Campaign Crawlers

Running Rebels Run Into CNN

Scenes from the Las Vegas Democratic circus.

By 11.15.07

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LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- "Bulls -- t."

This was the answer editorial staff of the Rebel Yell, University of Nevada, Las Vegas's student paper, shot back at the following self-posed rhetorical question in an angry piece: "This debate is obviously for the greater good of exposing UNLV to the nation, right?"

"Bulls -- t," they insist.

It would no doubt surprise the average viewer of last night's Democratic debate to learn that even a college newspaper editorial writer could actually believe seven Democratic presidential candidates would come to argue politics, risking their entire careers with every pressure-cooked answer, primarily as an excuse to introduce the country to the wonders of University of Nevada, Las Vegas. It's a nice campus, but…

Yet, the Powers That Be at CNN must nevertheless be wondering how, exactly, they became the enemy; or, in the Rebel Yell editorialist's words, how the network had gone from a "once unstoppable force" to "an unstoppable farce," a corporate harbinger of a "disorganized mess of security crackdowns and dog-and-pony show style theatrics."

Didn't these kids get the memo? CNN is cool, Daddy-O. Would a farce show up on campus in a tricked out sleek silver Airstream trailer to hand out free temporary tattoos, allowing students to decorate their bodies with bolder-than-Joe-Biden statements such as Independent Thinker and Express Yourself!? Or play bass heavy techno remixes of Charles Wright's -- yes, we have a motif -- "Express Yourself"? Or a progressive politics-friendly magnetic poetry wall allowing them to ponder both simple (Be Yourself, Pro-Truth, Peace Me, Everybody Hope) and slightly more complex (Want Love Not Republican, I Am a Proud Educated Minority) philosophical ideas?

Of course not! All these kids had to do was read the flashing words on the video screens around the Airstream: Politics=Your Future. Picture of Wolf Blitzer. CNN=Politics. Add it up, slackers. CNN equals your future. So what if hardly any of you can actually get into the debate or the masses of police, Secret Service agents and heavily armed SWAT men kept the candidates safely insulated from you and turned your campus into something resembling a scene from The Kingdom, minus the turbans?

Maybe some free T-shirts would win the crowd over? Two CNN employees climbed atop the Airstream. "Who loves this song?" one of them enthused into the mic, "Express Yourself," endlessly looped, blaring in the background.

"This song sucks!" someone shouted back.

Fine. Onto trivia for T-shirts. Which two presidential candidates are in favor of same-sex marriage?

"Ron Paul!" someone said -- too confidently, it turns out.

"Hillary!" No. "John Edwards!" Nope, you're thinking of his wife. Someone blurts out Kucinich and gets their shirt. No more guesses. "Sorry, guys, it's Mike Gravel," the CNN emcee says.

"Are you for real?" a girl in the crowd groans. "That's an actual candidate?" The ignorance is not necessarily her fault. Mike Gravel was nowhere to be seen, unless that was him in the panda costume out front holding the sign reading, Pandering=Bad Pandas.

"Which candidate is a former senator from North Carolina?"

"Hillary!"

This has got to be frustrating.

"Okay, here's a tough one. Where was George Washington's temple?"

A few moments of silence. A few states are shouted out. "Nope -- next to his eyeball!" The kids offer up some pity giggles and shake their heads. The temporary tattoos remain untouched.

Again: What is wrong with these kids? CNN equals your future. The equation is on the goddamn screen.

STILL, IT WAS NOT ENOUGH. One of the most popular stands at the CNN mini-carnival was a make-your-own-button stand. Scattered on one table were several paper circles. The top halves of these were headlined with slogans-starters like Anti, Pro and I Am, while the bottom halves were blank so each could fill in their own affirmation. Then a CNN employee would clamp the paper into a button making machine to create something wearable. Ironically enough, aside from a couple overtly political buttons -- Anti-Imperialist and Anti-Fascist, for example -- most were silly (Pro-Kissing) or insulting to the host (Anti-CNN). Few related to politics.

As I duly recorded this poetry for posterity, I saw a young woman writing in "World's Best Grandpa under one of the I Am circles. She caught me looking, and smiled sheepishly as her cheeks reddened.

"It's almost Christmas," she said with an exaggerated shrug.

Students were so caught up in their button-making most failed to notice the most interactive of the attractions, a computer which when you answered a few questions about Iraq would spit out a political cartoon representing your political outlook. I pressed the buttons, duly answering queries as to whether I felt the war was winnable or not, when I wanted troops to come home and a couple others.

"You are an Elehawk!"

An Elehawk, for the uninitiated, is a hawk with an elephant head. He wears an Evel Knievel-style helmet as he dive bombs from the heavens with rockets coming out of his nose. Not exactly a flattering portrait, but, then again, not nearly as unflattering as what UNLV students have been writing about CNN, either.

As an experiment, I entered the exact opposite answers. What came back was a cartoon Dovekey, a donkey-headed dove wearing a peace sign necklace and carrying an olive branch in his mouth. Mixed answers introduced me to Donkawk, a donkey-faced hawk brandishing a knife, strapped with bullet packs an army helmet and a crazed look on his face.

A sign warned I was "consenting to CNN's use" of my image "in its programming and the promotion thereof." I didn't want my inner Elehawk to wind up on national television. (I think of the children.)

Clearly, it was time to move on.

THE "V" OF THE YOUNG man's flowing white shirt, nascent chest hair peeking out, stretched below the sandwich board draped over his shoulders. The slogans scribbled on the apparatus matched the seventies chic of his aviator sunglasses. End the War! Redistribute the Wealth! the front read, the word LOVE and some flowers drawn in each corner for good measure. I asked him whether he had chosen a candidate to support.

"In a perfect world?" he asked. "Kucinich. Realistically, Obama."

"Right on," another young man walking by said. He looked at me, held up the corners of his T-shirt, and gave several long, cocky nods of his head as he sauntered by. The shirt had a picture of Hillary Clinton on one side, Barack Obama on the other. Bros Before Hos it read. Seventies guy's jaw dropped a bit. When he turned to watch the guy go the back of his sandwich board became visible: Capitalism Is an Evil Beast. Maybe, maybe not, but it definitely has some negative side effects like…Bros Before Hos T-shirts. The sun was setting. I'd spent five or six hours on campus and, shockingly, these were the first two Obama supporters I'd met.

So many massive Hillary Clinton signs hung on chain-link fences along the highway between McCarran International Airport and the Las Vegas strip that the former First Lady had abandoned the presidential race for casino-resort development. The decision of Edwards volunteers to place a couple of his own large adverts in the midst of this Sea of She was ill-advised. Taken in from afar they looked like sinking lifeboats. The class warrior's supporters on campus, even at the pinnacle of the rallies, were not much better represented.

Obama was another story. With very little warning, literally hundreds of Barack Obama supporters in Chavez-red shirts, bearing the slogan, "I'm fired up. He's ready to go," suddenly swarmed the parking lot outside of the debate venue. Police horses whinnied nervously as the mass encircled them, chanting, "Obama oh-eight! Be a part of something great!" Some carried gritty, traditional painted portraits of their hero, giving the march a definite international flavor. And some of these Obama people were feisty.

"Get behind a brother," an older black woman shouted at a middle-aged black man with a Hillary sign. "What's wrong with you?"

Boos and catcalls followed, no love lost between the two camps as the race tightens. Another argument broke out. This time a middle-aged white woman, shouting incomprehensibly, turned to me as I approached. "You're press?" she implored. "Do you see the provoking me for no reason?" I looked at her sign: Democrats + Illegal Aliens=End of USA. I decided she was probably being provoked for a reason. Not far away a disturbed-looking man wearing a shirt depicting Hillary Clinton in the crosshairs with the ominous slogan, "Where is Lee Harvey Oswald when you really need him?" watched a little too intently. No one provoked him. There were a lot of averted glances, some of which accidentally landed on his companion, a man wearing nothing but a barrel with suspender straps and carrying a large sign declaring the Nevada Supreme Court had "raped" him in some unclear, presumably metaphoric, way.

AS QUICKLY AS IT BEGAN, however, the whole circus began to peter out. Actually, the most persistent demonstrators turned out to be those who weren't flogging an actual candidate at all. And so, "I'm a Healthcare Voter!" competed with "I'm Voting For Kids!" to draw attention away from the "Clean Coal" contingent. Perhaps the opposition was able to strike a compromise. If they did, I wasn't there for it. I was in the spin room, where I heard, alternately, that Hillary had "stopped the bleeding" and Obama had finally found passion and "drawn blood." Both were positive.

Just before I went in, though, I saw a group working to get out the youth vote -- maybe for the kids, it's a conspiracy -- dragging around cardboard cut-outs of Obama, Hillary and Edwards for the photo-ops security denied them. Well, actually, someone enlarged a photo of Edwards' face and taped it on a cardboard cutout of George W. Bush. I guess he doesn't have his own cutout.

The young woman who explained this to me had a folder containing a petition with 50,000 signatures on it. She was going to hand it off to Hillary or Obama, but Secret Service told her to buzz off.

Shawn Macomber is writing a book on the Global Class War.

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