BOOKS AND ARTS MAY 23, 2005
Sneaking Into the Flying Circus: How the Media Turn Our Presidential Campaigns Into Freak Shows
By Alexandra Pelosi
(Free Press, 320 pp., $33.25)
Click here to buy this book
Early on in her coverage of the 2004 primary race for the Democratic presidential nomination, Alexandra Pelosi, the documentarian and daughter of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, encountered an enterprising autograph collector at the Iowa State Fair. For several days the man returned to the fairgrounds, waiting patiently as the presidential wannabes scarfed down fried food, petted barnyard animals, and admired butter sculptures. Whenever there was a respite from the photo ops, the man would make his move; eventually he collected eight signatures from each of the candidates. At first, Pelosi sneered at his efforts. After all, having spent a few months on the trail, she'd already figured out which candidates would become also-rans. Who will want the autographs of the losers? And then it hits her: Her film footage of Bob Graham, her dutiful (and fond) notes on Joe Lieberman, her wry observations about Howard Dean--those too will be worthless, and soon. Life on the campaign trail is relentless and, Pelosi bemoans, "the value is so temporary."
Pelosi should have stuck with her intuition. Instead, she's treated us to Sneaking Into the Flying Circus, a book about "all of the losers" nearly a year after most of them lost. In attempt to make the book more than a simple retelling of campaign memories--Joementum, anyone?--Pelosi imposes a thesis on her anecdotes. The media and politicians, she asserts, are "stuck in this dysfunctional relationship." Two presidential campaigns have shown Pelosi "the dirty extent to which corporate media is in bed with the candidates," as well as the "bad blood" between those seeking office and those seeking a story. And get this: "In a presidential campaign, the stories are all about the horse race." None of this is untrue, of course, but none of it is new either. Pelosi has attempted to make mostly expired information relevant again by sheltering it under the evergreen conflict between the press and the political establishment.
This is not to say that Pelosi doesn't have a few devastatingly funny things to say. Her tales of adolescent sniping among the press pool make you long for the genteel company of a middle-school cafeteria. The New York Times--its reporters, its prestige, its aura of intimidation--provides Pelosi countless opportunities for deadpan asides. "One day, in front of all the other reporters," she writes, "Senator Kerry complimented the Times reporter four times." Another time, at one of Howard Dean's earliest appearances in a tony Manhattan brownstone, Pelosi attempts to guide the conversation away from Mayor Bloomberg's love life in order to find out what the moneyed class thinks of this doctor from Vermont. "We have to wait and see what The New York Times has to say about him," one socialite tells her.
Pelosi sinks her teeth into the candidates as well, and here her humor veers increasingly toward the mean-spirited. She seems pleased, for example, when John Edwards grows skittish around her after she overhears him planning a focus group to help determine what position he should take on an issue. Kerry, who like his running mate saw Pelosi's 2000 documentary Journeys with George, also beats a fast retreat whenever Pelosi approaches. (Not fast enough: He's the star of Diary of a Political Tourist, her 2004 HBO film that covers the same timeline as Circus.) She's particularly fed up with his habit of answering every question with a "What?" Kerry, she says, hears fine. He's just stalling until he arrives at the most superbly neutral response.
Pelosi's frustration with the candidates and the press corps is well placed, but it doesn't help decode their "dysfunctional relationship." In fact, she champions two competing theories of dysfunction. The first is that journalists and politicians are too close. They spend so much time scratching one another's backs, swapping access for positive coverage, that they no longer bother to communicate honestly with the American people. The second theory is that the two groups are adversaries. Journalists want to embarrass and expose politicians, who in turn want to discredit and undermine the media. These are both big problems, of course, stemming from a culture of laziness and sensationalism. But just as Pelosi rails against them, she also rejects what she calls "the movement to patrol journalists"--bloggers, citizen watchdogs, and so on. If, as Pelosi implies, the trouble with political journalism is truly its insider obsession, shouldn't external vetting help? Unless she thinks the system will spontaneously reform from within, she might want to reconsider. Yes, fault-finders can be overbearing and meddlesome. But stern counseling has saved more than a few dysfunctional relationships.
The intense cohabitation of the campaign trail will probably never lend itself to journalistic objectivity, as Pelosi herself acknowledges. It is, to invoke her chosen clich?, a circus, run by egomaniacs and populated by weirdos. Only, in Pelosi's retelling, the circus isn't much fun--either for the participants, or the reader.
Keelin McDonell is a writer for The New Republic.