Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Ballad of Me and John, part 1

The story of me and John Edwards begins in October, 2007

The Edwards campaign office in Derry, New Hampshire is in a shabby brick store front, its windows plastered with Edwards signs and handwritten banners. Once, this building housed the cobbler my father went to, back when Derry had industry other than tattoo parlors and Al’s Rod and Gun. I am not sure the shop has been cleaned since my four-year-old self was knocking over displays of shoe horns and helping myself to lollipops from the basket on the counter, but no matter. I’m here to work the phones, as I have been for several weeks now. It’s dull work--this is 2007, people are hardly ever home to answer my calls. There are only three types of people who I talk to:

Retired People, either lonely and wanting to tell me about their grandchildren and their health problems, or deeply, spectacularly cranky.

The Harried Young Mother. There are kids in the background, making menacing noises. The Harried Young Mother mournfully informs me that she used to be interested in politics but it’s just so hard to care anymore, and besides dinner’s on the stove so thanksforthecallbutnothanksbye.

The Angry Man: Age and politics vary, but every Angry Man is sickened, just sickened, by the state of Washington, and thinks that all politicians are crooks anyway, so screw it. If he’s planning to vote it’s probably for Ron Paul.

I don’t care much for working the phones.

But all of this dialing and waiting and listening to answering machines leaves plenty of time to watch life in the office go by. The four paid employees are a rangy, sleepless, chain-smoking bunch, with acid senses of humor and a creeping suspicion that this life is all their expensive Poli Sci degrees are good for. The other campaign volunteers and I agree that they are all sleeping with each other.

Ian and Emily stand on the sidewalk outside, bickering in whispers. They’re both a little heavy, the result of too many meals from the Seven-Eleven next door to the apartment they all share. Ian has the look of someone who sleeps in his clothes, and is always badly in need of a shave. Emily favors peasant skirts and DIY haircuts.

“Uh oh, lover’s quarrel,” David says snidely, looking up, his ergonomic phone braced between his neck and shoulder. He’s from California and says things like “I’m so jazzed,” “right on,” and “dynamite” without irony. He also refers to Route 93 as “The Ninety-Three”. We think this is a riot and haven’t bothered to disabuse him of it.

Kristen shoots him a meaningful look. Pert and blonde, with the slightest hint of a Virginia drawl, she drinks Red Bull like water and is inextricable from her Blackberry. David returns the glance over the clementine he is peeling. He’s just quit smoking and citrus is his coping mechanism. Outside, Ian sucks his cigarette down to the filter and tosses it into the street. David gazes after it the way someone with a stapled stomach regards a dessert cart. I mark down another undecided voter on my tally sheet, dial another number, keep my eyes down.

If you want any cred with campaign people, the first thing you have to do is read Primary Colors, the anonymous roman a clef about a fictionalized Clinton campaign. I don’t know if the phrase true-believerism originated with that book and all its devotees have adopted it, or if it existed before and the book simply popularized it. Either way, it’s a book that fairly successfully quells TB: the story of a man who does anything to get elected, and then just when you think karma’s coming for him, just when it doesn’t seem he can keep up the act anymore...he wins. The end.

But whatever its origins, it’s an easily identified malady. Even to my untested eyes, it’s obvious who has it and who doesn’t. Ian has caught TB, so has Emily. David and Kristen are resisting so far. And me? Well, I want to believe. I want to believe in this, because I love this urgent, dynamic environment, I love to think that the work I do could change the future of the country. I believe in Edwards when I’m reading his plan for Iraq or the economy. I believe in John Edwards when I’m on the phone, explaining his healthcare plan to undecided voters. But I watch him on TV, on Meet the Press or in the Democratic debates, and there’s just no spark. My feet stay firmly on the ground, my eyes decidedly dry.

Campaign people are almost a species unto themselves. They gnaw their fingernails until they bleed, chew the ends of their ponytails, take up coffee or cigarettes or smuggled Canadian Ritalin. They develop a disregard for personal hygiene, start having angsty campaign sex with near-strangers, begin to forget what it’s like to eat a meal with real silverware. There is no down time, no respite from the grinding work. Full time staffers put in fifteen hour days, seven days a week. But admitting stress is admitting weakness, and this twitchy, unhealthy mania called campaign life is a blood sport. People try to trump each other, swapping stories about how they spent four days before the Florida primary subsisting on nothing but black coffee and Lifesavers, or how once they didn’t sleep in a real bed for three weeks. It’s poisonous, it’s absurd, it’s sheer, unadulterated madness. And I’m hooked.

I'm a New Hampshirite born and bred, and since before I could walk I've been meeting and greeting the slew of politicians who descend on my state every four years. (There’s a video of me, forever entered into family lore, in which I’m violently bouncing up and down on a rocking horse. “Who are you voting for?” my dad asks. “Paul Tsongas!” I cackle. “And why do people live in New Hampshire?” he says. “NO TAXES!” I scream gleefully.) But having met all these people, there's one thing I've come to grips with. Politicians are not honest people. They are not morally superior people, or infallible people. They're not especially nice people, though they all have the same folksy, glad-handing act down pat. Come to it, I can't stand politicians. But, brought up in a political state with political parents (who have some of the most impressive bullshit detectors I’ve ever seen) I never really caught TB.

I am the only local in the office when Ian realizes his blunder. He smacks his forehead, leans violently over his particle board desk.

“Ellen,” he hisses, so as not to interrupt the many phone calls going on in the office. “Can you have a house party, on November 9th?”

“What? No--”

“It’s easy, we take care of everything. You won’t have to worry about anything.”

This is a grotesque understatement. Somehow, though, Ian talks me into it. This kid is going to go far in politics.

(To be continued)

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