A severe-looking young man, sitting in the front row of a grand ballroom in the Chicago Hilton, turns to his equally severe-looking comrades and blithely says, “Virgil Goode is kind of a false prophet.” Goode, a Virginian who looks to have had all the fat burned away from his bones and speaks with a drawl that cannot be reproduced phonetically, would make a great pro-wrestling manager, but is instead running, hopelessly, for president, on the Constitution Party line.
Upstairs I’m eavesdropping on the green room from a stairwell as someone patiently tries to explain the format of the debate he is about to moderate to Larry King, the ancient television presenter who offers the best available evidence that androids live and walk among us. His programming is about to fail, as he will offer two questions before realizing, having been reminded by peeved Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson, that he’s forgotten to solicit opening statements.
In the back of the room, on raised platforms under heavy lights, pundits from Russia Today and Al Jazeera, who take it as given that viewers consider flying death robots and the president’s claimed right to imprison or kill American citizens at his pleasure among the major issues of the day, are talking as if there were someone watching.
This is a presidential debate as held by the Free and Equal Elections Foundation, a worthy group in favor of worthy things that has convened a worthy audience, if one that barely outnumbers the hacks and flacks in attendance, to listen to Goode, Johnson, and two other independent candidates who between them cover the transpartisan range of marginalized opinion, say things that are honest and meaningful—the drug war is a failure, habeas corpus is a good thing, spending as much money on war as the rest of the planet combined is foolish—to inscrutable ends that will probably become no clearer when their next debate is held next week in Washington, D.C.
The vague aims of the proceedings, to be clear, can’t be blamed on the organizers. When I show up before the debate, I’m sent into a small, dark room where, after a quick introduction, I end up accidentally interviewing Christina Tobin, who heads Free and Equal and is, I am given to understand, important and tightly scheduled, although, yes, she could spare five minutes now even if I haven’t quite asked for them. She is attractive, lively with the glassy-eyed zeal of someone who got into ballot issues because her father ran for the governorship of Illinois on the Libertarian Party line when she was 18, and gifted with the ability to come off as something other than an automaton while reciting talking points. I would have her down as the future star of some widely watched cable television show if only she weren’t given over to saying things like, “Ballot access is a great start, because that’s where it all derived from, from the creation of the Australian ballots back in 1890. There used to be lots of different parties and then in 1890, the ballot came about and the next thing you know there’s two major parties,” or demanding to know if I was accusing her of being something other than normal and healthy by suggesting that it was natural to want to watch baseball instead of a presidential debate.
“I want,” Tobin says, “to drive a stake through the heart of the system.”
This seems fair enough, and if running a debate that will air on C-Span and RT.com and Ora.tv and is thus supported by the American and Russian governments and by a group of people with money who think that broadcasting Larry King online is a good way to make money strikes her as a good way to at least get the stake up against the skin that is worth being all for. There would seem to be only two problems—the candidates and the public.
There is first of all the fact that the public supports, or is at best indifferent to, flying death robots and mass imprisonment and spending nonexistent money and the other bad things that the candidates are all against, but there is also the fact of the public that turns out to such events. Of course, you can go around to any political event and find nothing but the sort of people who in slightly different circumstances would be biting one another for the chance to touch a minor Kardashian’s thigh, which is part of what turns political reporters into horrible people, but there is a strain of genuinely strange people at this debate. There are a lot of teenagers, for example, who are too young to vote and yet are lined up for the chance just to see Jill Stein, the worthy Green Party candidate who bravely got herself arrested last week at a presidential debate and also says things like, “Our youngest generation is the greatest resource we have.”
“She touched me!” one says, after Stein touches her.
Brock Goldflies, a 20-year-old student of the University of Illinois at Chicago, comes up to Gary Johnson, clutches him, and shouts, with great certainty, “Truth is treason in an empire of lies! Truth is treason in an empire of lies!” Taking Johnson’s slight bewilderment for a conspiratorial air, he leans in and asks slyly, “Would you make Dr. Paul chairman of the Fed?” Ron Paul, he explains afterward, is so committed to the cause that if made chairman of the Federal Reserve he would make his own job illegal.
I also meet a multidisciplinary performance artist wearing a shirt with the image of Maximumrocknroll columnist Mykel Board and a much-buttoned fish hat that he would like Larry King to sign; when I say that probably everyone would like to buy Larry King a sandwich, he tells me that he has chocolate and tortillas in his backpack, and would happily share them with Larry King. I like him and Goldflies and Jill Stein’s groupies much more than the sort of person who passionately wants to touch the helm of the president’s garment, and have much more in common with them, but without wanting to assume a false sophistication have to wonder what the useful end of pandering to this sort of person is.
The question comes up because the people they are here to see—Larry King possibly excepted, as he insists on referring to the candidates by their first names, brushes off a Russian reporter who wants to know his opinion of something Mitt Romney has said about Russia, and generally makes it clear that he isn’t quite clear on the rules of the debate—are very much here to pander. They’re not very good at it in the same way that even very good American soccer players tend not to be very good, and to come off as kitsch versions of more polished betters, but also in the way that they are, by a normal person’s standards, frighteningly good. The crowd may want politicians who aren’t politicians; what they have are politicians who are very good at being normal politicians but just not quite good enough to play at the higher levels, and with different answers.
"All these candidates,” explains Tobin, “want to end the Federal Reserve. They’re against drones. They don’t like the NDAA or SOPA. The Patriot Act. Thumbs down on the Patriot Act.” And as the debate goes on—android Larry King asks questions about ballot reform, the drug war, civil liberties, student debt—they are all going all out to remind the audience of that. The people here hate the NDAA, the Patriot Act, drones, and drug prohibition, in roughly that order, and so the candidates remind them that they hate these things as well, and that all right-thinking people hate them, and that if there were someone who weren’t owned by moneyed interests in charge everything would be better and different.
Johnson in particular takes every opportunity to warn of a coming monetary collapse, by which he means in this context that people who believe in the Ron Paul revolution ought to vote for him, and he does it often enough that whatever he actually means by it drains away, so that all that you see at his podium is a slightly less handsome Mitt Romney gifted with a slightly less sonorous voice, preaching a vastly less popular message, and you wonder if slightly different genetic codes would have left Johnson on a stage with Barack Obama bringing everything back to his five-point economic plan, and Romney here dog-whistling to gold hoarders.
The slight exception is Virgil Goode, who, cut off from his destiny managing the United States tag-team champions, is forced to raise the ire of several hundred Chicagoans. He turns a question about the drug war into a reminder that he would cut all federal funding for Planned Parenthood, eliciting some of the few real jeers of the evening, and turns a question about the price of college tuition into a chance to turn in the night’s winning entry in the hyperbole sweepstakes.
"Way cood wull buhlak Germoney aftuh Whirl Wore Won!" he says. Thus, no Pell Grants, an unpopular position with Stein's fans. His insistence on American jobs for American citizens is at least as unpopular with everyone else—the Greens think it racist while libertarians don't believe in borders—aside from one stern character in a mustache who loudly claps his hands over his head, so that the sound echoes in the silent room.
Even Goode’s delight in telling the crowd how much he knows how little they care for what he’s saying works as a recognizable straight-talk gimmick, though, and as with everyone else’s performance it turns out as a kind of kitsch, a run of talking points and platitudes and vagaries perhaps more ethically sound but no more corporeal than the Tweedledee and Tweedledum candidates’. Goode is thanking Larry King for lending his prestige to the event and Johnson is talking about how Whitney Houston died with holes in her heart from cocaine and Rocky Anderson of the Justice Party is explaining, in a calm and considered way, why eliminating habeas corpus is an inexorable and very real step toward totalitarianism and Stein is talking about why she believes that children are our future and the crowd is minutes from giving them a standing ovation and breaking into a chant of “Larry! Larry! Larry!” for Larry King, and I am thinking that any semiprofessional politician who understands the way the world is and then spends her time trying to win the votes of the Paulistas is a fool who should admit that there is nothing to politics and that in a mass democracy the people get the very government they deserve.
After the debate is done, I ask Goode whether this isn’t basically so, whether a public that likes spending money it doesn’t have and putting people in prison and so on isn’t the real issue, and what you might do about it if so.
"You've just got to be honest and straightforward,” Goode says. “Hope they wake up.”
After the debate is done and Larry King has been ushered down presumably to the stretch SUV limousine in which, I am told by a Mohawked radio host from Omaha wearing a fantastic purple shirt and waistcoat, he arrived, I mill about with the candidates and ask the bald man in the “I Use Marijuana” shirt who I saw up at the center of the first row if he’s high. His name, it turns out, is Rick Stewart, of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and he’s not high because he uses but doesn’t abuse, and he was glad to be here, having played the crucial role, he says, in getting three major sponsors of the big presidential debates to pull out because minor candidates weren’t having their voices heard. He turns around and shows me the back of his shirt, which says, “Should I Be Arrested?” and explains to me that he wears it all over, including to city council meetings, because he wants people to know that a marijuana smoker isn’t necessarily a sketchy freak in a dark alley, but could be a normal and healthy fellow citizen. When I ask he promises to mail me one. There are millions and millions of people like him in this country. A candidate worthy of them could do great things.