When your mission is to get every presidential candidate on the record regarding the prosecution of Julian Assange, every attempt to make contact with the candidate is reduced, in effect, to a shot in the dark. Some candidates are willing to walk among commoners and answer questions, but you will always find at least one or two who are not and who never will be. Most of the time, you can anticipate if the attempt is worth your while: there is absolutely no chance at all that Joe Biden will dismantle the cordoning rope, abandon the Secret Service, and really mingle with the grubby peons in Atkinson, New Hampshire. I knew this before I went to see him, so I couldn’t be disappointed, but I was very much let down when Kamala Harris snuck out of her house party in Gilford. Maybe I’ll have a better chance the next time she travels east, now that her polling numbers are crumbling before her.
Yes, the feebler the candidate’s polling viability, the greater the opportunity for journalistic access. Such appears to be the rule of thumb, at least: when I met Andrew Yang two months ago, he was standing in the middle of a bookstore, as if it were the nineteenth century and politicians still had to stump in the public square. How surreal! Accordingly, I had no trouble at all asking him for his thoughts on Assange, and recording his take was my first real success. Ah, but that was two months ago, when he was still a minor figure: now he is preparing for the third and fourth debates, and it may be tougher to pose for a selfie. Maybe I should check out his schedule, swing by a rally, and just kind-of dare to compare, you know?
Then again, maybe that’s a really dumb idea. Currie Dobson, one of Assange’s strongest supporters and a man with a prolific Twitter following, has re-broadcast my video with Yang, and now, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of people on social media declaring, “Cancel Yang!” If this fire continues to build, then we might have to call in Seth Abramson to reassure us that all of Yang’s critics are only Russian ‘bots. Come to think of it, you could tie such a claim into Yang’s approach to automation, couldn’t you? “We will prevent Putin from monopolizing robotic propaganda! We will ensure that all robotic propagandists are American-made!”
Admire the yo-yo of the politics of personality: Yang rises from the basement to the living room, Harris falls from the ceiling to the den, and somehow, Tom Steyer is terrifyingly close to landing on the national stage. In the midst of this fusillade, Cory Booker’s numbers are remarkably stable: nationally, he hovers around eight percent, but in New Hampshire, he is threatening to close at less than one percent. The numbers don’t surprise me: I don’t know a single Granite Stater who plans to vote for Booker, any more than I know anyone who cheers for Steyer. I’ve never seen a billboard for Booker, I’ve never seen his sign on anybody’s lawn, and I don’t even know what his bumper sticker looks like. He is having the hardest time generating any kind of traction here, which might be why he seldom visits: he’s probably planning to punt our primary and to focus on another early state, but where? He’s polling at two percent in Iowa and Florida, and his most optimistic tracking is in South Carolina, where he stands at four percent. There’s always a chance, but I suspect he’ll be out of the race and begging for the vice-presidential position by March.
With his prospects in New Hampshire diminishing daily, my hopes of asking him about Assange diminish, too. He was scheduled to make four speeches on August 17th, so I decided to crash one of his parties and find out what I could. Insofar as journalistic access was concerned, I didn’t really know what to expect: his pathetic polling numbers notwithstanding, his conspicuous profile would likely complicate any impromptu interviewing. Still, I remained hopeful, if only because I saw a video of him speaking with a Palestinian activist during his last trip to New Hampshire. He dodged her question, but only after giving her the opportunity, so I thought maybe I could get him on the record.
His first visit was to the Red Arrow Diner in Manchester, but I knew better than to give that a try. The Red Arrow is cozy, which is a lovely euphemism for claustrophobic: look up the latter word in the dictionary and there’s a picture of me sandwiched between two obese men, fighting for the slightest elbow room to cut my pancakes. Obviously, he wouldn’t be squeezing into the booth to discuss the 1st Amendment, and in that case, you couldn’t even blame him. I crossed that event off the list in favor of the Hampton Democrats Picnic, tickled as I was with the thought of Cory Booker strutting the sands in a three-piece suit. Since the picnic began at two in the afternoon, I had time to crash the Londonderry Old Home Day Parade, where I knew I’d get Bill de Blasio on the record.
Parades present a perfect opportunity to force politicians to answer questions because there is no place to hide. Typically, if they don’t want to talk to you, then they’ll make up some story about how they would love to answer your question, they just adore answering mysterious questions, but unfortunately, but tragically, but ineluctably, they just have to boogie on out of here immediately, as soon as the clock strikes zero because they have to catch a plane or a train or a donkey ride to another event in another town, even though they are always at least twenty minutes late to everyevent, and . .. okay, settle down. The point is, when they’re walking in a parade for a mile or more, they can’t realistically avoid the question forever, so eventually, they face reality—a foreign entity to a politician—and just answer the bloody question.
Fortunately, or perhaps not, I didn’t have to chase Bill de Blasio from sidewalk to sidewalk. I saw him chatting with supporters maybe twenty minutes before the parade began [Oh, so I guess they’re not always late, are they? –Ed.]. The first thing I noticed was that he was standing way out in the open, that he wasn’t flanked by any security. I hadn’t expected a fleet of well-dressed, surly-faced men in sunglasses, not for a candidate who is polling at less than one percent nationally, but at the same time, it was a bit surreal to see the mayor of New York City standing without attendants, just walking around as if he were anybody else. He was quite willing to speak with me, so I asked him about Assange, and you can listen to his predictable answer below:
Some people ask me why I do this, why I take the time of day, not to mention the expense, to find these politicians and ask them to make a statement on Assange, even though I already know what they’re going to say long before I know where they’ll even be. I do what I do, time and time again, because there are still far too many people who do not know what those politicians will say about Assange, nor do they understand the damning significance of their interchangeable answers. And in the absence of that evidence, a deliberate absence accomplished through the malfeasance of the corporate press, it becomes my responsibility, as a capable person, to present that evidence to the needy.
Besides, I see and hear all sorts of interesting things on these misadventures. For example, after I thanked de Blasio for parroting the Pentagon’s talking points on Assange, I wandered over to the other side of the parking lot and found John Delaney’s official campaign bus! I was astonished to see him continue to drain money through a vanity project such as this, especially when his dreary campaign is already so moribund, fated for extinction, but I was doubly astonished to see that he has staffers, that there are actually real people (not Russian ‘bots) who agreed to slog through this parade on his behalf. There was even a dog wearing a Delaney campaign t-shirt, and though I was tempted to inquire whether this constituted cruelty to animals, I was presently distracted by some familiar faces: the men and women of Tulsi Gabbard’s campaign, who probably thought that I had come to the parade for Gabbard, and not for de Blasio. I hadn’t expected to take a mile-long walk, but with three hours remaining until the Hampton picnic, I figured I could use the exercise.
After taking the long journey to Mack’s Apples and nearly getting crushed by a clown on a tricycle, I packed up and commenced a forty-five-minute drive to the seacoast, where Cory Booker awaited. Oddly, Booker could not have been further from my mind as the freeway unraveled before me; no, I spent most of the drive thinking about Bill de Blasio, whose presidential campaign appears to be on its last legs. I’ve never understood why de Blasio’s campaign has been a non-started: you would think that any person powerful enough to become the mayor of a global epicenter like New York City would have the muscle, if not the charisma, to compel the corporate media to pay attention to him. Au contraire, most Democratic voters probably don’t even know he’s running, and I suspect their disinterest has little to do with his apathetic view of Julian Assange.
De Blasio has tried to distinguish himself from his contemporaries by explaining that, far from an idealistic liberal philosopher, he has served as a progressive executive. He backed up his ideas with political muscle, soaring on the crests of both of his decisive electoral victories. Once in office, he mandated the use of body cameras in the NYPD, and supposedly, he forbade the local government to surveil Muslim Americans—and he officially implemented universal preschool education. Not a bad haul, all things considered: this record allows de Blasio to present himself as the thoroughly modern Democrat, as the manifestation of progressive policy in action, as the herald of our lovely left-wing future. Why, then, does his campaign seem so anachronistic? Why does it feel like a film out of the 1990s? “The Mayor of New York City is now running . . . for President of the United States.”
Earlier, I suggested that a man in de Blasio’s position ought to have the media wrapped around his finger. Could it be that his preternatural power, or at least the sinister implications of such, are also his hamartia? Is it possible that the American people possess just enough common sense to look at him and say, “To become the mayor of the Big Apple, you must have some very powerful friends, and you must have more strings than Pinocchio himself. Clearly, you engaged in some very filthy business to get where you are, and I’m not voting for a man with such a collection of skeletons in his closet.” Ah, to hear such perspicacity from the mouth of an American would be an inspiration, but when a feeble-minded war criminal like Joe Biden is still standing tall as the alpha male in the Democratic field, we likely have no license to be optimistic.
This may have been my last thought before I arrived at the Hampton Democrats Picnic. Turns out, it wasn’t being held on a beach: it was in someone’s backyard, where a full buffet table had been set up with hamburgers, hot dogs, salads, watermelon, iced tea, lemonade, and so many incredibly rich desserts, it wasn’t even funny. The only thing that was missing was booze, but as I feasted, it dawned on me that perhaps I shouldn’t be getting wrecked at a stranger’s home.
Eh, that was different. All I was doing was sitting in the backyard. Here, I was standing, walking around, eating, chatting it up with the volunteers, etc. Speaking of which, there were staffers from a number of different candidates’ camps, several of whom I had seen at other political gatherings in the state, including the many Fourth of July parades in which I walked. I asked one of Kirsten Gillibrand’s boosters if the senator from New York was a member of the WikiLeaks fan club; she said she would check in on that for me, but I didn’t see her again before I left the party. Needless to say, I would have asked Gillibrand herself, but only Cory Booker was attending this shindig. I heard that Amy Klobuchar had been there earlier in the day, but rumors abound on the campaign trail.
Booker rolled in shortly after 2:00 PM, pulling up in an RV that is known, both affectionately and senselessly, as the “Co-RV”. I had seen that enormous vehicle before, at the Fourth of July parade in Amherst, but Booker wasn’t present on that occasion, and I had assumed that the RV was a kind of prop, an eyesore intended exclusively for parades or similar events. Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought that Booker would actually use that behemoth to travel when he explores the Granite State. He can’t possibly be so shameless as to bring that thing on the interstate, can he? I don’t expect liberals to prove their environmentalism by riding bicycles from Boston to Brooklyn, but I swear to God: that “Co-RV” is a monstrosity, and if the corporate media ever runs a story on it, then I expect Booker to quit the race out of existential embarrassment.
Oh, but it gets far worse, my friends . . .
I will not pretend to be Cory Booker’s biographer, whether authorized or otherwise. I haven’t paid as much attention to the man as I should, but then again, I’ve been taking shortcuts because I know I’m not missing out on much. Booker actually identifies as a neoliberal, almost as if he’s begging every enlightened voter to turn away as rapidly as possible. He made a fool of himself on the first day of the Kavanaugh hearings, pleading feebly for a delay that he knew would never come. Then I read reports that he supports Vice-President Pence’s coup in Venezuela—reports that were never confirmed, I should say, but for a neoliberal to oppose international terrorism via regime-change would be quite the exception to the rule. In the debates, I’ve heard him say nothing of substance, just banal pseudo-criticism of standard corporate practice, but you don’t need a lie-detector test to know that President Cory Booker would do nothing to strip the robber barons of their clout.
Nevertheless, I welcomed the opportunity to hear Booker speak for more than seventy seconds. I was warned that he drowns in purple prose, that he loses himself in melodramatic excess, and I’m here to confirm those rumors: Booker exudes the most repugnant of cheese. Have you ever seen a grown man clutch his chest as he declares, “Hope is the active conviction that despair will not have the last word!” It’s clear that he relies on sentimentality to beguile his listeners, to convince them of his emotional sincerity, but the demonstration is too pathetic to be taken seriously. As I listened to him, I couldn’t help thinking, “This is a man who should have gone into theater. He would have won a Daytime Emmy every year, and he could have been a respectable Broadway actor, too. He isn’t good enough for Hollywood, but he certainly could have made a career for himself!” Sadly, he elected to squander his skills in politics, which affords him only one emotional range.
He knows this range, though. He squints in faux amazement when he spins an obviously fabricated story about a landlord he once had, a landlord who told him, in his imagined alternate history, that “the world you see outside you is a reflection of the world inside you. If all you see is love and hope and the face of God, then you will never face the truth of existence.” He seeks to compensate for the undeniable artificiality of that yarn with self-deprecating humor, but his effect is to polarize his audience: if his goal is to persuade us that America is, in fact, suffering from “an impotence of empathy”, then you have to accept at least some of his Dickensian moralizing at face value, do you not? The overarching message cannot be satirical, can it? Amazingly, Booker actually expects us to buy into his bathos, to believe him when he states, “We’re here because of our ancestors’ faith in our civic gospel.”
His cloying saccharinity comprises but one half of his public strategy. The other half involves an incredibly awkward effort to present himself as an uncommonly educated man, as the only political philosopher in the room. He repeatedly refers to himself as a Rhodes scholar, although he usually doesn’t tell his audience what he studied; the substance of his education is secondary (at best) to the prestigious connotations of the schools that he attended. It is precisely this kind of institutional branding that is supposedly anathema to liberal voters, to those who express their wish to dismantle the fetters of historically repressive institutions, but in Booker’s case, an exception can be made. In his case, we should express nothing but amazement that he attended an elitist school, and since he identifies as a (neo)liberal, besides, we can trust his credentials without further question.
Ah, but questions we have, and these questions become increasingly obstructive, the more that we listen to Booker babble on. If you ever want to lose your faith in a politician, then listen to him speak in one location, then drive to his next appointment in a nearby city and listen to him deliver exactly the same speech. Booker’s crocodile tears are nearly convincing the first time he tells you the story of the time a child died in his arms, but when you hear him tell the same exact story, and nearly break down at exactly the same moment less than an hour later, well . . . at that point, you cannot help but see him for what he really is: an irredeemably amoral propagandist exploiting someone else’s death on the off-chance that he will gain a couple of new votes in the middle of a state that he knows he cannot win, in an election that he must know he cannot win.
I would mount a specific criticism of Booker’s policies, but how much intellectual respect does he really deserve when his speech is much closer to theater than to political philosophy? Every time he tells the story of the time he encountered the dying child, he makes sure to mention, in the same exact wording, how he took a scalding shower after the fact, “hoping the pain on the outside could numb the pain in my heart.” His pregnant pauses, indistinct from one speech to the next, reveal his cavalier insincerity, proving to all who are paying attention that he is only an actor, one whose only dramatic inability to convince us that he does not disrespect us. If you needed any proof that his emotional incontinence is entirely inauthentic, then consider his explanation as to why we live without empathy, why we cannot match his external empathy: “We hate each other. I’ve read the intelligence reports from the Russians, and that’s exactly what they want!”
Eventually, he reached the end of his ridiculous speech, and then, he commenced to taking selfies with his fans. This is Booker’s thing, you see: he likes to take selfies, to bear a big, goofy grin with his many supporters. For some reason, he insists on taking your phone out of your hand and taking the selfie himself, although I suppose it might be better than Elizabeth Warren’s insistence that her staff takes the picture for you and returns your phone only after you moved away from her. I stood in line for Booker, waiting for my opportunity to ask him what he thought about Assange. When my turn finally came, I decided to be polite and to ask him if I could present to him one question, to which replied: “Could we do that when I’m on my way out? I’m just taking selfies right now.” I said that would be fine, and I waited for him at the mouth of the driveway.
Twenty minutes later, after he had moved past the thirty people who had stood behind me, he made his way back to the “Co-RV”. I waved to him and said, “Senator Booker! A question, please?” He grimaced and whispered something to one of his staffers, a young woman who immediately rushed over to me and offered the phoniest grin I have seen in a while. “Hi! Can I help you?” she asked. I explained that the senator had told me he would answer my question after he had taken selfies, to which she replied: “Yeah, I’m sorry about that, but we have to head over to Salem now, and he doesn’t have time to answer your question.” I explained that I had given up my position in line to dozens of people, but all she could say was, “I’m so sorry.” As she delivered her faux apology, the candidate spoke to a reporter with WMUR, all while a young man who appeared to be part of his security detail glared at me, expressing his disgust for reasons unknown.
I decided to follow the “Co-RV” to Salem, where Cory Booker made the same speech he had made an hour before, pausing at the same moments, making the same jokes, tearing up at precisely the same cues, and finally, at the very end, mingling among the crowd to take selfies. When he saw me, he said . . . well, I’ll let you hear the man for yourself.
Of course he had no time to answer my question, a question that he had already agreed to answer in Hampton. He was too busy taking selfies, you see. Selfies are quite agreeable to a presidential candidate because they are thoughtless, brainless, effortless, and easy. They do not express the coherent articulation of an idea; they express only the immediate, superficial, emotional approval that is of such unlimited benefit to a dishonest politician such as Booker. He would rather take ten thousand selfies than answer one of my questions, and he would rather expose himself for an article such as this than demonstrate the requisite courage to face he himself, to tell me that he had lied to me himself; it’s far simpler for him to send out one of his staffers to handle the dirty business, because Booker is too cowardly to handle it himself.
On my way out, I expressed my displeasure to another one of his staffers. She promised to follow up with me “within a day or two”, but here we are, three days later, and she knows as well as I do that I’ll never hear from her, from the senator, or from anybody else involved in his campaign. They do, however, have my face on file: one of his staffers snagged a picture of me when she thought I wasn’t looking. I have no idea why she thought that was necessary . . . maybe Booker is afraid of people who want to ask him questions? If so, then he must have some very scary answers.
Sorry to let you down, everybody, but I could not get Cory Booker on the record regarding Julian Assange. You’ll have to wait until he returns to New Hampshire. Looking forward to it, Cory!