Review: "Spanking the Donkey"

Fear and spanking on the campaign trail

The end of the 2004 campaign was a welcome relief for me. Even though the evil one came out victorious, I still harbored a secret happiness that the whole ordeal was just over. I must admit though, in the build up to the election I had the odd compulsion to read every article that I found about the candidates-anything to give me insight into the logistics of the campaign or some inkling of how I would feel when Storm Phillips or whoever colored in my giant map of America on election night. Like a dog that can't help eating the turds of every other dog, I faithfully consumed TV commentary and read the New York Times.

When I learned about Matt Taibbi's new book, "Spanking the Donkey," I wondered what it would take to convince me to revisit my media-heavy fall of 2004. I definitely would not have read a book that recapped my own interpretation of the campaign. Luckily, Taibbi is not very much like me (I was not traveling with the Democratic candidates and press corps). Nor did he observe the campaign in the same way I did (Taibbi opted for acid and mushrooms while I tortured myself with near-sobriety). Add these two elements with his angry/hilarious storytelling and Taibbi's campaign diary actually makes the '04 presidential "race" impressively enjoyable in a tragic, we-all-know-what-happens sort of way.

A refresher course in campaign diaries: The big ones were called "Boys on the Bus" (Timothy Crouse) and "Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72" (Hunter S. Thompson); both covered the Nixon landslide over McGovern in '72. Crouse reported about other reporters in the corps. Thompson wrote about McGovern's campaign through eyes chemically altered man. I haven't read these books, but they are referred to in Taibbi's work and the comparison seems somewhat justified. Taibbi's goal, however, isn't to just follow reporters or munch on mushrooms; these are side products of being stuck in an organism-like press corps that slimily trails behind the vapid moves of the Democrats' campaigns. Taibbi likelyfurther than the other authors, partly because '72 was a different time, and partly because there was no other way for him to report what he saw. Taibbi's book gives observations and insights that reveal more about the basics of America and Americans than they do about the fleeting activity of the '04 campaigns or their press coverage.

"Spanking" is a compilation of unedited versions of his pieces for the New York Press, Rolling Stone and the Nation, along with plenty of previously unpublished musings. Taibbi teamed up with illustrator David Rees (of "Get Your War On" comics) for the perfect satirical word and picture combination. During 2004, Taibbi followed Dean and Kerry for a while, as well as hung around all the candidates' campaign headquarters to get a feel for the type of people who work for them.

He also went undercover as a volunteer in for Bush's campaign in Orlando. The volunteer support was sparse in June so Taibbi "became, along with a young blonde Sean Hannity fan named Ben Adrian who also volunteered at the time, one of the most important Bush people in all of central Florida."

From this vantage point Taibbi observes the Republican like an anthropologist. He claims that the predominant members are middle-class white women, mostly overweight, with families. One such woman and her husband walk into the office one day, looking for yard signs. Taibbi describes the heavy couple and writes among other things, "the wife had heads of lettuce for knees." Harsh, yes, but his vivid, uncompromising descriptions lend his political commentary a welcome tone of honesty.

Taibbi's time on the road wasn't all fun and games - just mostly fun and games. While Rolling Stone was shelling out $1000 a day for him to hitch rides with the Kerry crew, Taibbi suffed an professional and existential crisis. He had no angle for his story.

Other reporters didn't seem to mind blathering about how Kerry can throw a tight spiral (photo-ops called for a football cameo during the '04 battle of manliness). But Taibbi decided to seek out the man in Kerry's campaign who was responsible for the "This is your brain on drugs" fried-egg ads of the '80s. Our hero interviewed him after two hits of acid, and while wearing a Viking costume. The irony is thick-Vikings didn't even have acid!

Another section in "Spanking" goes through a mock tournament of mainstream journalists to determine who America's worst campaign reporter is. The premise and rules are funny, but this portion of the book was longish and not as fast paced as the rest of Taibbi's story telling. From the tournament I did, however, discover that last year I had been reading huge amounts of drivel from otherwise respectable political commentators. Taibbi has a way of taking an excerpt from an expert and exposing it for the miserable piece of journalism that it is.

Though wickedly funny, "Spanking the Donkey" is a depressing book. Taibbi tells his stories in a way that make our government seem so irreparably broken that no candidate could fix it. Maybe many readers suspect this going into the book - Taibbi gives us more tangible reasons to believe this is the case. Since the problem is so big, it's not surprising that his Jerry Springer-esqe conclusion at the end is weak. But he couldn't end his book with "The world is crap. Fin." Well, he could have, but I appreciate his effort.

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