Behind the Politics

Staffers shows us the blood, sweat, and fast food that make up the 2004 Democratic campaigns.

The haves and the have-nots: Staffers shows the underbelly of the campaign trail

The best moment in tonight’s premiere of Staffers (Discovery Times, 8 p.m. ET)—an occasional documentary series about the lives of the “body people,” interns, and lower-level political operatives who staff the 2004 campaigns for the Democratic nomination—occurs on a cold January morning in New Hampshire. Chris Lavery, deputy political director for Joe Lieberman, is on a pre-dawn coffee and Munchkins run to Dunkin’ Donuts. Lavery looks out his car window and sees an enormous John Kerry sign posted at an intersection. He pauses for a second, then lets his head fall, and you can tell by the look on his face that he knows that even an unlimited supply of Joementum can’t rescue his candidate from the inevitable. Up until this point, almost every scene in Staffers has been a social one—at campaign headquarters, political rallies, and press conferences—and the power of this lonely moment makes you understand the private agony behind a run for public office.

Like Alexandra Pelosi’s Journeys With George, the documentary that followed George W. Bush’s 2000 presidential campaign, Staffers captures the small, humanizing moments. Thrill to Joe Lieberman fudging his way through a rendition of “Happy Birthday,” and marvel as the former supreme commander of NATO passes out caramel corn to interns. Witness rushed meals—someone at Generation Dean will be forever remembered for devouring what looks like the world’s largest sub—and towers of empty Dr. Pepper cans; pity the poor minion who must carry dry cleaning or rearrange conference room tables. It’s no surprise that life behind the scenes isn’t as polished as the stagecraft politicians work so hard—and spend so much money—to create, but who knew the gulf between the two was so wide? Now I realize that when candidates drape themselves in flags and bunting, it’s not only to show their patriotism, but to hide all the crap backstage. 

Staffers focuses on the young, fresh idealists who work these campaigns. Our entree into this world is provided by Sandra Abrevaya, a 24-year-old who drove out to Iowa after cold-calling the Dean campaign; Amad Johnson, an African-American actor from Los Angeles who seems to be doing this for the hell of it; and the aforementioned Lavery. Each has his or her stated reason for working the campaigns—for the experience, for the chance to make a difference—and Staffers takes them at their word. The showplays out with a sense of humor about—even a certain warm feeling for—the intensity of the long hours, the bad food, and the constant wrangling but stops short of examining the staffers’ ulterior motives or unconscious agendas. Abrevaya probably means it when she says, “I’m not a Mother Teresa, at all, but I am the kind of personality that feels like if I’m not doing something that affects others, I’m not doing anything.” But she’s also caught up in the thrill of the chase, and it would be nice if the show made more of that.

As for the candidates, we see them as the staffers see them. As a deputy press secretary for Generation Dean, Abrevaya doesn’t get very close to the former Vermont governor himself—she’d get a clearer view by switching on the television. Lavery, meanwhile, has the most serious job of all, even if sometimes it means reminding Lieberman to go to the bathroom. Then there’s Johnson, the actor who likes to clown around during the downtime. There are some nice exchanges between Johnson and Gen. Wesley Clark that are reminiscent of President Bartlet’s fatherly hectoring of his body person, Charlie, on The West Wing. In these private moments, Clark comes across a tad patronizing, but far better than I’ve ever seen him appear on television. I know it’s naive of me, but I just can’t get over my sadness that the face a candidate presents to us isn’t as compelling as the one he (or she) wears everyday.