Reigns in New Hampshire
by Matt Taibbi
"And so the reader may judge for himself what the major’s
position was when he saw, instead of a nice-looking,
well-proportioned nose, an extremely absurd flat space."
Gogol, The Nose
Gogol’s great nightmare stories would never sell in today’s
America. To appreciate a story like The Nose—about a petty
philistine-bureaucrat who wakes up one morning to find his nose
missing, forcing him to go chasing it around St. Petersburg—the
audience probably has to have at least a theoretical fear of
don’t have that here in America. Having no penis is part of what
being an American is all about. The population readily accepts this
as a fact of its own experience, and in fact even expects it of its
leaders. Just look at New Hampshire.
is probably no more reliable predictor of electoral success in this
country than the absence in the press of "prodding edge"
imagery surrounding the candidate. Show me any candidate who is
routinely described in the New York Times as being
"pointed," "bristly," "thistly,"
"blunt," "blistering" or "sharp," and
I’ll show you a loser. "Testy" (derived from an old
French word meaning "head") and "upstart" are
also evolutionary relatives of these terms.
there’s "prickly." "Prickly" is the kiss of
death for any major politician in this country. Jerry Brown, in his
presidential run, was prickly. Viagara spokesman Bob Dole,
ironically enough, was prickly. Then, of course, there’s the great
Kaiser Prickhelm, Howard Dean, who in recent weeks was blasted into
space dust because of his unapologetic prickliness.
is fatal. I have yet to find a politician who survived it. John
McCain, probably the highest-ranking "prickly" person in
the American political establishment, is still a senator, but his
prospects for the White House grow smaller all the time.
battle with "prickly" was so drawn-out and painful that it
ultimately took on the character of a Stalinist show trial, in which
he was dragged out before the national jury and forced to publicly
confess his prickliness. This sordid drama reached its climax in a
Jan. 3 New York Times piece by Rick Lyman entitled, "As
the Race Turns Hot, What About Dean’s Collar?"
piece was bursting with dangerous-penis imagery. Such words as
"bulging" and "jabbing" appeared alongside
thinly veiled double-entendres as, "The salient aspects of the
Dean temper mentioned by those who have witnessed it are that it
flashes quickly and then disappears" and "It always blew
over pretty fast."
piece built to a dramatic flourish:
one point, Dr. Dean used ‘prickly’ to describe his temperament
for a reporter, then seemed to regret the choice when the word was
repeated to him.
can be prickly with the press corps,’ he said. ‘I’m not
usually prickly with other people at all.’"
is amazing about this passage is that Lyman here is implying that
"prickly" is a word Dean chose all by himself. What Lyman
failed to mention is that Lyman himself had described Dean as
"prickly" in no less a place than a front page headline
of the Sunday New York Times less than two weeks before, in
the Dec. 28 article, "From Patrician Roots, Dean Set Path of
any case, Lyman got his confession, which allowed him to slip in yet
another hilarious double-entendre, one incidentally used quite
frequently on these campaigns. He quoted a Gephardt press release as
saying that Dean’s gaffes had "underscored the fact that he
is not equipped to challenge George Bush."
readers should be aware that mainstream political journalists tend
to write using matched pairs of adjectives. For every
"fiery" politician, one will be "calm"; for
every "shrill," there is a "self-assured"; for
every "glib" a "folksy"; and so on.
"Prickly" and "pointed" are wedded to two very
specific antonyms, and it is these two that are surging to success
in the Democratic race: smooth and nuanced. In any
important race, the candidate with the pointy edges will be
juxtaposed against the more desirable offering, whose personality is
described as having pleasing flatness; instead of thorns, he has
mere depressions in an otherwise glassy exterior. Nuances.
Kerry and John Edwards have been battling for the "nuance"
tag throughout this campaign, and it appears Kerry has the high
ground now. (Kerry had a hell of a time getting there, though; for
months last fall, he suffered through articles that asked questions
like "Nuanced—or Squishy?"). Take this passage from the
AP’s Calvin Woodward, about the Iowa results:
in the first votes that matter in the 2004 presidential election,
Iowans opted for the experience, steady demeanor and nuanced
positions of Kerry, 60, and staggered Dean’s upstart
days before the New Hampshire primary, the Times also chimed
in: "Mr. Kerry has often struck more nuanced, politically
failure to understand the strength of "nuance" has cost
him this campaign. Early on in the race, in fact, while sitting atop
a nearly 20-point lead in New Hampshire, he had the nerve to dismiss
Kerry as being "too nuanced." That was back when he
probably still thought that the candidates and their supporters
actually decided their own fate in America. He failed to understand
the aerodynamics of politics in our current media climate. The
candidate must have nothing on his person that creates drag, or he
will not fly.
candidate, in short, has to be prickless. This has nothing to do
with whether or not he has an actual, functioning biological penis.
Nothing about Howard Dean suggests that he’s packing a whale under
there. It’s more about a compact the candidate must enter into
with the political and media establishments. He must show that he
can keep it in his pants. He must show that he understands that in
the public sphere, there is only one big, swinging dick out
there—the media itself. If he refuses to accept this, he
inevitably suffers the same fate Howard Dean did: They will cut his
balls off, stuff them in his mouth and send him staggering down Main
Street for the amusement of the public.
is an important concept to understand when one tries to address the
nature of censorship in this country. Only in very rare cases is
something actually prevented from appearing on tv or in the
newspapers. The more important censorship is indirect and centered
almost entirely around subtle differences in tone. You can get all
kinds of things on television, but on balance, pretty much all
content has to be rounded enough at the edges, unthreatening enough
to the corporations ruling the airwaves, to serve competently in its
only important role: a medium to sell advertising. Since the only
real action that takes place on television is the sales pitch, it
stands to reason that no other action of competing realness will
ever be allowed on air.
what this election is all about. The political establishment does
not want any sexual competitors out there. The major party
candidates exist as vehicles for furthering the status quo—just as
programming exists to sell ads. I’m not sure what Dean’s crime
was, since politically he was not all that different from the other
candidates. It might have been that he opposed the war. It might
have been that he subverted the party structure through his
treasonous attempts to raise a war chest by appealing directly to
the electorate. Whatever the specific offense was, the general
offense was clear: He unzipped his little Vermont fly and wouldn’t
zip it back up again.
he’s toast and we will have Senator Flat Space as a candidate.
Stands for nothing, says nothing, does what he’s told. In other
words, he’s "equipped" to challenge George Bush.