Books — Sneaking Into the Flying Circus

Sneaking Into the Flying Circus: How the Media Turn Our Presidential Campaigns into Freak Shows, By Alexandra Pelosi, Free Press, 2005, 299 pages.

By Amy Diaz    adiaz@hippopress.com

Ohmygod, running for president is, like, so totally whack.

There are all these, like, stupid reporters and stuff and they ask totally lame questions and they’re all grumpy and all “talk to the hand” when it comes to issues people, you know, really care about and junk. And these poor candidates, some of whom are totally cool and let me ride on their planes, get less respect than junior varsity cheerleaders. But, don’t worry, I can totally give you all the inside dirt ‘cuz my mom’s, like, a totally important Democratic congresswoman and I’m way smart about politics. Also, I like flirtinis and I make funny comments about people’s shoes so this won’t be all boring like some PBS documentary because ew, who wants that. Anyway, I’ll write more soon. Stay sweet! Love, Alexandra!

Actually, I kid poor Alexandra Pelosi. She’s just a girl trying to get by in the very-short-shelf-life world of American politics books. At least 90 percent of the sort of pop-poli-sci books that look at the last election or the most recent candidates are utterly worthless and uninteresting in about six months. (Where as, say, chick lit takes a good year or so to burn itself out.) And if you aren’t going to get anywhere picking on the candidates — who, in a book about 2004, are dead and gone anyway — might as well pick on the media, which is more or less the same from one election to the next. (Well, actually that’s not true, but Pelosi’s version of the media will at least be the same from 2004 to 2008 and that’s all that matters for the point of a book tour and future book and documentary deals.)

So, in 2003 and 2004, Pelosi saddled up and took to the campaign trail again (she’s been there before for her documentary Journeys with George about the 2000 election), this time covering the spectacle as much as the race for a documentary and for the book Sneaking Into the Flying Circus. The result is a long, boring diary of a very teenage-sounding girl who talks as much about her boyfriend and trivialities such as Janet Reno’s shoes as she does about “the issues,” whatever the hell those are (and by talking about “the issues,” Pelosi mostly just whines about how they’re not being covered but seldom troubles herself with what those issues may be).

Pelosi’s thesis, assuming she has one and knows what it is, has something to do with the way that “the Media” is ruining politics by making campaigns less about the real abilities of the candidates and the issues that will actually face the next president. Except that, in her examples of “the Media,” we almost always get 24-hour cable news and the editorial page of the New York Times. This is not “the Media”— this is at best a handful of really loud guys with really big microphones. Every different medium for disseminating the news — daily newspaper, weekly newspapers, alternative newspapers, magazines, broadcast network news, cable news, AM talk radio, NPR, websites, blogs — covers a campaign differently. There are limitations and benefits to every format, there are major variations in the amount of time and money different parts of the media can spend on one story, one issue. Different advertising bases, different viewers and readers and listeners. The Media is only just the cable news guys if the cable news guys are the only things you watch. Get a job, a healthy commute and a house with at least three rooms and your ability to give them mind-warping attention is severely limited.

Pelosi herself is more “the Media” than she is the plucky outsider attempting to expose it. She has access via her mother’s name and her “sources” such as they are tend to be the people who stumble across her path: fellow travelers on the bus, the candidates, her waitresses. She is as insulated as it gets and so narrow in her focus that she begins to deconstruct her own argument (if the candidates are all phonies, why give them more time; if “the Media” are too jaded, too prone to over kill, why ask them to produce more content?).

And then there’s this self-loathing, navel gazing, ultimately-cable-news-appealing-to argument that Pelosi makes about the unstatesmenlike nature of the campaign. Pelosi seems to lament the silliness and humiliation that marks every step of a candidate’s progress toward the presidency. But what, if not debate and scrutiny, does she suggest? The silliness and humiliation of a national campaign frequently mark the one time in a candidate’s life when he is humbled, when he is forced to at least pretend to care about swathes of people he has never seen before, will never see again and who will likely not vote for him. These fawned over, bubble-protected senators and governors and lesser elected creatures do not need a campaign that respects them more. Better a guy should crack under the pressure of too many TV cameras in his face on the campaign trail than under the pressure of Chinese invasion of Taiwan or North Korean strikes on South Korea once in office. The Media does not have a formula for picking out the presidential from the merely congressional but at the very least it weeds out the unhinged and the weenie-like.

How do you prepare a guy for being president? For Sept. 11? For sudden recession? For unexpected consequences of previous administration’s mistakes? Perhaps in the next election Pelosi will find the answer. What do you want to bet it involves martinis and shoes?

 
2005 HippoPress LLC | Manchester, NH