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Campaign of Our Discontent

They might be crazy, but fringe presidential candidates speak volumes about America

By Andrew Gumbel


The French deconstructionists taught us that, sometimes, the best way to understand something is to look not front and center, but at some small, seemingly insignificant detail on the very fringe. In that spirit, perhaps the best way to understand the upcoming year of presidential campaigning is to look at the candidates who do not stand a snowball’s chance in hell, who will probably never generate the slightest name recognition and may, indeed, be certifiably insane.

I’m talking about the go-it-alone candidates who file papers all by themselves, who set up campaign websites as warped monuments to their own egos, and who flounder in obscurity for a few months in pursuit of no more than a few dozen votes, if they are lucky.

Since we are in America, these candidates are, first and foremost, irresistibly colorful: the Satanist wrestler with an insatiable sexual appetite who wants to impale terrorists, execute every last LAPD officer, and conduct gay marriages on the White House lawn (Jonathon “The Impaler” Sharkey—check him out); the preacher without a congregation who rails against the demon drink on behalf of the Prohibition Party but really just wants to land a date (Gene Amondson of Vashon Island, Washington); or Frank Moore, the celebrated performance artist from Berkeley who, undaunted by the cerebral palsy that prevents him walking or talking, is running on a “just makes sense” platform with the sex advisor Dr. Susan Block.

The really interesting candidates, though, are the introverts, the ones who aren’t especially articulate or charismatic—in fact, quite a few have trouble with basic grammar and spelling—but nevertheless reflect the preoccupations of many millions of their fellow Americans. Again and again, their amateur-hour manifestos hammer home the same points: the system is broken, the Democrat-Republican duopoly stifles debate, politicians are corrupted by big money and don’t represent the people who elect them, campaigns are nothing but platitudinous hot air, and the media is complicit in reducing the great political stage show to nothing but meaningless bullshit.

“Have either of the parties really done a great job taking care of America?” asks Tee Barkdull, an angry military veteran from California who says he’s sick of being raped by the “silver-spooned rich” of the establishment. “The elephant knows what to do but, is only out for it’s self [sic]. The mule, is just to stubborn to do what’s right for America.”

And here’s another revealing line from Steve “common sense for uncommon times” Adams from Lexington, Kentucky: “The Presidency is no easy job and should not be entrusted to anyone who can write a nice website.”

Given the overscripted vacuousness we’ve had from the mainstream candidates these past several months— “I’m a mill-worker’s son/regular guy/embodiment of American dream who will stand firm for American values and wish you all a very merry Christmas” —do any of them, by this standard, deserve our vote?

The fringe candidates may be doing no more than tossing around idle opinions, but they are also spot-on in many of their diagnoses. A Rasmussen Reports survey conducted in September confirmed just how god-awful the reception of the 2008 candidates has been; 56 percent of likely voters agreed that the mainstream presidential campaign is “annoying and a waste of time.” (Just imagine what the 50 percent of Americans who don’t vote must think.)

More recently, Harvard’s Center for Public Leadership found that more than three-quarters of all Americans think the country is undergoing a profound leadership crisis. When asked how much confidence they have in their politicians, half the respondents answered “not much” or “none at all.”

That confidence can hardly have been boosted by the sight of Republican candidates scrapping over which of them would be most pitiless in hunting down, torturing, and killing terrorists (“Me! Me! Me!”); or by the Democrats arguing, like a bunch of drunks boasting about their hunting exploits, over which of them has the biggest, most comprehensive health plan. (We all know—but rarely hear on the airwaves—that any health plan, barring some truly exceptional leadership, is going to be hobbled or killed outright by the power of the insurance and pharmaceutical lobbies.)

The Harvard study was also scathing about a media seemingly obsessed with trivialities like John Edwards’s haircut or Barack Obama’s middle name or Hillary’s on-again, off-again flirtation with Celine Dion as her chosen campaign theme songstress. A stunning 88 percent of respondents said the media focuses too much on unimportant issues, while an equally stunning 92 percent said they were thirsty for nuts-and-bolts information on candidates’ policy positions. In other words, the survey’s authors concluded, citizens are getting “exactly the type of campaign coverage that they want the least.”

Bill Clinton, to his credit, raised some of the Harvard findings on the campaign trail in New Hampshire earlier this month. “Sixty-seven percent of the coverage is pure politics. That stuff has a half life of about 15 seconds. It won’t matter tomorrow,” he said. “One percent of the press coverage was devoted to their record in public life. No wonder people think experience is irrelevant. A lot of the people covering the race think it is [irrelevant].”

Clinton’s objections are incontrovertible, even if his wife has been as guilty as anyone—perhaps guiltier—of dragging the tenor of the campaign down, what with her petty attacks on her most dangerous rival, Obama, including a personal slur based on something he wrote in kindergarten.

It’s not just that the voters deserve better. The whole structure of American politics is inadequate to the task of determining the future direction of the country, and with it much of the planet. Rarely has there been an election with so much to talk about—the vulnerabilities of America as an imperial power, the shape of the global security order, the question of international consensus versus American strong-arm isolationism, the threats of nuclear proliferation, religious fundamentalism and global warming, the question of energy independence and its knock-on effect on U.S. policy in the Middle East . . . and that’s only in the international arena.

It’s a sad fact of American politics that only the candidates on the very outer edge of the mainstream—Dennis Kucinich, Ron Paul—have the courage to address these issues with any forthrightness and yet are punished for their pains with the kooky lunatic label and excluded from most, if not all, of the big debates and other public forums.

Ostensibly it is their ideas that get them into trouble, but really it is their audacity to air them in the first place. Hillary, Barack et al are too scared to articulate any meaningful critique of U.S. policy in the Middle East, other than to say they’d like a little less of it. (The incendiary topics of Israel and Saudi Arabia go largely unaddressed.) Even where candidates do indulge in any policy substance, they are usually berated for it. As Eric Boehlert pointed out in a piece for Media Matters, an unusually substance-rich Democratic candidates’ debate hosted by NPR in Iowa on December 4 was either ignored by the mainstream media or dismissed as a “snooze”—the New York Daily News’ verdict.

None of this is remotely helpful to the voters, or to building confidence in the future. We don’t know where we are going, and those who would be our next leaders aren’t giving us any clues.

Interestingly, a clear majority of the self-appointed fringe presidential candidates are disillusioned conservatives, as opposed to liberals, who want to get out of Iraq, or balance the budget, or solve the immigration question, or get serious about that old Republican standby, lowering taxes for all Americans, not just the rich.

Perhaps that’s not surprising, given the deep unpopularity of the Republicans and the longevity of their tenure in high federal office. It suggests what we already know to be true—that the White House is the Democrats’ for the taking in 2008. The grand prize, though, will be theirs by default, not because they’ve made any cogent argument for it. That doesn’t bode well for turnout, and it doesn’t bode well for the imagination of the next administration. In short, this democracy is in trouble, at just the moment when vigorous debate and tough decision-making are needed most.

Andrew Gumbel is a staff writer for Los Angeles CityBeat, where this article first appeared.


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