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Riding in cars with candidates
By Jackson Murphy
Long before the real action of the Presidential election there lies an incredible part of the democratic process. This is a time before the race really starts cooking, before normal people even think about tuning in, and where those ambitious enough to run for president pander to crowds at pancake breakfasts and make speeches in living rooms to crowds of thirty or less. It happens all across New Hampshire and Iowa in a time author Walter Shapiro calls the "Invisible Primary".
Shapiro's latest book, One Car Caravan: On the Road with the 2004 Democrats Before America Tunes In is exactly as it is titled. An exploration of the much under-analyzed time period of the presidential campaign before anyone other than a few reporters, editors, insiders, and political junkies take any notice.
The book's premise is a novel one. Writing a definitive book of the early days of the election before anything is decided. It's certainly the hard way to write a history of the 2004 election, but decidedly more interesting with a degree of difficulty not often seen in a this business. Shapiro, a political reporter for USA Today, peppers the book with more than enough politics, but the real power of the book, as in many things, is in the details. With a passionate eye for the actual art of the process Shapiro leaves few stones unturned.
"I love New Hampshire living rooms," writes Shapiro. "No setting bettor conveys the wondrous intimacy of the Invisible Primary. It seems outlandish that in the twenty-first century a candidate theoretically can go in little more than two years from standing in front of a fireplace addressing seventy-five voters to governing a nation of 280 million."
How the process takes someone, who most people could scarcely conceive of as ‘president', make them press hands at every little stop in the crucial early days only to miraculously plump them into the White House two years later is anyone's guess. At first it may have you wondering if this is any way to select a prospective president at all.
"Yes, in the beginning, there was one candidate, one car and one reporter. But in the end, there will be one Democratic nominee, armies of deadline-driven reporters waiting for a gaffe or a stumble, motorcades that snake across the landscape like freight trains, dozens of anxious Secret Service agents murmuring dark forebodings into their headsets and cheering crowds penned up with rope lines."
Shapiro stresses that these ridiculous moments where future leaders are stuffed into tiny rooms are far more interesting, and certainly more useful than a year of sound bite laden newspaper articles. It is precisely because the people, who see the candidates at this stage, actually get to meet them and shake their hands.
Along the way, Shapiro dispenses nuggets of wisdom on topics from media coverage to the personal lives of the major candidate running for the Democratic nomination. He describes the realties of a modern campaign where "buzz" travels faster than a reporter on the ground can hear about it. At one point he was, "sadly behind the curve" since he was reporting first hand rather than reading the lightening fast political gossip pages from his desk in New York. The implications that being a true arm-chair political writer at a home office thousands of miles away might be just as effective as being ten feet from a candidate are huge.
A run for the presidency still begins by campaigning for small crowds, on rainy days, in places like Portsmouth, New Hampshire two years before the election. A year after that, the crowds grow to sometimes 70 people at a time in a cramped living room.
Shapiro ends not with the ramblings of a television talking head, but a true summation of each of the candidates at the time. At least how he, after following them for over a year, thought of them. Dean is "simultaneously beguiling and exasperating. Kerry is the candidate he'd most like to enjoy a beer with. Lieberman has the, "temperament befitting a man who wants to be entrusted with the codes for nuclear weapons." Gephardt reminds Shapiro what he likes about the "never flashy Midwest." And Edwards is far more "compelling in person than he is in theory."
One Car Caravan confirms what is probably most comforting about democratic politics in America. That a run for the White House takes years, and involves countless stops along the way in people's houses and long trips in cars with a single aid. Even more reassuring is that two years before an election there are people who actually want to hear them speak.
Jackson Murphy is a commentator from Vancouver, Canada. He is a senior writer at Enter Stage Right and the editor of "Dispatches" a website that serves up political commentary 24-7.
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