideas.

In the Bush campaign world, Karl bridged the gap. He was actually interested in the details of policy, a trait which I might have found suspect if I didn’t know that he was also completely committed to the messy business of getting elected.

Since media is essential to a winning campaign, it would seem that policy would be secondary, if not inessential to a political race. The median that Karl Rove represents is not quite the one that Stevens intends here, a man expert in both worlds who shapes media expertly in presentation of policy, but something else: a man who shapes policy entirely for its presentation in visual media.

A critical look of Al Gore by Stevens, which is of great interest for the current campaign.

he will say anything to get elected

The key here was credibility. We weren’t going to win this race just by making the case that Al Gore was saying the wrong things and had the wrong plans. Sure, that was part of it, but we had to raise doubts so that when voters heard stuff from Gore they liked, they still would pause before accepting it. You could do it with large-scale failed promises, like his vow to fix health care in 1992, a debacle people still remembered, or with the little stuff that drove people nuts about Gore – the “I invented the Internet, I was the model for Love Story, I discovered the Love Canal” stuff.

He really will say anything to get elected.

As far as I can tell, Stevens thinks that a candidate who would say anything to get elected, and take credit for all manner of things they had nothing to do with, should not be elected. Someone, say, who takes credit for an auto bailout he was dead set against, someone who was for a path to citizenship, then changed his mind, someone who was independent during Reagan-Bush, until he decided two decades later that Reagan was one of his heroes, someone who didn’t own a gun until he owned a gun, someone who was for same sex marriage until he was against it, someone whose favorite book was Battlefield Earth until it was Huckleberry Finn, someone who was pro-choice until he was pro-life…well, we could be here all day. As far as I can tell, Stevens believes a person who constantly changes his position on every issue, who will say anything to be elected, should not, under any circumstances, be voted for. Advice taken, Mr. Stevens.

From what I’ve heard, the relationship between a consultant and their candidate is something like a marriage. If that’s the case, it must be great to have Mitt Romney as a client. It must be like sleeping with a different girl every night. That is, if you sleep with girls.

And what red-blooded male doesn’t? After all, marriage is between a man and a woman, right?

An interesting take on Al Gore during one of the debates.

the kind of kid you beat up

Gore was coming across as a petulant know-it-all, the kind of kid you draw straws with your buddies in high school for the right to beat up this week.

There’s a great benefit to a beatdown, beyond the pleasure of the beatdown itself, a pleasure, of course, exclusive to the perpetrator: you have the joy of knowing you’re not the victim. You belong, and the victim does not.

A last point on this book, on the subject of Stevens’ wife. In the books of some writers, their wives are sensually ever present, their smell and light in every page. The wife of Stevens is something like a benevolent god of another man’s faith, never seen, never described, entirely unknown, its markings few and obscure to the reader. In Feeding Frenzy, Stevens travels through Europe with a gorgeous former model and we’re never told he’s even married. Malaria Dreams has Stevens traveling alone through Africa with another beautiful woman while racing to meet his wife, forever unseen and unheard, in an Algerian city.

Stevens’ wife is in Enchilada the way the vast fortune of a slightly disreputable businessman in a Buenos Aires café is most certainly there: the money exists, but it is always out of reach, never to have a substantial withdrawal on that day.

This is the wife giving her approval of Karl Rove’s tastes:

taste in pens and paper

With one of his elegant fountain pens – Karl had better taste in pens and paper than any man she knew, my wife maintained – Karl diagrammed the campaign structure.

Here she is, indirectly, as a fellow tenant in domiciles of Austin and New York:

our house

I loved Yvette. She was funny and wicked smart and was always a calming presence, which is invaluable in a campaign world where it’s easy to believe that death and destruction lurk around every corner. She had stayed in our apartment in New York on a weekend trip to see the Yankees – she was a fanatical baseball fan – and stayed in our house in Austin to take care of our cats whenever we went out of town.

This is her, just out of reach, in Austin, on the night of the 2000 election after which the electoral result was held suspended for weeks.

my wife had taken it home

But when I walked out on Congress Street I realized I didn’t have my car after all, that my wife had taken it home around 1 A.M., a lifetime ago. I walked down Congress Street in the rain looking for a cab.

And those are all the signs by which you shall know her. There is a strange conclusion to all this. After this last quoted fragment, Stevens is in Austin, waiting through a few days as the post-election stasis of recounts and adjudication sets in. We are never told of Stevens’ wife leaving Austin. Long before the supreme court finally weighs in, allowing a glorious reign of peace and prosperity to unfurl, Stevens goes home, back to New York City.

I re-quote one fragment, with bolded emphasis before getting to this closing return.

I loved Yvette. She was funny and wicked smart and was always a calming presence, which is invaluable in a campaign world where it’s easy to believe that death and destruction lurk around every corner. She had stayed in our apartment in New York on a weekend trip to see the Yankees – she was a fanatical baseball fan – and stayed in our house in Austin to take care of our cats whenever we went out of town.

Here is Stevens leaving Austin. We are not told of his wife leaving before him. Again, my bold.

our place in austin

I left Austin right after the certification, thinking it was all over. The lease was up on our little limestone cottage and it seemed silly to move into a hotel. The truth was, I had come to hate the recount period, hated the way it made me feel like some kind of hanger-on. Karl was starting to focus on the first hundred days of the new administration, but that wasn’t what I did. I was a campaign guy and no matter what Bill Daley said, the campaign had ended on November 7, 2000.

Next page, now he’s back in New York. My bolded emphasis.

my apartment

The night it finally ended, Wednesday, December 13, I watched the speeches on television just like everybody else. I was back in my apartment in New York, ready to resume my life, but still held in some kind of suspended animation by this horrible, tedious process. But now, yes, it was over.

“Our” apartment is now “my” apartment. It would seem two lives would continue on in “our” place, but it appears there’s now only one life, “my” life in “my” apartment. It’s always helpful in the illusion of verisimilitude to make sure that a left-handed character on page 218 stays left-handed on page 298. When you’re in character, try and remember that your character is married, and don’t slip up.

I end on an obscure note, with a fragment from an earlier book of Stevens, Feeding Frenzy.

the conformist

She had the classic good looks I associated with Parisian women of twenty-five years ago, an image driven home by European cinema: Catherine Deneuve in Belle du Jour, Dominique Sanda in The Conformist.

The Conformist. Bernardo Bertolucci. Good movie. Interesting movie. Fitting movie.

1 This post was written on the day president Obama gave his public support for same-sex marriage.

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Malaria Dreams by Mitt Romney’s Chief Strategist Stuart Stevens

Part of an on-going attempt to illuminate the life and career of a political consultant, in this case, Stuart Stevens; other posts include “He Hates You”, a summary profile, a brief look at his China travel memoir, Night Train to Turkistan, his memoir of the 2000 Bush campaign, an analysis of his novel Scorched Earth, an analysis of his book Feeding Frenzy, his interview with Charlie Rose promoting Feeding Frenzy, Stevens and Jon Hinson, an analysis of an episode of “Commander in Chief” which he co-wrote, and his defense of Newt Gingrich on “Charlie Rose”. Outside profiles and mentions, all excellent, are “Building a Better Mitt Romney-Bot” by Robert Draper, “An Unconventional Strategist Reshaping Romney” by Ashley Parker, “The Coming Tsunami of Slime” by Joe Hagan, and “Mitt Romney’s Dark Knight” by Jason Zengerle.

Malaria Dreams Stuart Stevens

THE UNSUBMISSIBLE PLACE

Malaria Dreams is a travel memoir following Stevens and a companion, Ann Bradley, as they voyage from the Central African Republic up to Algeria, traveling through, among other places, Cameroon, Chad, Niger, and the Sahara. It is the best book of his that I have read because either through his own restraint, or the efforts of an editor, Stevens does not give in to his desire for malice or imagined violence. In other books, he or his proxy hero might imagine strangling a woman or ripping her vocal chords out with his teeth. Here, he simply groans. At the same time, the african setting makes his flaws even more poisonous. Though it’s the best book of his I’ve read so far, it’s also the most distasteful, and the ill taste of its worst moments endures. There is another, rather unusual aspect to this memoir, but I’ll get to that after.

Perhaps more than any place, Africa does not submit itself to anyone in writing. Ultimately, the writer must submit themselves to the continent. It is this resistance to submission which destroys Stevens’ book. It attempts to be a comedy travelogue, two bumbling adventurers passing through sights picturesque and horrific, the two travelers unchanged and apart from the landscape. The essence of what they observe, however, only hinted at in the writing, seems too rich, too complex to be contained in such a frivolous structure, and it makes this writing seem rancid.

I give two examples early on that stay with me. The first is a very vivid moment in Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic, which should contain the materials of something multi-faceted, the pathos and ridiculousness of poverty, yet which is made into something simpler, the comedy and horror of a man of the first world beset by the downtrodden of the third (I include a scan of the book pages to accompany all quotes, to make clear the quote is not distorted or taken out of context):

beggars

Bangui, like New York, has a hidden population of homeless and infirm who emerge after dark dominating the streets. Driving to and from expensive restaurants in Henri’s car, I’d noted with curiousity the swarming wheelchairs, unlike any I’d seen – ingenious devices powered by hand cranks mounted like handlebars. Outfitted with wide tires suitable for Bangui’s rubbled streets, the chairs could move with extreme speed and dexterity.

This I discovered while sulking back to the Novotel. On a side street near the main traffic circle, I suddenly found myself surrounded by wheelchairs. It seemed, at first, an amiable coincidence. I nodded and kept walking. Two chairs wheeled in to block my route. This is ridiculous, I thought, and turned, trying to be ever so casual, down a side alley leading to a main street. A chair manned by a person missing a chin filled the narrow walkway. He gave me a horrible, skeletal grin.

The encircling chairs began to move forward, tightening the noose. I can run, I thought, run past them, knock them over. Then a flashing knife made me think otherwise.

As they drew nearer, I reached into my pocket for a handful of coins. Shaking them alluringly like dice, I scattered the money in the street.

The wheelchairs instantly broke ranks, scrambling for the flashes of silver. I bolted for the hotel.

Ann was waiting for me in the lobby. “Did you get mugged?” I asked her, panting a bit.

“Of course not. Don’t be paranoid.”

Another scene, this one in a bar, again in Bangui:

does he beat you

At the bar there was a young, very pretty white woman we’d seen on the flight from France. She’d been carrying a black baby, and I asked Henri and Françoise if they knew her.

“Oh, yes,” Françoise said, “everyone knows everyone in Bangui. She met her husband while he was a student in Paris. They fell in love, married and came back here to live. He beats her regularly.”

This was delivered not in a catty, gossipy way but as a simple statement of fact, like “The pizza is good.”

“It’s very common,” Henri assured Ann and me. I suppose we looked as if we needed assuring.

“I do not even think,” Françoise said, “that it has anything to do with meanness or anger. It is always done, so they do it.”

“How quaint,” Ann observed.

Henri looked over at the woman at the bar. “The white wives of Africans do not strike me as the happiest people in the world.”

Later:

Ann and I talked with the tall, attractive woman bartender. She was not, to our surprise, French. “Russian,” she insisted, but when we looked unconvinced, she relented. “Czechoslovakian,” she admitted, as if that would make her presence completely logical. “I married an African student studying at university.”

“Does he beat you?” Ann asked.

I looked over at her, trying to recall how much Beaujolais she’d downed at dinner.

“What?” the Czech bartender asked. The music roared.

“Does he beat you?” Ann yelled, slapping the bar a few times for effect.

“What?”

Beat you!”

The bartender laughed. “We are divorced now,” she cried. “I am a free woman in Bangui!”

After:

On the edge of the city center, where the houses disappeared and the shacks began, it was jammed with white men dancing with black women.

“The pride of France!” Henri exclaimed, gesturing out over the steamy club floor. The men all had short hair and wore the preppy outfits that apparently were the norm for French men in Africa; topsiders and bright Lacoste shirts, khaki pants and alligator belts.

“This is what the men in Beau Geste were fighting for,” Henri said. “Vive l’Afrique!” He ordered another bottle of champagne.

They run into some american marines, including one named Ernie. Stevens buys beers.

aids man

With a familiar feeling of fiscal panic, I frantically tried to calculate it in dollars. Ernie took a look and said flatly, “About sixty-five dollars. I tried to warn you.”

“No problem,” I mumbled, thinking back fondly to the bargain price of living on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

“The only cheap thing in this country,” Ernie told me while we worked our way back over to the main huddle, “is women, but then you got to figure most of them come with the gift that keeps on giving.”

“What?” I had no idea what he was talking about.

“AIDS, man.” He slapped me on the back. “You join the Marine Corps, you flat learn about that stuff. What you got here” – he gestured out over the dance floor crowded with white men and black woman – “is one great hunk of AIDS. Right here is where it all started.”

“Some of these French guys,” another marine pronounced, “I think they might have got it on with that first monkey started all this stuff.”

“Hey.” Ernie wrapped his big arm around my shoulder. “This girl Ann, she your girlfriend, or what?”

Later we went outside to watch two French soldiers in a desultory fight. The marines were unimpressed. “For the love of God, will you look at those fairies. Are they in love or fighting?”

The ranking marine, a sergeant who, in his late twenties, was the oldest of the group, steered his men toward a Land Cruiser where a black chauffeur was asleep. “Leaving E. Club,” the sergeant barked into his crackling radio.

“Hey, look,” Ernie told Ann and me, though mostly he was looking at Ann, “you guys got to come over to the marine house. We got a great cook.”

“You have a cook?” Ann asked. She had a great interest in all things culinary.

“Hell, yes. Chauffeur too. Ain’t life great?”

Ann agreed and asked if she should dress for dinner.

That there is an ugliness, a squalor, in the contrast between the rich and the poor in Africa, in the difference in lives between the colonials and the citizens, in the ravages of disease, there is no doubt. Faced with it, I think the best writers can only find some all encompassing vision, not one that is sentimental, one that must be necessarily unsentimental, but one where all the characters and the details of their lives come through. The other approach, is one of nihilism, of finding the wretched in every man or woman, and necessarily, in oneself. The first approach can be found in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and V.S. Naipaul’s A Bend in the River. The second can be seen in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

A coward takes neither approach, and uses the background for simple frissons – AIDS is rampant, the french are corrupt, the africans often poor and desperate, though the writer’s targets in the book, as seen above, are always selective. The opportunism and exploitation of the french is skewered, but never that of american corporations. The best embassies, in Chad and Niger, are built with american funds for reasons of military alliance. The most unequivocal heroic portrayal is Chad’s military fight, backed by the US, against Libya. I do not doubt the bravery of those involved in the fight, only find it striking that it is nearly the sole heroism to be found on the continent, and I think here we see the same Stevens that’s found in Scorched Earth: a man who liked to fight, a man who can only find meaning in a fight. This is not to suggest that there are not africans who are viewed with kindness in the book, only that no one emerges as themselves, the way the best characters do, seemingly warping the book through their life. The characters of this book are finally only effects, of sentimentality, garishness, horror, fear.

Here are a few short excerpts, showing three recurring motifs of the book: the french are opportunists, development aligned with US military needs is the best infrastructure in Africa, and foreign non-military aid helps no one. I have no issue with the first critique, but find it questionable when the scathingness halts when it comes to the imperial policies of one’s own nation, and disturbing when the only overseas support that is valued is martial.

A brief meeting with a young frenchman:

young frenchman

He wore penny loafers, khaki pants and a Lacoste shirt. With his short dark hair and intense manner, he reminded me of the civil rights workers who came to Mississippi in the mid-sixties from colleges like Bowdoin and Swarthmore. I expected him to hum Peter, Paul and Mary songs at any moment. Jean-Marc was his name. He had traveled across America by bus, evolving an elaborate rating system for bus stations along the way.

After Jean-Marc finished his bus station critique, he explained why his country continued to “be involved” with former West African colonies like the CAR, Cameroon, and Chad.

“I tell you, my friend,” he said twirling a coat hanger meat skewer, “they may talk about the prestige, the sentimental attachment, but it is money! Yes, money! Okay my government pours a lot of francs into these countries but they get more out. The trade agreements, the minerals, the timber. How you say? Money talks, bullshit walks?”

The embassy compound in Niger:

magnificent bacon cheeseburgers fugitive invasions

The peace corps workers in Zinder had given us a most valuable tip: the American Recreation Center in Niamey. It was an extraordinarily pleasant compound full of trees and tennis courts and a snack bar that served bacon cheeseburgers. Magnificent bacon cheeseburgers. Also thick, rich milk shakes and French fries – all the food I never ate in America. But after weeks of canned hash and ravioli, it tasted wonderful, the stuff of gustatory dreams. And, unlike every restaurant we’d encountered in West Africa, the snack bar was cheap.

That there were enough Americans in Niamey to merit (if that’s the right word) a recreation center was, to me, a confounding surprise. Like Chad, though, Niger was an American beachhead in West Africa. A gleaming new embassy sat on the far outskirts of town, part of a compound that included a new ambassador’s residence. There were sufficient American military advisers and marines to field a potent side in the local rugby league.

A contrast to what Stevens thinks non-military foreign aid contributes to Africa:

The Peace Corps training center for Africa (which included 60 percent of the entire Peace Corps) was in Niamey, and the years of drought in the Sahel had created a small army of advisers, World Bank types and UN “experts.”

Since 1928, of course, the “wretched state” of the region has only worsened and it’s an open question whether the army of relief professionals has slowed or accelerated the process. As British journalist Patrick Marnham wrote in his superb collection of essays on West Africa, Fantastic Invasion: “For all the difference it made to the people of the Sahel, it might not have mattered if the relief planes had flown out over the Atlantic and dumped the grain into the sea. Much of it was never distributed beyond the main reception centres until more than one year after the drought had ended, by which time local food supplies had been restored.”

But traveling in 1977, four years after the drought of 1973, Marnham saw “the terrible after-effects of the relief operation….On the promise of free assistance thousands of people abandoned their traditional resources….There is nothing for them to do, their economy has been destroyed, and there are no schemes to rebuild it. They are refugees in their own country.”

Foreign aid in the Central African Republic:

foreign aid like cocaine

It had not rained for some time and red dust floated in the air with every passing Land Cruiser or Land Rover. These big vehicles belong to the myriad of foreign organizations working in Bangui. They cruise the streets like a benevolent occupying army. It is difficult to comprehend, but in this small country of about two and a half million, there are American, French, German, Dutch, Japanese, even Chinese – agencies toiling, in theory at least, to improve the life of Central Africans. With an annual per capita income of under three hundred dollars and an average life expectancy of only forty-four years, the challenge is formidable.

Many of the aid projects work with one particular agency of the government and – the relationship is more than coincidental – the government of the CAR has a staggering number of agencies. Foreign aid is to the CAR what cocaine is to Columbia.

One last, unambiguous, metaphor:

only west relief org part one only west relief org part two

The tin garage housed in a concrete grease pit. That figured. Only a Western relief organization would go to the trouble to construct something as solid and enduring as a concrete grease pit.

That Stevens values military over more benevolent aid is not because of hard-line ideological partisanship, not for anything at all, but because, as he made clear in Scorched Earth, there is something in him that simply enjoys fighting. His aloofness to Cold War partisanship can be found late in the book, when a group of polish car smugglers try to solicit funds for Solidarity, the labor union led by Lech Walesa which was a crucial player in the struggle against the Soviet Union, fighting for greater democracy against the military rulers of the communist Polish state.

polish solidarity

So we waited until help arrived, and from a most unlikely source: Polish auto smugglers.

“We sell cars and give the money to Solidarity!” the couple boasted to Ann and me, expecting all Americans to have a soft spot for Lech Walesa and company.

Were I to be confronted by such grifters, I might have made clear that I wished to make to make sure my funds made it to worthy fighters, rather than lowly thieves, or moved to anger that this pair smeared a noble group by associating themselves with their cause. Stevens does otherwise, rolling his eyes with disdain at the anti-communists themselves.

More importantly, there is this scene in the US embassy of the Central African Republic:

reagan dunce

The American ambassador. Our meeting had been unsettling. Not that he wasn’t pleasant or forthcoming; in truth he’d proven a delightful, intriguing man, a Foreign Service pro (as opposed to a Reagan appointee dunce) with twenty years in Africa.

The ambassador at this time was David Fields. He was, in fact, a Reagan appointee, but I understand Stevens’ point: that this man was someone of considerable experience, and not an incompetent dropped into the slot for reasons of favorable ideology, as Reagan’s often appointments often were. The toenails, hair, and jellybeans of Ronald Reagan are now seen among the faithful as a divinity’s relics; Stevens happily blasphemes the messiah when he walked the earth and ruled the greatest land of the world, making stark that he is a simple pragmatist, no fiery eyed believer. He’s a republican principally for the lower taxes on the wealthy, and most likely looks on Reagan zealots and Tea Party irregulars the same way the United States viewed the Afghanistan mujahideen, a bunch of primitive fools useful for achieving a strategic end.

A final note on the lack of substantial characters: I do not believe it is racial, or having anything to do with Africa itself, but stems from Stevens’ basic dislike of people. In Scorched Earth, he writes of a political consultant, perhaps much like himself, who must organize people into voting for his candidate, yet who clearly looks on these voters as poor, ridiculous fools who he wants nothing to do with. It is possible to be a good writer and be indifferent to those around you in your daily life, but as a writer, one must have a deep attentive sense of others. Isaac Bashevis Singer has a story when a woman tells a writer, “To write, you need a good brain.” The writer replies “Better a good eye.” And a good ear.

Stevens’ aversion for people is embodied best, for me, in this brief moment in Cameroon.

this is why i had come to africa

A night at the mission would have been comfortable – any insect-free environment had appeal – but I longed for the feel, the texture, of an African evening.

And that night I found it: under a baobab tree near a Muslim village a few miles north of Garoua. Across the stretch of fields, a red band of fire swept down a hillside. In the soft light of the day’s last moments, the wailing call to prayers floated from the village mosque. Waves of hear shimmered from the dry ground, the earth giving up some of the burning it had received that day.

This, I thought before nodding away, was why I had come to Africa.

It is this moment Stevens has been waiting for during his travels on the continent. An Africa without Africans. This antipathy for people, so that all his characters are at a distance, and never really characters at all, overlaps with the next point, the shaping of this narrative and the false notes in Stevens’ work.

FALSE NOTES

For the small, small number who have read both Feeding Frenzy by Stuart Stevens, and Malaria Dreams, what’s striking is the uncanniness in the shared structure, as if both come from the same template, a National Lampoon’s Road Trip: Europe and National Lampoon’s Road Trip: Africa, respectively.

In Frenzy, Stevens travels through Europe with a very beautiful former model named Rachel Kelly in a Mustang with the intent to sell it somewhere in Europe. The car suffers many problems during the trip, and they race to a meeting point with Kelly’s fiancé, a former special forces guy. Kelly is a mix of street-wise sass, but also well-read, and knowledgeable in upscale fashion and cuisine. She’s originally from Wyoming. Though attractive and occasionally mistaken as Stevens’ girlfriend, no romantic entanglement takes place, no sexual tension is even hinted at.

The plotline for Dreams is almost from the same blueprint. Stevens travels to Africa to pick up a Land Rover in the Central African Republic, which he must transport to Algeria, so it can be brought to Europe. The reason for this is either because the car can be obtained more cheaply in Africa, or because it carries diamonds which can be smuggled out. His companion is Ann Bradley, a woman from a military family who is well-read, carries around a five pound copy of Italian Vogue, knows cooking and clothes, and has a boyfriend in the military, this time in the air force. She is sassy, streetwise, tough, but also well-read. She’s from Oklahoma.

Here is the first appearance of Ann Bradley, well-read, stylish, but with roots in Oklahoma and expertise in mechanics:

ann bradley

Across the aisle my “team” was engrossed in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. She was twenty-three years old, 5’5″”, 110 pounds, and possibly the only person ever to transfer from Bryn Mawr to the University of Oklahoma. In all likelihood Ann knew more about mechanics than I did, but I doubt I’ve ever met anyone who didn’t. She was nibbling from a can of pheasant pâté. She’d acquired this treat at the airport in Marseilles when I had suggested she buy us some sandwiches while I held our place in the check-in line. She’d returned some time later quite pleased.

Here is Rachel Kelly eating paté by hand in France.

rat with pate underlined

I found Rat eating a can of paté in the herb garden of the convent. She was wearing a bright white sun hat that she’d bought in Paris, black jeans, and a black tee shirt with a small, very discrete Harley-Davidson logo. Henry was perched at her feet and she was eating with a her fingers the local paté straight from the tin.

Another of the first descriptions of Ann, in a stylish bathing suit, a five pound copy of Vogue, and a mention of a boyfriend fighter pilot:

jaguars are fighter pilots

I found Ann in back of the Sofitel by the pool. It was on a jetty jutting out into the Ubangi. She wore a bathing suit with a large number 7 on it and was reading a five-pound Italian Vogue, another Marseilles acquisition, surrounded by a half dozen very pale young men.

“They’re Jaguar pilots,” she told me. Somewhere behind her sunglasses and the red St. Louis Cardinals hat pulled down low, I caught a trace of a smile.

“Jaguars are French fighter planes,” Ann explained peevishly.

“Oh. Fighter jocks.” Now it was my turn to smile. Ann’s boyfriend back in Oklahoma was a fighter pilot. “A generic preference?” I inquired.

This is the first appearance of Rachel Kelly, in a gym, wearing a stylish bathing suit:

Malaria Dreams

Rat was wearing a black one-piece suit that looked like the sort of thing bathing beauties wore on the Riviera in the twenties. There’s a picture around of Zelda trying to look sexy and she’s wearing something similar.

She was an ex-model who worked for a fashion designer and could explain quite movingly why some grades of wool make you look like a million dollars and others, you were better off cutting a few holes in a big plastic garbage sack and heading out the door. Call it a flair for fashion.

This is Carl, Rachel’s boyfriend, who used to be Special Forces:

“I was SOG – Special Operations Group. We were the black-arts guys. In country, no uniforms, Laos, Cambodia.”

“Got to tell you, man, I loved it. Nasty, nasty but I loved it.”
“What did you do?” [asks Stevens] It was a stupid question.
“Jumped out of helicopters and shot a lot of people. Great time.”
“Sure”, I said.

Though neither Rachel or Ann is ever quoted as speaking at length in french, they both occasionally break into it.

This is Ann:

liberte egalite

One flag bearer caught sight of Ann and stopped suddenly, kicking up a flurry of dust. Ann smiled and saluted with her beer. She wore shorts and a tee shirt featuring a picture of oversized sunglasses at a rakish angle. The young Cameroonian patriot looked confused, uncertain whether to smile or scowl. Finally he thrust his flag toward Ann and shouted, “Liberté!”

“Liberté!” Ann yelled.

This is Rachel:

cest impossible

“No!” Rat finally exclaimed after an appropriate dramatic silence. “Do you really think?”

I glanced at her, trying to tell if she was truly shocked or just pretending.

The German shrugged.

C’est impossible!” Rat exclaimed.

C’est impossible! I stared at her. Who was this woman from Wyoming trying to kid?

Ann has mechanical aptitude, and so does Rachel:

automotive skills

“My theory is that you might have put in unleaded fuel and 1965 V-8s probably need all the lead they can get.” [said Rachel]

She was right, of course. Rat had an annoying way of being right about things automotive. It was her Wyoming cowgirl roots.

Rachel Kelly adopts a dog for their trip in Europe. Ann Bradley adopts a stray gazelle.

Here is Ann with the gazelle:

thompson gazelle

Ann appeared from behind the chief’s hit. Cradled in her arms was a small, catlike creature with a sharp snout.

“This is Thompson,” she announced. “Thompson the gazelle.”

Our procession had the look of a fable: Joseph in the lead carrying the wicket picnic basket packed with French cheese and sausage, Henri in his Guccis flipping through Paris Match, Ann nuzzling with the gazelle, and myself lugging a pack with the unlikely label “Himalayas.”

That night in Berbérati, we watched Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing cheek to cheek on Henri’s VCR, powered by his personal generator. Afterwards, Henri played Cole Porter songs on his piano – “the only one in all this part of Africa” – while Ann fed Thompson drops of milk and I read James Hadley Chase.

Here is Rachel with the dog:

henry the dog

She walked over to the far corner of the garden, where a little iron gate led out onto Queen’s Walk and, just beyond that, St. James’s Park.

She pointed to a contented-looking golden retriever tied to the fence.

“What’s that?” I asked, a sense of dread cascading rapidly through my being.

“That’s Henry and he’s ours!”

“His name is Henry. I’m keeping him for a family that was going to take him to America for a year but found that he would have to be quarantined for two months and it would have broken their heart to do that to their dog. So we just agreed to take care of him.”

They do not get the needed Land Rover, instead settling for another car which they hope to sell at the end of their trip in Africa. Where in Frenzy, the pair to race to meet Kelly’s mate, here they race to meet Stevens’ wife in Algeria, a woman who forever stays off-screen, unseen and unheard, unable to make it even to the closing pages because of a cancelled flight.

It is a structure which fits Europe better than Africa, with the latter, with its horrors and beauties, resisting one more man insisting that it be a backdrop for their own adventure. Of course, the most striking aspect of the shared template is the woman, who appears to be the same character, but perhaps played by slightly different actresses, first by Liv Tyler, next by Rachel Weisz. In Frenzy, it is she who initiates the idea of a trip. With Dreams we’re not given any idea as to why the female needs to be brought along – is she there to translate? Who knows? Neither book ever mentions the possibility of envy from one’s mate about a man and a woman traveling alone together. In the case of Frenzy, that Stevens might even have a wife is never mentioned. That there is the possibility that she will not get to spend christmas with her husband – the rendezvous in Algeria is three days before this festive event – but this strange woman might, is never brought up. It is one of those details that makes the reader very skeptical of Stevens as a writer, a skepticism seemingly shared by Charlie Rose in this interview. Beyond this is the simple incredulity of two people with no experience in Africa and no guide, traveling half its length, including the Sahara and the former warzone of Chad, never mind the possibility that they might have taken the same route but with diamonds smuggled in their vehicle.

That the Land Rover to be retrieved carries diamonds on the inside, which will then be smuggled back to Europe is implied in several places.

In the meeting with Lucien which initiates the African trip:

lucien was involved in diamonds

“I spent a good bit of time in the CAR last year,” Lucien explained.

I nodded, methodically working my way through a bundle of saté skewers. Lucien was always going off to obscure corners of America. No one seemed to know what he did or why, though supposedly it had something to do with gold and diamonds.

“What I was wondering is” – he leaned forward and cocked an eyebrow – “if perhaps you would be interested in driving my vehicle back to Paris.”

In a talk with a Central African Republic local about why the truck is being held:

lucien money must be involved somewhere

“I have been thinking about your Land Rover,” Henri [a local acquaintance] began unexpectedly. For the first time since arriving in Africa, the Land Rover did not, at the moment anyway, seem very important.

“What I cannot understand, if all Lucien has done wrong is not pay this fee on time, why do they make such a mess? Is that how you say, a mess?”

[a lawyer for the local government] Knepper thinks the minister [of mines] or Follope, the capitaine in the Brigade Minerale, is angry at Lucien. Maybe both.”

“I think,” Henri finally decided, “that the minister thought he was going to make some money out of Lucien and our friend Lucien did not allow this to happen. Money must be involved somewhere.”

A conversation with the minister of mines on why the government won’t release the vehicle, as well as highlighting that the rover is expected to be used for smuggling, and the improbablility of the whole venture:

minister of mines dialogue part one minister of mines dialogue part two

“Tell me,” the minister began, “just what is your relationship with Lucien?” Then he smiled.

Alarms rang inside my head. The minister’s voice reminded me of the best sort of prosecutor: low-keyed, friendly, with traps set at the end of each seemingly harmless sentence.

“Relationship?”

“He is a friend?”

I plunged boldly ahead. “Sort of.”

A knowing smile. And you are here doing his business?”

“Oh, no.” Then I explained how I had come to be in the Central African Republic.

“Let me understand,” the minister queried patiently, “you were having dinner with your friend Lucien and he asked you to go to Africa to transport his vehicle and you said yes. This is what really happened?”

It suddenly sounded like the most preposterous thing I’d ever heard. “Well, tes. That’s pretty much what happened.”
The minister and the capitaine exchanged bemused looks. “And how long have you been involved in buisness with your friend Lucien?”

“I’m not. He’s just a friend.”

The looks came again. “And you come all the way to Africa to pick up a vehicle just for a friend?”

I said in a voice that sounded very tiny, “I thought it would be fun.”

A visit to where Lucien bought his diamonds.

where lucien looked for diamonds

“It’s close to here that Lucien looked for his diamonds,” Henri said, leaning against the Renault and watching a teenager work the hand pump drawing gas from a fifty-gallon drum. “This is diamond country. That is one of the reasons,” he grinned, “you see Muslims driving cars like that.” He nodded to a newish Toyota Land Cruiser behind us waiting for gas.

“You mean they find diamonds?” I asked.

“I mean they buy diamonds from Africans. But mostly they smuggle.”

Just outside Yaloke, beyond the twin rows of poplars planted fifty years ago by the French that make the road, if only for an instant, look like Avignon, a police roadblock stopped all traffic.

A soldier returned with Joseph and peered into the car, shining a light – it was almost dark – in each of our faces. Then abruptly he shook hands with Henri and waved us on.

“Diamonds,” Henri muttered, just as the first owl burst skyward under our headlights.

This last fragment should convey how incredibly dangerous it would be for two people, unfamiliar with Africa, without a guide or any contacts, to travel up through Africa to Algeria. The recklessness of those who would decide to do such a thing, the recklessness of an experienced diamond smuggler to trust a fortune to such novices, shakes a reader’s belief in this book, would shake their belief, even if, say, it were fiction. This is to speak only of the ringless falseness of what’s given here, rather than the rank immorality of being complicit in the smuggling of diamonds from a continent that had much of its mineral wealth stolen by colonial powers.

False notes such as these make you look at what Stevens writes with a more intense skepticism, perhaps warranted, perhaps not. That, for instance, he attended Oxford as an undergraduate, as he says in Frenzy, graduate school at Oxford in this Atlantic piece, in Dreams he mentions attending Oxford again:

oxford

Within twenty-four hours we were sitting in front of a Mr. Richards, an Englishman who ran the largest Nissan agency in town, and spilling our story. He was amused. We had, it turned out in one of those odd twists of fate I thought only occurred in Evelyn Waugh stories, attended the same college at Oxford. This was by far the most tangible benefit I’d ever accrued from any educational institution.

These claims may well be true; what I find unusual, another one of those possible false notes, is that no mention is ever made of Oxford in any profile or interview. One detail a Times reporter, or any reporter, will almost always ask is, where you went to school. The only time education is mentioned in a times piece on Stevens is “Image Makers Hard at Work In the Selling of a Candidate” with UCLA attendance mentioned, and Oxford not at all. One’s education shouldn’t matter to a reader, yet publishers are always tarting up your bio with a mention of some ne plus ultra school, with Oxford as a triple cherry deluxe, yet, again, Oxford is never mentioned in Stevens’ book jackets. This all in the context of a profile, mostly sympathetic, “An Unconventional Strategist Reshaping Romney”, which describes Stevens as occasionally having an outsized ego.

These are ambiguous off notes that arouse skepticism. I think there are more definite ones in Dreams.

TIME OUT OF JOINT

The details that are off in Dreams fall almost entirely into the categories of time and money.

The book, though published in 1989, takes place in the fall of 1987. There are several details establishing the year as exactly that one, which we’ll get to as we go through this section.

Money and the rate of exchange is mentioned often in the book. Stevens often complains about how incredibly expensive it is to travel and eat in Africa, given that it is, his words, a third world place. US dollars are exchanged for the Franc of Central Africa. The value of the Central African franc was tied directly to that of the french franc – one french franc was worth fifty francs of central africa. This relation was fixed and did not fluctuate. A brief overview of the history of the franc of central africa can be found here. The rate of exchange for US dollars to francs did fluctuate, with this rate affecting the number of french francs a dollar was worth, which in turn affected the number of central african francs a dollar was worth.

The exchange rate between french francs and US dollars is crucial for what’s very off in the events in the book.

Stevens and Ann Bradley arrive in the Central Republic of Africa in early October 1987.

early october

I had been in Bangui less than ten minutes when I was robbed for the first time. This proved to be very fortunate. Muggings, rape and murder, I quickly discovered, were the pillars of conversation among the white community, and my introductory theft gave me something to talk about on the party circuit.

It was early October. The season was a factor in the robbery as it had been cold and rainy in Europe and I had arrived at the Bangui airport carrying a heavy raincoat. It was a new coat, recently purchased in England. I liked it.

Their initial mission is for Stevens to retrieve the Land Rover of his friend, Lucien. In order to do so, they need to pay a sizable bribe to a government official.

270 francs

The problem with the Land Rover was really quite simple, Capitaine Follope – whom Knepper addressed as “mon capitaine” – explained. There were some fees that had not been paid on mineral leases Lucien had acquired from the government. The vehicle had been seized as collateral against future payment.

“The amount in question is very small,” Follope said reassuringly.

“How much?”

“Half a million Central African francs.”

It sounded like a lot of money to me. I tried to calculate quickly: 270 Central African francs, or CFA to the dollar. It was a little less than $2000. Not a small amount but certainly cheaper than buying a new car. Lucien, I figured, would gladly pay if he understood it was the only way to see his Land Rover again.

Shortly after this, it is Stevens’ birthday.

birthday 22 october

It was my birthday, the twenty-second of October.

After this date, Stevens contacts Lucien to approve the bribe.

lucien half a million bribe

“You’ve got to understand, nothing is working!” I enumerated our efforts to free the Land Rover, the frustrations of this person being out of town, that person out of touch, everyone promising everything, and nothing, ultimately, happening.

“Yes, that’s how it is,” he answered pleasantly. “It just takes time.”

This occasioned an outburst on my part as to the limits of my time. Then I moved to present my case. “You’ve got to come down here yourself. It’s a must; or let me throw some money around for a bribe. That might help.”

“I don’t think my flying there is a very good idea,” Lucien said, his voice, for the first time, sounding serious. “How much money?”

We finally agreed upon half a million CFA – about two thousand dollars. It seemed a reasonable sum to offer as a bribe.

The bribe in CFA francs has stayed the same, and the bribe in US dollars has apparently stayed the same – almost or about two thousand dollars. No mention is made of any urgency regarding the rate of exchange. Again, this is a book where the narrator is concerned about the expense of things, and often mentions the price of an item in US dollars after giving the price in CFA francs.

However, during October, the rate of exchange of the dollar versus other currencies drops drastically, a possible cause, of many, for the crash of markets, which took place October 19th, three days before Stevens’ birthday, the crash perpetuating this decline. After the October 19th crash, the dollar continued its decline against the franc, losing ten percent of its value over two months.

A graph generated by the very helpful Economagic website illustrates this.

franc dollar graph cropped more

Yet somehow the bribe paid out in US dollars remains the same, whether early or late in October.

This rapid fall in the dollar’s value vis a vis the franc is something that one would expect as an obvious mention, that even as the travelers got closer and closer to their destination, prices kept climbing because of the loss of value.
?
For that matter, perhaps I am miscalculating, but the rate of exchange used in the book seems to have no relation with the exchange rate at the time.

The bribe at the beginning of October is 500 000 CFA francs, which Stevens calculates is worth about $2000 US dollars. 500 000 CFA francs is 10 000 french francs, so one US dollar is worth about five french francs in the book. Stevens gives an exchange of 270 CFA francs per US dollar, or 5.4 francs per dollar, so this might be because the bribe in US dollars isn’t quite $2000, perhaps a little less. However, as can be seen in the graph, the US dollar was trading above six francs for the first half of October, far above an exchange rate of either 5 or 5.4. Then it falls, so around the beginning of November, when Stevens calls Lucien, it’s at 5.70. In the book, however, the rate of exchange has remained entirely frozen at what it was at the beginning of October, stock still at five francs or five point four francs. This is still, a worse rate of exchange as shown in the graph, even with the start of the dollar’s value drop, five or five point four in the book, compared to 5.7 in currency exchange records.

After Stevens’ birthday, but before the call to Lucien, he has to buy some gas:

jerrican seventy dollars

I spotted a metal jerrican for sale at nineteen thousand CFA – seventy dollars; to make the trip north, I needed at least fifteen.

19 000 CFA francs is 380 french francs. If seventy US dollars buys 380 french francs, the rate of exchange is 5.428. It has either stayed level at the previous 5.4, or slightly improved from 5: either way, it is still lower than what was available around that month at any currency exchange.

A bribe is paid in Cameroon, at some point in the first three weeks of November.

three thousand cfa about eleven dollars

Three thousand CFA, about eleven dollars, was the standard amount Pierre turned over. Once a motorcycle patrol demanded more.

Three thousand CFA is sixty french francs, so now the exchange rate is 5.45. Again, if the exchange in the book in October is taken, it is level. It is also weaker than it ever was, at any exchange, as shown on the graph, and shows none of the rapid devaluation taking place.

We are told at one point that it is thanksgiving, which, in 1987, would be November 26.

thanksgiving

It was Fernando who reminded us it was Thanksgiving. He mentioned it in an offhand way while we stood at the head of the long buffet marveling at the pasta, the veal, the pastries. “An untraditional thanksgiving, no?” he said. Ann and I looked at each other, not understanding what he meant, and then we both looked up at a wall calendar featuring a nude girl riding a tractor. He was right, it was thanksgiving.

Shortly before this, we are given a last price quoted both in CFA francs and US dollars, the cost of fixing their car.

fifty thousand cfa

The volunteer mechanic requested tools, and I brought out the odd-fitting nonmetric set I’d stolen from Lucien. He grunted and went to work with a set of pliers. After a few minutes of messing about, he rose and said, simply, “Fifty thousand.”

“I’m sorry?” I asked, not understanding.

“Fifty thousand CFA to fix the car.”

That was almost two hundred dollars.

Fifty thousand CFA francs is a thousand french francs, so a dollar is now worth five francs. During the period in which the dollar weakened versus the franc, in this book, during the same time period, the dollar either gains in value, then drops back to what it was, to a weaker value than it actually was on the world’s currency exchange, somewhere above 5.60 in the period right before thanksgiving. Or it stays rock solid same throughout this period of rapid falling value.

In fact, the price given for car repair here is the same as a ransom asked for before Stevens’ birthday in October. It is a price demanded for information on Stevens’ stolen coat.

fifty thousand cfa first time

“Yes, but first we must discuss price.”

It was, apparently, a ransom situation. “How much do they want?” I asked.

“Fifty thousand CFA.”

That was almost two hundred dollars, far too much. We negotiated for some time. Finally we agreed on five thousand CFA.

Here, fifty thousand CFA is equal to two hundred dollars, the same exchange as it is after November 26. Given that the calculation for the exchange in some amounts is close to 5.4, and Stevens gives an exchange rate of 270 CFA francs per dollar for the October amounts, or a 5.4 rate, there appears the possibility that the exchange rate throughout the story is 5.4, as an exchange rate, please excuse my lapse into italics, might be conveniently set in a fiction. So there is some strange discrepancy in what the actual exchange rate should be, beyond the dramatic absence of any sense of a dollar plummeting in value, losing ten percent of its value over the course of the trip in relation to the native currency in an already expensive continent.

I add as well that at no point does Stevens write of carrying around a large amount of money that he has already exchanged and that the amounts needed on the trip are sometimes very, very large, such as paying two thousand dollar bribes or buying a new vehicle. It is also important that before Stevens says he left for this trip, in early October or late September, the dollar franc exchange had been holding steady for a long while, trading above six francs a dollar, nowhere close to the 5.4 rate ubiquitous in the book.

I end with the final details that are off, starkly off, for which I leave to others to deduce an explanation.

As said before, Stevens arrives on the continent at the beginning of October. He celebrates his birthday in Bangui, Central African Republic, on the twenty second of October.

I stated earlier that there are markers establishing that the story takes place in 1987. Here is the first one. Stevens writes of the carnet, a letter of passage, needed to travel through most African countries to avoid paying entrance duties to that country.

carnet england storm

Actually, I had a carnet. Warned that travel by car in Africa was impossible without one, I’d gone to considerable trouble and expense to acquire one from the Automobile Association in England. Unfortunately, my visit to England coincided with the worst hurricane to hit the country in a century, silencing all telephones, littering the streets with uprooted trees and knocking out the rail line from London to the Dover ferry. My life had not been made easier by the fact that I was hauling around enough Land Rover parts to launch a dealership, plus assorted camping gear – though my stove and lantern did come in handy in my hotel when the electricity died for two days.

What’s referred to here must be the massive storm which hit England in 1987, easily considered the worst storm of the century for the area, and featuring hurricane winds.

What is puzzling is this. The storm took place on October 16th and 17th. Stevens obtains his carnet before leaving for Africa. Yet he says he arrives in Africa in early October. How is it that he is in England during this storm, yet is in Africa, before the storm?

There is another, smaller discrepancy. It is after his birthday, Stevens and Ann Bradley are traveling from Cameroon into Chad. Stevens describes what is taking place there:

chad was fighting a war

Entering Chad near the capital, N’Djamena, one could theoretically drive across Lake Chad (largely dry for the last ten years) and into Niger. There were problems with this approach. For starters, Chad was fighting a war with Libya and though most of the fighting occurred in the northern desert near the border, the Libyans had bombed N’Djamena just a few months earlier.

Later, when they are about to enter Chad, we get this description:

war zone capitals of a winning side

Cloaked in a perpetual layer of dust, the town still resembles what it was for years: a battlefield.

But war-zone capitals of a winning side are usually graced with an infectious optimism difficult to resist. And Chad definitely feels it is winning. After years of watching Libya annex its northern territory, Chad finally put aside internal feuds and struck back. In a series of blitzkrieg assaults, Chadian forces overran Libyian desert bases previously though impenetrable. Their attack methods quickly qualified as the stuff of legends.

The American government aids Chad in its war with Libya and this helps create a benevolent attitude toward Americans in N’Djamena.

All this suggests a war with ongoing fighting. These descriptions correspond to either later October and mid-November, or early November and late November, respectively. Yet this was at least a month and a half into a ceasefire between Libya and Chad with no outbreak of hostilities. No doubt traveling in this area was still a frightening experience, and that the ceasefire could break any day was a disturbing possibility for those entering Chad. But why leave out a crucial piece of information such as this, placing the conflict in a more ambiguous pre-ceasefire place rather than after?

That this all takes place months after the ceasefire is made clear, though indirectly, in this scene with a member of the US embassy staff in Chad:

fragment of shot down plane

Tim Whitset worked for the U.S. embassy. A big man in his early thirties, he’d lived in Africa for over a decade and relished matching wits with the local bureaucracy. His office in the newly fortified embassy compound was, in essence, a large vault with a heavy combination on the door. From this windowless crypt, he launched his rescue missions in the complicated bureaucratic wars that raged through the Chadian government. On his desk, he had a souvenir of a more traditional war.

“It’s a piece of a Libyan plane, actually,” he responded to my question about the charred piece of twisted metal. “It was shot down a few months ago over town. Poor suckers flew all the way from Libya to drop a few bombs in a mud flat outside of town and then got blown to hell and back. A U.S. missile operated by the French. A true United Nations effort.”

This was actually a well-reported incident, “Libyan Warplane Is Downed In Chad By French Forces” which took place on September 8th, 1987 and one that may have helped trigger the ceasefire. That the shooting down is mentioned, but the ceasefire is not, as if to create a sense of ongoing war which the travelers might face is a strange one.

One more detail that I think points to a disconcerting anachronism. The trip starts in the Central African Republic, which they stay in past Stevens’ birthday on October 22. After, they leave for Cameroon, where they run into a national celebration in Bertoua.

cameroon national holiday

On thie Sunday afternoon, a raucous crowd spilled out of the bar dancing to the music blaring from a stand selling cassettes and records.

Three pickup trucks filled with young men waving Cameroon flags roared up from the direction of town. They shouted slogans, and when the bar throng responded tepidly, they yelled louder. Several jumped off the truck and ran about the market brandishing flags; the scene reminded me of male cheerleaders taking the field before a football game.

Pierre when I asked, explained that this was a Cameroonian national holiday, Independence Day, he beieved.

The only national holiday that this could be is Cameroon’s Unification Day, when the french and english parts of the country united. Again, this scene takes place after Stevens’ birthday on October 22. Cameroon’s unification day is October 1st.

There is another possible discrepancy, but this does not relate directly to Malaria Dreams, but a trip to Africa described in Feeding Frenzy. There are discrepancies if it is the same trip to Africa described.

Traveling along the river Niger in Malaria Dreams, Stevens and Bradley come across some fishermen.

capitaine giant perch

I woke up at first light and brewed coffee on the little gas stove. The mornings were the best time of day, when it was cool enough to forget, at least for a little while, the strangling heat of the upcoming hours. A pirogue floated through the mist, a graceful craft with bow and stern rising upward like outstretched arms. There were two teenagers poling the boat. They landed and hoisted out a bulky fish, mouth gaping. It was a capitaine, a breed of giant perch I’d first seen pulled from the Ubangi River in Bangui.

A capitaine, Nile perch, can be found in the Niger river. In Feeding Frenzy, Stevens remembers a moment from a trip in Africa, perhaps the same trip of Malaria Dreams

oversized gar

I described a meal I’d cooked once by the River Niger. The centerpiece was an oversized gar I’d caught, the only fish longer than six inches I’d ever caught in Africa. It was a bony prehistoric-looking thing about as appetizing as a display in a natural history museum. I filleted it, which was the only thing I could imagine doing, wrapped the fillet in tin foil with bits of onions and some old garlic cloves I’d bought in the Timbuktu market, and buried it in the coals of a driftwood fire. It was shockingly good, moist and sweet. I ate it with half a can of peaches and a mix of fried yams and onions, which was about all the shelves of Timbuktu’s largest grocery had to offer.

Now, Stevens has not come across fishermen in Niger, but fished himself, one of many times he has fished in Africa. At no point in Malaria Dreams does he mention doing any fishing. Another prominent detail is the error in the fish: the visual identification of the gar is entirely correct, but this is a fish that is not found in the river Niger, or anywhere in Africa, as outlined in this brief National Geographic summary; it can, however, be found in Stevens’ native Mississippi. It is from the Lepisosteidae family, none of which can be found in Africa. Here is a partial list of fish to be found in the Niger river; lepisosteida are easily recognizable by their snub nose; none of the fish species in this list seem to have this identifier.

A final short small detail, but one that I found as equally striking as the date of the storm. After leaving Chad, where they spend thanksgiving, the travelers go to Niger.

burkina faso coup pt one burkina faso coup pt two

Niger, though, was a security-mad country with roadblocks and police checks every twenty or thirty miles. The routine of paranoia had been accelerated by a coup a few days earlier in neighboring Burkina Faso. Like virtually every West African leader, the president of Niger had catapulted himself to power in a similar coup and no doubt viewed the events in Burkina Faso as intimations of his own mortality. (The Burkina Faso president, an exceptionally charismatic guitar-playing young leader, was gunned down in his residence, as is the custom.)

All of this meant it was impossible to travel a mile in Niger without immaculately ordered papers, including insurance.

Again, this takes place after Thanksgiving, either at the very end of November, or early December. The coup in Burkina Faso is spoken of as having taken place a few days earlier.

The coup in Burkina Faso was against the very charismatic, guitar playing Thomas Sankara, who was killed. The coup took place on the 16th of October and he was executed on the 17th, 1987. Again, I leave it to others to make their deductions.

The ending of this post is abrupt: I think there’s possibility of greater analysis of this book, so I consider this entry unfinished.

(Edits have been made for clarity; additions were made detailing the smuggling of diamonds in the book, the ambassador who is not a Reagan dunce, and the polish smugglers. A few additions were made on the currency exchange of the book, along with some edits for improved clarity.)

Malaria Dreams Stuart Stevens

THE UNSUBMISSIBLE PLACE

Malaria Dreams is a travel memoir following Stevens and a companion, Ann Bradley, as they voyage from the Central African Republic up to Algeria, traveling through, among other places, Cameroon, Chad, Niger, and the Sahara. It is the best book of his that I have read because either through his own restraint, or the efforts of an editor, Stevens does not give in to his desire for malice or imagined violence. In other books, he or his proxy hero might imagine strangling a woman or ripping her vocal chords out with his teeth. Here, he simply groans. At the same time, the african setting makes his flaws even more poisonous. Though it’s the best book of his I’ve read so far, it’s also the most distasteful, and the ill taste of its worst moments endures. There is another, rather unusual aspect to this memoir, but I’ll get to that after.

Perhaps more than any place, Africa does not submit itself to anyone in writing. Ultimately, the writer must submit themselves to the continent. It is this resistance to submission which destroys Stevens’ book. It attempts to be a comedy travelogue, two bumbling adventurers passing through sights picturesque and horrific, the two travelers unchanged and apart from the landscape. The essence of what they observe, however, only hinted at in the writing, seems too rich, too complex to be contained in such a frivolous structure, and it makes this writing seem rancid.

I give two examples early on that stay with me. The first is a very vivid moment in Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic, which should contain the materials of something multi-faceted, the pathos and ridiculousness of poverty, yet which is made into something simpler, the comedy and horror of a man of the first world beset by the downtrodden of the third (I include a scan of the book pages to accompany all quotes, to make clear the quote is not distorted or taken out of context):

beggars

Bangui, like New York, has a hidden population of homeless and infirm who emerge after dark dominating the streets. Driving to and from expensive restaurants in Henri’s car, I’d noted with curiousity the swarming wheelchairs, unlike any I’d seen – ingenious devices powered by hand cranks mounted like handlebars. Outfitted with wide tires suitable for Bangui’s rubbled streets, the chairs could move with extreme speed and dexterity.

This I discovered while sulking back to the Novotel. On a side street near the main traffic circle, I suddenly found myself surrounded by wheelchairs. It seemed, at first, an amiable coincidence. I nodded and kept walking. Two chairs wheeled in to block my route. This is ridiculous, I thought, and turned, trying to be ever so casual, down a side alley leading to a main street. A chair manned by a person missing a chin filled the narrow walkway. He gave me a horrible, skeletal grin.

The encircling chairs began to move forward, tightening the noose. I can run, I thought, run past them, knock them over. Then a flashing knife made me think otherwise.

As they drew nearer, I reached into my pocket for a handful of coins. Shaking them alluringly like dice, I scattered the money in the street.

The wheelchairs instantly broke ranks, scrambling for the flashes of silver. I bolted for the hotel.

Ann was waiting for me in the lobby. “Did you get mugged?” I asked her, panting a bit.

“Of course not. Don’t be paranoid.”

Another scene, this one in a bar, again in Bangui:

does he beat you

At the bar there was a young, very pretty white woman we’d seen on the flight from France. She’d been carrying a black baby, and I asked Henri and Françoise if they knew her.

“Oh, yes,” Françoise said, “everyone knows everyone in Bangui. She met her husband while he was a student in Paris. They fell in love, married and came back here to live. He beats her regularly.”

This was delivered not in a catty, gossipy way but as a simple statement of fact, like “The pizza is good.”

“It’s very common,” Henri assured Ann and me. I suppose we looked as if we needed assuring.

“I do not even think,” Françoise said, “that it has anything to do with meanness or anger. It is always done, so they do it.”

“How quaint,” Ann observed.

Henri looked over at the woman at the bar. “The white wives of Africans do not strike me as the happiest people in the world.”

Later:

Ann and I talked with the tall, attractive woman bartender. She was not, to our surprise, French. “Russian,” she insisted, but when we looked unconvinced, she relented. “Czechoslovakian,” she admitted, as if that would make her presence completely logical. “I married an African student studying at university.”

“Does he beat you?” Ann asked.

I looked over at her, trying to recall how much Beaujolais she’d downed at dinner.

“What?” the Czech bartender asked. The music roared.

“Does he beat you?” Ann yelled, slapping the bar a few times for effect.

“What?”

Beat you!”

The bartender laughed. “We are divorced now,” she cried. “I am a free woman in Bangui!”

After:

On the edge of the city center, where the houses disappeared and the shacks began, it was jammed with white men dancing with black women.

“The pride of France!” Henri exclaimed, gesturing out over the steamy club floor. The men all had short hair and wore the preppy outfits that apparently were the norm for French men in Africa; topsiders and bright Lacoste shirts, khaki pants and alligator belts.

“This is what the men in Beau Geste were fighting for,” Henri said. “Vive l’Afrique!” He ordered another bottle of champagne.

They run into some american marines, including one named Ernie. Stevens buys beers.

aids man

With a familiar feeling of fiscal panic, I frantically tried to calculate it in dollars. Ernie took a look and said flatly, “About sixty-five dollars. I tried to warn you.”

“No problem,” I mumbled, thinking back fondly to the bargain price of living on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

“The only cheap thing in this country,” Ernie told me while we worked our way back over to the marin huddle, “is women, but then you got to figure most of them come with the gift that keeps on giving.”

“What?” I had no idea what he was talking about.

“AIDS, man.” He slapped me on the back. “You join the Marine Corps, you flat learn about that stuff. What you got here” – he gestured out over the dance floor crowded with white men and black woman – “is one great hunk of AIDS. Right here is where it all started.”

“Some of these French guys,” another marine pronounced, “I think they might have got it on with that first monkey started all this stuff.”

“Hey.” Ernie wrapped his big arm around my shoulder. “This girl Ann, she your girlfriend, or what?”

Later we went outside to watch two French soldiers in a desultory fight. The marines were unimpressed. “For the love of God, will you look at those fairies. Are they in love or fighting?”

The ranking marine, a seargent who, in his late twenties, was the oldest of the group, steered his men toward a Land Cruiser where a black chauffeur was asleep. “Leaving E. Club,” the seargent barked into his crackling radio.

“Hey, look,” Ernie told Ann and me, though mostly he was looking at Ann, “you guys got to come over to the marine house. We got a great cook.”

“You have a cook?” Ann asked. She had a great interest in all things culinary.

“Hell, yes. Chauffeur too. Ain’t life great?”

Ann agreed and asked if she should dress for dinner.

That there is an ugliness, a squalor, in the contrast between the rich and the poor in Africa, in the difference in lives between the colonials and the citizens, in the ravages of disease, there is no doubt. Faced with it, I think the best writers can only find some all encompassing vision, not one that is sentimental, one that must be necessarily unsentimental, but one where all the characters and the details of their lives come through. The other approach, is one of nihilism, of finding the wretched in every man or woman, and necessarily, in oneself. The first approach can be found in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and V.S. Naipaul’s A Bend in the River. The second can be seen in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

A coward takes neither approach, and uses the background for simple frissons – AIDS is rampant, the french are corrupt, the africans often poor and desperate, though the writer’s targets in the book, as seen above, are always selective. The opportunism and exploitation of the french is skewered, but never that of american corporations. The best embassies, in Chad and Niger, are built with american funds for reasons of military alliance. The most unequivocal heroic portrayal is Chad’s military fight, backed by the US, against Libya. I do not doubt the bravery of those involved in the fight, only find it striking that it is nearly the sole heroism to be found on the continent, and I think here we see the same Stevens that’s found in Scorched Earth: a man who liked to fight, a man who can only find meaning in a fight. This is not to suggest that there are not africans who are viewed with kindness in the book, only that no one emerges as themselves, the way the best characters do, seemingly warping the book through their life. The characters of this book are finally only effects, of sentimentality, garishness, horror, fear.

Here are a few short excerpts, showing three recurring motifs of the book: the french are opportunists, development aligned with US military needs is the best infrastructure in Africa, and foreign non-military aid helps no one. I have no issue with the first critique, but find it questionable when the scathingness halts when it comes to the imperial policies of one’s own nation, and disturbing when the only overseas support that is valued is martial.

A brief meeting with a young frenchman:

young frenchman

He wore penny loafers, khaki pants and a Lacoste shirt. With his short dark hair and intense manner, he reminded me of the civil rights workers who came to Mississippi in the mid-sixties from colleges like Bowdoin and Swarthmore. I expected him to hum Peter, Paul and Mary songs at any moment. Jean-Marc was his name. He had traveled across America by bus, evolving an elaborate rating system for bus stations along the way.

After Jean-Marc finished his bus station critique, he explained why his country continued to “be involved” with former West African colonies like the CAR, Cameroon, and Chad.

“I tell you, my friend,” he said twirling a coat hanger meat skewer, “they may talk about the prestige, the sentimental attachment, but it is money! Yes, money! Okay my government pours a lot of francs into these countries but they get more out. The trade agreements, the minerals, the timber. How you say? Money talks, bullshit walks?”

The embassy compound in Niger:

magnificent bacon cheeseburgers fugitive invasions

The peace corps workers in Zinder had given us a most valuable tip: the American Recreation Center in Niamey. It was an extraordinarily pleasant compound full of trees and tennis courts and a snack bar that served bacon cheeseburgers. Magnificent bacon cheeseburgers. Also thick, rich milk shakes and French fries – all the food I never ate in America. But after weeks of canned hash and ravioli, it tasted wonderful, the stuff of gustatory dreams. And, unlike every restaurant we’d encountered in West Africa, the snack bar was cheap.

That there were enough Americans in Niamey to merit (if that’s the right word) a recreation center was, to me, a confounding surprise. Like Chad, though, Niger was an American beachhead in West Africa. A gleaming new embassy sat on the far outskirts of town, part of a compound that included a new ambassador’s residence. There were sufficient American military advisers and marines to field a potent side in the local rugby league.

A contrast to what Stevens thinks non-military foreign aid contributes to Africa:

The Peace Corps training center for Africa (which included 60 percent of the entire Peace Corps) was in Niamey, and the years of drought in the Sahel had created a small army of advisers, World Bank types and UN “experts.”

Since 1928, of course, the “wretched state” of the region has only worsened and it’s an open question whether the army of relief professionals has slowed or accelerated the process. As British journalist Patrick Marnham wrote in his superb collection of essays on West Africa, Fantastic Invasion: “For all the difference it made to the people of the Sahel, it might not have mattered if the relief planes had flown out over the Atlantic and dumped the grain into the sea. Much of it was never distributed beyond the main reception centres until more than one year after the drought had ended, by which time local food supplies had been restored.”

But traveling in 1977, four years after the drought of 1973, Marnham saw “the terrible after-effects of the relief operation….On the promise of free assistance thousands of people abandoned their traditional resources….There is nothing for them to do, their economy has been destroyed, and there are no schemes to rebuild it. They are refugees in their own country.”

Foreign aid in the Central African Republic:

foreign aid like cocaine

It had not rained for some time and red dust floated in the air with every passing Land Cruiser or Land Rover. These big vehicles belong to the myriad of foreign organizations working in Bangui. They cruise the streets like a benevolent occupying army. It is difficult to comprehend, but in this small country of about two and a half million, there are American, French, German, Dutch, Japanese, even Chinese – agencies toiling, in theory at least, to improve the life of Central Africans. With an annual per capita income of under three hundred dollars an an average life expectancy of only forty-four years, the challenge is formidable.

Many of the aid projects work with one particular agency of the government and – the relationship is more than coincidental – the government of the CAR has a staggering number of agencies. Foreign aid is to the CAR what cocaine is to Columbia.

One last, unambiguous, metaphor:

only west relief org part one only west relief org part two

The tin garage housed in a concrete grease pit. That figured. Only a Western relief organization would go to the trouble to construct something as solid and enduring as a concrete grease pit.

That Stevens values military over more benevolent aid is not because of hard-line ideological partisanship, not for anything at all, but because, as he made clear in Scorched Earth, there is something in him that simply enjoys fighting. His aloofness to Cold War partisanship can be found late in the book, when a group of polish car smugglers try to solicit funds for Solidarity, the labor union led by Lech Walesa which was a crucial player in the struggle against the Soviet Union, fighting for greater democracy against the military rulers of the communist Polish state.

polish solidarity

So we waited until help arrived, and from a most unlikely source: Polish auto smugglers.

“We sell cars and give the money to Solidarity!” the couple boasted to Ann and me, expecting all Americans to have a soft spot for Lech Walesa and company.

Were I to be confronted by such grifters, I might have made clear that I wished to make to make sure my funds made it to worthy fighters, rather than lowly thieves, or moved to anger that this pair smeared a noble group by associating themselves with their cause. Stevens does otherwise, rolling his eyes with disdain at the anti-communists themselves.

More importantly, there is this scene in the US embassy of the Central African Republic:

reagan dunce

The American ambassador. Our meeting had been unsettling. Not that he wasn’t pleasant or forthcoming; in truth he’d proven a delightful, intriguing man, a Foreign Service pro (as opposed to a Reagan appointee dunce) with twenty years in Africa.

The ambassador at this time was David Fields. He was, in fact, a Reagan appointee, but I understand Stevens’ point: that this man was someone of considerable experience, and not an incompetent dropped into the slot for reasons of favorable ideology, as Reagan’s often appointments often were. The toenails, hair, and jellybeans of Ronald Reagan are now seen among the faithful as a divinity’s relics; Stevens happily blasphemes the messiah when he walked the earth and ruled the greatest land of the world, making stark that he is a simple pragmatist, no fiery eyed believer. He’s a republican principally for the lower taxes on the wealthy, and most likely looks on Reagan zealots and Tea Party irregulars the same way the United States viewed the Afghanistan mujahideen, a bunch of primitive fools useful for achieving a strategic end.

A final note on the lack of substantial characters: I do not believe it is racial, or having anything to do with Africa itself, but stems from Stevens’ basic dislike of people. In Scorched Earth, he writes of a political consultant, perhaps much like himself, who must organize people into voting for his candidate, yet who clearly looks on these voters as poor, ridiculous fools who he wants nothing to do with. It is possible to be a good writer and be indifferent to those around you in your daily life, but as a writer, one must have a deep attentive sense of others. Isaac Bashevis Singer has a story when a woman tells a writer, “To write, you need a good brain.” The writer replies “Better a good eye.” And a good ear.

Stevens’ aversion for people is embodied best, for me, in this brief moment in Cameroon.

this is why i had come to africa

A night at the mission would have been comfortable – any insect-free environment had appeal – but I longed for the feel, the texture, of an African evening.

And that night I found it: under a baobab tree near a Muslim village a few miles north of Garoua. Across the stretch of fields, a red band of fire swept down a hillside. In the soft light of the day’s last moments, the wailing call to prayers floated from the village mosque. Waves of hear shimmered from the dry ground, the earth giving up some of the burning it had received that day.

This, I thought before nodding away, was why I had come to Africa.

It is this moment Stevens has been waiting for during his travels on the continent. An Africa without Africans. This antipathy for people, so that all his characters are at a distance, and never really characters at all, overlaps with the next point, the shaping of this narrative and the false notes in Stevens’ work.

FALSE NOTES

For the small, small number who have read both Feeding Frenzy by Stuart Stevens, and Malaria Dreams, what’s striking is the uncanniness in the shared structure, as if both come from the same template, a National Lampoon’s Road Trip: Europe and National Lampoon’s Road Trip: Africa, respectively.

In Frenzy, Stevens travels through Europe with a very beautiful former model named Rachel Kelly in a Mustang with the intent to sell it somewhere in Europe. The car suffers many problems during the trip, and they race to a meeting point with Kelly’s fiancé, a former special forces guy. Kelly is a mix of street-wise sass, but also well-read, and knowledgeable in upscale fashion and cuisine. She’s originally from Wyoming. Though attractive and occasionally mistaken as Stevens’ girlfriend, no romantic entanglement takes place, no sexual tension is even hinted at.

The plotline for Dreams is almost from the same blueprint. Stevens travels to Africa to pick up a Land Rover in the Central African Republic, which he must transport to Algeria, so it can be brought to Europe. The reason for this is either because the car can be obtained more cheaply in Africa, or because it carries diamonds which can be smuggled out. His companion is Ann Bradley, a woman from a military family who is well-read, carries around a five pound copy of Italian Vogue, knows cooking and clothes, and has a boyfriend in the military, this time in the air force. She is sassy, streetwise, tough, but also well-read. She’s from Oklahoma.

Here is the first appearance of Ann Bradley, well-read, stylish, but with roots in Oklahoma and expertise in mechanics:

ann bradley

Across the aisle my “team” was engrossed in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. She was twenty-three years old, 5’5″”, 110 pounds, and possibly the only person ever to transfer from Bryn Mawr to the University of Oklahoma. In all likelihood Ann knew more about mechanics than I did, but I doubt I’ve ever met anyone who didn’t. She was nibbling from a can of pheasant pâté. She’d acquired this treat at the airport in Marseilles when I had suggested she buy us some sandwiches while I held our place in the check-in line. She’d returned some time later quite pleased.

Here is Rachel Kelly eating paté by hand in France.

rat with pate underlined

I found Rat eating a can of paté in the herb garden of the convent. She was wearing a bright white sun hat that she’d bought in Paris, black jeans, and a black tee shirt with a small, very discrete Harley-Davidson logo. Henry was perched at her feet and she was eating with a her fingers the local paté straight from the tin.

Another of the first descriptions of Ann, in a stylish bathing suit, a five pound copy of Vogue, and a mention of a boyfriend fighter pilot:

jaguars are fighter pilots

I found Ann in back of the Sofitel by the pool. It was on a jetty jutting out into the Ubangi. She wore a bathing suit with a large number 7 on it and was reading a five-pound Italian Vogue, another Marseilles acquisition, surrounded by a half dozen very pale young men.

“They’re Jaguar pilots,” she told me. Somewhere behind her sunglasses and the red St. Louis Cardinals hat pulled down low, I caught a trace of a smile.

“Jaguars are French fighter planes,” Ann explained peevishly.

“Oh. Fighter jocks.” Now it was my turn to smile. Ann’s boyfriend back in Oklahoma was a fighter pilot. “A generic preference?” I inquired.

This is the first appearance of Rachel Kelly, in a gym, wearing a stylish bathing suit:

Malaria Dreams

Rat was wearing a black one-piece suit that looked like the sort of thing bathing beauties wore on the Riviera in the twenties. There’s a picture around of Zelda trying to look sexy and she’s wearing something similar.

She was an ex-model who worked for a fashion designer and oculd explain quite movingly why some grades of wool make you look like a million dollars and others, you were better off cutting a few holes in a big plastic garbage sack and heading out the door. Call it a flair for fashion.

This is Carl, Rachel’s boyfriend, who used to be Special Forces:

“I was SOG – Special Operations Group. We were the black-arts guys. In country, no uniforms, Laos, Cambodia.”

“Got to tell you, man, I loved it. Nasty, nasty but I loved it.”
“What did you do?” [asks Stevens] It was a stupid question.
“Jumped out of helicopters and shot a lot of people. Great time.”
“Sure”, I said.

Though neither Rachel or Ann is ever quoted as speaking at length in french, they both occasionally break into it.

This is Ann:

liberte egalite

One flag bearer caught sight of Ann and stopped suddenly, kicking up a flurry of dust. Ann smiled and saluted with her beer. She wore shorts and a tee shirt featuring a picture of oversized sunglasses at a rakish angle. The young Cameroonian patriot looked confused, uncertain whether to smile or scowl. Finally he thrust his flag toard Ann and shouted, “Liberté!”

“Liberté!” Ann yelled.

This is Rachel:

cest impossible

“No!” Rat finalled exclaimed after an appropriate dramatic silence. “Do you really think?”

I glanced at her, trying to tell if she was truly shocked or just pretending.

The German shrugged.

C’est impossible!” Rat exclaimed.

C’est impossible! I stared at her. Who was this woman from Wyoming trying to kid?

Ann has mechanical aptitude, and so does Rachel:

automotive skills

“My theory is that you might have put in unleaded fuel and 1965 V-8s probably need all the lead they can get.” [said Rachel]

She was right, of course. Rat had an annoying way of being right about things automotive. It was her Wyoming cowgirl roots.

Rachel Kelly adopts a dog for their trip in Europe. Ann Bradley adopts a stray gazelle.

Here is Ann with the gazelle:

thompson gazelle

Ann appeared from behind the chief’s hit. Cradled in her arms was a small, catlike creature with a sharp snount.

“This is Thompson,” she announced. “Thompson the gazelle.”

Our procession had the look of a fable: Joseph in the lead carrying the wicket picnic basket packed with French cheese and sausage, Henri in his Guccis flipping through Paris Match, Ann nuzzling with the gazelle, and myself lugging a pack with the unlikely label “Himalayas.”

That night in Berbérati, we watched Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing cheek to cheek on Henri’s VCR, powered by his personal generator. Afterwards, Henri played Cole Porter songs on his piano – “the only one in all this part of Africa” – while Ann fed Thompson drops of milk and I read James Hadley Chase.

Here is Rachel with the dog:

henry the dog

She walked over to the far corner of the garden, where a little iron gate led out onto Queen’s Walk and, just beyond that, St. James’s Park.

She pointed to a contented-looking golden retriever tied to the fence.

“What’s that?” I asked, a sense of dread cascading rapidly through my being.

“That’s Henry and he’s ours!”

“His name is Henry. I’m keeping him for a family that was going to take him to America for a year but found that he would have to be qurantined for two months and it would have broken their heart to do that to their dog. So we just agreed to take care of him.”

They do not get the needed Land Rover, instead settling for another car which they hope to sell at the end of their trip in Africa. Where in Frenzy, the pair to race to meet Kelly’s mate, here they race to meet Stevens’ wife in Algeria, a woman who forever stays off-screen, unseen and unheard, unable to make it even to the closing pages because of a cancelled flight.

It is a structure which fits Europe better than Africa, with the latter, with its horrors and beauties, resisting one more man insisting that it be a backdrop for their own adventure. Of course, the most striking aspect of the shared template is the woman, who appears to be the same character, but perhaps played by slightly different actresses, first by Liv Tyler, next by Rachel Weisz. In Frenzy, it is she who initiates the idea of a trip. With Dreams we’re not given any idea as to why the female needs to be brought along – is she there to translate? Who knows? Neither book ever mentions the possibility of envy from one’s mate about a man and a woman traveling alone together. In the case of Frenzy, that Stevens might even have a wife is never mentioned. That there is the possibility that she will not get to spend christmas with her husband – the rendezvous in Algeria is three days before this festive event – but this strange woman might, is never brought up. It is one of those details that makes the reader very skeptical of Stevens as a writer, a skepticism seemingly shared by Charlie Rose in this interview. Beyond this is the simple incredulity of two people with no experience in Africa and no guide, traveling half its length, including the Sahara and the former warzone of Chad, never mind the possibility that they might have taken the same route but with diamonds smuggled in their vehicle.

That the Land Rover to be retrieved carries diamonds on the inside, which will then be smuggled back to Europe is implied in several places.

In the meeting with Lucien which initiates the African trip:

lucien was involved in diamonds

“I spent a good bit of time in the CAR last year,” Lucien explained.

I nodded, methodically working my way through a bundle of saté skewers. Lucien was always going off to obscure corners of America. No one seemed to know what he did or why, though supposedly it had something to do with gold and diamonds.

“What I was wondering is” – he leaned forward and cocked an eyebrow – “if perhaps you would be interestd in driving my vehicle back to Paris.”

In a talk with a Central African Republic local about why the truck is being held:

lucien money must be involved somewhere

“I have been thinking about your Land Rover,” Henri [a local acquaintance] began unexpectedly. For the first time since arriving in Africa, the Land Rover did not, at the moment anyway, seem very important.

“What I cannot understand, if all Lucien has done wrong is not pay this fee on time, why do they make such a mess? Is that how you say, a mess?”

[a lawyer for the local government] Knepper thinks the minister [of mines] or Follope, the capitaine in the Brigade Minerale, is angry at Lucien. Maybe both.”

“I think,” Henri finally decided, “that the minister thought he was going to make some money out of Lucien and our friend Lucien did not allow this to happen. Money must be involved somewhere.”

A conversation with the minister of mines on why the government won’t release the vehicle, as well as highlighting that the rover is expected to be used for smuggling, and the improbablility of the whole venture:

minister of mines dialogue part one minister of mines dialogue part two

“Tell me,” the minister began, “just what is your relationship with Lucien?” Then he smiled.

ALearms rang inside my head. The minister’s voice reminded me of the best sort of prosecutor: low-keyed, friendly, with traps set at the end of each seemingly harmless sentence.

“Relationship?”

“He is a friend?”

I plunged boldly ahead. “Sort of.”

A knowing smile. And you are here doing his business?”

“Oh, no.” Then I explained how I had come to be in the Central African Republic.

“Let me udnerstand,” the minister queried patiently, “you were having dinner with your friend Lucien and he asked you to go to Africa to transport his vehicle and you said yes. This is what really happened?”

It suddenly sounded like the most preposterous thing I’d ever heard. “Well, tes. That’s pretty much what happened.”
The minister and the capitaine exchanged bemused looks. “And how long have you been involved in buisness with your friend Lucien?”

“I’m not. He’s just a friend.”

The looks came again. “And you come all the way to Africa to pick up a vehicle just for a friend?”

I said in a voice that sounded very tiny, “I thought it would be fun.”

A visit to where Lucien bought his diamonds.

where lucien looked for diamonds

“It’s close to here that Lucien looked for his diamonds,” Henri said, leaning against the Renault and watching a teenager work the hand pump drawing gas from a fifty-gallon drum. “This is diamond country. That is one of the reasons,” he grinned, “you see Muslims driving cars like that.” He nodded to a newish Toyota Land Cruiser behind us waiting for gas.

“You mean they find diamonds?” I asked.

“I mean they buy diamonds from Africans. But mostly they smuggle.”

Just outside Yaloke, beyond the twin rows of poplars planted fifty years ago by the French that make the road, if only for an instant, look like Avignon, a police roadblock stopped all traffic.

A soldier returned with Joseph and peered into the car, shining a light – it was almost dark – in each of our faces. Then abruptly he shook hands with Henri and waved us on.

“Diamonds,” Henri muttered, just as the first owl burst skyward under our headlights.

This last fragment should convey how incredibly dangerous it would be for two people, unfamiliar with Africa, without a guide or any contacts, to travel up through Africa to Algeria. The recklessness of those who would decide to do such a thing, the recklessness of an experienced diamond smuggler to trust a fortune to such novices, shakes a reader’s belief in this book, would shake their belief, even if, say, it were fiction. This is to speak only of the ringless falseness of what’s given here, rather than the rank immorality of being complicit in the smuggling of diamonds from a continent that had much of its mineral wealth stolen by colonial powers.

False notes such as these make you look at what Stevens writes with a more intense skepticism, perhaps warranted, perhaps not. That, for instance, he attended Oxford as an undergraduate, as he says in Frenzy, graduate school at Oxford in this Atlantic piece, in Dreams he mentions attending Oxford again:

oxford

Within twenty-four hours we were sitting in front of a Mr. Richards, an Englishman who ran the largest Nissan agency in town, and spilling our story. He was amused. We had, it turned out in one of those odd twists of fate I thought only occurred in Evelyn Waugh stories, attended the same college at Oxford. This was by far the most tangible benefit I’d ever accrued from any educational institution.

These claims may well be true; what I find unusual, another one of those possible false notes, is that no mention is ever made of Oxford in any profile or interview. One detail a Times reporter, or any reporter, will almost always ask is, where you went to school. The only time education is mentioned in a times piece on Stevens is “Image Makers Hard at Work In the Selling of a Candidate” with UCLA attendance mentioned, and Oxford not at all. One’s education shouldn’t matter to a reader, yet publishers are always tarting up your bio with a mention of some ne plus ultra school, with Oxford as a triple cherry deluxe, yet, again, Oxford is never mentioned in Stevens’ book jackets. This all in the context of a profile, mostly sympathetic, “An Unconventional Strategist Reshaping Romney”, which describes Stevens as occasionally having an outsized ego.

These are ambiguous off notes that arouse skepticism. I think there are more definite ones in Dreams.

TIME OUT OF JOINT

The details that are off in Dreams fall almost entirely into the categories of time and money.

The book, though published in 1989, takes place in the fall of 1987. There are several details establishing the year as exactly that one, which we’ll get to as we go through this section.

Money and the rate of exchange is mentioned often in the book. Stevens often complains about how incredibly expensive it is to travel and eat in Africa, given that it is, his words, a third world place. US dollars are exchanged for the Franc of Central Africa. The value of the Central African franc was tied directly to that of the french franc – one french franc was worth fifty francs of central africa. This relation was fixed and did not fluctuate. A brief overview of the history of the franc of central africa can be found here. The rate of exchange for US dollars to francs did fluctuate, with this rate affecting the number of french francs a dollar was worth, which in turn affected the number of central african francs a dollar was worth.

The exchange rate between french francs and US dollars is crucial for what’s very off in the events in the book.

Stevens and Ann Bradley arrive in the Central Republic of Africa in early October 1987.

early october

I had been in Bangui less than ten minutes when I was robbed for the first time. This proved to be very fortunate. Muggings, rape and murder, I quickly discovered, were the pillars of conversation among the white community, and my introductory theft gave me something to talk about on the party circuit.

It was early October. The season was a factor in the robbery as it had been cold and rainy in Europe and I had arrived at the Bangui airport carrying a heavy raincoat. It was a new coat, recently purchased in England. I liked it.

Their initial mission is for Stevens to retrieve the Land Rover of his friend, Lucien. In order to do so, they need to pay a sizable bribe to a government official.

270 francs

The problem with the Land Rover was really quite simple, Capitaine Follope – whom Knepper addressed as “mon capitaine” – explained. There were some fees that had not been paid on mineral leases Lucien had acquired from the government. The vehicle had been seized as collateral against future payment.

“The amount in question is very small,” Follope said reassuringly.

“How much?”

“Half a million Central African francs.”

It sounded like a lot of money to me. I tried to calculate quickly: 270 Central African francs, or CFA to the dollar. It was a little less than $2000. Not a small amount but certainly cheaper than buying a new car. Lucien, I figured, would gladly pay if he understood it was the only way to see his Land Rover again.

Shortly after this, it is Stevens’ birthday.

birthday 22 october

It was my birthday, the twenty-second of October.

After this date, Stevens contacts Lucien to approve the bribe.

lucien half a million bribe

“You’ve got to understand, nothing is working!” I enumerated our efforts to free the Land Rover, the frustrations of this person being out of town, that person out of touch, everyone promising everything, and nothing, ultimately, happening.

“Yes, that’s how it is,” he answered pleasantly. “It just takes time.”

This occasioned an outburst on my part as to the limits of my time. Then I moved to present my case. “You’ve got to come down here yourself. It’s a must; or let me throw some money around for a bribe. That might help.”

“I don’t think my flying there is a very good idea,” Lucien said, his voice, for the first time, sounding serious. “How much money?”

We finally agreed upon half a million CFA – about two thousand dollars. It seemed a reasonable sum to offer as a bribe.

The bribe in CFA francs has stayed the same, and the bribe in US dollars has apparently stayed the same – almost or about two thousand dollars. No mention is made of any urgency regarding the rate of exchange. Again, this is a book where the narrator is concerned about the expense of things, and often mentions the price of an item in US dollars after giving the price in CFA francs.

However, during October, the rate of exchange of the dollar versus other currencies drops drastically, a possible cause, of many, for the crash of markets, which took place October 19th, three days before Stevens’ birthday, the crash perpetuating this decline. After the October 19th crash, the dollar continued its decline against the franc, losing ten percent of its value over two months.

A graph generated by the very helpful Economagic website illustrates this.

franc dollar graph cropped more

Yet somehow the bribe paid out in US dollars remains the same, whether early or late in October.

This rapid fall in the dollar’s value vis a vis the franc is something that one would expect as an obvious mention, that even as the travelers got closer and closer to their destination, prices kept climbing because of the loss of value.
?
For that matter, perhaps I am miscalculating, but the rate of exchange used in the book seems to have no relation with the exchange rate at the time.

The bribe at the beginning of October is 500 000 CFA francs, which Stevens calculates is worth about $2000 US dollars. 500 000 CFA francs is 10 000 french francs, so one US dollar is worth about five french francs in the book. Stevens gives an exchange of 270 CFA francs per US dollar, or 5.4 francs per dollar, so this might be because the bribe in US dollars isn’t quite $2000, perhaps a little less. However, as can be seen in the graph, the US dollar was trading above six francs for the first half of October, far above an exchange rate of either 5 or 5.4. Then it falls, so around the beginning of November, when Stevens calls Lucien, it’s at 5.70. In the book, however, the rate of exchange has remained entirely frozen at what it was at the beginning of October, stock still at five francs or five point four francs. This is still, a worse rate of exchange as shown in the graph, even with the start of the dollar’s value drop, five or five point four in the book, compared to 5.7 in currency exchange records.

After Stevens’ birthday, but before the call to Lucien, he has to buy some gas:

jerrican seventy dollars

I spotted a metal jerrican for sale at nineteen thousand CFA – seventy dollars; to make the trip north, I needed at least fifteen.

19 000 CFA francs is 380 french francs. If seventy US dollars buys 380 french francs, the rate of exchange is 5.428. It has either stayed level at the previous 5.4, or slightly improved from 5: either way, it is still lower than what was available around that month at any currency exchange.

A bribe is paid in Cameroon, at some point in the first three weeks of November.

three thousand cfa about eleven dollars

Three thousand CFA, about eleven dollars, was the standard amount Pierre turned over. Once a motorcycle patrol demanded more.

Three thousand CFA is sixty french francs, so now the exchange rate is 5.45. Again, if the exchange in the book in October is taken, it is level. It is also weaker than it ever was, at any exchange, as shown on the graph, and shows none of the rapid devaluation taking place.

We are told at one point that it is thanksgiving, which, in 1987, would be November 26.

thanksgiving

It was Fernando who reminded us it was Thanksgiving. He mentioned it in an offhand way while we stood at the head of the long buffet marveling at the pasta, the veal, the pastries. “An untraditional thanksgiving, no?” he said. Ann and I looked at each other, not understanding what he meant, and then we both looked up at a wall calendar featuring a nude girl riding a tractor. He was right, it was thanksgiving.

Shortly before this, we are given a last price quoted both in CFA francs and US dollars, the cost of fixing their car.

fifty thousand cfa

The volunteer mechanic requested tools, and I brought out the odd-fitting nonmetric set I’d stolen from Lucien. He grunted and went to work with a set of pliers. After a few minutes of messing about, he rose and said, simply, “Fifty thousand.”

“I’m sorry?” I asked, not understanding.

“Fifty thousand CFA to fix the car.”

That was almost two hundred dollars.

Fifty thousand CFA francs is a thousand french francs, so a dollar is now worth five francs. During the period in which the dollar weakened versus the franc, in this book, during the same time period, the dollar either gains in value, then drops back to what it was, to a weaker value than it actually was on the world’s currency exchange, somewhere above 5.60 in the period right before thanksgiving. Or it stays rock solid same throughout this period of rapid falling value.

In fact, the price given for car repair here is the same as a ransom asked for before Stevens’ birthday in October. It is a price demanded for information on Stevens’ stolen coat.

fifty thousand cfa first time

“Yes, but first we must discuss price.”

It was, apparently, a ransom situation. “How much do they want?” I asked.

“Fifty thousand CFA.”

That was almost two hundred dollars, far too much. We negotiated for some time. Finally we agreed on five thousand CFA.

Here, fifty thousand CFA is equal to two hundred dollars, the same exchange as it is after November 26. Given that the calculation for the exchange in some amounts is close to 5.4, and Stevens gives an exchange rate of 270 CFA francs per dollar for the October amounts, or a 5.4 rate, there appears the possibility that the exchange rate throughout the story is 5.4, as an exchange rate, please excuse my lapse into italics, might be conveniently set in a fiction. So there is some strange discrepancy in what the actual exchange rate should be, beyond the dramatic absence of any sense of a dollar plummeting in value, losing ten percent of its value over the course of the trip in relation to the native currency in an already expensive continent.

I add as well that at no point does Stevens write of carrying around a large amount of money that he has already exchanged and that the amounts needed on the trip are sometimes very, very large, such as paying two thousand dollar bribes or buying a new vehicle. It is also important that before Stevens says he left for this trip, in early October or late September, the dollar franc exchange had been holding steady for a long while, trading above six francs a dollar, nowhere close to the 5.4 rate ubiquitous in the book.

I end with the final details that are off, starkly off, for which I leave to others to deduce an explanation.

As said before, Stevens arrives on the continent at the beginning of October. He celebrates his birthday in Bangui, Central African Republic, on the twenty second of October.

I stated earlier that there are markers establishing that the story takes place in 1987. Here is the first one. Stevens writes of the carnet, a letter of passage, needed to travel through most African countries to avoid paying entrance duties to that country.

carnet england storm

Actually, I had a carnet. Warned that travel by car in Africa was impossible without one, I’d gone to considerable trouble and expense to acquire one from the Automobile Association in England. Unfortunately, my visit to England coincided with the worst hurricane to hit the country in a century, silencing all telephones, littering the streets with uprooted trees and knocking out the rail line from London to the Dover ferry. My life had not been made easier by the fact that I was hauling around enough Land Rover parts to launch a dealership, plus assorted camping gear – though my stove and lantern did come in handy in my hotel when the electricity died for two days.

What’s referred to here must be the massive storm which hit England in 1987, easily considered the worst storm of the century for the area, and featuring hurricane winds.

What is puzzling is this. The storm took place on October 16th and 17th. Stevens obtains his carnet before leaving for Africa. Yet he says he arrives in Africa in early October. How is it that he is in England during this storm, yet is in Africa, before the storm?

There is another, smaller discrepancy. It is after his birthday, Stevens and Ann Bradley are traveling from Cameroon into Chad. Stevens describes what is taking place there:

chad was fighting a war

Entering Chad near the capital, N’Djamena, one could theoretically drive across Lake Chad (largely dry for the last ten years) and into Niger. There were problems with this approach. For starters, Chad was fighting a war with Libya and though most of the fighting occurred in the northern desert near the border, the Libyans had bombed N’Djamena just a few months earlier.

Later, when they are about to enter Chad, we get this description:

war zone capitals of a winning side

Cloaked in a perpetual layer of dust, the town still resembles what it was for years: a battlefield.

But war-zone capitals of a winning side are usually graced with an infectious optimism difficult to resist. And Chad definitely feels it is winning. After years of watching Libya annex its northern territory, Chad finally put aside internal feuds and struck back. In a series of blitzkrieg assaults, Chadian forces overran Libyian desert bases previously though impenetrable. Their attack methods quickly qualified as the stuff of legends.

The American government aids Chad in its war with Libya and this helps create a benevolent attitude toward Americans in N’Djamena.

All this suggests a war with ongoing fighting. These descriptions correspond to either later October and mid-November, or early November and late November, respectively. Yet this was at least a month and a half into a ceasefire between Libya and Chad with no outbreak of hostilities. No doubt traveling in this area was still a frightening experience, and that the ceasefire could break any day was a disturbing possibility for those entering Chad. But why leave out a crucial piece of information such as this, placing the conflict in a more ambiguous pre-ceasefire place rather than after?

That this all takes place months after the ceasefire is made clear, though indirectly, in this scene with a member of the US embassy staff in Chad:

fragment of shot down plane

Tim Whitset worked for the U.S. embassy. A big man in his early thirties, he’d lived in Africa for over a decade and relished matching wits with the local bureaucracy. His office in the newly fortified embassy compound was, in essence, a large vault with a heavy combination on the door. From this windowless crypt, he launched his rescue missions in the complicated bureaucratic wars that raged through the Chadian government. On his desk, he had a souvenir of a more traditional war.

“It’s a piece of a Libyan plane, actually,” he responded to my question about the charred piece of twisted metal. “It was shot down a few months ago over town. Poor suckers flew all the way from Libya to drop a few bombs in a mud flat outside of town and then got blown to hell and back. A U.S. missile operated by the French. A true United Nations effort.”

This was actually a well-reported incident, “Libyan Warplane Is Downed In Chad By French Forces” which took place on September 8th, 1987 and one that may have helped trigger the ceasefire. That the shooting down is mentioned, but the ceasefire is not, as if to create a sense of ongoing war which the travelers might face is a strange one.

One more detail that I think points to a disconcerting anachronism. The trip starts in the Central African Republic, which they stay in past Stevens’ birthday on October 22. After, they leave for Cameroon, where they run into a national celebration in Bertoua.

cameroon national holiday

On thie Sunday afternoon, a raucous crowd spilled out of the bar dancing to the music blaring from a stand selling cassettes and records.

Three pickup trucks filled with young men waving Cameroon flags roared up from the direction of town. They shouted slogans, and when the bar throng responded tepidly, they yelled louder. Several jumped off the truck and ran about the market brandishing flags; the scene reminded me of male cheerleaders taking the field before a football game.

Pierre when I asked, explained that this was a Cameroonian national holiday, Independence Day, he beieved.

The only national holiday that this could be is Cameroon’s Unification Day, when the french and english parts of the country united. Again, this scene takes place after Stevens’ birthday on October 22. Cameroon’s unification day is October 1st.

There is another possible discrepancy, but this does not relate directly to Malaria Dreams, but a trip to Africa described in Feeding Frenzy. There are discrepancies if it is the same trip to Africa described.

Traveling along the river Niger in Malaria Dreams, Stevens and Bradley come across some fishermen.

capitaine giant perch

I woke up at first light and brewed coffee on the little gas stove. The mornings were the best time of day, when it was cool enough to forget, at least for a little while, the strangling heat of the upcoming hours. A pirogue floated through the mist, a graceful craft with bow and stern rising upward like outstretched arms. There were two teenagers poling the boat. They landed and hoisted out a bulky fish, mouth gaping. It was a capitaine, a breed of giant perch I’d first seen pulled from the Ubangi River in Bangui.

A capitaine, Nile perch, can be found in the Niger river. In Feeding Frenzy, Stevens remembers a moment from a trip in Africa, perhaps the same trip of Malaria Dreams

oversized gar

I described a meal I’d cooked once by the River Niger. The centerpiece was an oversized gar I’d caught, the only fish longer than six inches I’d ever caught in Africa. It was a bony prehistoric-looking thing about as appetizing as a display in a natural history museum. I filleted it, which was the only thing I could imagine doing, wrapped the fillet in tin foil with bits of onions and some old garlic cloves I’d bought in the Timbuktu market, and buried it in the coals of a driftwood fire. It was shockingly good, moist and sweet. I ate it with half a can of peaches and a mix of fried yams and onions, which was about all the shelves of Timbuktu’s largest grocery had to offer.

Now, Stevens has not come across fishermen in Niger, but fished himself, one of many times he has fished in Africa. At no point in Malaria Dreams does he mention doing any fishing. Another prominent detail is the error in the fish: the visual identification of the gar is entirely correct, but this is a fish that is not found in the river Niger, or anywhere in Africa, as outlined in this brief National Geographic summary; it can, however, be found in Stevens’ native Mississippi. It is from the Lepisosteidae family, none of which can be found in Africa. Here is a partial list of fish to be found in the Niger river; lepisosteida are easily recognizable by their snub nose; none of the fish species in this list seem to have this identifier.

A final short small detail, but one that I found as equally striking as the date of the storm. After leaving Chad, where they spend thanksgiving, the travelers go to Niger.

burkina faso coup pt one burkina faso coup pt two

Niger, though, was a security-mad country with roadblocks and police checks every twenty or thirty miles. The routine of paranoia had been accelerated by a coup a few days earlier in neighboring Burkina Faso. Like virtually every West African leader, the president of Niger had catapulted himself to power in a similar coup and no doubt viewed the events in Burkina Faso as intimations of his own mortality. (The Burkina Faso president, an exceptionally charismatic guitar-playing young leader, was gunned down in his residence, as is the custom.)

All of this meant it was impossible to travel a mile in Niger without immaculately ordered papers, including insurance.

Again, this takes place after Thanksgiving, either at the very end of November, or early December. The coup in Burkina Faso is spoken of as having taken place a few days earlier.

The coup in Burkina Faso was against the very charismatic, guitar playing Thomas Sankara, who was killed. The coup took place on the 16th of October and he was executed on the 17th, 1987. Again, I leave it to others to make their deductions.

The ending of this post is abrupt: I think there’s possibility of greater analysis of this book, so I consider this entry unfinished.

(Edits have been made for clarity; additions were made detailing the smuggling of diamonds in the book, the ambassador who is not a Reagan dunce, and the polish smugglers. A few additions were made on the currency exchange of the book, along with some edits for improved clarity.)

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Rhyme The Rhyme Well

For obvious reasons.

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