Stephen Elliott at the 2004
Democratic National Convention
Stephen Elliott is the author of the new book Looking Forward to It, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the American Electoral Process, an account of his year on the campaign trail. He is also the author of four novels, and the editor of the anthology Politically Inspired. He has written for GQ, Newsweek, the San Francisco Chronicle, and The Believer, among others.
Zachary Roth: As a novelist, what do you bring to covering the campaign?
Stephen Elliott: Well, I’m not tied down by a lot of these journalistic conventions. One thing you see in a lot of the media — you see it in the New York Times, and you see it much more so in USA Today — the idea that if you quote somebody telling the truth, you now have to give equal time to somebody who’s lying. And I don’t have to do that. So if I’m getting a quote from a spokesperson, which is really just another word for paid liar, I’m gonna point that out: This person lies all the time, they get paid to lie, and here’s another example of them lying. Or, why should I trust this person? And they never do that in the regular media. They do it on Fox News, they connect the dots for you, but then they claim that they’re non-partisan, so it’s worse, but it’s in a totally different way.
ZR: That convention of even-handedness is something we write about all the time. Why do you think they have to keep to that?
SE: I don’t think they do have to keep to it.
ZR: So why do you think they do it?
SE: I think it’s just tradition. The problem is, it makes sense when you have differences of opinion, and you have an equal number of people feeling both ways. But it hinders you if one side is lying. If one side is lying — especially if they’re telling a big lie — then it really moves the whole thing over. The idea of journalists quoting people that they know are lying — that’s really problematic. I read the New York Times when the [Swift Boat Veterans for Truth] thing first came out. And in the one article, they had the Vietnam Veterans making these accusations, and they had the counter-accusations and it was just treated as equal. And … in the same newspaper, they had a full article on how the Vietnam Veterans’ positions were just riddled with lies. So why were they quoting them as if they were somebody who deserved to be quoted? …
CNN ran this thing about Jim Rassmann, who was pulled out the river [by John Kerry] — well, now it’s “allegedly pulled out of the river.” Why? Because this one group that had like three members was saying that it wasn’t true, despite all the military records. And that is really, ultimately, just lazy journalism.
ZR: It seems like the campaigns, and especially the Bush campaign, has sort of figured out that that’s how the news media operates.
SE: Well Hitler figured it out back in the ‘30’s: The big lie goes further. I know people don’t like to compare Bush to Hitler … but in terms of media savvy, he’s very similar.
ZR: I was going to ask you how good a job you think the regular media has done covering the campaign, but it sounds like we’ve covered that.
SE: You know, I’m not as negative as all that. Those are problems in the media. I think that, in truth, the New York Times overall does a pretty good job. And it ultimately is an imperfect medium. It’ll never be perfect, and I think that the Washington Post and the New York Times do strive for something resembling objectivity.
And so … to expect that sort of perfection from the media is not really fair. You gotta be realistic … Everybody hates the media. Both sides hate the media. I’m not counting Fox News in any of this. That’s a whole other beast.
ZR: Are there any particular reporters, from being on the trail, that you especially admired, or that you didn’t?
SE: There were some people that were nicer than others. When I was on the trail, at first nobody wanted to talk to me, because I was a novelist, and they were all like “who is this guy?” And they don’t really care about novelists, you know, it’s not in their vertical. So they were very cold. And some people were really nice to me right away. One was Jim Rainey from the Los Angeles Times, who generally on any bus is the most popular guy, because he’s just this nice solid guy … You can’t be competitive with this guy, cause he’s just … totally cool.
Also, the magazine reporters were really good. And Philip Gourevitch, who was very curious and wanted to talk to everybody and was always hanging out with the foreign press. Here’s this guy who’s like the super-guy. He’s Philip Gourevitch, right? But he was so curious and he wanted to think outside the box. He was great. Nedra Pickler was always very mothering and sweet. …
And then Arianna Huffington. I just developed a huge crush on her. She’d put her arm around me, was introducing me to everybody as this novelist, and you have to talk to him. And you know she wears these nice clothes and she smells so good and I was just completely smitten with her. I was just like “Take me home and take care of me. I can’t handle this.”
ZR: Tell me about Operation Ohio [a project organized by Elliott and other novelists to encourage students in swing states to vote]. How do you think it’s gone?
SE: Well, I think it depends on what your expectations are. When we were out there we registered a couple hundred people. We did free readings. And we’ve been collecting a list of students that wanted to receive phone calls on Election Day from an author. They’re requesting a reminder phone call, students who live in swing states. And right now there are about a thousand, and they’re all students, because the request has to come from a university account.
It’s really just been pretty great, because if you think of the students only having 30 percent voter turnout, and now that they’ve requested a reminder call, research indicates that’s likely to get it up to about 70 percent. So we’re probably responsible for about 500 votes right now. So I think it’s great.
ZR: Do they get to pick which author gives them the reminder call?
SE: They don’t, but they ask anyway.
ZR: Who do they want?
ZR: Well a lot of them want [Dave] Eggers. A lot of them are coming through the McSweeney’s website, where they have a big posting up for it. So a lot of them are huge Dave Eggers fans.
ZR: Is it a real call or a recorded call?
SE: No no. It’s a real call. So each author is making 50 phone calls.
ZR: Could I get Philip Roth or someone to call me? … Oh — but I live in New York.
SE: Yeah, so no you couldn’t, because you have to live in a swing state. But basically if they request somebody, we’ll probably be able to honor their request, as long as they don’t request Dave Eggers. And if they request two or three different people, and they say one of these people, then we’ll probably be able to accommodate them.
ZR: In your book you mentioned you’re attracted to Republican women. I am too, frequently.
SE: Yeah, because I’m attracted to cold, evil women. There’s something about that, I don’t know why, but I’ve always liked women that were mean. When you look at Ann Coulter, she’s posing as a dominatrix in some leather vest on the cover of her book, and then she’s saying “I’m gonna take liberals to school and put them in the corner.” She’s trading on this fetish S&M language. It’s very hot.
ZR: I can’t say she really does it for me, but I know what you mean. Who else?
SE: Oh, I was more talking about people that I met on the road.
ZR: I find they’re often done up very nicely, with makeup and stuff.
SE: Yeah, and they wear tight executive outfits that don’t reveal anything, but they suggest so much.
ZR: Well, perhaps we should end it there.
Stephen Elliott will be appearing at the McSweeney’s Superhero Supply Store in Park Slope, Brooklyn, on October 21.Zachary Roth is a contributing editor to The Washington Monthly. He also has written for The Los Angeles Times, The New Republic, Slate, Salon, The Daily Beast, and Talking Points Memo, among other outlets.