Night Train To Turkistan by Stuart Stevens, Mitt Romney’s Media Assassin

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, his memoir of working in the George W. Bush campaign, 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.

The first published book by Stuart Stevens, it is well-written in many parts, without the distractions of possible fabulisms or small spittles of vitriol. His temperament is either held in check because this book is his first, or by the company of the very good writer Mark Salzman. It is an account of a trip with Salzman, reprising the route of Peter Fleming (Ian’s brother) and his companion, Ella Maillart, through north-west China. I give a few brief notes now, perhaps to be returned to later.

Turkistan gives an overall impression of China as primitive, dirty, and brutal, a combination of state dysfunctionality and rabid humanity. I am uncertain if the book’s pervasive sense of squalor is because of the conditions themselves, or the writer being unable to perceive the vivid human life, human life that requires no sentiment for it to be seen as against, above, and transcendent such conditions of misery – that even in the worst of times, the worst of places, hope dies last.

I make few notes at this moment, only pointing out a few small significant details. This is a book notable for being written by a republican political consultant, yet one that looks at conservative idols with an attitude that would now mark him as an apostate.

Stevens and Salzman have dinner with a Uighur family, when Ali, one of the family, tells of what he promises will happen when they eat with him at home, in Korla:

“We would all have to come feast with my family in Korla,” Ali declared. “We celebrate Ark [the way Ali pronounces Mark Salzman`s first name] as the next President of the United States!”

President?

“They think I look like an actor,” Mark explained. “And since Reagan is an actor and an American they figure I should be President too.”

I remember thinking that there was something disturbing about the amount of sense that made.

reagan as president pt1 reagan as president pt2

More striking is the opinion he gives of Lee Iacocca, in 1987, a capitalist icon and possible future presidential candidate. Here is Stevens speaking to a chinese man about the popularity of Iacocca’s autobiography in the country. Stevens’ attitude towards this figure can be safely described as contemptful:

“Can you buy Iacocca’s book in China?” [asked Stevens]

“Every day in the People’s Daily, two pages of the I-Coke-ah book is run.” [answered Lu Wei Hong]

“That’s almost the whole paper.”

“Yes. This is very important.”

Startling as the idea was, it did make a certain amount of sense that Iacocca would go over big in a country molded by Mao. The two had a lot in common: both were megalomaniacs, and both had a special knack for what might be called Succeeding Through Failure. Mao realized that he was losing his grip in 1965, so he launched the Cultural Revolution and reestablished himself as the dominant figure in China. Iacocca was fired at Ford, landed a job as head of a bankrupt company that made terrible cars, had to beg Congress for a billion dollars – all the sort of stuff that would have made any normal person embarrassed to appear in public. And yet he had the gall to strut around on national television in commercials, becoming a folk hero in the process.

Both were also fashion arbiters in their own right – Mao, the blue jackets and cap; Iacocca, the shirts with contrasting collars and cuffs. And both had been trading for years on one impressive achievement: Mao had pulled off the Long March, and Iacocca had overseen the creation of the Mustang.

iacocca

Stevens does not reveal what mass murderer he thinks George Romney is comparable to.

I now quote a short excerpt with an attempt to contrast two styles, to demonstrate something essential that is missing in Stevens’ writing, even his best writing. What follows is a finely detailed, well observed description from Turkistan of a peasant woman on a rickety country bus, one limited to her externals, some very grim, ultimately employed only for the purpose of cruel laughter. She sleeps in piss; one cannot even tell if it’s a he or a she; she is toothless; she eats disgusting lard; she shrieks helplessly like a child; she falls out of the bus, onto the ground, her sack falling on top of her for extra comic effect.

Not long after lunch, we stopped to pick up a peasant standing by the road. We were miles from any semblance of civilization, but no one appeared surprised to come upon this old man wearing rags and carrying a huge burlap bag and two buckets balanced on a pole, coolie-style on his shoulders. He struggled through the door and collapsed in my former position in the stairwell (I had moved to a seat to avoid the liquid hazards.)

Hours later, the peasant took off his tattered PLA hat to reveal a pigtail. I pondered for a long time whether this meant that he was a woman, or just an old-fashioned male peasant. But when the doors swung open, as was their want, and the peasant screeched at the driver in a high voice, I decided it was a female.

Hovering in the doorway, holding on to a seat brace with one hand, the woman pulled a bent spoon out of her ripped Mao jacket and began to eat something out of one of the buckets. It was a grayish-white gel, and it took me a while to realize she was eating lard. She had no teeth but worked her gums actively to ingest the fat.

Later, on the outskirts of Dunhuang, she began to shriek at the driver. Apparently she wanted him to stop before driving into the center of town. Everyone laughed as her pleas escalated to screams. She shook the railing by the steps and rocked back and forth like an angry child.

The driver did finally stop but only briefly and when he pulled away she was halfway out the door, pulling hard on her massive burlap sack, the buckets carried on her shoulder banging wildly against her face. She tumbled backward onto the road as the bus pulled away, her sack landing on top of her.

The bus moved into Dunhuang.

peasant pt1 peasant pt2

Though I am not well-read enough to find an ideal profile in contrast, one of equivalent scale, yet of greater depth, this description by Isaac Bashevis Singer of a washerwoman of his childhood may provide some sense of what’s missing: an attempt to show that in those of the most impoverished and wretched condition, beats the same heart as our own, and they may carry qualities that we can only call noble.

So, these are excerpts form Singer’s description of a washwoman employed by his family in Warsaw over several years, as the woman ages, slowly losing her abilities, and, finally, her life. I emphasize that the contrast I wish to establish is not one of simple aesthetic technique, but between a writer with a sense of empathy and one with little or none at all.

I find this example useful as well since I can leave out the washwoman’s personal details, and she retains her humanity in Singer’s simple description of her doing her work. A final small note: she is christian, while Singer’s family is jewish. This, however, never causes Singer to write of her as an other, an object of scorn or vile mirth. The full story, appropriately called “The Washwoman”, can be found in his memoir In My Father’s Court.

She was a small woman, old and wrinkled. When she started washing for us she was already past seventy. Most Jewish women of her age were sickly, weak, broken in body. All the old women in our street had bent backs and leaned on sticks when they walked. But this washwoman, small and thin as she was, possessed a strength that came from generations of peasant forebears. Mother would count out to her a bundle of laundry that had accumulated over several weeks. She would lift the unwieldy pack, load it on her narrow shoulders, and carry it the long way home.

Laundering was not easy in those days. The old woman had no faucet where she lived but had to bring in the water from a pump. For the linens to come out so clean, they had to be scrubbed thoroughly in a washtub, rinsed with washing soda, soaked, boiled in an enormous pot, starched, ironed. Every piece was handled ten times or more. And the drying! It could not be done outside because thieves would steal the laundry.

A later description, on the day of a harsh winter.

Mother gave her a pot of tea to warm herself, as well as some bread. The old woman sat on a kitchen chair trembling and shaking, and warmed her hands against the teapot. Her fingers were gnarled from work, and perhaps from arthritis too. Her fingernails were strangely white. These hands spoke of the stubbornness of mankind, of the will to work not only as one’s strength permits but beyond the limits of one’s power.

The bundle was big, bigger than usual. When the woman placed it on her shoulders, it covered her completely. At first she swayed, as though she were about to fall under the load. But an inner obstinacy seemed to call out: No, you may not fall. A donkey may permit himself to fall under his burden, but not a human being, the crown of creation.

It was fearful to watch the old woman staggering out with the enormous pack, out into the frost, where the snow was dry as salt and the air was filled with dusty white whirlwinds, like goblins dancing in the cold.

She takes this bundle, but falls sick, returning with their laundry only months later.

One evening, while Mother was sitting near the kerosene lamp mending a shirt, the door opened and a small puff of steam, followed by a gigantic bundle, entered. Under the bundle tottered the old woman, her face as white as a linen sheet. A few wisps of white hair straggled out from beneath her shawl. Mother uttered a half-choked cry. It was as though a corpse had entered the room. I ran toward the old woman and helped her unload her pack. She was even thinner now, more bent. Her face had become more gaunt, and her head shook from side to side as though she were saying no. She could not utter a clear word, but mumbled something with her sunken mouth and pale lips.

The old woman leaves, promising to return for more wash, but never does. I have already selected too much; but the closing paragraphs describe her dignity so very eloquently, how can I leave them out?

The wash she had returned was her last effort on this earth. She had been driven by an indomitable will to return the property to its rightful owners, to fulfill the task she had undertaken.

And now at last the body, which had long been no more than a broken shard supported only by the force of honesty and duty, had fallen. The soul passed into those spheres where all holy souls meet, regardless of the roles they played on this earth, in whatever tongue, of whatever creed. I cannot imagine Eden without this washerwoman. I cannot even conceive of a world where there is no recompense for such effort.

I hope that these excerpts provide evidence of an absence.

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