Sneaking into the Flying Circus
How the Media Turn Our Presidential Campaigns Into Freak Shows
by Alexandra Pelosi
Free Press, 320 pp., $25
WHAT ALEXANDRA PELOSI, THE daughter of the House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, is trying to get across in her vertiginous book on the 2004 presidential election is difficult to express. Difficult for her, I mean, and therefore impossible for anyone else. Outwardly, the object seems straightforward enough. The book is called Sneaking into the Flying Circus, and then subtitled How the Media Turn Our Presidential Campaigns Into Freak Shows.
This is so simple and appealing a concept that the reader's first impulse is to cheer--for many reasons. For one thing, it is long past time to revisit this subject. More than 30 years have passed since the appearance of The Boys on the Bus, the perceptive work of Timothy Crouse, who wrote in an era when coverage of national elections was indeed the province of a small group of flabby, aging boys, none of whom had access to the Internet. Besides, 2004 was a fine year for memorable media moments, which deserve further scrutiny: Dan Rather, backed into a corner, turning into as ardent a stonewaller as his old enemy Richard Nixon, say. Or the Howard Dean scream, hyped out of malice (and out of context as well) by television, but emblematic nonetheless of the candidate's other frailties.
Certainly such national treasures could easily be mined by a TV producer with experience covering national campaigns (Pelosi made the documentary Journeys with George in 2000 and, four years later, Diary of a Political Tourist for HBO). After all, American elections are never exclusively about victory and almost never about merit. They very often come down to who among the many protagonists in the electoral drama bears the lesser degree of culpability. A wartime president silent about his military past, or a network that leaps into the void with fabrications? A candidate who relies on Katherine Harris, or one who depends on the dispiriting sartorial counsel of Naomi Wolf?
But Pelosi's book--and really it's not so much a book as a bound stack of instant messages, which could have been dispatched by any teenager in the country--contains just a few sentences concerning the Rather disaster. And as for Dean's scream: Well, here the author relies on the most authoritative source at her disposal: "My Dutch boyfriend knew that the whole scene didn't look right . . . "
Nor is this the only appearance of the boyfriend. He makes his debut on page three on a conga line at a White House Christmas party, where he is quoted as saying, with perhaps a smaller degree of originality than one might wish for, "This looks like Rome before the fall."
As it happens, there isn't a love object, colleague, or tradesman among Pelosi's ever-expanding circle of acquaintances whose views are allowed to go unpublished. For example, we learn from Pixie the Fed Ex lady that "Republicans are in the sales business. They know how to sex it up and sell it. They know how to manipulate the images." One page later, Jesus the cable guy "who came to fix my DSL line" reinforces the substance of Pixie's reflections. Pelosi's cameraman--twice quoted but, unlike Jesus, never named--believes that "journalism is the intellectual form of asking for an autograph." (This is one of many conclusions arrived at that caused me to write a big red "HUH?" in the margin, and not simply because I question whether journalism is the intellectual form of anything.)
Later, Pelosi finds herself in a Manhattan restaurant, where "the guy at the table next to me" glances unlovingly at her copy of the New York Times, and complains about the general dullness of the Kerry campaign. In other words, all the voluble, bad-tempered, predictable, slow-witted seatmates ever encountered on planes, trains, and barstools have in this one volume been collected, their thoughts unabridged.
And to what possible end? one wonders. Why are we hearing from the whiney chorus when this is supposed to be a book about the villainy of the press? What, for that matter, are Pelosi's notions concerning the press? She seems to be awfully confused, given how she begins her book: "This leads us to a conflict that is as old as democracy itself. Ever since the press stopped trusting politicians, the politicians have been suspicious and paranoid of the press. There is a lot of bad blood running in both directions, and that tug of war is undermining our democracy."
Let's leave aside--but only for a moment!--the ineradicable image of a lot of bad blood running in both directions (Dr. Harvey, please report to surgery). Pelosi clearly has given but limited thought to the premise of her book. After all, if something is as "old as democracy itself," then it can't very well be, 230 years later, the undermining of the republic. And if this conflict is truly embedded--as those of us who followed the career of John Peter Zenger might perhaps conclude--then the press hasn't "stopped trusting politicians," as it considered them untrustworthy from the start. And finally (and it does make one wonder how many books the author actually read before she began writing), in what possible way is all this bi-directional blood "undermining our democracy"? Pelosi gives no examples, possibly for good reason. Show me a country where politicians are fond of reporters, and I'll show you the Soviet Union.
Like the author's ideas, her writing seems a slapdash effort, hastily contrived. Pelosi metaphors (and there are chapters and chapters stuffed with these) are trotted around and shuffled about, without her worrying overmuch about which ones actually get along.
"Because the senator doesn't trust the pack of unwashed snarling dogs at his heel, he acts like a scripted cardboard cutout," she writes of John Kerry's coolness toward the media. Or even better: "Covering this campaign, I have met some of the best journalists in the business. I have also met a lot of total buzzards.. ..Like the good America and the bad America (of which George Bush spoke in defense of the crimes committed at Abu Ghraib prison), there are always going to be a few rotten apples that spoil the lot."
Apples. Buzzards. Abu Ghraib. Unwashed dogs. And then, out of nowhere, at the very end of the book: "What would the Founding Fathers have thought about the live coverage of Jenna Bush applying lipstick?"
An excellent question, and one, oddly enough, that invariably comes to mind on checkout lines, in proximity to the Star. What would Thomas Jefferson have made of televised lipstick applications? Perhaps that the total buzzards were at last learning something useful.
Judy Bachrach is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair.