Stephen Elliott pretended to be with the press during the recent primary season so he could follow the Democrats across the country -- seemingly all of them at once, if his alternately amusing and dispiriting campaign diary is to be believed. But pretending was good enough for 2004, since most of the men he shadowed were pretending to be contenders -- at least in Elliott's eyes.
The 30-year-old sometime journalist (The Village Voice, The Believer) breaks bread and other vegan items with Dennis Kucinich, then learns the starry-eyed candidate has been trading Iowa delegates with John Edwards. He points out the holes in Howard Dean's campaign and then the holes in his socks, until the book seems like The Un-Making of the Non-Presidents. Elliott learns to love the electoral process like the characters of Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove learned to love the atomic bomb -- to death.
Loving the press corps is also a chore for Elliott, even though he goes to great lengths to join it. The reporters assigned to each candidate are either too exhausted to do anything more than print excerpts from the latest speech and go to bed or too free with meaningless predictions. Elliott, something of a gambler, suggests reporters be forced to bet good money on the political contests or shut up.
Throughout the diary he is not at all nonpartisan. Elliott wants some Democrat to win, calling the president "an idiot and a stone-cold liar" before concluding "but I wasn't sure that anybody cared." Still, even the staunchest Dem may grow queasy after reading Elliott's account. Never visit the kitchen -- especially in your favorite restaurant.
A novelist, Elliott doesn't stick to nonfiction formula here. He imagines an alternative ending for the primaries: Howard Dean triumphs, culminating in a rally at Lambeau Field -- home of the Green Bay Packers -- featuring Dean's campaign manager "shirtless and painted green with a yellow GB painted across his stomach," plus reporters in cheeseheads (real cheese!).
During Pennsylvania's meaningless primary, Elliott stops in Chiodo's tavern, in Homestead, where he hopes for a take on the swing voter from owner Joseph Chiodo; instead he gets a discourse on the steel mills.
In the end -- and there is an end, even to primary season -- Elliott learns the lessons we all learned long ago: that principles bear no relation to ultimate actions, and that winning and having principles may be mutually exclusive.
"Presidential politics is the beauty of the grotesque and the passion of apathy," Elliott concludes early on. "What could be worse in a man than the desire to be president?"