RotN on the Campaign Trail
Peter Benjamin Johnson
I‘ve started doodling in my notebook at various campaign rallies, waiting for the candidate to take the stage and somebody to cut off whatever 70s-80s-90s biggest hits compilation CD is blasting with the treble too high and the campaign posters vibrating and threatening to tear themselves apart. The things I come up with are just horrible; frightening, slightly pornographic images of snakes and cubes and human anatomy. The lines bleed into my notes and over pages so that I've got entire chapters where Obama's economic policy is devoured by an anaconda and Clinton's remarks about gun control and blue-collar workers turn into geometric fractal acid-shapes that tear apart and tumble into the blue and white college-ruled abyss…
This much is obvious: One of my body-drug quotas is not being met. I tell you, with all the honesty that even tangential political involvement breeds: I wasn't like this before the campaign. Then the deadlines started coming. Deadlines and hotel rooms, wire reports and lost luggage, press releases and room service, speeches and redeyes. I haven't met a correspondent yet who isn't jacked up, in, or out on something. Some of the pros, they try to sweep it under the rug, keep it under wraps, but they come back from the bathroom with the same quaalude eyes and rolled-down sleeves as the rest of us, ready to write Bonfire of the Vanities on a cocktail napkin with a burnt out cigar. On the campaign trail, a good dope deal is never farther than the hotel lobby. Whatever you need, somebody's got it.
In me, something is absent, turning my attention away from the campaign and into my own body, where a foreign agent upon which I'm dependent is not being dependable; my blood and nervous system are deficient and bloody nervous… but what? The cocktail isn't simple, it's one of those drinks where you have to give the bartender a wink and a password. Is it the coffee? The black swill that I drink every day at American Legion halls and Event Centers, pumped into my body in terrifying amounts — is it lacking? How severe is my addiction? I haven't had a cup in half an hour and I'm already starting to fade, but there's no time for sleep, not with Obama and Clinton neck-and-neck and McCain chomping at the bit to destroy one or both. We may need to go intravenous — a Chock full o'Nuts drip, straight to my brachial, the big blue artery dyed tan with coffee and sugar and cream, that's the ticket. Maybe morphine in the other arm, balance me out, trick my body back to equilibrium, but at the cost of spending the rest of the campaign staggering around like Tiny Tim, a chemical crutch under each arm and a crash cart on the nearest campaign bus.
Three o'clock this morning, some hotel in Oregon. I couldn't sleep. I'd been up since early Sunday morning, when I had to go to Obama's “Old People Matter” Rally in Gresham. The Senior Citizen Vote remains one of the most important prizes in the Presidential Election. God knows where they find the time, what with dinners at three in the afternoon and shuffleboard tournaments that go late into the shadows of seven o'clock PM, but seniors can be counted on to cast their votes in animal-like droves. I drew a picture of a wheelchair devouring a speedboat, and something about retiring in dignity…
Then it was off to a 75,000-person rally, huge waves of people crashing on the stage and threatening to tear any Republican who dare set foot within their grasp to pieces, “abandon all hope, ye who enter here, yes we can, yes we can!” Screaming and applause like a rock concert, and somewhere John McCain was rubbing bengay on his sore, tired legs.
At three AM the maroon and brown hotel carpets offered boundless entertainment, and I found myself wandering aimlessly through the corridors, staggering around corners and into stairwells and up and down elevators until I was hopelessly lost.
“Damn,” I muttered, “I should have left a trail of bread crumbs. Campaigners and aides and politicians and journalists… vultures don't eat bread crumbs, do they?”
I was drawn towards the end of a hallway by raucous yelling and loud music, and a chorus of people singing “I WANNA ROCK AND ROLL ALL NITE,” and me in the hallway wondering if they were being ironic, if it's supposed to be obvious or if it's just implied — young voices, furious voices, drunk voices. I rose up to my full height, felt vertigo kicking in, slouched back down, and knocked on the door.
The music went silent.
“Who is it?” asked a low voice from the other side of the deadbolt.
“Peter Benjamin Johnson,” I said. Murmurs inside. Drugs and blood being hidden.
“Sorry,” said the voice, and then nothing. I could smell acrid marijuana smoke drifting into the hall.
I pounded on the door again. “Let me in!” I yelled. “Let me in, goddammit, I'm a journalist!”
The bolt was thrown. The door was opened. A redheaded girl was standing there, a bottle of Wild Turkey in her hand and an OBAMA '08 button on her breast. “Well,” she slurred, in a higher voice, “why didn't you say so?”
I got acquainted quickly. The girl, Sissy, is an Obama aide. She joined the campaign for college credit and “to make a difference.” She's got the same wide-eyed optimism and naivete that I've seen in young democrats across the country, the gushy attitude that leads them to environmentalism and lower back tattoos. She poured me a straight bourbon in a plastic hotel cup and sent me over to the other journalists.
The journalists were obvious because they didn't have campaign pins. The writing, dancing, half-naked bodies on the beds, the dressers, the bathtub, the television… they were mostly aides with pins that said OBAMA or HILLARY. Some journalists, too, but mostly aides who were drunk and angry and happy and ready to cut loose.
I raised my drink. “Here's to the reconciliation of the democratic party.”
I sat down in the journalists' corner of the room, near a window that looked out over Portland, and introduced myself. The big news organizations were all represented: an intern from NBC, an intern from CNN, a beat reporter from the Times looking for his first break, bloggers whose only responsibilities were staying on the road and keeping track.
“Web 2.0, huh?” I said.
“Information revolution,” croaked one of the bloggers. He blew out a cloud of smoke. “It used to be all official, right? Press functions, Q&As, little plastic badges and official releases. Not any more. The internet, blogs, that's the information of the people, man. By them, for them. I mean, like, I can blog about whatever I see, no filter, boom, there it is, on the page, on the RSS feed, and who's reading it? Anybody! You don't even have to buy a paper! That's what's happening to media, man, it's getting back to its roots. Town criers and shit. Extra, extra, read all about it, the mainstream media is fucked!”
He collapsed in a fit of laughter. Christ, I thought, no wonder people don't trust these criminals. At least Brian Williams looks good in a suit, has that look in his eyes that says “Trust me, a lot of work went into this broadcast, just like a lot of work went into this suit. Can't you see how good I look in this suit?” His news may be bought, but at least its paid for in full. I wouldn't trust this jamoke to hold a quarter for me. Strange times in a strange world.
“But doesn't somebody in one of those big megaliths pay your expenses?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he said, “but I write what I want. They don't own me.”
I saw the danger in his eyes. Too many drinks. The booze was making his blood thin, making him irrational. He was willing to fight for his integrity, or at least for the receipt.
“Right,” I said quickly. “The fourth estate. Semper fi indicium. All glory to us, the true patriots to this great land.”
I downed my bourbon and headed back to Sissy to get one for the road. She was lying on the floor, singing to the stereo, the bottle on its side and the liquor seeping into the carpet.
“Jesus!” I said. “Sissy, good god, are you all right?”
“Yes!” she yelled.
“The liquor, woman, we're losing it! Can you stand up?”
“Yes we can,” she sang, “yes we can!”
I'm riding with Obama from here on. Hillary has burned out, and the prospects in his camp look much better.
Peter Benjamin Johnson is a student at the William Randolph Hearst Internet School of Journalism. He is covering the democratic candidates in the 2008 presidential election for Revenge of the News. He hasn't been arrested yet.