Running for Something
Phil Campbell's Romance with Local Activism in General and Grant Cogswell in Particular
There's something captivating about the synapse-blown adoration most campaign managers foster for their candidates. Not quite homoerotic, this fierce and unquestioning love deserves its own vocabulary set; as it is we're just left with the imagery and tone of sadomasochism. Still new to Seattle, former Stranger reporter Phil Campbell (who gets fired from this august publication on page five of the book), in recounting his time as Grant Cogswell's campaign manager, seems to understand this implicitly. Zioncheck for President: A True Story of Idealism and Madness in American Politics is structured like some kind of gonzo romance, beginning with Campbell's first sighting of Cogswell at the WTO protests. "He was on his bike, moving through the bedlam with a surprising grace and speed. He was a mobile mirage, a blur of spokes and feet, a phantom with a white bicycle helmet, a glint of tiny glasses and fierce eyes..." There in the tear gas: the first spawning of Activist Love.
Soon enough, Cogswell decides to run for city council on a pro-monorail platform. Campbell, aimless and depressed, takes the reins of the campaign tightly between his teeth and charges forward, first to respectability, and ultimately to ruin. For political junkies, this book is a nearly unadulterated hit of the good stuff: a how-not-to guide to grassroots politics. The monotony and frustration of fundraisers, the endless berating from your candidate when things inevitably go awry, the urge to please everybody, the looming monolith of an election: All of these mad dances consume Campbell as he redirects his failures into Cogswell's driving ambition.
Unfortunately, the conceits of the book don't work as well as the main narrative. Campbell weaves the campaign in with a brief biography of Marion Zioncheck, a 1930s congressman from Seattle who ascended as a tireless populist and socialist and who fell (literally; to his death) as a lonely and embarrassing alcoholic. Cogswell took Zioncheck as something of patron saint, writing and performing an epic poem that nominated Zioncheck for "President of Death." Zioncheck's story is a powerful one, but it doesn't mesh well with the failed political attempts of a couple of novices whose main campaign issue was the monorail. Zioncheck, in his time, was a hero of the worker; Campbell praises Cogswell, at one point, for berating a man who was loudly eating in a movie theater: "No one but Grant had the courage to tell him to stop; he reproached the man with such energy that the man put his [popcorn] on the floor and did not touch it again." The book's third storyline, a struggle between Campbell and a housemate, doesn't become urgent until the final 50 pages.
Campbell also manages to reflect some of Cogswell's idealistic passion for Seattle, and he does some particularly excellent writing about Capitol Hill, but he freely admits to disliking Seattle. This is problematic because politics, carpetbagging aside, is always about (real or feigned) love of place. This rootlessness may also explain several sloppy reporting errors, most notably the fact that the Mardi Gras riots took place the night before the 2001 earthquake, rather than the "[n]ot much later" in Campbell's gloss over.
But none of these flaws detracts from the main draws of the book; you're either into it for the local color, or you're into it for the politics, and Campbell does an admirable job with both. 2001 is already looking like one of the most important years in Seattle's history, and Campbell's outsider understanding of that is so intuitive that it's almost creepy.
And when you get down to it, the man-on-man political action is frighteningly intense: Campbell's errors in judgment, and Cogswell's enraged recriminations, get bigger and more out of hand as Election Day approaches, and the amount of abuse that Campbell takes is martyr-worthy. When a fellow volunteer asks him why he's still with Cogswell, the best that Campbell, in retrospect, can muster is "...I needed Grant, and I wanted to believe that Grant needed me." This is the perfect distillation of any political insider's memoir, and Campbell's candor sets the book apart from those huge-advance national campaign bios. It's true that politics is a harsh mistress, but the candidate is always the biggest bitch of all, requiring the kind of love and attentiveness that can only be given by someone who is obsessively desperate to please. That is, it almost goes without saying, incredibly hot.