The Candidates, Off Guard

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One Sunday night last September, I spent an hour mesmerized by the sight of Mitt Romney doing very dull things in New Hampshire. The spell was conjured by “Campaign 2008”—C-SPAN’s catchall rubric for a stream of election coverage that captures the American political process as does nothing else. The channel’s eye is ideally Warholian in its insatiable appetite and peerlessly democratic in its lack of discrimination. Its ear rings with every last hope and frustration of the electorate, with the canned pitches and unguarded pleas of candidates, and, during call-in segments, a panoply of nut-bag ravings. Its tone can be so dry that you might feel a need to spread mayonnaise on your TV screen. But it can switch, in a blink, into an all-you-can-eat buffet of high absurdity.

That night in September found Romney working the town of Littleton, N.H., at a leisurely pace. There he was in a candy store. “This should be a red state, so I’m only going to get red candy,” he vowed, plastic bag in hand, scooping up Swedish fish. “You’ve got these lids on real tight. Is that to preserve freshness?” His total was $11.52, and when it came time to pay, he reached into the leave-a-penny-take-a-penny cup for the two cents. I wondered whether to read the gesture as a proud statement of fiscal prudence or an unwitting signal that he’s apt to support socialist schemes.

Some other C-SPAN fans must be hooked on the channel’s broadcasts of stump speeches; such people are driven by a sense of civic duty, perhaps, or a desire to contrive new drinking games. (For instance, those willing to risk acute alcohol poisoning—or, indeed, spontaneous liver failure—might raise a glass every time John Edwards uses the word mill.) But the meat of “Campaign 2008” is in such mundane moments as Romney sidling up to the gummy worms and such baffling displays of personality as Mrs. Romney entertaining the crowd at a New Hampshire retirement home by showing off poster-sized photos of her grandchildren. The real action is to be found on the rope line after a rally, in the small talk of grip-and-grin photo ops, and in the human swarms of what Mark Costello, in the comic novel Big If, called “the food-verb events” of the campaign season—the corn-boils and the weiner-roasts, Tom Harkin’s annual steak-fry.

These events and nonevents and glimpses of retail politicking offer endless microrevelations about the psychological bonds between the candidates and the constituents. You see Ron Paul signing autographs after a breakfast in Bedford, N.H., and marvel at his serenity. You notice, after a Clinton rally at an Iowa fire station, the odd sense of protectiveness that ordinary people feel for Chelsea. With some apprehension, you watch Bill Richardson shake hands with a woman who won’t stop shaking hands with him, and then you wonder exactly how much Purell these people go through in an average day. The voters’ eyes shine with various combinations of patient scrutiny, star-struck arousal, and passionate lunacy. If you don’t count Michelle Obama—an ace at greeting long-winded nonsense with understanding nods—Richardson is the campaigner most deft at handling ridiculous queries. Last week, after a gentleman explained to him the potential advantages of moving the United Nations to Puerto Rico, he emitted, chipperly, “Good point!”

Glutting on this stuff can make you feel a bit unbalanced. C-SPAN’s eye never flinches. Its satellites are happy to transmit, say, five minutes of footage of Edwards not yet disembarking from his bus, or an hour of absolute crazy talk. I’m speaking, in the latter instance, of the Lesser-Known Candidates Forum. Any 35-year-old citizen with $1,000 and a healthy capacity for delusion can enter the New Hampshire primary, and, a few weeks back, a handful of such people managed to get themselves to a TV studio in Manchester. One hesitates to call the lesser-known candidates unhinged—partly because it is unkind, mostly because the term implies that they were in fact properly jointed at some point in the past, which is perhaps not strictly the case. Candidates answering to this description include Albert Howard, a Republican who decided that his future lay in politics after an angelic visitation, and Michael Skok, a Democrat whose campaign Web site states—unnecessarily, for anyone who witnessed his debate performance—that he lives with his mother. At the debate, Skok stood to the immediate left of Caroline Killeen, an 81-year-old vagabond whose platform involves the legalization of marijuana and the criminalization of your laundry room. Killeen has centered her environmental plan on outlawing drying machines, and at her appearance in Manchester, wearing snow pants at the podium, she flapped a clothesline around to drive her point home.

The night of Jan. 3 found C-SPAN airing the full proceedings of a Democratic caucus held in a high-school cafeteria in Des Moines, Iowa. (Sister channel C-SPAN2 covered a Republican caucus in Carroll County, but that was a relatively straightforward affair.) In accordance with the Democratic rules, the chairwoman directed the various factions to different areas of the room—Edwards supporters to that corner, Obama supporters to that corner, “and the Richardson folks right beside that other sign, ‘Got milk?’ ” At first, the caucusing called to mind an elementary-school gym class (lots of hand-raising and counting-off), then, when the horse-trading began, it started to resemble the whole high-school experience, with the fundamental cliquishness and the ask-a-girl-to-the-prom anxiety. A woman from the Richardson camp approached a Dodd dude with shy eyes: “Do you want to come over to our caucus? I know I should have brought a treat. …” Eventually, the plain decency and easy seriousness of the 375 caucus-goers proved humbling. I got a little choked up. They ended up in three groups—186 for Obama, 115 for Edwards, 74 for Clinton—and the chair began the math of apportioning delegates.

And then C-SPAN stuck with the meeting as, oh, about 340 of those caucus-goers left, and those remaining proceeded with the other business on the table, debating resolutions for submission to their county platform and such. Hours later, at the moment that CNN and MSNBC and Fox News were broadcasting John Edwards’ speech, C-SPAN loyalists were gorging on a heated debate about bicycle trails.