Spanking the Donkey: Dispatches from the Dumb Season
As its title suggests, Spanking the Donkey is a masturbatory rant that attempts to supply criticism of the 2004 presidential campaign. If this collection of essays is anything to go on, Matt Taibbi excels at puerile humor but falls short in the analysis department.
Part of the problem is it’s already been done. Joan Didion’s 2001 Political Fictions, the culmination of more than a decade of political reporting, brilliantly examines the bankrupt political process and the press’ role in it. Didion consistently gets there first, down to the charade of the candidate tossing around a football on the tarmac in front of the campaign plane for the behalf of TV cameras. Taibbi has nothing new to say about the staged sportiness of this tradition, but he does run wide to receive one of John Kerry’s tight spirals.
Bitter as only a white upper-class expat reluctantly returned to the site of his guilty privilege can be, Taibbi admits in the forward that he was ill-equipped to cover U.S. politics after nearly a decade in Russia, where he worked as a journalist. He’s clearly got unresolved issues with the motherland. Sometimes, this chip-on-the-shoulder ’tude results in some enjoyable rebellion, such as when Taibbi skips campaign speeches in presentable parts of town to interview nonvoters on the other side of the tracks. Other times, such as the book’s last essay exploring which fellow reporter is the worst hack by means of a Wimbledon-esque tournament, the joke falls flat. If Taibbi would only keep observing and stop trying to be so self-righteously clever about it, his book would be more enjoyable.
And there are enjoyable moments, depending on how frat-boy your sense of humor is. One leitmotif is the “gigantic” size of a particular New York Times reporter’s “ass,” pondered in at least three different essays. Another is how funny reporting is when you’re high and/or dressed as a gorilla or a Viking.
Occasionally, though, Taibbi’s criticism approaches the interesting. He observes that covering the campaign is “like being trapped in a monstrous, three-dimensional voice mail world, like a voice mail amusement park ride, designed by Satan, that never ends. At each stop, the candidate makes an appearance and it is the same thing over and over again.” Another insight, gained by infiltrating/volunteering for the Bush campaign in Florida, is the more egalitarian nature of Republican organizations. He finds the Bush offices “strikingly like those sanctuary tables in public school cafeterias” where “no one was going to give you shit about your haircut.” It’s an intriguing idea, that people hate the Democrats because they are too cool. Perhaps Taibbi should take a lesson.