Tuesday, November 17, 2009

'I Am Martin Eisenstadt': A Lie So Noble That the Person Issuing It Doesn't Even Have to Be Real

If you turned off the TV and started ignoring political articles the day after Obama won, you might have missed a curious incident immediately following election day. A story emerged from the McCain/Palin camp from an anonymous staffer, claiming Sarah Palin thought that Africa was a country. It seemed too good to be true. Here it was, a simple confirmation that Palin's intelligence was cretinous at best. Unfortunately for Palin-watchers, the leak's anonymity undermined its potency — until, finally, a McCain staffer named Martin Eisenstadt came forward and confirmed it.

Eisenstadt's background featured all the experience you'd expect it to: service in the Reagan administration; a journey to the wilderness of think tanks in the Clinton years; glorious restoration under Bush, along with the requisite ideological clusterfucking of Iraq; and being rewarded for one candidate's failure by hopping onto the campaign of another, failing upward until McCain's loss in the general election. Eisenstadt presented another avatar of the morally vacant conservapundit opportunist, glomming onto any airtime or column inch available to him, no claim or blurb too odious if it was tasty enough to mention. No wonder he'd throw conservatives' darling veep candidate under the bus for the chance to get in front of Chris Matthews.

The only problem was that Eisenstadt didn't, and doesn't, exist. (Yet, perversely, the Africa story is true, although in tamer, questionable form.) In this case a non-person confirmed a story whose veracity is anyone's guess. The media was only too happy to oblige.

The story of the Eisenstadt hoax has been told other places at greater length, but for those unfamiliar with it, here's a brief rundown:
Two filmmakers, Dan Mirvish and Eitan Gorlin, invent a kind of proto-Eisenstadt early in the Republican primaries, rolling the character out in a series of Youtube videos, where Gorlin portrays an obnoxious parking attendant whose appalling praise of Rudy Giuliani has the undesired effect of making Rudy look exactly like he is: horrible.
Wanting to expand on the character, Mirvish and Gorlin transform him from a parking-lot worker to a slick neocon pundit named M. Thomas Eisenstadt — noting that most neoconservatives have Christian first names and Jewish last names. They put together some interviews and footage of Eisenstadt for a fake BBC documentary called The Last Republican.
Mirvish and Gorlin fake an Al Iraqiya interview with Eistenstadt, claiming that his experiences rebuilding Iraq have given him the talents to spearhead development of a massive Baghdad casino, with a mosque either inside it or on the grounds. Around this time, M. Thomas Eisenstadt's name migrates, for hoax reasons, to Martin Eisenstadt.
Along with the fake interview, they create a fake think tank, The Harding Institute for Freedom and Democracy, named after the hilariously corrupt Warren G. Harding, currently one of maybe two people plausibly standing between George W. Bush and the distinction of worst man to hold the office.
From the Harding Institute, they begin dashing off blog posts and press releases, claiming the Hilton family was outraged that the McCain campaign likened Obama to Paris Hilton, that Joe the Plumber was related to corrupt Savings and Loan director Charles Keating (of the Keating Five, one of whom was John McCain), and finally that Palin couldn't identify Africa as a continent.
Over the course of these hoaxes, some are reported as true by Mother Jones, MSNBC, the LA Times and countless, countless blogs, because the immediacy of getting a good scoop takes primacy over the scoop's being real at all.

A simple recounting of these gags would make for an occasionally entertaining book, but Mirvish and Gorlin instead take the fundamental principle of any good hoax — i.e. link your conspiracy to documented events and fill in gaps — and string a hilariously soulless bildungsroman through incidents both factually documented, like the 18-minute gap on the Nixon White House tapes, and farcically documented, like the fabricated Al Iraqiya interview.

The overall effect elicits bewilderment and laughter. While the book is funny, and while there are obvious gags in it (chapters like, "Denny Hastert Grips My Balls," sexcapades with Elliot Spitzer's prostitute and a night of binge-drinking with Donna Brazile all come to mind), most of it is played relatively straight. The laughter comes from how perfectly probable so much of it could be if the reader didn't know anything about politics from the last several years.

There's an obvious laugh line to Eisenstadt's being raised like Romulus or Remus — only with the wolves in this case being Haldeman, Erlichmann and the rest of Nixon's plumbers — but when you get to the tone-deaf venality of something like a casino in Iraq's Green Zone, there's really not much of a stretch left to be made. The same goes for candidate-hopping after petty betrayals and electoral failure: Eisenstadt seems like some hysterically nauseating version of Candide until you realize his fake bona fides differ little from those of plenty of real-life pundits.

Fiction mirrors fact in especially funny but withering asides about the state of punditry. For a comic memoir, much of it can be read as a how-to for being an amoral mouthpiece. For instance, in the midst of another hoax tale of Eisenstadt's work on the McCain campain, "he" drops an accurate how-to deconstruction of lobbyist and McCain supporter Charlie Black's obfuscation in the Washingon Post, which took a story about how McCain might have had an affair with a lobbyist and converted it to a fact-challenge to all journalists to unearth lobbying impropriety:
1. The bait: "It's a shame that the New York Times has chosen to smear John McCain like this." Charlie uses the media rivalry between the two papers as leverage to get his quote guaranteed above the fold on the front page of the Post.

2. The attribution: Charlie makes sure he's personally identified as a "top adviser to McCain's current presidential campaign" and as "the head of a Washington lobbying firm called BKSH & Associates." You know that's going to send reporters and bloggers scrambling on Google.

3. The denial: Your typical denial would end with the line about not dignifying false rumors: "Neither Senator McCain nor the campaign will dignify false rumors and gossip by responding to them." But Charlie continues.

4. The changeup: His genius is in adding the next sentence: "John McCain has never done favors for anyone, not lobbyists or any special interest." Now the story is all about lobbying.

5. Close with the wild-goose chase: "That's a clear 24-year record." This will send reporters digging through endlessly tedious legislative records, campaign contributions, and lobbyist disclosures. In the heat of a presidential campaign, no journalist is going to successfully find anything without doing extensive digging, and no editor will allow their reporters to research a story for a month when they should be filing three stories a day (one for print and two for the blog) from the campaign trail. Which means no one will really unearth the truth. (152-3)
While commonplace at this point, the tactic is brilliant in that it overwhelms a story about questionable campaign denials of an affair (remember: this woman looked like a younger Cindy McCain, and it's not like John didn't already have a history of upgrading a model when it went and got all busted on him) with other questionable denials that present such a challenge that they must be addressed at the expense of examining the first issue. It's like disguising evidence of a bog by dropping a swamp on it. In this case, the fake pundit's cheerleading of the tactic mirrors exactly its intended effect at the time.

More importantly, Mirvish and Gorlin do two things. One, by analyzing press credulity and also dependency on daily news points, they illustrate how something like a fake pundit can enter the news cycle legitimately, by exploiting the immediacy of the cycle and the limitations on its checks. Two, they lend credence to Eisenstadt's existence and veracity by detailing the environment in which he allegedly sits, one so already abundantly false and an affront to credibility that one more lie hardly registers. The above passage involves a non-person breaking down a non-statement predicated on obscuring something potentially untrue with a statement sneeringly untrue. It relies on a press complicit in a system that favors play-by-play updates over helpful investigation. Besides the jokes, this, here — this tactic the authors hit on — is what ultimately makes the book so good.

How do you spot a lie that matters in a business whose only mechanisms are lubricated by endless dissumulation? What, really, is the difference between a fake person proffering self-serving falsehood and a real person proffering self-serving falsehood? When punditry is a business wherein each independent contractor seeks to present his or herself as some avatar of Americanism, some plasticized distillation of personhood; when each person is at the same time an avatar for a policy point from a think tank or a campaign, sublimating something of themselves for the tactical advantage of packaged verbiage; and further, when these people regularly rely on callous and arrogant dismissal and distortion of reality to gain meager one-day advantages and maybe a better booking next time; when all these things are the normative conditions of punditry, does it matter at all if the pundit physically exists when everything else he offers is simulacra?

Here's where some of the critiques of the book miss the point. They single out the passages relating to Eisenstadt's insistence that he's real and his castigating a lone blogger's coverage of his "artificiality" as dragging the book down into tedious minutiae. But really this is the entire point and, I suspect, representative of the most fun Mirvish and Gorlin probably had when writing. Fake people have to spend time proving that they're real, and Eisenstadt's crusade merely to exist represents the story of Washington punditry writ large: the relentless invocation of credibility in the absence of it, and the partnership that exists between those who relentlessly "message" and the media who surrender to intensity of speech, who scuttle dastardly in obeisance to messaging for no other reason than their fear that failing to acknowledge it will result in accusations of partisanship.

This is a world where Jonah Goldberg verges on mainstream credibility because he repeats his qualifications to write a history of fascism almost as if an incantation, because repetition will hopefully disguise that he has no credentials in history and owes his job to his mother. This is a world where Bill Kristol can consider himself a kingmaker, portentously ahem at the beginning of every column and invoke how he's "been around Washington" for a very long time to ward off the nasty fact that he owes his attendance to his father's founding the Weekly Standard and the subsidies of others — all in spite of a track record of being demonstrably wrong about goddamn near everything. This is a world where Ari Fleischer can hit the road in 2008 and repeat a lie debunked by 2003 (a debunking confirmed by the Pentagon) that Saddam Hussein had something to do with 9/11. As "Eisenstadt" points out, this is a world with endless opportunities for advancement for Democratic strategists who bungled elections in 1980, 1984, 2000 and 2004. The media is so slavishly wedded to a false conception of oppositional ideas that program directors think scheduling "the Democrat guy" and "the Republican guy" creates anything that bears a resemblance to reality.

Thus, some reviewers found it boring to read Eisenstadt going to fastidious lengths to prove the reality of something demonstrably false, and in the process overlooked that making the falsehood about his existence instead of the existence of, say, WMDs is a distinction without a difference.

There are two problems that attend any satire: sustainability and probability. It's in the former that any shortcomings appear. To be blunt, there are only a handful of satires in history that have been able to click on all cylinders for their full duration, and most of those are pamphlets or articles. Just as most 90-minute comedic films start to wind down around minute 60 or so, this book too has its downtime. Expository prose is especially rough for comedy, as getting the point out and keeping a realistic narrative going has to quash some jokes. This book is no different: at some points, Mirvish and Gorlin had to stop the gags to make sure the damn thing made sense.

Still, there are some missed opportunities. Probably the best example is the thread of jokes about "think tank" softball teams and intramural squads. At one point, Eisenstadt winds up shrieking about practices, and it's a shame not to see a good Allen Iverson joke thrown in there for the sports fans. It's also a little disappointing that the authors didn't play up the lyrical fauxetry and asinine political analogies George Will draws from baseball, usually via some torturous skein that seeks to reconcile conservative values with sacrifice bunting. In spite of that, the subplot works because of the unabashed crooked employ of "ringers" on each team, although I wish they'd really run with endless snipes about hiring central americans to be their "strong men."

These, though, are the quibbles of a sports fan. On the other major satirical pitfall, probability, the authors acquit themselves well and seem to have approached the structure of the book very cleverly. To wit, when sending up something, you have to know a lot about the topic; putting a foot wrong takes the reader out of the narrative. While clearly very knowledgeable about their topic, Mirvish and Gorlin sidestep technical problems by establishing at the beginning that ignorance is no obstacle to success in Eisenstadt's field. On page 20, "Eisenstadt" writes:
I'd be lying if I said I was entirely happy working at [the] Heritage [Foundation], but it did give me a keen insight on how think tanks influence policy in Washington. More important, I saw how they work as an imprimatur for pundits who are neither qualified to be real academics nor successful enough to actually make money in the private sector.
Thus, Mirvish and Gorlin can err in detail at any point in the book and be totally authentic, because their subjects are people without the knowledge or talent to enter any field with accountability. The subjects' speech and thought cannot withstand peer review or the judgment of market value. Eisenstadt, like almost all pundits, is a man operating in a self-generated and -sustained bubble carefully maintained away from the foul clutches of factual or monetary evaluation. This is where he belongs, in a realm beyond review from anyone else not already equally compromised and illegitimate. This is who he is: a fraud of person amongst a fraud of everything else besides corporeality.

And what, really, could be more fitting than Martin Eisenstadt?

There's an old neoconservative idea about one of the harsh obligations of governance: being afflicted with farsightedness beyond the capacity of those stupid bastards who pay taxes or vote or outnumber pundits and congressmen by five orders of magnitude. This affliction foists on its bearer the need to employ the "noble lie" — a short-term distortion that will not accord with short-term facts but is nonetheless needed to motivate all those midwestern fatasses, southerners who can't be baited with racial dog-whistles, pointy-headed professors and the useless kinds of Jews who don't want to drop full B-2 payloads over Tehran. It's the lie that gets America going on the right track in the long term, even if for now it seems questionable. History, the long view, the images in the perspective-glasses borne only by neocons: that will be the ultimate vindication.

Martin Eisenstadt is a neoconservative pundit. He may not be right, but he has his eyes on the future, even if it might be his own first and America's second. Martin Eisenstadt is not only the apotheosis of neoconservative punditry, he's the apotheosis of the noble lie.

He's so right for America, he doesn't even need to exist.

Rating: 4.5
Almost always fun, at times romping around freshly at the prospect of messing with Washington and the record. Ribald, satirical, on-point and sometimes even meditatively acidic. This book should be enjoyable for anyone who considers Washington punditry laughable, likes a good sustained hoax or is just sick of neoconservatism. Suffers a little bit from repetition and the obligation to forego jokes in order to keep a sensible narrative going. Also misses a few opportunities for gags, but that's generally going to happen in any satire not written by committee. The book has a lot more thoughtful observations going on for it than the slapstick chapter titles would suggest. Those who enjoy an "on the toilet" book will enjoy this one, because it's a quick read whose humor probably benefits from spacing out the gags rather than experiencing them all at once. Recommended, but in the interest of full disclosure, I have spoken to Dan Mirvish, and he's a nice and patient person (or else quite good at faking) who's tolerated my annoying bullshit. This interaction may have bumped my estimation of the book up slightly.