Rock the vote. Or, how I learned to stop worrying and love Stephen Elliott

By Sean Carman, reporting for MaudNewton.com

Stephen Elliott is a really good dancer; I learn why this is the most important election in 50 years; Looking Forward to It is the most fun, idealistic, and inspiring book of the election season.

Just before 11 p.m. on a Friday night, at a party in a warehouse loft in South Seattle, I see Stephen Elliott do absolutely the coolest thing ever. Earlier, at the University of Washington Book Store, Elliott read from Looking Forward to It, his memoir of a year spent on the Presidential campaign trail. Now, a few hours later, Elliott is graciously hosting the Dutch foreign correspondent he brought from the reading to the party, and me and the other fan who have, inevitably, tagged along.

And we’re there talking, and Elliott is telling us, in his innocent and enthusiastic voice, that the genius of Bush is that he figured out that no one cares. “When Lyndon Johnson lost Walter Cronkite, that was it,” Elliott says. “Johnson gave up. Bush, though, figured out that if you lie about the war, and call Walter Cronkite names — say he’s the liberal media and that he’s biased — no one will care.”

And it occurs to me then why this is the most important election in 50 years. Everyone’s been saying it, and I’ve believed it, although until this moment I’ve never known why I believed it. But now, suddenly, I understand. Stephen Elliott has explained it to me.

It is because the Bush administration has chosen, as a policy — as a practiced mode of governance — to lie to the American people. And not just about a few things, or the worst things, but about everything. From the reasons for going to war in Iraq, to the reach of and responsibility for prisoner torture at Abu Ghraib, to the economy and Kerry’s Senate record. Bush lies and retaliates against those who stand up for the truth. What this election is about, when you get down to it, is whether such an insidious and audacious political strategy can succeed.

It is at this moment — when the weight of the election is coming down on me — that Stephen Elliott does the coolest thing ever. He motions behind him and says, “So the music is louder this way? Wanna go listen some?” And as we walk into the cavernous next room — splashes of light floating across the walls, the DJ spinning something techno with a solid beat — Stephen Elliot starts dancing. And not just dancing, but dancing really well.

After a few moves Elliott drops his arms onto the shoulders of the Dutch foreign correspondent, who has basically frozen in place, although there is a silly grin working its way up to her eyes. Elliott raises his arms, moves back, and closes his eyes. There is something inspiring — and joyful, really — in watching him so quickly and so gracefully change gears.

Stephen Elliott is a smart guy who knows how to have fun. Maybe, I think, just maybe, he really can save the American electoral process.

Looking Forward to It is Elliott’s journal of his idealistic and adventurous coverage of the 2004 Presidential campaign. He follows the democratic candidates and the press from the fozen fields of Iowa to the convention in Boston, with a short detour along the way to observe President Bush. Elliott wants to learn more about the candidates and the process and, as a former Nader campaigner who has vowed not to make the same mistake twice, he wants to learn more about himself.

One of the charming qualities of the story is that Elliott isn’t actually covering the campaign for anyone. He doesn’t have a regular assignment, so he has to scrounge credentials and talk his way into every event. He’s living out every armchair freelance journalist’s fantasy. If you quit your job, packed your bags, and tried to break into national political reporting, this is what it might be like.

Elliott reports his adventures in a gleeful “guess what happened next?” voice. One winter morning, while house-sitting in Iowa, he ingeniously makes coffee from whole beans without the aid of a coffee grinder. He lets a string of national political reporters take him under their wing. The sentence that makes passing reference to several members of the press visiting a strip club on the outskirts of Youngstown has a good-natured footnote that begins, “This is mostly unconfirmed.”

There’s natural drama in the story of an outsider trying to find his way into a glamorous world, and it’s pure entertainment to watch Elliott tag along on the monstrous, bucking ride that is a national political campaign. I sped through Looking Forward to It and was sorry to have to put it down.

After finishing his book, Elliott launched Operation Ohio, a grass-roots program in which authors will call college students on election day to remind them to vote. It’s a natural next project, because Looking Forward to It is, after all, trying to do the same thing — get young people jazzed about politics, show them how much fun it can be, and fire up their idealism and make them want to join in what Elliott calls “the only game for adults.”

In Seattle Elliot read with former McSweeney’s icon Neal Pollack. McSweeney’s also published Elliott’s novel Happy Baby, thereby introducing Elliott to a wider audience of young-ish literature enthusiasts. Dave Eggers, one of Op Ohio’s writer-participants, talks up the project at the readings he does.

Slowly, in his own way, Elliott is building a young-people’s army of political operatives. What if today’s student receiving a phone call from a writer is, in ten years, rescuing and re-directing the Democratic party? What if McSweeney’s is more than just a literary quarterly with a sense of humor? What if the network of McSweeney’s writers and readers Elliott has enlisted in his cause is actually, yes, wait for it, a movement? What if we all did our part?

A little enthusiasm goes a long way, and reading Elliott’s Quixotic adventures on the campaign trail will make you start to think that maybe, after all, anything is possible, and that maybe, with ink enough and time, even a writer could save the world.


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