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, a look at his travel memoir Malaria Dreams, 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.
A novel by Stuart Stevens, the chief strategist in Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign. It is a book of interest since one often says things in fiction that are perhaps never said in memoirs or factual tales, and also because few political consultants have written novels about their own profession, showing how they see their role, politics, voters.
The story has a plot that is both convoluted and simple. In an unnamed state, but one which can only be Mississippi (Tishomingo county is often referenced), Luke Bonney, a congressman, runs in an election for Senate against the state’s governor, Solomon Jawinski, whose campaign is managed by Matthew, Luke’s brother. Matthew Bonney is married to congresswoman Lisa James. Luke, despite his good looks, is unmarried. The father of Luke and Matthew is Powell Bonney, former governor of the state. Almost all of the story takes place in the last six days of the campaign.
During the election, the Jawinski campaign is threatened by revelations from his ex-wife’s memoir. Luke Bonney’s campaign is hit by allegations that he slept with a group of black transvestite prostitutes. Luke Bonney tries to counter this rumor by claiming that he slept with Matthew Bonney’s wife. Matthew cheats on Lisa with her sister, Dawn. The election ends in a near dead heat, with Jawinski finally winning by a fraction of votes. Jawinski believes the tightly split vote shows how disgusted voters are with the choices given them, so, in order to heal this cynicism, he has Powell Bonney appointed in his place as senator. The story ends with the rumors over Luke Bonney ambiguous and unresolved, Powell Bonney a senator, Matthew and Lisa expecting their first child.
Though I don’t think it’s very funny, the story is an attempt at a madcap farce, with a few serious moments. There are many reasons why it doesn’t work, but a principal one is that the reader has no sense of the characters as real. The people of a broad comedy may be exaggerations, yet they must still feel something like what we do in comparable situations: women and men are deeply upset when they’re betrayed, sexual entanglements do not begin and end arbitrarily, there is some intuitive reason for why two brothers hate each other. Lisa shows no regret or sadness when she intuits that Matthew has betrayed her with her own sister. Matthew sleeps with Dawn, then never gives her any additional attention again, nor does she ask any. The brothers Matthew and Luke hate each other, but though we wait to hear of some basis for the long standing ire, none is ever revealed.
If the book is a failure, that does not keep it from being a fascinating one, almost entirely because of the writer’s privileged position. Through several sections, I try and examine the more intriguing aspects in some depth. Quotes from the book are often long, to make clear that they are not selective or distorted. All quotes are accompanied by scans of the pages to make clear that the quote is very much real, and not fabricated.
Perhaps the strangest, most interesting detail of the book is that Powell Bonney, the father of brothers Luke and Matt, is a composite of segregationists George Wallace, governor of Alabama and Ross Barnett, governor of Mississippi; he is also, easily, the most sympathetic character in the book.
Powell is governor of Mississippi during the strife of the civil rights era, with two historical events merged and given over to him. He is there during the integration of Ole Miss when James Meredith is admitted as a student, during which a massive riot takes place and several people are killed; this is joined with the image of George Wallace standing in the doorway to block admission of black students to the University of Alabama, as well as the idea of Wallace’s penitence for segregation and his subsequent re-election as governor.
What is strange is the way these segregationists have been re-sculpted into this character. He is simply a good man, caught amongst the forces of history, deeply regretful of what takes place when a riot breaks out at the university over the admission of its first black student. After the crisis, stricken by conscience, he resigns from the governorship, and finds a sort of penance by doing volunteer work at Mississippi’s notorious Parchman Farm.
This is one of the first references to the father’s segregationist past in the book, with the borrowed detail of Wallace standing in the school’s doorway:
The Big Guy.
That’s what they called his father in those days. The two brothers had picked it up from one of the state troopers who drove him around and played at being a bodyguard. He never called their father Governor Powell Bonney. Just the Big Guy, even to his face. The governor didn’t seem to mind.
Matt had liked that state trooper. He was the one who told Matt and Luke about their father’s decision not to run for reelection. Luke was furious, Matt could remember it so clearly. “Why?” he kept asking. “How come?”
The trooper just shook his head. He was a sizable fellow, large but not obese, with a burr haircut and a warm smile. Even their mother liked him. “Your daddy’s a good man,” he told them that day driving around in his cruiser – Luke and Matt loved that cruiser. “You don’t let anybody tell you different. You hear me now? The Big Guy’s a champ. A champ-i-on. You wanna hear the siren?”
That was before they were old enough to understand. At least officially understand. What Matt knew was that something wasn’t right. Later, in college, even at the University, right next to the photos of the cars burning and the dead bodies. There were three of those: one student, one national guardsman, and one poor bastard photographer from Sweden. That sort of spread the losses evenly. It would have been hardly fair if any blacks had died. After all, only one was trying to enter the University. That’s what the Big Guy was trying to stop – standing tall in the doorway.
“You hear me now? The Big Guy’s a champ. A champ-i-on. You wanna hear the siren?”
The most extensive mention of the father’s role during the University crisis comes during a visit by Matt Bonney to the prison where his father does his volunteer work. A history book triggers a memory of where he was and what took place that night. The date of the admission of James Meredith has been changed, from October 1, 1962 to September 7, 1964, when Robert Kennedy was no longer even attorney general, but other than that the facts seem the same.
Wandering around the empty library, Matt found a copy of a state history and began to read. It was a new textbook and included a section on his father entitled “The Question of Powell Bonney?”
Powell Bonney’s single-term governorship is one of the more enigmatic in state history. Indeed, Powell Bonney himself remains a mysterious figure in our state’s history. There are those who consider him a tragic victim of the times, destroyed by the race question. Others see him as a conservative who took advantage of racial issues to gain election only to be overtaken by events. But all agree the pivotal event in his single term was the integration of the state University and the subsequent riots that left four people dead. Clearly, Governor Bonney saw these events as a personal failure, and though he gave no reason publicly for deciding not to seek a second term, it was generally agreed that the incidents at the state University were at the heart of his decision.
The exact date was easy to remember – it had made headlines across the country – September 7, 1964. He always thought of it beginning with the two of them in the kitchen, he and Lisa, while his father, who was governor then, of course, was “dealing with the situation.” Lisa’s father was teaching law at the University, a visiting professor taking a year off from his Capitol City law practice.
A few blocks away, in the center of the campus, a crowd of students was beginning to gather, and less than a mile away, a small army of National Guardsmen were waiting instructions from Robert Kennedy, the attorney general. Tomorrow, the first black was scheduled to be enrolled in the state University.
Huddled in the kitchen, Matt and Lisa felt they were part of some great and strange adventure. Outside the house, television crews waited with a score of reporters. They were perched on the sidewalk, spilling out into the quiet street lined with live oaks, drinking lemonade and iced tea the University provided. They sat there waiting for some word from the house, and it made Matt and Lisa feel very important and mature that they were on the inside, a part of what was happening.
That night after dinner at the kitchen table, they slipped over the back fence, very serious in their stealth, convinced that their departure, if detected was sure to be seen on Huntley-Brinkley. Once free, they wandered around town holding hands for the first time. Certain streets were totally deserted, while others were packed with racing students and the press.
They decided to follow the jeeps and trucks that had begun moving toward the campus’s main square. Several blocks later, though, the streets were blocked by a rifle-carrying students turning away all spectators. But Lisa knew the town and she led Matt to the football stadium, where an underground tunnel connected the locker room an the gym, which faced onto the main square. Perched on a locker, they watched the riot begin.
They killed two people and burned a half-dozen cars that night, and Matt and Lisa watched it all. At first they were more excited and nervous than they had ever been, but by the end, they just felt numb, eyes burning from the tear gas. They stayed until dawn when the square was mostly empty of students and firemen were left in peace to hose down the smoldering cars.
When they got back to the house, Matt and Lisa expected their fathers to be waiting, upset by their disappearance. But no one was there. After they had gone to bed, Matt in the guest bedroom, Lisa a floor above, Matt heard his father and Lisa’s father come in together, the front door slamming behind them.
They remained downstairs for a little bit, then his father came up to the extra bedroom next to Matt’s, where he was staying. Matt was just falling asleep when he heard his father vomiting in the bathroom they shared. A little later, he thought he heard sobs, but about this he couldn’t be sure.
This governor vomits over what has taken place. The history book gives the possibilities of either a tragic figure or a man overwhelmed by history. A later episode with the current governor, Jawinski, further makes him into a martyr. Jawinski implies there was a secret deal with Robert Kennedy, but the riots took place anyway.
“Oh, that’s good, Bonney. Just terrific. Anyway, dummy, you’re crazy to be dumping on your old man. He did the best he could. I think there was a lot more about that standing-in-the-schoolhouse-door act than people ever understood. I really do.”
“You mean like some kind of deal with Robert Kennedy that he would pretend to be against the integration but then let it happen.”
Jawinski looked over at Matt for a terrifyingly long time. “Yeah,” he finally said, surprised, “something like that.”
“They just didn’t figure on the riot.”
“Riots you don’t figure. It’s the first rule of riots.”
There were, in fact, attempts by governor Ross Barnett to arrange in some way to have Meredith attend a school, without bringing about a confrontation with federal forces. These arrangements broke down. Barnett did not “pretend” to be against integration. He was against integration. He made defiant, incendiary speeches against integration on the Saturday before Meredith’s admission to the school. He arrested the Freedom Riders when they came through his state. He showed visible and crucial support to Byron De La Beckwith, the assassin of Medgar Evers. “There is no case in history where the Caucasian race has survived social integration,” he said. “We will not drink from the cup of genocide.” White supremacy was his campaign theme each time he ran for office. He was utterly unrepentant about his actions at his death, and stated emphatically that he would act in exactly the same way again. All this information is unambiguous and easily available in his obituary. He did not seek a second term for “mysterious reasons”, but because term limits restricted governors to single nonconsecutive terms.
These were the same non-mysterious reasons why Governor Wallace did not seek a second term in Alabama, following the tenure in which he fought integration at his own state’s university. Wallace, whatever the sincerity of his later professions of regret, did attempt to make active penance, in addition to the forced penitence of partial paralysis from an assassin’s bullet, by confessing to having been wrong, becoming a born again Christian, actively seeking out the forgiveness of his state’s black citizens, some of whom then demonstrated their forgiveness by voting the man back into office. All these steps to redemption for this specific act go untaken by this novel’s governor. He goes into exile. He trains for the Ironman. He does volunteer work at the prison. The last no doubt helpful, but not a direct confrontation of the segregation he helped enforce.
So, given this historical context, it’s puzzling that this book takes the material of two segregationists, who believed in the inherent inferiority of a substantial number of their state’s citizens, and turns it into a character that is a martyr, someone who is an instrument for good, integration, yet cannot reveal this, who then goes into exile, a man too good for this world. It can only be read as an exculpation, a fantasy desired of who the governor was then and why he acted, a shirking from what actually took place.
Stranger still, is that the book acknowledges that this man once made an active appeal for segregation. Matt stumbles upon a commercial made during the governor’s race:
“Powell Bonney – the man from Arcadia!” the voice announced boldly. (Or, at least, semiboldly. The announcer was Woody Jackson, the best local talent available at the time the commercial was made, in 1962. [Woody Jackson, a local TV newscaster character who appears briefly in the book]) “He speaks for the people!” The camera cut from footage of Powell Bonney speaking before a huge crowd at the Lester County Fair to Powell Bonney in a studio talking directly into the camera. “I have always tried to do my best to protect our way of life. The stakes in this election are high. Our cause just. I need your help in the battle ahead!”
Despite this contentious history, it is never explicitly brought up in any conversation between father and either son. It is simply enough to present him as a martyr and assume that the reader will accept that. This perhaps makes one of the last moments of the story truly alienating. Though the current governor has won the senate race, he hands over this position to Powell Bonney, the former segregationist governor:
“And let’s not kid ourselves that when it came down to it, there weren’t many people in this state who were happy with the choices before them.” [said Jawinski] He looked over at Luke with a wry grin. “Just about everybody hated us both and hated the fact that they had to choose between us. Something is wrong.”
Standing at the side of Jawinski, Luke Bonney nodded. The governor motioned for Luke to join him at the microphone.
“Both of us,” Jawinski continued, “believe the people deserve better. And instead of just complaining about it, we’re going to do something about it.”
“I,” Jawinski continued, “will, of course, no longer be governor. Lieutenant Governor Jack Tangent will be sworn in as the new governor. But it will be my-” he stopped here and rolled the word around delightfully, “recommendation that the new governor appoint Governor Powell Bonney to fill the remainder of the term.”
This is viewed, from inside the story, as the sound, moral choice, a happy ending to this novel. I would think a very large number of black men and women of Mississippi would take great issue with what happens: they vote for a candidate, yet somehow this group of almost entirely white men and women decide that the better pick would be the favorite son of the state, the former segregationist governor. He is, after all, a decent man. There were a lot of victims in the fight for civil rights, and, according to this novel, the governor was a victim too. So, it’s only proper that he get another chance, and serve as state senator. How could any upstanding black man or woman dare disturb the universe and disagree with that?
How does this man demonstrate his ultimate decency in a novel written by a Republican consultant? Through his support of a massive government program which will benefit the children of every state, a national literacy program:
“I’ve got one son who thinks I chickened out and another who figures I wasn’t a hero on civil rights. They’re both right, but there you have it. So look, can we talk about literacy? Please? I’ve proposed legislation that would guarantee every American a right to basic literacy skills. It’s an unbelievably good bill.”
So, government paternalism is an evil that a republican must fight against with all his will, unless, of course, it is needed to redeem an aging segregationist. Even big government occasionally has its uses.
As with any book about american politics, a number of figures appear as caricatures, a few small details changed, taunting you to unmask who they are. I am very poor at this game, but I believe I guessed at least one correctly. Perhaps because there is a safety in fiction, and safety in mildly guised characters, every member of the political-media-industrial complex who appear under another name are portrayed unsympathetically, if not utterly dark with bile.
Early on, an obnoxious and violently unattractive man shows up, a former journalist who has become a celebrity by hosting “Showdown”, a quasi-debate program where he shouts and spits over unfortunate guests. This, I believe, can only be one man, the late Prince of Darkness, the infamous Robert Novak. Here Novak is Robert Newsome, and “Showdown” is Novak’s ugly child, “Crossfire”.
A lengthy quote describing the man and his creation:
Few ugly people love the camera, but Robert Newsome was a triumphant exception. He looked forward to his nationally telecast weekly program called “Showdown” with the same heart-thumping glee he had once anticipated his first bylines in his salad days with the Baltimore Sun. The camera – television! that wonderful cathode stage – had resurrected political reporter Robert Newsome from op-ed obscurity and had thrust (that’s how he liked to think about it – THRUST) him into the homes of unsuspecting millions. Television had brought him fans. Television had, for the first time in his forty-seven years, narrowed the vast chasm between his sexual appetites and reality. (Maybe a little too much. That lawsuit was annoying, but it was mostly inside baseball. No one really seemed to care.) Television had made him rich.
At first, the thought of appearing on television made Robert Newsome throw up. Literally. (The outtakes of his first shows were an underground classic in Washington. “Grab the wastebasket!” was the oft-heard, off-camera cry of the bedraggled director.) But he had gradually stumbled onto what he figured to be the medium’s dirty little secret: Television was easy! There was none of the hard digging and seducing of sources that went into his twice-weekly column, Banished was the need to freeze to death at the Iowa caucuses or get teargassed at demonstrations. All you had to do was show up in a studio, usually a temperature-controlled studio, and rant and rave, threaten and cajole – his normal dinner party performance, really, no more or less – and that was it. People loved it. Newsome was a star.
Some television critics had speculated, much to Newsome’s pleasure, that he deliberately tried to make himself look unappealingly sinister on camera. But the truth was that Newsome required no magic to make his electronic presence frightening. He was short and dumpy, with arms too long for his frame, arms that looked to be borrowed from another body. His face was a disaster. He had collapsed cheekbones and a bulbous forehead, a combination that threw most of his features into perpetual shadow. The tone of his skin was swarthy, which on handsome Italians is enviously referred to as “olive,” but Newsome’s olive was overripe and splotchy, two weeks to the bad. A feeble beard raged across his face like a gray bushfire partially extinguished by a rake.
It was Newsome’s love of combat that his audience adored. Here was a man who spoke the truth. “You’re lying, Senator!” A man who begged to be hated! “This may come as a shock, Congressman, but my sources tell me you have an illustrious future behind you.” Thus spoke Newsome!
The set of “Showdown” was designed to maximize the shock effect of confrontation. The two “guests” – it seemed an odd word for people invited to be abused – sat jammed next to each other in uncomfortable straight-backed chairs. Newsome sat inches away across a simple black table, quite literally in their faces. When the show got really hot, spittle flew in all directions. True fans loved to watch closely to observe who was getting the most spray in the face. Usually, it was a guest, for Newsome was blessed with a fierce set of salivary glands.
For some reason, whenever he faced Robert Newsome, Matt’s mind drifted to images of Newsome having sex. Matt wondered if Newsome took off his thick black socks and what sort of sounds he made. It was an oxymoronic vision, like a warthog dancing. Matt started to laugh.
I quote one more Newsom segment from the novel. It is easily one of its most striking, of no consequence in its overall structure, but of great importance to a reader during a presidential election, especially one where a population is burdened and worn down, while a media-politico elite issues diktats from an increasingly lofty height. Robert Novak, I’m sorry, Newsome and Matt Bonney go to a run-down chinese restaurant. Newsome looks about at the sorry souls of myriad races, far poorer than the two men, people who will be poor the rest of their lives, feels no connection with any of them, and states clearly: he wants no part of them. Matt Bonney hears this, and completely agrees. Remember that the next time you wonder why some Sunday morning “news” program seems to have so little to do with the poverty and desperation of people outside their hallowed studios, or when the Romney campaign puts forth a message of compassion, concern, or empathy. The people who opine on those programs, the man who crafted that message, have nothing to do with your sorry lives and they are grateful for that.
The significant areas receive my bolds.
Newsome stiffened as soon as he and Matt walked in the door.
“You always bring me to the nicest places,” he mumbled as Matt led him to a stool at the counter in the rear near the all-Chinese section. Newsome carefully wiped the counter with his paper napkin. His red face appeared to have been drenched with a garden hose.
“Who bothers you the most?” Matt leaned over to whisper in Newsome’s ear, “the niggers, the ‘necks, or the chinks?”
A frightened smile tried to fight its way onto Newsome’s face.
“Don’t forget I’ve been to your house in Washington, Bonney. I know how you live. Your stereo cost more than the per capita income of this god forsaken country.”
Matt started strenuously to object but then, calculating quickly in his head, realized with some embarrassment that Newsome was literally correct. But it was a wonderful stereo. “I live in a very middle-class neighborhood, you know that, Newsome. I’m not out there in Bethesda with all you rich white folks.”
“Thank God there’s still some place for us. Jesus, I’ve been poor. Poor is boring. It sucks.”
“Look, Nuisance, I just brought you here so you could interview average voters three days before the election. I’m just trying to help you out, pal.” Matt beamed and ordered two cups of coffee from the girl, perhaps ten years old, behind the counter. She had the face of a Han Chinese, with skin that looked almost transparent.
“You don’t think I’ll do it?” Newsome challenged. He turned around on the stool and stared out at the crowd, his eyes flitting between the gruff Chinese men, the rambunctious black kids, the tired, middle-aged white men with the sullen quiet of the defeated. The fans droned overhead. Outside, it was already ninety degrees, the street glaring through the half-drawn shades like some exotic ray gun programmed to stun.
Newsome took a long look and turned around. He shook his head, staring straight ahead. “There was a time,” he began.
“Ah, yes,” Matt said.
“A time when I would have been dying to know just what every one of those unique souls was thinking. What made ‘em tick. Were they going to vote? For whom? Why?” He shrugged and drank from his coffee cup. “Now, now, I think I just don’t care. I don’t want to be a part of their world and, God knows, I don’t want ‘em part of mine. Jesus.”
“Yeah,” Matt said, watching their reflection in the mirror behind the counter. “Me, too.”
Next, there is a political consultant, Mort Koughan, working for the opposing candidate, Matt’s brother Luke. He is not given anything like the extensive description of Newsome; he is fat, jewish, with a hard glare and a low rumble of a voice. He’s a very famous consultant from New York City who frequently loses his temper, works state campaigns as well as presidential races. That he is from New York and jewish, I think, are red herrings. The two prominent consultants who match those details are Hank Sheinkopf and Dick Morris, but they don’t really fit the other details, and Morris, despite his current outsize profile, was a very secretive figure when this book was written.
The hard eyes, the temper, the man’s fame and prominence, especially the low rumble of a voice, all make me think this is supposed to be a thinly veiled Ed Rollins, California born catholic. Two quick notes: Rollins appeared on a discussion panel with Stevens in this episode of Charlie Rose, and he was very critical of the performance of the Romney campaign in this very good article, “The Lost Party” by John Heilemann).
Like Newsome, he is looked at with loathing. Koughan makes his first appearance in the novel as a “Showdown” guest:
“And on my right is the famed veteran of national politics, the media maven from New York, the wealthy and ever-well-fed Mort Koughan.” [introduction by Newsome]
Mort Koughan glared and chortled all at once, an exceptionally repellent combination.
“From what I can gather,” Koughan said in his low grumble of a voice, “people around here have a very high regard for former Governor Bonney. In fact, most think he was a heck of a lot better governor than the man trying to do the job right now.”
During a debate, Koughan fires off his gun by accident.
Suddenly, a sound bellowed from the wings. “Jesus wept! I shot myself! Jesus!”
It was Morton Koughan’s voice. He staggered out on stage, staring downward in amazement. A dark wetness spread across his gray Paul Stuart suite pants. “How the hell did this happen?” he asked, as if he were questioning the inferior performance of one of his employees. “How the hell-“ His legs wavered, and then he pitched off to the side like an ugly tree losing its balance.
As a quick aside, I should mention that I find a detail here to be slightly unusual: a catholic would be in the habit of saying “jesus wept!”, as an oath, but I think a jewish man from New York City would be less accustomed to using such a phrase as a curse.
After this incident, emphatic reference is made in the book on this man’s small penis. Folks, these are the jokes.
“You think that fat bastard shot himself in his tiny little thing on purpose?” Ruthie hissed.
A conversation between Matt and his mother.
“Matt,” his mother said gently. “It’s not Luke, and you know it. It’s that awful consultant of his from New York. The one who shot himself-”
“In his little-bitty penis.”
“Matt!” But she was laughing.
I’ll note a strange aspect of this loathing which I’ll return to later. Koughan inspires great animus in Matthew, he is widely looked on as a repellent creature, as if we in the audience should easily see and share in this venom, yet there is nothing in the man portrayed that appears to justify this. He is a pit fighter, but there is nothing I notice that distinguishes him from Matthew or anyone in the Jawinski campaign.
Here he is again, recovering from his self-inflicted wound, not simply a political combatant, but a man whose existence challenges the concept of a loving god:
From the control room, Matt and Governor Jawinski could see Morton Koughan roaming the perimeter of the soundstage. Using a cane, he dragged one foot behind him. For an instant, Matt was astonished to feel a pang of sympathy for a man whose very existence he felt challenged the notion of a benevolent God.
“Look at that jerk,” Jawinski muttered. “He looks like a wounded warthog.”
This was true.
Another political professional who shows up is Walter Farkas, a pollster who works with Matthew Bonney. He is a slightly eccentric man, dark skinned but not african american, whose brother works in his polling firm as well. This, I believe, is the polling expert John Zogby.
Walter Farkas walked across the table, his bare toes splayed across the glass like a tree rog. While he walked, he rolled his tie up and down. His gray pinstriped suit gave every impression of having been slept in, which it might well have been. Walter was noted for keeping vampire hours, an unusual trait for a pollster. As a rule, pollsters were the accountants of politics – smart but dry, a breed whose members prided themselves on their very blandness as proof of their submission to the empirical forces of numerical logic.
But not Walter Farkas. It was one of the reasons he and Solomon Jawinski took to each other from the start. Years ago, Walter’s brother, Josh, who held up the business end of their polling firm, had called then Attorney General Jawinski to pitch Walter’s services.
A physical description and age appear in this pan over the campaign consultants sitting behind the observation glass during the testing of a TV ad:
Had the glass been reversed, the focus group could have witnessed a rather strange assemblage: the tall and dark Farkas, who looked like he should be running a numbers racket in Queens (which he had done once while at Columbia – his numerical adroitness had made him an instant success); Charlie Song, who was half-black and half-Oriental and somehow preposterously handsome; and Ruthie Simms, who resembled a cheerleader trying out for a role in a music video. Walter Farkas was the oldest at forty-four; Ruthie Simms, the youngest, twenty-eight; and Charlie Song in between at thirty-three.
I am unclear who Charlie Song and Ruthie Simms are stand-ins for, if anyone. I note also the strange juxtaposition that Song is half-black, half-asian, and “somehow” preposterously handsome. I am uncertain why good looks should be a surprising development from this racial mixture.
Again, as with the others, Farkas is viewed with bileful hostility. The thoughts of Ruthie, another consultant, on Farkas:
She had never in her life met anyone who thought he knew as much as Walter Farkas. The problem was, he actually had good ideas so it was impossible just to ignore him, which is what she’d really have liked to do.
It is Farkas who wants to make an issue of Luke Bonney’s sexual orientation. He brings it up during a meal where he keeps taking food off other people’s plates. Two details establish how he’s viewed by Matt Bonney and the writer:
“What’s it mean?” Matt asked. He wanted the pompano to arrive that instant so he wouldn’t have to look into Walter’s horrible gray face another second. “Do the spots work or not?”
Walter nodded, then leaned down so that Matt could taste his acrid breath and whispered, “What do you know about your brother being a fag?”
Later, Farkas is beaten by Matt Bonney for what he’s done. I leave that excerpt to the next section.
Finally, for completeness, I mention that Roger Ailes, along with the lesser known Bob Beckell, a democrat consultant, make a brief walk-on under their actual names. I wish I could say some rancid secret is exposed here, but their appearance is a non-event, though Beckell is viewed with casual dismissiveness.
“I am leaving,” Lisa sighed, and this time she opened the door, and just as she did, Roger Ailes walked into the bathroom with Bob Beckell. They were both big men, and the bathroom seemed to get much smaller in a hurry.
“What is this,” Beckell demanded, laughing, “some kind of Bonney family reunion?”
“I was just explaining to Beckell,” Ailes said, quite graciously, as if this were a bathroom conclave convened at his request, ” that it takes a smart man to win a bunch of races and become a national pundit, but it takes a damn genius to lose forty-eight states in a presidential race and become the hottest pundit in town.”
Beckell, when he had managed Walter Mondale’s campaign, had done just that. Now he dispensed political wisdom on national tv with great aplomb.
“Amazing country, ain’t it Roge?” Beckell beamed.
“I,” Lisa said most graciously, “was just leaving some time ago.”
Luke Bonney laughed and slapped Beckell’s expansive back. Matt shrugged, catching Beckell’s puzzled expression. As a fellow political professional, he looked to Matt to explain the odd behavior of these two congresspeople named Bonney. But Matt marched right past him for the door.
In the last book I read and wrote about by Stevens, Feeding Frenzy, he showed a strong fascination for violence in the context of the normally sedate genre of foodie memoir. Here, in the more vicious terrain of political combat and the more permissive universe of fiction, this fixation on violence continues. It is not just that politics is inherently violent struggle, but Stevens wants it to be like violent struggle, and make the violence of the struggle as brutal and sadistic as possible.
This is Luke Bonney preparing for his debate. My bolds.
Over the earphones connected to the Sony Walkman resting in his lap, he was listening to a collection of Motown’s greatest hits, cassette five of an eight-cassette package. Before the debate, he intended to work through all eight.
Luke had spent two full days preparing for the debate with his New York media adviser, the famous Morton Koughan. They had strategized and prepped, rehearsed and analyzed for hours. Now Luke Bonney understood that success or failure came down to his ability to perform. By the time tape eight ended with a Jackson Five medley, he had every intention of being fully prepared to tear Governor Solomon Jawinski’s face right off his ugly head.
Luke Bonney and his consultant Morton Koughan discussing on how to deal with some negative advertising.
“How,” Luke asked in a tired voice, “do you think we ought to respond?”
“We’ve got to go in and tear Jawinski’s heart out and eat it right in front of him. Before he does it to us. That’s what we do. We’ve been ridiculing him. Now we kill him.”
The violence is not simply imagined, as in Feeding Frenzy, but often acted out. After Walter Farkas releases the accusation that Luke Bonney slept with prostitutes, Matthew confronts Farkas, then hits him.
No one said anything for a long time until Matt, whose head lay on the table and who appeared asleep said, “Farkas, what have you done this time?”
“Me?” he answered, looking around the room, which was beginning to fill. “Me, Matt?”
Matt looked up, his eyes slanted like an alligator viewing a potential meal.
“You are such a lying, miserable failure of human endeavor,” Matt said in a tone of voice no different than when he had ordered his Greek salad.
Farkas sputtered and grew red. “You stupid cracker!” he hissed, loud enough to silence the table and booths in the back half of the restaurant. Lionel and Darryl [the owners of the restaurant] stopped in mid-delivery, myopic eyes bulging delightedly.
On the other side of the restaurant, a reporter from the Clarion Item newspaper sat at the counter trying, without great success, to appear not to be listening.
“I don’t think this is quite the place,” Charlie said.
“Right,” Farkas blurted. “You gonna tell me what the exact proper place is for this cracker to call me a miserable failure of a human?”
“How about the kitchen?” Matt asked, still using the same level voice.
Farkas seemed taken aback. “Okay,” he said, frowning, as if analyzing the change of venue.
The Mayflower kitchen was a loud, extraordinarily hot place. Bubbling vats of oil sizzling with strange shapes covered most of the surfaces. Buckets of brown, twisted french fries hung from meat hooks above the stoves. Two men, both black, and two women, both white, threw their bodies about with tremendous velocity.
Walter Farkas was standing there gawking when Matt hit him in the stomach. Tired as he was, Matt’s punch was not particularly powerful, but it was close enough to bump Farkas into Lionel, who was just entering the kitchen door behind Farkas with a tray full of plates. Flailing about for a handhold, Lionel grabbed hold of Farkas’s shirt. For a moment, the two hung together in some perfect symmetry before all those good pompano dinners Lionel had consumed over the years edged his center balance toward the floor, and together, linked like an awkward train, the two of them cascaded backward through the door into the restaurant. The tray full of dishes followed closely thereafter, its astounding crash serving as period to Farkas’ strangled cry: “Crackers! All crackers!”
After the election, Matthew Bonney goes to the rival victory party, then lights hidden firecrackers and throws lit firecrackers at everyone, including his nemesis, Morton Koughan.
At first, the crowd cheered as the Roman candles lit the sky, thinking, of course, that this was all part of the show. But when Matt hurled the first M80s into the edge of the crowd, and the second round of star shells came shooting straight at the well-barbered heads of the crowd, a nervous ripple of panic shook the onlookers. This escalated into a roar of sheer fear when the helicopter spinners flashed toward the crowd, then the lava cones and the parachute flares. A few dozen simple bottle rockets completed the riot.
“I’m gettin’ out of here!” a handsome woman with a lovely tennis tan announced, kicking off her high heels and sprinting for her convertible but not before grabbing a bottle of champagne from one of the stunned waiters.
Matt ran through the night, lighting the fireworks he and Lisa had hidden. He was barefoot, the sand and clay crunching against his bare soles, sweat pouring off his face, a pleasant, almost sweet sweat of energy long stored finally expended. As he sprinted from hidden fuse to hidden fuse, Matt couldn’t remember when he had enjoyed anything quite as much. He liked it so much he figured he should do it again very soon, make a regular habit of it, say, every few weeks or so.
“There he is!” Matt heard one of the waiters scream, and he passed for a second, looking around, wondering who might have arrived. Then he realized the waiter was pointing at him. “Ninja!” the waiter screamed, getting a better look at Matt as he paused. “Ninja man!”
Matt smiled, then launched a bottle rocket at the man’s crotch. “Aeeiiii!” he screamed, jumping aside with surprising alacrity, revealing a very disturbed-looking Morton Koughan suspended between his walking cane and the bar. He did not seem flushed with the sweet wine of victory. In truth, he looked mostly pissed off and well on his way to a quite mean drunk.
“Ninja!” Koughan yelped.
Matt smiled, lighting a fist full of bottle rockets.
“Go ahead!” Morton Koughan screamed. “Shoot me! Go ahead!”
Matt hated to disappoint the famous media consultant.
“Ninja bastard!” Koughan yelped as he flung himself behind the bar to avoid the incoming missiles.
Matt was quite impressed with his agility. He may have been an aging, overweight, half-lame, nearly self-castrated media consultant from New York, but the man could move when faced with an immediate introduction to the physics of bottle rocketry.
After Luke tells Matthew he wants to use an affair with his wife as an alibi, Matthew hits him.
“I need to start leaking the word that Lisa and I have been an item. I need it out there to beat off this fag thing. It’s the way it’s got to be, and I’m here trying to be a nice guy to ask you if it’s okay or what.”
“Let me understand.” Matt’s voice shook. “You’re a nice guy because you’re asking me if it’s okay if you tell the world that you’re having an affair with my wife?”
Luke shrugged, and Matt thought he looked incredibly smug for a fellow who had just been accused of waking up next to transvestites. Matt thought about this for a bit, then he stood up and, almost as an afterthought, hit his brother very hard right in his nose.
“Right,” Matt repeated when Luke fell, sputtering to the floor, blood exploding all over his gray pinstripes and Ruthie’s Oriental rug.
The desire for violence is aroused not just by opponents and wrongdoers, but by anyone who irritates Matthew. His fellow consultant Ruthie says something that annoys him, and Matthew wants to rip her throat with his teeth.
Ruthie suddenly smiled. It was a huge smile that lit up her entire face. “We’re going to win,” she murmured, almost breathlessly. “This will do it for sure. Luke is finished!” She thought for a moment. “We ought to still do that spot you came up with, the one with Luke on vacation with those lobbyist sleazebags. Have you been able to get that tape yet?”
Her Adam’s apple bobbed up and down, and Matt thought very hard for an instant about biting it and ripping it from her throat with his teeth.
Ruthie later says something else that annoys Matthew and he wants to rip her throat with his teeth.
“Look, let’s face it,” Ruthie said, “My sister on television is strictly a T and A kind of thing regardless of what she is doing. She’s a T and A kind of girl.”
“Oh,” Lisa said, “unlike being an anchorwoman like my sister. T and A has nothing to do with that, of course not. That’s strictly a matter of superior intellect. That’s why they hired Dawn. I mean, she’s just talking about plastic surgery now because it will make her smarter.”
Dawn! Matt’s vision went a little blurry around the edges.
“Plastic surgery?” Ruthie giggled. “She is not.”
Lisa laughed, and Ruthie turned to Matt. “Dawn doesn’t need any surgery, does she?” Ruthie asked. “Neck, eyes, cheeks?”
Matt wanted to reach across the table and bite her vocal cords right out of her throat.
The imagery here echos Stevens’ own fantasies of strangling women in Feeding Frenzy.
“Can you recommend a hotel?” I asked an elderly woman walking her tiny Pekingese pup.
“You have a problem,” she said.
Immediately I felt like strangling the woman. A problem? A problem? Just because I’m riding around in a car with no brakes in a city with man-eating tunnels and I’ve got a dog on the back seat who is just dying to eat your silly little dog and, besides, I’m about to be late for dinner at Comme Chez Soi, you think I’ve got a problem? PROBLEM?!
“What do we do?” [says Stevens]
“We could stop and siphon out the old gas and put in new.”
“Siphon? Siphon with what?”
“A hose would probably be best, don’t you think?”
I thought about killing her, maybe with a hose wrapped around her neck.
“Just a thought,” she added, when she saw my look.
This desire for violence is not a put-on, but one truly felt by the writer, which Stevens has occasionally been very honest about. A relevant paragraph from “Thank God This Will Only Get Worse”, an article Stevens wrote on long distance cycling, on his path through various sports. The striking portion is bolded.
So I played football and rugby, boxed and wrestled, none of it particularly well. I tried basketball but always got into fights, mostly as a way to cover for the fact that I never could master that dribbling thing. This all works well enough through high school and college, but at a certain point you look up and the options for participating in sports as a socially accepted way to commit pleasurable acts of violence have narrowed. When most peers are focused on building a career and starting a family, it becomes problematic to admit that what you most enjoy in life is lining up and knocking the snot out of somebody, or vice versa. What once made you seem fun-loving and enthusiastic – so well-rounded! – now begins to paint a darker portrait of an emerging psychopath with serious developmental issues. You’re not just the aging lifeguard whose friends have all left the beach – you’re the aging lifeguard with a little serial killer practice on the side.
This fascination with violence is a filter through which the political process is seen. Elections, are simply war by other means. It is best shown near the ending, when the vote is split, and an image of strength must be given. Stevens was a participant on the Bush team during the 2000 election fiasco and this section serves as an eerie foreshadowing of what took place.
Before getting to the martial imagery, two quick excerpts are disturbingly apt given what was to happen in 2000.
One, on the possibility of vote theft:
Solomon Jawinski, even after being governor for seven years, had never been accepted by many in the local courthouse crowd – the county clerks and the supervisors – and they were the ones most likely to steal votes. The way things were these days, it was hard for them to steal big time, but they could definitely tilt an election that was less than half a percent. The courthouse crowd loved nothing more in the world than a close election. The state, like all southern states, was still under the jurisdiction of the federal Voting Rights Act, and it required Justice Department approval to strike a single name from the voting rolls. Few county clerks wanted to go to the trouble of dealing with Washington just because somebody had moved or died, so as a result there were more people on the voting rolls dead than alive. That made it very easy to steal.
The other, on the inspection of voting tallies:
Everywhere on the ground floor of the mansion, people were screaming into telephones. No fewer than ten cellular phones were in use, and every line of the mansion’s thirteen line system was lit by a manic voice intent on securing a not insignificant prize – six years in the U.S. Senate. The noise was elaborate. A desperate, loud noise:
“What do you mean those boxes are ‘okay’? We’ll decide if they’re okay or not, not some damn county clerk wanting to kiss Luke Bonney’s ass. Hell, yes, I want ‘em impounded now!”
Here then are the segments after the contested vote which emphasize the point of politics as war, a politics that the writer wants to be war. I bold the significant notes in the first excerpt:
Charlie Song, talking into two telephones, winked at Matt. He flashed a thumbs-up, not very convincingly. He was still in a very Charlie Song suit that did not look as if he had slept in it, as Matt knew he had. If he had slept at all. Theirs would have been an all-night vigil, with lawyers rousted in the middle of night. The finest legal aides available in the state turned out of bed like a bunch of Parris Island recruits heading for a midnight march through the swamps.
A television was on in the corner, and Luke Bonney was standing before a podium expressing his supreme confidence that the recount would put him where the people of this great state clearly wanted him – in the United States Senate. Matt could just make out the faded Sun and Sand logo on the podium.
“Dream on, slime sucker!” Ruthie hissed, turning to give Matt a quick kiss on the cheek. Her eyes glowed with the heat of the hunt. “Banana republic stuff, Matt,” she whispered fiercely, “we hold on to the lead long enough, we got it. Bring out the tanks! Put those damn planes in the air!”
Matt agreed sophisticated armaments might come in handy.
The press conference makes the point even more emphatically, the importance of the projection of strength, military strength:
The Solomon Jawinski postelection press conference was held on the steps of the mansion. The location had been Matt’s idea and had been chosen to project as much credible force as possible. It was the sort of thing best done while standing on top of a tank surrounding by a whole bunch of ferocious-looking guys with nasty weapons. The message was clear: I am mean. I am strong. Do not mess with me, or you shall die.
Instead of tanks, Jawinski had to settle for the somewhat imposing white columns of the mansion and in place of armed men, civility dictated he rely on a bunch of tired-looking lawyers. It suffered in the translation, but Solomon Jawinski seemed delighted by the world. Matt couldn’t remember seeing him this happy.
So, let us be clear. The supporters of Barack Obama, of those who wish for a fairer life for the 99%, must recognize that the chief strategist of the Romney campaign does not look upon elections as a happy ballet of ideas, or a civil discussion, or a calm thinking over of choices, but vicious, nasty, violent war. Do not ever worry that some infinitely wise op-ed columnist chastises you for being too partisan, or unrelenting, or unmerciful. Always remember that the only things the chief strategist of the Romney campaign believes in are force, power, strength, and sadism. When Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the head of the democratic national committee laughs at the foibles and follies of the Romney campaign, Stuart Stevens no doubt wants to rip the vocal cords out of her throat with his teeth.
Perhaps the most startling aspect of this book about a state election, written by a political consultant, is the entire absence of any discussion of any issues – poverty, employment, medical care, anything. It is not that these issues do not exist; Matt Bonney mentions that the state continues to finish last in just about any ranking of citizen welfare. It is not simply that issues are tangential, or referred to through other means, they are not there at all.
This is stated, clearly and openly, in a discussion at the Jawinski campaign on how to deal with attack ads from the opposing candidate:
“You announce,” Matt told him, “you announce that your campaign is demanding that all stations refuse to air this scurrilous attack. This attack that has no place in the political dialogue! And by inference, neither does the sort of scurrilous personal attack Luke Bonney’s media consultant must have talked him into launching, because you know Luke Bonney wouldn’t stoop to such low-life behavior on his own.”
“This is a race about issues! About values!” Walter Farkas sounded positively transformed.
“What issues?” Jawinski asked. “We’ve got issues in this race?”
“Of course not, but you can’t admit that.”
This next quote appears again in a conversation in the Jawinski camp on how to win the election, knowing that if the race is a referendum on their man, they will lose. The only way to win is by attacking and destroying the other candidate. Again, no issues are mentioned.
“Well, it seems to me,” [lieutenant governor] Jack Tangent spoke up, “it seems to be that the biggest issue in this race is sitting right here,” he nodded toward the governor, “and as long this race is about a fellow named Solomon Jawinski, we might just up and lose. I mean, I find it hard to believe, but it just might be that fifty percent plus one wake up on Saturday feeling like maybe they’re kind of tired of Solomon and how they’d maybe like a change.”
“So?” Walter Farkas asked.
Jawinski scowled at Farkas. He liked his lieutenant governor and did not want him hurried. Jack had his own languid style, but eventually he would come around to the point – and the odds were it would be worth the effort.
“So maybe,” Jack continued, dawdling as always, “maybe we better get around to makin’ people start asking questions about that other fellow so destiny can work its little magic and our boy will end up in the Senate. Trouble is, nobody would ever think our esteemed Luke Bonney was a crook or a Communist. Can’t make him into that. Gotta play off his strengths to whip his weaknesses. Little jujitsu. You guys understand.”
There was a brief pause until Walter Farkas looked around and asked in a stage whisper, “Did anybody understand that?”
“I think,” Matt said, “that the lieutenant governor means that as long as this race is a referendum on Solomon Jawinski, we will probably lose. Or sure as hell could lose. But if we can get people to focus on questions about Luke, we can win. But the problem is that we don’t have really good stuff on Luke – nothin’ dirty -”
“I’m not so sure about that,” Farkas said quietly.
This idea, to use an opponent’s strengths against him, was, of course, effectively applied by the Bush campaign against Kerry, where the asset of his military experience was destroyed through various methods, most crucially the Swift Boat attack ads.
This allows for a quick digression, on the possible differences of what can be admitted in fact and fiction.
What follows is a small excerpt from an interview with Stevens by Jules Witcover, conducted in March 7, 2007, dealing with the issue of issue PACs such as 527s acting independently of the campaign (the site is currently off-line, so a screenshot of the full interview follows the excerpt). A central point of campaign finance reform is whether or not such PACs genuinely act apart from the main campaign, or whether co-ordination, explicit or through implicit signaling is inevitable. In this interview, Stevens claims the 527s acted entirely on their own.
How do you feel about both the independent-expenditure committees and 527s, in terms of losing control of your own campaign?
I hate it.
Talk a little about that.
Like the Swift Boats. I remember when the whole Swift Boat thing, everybody in the [George W.] Bush world was furious, and sort of stunned. People don’t believe this, but it’s true.
So it’s not enough to be able to say, “Hey, that wasn’t ours, and we had nothing to do with it – we didn’t talk to anybody.” You are getting nailed with it anyway? Is that the problem?
Oh, yeah. People do nail you with it. And most of the time they screw it up, in the sense that they don’t do what you want to do. And I remember in the Swift Boat thing, I had been working on this ad, just kind of noodling on my own, where it was very straightforward. “John Kerry came back from Vietnam and he said this.” And then I had just a clip of it. It said, “What do you think?” That was it. And then the Swift Boat people came in.
But it didn’t go after the element of his service in Vietnam?
No. And they entered the argument on the medals issue, which I always felt was the worst way to argue that. Like should he have gotten two medals instead of three? It’s just insane. And so I felt that by entering the argument at that point, they had discredited the argument. And the one thing you could say about someone like Karl [Rove], Karl likes to control things. Not in a bad way, but in a “we don’t like stuff just to happen.” And all of us, I think, were like, “What?” I certainly didn’t know anything. I don’t think anybody knew anything about it. It’s just kind of you wake up one morning, and it’s like, “What?” I remember the phone ringing, one of the 6 a.m. phone calls, you know whatever it’s going to be it’s not going to be good. It’s like, “Have you seen this?” And so, I mean, people say the Swift Boat thing hurt Kerry. Maybe. Maybe the way they handled it hurt him. But I thought the “Ashley” ad that was done mainly in Ohio by the 527s, you see that where Bush is embracing this girl whose mother had died in 9/11. He did the Willie Horton ads, Larry [McCarthy]*; he did it. I thought it was a very good ad, fabulous ad.
It may well have been the case that the 527s acted on their own. However, it should be noted that what Stevens states here is entirely different from what Matthew Bonney, says in the novel about independent action committees. A front committee, The Citizens for Good Government, is set up by Walter Farkas, the campaign’s pollster, in order to publicize the story that Luke Bonney has slept with a number of transvestite prostitutes.
“Who’s the Committee for Truth and Justice?” Matt asked.
“The Citizens for Good Government,” Charlie corrected. “It’s Walter Farkas and Byron Timmons.”
“Sweet Jesus,” Matt muttered. His hands trembled with rage.
“Walter has found,” Charlie continued, “three male prostitutes who say they have been playing around with Luke.”
It is after this that the issue of the connection between this front group and the campaign comes up. It is here that Matthew Bonney states that co-ordination between independent committees and the larger campaign was inevitable, as impossible to avoid as teenagers having sex, an admission entirely at odds with what Stevens said in the interview on co-ordination with the Swift Boat committees.
“Can Farkas be traced?” Matt asked, ignoring her and trying to focus. “Will anyone prove he was involved with Byron?”
“No,” Charlie answered, though he wasn’t really sure of this at all. It was what he had spent the afternoon trying to decide. Some people knew that Farkas was a friend of Byron Timmons’s [sic], but that couldn’t be called a crime, though by all rights it should have been.
The question at hand involved a violation of FEC – Federal Election Commission – law. It was illegal for there to be any contact or coordination between an independent group like Citizens for Good Government and a federal campaign. This was because the independent groups were exempt from the fund-raising limitations and reporting requirements imposed on congressional and senatorial campaigns. Nine times out of ten, however, this was a sham. It was like trying to keep teenagers from having sex. The very notion of stopping two groups with the same goal from trading information and plotting together sub rosa was preposterous.
I now go to a lengthy excerpt of the book which best illustrates the exclusive emphasis on what could be style issues, over anything to do with any policies that might help or hurt those living in the state. It is the best, truest scene in the book, very detailed, its details no doubt coming directly from personal work experience. The campaign team tests out a possible election ad for effectiveness with a group of potential voters. No issue is discussed in either the anti-Jawinski or anti-Bonney ad, no issue that might be hinted at in either ad is discussed by the campaign team either. The only “issue” is the perception of inexperience in Bonney and clownishness in Jawinski.
The room darkened, and the television set flickered. A series of news clips appeared on the screen, brief bits on Martin Luther King Jr., the Olympic swimming team, Fidel Castro, the Atlanta Braves baseball team.
Farkas always showed the same clips at the beginning of all his focus groups. The responses served as a control, weeding out any pranksters: a ten rating for Fidel Castro tagged you as either a Communist or crazy, both equally useless in Farkas’s statistically correct world.
After the clips came separate three-minute segments of Luke Bonney and Solomon Jawinski answering questions at the previous night’s debate. Farkas had selected the responses to Woody’s weather question and Samantha’s UNICEF inquiry [Samantha Simms and Woody Jackson, panelists from the debate] – the bland of the bland. A strong response either positive or negative would ferret out any closet supporters or antagonists. Farkas naturally assumed that a certain number of people had lied during the initial selection process when asked if they had strong feelings about either candidate. They lied for the $35 bounty, they lied because they wanted to give what they figured was the correct answer, they lied for spite, and they lied for fun. Farkas hated mendacity. Liars were to a pollster what land mines were to tank commanders: nasty little unknowns that could muck up everything.
These bland three-minute appetizers were followed by the morning’s red meat: the new Bonney campaign spot attacking Jawinski. This was the spot Morton Kouhan had made the night before, directing by phone from his hotel room. Ruthie had obtained the spot from Ernie Swindell [the TV station manager] as soon as it had been delivered to the station early this morning. It was not scheduled to be aired until that evening in the time slots adjacent to the news. This was the most treasured airtime for political commercials. Years ago somebody like Walter Farkas had figured out that people who vote like to watch the news, and somebody like Matt Bonney figured out that positioning a commercial next to a news broadcast lent a certain credibility to the message. Most stations across America refused to sell political ads inside a news broadcast, fearing that it compromised the impartial tone of the news. But the Capital City stations, ever confident of their ethical reputation – as well as being greedy as pigs – had a policy of selling any open position.
In the darkened room of the focus group, the pirated spot began to play. Koughan had constructed the ad around film of Solomon Jawinski water-skiing at Cyprus Gardens intercut with shots from the debate. First, you saw the governor behind the podium proclaiming, “And I’ll be the sort of senator who’ll fight for what’s best for you!” Then it cut to Jawinski on water skis. He had never been a particularly pretty sight in a bathing suit, and he did not fare well in comparison to the stunning beauties of Cyprus Gardens who shared his tow rope. While the viewers heard the governor talking about what he would do as senator, they saw a delighted Solomon Jawinski clearly having a splendid time: as the camera zoomed in on his bouncing belly and skullcap of wet curls, he whooped and hollered, riding his single ski with a preternatural grace. He beamed at his co-skiers, muscular angels of the jet spray. Jawinski looked delighted, ecstatic, a man who had died and gone to heaven.
He did not look, however, by any stretch of the imagination, like a United States senator.
An announcer’s voice, a rich mocking voice, cut in over the pictures: “This man wants to be your next United States senator. He wants to represent you in matters of war and peace. He’s asking for the right to raise your taxes, to support or cancel Social Security.
“Over the next six years, this man wants to be your voice in Washington. Your voice. Your voice. Your voice…”
During the last refrain, the camera closed in on Jawinski letting loose – in slow motion – one of his famed rebel yells. Some might say it was a moment of pure existential joy; others might say Solomon Jawinski looked like a total asshole.
Ruthie watched the spot with a sick feeling in her stomach. She thought it was a terrific spot, one that cut to the core of the doubts about Solomon Jawinski. Sure, he’s a funny guy, but do you really want him in Washington?
The focus group spun the dials wildly. Some laughed. A few frowned and shook their heads. All eagerly awaited the next spot.
It was the spot Matt had made the night before, and it opened with a smiling Luke Bonney from the debate, which faded into another shot of Luke smiling and then another – a long, seemingly endless montage of Luke Bonney smiling.
The announcer began in a friendly, conversational tone: “He’s a young politician who likes to smile and make promises. Then smile some more and make some more promises.”
As the announcer spoke, the camera pushed in a little closer on each smiling shot, and each shot made Luke Bonney look sillier and sillier and even a bit sinister.
“But when you think about the problems we face,” the announcer continued as Luke Bonney’s smile was replaced by a half-dozen images of problems – unemployment, hot spots around the globe, crop failure, drugs – “do we really want just another smiling politician? Or a leader who’s not afraid to say no and can make Washington stand up and listen to what we are about. A smiling politician…or a leader. Solomon Jawinski. Smart. Tough. Ready for the job.”
The dials spun like windmills in a gale. When the lights came on, Ruthie thanked everyone and stood by the door distributing unmarked envelopes each containing $35 in cash. The generic envelopes and the payment in cash rather than by check were part of an effort by the Jawinski campaign to conceal the fact that they had sponsored the focus group. As in most campaigns, there was a great obsession with secrecy, but no one could actually articulate why it would be undesirable for anyone to know the Jawinski camp was holding focus groups. But campaign secrets took on a value of their own, so the more secrets the better.
The all importance of image is seconded when Matt observes his brother speaking. Luke is a very good politician, but this quality has nothing to do with any legislative expertise or achievement – none are ever mentioned – only his ability to shift in tone for the appropriate audience, just as a great musician can move effortlessly from playing with small bands to large orchestras.
Matt was halfway back to the car when he heard his brother take the stage. He knew what he was going to say – Matt had watched his brother on the stump a half-dozen times during this campaign. He always gave a reverse doughnut – a different introduction with specifics tailored to the crowd, a stock middle section, and a close geared to the emotional level of the crowd. Without fail, he was his most emotional in front of poorer, less educated crowds. In front of business or do-gooder types like the League of Women Voters, Luke became almost analytically aloof and reserved, just the way they liked it. This adapatability was a trait Matt, when he still worked on his brother’s campaigns, had groomed. He felt it was the key to the big leagues. Any small-time politician can have one good act, but the big boys had half a dozen they rolled out at will, assessing the temperature of the crowd with great finesse.
“Today, before I begin here at this glorious Lester County Fair-”
That was Luke Bonney all the way. Make sure to refer to the event in the first sentence. It was a trick straight out of a Dale Carnegie speech-giving class, and it always worked.
This exclusive emphasis on image, on perception, rather than any policies merges with the idea that the management of an election campaign has nothing to do with policy, and for a consultant to have any focus on policy is a mistake. This is not an interpretation on my part, it is, again, stated explicitly by the hero consultant of the book, Matthew Bonney.
A scene at the end, Matt talking about the work of his wife, the congresswoman, and the contrast between governing and consulting:
He knew she would have been up since 7:00 A.M., doing what she did every morning: talking on the phone, reading this subcommittee’s report on that committee’s report on the previous committee’s study of the subcommittee’s recommendation. There was a permanent but ever-changing stack of such reports by their bed in Washington. Matt couldn’t read the covers without getting bored. It was said by some that political consultants had too much influence on the governmental process, but Matt was yet to know a consultant who really gave half-a-damn about government. Government was that thing done by other people, the folks who actually wrote those reports that Lisa and her colleagues consumed like so much cotton candy. What Matt and his kind did were elections. That was as different from government as playing tuba in the high school band was from playing halfback on the team.
And that was how it should be, Matt figured. What was mucking everything up was the confusion of the two endeavors. Increasingly, the sort of person who would make a good political consultant was running for office. And winning, of course, because they were the best at manipulating the system. But, Lord knows, this wasn’t the breeding ground for the great statesmen of tomorrow. It was fundamentally wrong, confusing the two. It was like ambulance drivers replacing doctors just because they knew how to get to the patients first.
That an election is fundamentally about these dueling images, that it not be about policy at all, is what Stevens wants. He does not wish there to be any analytical aspect to a campaign, and cannot conceive of one. What everyone wants, even those who say it is not what they want, is conflict. He does not see journalism giving anything in terms of insightful examination or analysis as a counterpoint to the visual slugging contest, only diktats. The choice between two dueling images, the dozens played between two campaigns is democracy. That nobody votes or is disgusted that politics in turn is transformed by subservience to these images is not an issue either. Look at Italy, that’s where people vote, and look what sorry shape that country is in.
All this is said in this discussion about political coverage between Newsome and Matt Bonney:
“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!
That Matt Bonney and Stevens both want, thrive on, is the violence of the campaign, a juvenile violence unconnected to anything to do with any issue whatsoever, is emphasised in this brief mention of the intensive arguments over set-up for a debate:
For media consultants, debates were fun. It was one of the few opportunities in adult life in which you were expected to be as demanding and petty as an irate six-year-old. Fierce battles were fought over podium height, lighting selection, backdrops – all the details that assumed a preternatural importance but in fact meant next to nothing. Grown men would howl like wounded animals and make vile threats of physical dismemberment and career-ruining blackmail over questions such as the difference between fifty-six- and fifty-eight-inch podiums. What other business would not only praise you for acting like a contemptible tyrant but pay you an obscene amount of money in the process?
To act like a tantrummy six-year-old is not exactly my idea of fun, or that of many that I know, but it is Matt Bonney’s, and I assume Stevens’ as well, given that he expects a sympathetic connection with the reader here.
What is made clear to be crucial in a campaign is not any issue, but identity. Matt Bonney’s father defended the way of life of those in Mississippi, his identity and their identity, against federal incursion. Matt Bonney’s candidate is a Polish jew born in McComb County, Michigan, but these details of location and ethnicity do not matter, because he has fastened on what connects him with a substantial amount of voters in Mississippi, and, for that matter, many states.
But it was part of young Solomon Jawinski’s genius that he understood the basic similarities between his old environs and his new. He appreciated that McComb County and the Capital City were linked by the same kinships of xenophobia and provincialism, with a sustaining faith that they were God’s chosen people. “Damn rednecks,” Jawinski would mutter around the house. “Rednecks here, rednecks there. All the damn same.” In Matt’s opinion, this early strategic insight is what allowed Jawinski to do what seemed on face value as completely, ridiculously, and utterly impossible: get elected. Elected in a state in which there were probably just as many left-handed Lithuanians as Polish Jews. But Jawinski wasn’t just any Polish Jew; he transformed himself into a Polish-Jewish REDNECK, a Polish-Jewish redneck superman.
This identity has nothing to do with any policy that might help the poverty or suffering of the people of Mississippi. It has only to do with a particular style of speech and life, in this case, a variation on Bill Clinton without the Oxford education.
The communication of this identity to the voter, is what is of primary importance, with the candidate himself secondary and incidental to the process from the consultant’s perspective. This is obvious in this passage, where Matt Bonney talks of the ease of the end of the campaign, when the candidate becomes entirely an automaton, entirely under the control of consultants, who are now unhindered by the personality of an actual man, awake and alive.
It was an inevitability in campaigns that during the final two weeks, a candidate was largely removed from the decision-making process, shunted from one event to another in a nineteen-hour-a-day frenzy. This always left the candidate in a near catatonic state of exhaustion with no time to think – at exactly the stage that required the most precise thinking. Most consultants, of course, relished this moment when a candidate teetered on physical collapse and functioned as a mindless automaton. Then they – the professionals – could go about their jobs without the messy hindrance of the person who was, titularly, at least, their commander in chief.
That Mitt Romney is a robot-like, lifeless man may be considered a liability by pundits and possibly voters, but: given the last fragment, I believe Stevens ultimately considers this automaton-like quality a strong plus.
Further, that policy is of no importance, that the focus be solely on violent gladiatorial combat, that the poor, suffering souls of Mississippi that Matt Bonney observes in the chinese restaurant may well remain poor and suffer, getting poorer and suffering more is of no concern to the consultant. He does not want any part of these voters’ lives, as he admits to Newsome, and he no longer lives in Mississippi, instead moving from state to state running campaigns, so the consequences of this election will never be felt or seen by him.
That there is something rancid in this, is pointed out by the most sympathetic figure of the book, his father, the former segregationist Powell Bonney. My bolds:
“We always call lieutenant governors Lite Guvs. Whatever state I’m working in,” Matt shrugged, “it always seemed to fit.”
“Don’t you get confused about what state you’re working in?”
Matt knew that Powell Bonney hated the very concept of consultants working on different races around the country. He thought it was fundamentally a corruption of democracy. Matt had never argued the point.
Matthew Bonney knows that he is something of a carpetbagger, plundering these campaigns in poor states for fortunes then scooting away, but he continues to do his work. There is the fact that he is paid an obscene amount of money, but also, something that might be constructed as Stuart Stevensism, a specific theory of political life, which pervades this book. I leave it to the next section.
In this novel, Stuart Stevens views politics as primal, violent, tribal struggle. Ideas are entirely absent. The identity and image of the candidate are crucial. When necessary, a show of force, a martial demonstration, is essential for victory. Elections are not decided by analysis, but through the rough feelings of the mob. Stevens, and his proxy, Matthew Bonney, make a great deal of money by manipulating this mob. Yet at the very same time, Stevens has contempt for the rabid crowd, this thoughtless rabble, and does not believe government is best served through appealing to their appetites. At the end of the book, the wishes of the mob are overruled by the wisdom of the elect: Jawinski abdicates as Senator, and has Powell Bonney appointed in his place. That there may be something racial in this attitude might be noted as well; former segregationist Powell Bonney cannot win in the state because of black voters, but in the end, he can be imposed on them, and it will be for their benefit.
That Matthew Bonney continues to work as a consultant, despite his contempt for this mob, despite the fact that it does not bring about the best result for the state, is, I think, because both the author and his proxy hero share the same belief, that there is something eternally mob-like and tribal in humanity, both in the United States and elsewhere, which can never be remedied or fixed, only manipulated or oppressed.
One of the first scenes in the book, the night of the TV debate, conveys this. This debate is, ostensibly, about the back and forth of competing ideas of the candidates. Yet none of the ideas of either is ever brought up. Beforehand, we are given the scene surrounding this debate, a portrait of two rival groups of passionate supporters. It is essentially, we are told, a pep rally. These crowds are crucial for psychological warfare. They embody no support of any particular idea, but they are essential for the candidate, who is part of this crowd, just as they are part of him, as well as necessary for giving a visual spectacle for reporters. We are given the side detail that an Iranian exile served a crucial role in crowd organization in a California campaign, and that he was extraordinarily skilled at it. The ideas of the candidate supported, a lunatic who wanted to toss a few warheads on Iran, are of no consequence. That the Iranian organizer before organized crowds against the Shah is of no importance. All that is crucial is the mobilization of the crowd for support, and this man is able to do so.
Then we move to the theme already seen before, that the natural state of politics is one of sadistic, brutal struggle. Jawinski is going to kick a little ass tonight. A demure grandmother, a previous client of Matt Bonney’s, was roused to want to rip off her opponent’s dick and shove it down his throat.
A block from the station, supporters of Solomon Jawinski and Luke Bonney lined the street. They were mostly kids, teenagers or college students in their early twenties, the shock troops of every campaign. They all carried signs proclaiming their respective allegiance and shouted at each other as if at a pep rally which, more or less, they were. That intelligent human beings would find it rewarding to stand on a hot street corner, and jump up and down with signs trying to affect the outcome of an event that was taking place a block away in a sound-proof, windowless studio may seem marginally insane, but it was all part of the psychological warfare that no aggressive, in-your-face, must-win campaign – that is, a good campaign – ever neglected. The street-corner demonstrations were intended for two audiences – the reporters covering the debate and the candidates themselves. Both were expected to be impressed by this spontaneous outpouring of loyalty. In a California senate race a year earlier, Matt had been lucky enough to find a visiting Iranian student at UCLA who was a genius at organizing such demonstrations, having trained on the streets of Tehran chanting “Death to Americans!” It did not seem to bother the Iranian in the least that Matt’s candidate, a congressman from southern California, had once suggested Tehran might be in need of a little “nuclear renewal.”
Even though he knew the predebate street action was carefully scripted, Jawinski still enjoyed the show. “Yeah,” he snorted, “we’re gonna kick a little ass tonight. No doubt about it.” Matt found that all his clients had a tendency to talk like enraged, steroid-crazed linebackers in the predebate hours. Once a demure, sixty-five-year-old grandmother running for Congress in Florida on a pro-environmental platform had leaned over to Matt on the way to a debate and murmured, “I’m gonna to rip the bastard’s little wee-wee off and stuff it right down his golden throat.” She was running against a local anchorman, hence the “golden throat” reference.
Another important, though very brief, image occurs towards the end, in the ruins of Luke Bonney’s victory party. Matthew sees his brother on the stage:
Luke was standing on top of the crude podium, hands on his hips. He reminded Matt of nothing so much as Jim Jones just before handing out the Kool-Aid – a strange, troubled figure but not an unhappy one.
Politics is a cult, a gathering of a group through demagoguery. The supporters may be drinking elixir, or they may be drinking poison, but they will drink it, out of the mob’s blind animal fealty to a magnetic man.
However, at the same time that Matthew Bonney requires the mob for his business, he despises it. He hates the individuals who make it up, and he thinks that it is ultimately a destructive force. He has utter contempt for every other person involved in political consulting, whether it be Morton Koughan, Ruthie Simms, or Walter Farkas. In one of the last scenes, it’s shown how little he or his congressional wife care about the voters of their state:
When Matt got back to his townhouse on G Street, Southeast, Lisa was on the phone. “That’s just wonderful. Fine. Good.”
She had the mindlessly happy, I’m-not-really-listening tone she usually adopted when talking to one of her constituents. Matt figured it was probably someone on the Farm Bureau or maybe the Rotary Club president of Arcadia looking for a speaker. “Why, Matt just walked in.”
Matt frowned. Lisa knew – everyone knew – that it was dangerous to put Matt in contact with average voters. It was the surest way to guarantee a difficult situation.
It was the surest way to guarantee a difficult situation. Matt Bonney needs average voters for his work, and he hates them as well. He guesses that his wife is on the phone with one of her constituents, because she sounds like she’s not really listening. Who wants to hear from the slobs back in Mississippi?
That the author believes the foolish cretins who make up this mob are also dangerous as a crowd, is made again in the views expressed on Germany and Japan. Stevens, in Feeding Frenzy states boldly that he hates Germany and hates Germans.
“You’re getting close to Germany. There is hope.”
“I hate Germans, and how am I going to get there without brakes?”
[He] was German. They were all German. Which was very troubling when I quickly realized what a likable, genuinely friendly person he was. It always troubles me when I come across Germans I like. It makes maintaining my rabid anti-German fervor all the more difficult, which, naturally, I resent terribly.
“And leave the Mustang! Just like that?” [says Stevens]
“Yes. With any luck at all, some German will steal it and be driven mad with frustration.”
She knew I disliked Germans. The idea did have some appeal.
A few cars, not many, had passed us without stopping.
“A German wouldn’t know the brakes were bad. They might get in and drive away and plow right into a tree.” This enjoyable scenario began to unfold in my head.
“Or maybe a big tanker truck. Lots of flames.”
“But that would snuff the truck driver too,” I cautioned.
“He would be German as well.”
“Ahhh…” It was a delightful notion.
This same anti-German passion appears in a number of Governor Jawinski’s speeches. There is the televised debate:
The question went to Luke Bonney. “If elected to the Senate, Congressman Bonney, would you support the president’s policy of noninvolvement with the difficulties of German reunification, or do you advocate stronger action to bring about change in Eastern Europe and other former captive nations?”
Luke Bonney knew this one was coming and hit smoothly over the fence. There was no question that the president had chosen a wise course of action. “Europe’s destiny should be in the hands of the Europeans. We have helped foster a great democracy in West Germany, and they are perfectly capable of charting their own course.”
“I’ve never heard such gibberish in all my life! I’d call it total bull if my ex-wife wouldn’t yell at me!”
The audience roared. Jawinski’s profanity had become a running joke in the state, as was his relationship with the former First Lady. “How is it that any responsible, intelligent person -,” he looked over at Luke Bonney to make it clear he didn’t really believe these adjectives fit his opponent, “could think for even one moment that this pansy approach” (gay rights was not a big issue in the state) “to the terrible realities of German reunification was a wise course of action has got to be one brick shy of a load. Maybe Luke Bonney doesn’t remember how many soldiers from our great state died fighting – ”
And Jawinski was off, hitting all his favorite notes, a wild John Coltrane improv riff, knowing where he was going but not sure how he would get there. There was something fundamentally wrong with Germans and their thwarted sense of destiny. If you think the Germans have really changed, just spend an hour on the autobahn! A nation with the soul of a bully! Either at your feet or at your throat! Is forty years enough? Hell, no! Forget Omaha Beach?! Forget the Bulge?!
The crowd, most of whom honestly didn’t care one way or the other about what happened to Germany, whooped and hollered their approval. Blood on the floor!
Note, of course, the reaction of the studio audience.
The idea of tribal violence is there again during a television interview conducted with the governor, speaking about the germans, the japanese, and the southern confederacy. I bold what I consider a truly striking detail, in this moment of grievous income inequality in the U.S.
“Everybody worries about the Japanese, and, to be sure, they’re terrible people-”
“Of course! Look we might think of them now as smiling, camera toting technocrats, but let’s don’t forget, not too long ago they were a nation of sun-worshipping lunatics trying desperately to take over the world. They’re racist, narrow-minded people.” He shrugged. “We just don’t have the same values.”
“But the Japanese don’t worry you?”
“Not really. When it comes down to it, they’d rather be rich than powerful. But the Germans-”
“Ab-so-lutely!” Down came the hand, up went the cigarette. “They still have this horrible sense of thwarted destiny. Lookit,” he took off his glasses and rubbed the dark circles surrounding his eyes like bruises, “one hundred years ago, this was the richest part of the country. Man, we were rich, rich, rich. But then we went and did a stupid, violent thing called secession. In five years we became the poorest part of the country, and one hundred years later, it’s still that way. And maybe that’s not so bad.”
“It’s good to be poor?” Dawn looked genuinely shocked.
“It’s good to have some kind of reminder of what happens when people do something horrible – like rebellion. The Germans, all those damn cars, the money – amnesia!” Slap! Jawinski’s big hand crashed down on his knee. “Amnesia! That’s where being rich like that does to you! Losing the war made us better people! Don’t you get it?”
“We’re gonna miss that man,” [TV station manager] Tom Riddell said gravely. “When you got a man crazy enough to actually speak his mind, it’s a real crime to let him go.”
Note that the lunacy is not the ideas expressed, but to express oneself honestly. Also important is that Jawinski is easily the most sympathetic character in the book after Powell Bonney, the former segregationist. The view of the japanese, like that of the germans, is not simply Jawinski’s, but that of Stevens himself. The hero consultant Matt Bonney also dislikes the japanese, though not in such forthright terms.
From a moment in the morning after he lit firecrackers at the other campaign’s victory party:
It wasn’t until he caught a glimpse of his face in the reflective backwaters of the river that he actually thought about what he had done the night before. What he saw was a face streaked with dirt and black powder smudges, long hair held in place with a black headband that trailed down his back like a strange tail.
“Jesus!” Lisa murmured, still half-asleep. “Geronimo. You look like Geronimo.”
“Yeah?” Matt said, pleased. “Not a ninja?” He had never considered the reference to be a compliment, not being overly fond of many things of Japanese origin.
This dislike, as stated by Jawinski, over the aggressive military aspect of the germans and japanese is never connected with the history of the countries, or particular conditions that might shape a people. It is entirely tribal, with the germans, the japanese, the confederacy having a nature that is something like a violent mob, which in turn must be beaten and controlled. There is something fundamentally wrong with germans. They are a nation with the soul of a bully. It is good that Mississippi is poor, because this educates and controls its citizens after rising up against authority. It would be better if Germany had not been unified, better if both Germany and Japan had remained poor, as that would have leashed their inherent tribal instinct for war. Remember that this novel takes the riot at the University of Mississippi, and places the blood entirely and wholly with this mob, while segregationist Powell Bailey is made into an innocent martyr.
Towards the end, Matt Bonney lets out his exasperation at the electoral process. It is a speech that shows the mixed feelings of the character and the author, but it also this sense of any group of voters as only a mob. He is now a co-host of “Showdown”, and gives the opinion on-air:
“I’m not sure,” Matt stuttered, “why anyone would want to be in public office.” Matt realized that he was saying something that he deeply believed. “I can’t imagine one single reason that anyone would run for office. I really can’t.”
“We expect people to live by a standard the rest of us have abandoned years ago, we invade their privacy, we pay them squat.” Matt faced the camera. From his earphone, he could hear the director’s calming voice urging him to get the program back on track. “With ridiculously small contribution limits, we think we’ve actually accomplished some ethical breakthrough, while we make our politicians roam around the country begging for money to pay people like me. Reporters hide in the bushes in front of houses, root through garbage, chase old girlfriends. We all ask, ‘Why would anyone want to put with that’ in one breath and then bitch that nobody decent runs for office in the other. My God!”
The problem is that the job pays too little and takes away too much of one’s privacy, which keeps better candidates out. These better candidates will make better decisions for us. That Matt Bonney focuses on image to the exclusion of all else, that he wishes elections to be like violent combat and pushes them to be so, goes unmentioned, perhaps because he and Stevens think that this aspect is inevitable, a bloodlusting idiot mob unavoidable. The only remedy is that somehow this mob be handed leaders who are better than they deserve, like Powell Bonney, who might actually pass programs that could help them.
AN ALTERNATIVE IDENTITY
For this last section, I bring up what should be a private matter, but which the GOP has decided is not. Supposedly, there are questions that cannot be asked of the powerful, because it is undignified and cruel, though this is a luxury only reserved for this society’s topmost niche. No man or woman barely making enough to support their children can ever turn down a pee test at work. No woman seeking an abortion in certain states can now avoid certain inquiries.
So it would seem that when a campaign, as part of its strategy to woo voters, makes a secret donation to the National Organization for Marriage, as well as signing their pledge, and has their candidate speak at Liberty University, I think one might be entitled to ask a question of the man behind said strategy.
However, the following is not so forward as an explicit question, so much as a carefree piece of literary analysis only hinting at a possible query, an analysis which could well be very, very wrong. It continues on a hypothesis brought up already, in discussing Feeding Frenzy, then referred to here and here as well. I leave it to the reader to be intelligent enough to make certain deductions.
One more note before we begin: Matt Taibbi wrote a hilarious piece on the overuse of italics in Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol. In deductive moments, I tend to overuse italics as well.
This novel features two brothers, Matthew and Luke Bonney. They are very, very much alike physically. Near twins. Matthew, the political consultant, must make an effort not to look like his brother. This observation is made on one of the first pages.
Luke stood with his arm around Matt, and Lisa realized it was one of the few times she had even sen the to brothers so close together. The resemblance, despite Matt’s best efforts, was striking. Since they were little kids, Matt and Luke had been mistaken for twins. Matt had confessed to Lisa that there was a time when he had enjoyed this, basking in the physical glory of his slightly older sibling. But since they had come to Washington, Matt had worked at distinguishing himself from the collegiate good looks of Luke Bonney. Though they still shared the same high cheekbones, Matt liked to think that he had aged faster than his brother, his face more creased, his features lived in, not like Luke Bonney whose face looked as if it had been made yesterday. Always gleaming, always smiling. Smiling. And Lisa knew how careful Matt was to avoid the perfect helmet-of-hair look that was a Luke Bonney trademark. These days, Matt wore a ponytail.
Luke, the congressman, barely exists in this book, with the story concentrated almost entirely on Matthew, the political consultant. We know very few things about Luke, except that he’s very good-looking, he’s a congressman, he’s not married, and the possibility that he slept with a number of transvestite prostitutes. Though we are never told why, and though we are given nothing by which to make an inference, Matt Bonney hates his brother. It is the foundation of his existence.
Here he is talking to his wife:
“And I don’t hate Luke. And I don’t understand how you can work against your brother, if you want to know the truth.”
“What? I hate my brother!”
“No, you don’t. Nobody hates their brother.”
Matt stared at her. “Of course I hate my brother! Hating my brother is one of the cornerstones of my existence. Look what he’s doing to Mule Jail!” Matt paused for a second. He almost never raised his voice when talking to Lisa. “Why shouldn’t I hate my brother?”
Mule Jail is the land where their childhood home once stood, before it burnt down. His brother has sold the land to a country club for development. He is desecrating a place sacred to their family memories.
Matt Bonney does not simply look like his brother, there is the good possibility that he might have been his brother. This is said clearly by Matt Bonney himself.
Even though he’d seen it hundreds of times, the plate on the office door that read Congresswoman Lisa Bonney never failed to startle him. It made him think first of his brother and then, more troublingly, of himself as a congressman. It was like being confronted with an alternative identity, the way his life could have been. It was not something he liked to think about very much these days.
So, there’s a man who looks just like Matt Bonney, is almost his twin and who he might well have been. This, I think, is the classic shadow self, the person who acts in ways we may wish to but do not. That Matthew views Luke not just as his double, but a dark mirror image, is implied rather strongly through a few details.
Luke does not simply have bad qualities, he is diabolical. Again, a conversation with his wife:
“He’s diabolical,” Matt moaned, returning to the Style section article.
“Diabolical?” Lisa questioned. “I’ve heard Luke Bonney described as a ‘pretty boy,’ ‘simplistic,’ ‘grossly ambitious,’ ‘overly friendly,’ and ‘the ultimate Sigma Chi,’ but never ‘diabolical.’ This is an entirely new development.”
Then, in one of the only times in the book when the brothers meet, Luke and Matthew speak following the revelation that his brother may have slept with transvestite prostitutes. What do we associate with the devil? Fire.
Matt looked at his brother. He was wearing a double-breasted gray pinstriped suit. His hair was perfectly in place, his teeth gleamed. He looked freeze-dried except for his eyes. His normal bright blue had been replaced by red-streaked horrors.
“You looking at my fireballs, brother?” Luke asked. “I can wear these if it’ll help.” He pulled out a pair of aviator sunglasses and put them on.
I go back to the beginning of the book, because there is a striking sentence there of some relevance. It is the only time when Luke, Matt, and Lisa appear together, all three in the men’s bathroom. I find the entire quote unusual in the immediate emphasis of the husband or wife as escort, with the last sentence especially stunning, almost an answer to a question unasked.
Congresswoman Lisa Bonney was there in her role as Matt’s wife, a most unusual turn of events since it normally was Matt who found himself dragged along as the spouse. It was a role – the spouse – that they both hated playing, but it was the nature of Lisa’s job as a member of Congress that she was more in need of a spouse as escort than Matt. Matt was a political consultant and no one, of course, really cared if a political consultant was married or not.
Matt is a political consultant, and no one cares if he is married or not, unlike his brother, the man he might well have been, whose marital status people very much care about.
I give now a lengthy excerpt from the press conference with the transvestite prostitutes. They are, I think, made into creatures as lurid and grotesque as possible.
Josh Finkelstein and Tom Alexander are reporters. Byron Timmons is a ridiculous conservative fanatic and Civil War revisionist, who organized the press conference. Trixie, Pierce, and Markel are the black transvestite prostitutes. Their ethnicity is made very obvious, and used for comic effect1.
Trixie smiled, as did Markel and Pierce. But none of them said a word.
“Well,” Dawn finally broke the silence, “this is certainly enlightening. What about it, Trixie, have you really been sleeping with Congressman Luke Bonney?”
Trixie giggled and cut his eyes sideways at Byron, who nodded and smiled while wiping his forehead with a hankie.
“Say what?” Trixie asked, crossing his legs.
“Did you sleep with Congressman Luke Bonney?”
A slow smile gathered in the corners of Trixie’s lipsticked lips. “I don’t remember doing much sleeping.”
Trixie was expecting laughter. The reporters stared in silence.
“What did you do, Trixie?” Tom Alexander asked.
“We done it all.”
Markel and Pierce laughed, covering their mouths with their hands. A few short grins broke out in the press corps.
“The nasty thing.” Trixie laughed.
“He done it all.” Pierce crowed, “the nasty and the watusi.”
“The nasty and the watusi,” Dawn repeated, glancing over her shoulder to make sure Ernie had his camera on.
“Yeow!” Trixie affirmed.
“How did you first meet Congressman Bonney?”
The three looked at each other, then over at Byron, who looked a bit calmer. He nodded and smiled.
“He come down Farish Street,” Trixie began.
“Driving that car of his -” Markel continued.
“Looking for a good time, he was,” Pierce added.
“He found it too.”
Trixie’s last comment occasioned a fresh round of giggles amongst the three.
“What kind of car does Congressman Bonney drive?” Tom Alexander asked.
“A white Poniac Sunbird,” the three said in unison.
Tom Alexander looked over at Byron, who shrugged and smiled nervously.
“Where did you have sex with the congressman?” Dawn asked. This seemed to stump them.
“Where?” Pierce finally asked, embarrassed. “You mean-”
The press corps hooted. “Ask him, Dawn!” Tom Alexander cried. “Get to the bottom of it!”
Pierce looked hurt and confused.
“At what location,” Dawn clarified. “Where did you go to have sex?”
“We did it at the Zebra Motel,” the three said, again more or less as a chorus.
“Which room?” Dawn asked.
“Twenty-four,” they answered together.
“All three of you at once?” Josh Finkelstein demanded.
This set off gales of laughter amongst the three.
“What kind of people you think we are?” Markel finally asked. “You dealing with a bunch of sluts, you think?”
“Tell me, girls,” Josh Finkelstein asked drolly, “how did you meet Mr. Byron Timmons?”
“He drove down Farish Street, too,” Trixie said.
“Is he a client like Congressman Bonney?” Josh Finkelstein pounced on Trixie.
“Now just a minute!” Byron exploded.
“I didn’t ask you, Byron.”
“I met these gentlemen when I was performing a citizen’s investigation of charges-”
“Who brought the charges?” Josh Finkelstein barked.
“I have had my longtime suspicions and I-”
“Yeah, I’ve got some suspicions, too, Byron.”
“Lots of suspicions going down,” Tom Alexander said.
“I don’t think any details about my personal situation are very important,” Byron said. “I’d like to focus-”
“We decide what’s important, Byron,” Dawn interrupted.
“There is no disputing that I have presented three independent sources-”
“You on drugs or what?” Josh Finkelstein yelled. “Independent? They’ve been drilled like trained seals.”
“If you are questioning the integrity of these gentlemen-”
“That’s right,” Josh Finkelstein said flatly. “You bet.”
“You callin’ us a liar?” Trixie shouted.
“I be callin’ us a liar,” Josh Finkelstein sneered, mocking Trixie’s accent.
“Why you little faggot,” Pierce cried, standing up. “You want to come up here and-”
“As long as I don’t catch anything!”
Markel and Trixie both stood up, squinting through the television lights.
“Bitch!” they cried in almost perfect unison. Trixie lobbed a small handbag at Josh Finkelstein, who ducked behind Tom Alexander.
“Gentlemen!” Byron cried.
“You call my black ass a ‘gentleman’ one more time,” Markel erupted, then threw his pocketbook at Byron. With surprising deftness, Byron pirouetted out of harm’s way. The imitation crocodile-skin bag sailed into a television light, tumbling it with a tremendous explosion as the bulb shattered.
“You moron!” Ernie screamed at no one in particular.
“Gentlemen!” It seemed to be the only word Byron still knew.
“I warned you!” Markel shouted. He turned around so that his back was facing Byron, presenting a profile to the press corps. He then dropped his pants while Pierce hooted, “Black moon risin’!”
Though what actually took place with Luke is left unresolved, late in the book, a strong hint is dropped that Luke did indeed have sex with these women – transvestites prefer to be referred in the gender they dress, so I refer to them as such.
Matt and his wife stay at the hotel where the alleged unions took place.
“George voted for Solomon,” Lisa greeted Matt. “That’s one vote.”
“George?” Matt sat down and immediately drank all of Lisa’s coffee in one sip.
Lisa nodded over her shoulder at a large black woman emerging from the kitchen with a coffee pot in her hand. At least, Matt thought it was a woman. She looked a lot like Tina Turner, only even more muscular.
“I felt kind of bad,” George said. The accent was Jamaican, lilting, and delightful. “To vote against a customer, it is not such a good thing.”
“Customer?” Matt whispered to Lisa. She shrugged, and Matt turned to George. “Customer?” he asked.
“You saw on the news. Mr. Luke likes the Zebra, that man can do, yes!”
“Oh,” Matt said, nodding. “You saw it on the news.” He turned to Lisa. “He saw it on the news. That doesn’t mean it’s true.”
“No?” George said, laughing.
Matt looked at Lisa, with a question in his eyes.
“Does Luke really…” For the first time, Matt thought about the idea that his brother might really be sleeping with Trixie, Pierce, and Markel. “I always thought it was a joke that Farkas and Byron cooked up.”
“I’m sure it is,” Lisa said.
“No, you’re not. You’re not at all.”
So, Matt Bonney has a brother who looks just like him, who he very well could have been, a congressman, with a public life open to scrutiny, who people can blackmail because of the grotesque figures he has sex with, if only he had not decided to be a political consultant, who no one cares whether they’re married or not.
As a related aside, there appears to be an attempt to always move the unsavory aspects of election campaigns to others. It is Walter Farkas who comes up with the attack involving the prostitutes. It is Morton Koughan who is a despicable creature, though like Luke, we are never told why he is so hateful. He appears to do, here come more italics, only exactly what Matthew does.
That Koughan is a judas goat for the sins of political consultants is not implied, but made explicit. Here is a conversation between Matthew Bonney and his father, upset about the ad involving the prostitutes:
“I want you to go and talk to your mother about what is going on. Tell her you are getting that transvestite thing off the air. And tell her about what might happen with Luke. Blame it on that guy, what’s his name…?”
“Koughan. Morton Koughan. The media consultant.”
“Blame it on that New York media consultant. You can always blame anything on a New York consultant, right?”
Matt had to laugh.
So, perhaps there is the possibility that there is not one judas goat in this story, but two. Perhaps also, just as there are parts of a story about a political consultant, written by a political consultant, which we immediately detect as obviously biographical, there may well be other parts that are also biographical, though a little hidden. Anyway: if others are given license to speculate on a president’s birth certificate, I think I’m allowed to speculate on a political strategist’s books.
Though I have mapped out a pattern of a shadow self in this book, I should add that this idea of a shadow double is out in the open in an episode of Northern Exposure, “Jules et Joel”. Joel, the reserved doctor protagonist, suffers a concussion, after which he dreams of a twin brother who acts out the impulses he does not, and who can be blamed for any sins he commits. While this dream twin pursues these desires, Joel is interrogated by an imagined Sigmund Freud. These scenes are in the usual place. I quote the relevant moments:
Do you always do things out of a sense of obligation?
No! (beat) Yeah, most of the time. Yeah.
Well, my point is what difference does it make to Jules? One more blot more or less on his already disreputable character, whereas to soil my reputation would-
At least Jules expresses his id. He is id. Me, I am all super-ego. Good behavior. Stellar achievement. Always judging myself how others judge me. But…who really is the bad one here? Joel, who is only pretending to be good…or Jules, who expresses his evil side, so that when he is good is the genuine article?
Perhaps you project onto your brother those parts of yourself which it is uncomfortable for you yourself to own up to.
Jules is an animal, a predator, a sexual juggernaut whose idea of guilt is something like lint. Say Jules meets a girl. As he rips her clothes off, they ride like eels into a frenzy of unadulterated love-making. Me, I’d shower with my socks on if they wouldn’t get moldy. I have this thing about getting totally naked…I feel totally…
Exactly. I mean I want to be spontaneous, I do. I have this thing about analyzing my every move. And pre-meditated spontaneity is about as exhilarating as getting the measles twice.
Let’s take O’Connell for example. I mean, Jules plies her with alcoholic beverages, instinctively tells her everything he knows she wants to hear, flatters her, charms her and then sticks his tongue down her throat before she has a chance to say “Ah.” I mean, me, do I want her as badly as Jules? Absolutely. But do I pin her against the wall, pressing my chest against her chest? Thrusting my hips against her hips? I mean, do I?
Me, yeah. Joel Fleischman. Are you kidding? No way. I mean, I’d tell her it’d never work out simply because we have nothing in common… because I hate everything that she likes. And in return for my forthrightness and honesty, I’d get at best, if ever, her grudging respect. When, like Jules, what I really want… is to lick her naked body from head to foot like a postage stamp.
I near the end with one penultimate note, this time a small one on writing style. The character of Matt Bonney is someone, we are told, who has had “zillions” of girlfriends, a man with the usual rabid lust of almost any man. Here is the first, and only physical description of his wife:
She was thin and dark, almost an inch taller than Matt’s five feet eleven inches. She was not so much beautiful as exotic, with dark hair and cheekbones that cut sharply across her face. On a trip to China, an official junket on which Matt had been included as a spouse, guides had twice asked if she were a Mongolian fashion model, a species of creature that neither she nor Matt had known actually existed.
The only absence I note is that men with this conventional lust have, both inside and outside of books, the occasionally endearing and sometimes tiresome quality of always fixating on a woman’s body: the texture, the curves, the movement. It is for that reason women wear clothes which accentuate such features, and wear heels to exaggerate these extraordinary rhythms. Matthew Bonney makes no mention whatsoever of his wife’s body here, or anywhere in the book. Nor does he make any mention of the body of almost any other women, including Dawn Simms, who he has an affair with. This may be a simple aesthetic divergence, a show of greater gallantry than most men possess, or, forgive me…a dog that doesn’t bark.
I end with a compliment. The bookjacket, in its author profile, again, carries no mention of Stevens’ credits as an undergrad and graduate at Oxford. I praise him for his discretion and self-effacement.
(After initial posting, edits were made to fix links and to improve clarity. A relevant section of “Thank God This Will Only Get Worse” was added later. The mention of “Northern Exposure” was added later. “Northern Exposure” images and script quotes copyright Universal TV and related producers.)
1 When I first read this book, I assumed this section on the transvestites was fiction – however, it is very much taken from reality, an episode from 1980s Mississippi politics, one more incident from that state which has somehow fallen under the waves, while more banal scandals of the Northeast remain common currency.
I am grateful to We’re With Nobody by Alan Huffman and Michael Rejebian, for giving it mention. The book is a memoir of their years as opposition researchers, researching weak points and scandals of political opponents for later use in attack ads and talking points. Huffman is fascinating as a coincidental doppleganger of Stevens. Both have backgrounds in Mississippi, both have travelled extensively in Africa and Asia, both have written prolifically about politics and other subjects. They are at separate polarities however – Stevens is a mercenary, while Huffman seeks some betterment of politics by eliminating the unsavoury and amoral from the field. Stevens sees Karl Rove as an ally unfairly maligned, while Huffman is enthusiastic in continued malignment of the man. I think, on aesthetic grounds alone, that Huffman is the better writer. His description of Timbuktu, for whatever reason, strikes me as more authentic than that of Stevens; I look forward to reading his pieces on Jan-Michael Vincent and dirt eaters.
Returning to the main episode, I give the full description in With Nobody. The perspective is Huffman’s:
In the mideighties, the state of Mississippi, which later served as our proving ground as opposition researchers, was in the throes of a particularly brutal, and surreal, gubernatorial election. At the center stood a trio of transvestite prostitutes who claimed they’d had sex, on numerous occasions, with the leading candidate, a Democrat who was then the state attorney general. Notably, considering where we were, the prostitutes were black and the AG was white.
I was a reporter in Jackson at the time, and the newspaper’s statewide editor, a fiery former marine and Vietnam War veteran, supervised the coverage of the story, which attracted a national media circus that included Geraldo Rivera, the controversial correspondent for the ABC News show 20/20. During a particularly aggressive interview, Rivera, a proud pioneer of trash TV, drove one of the transvestites to tears by angrily demanding to know how it felt to have “ruined a man’s life.” It was, in a way, a legitimate question, particularly considering the transvestites’ penchant for changing their stories, but his delivery was unnecessarily rough. On-camera, the transvestites came across as physically striking, yet they were shy, and clearly unprepared for what they were getting into when they agreed to vogue with the Republican businessmen who hired them to go public with their stories.
The viciousness of Rivera’s attack and the prostitute’s resulting distress prompted my editor, who was present for the interview, to intercede. He and Rivera exchanged a few heated words and the argument devolved into a shoving match-a precursor to Rivera’s brawl a few years later with skinheads, that famously earned him a broken nose. So it was that a freelance opposition research campaign undertaken by a group of conservative businessmen resulted in a Vietnam War vet fighting with Geraldo Rivera in defense of a sobbing transvestite. And that was just the offstage action.
The newspaper’s executive editor had initially balked at reporting the results of the businessmen’s inflammatory research, which they had privately presented to him. The group was comprised of longtime Republicans in what was then a staunchly Democratic state, and they clearly had a political vendetta against the AG. More importantly, there were significant questions about the veracity of their claims. Rather than accept the businessmen’s word for it, the newspaper’s editors assigned two reporters to investigate the matter independently.
The reporters discovered that the businessmen had hired a private detective agency to interview the prostitutes along with policemen who claimed to have seen the AG speaking with trolling prostitutes as they made their rounds. The businessmen then paid the transvestites to go public, and afterward sequestered them in various hotels across the Louisiana line, presumably to control access and to ensure they could find them when they needed them.
At the beginning, the Republican gubernatorial candidate steered clear of endorsing the businessmen’s claims, though they were designed to get him elected. That would soon change. As the scandal reached a fever pitch, even his wife got in on it, smugly proclaiming during one speaking engagement, in reference to the fact that the attorney general was, you know, divorced, “I’m running for first lady, and I’m unopposed.”
Ultimately, the lurid details, the shockingly personal nature of the attack, questions about the businessmen’s payments to the prostitutes and attempts to convince the attorney general’s financial donors to abandon him, together with the lack of clearly documented evidence, did not sit well with either the public or the media.
A reporter asked one of the businessmen during a news conference, “Are you attempting to ruin the man? Are you trying to defeat him? Are you trying to get him to withdraw? What are you doing?” Eventually, television and radio stations refused to sell the group airtime for their campaign ads, enabling the beleaguered attorney general to control the dialogue about the scandal. The result was that the Republican candidate’s campaign was eclipsed by a bizarre sideshow staged by his own supporters.
There are a few noteworthy points here – the women, when they appeared in a press conference were not the ridiculous, comic figures of the book, but tragic ones. Rivera’s bullying, continues unabated and remains consistently callous, having now found a suitable haven at Fox News. The gubenatorial candidate was democrat William Allain, and the detective who pressured the women to make the allegations was Rex Armistead. There was no ambiguity afterwards about the allegations – the women recanted them. The character of Byron Timmons in the book is not Armistead, but still perhaps based on someone real.. Armistead, however, had a colorful enough history for a book, from his possible involvement in covering up the killing of black students at Jackson State, to his futile attempts to prove that Bill Clinton was involved in cocaine smuggling. He is a character who would be as welcome to any fiction as his person is unwelcome to this life. In the disputed race, William Allain won the election. The “20/20″ segment where Rivera questioned the women to the point of tears, despite its sensational nature, does not appear to be on youtube or anywhere else on the web. This footnote was added long after the rest of it was written, November 19th, 2012, two weeks less a day after the election. It originally stated that Armistead was involved in the killing of students at Jackson State due to an unmalicious mis-reading on my part; it has been changed to the still serious crime of possible complicity in veiling what took place there.