Christian Schneider

Author, Columnist

Category: Collection (page 1 of 3)

The Unbearable Whiteness of Balling

Over the weekend, a carrot-topped Q-Tip named Kevin Huerter dismantled the Philadelphia 76ers, destroying their nearly decade-long “process” and catapulting the Atlanta Hawks into the NBA’s Eastern Conference Finals.

The sight of a gangly caucasian torching the Eastern Conference’s number one seed caused much bemusement among NBA viewers. On Inside the NBA, TNT’s Shaquille O’Neal called Huerter “Opie Richie Cunningham.” New York Times reporter Astead Herndon, who is African-American, tweeted a photo of Huerter, saying, “imagine this guy ends your season.”

Herndon’s tweet immediately provoked the performatively offended on Twitter, who cried reverse racism for a joke about a white player in a 75 percent Black league.

“Imagine the outrage if a white man tweeted this about a black man playing a white dominated sport,” wrote one commenter. “Huh? This dude just put up 27 against the number 1 seed in the East and was seminal in winning the game. And that’s your take? Come on man,” wrote “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” actor Rob McIlhenny.

“What should the guy who ends your season look like?,” wrote another commenter, asking Herndon to explain his tweet.

L’affaire Huerter unveils an open secret in competitive basketball: White players are viewed differently than Black players. And you know what? It’s fine.

Here’s the thing that non-athletes don’t get: When your Black teammates or competitors tease you for being white, it is the ultimate honor. You are now part of the club. They are showing you respect.

As an avid basketball player growing up in the Washington, D.C. area, I always got a close-up look at how I was viewed vis-à-vis my Black teammates. At playgrounds, I was inevitably one of the last players picked. When you finally got some run and could show you had some flavor in your game, you’d start getting affectionate nicknames, always based on famous white players.

“Oh look, we got a little John Stockton here! Look at mini Bobby Hurley!”

At one point in college, playing on a court outside a dorm reserved primarily for Virginia Tech football players, a group of Black players actually stopped a game in amazement when I went between my legs and behind my back, a move the Miami Heat’s Tim Hardaway had perfected and which I had practiced hundreds of times. The move would not have gotten so many hoots and hollers had it been performed by a player who was…um…more “stereotypically” flashy.

The purpose of pointing this out is not to brag that I was really all that great – at 5’9”, I wasn’t anywhere near good enough to play in college, and these are dribbling techniques every high school player can do – but when you can do them as a white player, it gets you more attention.

As evidence, look no further than college basketball or the NBA, when announcers begin speaking in tongues when a white player throws down a vicious dunk. Pat Connaughton of the Milwaukee Bucks sports a 44-inch vertical leap – the second-highest ever measured at the NBA Draft combine – and yet even after seven years in the league, announcers are still caught off guard by his “sneaky” rise. (This is exacerbated by the fact the Bucks are well-known for their parade of white stiffs throughout the years.)

And you know what? It’s awesome.

Sports is an oasis from much of America’s performative nonsense in that it is purely a meritocracy. And when you’re part of a team, the abrupt honesty fomented by competition can provoke honest discussions of all sorts. Being in the pressure cooker of a basketball team forges friendships and trust in a way that is missing in the social media era – different players of different races can joke with each other in ways not possible among strangers. Honest conversations about race can be had without participants immediately assuming bad intentions.

(For example, my high school team’s bus rides were always accompanied by boom boxes playing Go-Go music of the late 1980s. This prompted me to ask our star player what white artists he ever listened to. “George Michael,” he told me, “because he gets all the ladies.”)

Getting teased as a white player among friends is fine, because racism is, in effect, an act of power. As a spokesman for white people, I can report that we are doing just fine. We can even storm the U.S. Capitol, live stream it, and all walk out without a bruise.

Of course, there’s always going to be the dopey “if there’s Black History Month, why isn’t there White History Month, too” brand of internet troll, and they were out in force after the Huerter game. But the reason you can make fun of white players is simple – if you joke about whiteness, you’re not making fun of something that can cause real damage to an individual. If, by contrast, you joked about a player’s “Blackness,” you would be making light of a thing that could have widespread detrimental effects on his income, educational opportunity, and way of life.

You would also be a dumb racist.

And if you are somehow offended by being taunted for being white, there is always the option of being awesome and earning the respect you think you deserve.

During one practice in high school, I dribbled the ball up the court, stopped at the three point line, and put up a shot. The coach blew the whistle and excoriated me on the spot, yelling, “you have to be a hell of a player to take that shot!”

Next time down the court, I dribbled up to the same spot, and again took another three pointer. Our coach at this point was beside himself with rage. Veins bulging, he screamed, “what did I just tell you?”

“All I heard was that you have to be a hell of a player to take that shot,” I said.

And therein lies the beauty of athletics. Want to dispel a stereotype? Do it on the court or on the field. Like Kevin Huerter, regardless of your race, you’ll always get your shot.

“Zero Star Reviews” – where history has its final say

In March 1885, a small Pennsylvania newspaper called the Valley Spirit wrote a brief editorial comment about a new book they wanted banned.

“The lines were coarse, the situations vulgar and the general style of the book too grotesque to be natural,” they said of the novel, concluding it was “trash of the veriest sort.”

Of course, that novel was “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain, regarded by many as the greatest American story of all time. “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called ‘Huckleberry Finn,’” Ernest Hemingway said in 1935. “It’s the best book we’ve had. All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.”

To his credit, Twain was always willing to make fun of his bad reviews. “I like criticism,” he once said,  “but it must be my way.”

Over the past couple hundred years, American newspapers have been stuffed with similarly awful historical reviews of classic books, movies, and music, and I have set out to find them. I’ve set up a Twitter feed called @ZeroStarReviews, where I post critical reviews that have, in the subsequent years, been exposed as preposterous outliers.

Take the reviewer who said the popularity of “The Godfather” was “the sick reaction of a sick society” and compared admiration of the mafia to praise of Adolf Hitler.

Or the reviewer who couldn’t get into an HBO show called “The Wire” because the writers took too long to introduce an actual wire tap into the story. Or the New Jersey reviewer who predicted a “rank and vile” show called “The Golden Girls” wouldn’t last past one season.

In digging these gems up, I’ve wondered why it feels so good to read the musings of other people who were so catastrophically wrong. There has to be something other to it than merely feeling an adrenaline boost of temporary superiority in knowing your take has been confirmed by the history books.

One thing people have written to me is that it makes them feel impervious to criticism – that, hey, if someone was dumb enough to shred the Beatles for “Abbey Road” (and some were), surely Twitter trolls knocking your work should roll right off your back, right?

Imagine if, after a Minneapolis Star Tribune critic said Prince would be “working in a three-piece suit in a year or two” after releasing “Dirty Mind,” he threw up his hands and said, “yeah, maybe this isn’t for me.” We never would have gotten “1999,” “Purple Rain,” or the greatest Super Bowl halftime show in history.

What if the Beastie Boys had listened after a Fresno Bee critic wrote them the following rap after the release of “Paul’s Boutique?”

“Hey Beastie Boys
Don’t be fools
Quit making records
And go back to school”

Perhaps in 2021 you’d have a urologist named “Adrock.”

(Side note: If, in this scenario, your “critic” is your boss, and he or she is criticizing your enthusiasm for taking pictures of women’s feet in the office, please listen to your critic and stop immediately.)

But even more than being an inspirational tool, the feed has made me think more about time and memory, and how perceptions of each can mold what culture believes to be “true.”

For example, in May 1977, a little movie called “Star Wars” hit the theaters, to somewhat mixed reviews. A critic at the Louisville Courier-Journal called the movie “relentlessly childish,” complaining it was hard to sense any real drama in a cast that largely wore rubber alien masks.

Now, with the benefit of history, we know what Star Wars became – a franchise that pulled in billions of dollars in revenue, raised an army of dedicated fans, and spawned an entirely new cinematic universe. History has, in effect, proven the movie’s critics “wrong” – but were they? It was just a guy’s opinion – maybe he ate a bad tuna sandwich for lunch that day.

Perhaps this is a bit of late-night, dorm-room philosophizing, but it has made me wonder how many other historical concepts we now accept as “true” or “false” simply because the right people had the right opinions about them way back when they were introduced. It seems “reality” is malleable based on public opinion, and oftentimes, public opinion is influenced by critics.

And as a result, it seems jarring to go back and revisit the opinions of people who contradicted what decades of public opinion has now deemed “true.” (Put another way, if public opinion is a measure of worth, then Shania Twain would be as objectively great as Mark Twain, as her 1997 album “Come on Over” was the second-highest selling album of the 1990s.)

Or maybe it’s just funny to laugh at people who were spectacularly wrong.

Some other side notes in putting the feed together:

-At first, I thought it would be funny to include some modern Amazon user reviews of classic works. For instance, the Amazon user who read Ernest Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea” and said, “This is my dad’s favorite book…without understanding fishing, I had to look a few terms up, and the story just dragged on.” (Editor’s note – the book is like 100 pages and can be read in about two hours.)

I scrapped this idea, though, thinking it was best to stick to classic, contemporaneous reviews to further make my point about the elasticity of time and memory (see above.) But I would totally read a Twitter feed featuring hilarious Amazon reviews – someone get on this.

-The review database I use is enough to make anyone wistful of the days where every little paper across America had their own reviewer, with their own opinions and axes to grind. It’s these reviewers that provide the real gold. Sure, the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Chicago Tribune are going to pan something popular every now and then, but working at one of those big papers implies a bit of worldliness and cultural taste than tiny paper critics don’t necessarily have. And the little guys often have more leeway to let it rip.

-In some cases, I have tagged artists mentioned in the reviews to see if they’ll laugh about how wrong the critic was. This has not gone well – either the famous person will ignore it, or actually get angry for mentioning them. Clearly, they don’t understand the point of the feed, which is to show how great they are by demonstrating how ridiculous criticisms of them were – typically, if they see any bad opinion of themselves in print, they will not laugh along. (Which is, in a way, refreshingly relatable.)

-There are some films and albums for which bad reviews simply don’t exist. This is especially true in the 1930s and 1940s, when local papers didn’t so much “review” movies, they simply announced a film was coming to their town and provided a plot synopsis. Presumably, people were still very excited about the prospect of going to see a moving picture, so the idea of a paper convincing them they shouldn’t leave their homes to see the miracle of projection seemed anathema. (The Holy Grail of this era, in my mind, would be a newspaper badmouthing “Singin’ in the Rain.)

And, finally:

Some people have complained that the actual reviews don’t really give a movie or album “zero stars” – for instance, a critic will give a film a “C-plus,” or some such rating. I basically go by the review itself – even reviews that moderately recommend a piece of culture can say things that look ridiculous in retrospect. So everyone relax, the “Zero Stars” title is a bit of an exaggeration – in the real world, there are zero reviews that give “zero stars.”

(Plus, “One Star Reviews” was taken.)

I Am Also Not Dating Jane Krakowski


In the past few weeks, I have had any number of insults directed at me. I have been called a “traitor,” a “liar,” and been accused of “treason.” But I want to distance myself from perhaps the most insidious calumny that may soon be hurled my way: I have never dated beloved actress Jane Krakowski.

If I were to be accused of such a misstep, it would no doubt overshadow all the good I have done for the last year, from inciting an armed insurrection against the nation’s government to spreading lies about the security of voting machines, to pitching miracle cures for the COVID-19 virus. My run of positive media coverage simply couldn’t take the hit if I were accused of once having romanced the beautiful and winsome star of such shows as “30 Rock” and “The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.”

Think of the damage such a rumor could do to my persona as the leader of unimpressive white men! Just the other day, a young man with tears in his eyes approached me and said “please tell me you haven’t been involved with the multi-talented host of “Name that Tune” airing at 9 ET/8CT on FOX.” I slapped him in the face for even making the suggestion, and he thanked me effusively, indicating he now had a reason to continue living.

I have had one acquaintance suggest to me that an unfounded accusation of being a stone cold lover that beds starlets may be a boon to my public persona. “Nonsense!” I yelled to him as he handed me a sampling of Vienna sausage on a toothpick. I didn’t care who in Costco was aware of my displeasure!

If the FAKE MEDIA is allowed to go around and destroy powerful men by accusing them of bedding starlets, will there be no end to the witch hunt? Innocent men in offices across America will no doubt be brought down for an unfounded suggestion that they once took Tootie from the “Facts of Life” to Applebee’s!

In fact, I already had to fire one employee simply for admitting he once had amorous feelings for Janice from Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem band!

Clearly, being tied to a charming and funny personality would be a catastrophe for the three employees at my company, MyCravat. It’s a neckerchief, but…slightly different! And on the strength of nonstop late night television ads, we have sold almost several!

Yet for some reason, our products have recently been pulled from most big box stores, forcing me to sell MyCravats in Bed, Bloodbath and Beyond, the nation’s largest retailer of products for anti-government-based domestic terrorists. It’s your lucky day when you’ve been taken hostage using their lavender-scented zip ties!

To prove I am serious, I have sent up a charity to fend off others who may have been accused of dating Jane Krakowski. With any contribution of $100,000 or more, you will receive one free MyCravat and a complimentary visit from the FBI to search your home.

An Open Apology to Those Who Won’t Get to Meet Me Because of COVID-19


We can all agree – since the virus hit, we’ve been missing out on a lot. No symphony of clinking cups in our favorite coffee shops. No eye contact with strangers, as sidewalk passersby treat us with suspicion. Some of us won’t even have a job to return to when we all escape home confinement.

But trust me – the thing you’ll miss most is meeting me.

I am so sorry.

Sometime next week, we were both going to lock eyes at a show put on by an up-and-coming singer-songwriter at a tiny local bar. You were going to stroll up to me and compliment my ironic “Lordy, Lordy, Look Who’s 40” t-shirt I bought last week at Goodwill, hoping it would draw attention from someone just like you. We would have begun talking, and you’d strategically never ask my real age (26), impressively ducking the most obvious conversation starter.

Instead, I would have casually mentioned I have a podcast and pretended to accidentally throw out my Instagram handle. You would have then walked back over to huddle with your friends, obviously perusing my Insta feed to confirm I wasn’t a creepster. My phone would then buzz with your friend request, and I would know I had earned the votes of the valuable concerned-best-friend demographic.

A week later, we would have met up at a grimy local restaurant, pretending it was fine dining. You’d say “no” when the gum-snapping waitress offered you gravy on your fries, which was standard at this hole-in-the-wall.

That night, we would have kissed for the first time, but you wouldn’t have let me stay over. Two nights later, I would have slept at your apartment, and the next morning we would have laid together all day talking – you’d pretend you like dogs and I’d pretend I care about the environment. I would have teased you for how you arranged the books on your shelves by color; you would have joked that I was just lazy.

I would have held your hand over the weeks as we took walks on the lakefront, watching the weather turn from summer to fall. I would have eaten with your family at Thanksgiving, even though your brother, Brad, who I just met, would have kept calling me “smelly nuts.”

That is SO Brad.

We would have gone ice skating together, even though my balance is awful and I wobble terribly.

You would have put on my long-sleeved shirts when you got cold, a thing that turned me on, but which I would never admit to you.

One night, we would have settled on the couch and I’d suggest we watch something by noted film actor Edward Norton.

“Oh, we should watch Keeping the Faith, the one where he plays a priest,” you would have said. “That’s his best role.”

“Wait a minute,” I would have said. “Clearly, Ed Norton was best in Fight Club.”

“Fight Club is flaming garbage,” you would have said. “Who wants to pay money to watch a cinematic ode to white male rage?”

“I do,” I would have said. “I enjoy the film’s commentary on the perils of rampant consumerism, I never see the surprise ending coming, and I also believe Meat Loaf is excellent in it,” I would have said.

“The surprise ending?” you would have yelped. “The idea that one person is actually two people is one of the oldest literary devices in history. Have you ever read Dostoevsky’s ‘The Double?’ Were you aware that in medieval times, seeing one’s double was a sign of impending death? Your ‘surprise’ ending is about as old as the discovery of gunpowder.”

“I was just saying Ed Norton is wonderful as the neurotic narrator,” I would have said.

“Ed Norton isn’t really that great,” you would have said.

“What?” I would have said. “Ed Norton is one of the finest actors of the past two decades,” I would have cried.

“He is fine in Rounders,” you would have said. “And passable in The Illusionist.”

“He was the best Hulk – way better than Mark Ruffalo,” I would have said. “And, of course, that doesn’t even account for his three Oscar Nominations, one for Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), one for American History X, and one for 1996’s Primal Fear.”

“He lost to that goofball Italian guy in the Holocaust movie in 1999,” you would have said. “He was just nominated for American History X because he put on so much weight.”

“You’re putting on a lot of weight and I have yet to see you give an acceptance speech,” I would have said.

“You’re an asshole,” you would have said.

“How can you not enjoy the everyday charm of Ed Norton!” I would have pleaded. “He was so endearing in Grand Budapest Hotel. And as the voice of Rex the dog in Isle of Dogs!”

“Do NOT act like he is Meryl Streep!” you would yell. “He was in Death to Smoochy for the love of Christ!”

“That is it!” I would have screamed. “I will not stand here and listen to America’s most relatable and versatile acting talent be disparaged in such a manner! You are even forgetting his comedic turns in 2012’s The Dictator and as Sammy Bagel Jr. in the groundbreaking animated film Sausage Party! You must leave!”

Over the next few weeks, the issue of Edward Norton’s merits as an actor would continue to burn inside you as you begun to slowly poison my food. When I was finally rendered incapacitated, you would saw off my arms, legs, and head, put them all in a garbage bag, and drive them out to a marsh to bury my detached body.

Rather than haunt you for eternity (you were right about me being lazy), my ghost would have avenged my death simply by turning you in to the local police, at which point you would be arrested without incident. After weeks of testimony, you would have been sent to prison on a light sentence from a sympathetic judge who was ambivalent about Edward Norton’s performance as a scoutmaster in Moonrise Kingdom.

Upon release from prison, the only job you would have been able to procure would be at a local drive-in theater selling popcorn and hot dogs. One night, the theater would have showed Fight Club, at which point you would have realized that Ed Norton is, indeed, one of the finest film actors of our day and that I was completely right.

And as I said before, COVID-19 has robbed you of the glory of this realization.

And for that, I am so sorry.

In 2020, Leave No Good Deed Unpunished

Last Thursday afternoon, U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts was handed a small index card, peered through his glasses while reading its contents, and set it aside.

“The presiding officer declines to read the question as submitted,” Roberts said.

It was the second time Senator Rand Paul had submitted a similar question to the Chief Justice, who was presiding over the question-and-answer portion of the Senate trial to remove President Donald Trump. Paul was hoping Roberts was like Ron Burgundy reading from a teleprompter – that he would read aloud, on television, anything put before him.

In this case, Paul was trying to get Roberts to read the name of the intelligence-based whistleblower whose report of Trump trading military aid to Ukraine in exchange for domestic campaign assistance started the whole impeachment imbroglio. On Wednesday, Roberts had said he would not “out” the whistleblower. But Paul tried again Thursday.

Of course, by that point, the identity and motives of the whistleblower were completely irrelevant to determining Trump’s guilt. The whistleblower could be Michael Moore disguised as a tray of cold cuts in a CIA conference room and it wouldn’t change the facts of the case.

No, the only reason to announce the name of the whistleblower would be to exact vengeance for the temerity he or she demonstrated in reporting Trump’s wrongdoing. The message is clear: Do the right thing, and you will pay for it.

Other Senators followed Paul’s lead in filling Justice Roberts’ mouth with a bouillabaisse of nonsense. Subsequent index cards were sent to Roberts containing statements rather than questions, accusing former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter of corruption.

This, too, is a distraction – if anything, Joe Biden was trying to root out corruption. As Vice President, Biden actively sought to remove Ukrainian prosecutor Viktor Shokin from his position investigating the oil and natural gas company Burisma, on whose board his son sat. Biden believed Shokin was ineffective at fighting corruption – a position held by many U.S. allies at the time.

The reward for Biden’s trouble? Being smeared in an impeachment trial that has nothing to do with him.

No matter how pure one’s motives, simply crossing Trump is enough to earn you social media humiliation, or even worse, a meeting in a tiny room where Secretary of State Mike Pompeo yells at you to point at an unmarked map.

Ironically, Trump and his allies’ strategy of trying to drag people for doing the right thing is borrowed straight from the Wokeness Blueprint, where cabals of the theatrically aggrieved take to social media to condemn the insufficiently pure.

On Thursday, tech billionaire Jack Ma donated $14.5 million to help develop a vaccine for coronavirus, which has killed at least 170 people and sickened over 7,700. Website Gizmodo snarkily condemned Ma, pointing out that the donation amounted to an equivalent of about $33 for the average U.S. family.

The website also rapped Amazon CEO and founder Jeff Bezos for recently donating $690,000 to fight the out-of-control wildfires in Australia, noting that the contribution was less than a dollar when compared to the average American income.

“How generous, coming from a guy who says he doesn’t know how to spend his money,” Gizmodo cracked.

Naturally, there would be one way for both Bezos and Ma to avoid the scorn heaped on them by social media warriors: Don’t give any money at all. You’re better off staying quiet and avoiding the risk to your business. The social media axe never swings in the direction of those who decline to present their necks.

Earlier in the week, actor and sporadic cartoon giraffe David Schwimmer waded into the political correctness thorn bush wearing only his underwear. In an effort to preach the values of diversity and condemn his “privilege as a heterosexual white male,” Schwimmer suggested there should be an “all black” or “all Asian” version of his hit show “Friends.”

Woke TV enthusiasts quickly reminded Schwimmer of the presence of the show “Living Single,” which featured six African-American actors and predated “Friends” by a full year.

“Apparently, David Schwimmer has no idea he was on a white reboot of ‘Living Single,’” tweeted Michael Harriot of The Root. Schwimmer quickly tweeted a response to the criticism he had received, saying me meant “no disrespect” to the show.

Also playing The Game That Can’t Be Won is presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, who on Wednesday tweeted that we need a president “whose vision was shaped by the American Heartland rather than the ineffective Washington politics we’ve come to know and expect.”

That brought a quick response from Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Ava Duvernay, who questioned whether Buttigieg had the right people in mind.

“Respectfully, where is the American Heartland located exactly in your mind as you write this tweet?,” Duvernay wrote. “Does it include Compton and other places like it? Because us folks from those places would like a president shaped by our vision too. Serious question. Would love an answer.”

This week also saw the cancellation of the much-anticipated book “American Dirt,” which promised to take an uncompromising look at the plight of Mexican immigrants at America’s border. The problem? The book’s author, Jeanine Cummins, is white.

This week, Flatiron books, canceled 13 remaining book tour stops to allegedly ensure Cummins’ safety. Hispanic groups outraged over “cultural appropriation” have objected to Cummins’ book, raising questions of whether a white woman should be allowed to share the experiences of Mexican immigrants.

Every one of these examples features a person staking out an upstanding, moral position and paying a price for it. If you think you can sate the mob, think again – the more you feed the Scylla and Charbidis of outrage and piety, the hungrier they get.

This even applies to dead people who can’t defend themselves. As the helicopter crash that tragically killed basketball star Kobe Bryant and eight others on Sunday still smoldered, a Washington Post reporter tweeted a story pertaining to the sexual assault lawsuit Bryant had settled in 2003.

By all accounts, Bryant had turned his life around and became a dedicated husband and father, devout Catholic, and successful businessman. But to some, none of this mattered – no matter how much he good he did in the ensuing years, he would always be known primarily for the worst thing he ever did.

Whether it’s a government whistleblower, a politician seeking racial justice, or an author wanting to bring attention to a moral cause, the lesson is written in neon letters: Don’t even try.

Whether Republican or Democrat, the purity police is coming for you. Your good deeds cannot purchase you a place in the good graces of the moral gatekeepers – that is solely their bailiwick.

And the consequence to our culture will be obvious: Nobody will miss the opportunity to do nothing.

(IMAGE: YouTube)

A Letter From the Battlefield

Digging through some of my great-grandfather’s old personal belongings, I found the following note:

December 17, 1918

My dearest Mabel:

I hope this letter finds you in good spirits. For nearly a year here on the Western front, I have longed to once again gaze upon your honeyed visage. As the nights fall to below freezing in our fetid trench, my memories of you are all I have to warm my heart. And I cannot say how long that will be enough to keep me alive during this, the greatest of all wars.

As we continue to pound away at the German lines, the unmistakable specter of death has us surrounded. The food we are being fed isn’t for consumption by any living thing. My company loses a dozen men a day from German cannon fire, sniper attacks, disease, or from the cold. The only positive thing to happen in the past month was the time a barely-clothed woman leapt from our trench and defeated an entire German battalion by herself armed with only a shield, a sword, and some bullet-resistant arm cuffs.

Otherwise, the smell of corpses is beginning to overwhelm our trench. Desperation has taken hold of our men – even late at night, we can still hear the cries of our brothers left wounded on the battlefield, begging for their mothers and wives. Their final pleadings are close enough to hear, yet they are too far to attend to. It is almost enough for some healthy men to wish for a swift death themselves, rather than having to endure another day in this nightmare.

Perhaps I should provide some more clarification about my previous reference to the comely, near-naked woman who ended up killing hundreds of Germans by herself. It was a very curious event; she shed her jacket, then walked straight into no-man’s land while donning a glittering crown and some very alluring boots, all while defending herself against thousands of bullets being sprayed her way. Having drawn the attention of the Hun, we were able to then attack and defeat their heavily fortified line, providing the Allied powers with a rare victory indeed.

Yet despite this temporary victory, few men have hopes of ever winning the war. The Germans will stop at nothing to crush France, Britain and the United States on their path to world domination. To many, this was a war begun by the assassination of a worthless archduke nephew of an equally worthless emperor; and yet troops are seeing their best mates cut down in the prime of their lives. We can only hope that the Lord blesses our mission with his divine grace to stop the barbarism being inflicted on Europe by the Kaiser.

The weird thing is, why were the Germans shooting at the most beautiful woman in the world while she was completely unarmed? I mean, she’s twice as hot as any of the flamethrowers they’ve been using on us. If you looked hard enough, you could see a pretty solid side-boob – why would an entire battalion rain all their gunfire on this glorious figure while completely ignoring the hundreds of Allied troops carrying their own guns and rushing towards the German trench?

Anyway, I may have gotten sidetracked there for a moment. It is a question left only for the history books. Hopefully future volumes will tell of the heroism of the men fighting in the Great War and the blood they have shed to free the world from the shackles of imperialism. I am willing to die for our cause – with God on our side, what glory awaits!

My pencil is getting dull, so one final note – once the war is complete, my commander has commissioned me and several of my comrades on a mission to Themyscira, an island that is…um… evidently very dangerous and is of vital strategic importance. As it is the birthplace of this wondrous woman, it must be defended at all costs, as there are no men on the entire island. It is a mission of such prestige, literally every man in my battalion has volunteered for service! What a brave sacrifice we are all willing to make!

I must leave you now, dear Mabel. Please do not weep if you do not hear from me again. In my remaining days, my mind will be busy thinking of you, my own mortality, the morality of war, and what it would be like to perform battlefield CPR on literally the most unbelievable woman in the world.

U.S. Corporal S. Schneider

Veld, France

The Perils of Being “Almost Famous”


The first Sunday I appeared on television as a political commentator, I was also scheduled to attend a Milwaukee Brewers baseball game later in the day.  It was March of 2008, and the show was on in the morning, while the game was in the afternoon.

Before the game started, I wondered whether anyone would actually recognize me from the show – it was, after all, on one of the four major networks in the Milwaukee TV market.  What if I said something someone didn’t like and they took a swing at me?  What if people wanted to talk to me about politics?  I briefly considered wearing some sort of disguise.

When I got to the game, in looking for my seats, I walked from one end of the stadium to the other.  I received not a single look, not a comment.  I then retraced my steps, walking the length of the stadium and back again.  Still nothing.  It appears my instant fame had somehow gone missing.

I would soon join a small, but interesting subset of people in the media: those who work in the public eye, but aren’t actually “famous.”

Humorist John Hodgman describes himself as a “minor celebrity.”  This is apt – he has a small, but intensely loyal following (among which I count myself).  But on the rungs of fame, there are people who are even below “minor.”  They are the people who live normal lives, who have regular jobs, but whose faces are in public from time to time.  They aren’t “famous,” they are merely “recognizable.”

Until last week, I hadn’t even been in the “hey, you’re that guy from that thing” crowd.  But a dad at my daughter’s basketball game started pointing at me and saying my name over and over.  It was the first time I had ever been recognized in public, and I pray that it’s the last.

I’ve had friends point out that complaining about being noticed in public is a “humblebrag.”  But being a marginally notable person is frequently unsettling.  Before people meet you, they often have preconceived notions of what you’re like and how you think.  I’ve had total strangers recite back personal facts I’ve written in my blogs that I had forgotten I long ago disclosed.

For the few people who know who you are, your public persona always precedes you – and you never know who might admire your work and who can’t stand you.  But they’re out there in the public, walking among us, and it’s impossible to tell who they are.

I’ve had local TV reporter friends tell me horrifying stories of people approaching them in the grocery store, commenting on their appearance or on-air demeanor.  Lisa Manna, who used to be a morning anchor in Green Bay, told me she once received a manila envelope filled with pornographic pictures.  The eyes were scribbled out and her name was written on the women.  The pictures were accompanied by a letter detailing the things this man would do to her, which earned her a police escort to work. And of course, this is all for a job that doesn’t pay a great deal – working in TV news isn’t exactly a license to print money.  Stations know there’s always someone else coming up the ranks willing to do your job for cheaper.

One female reporter who does frequent live reports from downtown told me there are some people who will watch the broadcast, then rush over to where she is to confront her about something she reported.  The most annoying thing, she said, is being recognized when she’s in an awkward place – like, sick at the doctor or at the gym after working out.

And, of course, in my line of work, not everyone is favorably inclined to your work.  Small cadres of anonymous critics frequently whip up online fiction in an attempt to demean me.  The comments sections on my stories are always full of people thinking I’m corrupt, or bought and sold by this group or that group.

Would they say that to my face?  Do I actually unknowingly talk to any of these people on a regular basis in real life?  It’s entirely possible – I’ve had creepy anonymous commenters say they’ve known me from working with me in the past, before they rip me in their diatribes.  Did I ever actually really know that person? I’ll never know – but they’re using our alleged interactions to bolster their supposed knowledge of how I “really” am.

These are the times when I think it would be nice to have a job that wasn’t so public.  I’ve often dreamed of a life just making sandwiches at Cousin’s Subs, where people wouldn’t flock to the internet to deride my hoagie making skills.  Would be nice to be able to accomplish something at work without being accused of being under the influence of Big Mustard.

Typically, being a notable person is seen as a trade-off; you put up with people recognizing you in exchange for wealth or influence.  But trust me, the marginally recognizable enjoy neither of these advantages.  Surely, Leonardo DiCaprio has his critics – but he can blow them off by spending a weekend churning through a private island stocked with super models.  The merely notable are resigned to having a drink, rolling up in a blanket, and watching Leonardo DiCaprio movies, helping him in his quest to buy an extra island.

I do have several advantages, however.  The picture that accompanies my photo in the newspaper was taken before I needed glasses.  And as Superman has taught us, throw on a pair of thick rims and literally nobody – not even your love interests – can recognize you any more.  Also, I am frequently unshaven, looking as if I was off to do some modeling for the “JC Penney for Hobos” catalog.  (I also look like a lot of other people – if I ever got any public comment, I assume it would be someone saying, “man, Keanu’s really let himself go.”)

Oddly, enough, ancillary stardom is something more and more people now seek.  Young women armed with only cell phones now become “Instagram models,” which seems a little bit like being a “Twitter comedian” or “Facebook novelist.”  It used to be that one would create something worthy of notoriety, then benefit from that exposure.  Now, more people seem to believe fame is an end in itself.  Not for me.

Of course, none of this is enough to keep me from doing what I love for a living.  But being someone that other people form public opinions about is something I’m still getting used to – maybe I never will.  Until then, I’ll keep being a walking contradiction – a newspaper columnist that doesn’t particularly like attention.

Why I Love Being Old


“Youth,” Oscar Wilde once said, “is the one thing worth having.”

As I exited my youth and aged into my thirties, and now forties, I felt much the same.  How nice it would be to once again get out of bed without my ankles shooting pain through my legs.  My belly button has begun to flee my abdomen as if it had just robbed a bank.  At age 42, a good bit of every day is devoted simply to being a human in the world – exercising, trying to eat well, finding new places I need to shave – all things one takes for granted in the prime of youth.  I feel like they should build a statue of me outside my house every time I successfully get my socks on.

But while most of our culture is geared towards making me feel terrible about succumbing to the horrors of aging, I’m starting to feel good about getting old.  In fact, I wouldn’t swap being 42 for being 21 for anything in the world.

So I thought I’d jot down some of the benefits of being a near-senior citizen.  Y’know, before I forget them all.

Having Money

Most of my early 20’s were spent with all my possessions in the back of my car, and all my money paper-clipped together in an envelope.  I worked primarily as a waiter, stuffing dollar bills in my back pocket after a shift.  I had no credit, no bank account, and couldn’t afford to pay attention.  The extent of my money management skills was knowing it was better to bounce one big check rather than a series of smaller checks, since you only have to pay the one-time bad check fee.

When you’re old, those days have passed – you typically have savings, can afford to eat, and can pay for a stable roof over your head.  I can buy the car I want, rather than my dad paying the neighbors $200 for a rusted-out 1981 Chevette with a bumper sticker that says “I Brake for Unicorns.”

And, of course, having money leads to…

Drinking Better Alcohol

There’s a reason I perfected the art of bonging cheap beer in college – because it was typically terrible, and I wanted to get it in my stomach with as little interaction with my taste buds as possible.
But when you’re old, you have no time for bad alcohol.  (That is, unless you are trying to be an Ironic Drinker, in which case the worse the beer, the higher your stature.)

The secret of “old drinking” is that the more expensive the booze you buy, the less of a hangover you end up with.  Drink all the 12-year old scotch you want – a couple of ibuprofen before you go to bed, and you wake up ready to wrestle an alligator.  If college students figured this out, it would bankrupt them all.

Old drinking is also preferable because people don’t judge you nearly as much for engaging in it.  If you drink a lot when you’re young, people worry about its long-term effects; it could cost you jobs, relationships, and keep you from reaching your potential.

However, once everyone sees you’ve pretty much maxed out on the potential scale, you’re free to pickle yourself as you see fit.  When you’re young, you drink to make new memories.  When you’re old, you drink to forget the memories you’ve made.

Once you hit 40, drinking at home isn’t a sign of loneliness, it’s an adorable personality quirk that doesn’t really hurt anyone.  People aren’t like, “aw, now poor Christian’s never going to be an astronaut,” they’re more like, “yeah, seems about right.”

Aristotle once said that “young people are in a condition like permanent intoxication.”  Clearly he said that before he turned 40 and he was in a state of actual permanent intoxication.

Knowing Things

Whenever I go back and read a column I wrote just a week earlier, I think of all the things I learned in the days since it was published.  And it feels like someone else entirely wrote the column.  I picture myself just a week earlier, being naïve about how the world works and not really knowing what I was talking about.

Now multiply this by a thousand weeks, and you get a sense of how much I feel I’ve learned in the past 20 years.  Would I give up all the things I’ve seen, all the events I’ve experienced, and the books I’ve read just to be young again?  Of course not.  To surrender my experiences would be to entirely change who I am now, which is way too risky of a proposition.

That’s not to suggest young people don’t know things.  I’m just partial to the things that I know.

The Wooderson Effect

Everyone remember the famous Wooderson line from Dazed and Confused – “That’s what I love about these high school girls, man – I get older, they stay the same age.”

What Matthew McConaughey’s creepy-but-still-cool character doesn’t realize at the time is that his own perception of the opposite sex will change as he gets older.

When you’re a young man, you’re obviously attracted to girls your own age – older women seem out of reach. (This seems different for young women, who are more open to dating older men.)  If you’re a 25 year old guy who prefers 40-year old women, you’re viewed as kind of a weirdo. But as you age, you begin to find women your own age attractive – your preferences grow older along with you.

So when you get to your 40s, more people are attractive.  Younger women are attractive, older women are attractive. Part of it is, the older you get and the more flaws you recognize in yourself, the more accepting of other peoples’ flaws you become.  Plus, who wouldn’t want to live in a world where “My Cousin Vinny” Marisa Tomei and “The Wrestler” Marisa Tomei can exist in harmony?

No Wasting Time

In my 20s, I spent a lot of time experimenting with things out of my comfort zone.  I listened to all the music I could get my hands on, no matter how avant garde; at one point in college, I found myself listening to a CD of a German band who made music by banging on shopping carts with spoons.

When you’re old, you no longer need to pretend to be into things you’re not.  You are free to do what you wish with the few remaining years you have on this earth.  If all your young hipster friends demand that you like The National, you just shrug, and say “not for me” and move on.  Your time left on this mortal coil is too valuable to dabble in ephemera.  And especially not when “The Bachelor” is on.


When you’re older, you get to have children.  And the wonder of having kids narrowly cancels out the glory of not having them.

People generally think that having and raising children is a selfless act.  But it’s the exact opposite – having children is the ultimate act of vanity.  For old people, making children is the eternal selfie; you’re cementing your legacy for eternity with little people who look just like you.

Further, having kids immediately brings clarity and focus to your life.  No matter how disjointed or scattered your life was up to that point, once a child emerges, you know exactly what the purpose of your life is.  From then on, you cease to be the author of your own biography – your life story is being written by a 10-pound human.  And your only reason for existing is to take care of that mini-you.  You could pay a life coach a million dollars and they wouldn’t convince you to get your shit together like a baby does.

Feigning Ignorance of Technology

Even if you’re old and technologically savvy, you can always use your age to get you out of uncomfortable situations.  If someone from work texts you with immediate instructions, take your time – you can always say something like, “all these blinking lights confuse me!” or “what’s this internet I read about in the newspaper?”

People Listen to You

For some reason,  when you’re old, people automatically assume you know what you’re talking about.
It is true, that when you age, you have perspective.  If any one emotion characterizes youth, it is the belief that one is the axis upon which the universe turns.  But the older you get, the more you see the world around you and grasp your relative insignificance.  It’s nice knowing that fads will come and go, and the world will not cease to exist.  You just sip your expensive alcohol and enjoy the ride.

Connection to a Specific Time

Perhaps this one is more personal, but not only do I like being old, I like being old exactly at this time in history.  It means I got to be in college during a revolutionary era in popular entertainment – the “grunge” era – when artistry and skill was actually valued.  I wouldn’t trade the experience of being body passed to Jane’s Addiction at the first Lollapalooza for Mumford, his Sons, or his Grandsons.

I love that I grew up before the internet, so I know what it’s like to not have to feel like I’m missing out on every news story, joke or meme.  I can find my way to places without using GPS, and I can have arguments without having to dive into my iPhone for information to back me up.  I love that when I was ten, my parents would kick me out of the house with instructions only to be back by dinner time – a practice that led to a great deal of tree climbing, garter snake handling, fort building, and basketball shooting.

Christopher Hitchens wrote that “A melancholy lesson of advancing years is the realisation that you can’t make old friends.”  It is true, nobody will know you like the friends that you had when you were kids.  They’ve seen you at your best and your worst, and kept you around for all of it.

But being older and having a strong connection to a specific era with someone else is actually a pretty decent stand-in for long-term friendship.  Meeting someone your age and realizing they, too, thought Pearl Jam was overrated is a solid foundation for future friendship; and the older you are, the more cultural touchstones you are able to share with other people.

So yeah, being old is good, but being old in 2016 is even better.

George Bernard Shaw is often credited with saying something along the lines of, “youth is wasted on the young.”  But I, for one, refuse to accept this as my fate.  The young can have their youth – I have my memories. If only I could remember them.

Hiding Behind the Kids: Citing family, too many pols duck electoral duty

Last August, Congressman Paul Ryan announced for the 43rd time that he would not run for president. He’s always maintained that the ages of his children — three kids between the ages of 6 and 9 — are a factor in his decision. His standard line? “My head isn’t big enough, and my kids are too small.”

Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels begged off, saying he didn’t want to subject his family to the scrutiny of a presidential campaign. “In the end, I was able to resolve every competing consideration,” he said, except for the most important consideration of all — “the interests and wishes of my family.” And when irascible New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie bowed out of the race, he deemed it a “family decision.”

All of these family considerations have left Republican presidential voters with a choice of C-list emetics for candidates. Mitt Romney is a Republican when he deems it necessary to win Republican elections. Herman Cain, Michele Bachmann, Jon Huntsman and Rick Perry all flamed out before the primaries were even held. Newt Gingrich is so toxic, he should wear a Mr. Yuk sticker on his lapel. (Poor Mitch Daniels: He hesitated to run because his wife once left him and returned to remarry him. Yet GOP voters warmed up to Gingrich, who changes wives more often than he flosses.)

And while “do it for the kids” is an aphorism in politics, more and more politicians are deciding not to do it for the kids. They want to protect their children from the Palin-ization of presidential politics, where every offspring’s missteps could translate into blogging frenzy.

But exactly how many of these kids are pleading with their parents to eschew a run for president? Think any politician’s 10-year-old-son wouldn’t love to say, “Hey, Dad, I’m having trouble with my footwork — can you call Peyton Manning and have him come over and show me the three-step drop?” You think “My dad is president” might be a good icebreaker with the ladies at high school parties?

The whole “I want to spend more time with my family” excuse is worn out and meaningless. Ambitious men have always run for office to get away from their families — generally, they only rediscover their progeny when it seems like they can’t win again. But that’s the beauty of being president — you get to take your whole family with you and live in the same house.

Furthermore, blaming the family when you decide not to run is a bit unseemly. Suddenly, your kids become impediments to the realization of America’s greatness. Suppose you spend all your time talking about how America is going to implode without changes to its entitlement programs — and then decide not to change those programs because you might miss some T-ball games?

How does that sound to military families, who have to do without fathers and mothers for extended periods of time (and sometimes forever) to preserve the American idea?

Sasha and Malia. The Bush daughters. Chelsea Clinton. All of us would be proud to have children as happy and well-adjusted as these kids — and every one has lived through the apparent horrors of growing up in the coolest house in America. We know politicians love their kids — but so do hundreds of millions of other American families that are looking for visionary and inspiring presidential candidates. We’ll chip in for baby-sitting, we promise.

“9-9-9” Hits the Heartland

Cain“Who here has heard of the ‘9-9-9’ plan?”

Virtually every one of the 150 hands in Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan’s Thursday town hall meeting shot into the air.

All day, Ryan had been peppered with questions about Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain’s economic plan, which replaces the current federal tax structure with a 9 percent personal-income tax, a 9 percent corporate-income tax, and a 9 percent federal sales tax. Milwaukee radio talk show host Charlie Sykes began the questioning in the morning. Ryan, the House Budget Committee chairman, answered another gauntlet of questions about 9-9-9 in a morning town hall meeting in Muskego. And now the residents of Oak Creek wanted to see if the plan had earned the imprimatur of Congress’ premier fiscal wonk.

Ironically, it was Ryan himself who took to the road last April to promote his own budget plan, which had recently passed through the House of Representatives. All across America, members of Congress were challenged on the details of Ryan’s budget at their town hall meetings. And many had trouble navigating their avalanche of charts and graphs with Ryan’s legendary alacrity. Now, he was being forced to explain someone else’s plan in the same way others had to defend his House budget in April.

Critics of 9-9-9 believe the plan’s regressivity render it dead in the water. (Cain addresses this problem in part by offering tax rebates to low income individuals.) They say the plan constitutes a large tax break for the rich, that it won’t raise the revenue it promises, and that it creates new taxes that Congress could more easily raise in the near future.

Yet Cain’s plan is an overwhelming victory in terms of marketing. Stunningly, in mere weeks, it appears Cain’s plan has saturated Ryan’s constituency. 9-9-9 has clearly piqued the interest of both conservative voters and enthusiasts of saying the same number three times in succession. (It is unclear as to whether former NBA star Moses Malone, who in 1983 boasted that the 76ers would sweep through the playoffs “fo, fo, fo,” is serving as Cain’s chief economic adviser.)

Ryan’s association with 9-9-9 began last week, when a headline in the Daily Caller breathlessly declared that “Paul Ryan ‘loves’ the idea of Herman Cain’s tax plan.” Ryan says the article didn’t get his position on Cain’s plan exactly right – while he “loves” the idea of candidates putting bold plans on the table, he wouldn’t sign on to all the details of 9-9-9. Specifically, he disagrees with layering a nine percent sales tax on top of a nine percent income tax, as many governments in Europe do.

When asked whether he thinks Cain’s numbers add up, Ryan says that while the plan hasn’t been officially “scored,” he believes it more or less raises enough money. “As someone who has been criticized for putting out a bold plan, I can understand what it’s like,” Ryan told me in between town hall meetings, adding that picking apart Cain’s plan was the job of the other presidential primary candidates, not his.

While 9-9-9 may have helped Cain surge to legitimacy in the GOP presidential primary, it also may be the only thing keeping his campaign afloat. Recently he has had trouble articulating his “phone a friend” foreign policy, in which he simply promises to be briefed often by really smart people. On CNN, he struggled to answer a fairly standard question from interviewer Piers Morgan on abortion, saying it was “not the government’s role, or anybody’s role to make that decision.” (He has since issued a statement saying his is “100% pro-life.”)

Meanwhile, members of Congress that spread throughout the country to talk about their accomplishments are likely to find that the star of their town halls is someone who isn’t even there. He is a frontrunning presidential candidate who, when a number of one poll’s respondents were asked to describe him in one word, used the word “pizza.” (Not since Herbert Hoover promised “a fourteen inch sausage-mushroom-and-onion in every pot” has the pizza rating been so high for a candidate.)

Other candidates are slated to roll out their economic plans over the next few weeks. But few will get the traction that Herman Cain has garnered through showmanship alone. It will be seen as to whether he can cash this goodwill into votes.

-October 24, 2011

Manhood in a Bottle

If you’re a sports fan, your weekends are likely wallpapered with television advertisements that purport to explain what being a “man” is all about.  One’s masculinity, according to ad writers, is currently derived from your choice of satellite television company, what kind of body wash you use, and most of all, what kind of beer you drink.  In fact, Miller Lite will actually declare you to be more of a man if you drink their beer from a “vortex” bottle, which is aerodynamically engineered to fire beer down your throat with the velocity of a Blunderbuss hand cannon.

Of course, nobody expects a beer commercial to be an Aesop-style morality tale.  Women have been insulted in beer ads for decades; men are simply catching up.  Miller just recently ended a slew of particularly obnoxious commercials that consistently featured men being jerks to pretty women – a puzzling situation to which no man can actually relate.

But the current “MAN UP!” meme is particularly grating, given the ubiquity of the ads.  They generally feature some doofus engaging in an effeminate act, while simultaneously enjoying a drink that is not Miller Lite.  They are then publicly ridiculed for both transgressions by their a-hole friends, who also happen to have a comely woman draped on each arm.  According to the Miller ad people, Winston Churchill would be considered a pansy because he chose to shower his liver with God’s gift of Johnnie Walker Black his entire life – and not a more “masculine” lite beer.

Of course, challenging one’s manhood by calling them a girl isn’t exactly a new phenomenon.  During the Civil War, Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote a poem excoriating the “sweet little men” who dodged military duty:

“Bring him the buttonless garment of a woman!

Cover his face lest it freckle and tan;

Muster the Apron-string Guards on the Common,-

That is the corps for the sweet little man!”

In other words: “MAN UP!”

But within the world of television advertising, the only deed that matters is what product you use.  Men are almost uniformly depicted as simplistic baboons, barely able to function in society.  Mom leaves town?  Dad can’t do anything in the kitchen, so he better call for a pizza!  Need to clean the house because your husband is a pig?  Get a Roomba!  Be careful letting dad play with the kids – he might injure himself!  Things have to be so simple, even cavemen can do them.

One only needs to watch 15 minutes of the TLC Network show “Say Yes to the Dress” to be disavowed of any notion that women are more evolved than men.  The show involves a full hour of nothing but women trying on wedding dresses while their bridesmaids roll their eyes and cluck at their gaudy fashion transgressions.  And if watching that show doesn’t improve your relative impression of males, take comedian Adam Corolla’s advice and “go down to the patent office… and see all the innovations women didn’t come up with.”

Yet even if “manhood” is considered a desirable thing, your masculinity is now apparently dependent on your choice of booze.  You’ll never see an ad praising a man for doing truly manly things, like reading to his kids, or taking care of his elderly parents, or working tirelessly on a cure for Alzheimer’s.  If Einstein had been in college in 2011, his theory of relativity would instead read “Beer Before Liquor = Never Sicker.”

All I really want is to be able to watch inhuman amounts of sports on the weekend without being subjected to a commercial threatening to revoke my “man card” every seven minutes.  (Apparently you need one as identification to get into any d-bag convention held around the country.)  It’s gotten so bad, I actually brought it up at my Twilight discussion group last week.

The Wisconsin Public Union Protest Dictionary

dictionaryAs is the case with any extended crisis, the Wisconsin stalemate has begun to create its own vernacular. Previously familiar terms and phrases are used in foreign contexts. Words garner new meaning.

So when listening to politicians debate Governor Scott Walker’s plan to force greater public sector union contributions to their own health and pension benefits, it may be getting hard to understand – and not just because of the funny Wisconsin accents.

So as a service to the nation, here is a dictionary of many of the terms you are likely to hear as the Wisconsin showdown enters its third week:

“Workers” – Refers to any one of the 356,284 individuals in the state who receives a paycheck from any level of government. When a Democrat refers to the “workers” of Wisconsin, it is these people they are referencing. The remaining 86.6% of the Wisconsin population is to be met with suspicion, and is likely employed by the Koch brothers. (See also, “worker, hard.”)

“Democracy” – Traditionally described the process of people electing individuals to office, and those officials voting on their constituents’ behalf in the state legislature. Now refers to elected officials fleeing the state in order to avoid voting.

In order to test the veracity of this new definition, you are encouraged to sit on your couch all weekend with a sign that says “this is what mowing the lawn looks like.” If your wife agrees, she is likely in the Wisconsin Capitol rotunda holding up a sign.

“Hosni Mubarak” – Little known dictator of some country somewhere in the Middle East. But his thugs beat up Anderson Cooper just a couple of weeks ago, so that’s probably enough to compare him to Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker.

“Debate” – The process by which people who disagree get together, voice their differences, and compare each other to Hitler while wearing fanny packs. Wisconsin protesters have drawn inspiration from the historical Lincoln-Douglas debates, when Lincoln famously dressed up like a gorilla and banged a drum for eleven days to annoy Douglas into submission.

“Attacking” – Asking state and local employees to pay more of their health insurance premiums and to begin paying into their own pension accounts, which they will then recoup upon retirement. However, if the cost of government increases and taxpayers are forced to pay more, it is impermissible to consider it an “attack.” (See also: assaulting, strangling, pummeling, mauling, decapitating, disemboweling.)

“Interest Group” – Any collection of individuals that uses their own money to influence a public debate is known as an “interest group.” But be careful – if a similar group uses taxpayer money boosted through dues to do the same thing, it is known as a “grassroots organization.”

“Free Speech” – Commonly afforded individuals to express their political beliefs, “free speech” is now afforded to anyone who doesn’t work for Fox News, is interviewed by Fox News, has ever watched Fox News, or has ever admired the work of Michael J. Fox.

“Dictator” – Refers to either a genocidal despot or a duly elected governor acting in concert with elected members of two houses to affect changes in the law. The two are interchangeable.

“Middle Class” –Walker’s budget repair bill is a concerted effort to destroy Wisconsin’s middle class, as it is comprised entirely of individuals who work for government. Needless to say, it will be devastating to the state’s economy to ask more of the middle class – most notably, University of Wisconsin Madison professors who make $111,000 for working nine months out of the year.

“Stifling Debate” – The parliamentary procedure of allowing testimony of 900 citizens over the span of 17 hours, then letting the minority party members that haven’t fled the state talk for over 60 hours straight in order to hold up a bill’s passage.

“Doctor” – Traditionally, a “doctor” examined a patient, made a diagnosis, and treated their malady. In Wisconsin, that process is deemed unnecessary as long as the patient is beset by a rapidly growing pension contribution. (Common side effect: chanting “Hey Hey, Ho Ho” for four straight days.)

“God-Given Right” – Any law change beneficial to Wisconsin government workers granted after 1959. In most cases, these rights are not granted to federal workers living in Wisconsin, so it appears many of them need to spend more time in church.

Unfortunately, the one term nobody will be using any time soon in the state senate is “the ayes have it.” As a result, a lot of government workers will soon be learning what “unemployment compensation” is.

-February 28, 2011

Remembering Tomorrow’s Union Worker Protests, Today

protestVladimir Nabokov once wrote of the “stark lucidity of a future recollection.” He was describing the act of trying to see things that are happening right now as you will remember having seen them. (Of course, he was writing about one of his characters trying to envision killing his wife so he could have sex with her 12-year old daughter. But go with me here.)

That is how I’ve vowed to look at this week in Wisconsin state government. I’d love to bottle all the hysteria regarding Governor Scott Walker’s proposed budget adjustment bill and bury it in the ground for future generations to one day gaze upon. With protests at the Capitol planned all week, I have taken it upon myself to document much of the government-funded hyperventilating taking place well in advance. (Side note: Are unions really making a case for their modern relevance when they’re still holding candlelight vigils? There really hasn’t been any new advancement in protesting technology in 40 years?)

Friday, February 11th, 2011 will be a day that lives forever in the annals of Wisconsin Hot Air History. The World Series of Buffoonery took place shortly after Walker announced his plan, when a gathering of Democrat lawmakers took turns out-embarrassing themselves at a hastily called press conference. (Watch it here – but don’t drink anything while you’re viewing it – your beverage will likely end up adorning your computer screen.)

In this press conference, we heard the seeds of what would become the major themes over the weekend. Assemblyman Joe Parisi – the living answer to the question “can anyone be elected to the state legislature?” – declared that Scott Walker is going to “call in the National Guard on the citizens of Wisconsin!”

Obviously, in Parisi’s world, the code words “National Guard” are supposed to give hippies flashbacks to the days of being clubbed and maced. But sadly, Parisi’s talking point is mere delusion. At his press conference, Walker mentioned the National Guard was ready to staff, say, the prisons if the correction officers were to engage in an illegal strike. But it didn’t stop the internet from being lit up with stories of how Walker was sending the National Guard to your house to tear gas your family.

Parisi finished up by urging not to “go to war” with the people of Wisconsin. By “the people,” I assume he doesn’t mean the 80% of citizens who agree that government workers should pay into their own pensions. (Actually, I should be nice to Parisi, as his name is on my marriage certificate from his days as Dane County Clerk. I think that gives him the unilateral power to dissolve my marriage.)

Not to be outdone, State Representative Gary Hebl strode to the microphone to call Walker’s plan to eliminate public sector collective bargaining on everything except wages “unheard of” and “unprecedented.” That’s true, assuming you forget the first 100 years of Wisconsin’s existence, when there was no collective bargaining for public employees.

Hebl forged on, comparing Walker to Hosni Mubarak, saying we have the “makings of a dictator” here in Wisconsin. (The strongest link between Walker and Mubarak is that Gary Hebl has heard of both of them.) I had cast aside this preposterous line as mere hyperbole, until some people who I really like (and should really know better) began using it. In fact, someone actually set up a website calling Walker Mubarak’s “mini-me.” (A reference only slightly fresher than candlelight vigils.)

Mark Pocan finished up the presser by actually making the points reasonable Democrats should be making about the bill. It overturns 50 years of settled law, it eliminates negotiation on things like worker safety and hours, etc. But then Pocan finished with a putrid cocktail of windbaggery, wrapping the National Guard and Mubarak talking points into one. (The day before, Pocan said the bill would return us to the days of the “Robber Barons.” Presumably, he spent the latter part of Friday bunkered down at home loading up his musket.)

The key to any anti-Walker talking point is to infuse it with some sort of violent metaphor. “Scott Walker is assaulting state workers.” “Scott Walker is taking a cleaver to the people of Wisconsin.” Certainly, those are more exciting than “Scott Walker wants state employees to pay slightly more into an account which will accrue over time, which they can then cash out when they retire.” That’s not exactly a talking point that gets people in Minocqua to hop on a bus to demonstrate in Madison.

But why are they pulling up so short? It’s time to start combining violent metaphors to get the full effect. “Scott Walker is dismembering state employees, then drowning them, then lighting them on fire, then telling them off-color jokes, then lighting them on fire again, then dropping them off a building, and then running over them with his car!” Now that’s a call to action.

If this doesn’t work, it always helps to play the Nazi card. It took the Teamsters over a half day to compare Walker to Hitler (what took so long?) – but their efforts fell somewhat short. In their letter to legislators, they spelled Hitler’s name “H-I-L-T-E-R.” When you’re comparing an elected Governor to a genocidal maniac, it really is just common courtesy to use spell check.

This is only slightly more sensical than the quote of the week so far, from State Senator Spencer Coggs of Milwaukee. Coggs said “The ghost of Martin Luther King must be rolling in his grave when he anticipates in the state of Wisconsin we’re going to have what, in effect, will be legalized slavery.”

Set aside, for a moment, the fact that slave pension benefits were probably slightly less generous than that of a Wisconsin state employee. It’s troubling that Coggs said MLK’s ghost was rolling around in his grave. Why would the ghost be hanging out in Dr. King’s grave with his body? Isn’t the whole benefit of being a ghost the ability to go float around, rattle chains and stuff? I know if I’m ever a ghost the last place I’ll want to be is in a smelly grave. Ghost me is hitting the nightclub looking for ghost honeys. Anyway.

Walker has said that if state workers don’t accept his fairly modest proposal, he will have to cut up to 6,000 state employees. Thus, it would seem that a vote against his bill would be a vote to lay off 6,000 workers. When I put it this way to some Democrat friends, they strongly objected, saying that there were loads of “other options” on the table for making up the $3.6 billion deficit.

Needless to say, I love being lectured by the party who had total control of state government for the past two years regarding ALL THESE OTHER options available to close the deficit. Apparently none of which they were willing to use, as they left Walker with a $3.6 billion hole to fill.
The best theory I’ve heard, however, is that of my friend (and editor) Bill Lueders, who thinks Walker’s plan all along was to goad government workers into demonstrating at the Capitol. Says Lueders: “Protests are exactly what Walker wants, because they can only lead to two outcomes: Either they are peaceful and accomplish nothing; or they turn violent and create a massive backlash against the unions and their members. Either way, Walker wins.”

Ah, yes – Walker is begging for violent protests to change the minds 20% of Wisconsinites who aren’t already with him. He is setting a trap for all the professional protesters in Madison into acting like fools to buttress his naked power grab. (Side note – if a protest in Madison gets violent, Egypt-style, what to people throw at each other? Fair trade coffee cups? Ironic eyewear?)

Sure, some union demonstrators may end up looking like idiots over the next few days. But most of the heavy lifting has already been done for them by their sympathetic politicians. Looking stupid is what they have lawmakers for.

So, people of the future, I hope this little internet time capsule finds you well. (And congratulations on my son leading the Green Bay Packers to their 13th Super Bowl title, over Brett Favre and the Shanghai Shooters.) Hopefully, your economy has improved a great deal under President Bieber.

When you hear about all the demonstrations at the State Capitol in 2011, this little post should give you a little idea what they were about. And if it seems a little strange that so many people were willing to protest being able to keep their jobs, you’re right. Seems strange in 2011, too. -February 14, 2011

People Do Stupid Things: That’s why political movements should be anchored in ideas

stupid_thingsIn the July issue of WI Magazine, I got the chance to write about the current “Conscience of Conservatism,” Congressman Paul Ryan. (A quick aside: Now would be a good time to start the “Paul Ryan Drinking Game.” Any time this magazine mentions Ryan, take a drink. You’ll be dialing up former lovers by the third page.)

During our discussion about his growing fame, Ryan said something that I immediately dismissed as false modesty: “It’s not about me, or my name, it’s about the ideas that I’m pushing.”

Like Frank Lloyd Wright, I prefer honest arrogance to fake humility. But in reviewing the past election season, I think Ryan has a point.

People do stupid things. We drill holes in our bodies. We tattoo the names of our favorite bands on our bodies. We listen to modern country music. We smoke. We have children with people to whom we are not married. We grow comb-overs.

And too often, politics is about people and not ideas. Flawed, misinformed, vulgar people.

Take, for example, poor Christine O’Donnell, the defeated Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in Delaware. Had O’Donnell beaten the odds and earned election to the Senate, she would have likely been a dependable conservative — something voters in record numbers all over the country said they wanted.

But in the public’s perception, O’Donnell the oddball swallowed O’Donnell the conservative. She famously dabbled in the occult in high school, leading to the most memorable ad of the 2010 election cycle, in which she declared: “I’m not a witch.”

The examples of personal quirks derailing policy-minded pols could go on forever. Former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s thirst for prostitutes quickly cut short his thirst to clean up Wall Street.

Erstwhile South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford’s principled anti-federal stimulus stand was forgotten when the voters learned he was being stimulated by an Argentine mistress.

Hanging the future of a political party on star power rather than ideological principles is always a risk. For one, candidates elected on the sheer force of their personality often stray from the parties that elected them. (See Schwarzenegger, Arnold.)

If ideas ran the show, Republicans wouldn’t have to cringe when Sarah Palin’s family life turns into a “Green Acres” episode. Democrats wouldn’t have to slap their heads in abasement when John Edwards is found to have fathered all of the Jonas Brothers.

And when politics becomes about ideas and not personalities, the discussion suddenly ramps up to a new level. Take, for example, the much-talked-about documentary Waiting for Superman. Written and directed by Davis Guggenheim (who directed Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth), the movie details how the American education system is destroying opportunity for inner-city youth.

Guggenheim forcefully argues for education reform, including eliminating tenure for teachers and expanding educational options.

Think tanks like this magazine’s publisher, the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, have been soberly urging such reforms for decades. Yet once the Inconvenient Truth director waded into the morass, traditional Democrats sat up and began to ask hard questions about teachers unions. Suddenly, it’s not who is saying it, but what is being said that takes precedence.

A little Hollywood can be a good thing.

Certainly, it’s Pollyannaish to believe the day is coming when every voter carefully reads candidate policy pronouncements as if they are mutual fund prospectuses. Politics has drifted into the realm of entertainment and will likely stay there.

One suspects that Sen.-elect Rand Paul’s devotion to the “Aqua Buddha” occupies the same lobe in the national cranium as Lindsay Lohan’s inability to wear underwear in public.

But Paul Ryan is showing that pushing ideas for a politician doesn’t have to be a death sentence. In fact, it can help get government back where it belongs — in the news section.

The Making of a Candidate: The Inside Story of How Wisconsin’s Ron Johnson Quietly Became one of the Political Stories of 2010


Just by walking down Oregon Street in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, it’s hard to tell that the Fate of Democracy in America resides here.  At the end of the street, The Ron Johnson for U.S. Senate campaign headquarters inhabits a large brick building fronted by stately white columns.  The building rests across the street from the vast Jeld Wen premium wood door plant, and just north of the Bottoms Up Bar, where t-shirted patrons spend afternoons drinking to forget the problems U.S. Senate candidates promise to solve.  (It is one of five bars within one square city block.)

Oshkosh isn’t exactly the epicenter of Wisconsin politics.  No statewide political figure has been elected from Oshkosh since 1899, when Emmett Hicks served as the state’s Attorney General.  Oshkosh did make statewide political news a decade ago, when one of its adult bookstores found a former state senator offering an undercover police officer the opportunity to “munch” on his privates, thus creating the most entertaining arrest report in Wisconsin political history.

Inside the Johnson headquarters, bespectacled 31 year-old campaign manager Juston Johnson (no relation to Ron) rubs the top of his prematurely bald head.  He’s just gotten a call from the Wall Street Journal asking to talk about Johnson’s upstart campaign.  “I’m terrible at talking to the press,” he complains, and passes the call off to Kristin Ruesch, his newly minted communications director.

It’s been a dizzying six-week stretch for Juston, as 55 year-old Ron Johnson has gone from being an unknown plastics manufacturer from Oshkosh to getting calls from the Wall Street Journal about his campaign against 18-year Democratic incumbent U.S. Senator Russ Feingold.

Hopes for large Republican electoral gains are high in June of 2010.  Low approval ratings for President Obama and the Democrat-controlled Congress have opened up the possibility for Republicans to take back the U.S. House of Representatives – a scenario which had been unthinkable mere months ago.  A dyspeptic American public, weary from two years of high unemployment, appears poised to toss out the Democrats they have deemed ineffective.

There are even rumblings that the GOP wave could win Republicans back control of the U.S. Senate, which Democrats hold by a 59-41 margin.  The recent election of Republican Scott Brown from Massachusetts has a number of GOP challengers feeling that they can ride a wave of voter discontent with Democrats into the Senate. But in order to regain the majority, Republicans would have to sweep ten heavily contested contests around the country  – including races in traditional Democratic strongholds like California, Illinois, and Washington.

Ron Johnson from Oshkosh, Wisconsin, would be the tenth.

Wisconsin has elected one Republican to the U.S. Senate since 1963 (Bob Kasten, who defeated Wisconsin political icon Gaylord Nelson in 1980.) But amazingly, a Ron Johnson win doesn’t seem impossible early in 2010.  A new poll from a Democrat pollster has Johnson within two percentage points of Feingold, 45% to 43%, despite Johnson only being in the race for a little over a month.

Feingold is no easy target.  Elected since 1992, he has cultivated his reputation as a “maverick,” willing to break ranks with his party on fiscal issues.  He aims to be the pluripotent senator – able to adapt to whatever political environment suits him at the time.  However, his recent votes for the controversial health care overhaul and the expensive and ineffective “stimulus” bill may have weakened him irreparably.

Feingold’s weakened state has manifested itself in the early polling.  Yet Juston is skeptical of the numbers.  He notes that even lesser-known Republican Dave Westlake polls at 38% against Feingold, meaning Johnson is only a few percentage points above what’s known in politics as the “ham sandwich” number.  (This is the number that a ham sandwich would get if it were placed on a ballot against an incumbent.)

Furthermore, the poll purports to have a sample made up of half 2008 Obama presidential voters and half McCain voters.  This makes it seems as if the poll is balanced, but in reality, Obama won Wisconsin by thirteen percentage points – leading Juston to think Republicans may be overrepresented.  Then again, it’s only June 30th – it’s entirely possible that we could fighting the machines by the time the general election rolls around in November.

The inside of the RonJon campaign office is vast.  (“RonJon” is a nickname some of his staff have come up with for Johnson – they considered “RoJo,” but thought it made him sound too much like a guy who designs sweaters for poodles.)  This floor of the building used to be either a law office, or real estate office – nobody can really say, as it has sat dormant for years.  The office has been sectioned off into a sea of cubicles, almost all of which sit empty, waiting for the – fingers crossed – eventual army of volunteers.  Currently, Johnson has 17 paid staff members.

Strewn around the makeshift office walls are boxes of t-shirts, yard signs, and bumper stickers.  It has the look of a campaign office that has unpacked all of its belongings hastily.  Mostly because that’s exactly what has happened.

Despite being considered the U.S. Senate race that could regain Republicans the majority  in 2010, the campaign can’t seem to get their internet to work.  This morning, RonJon is conducting an interview with conservative Milwaukee talk radio host Charlie Sykes.  More than three people appear to be streaming the broadcast live over the internet, so the entire network goes down.  Throughout the day, depending on how many people are online at the same time, the wireless signal comes and goes.  If someone dared to attempt downloading a Lady Gaga album, it could knock the Ron Johnson campaign offline for three days.

Back in his cubicle, amongst the boxes, Jack Jablonski is settling in not looking forward to the long weeks ahead. Jablonski, the 36-year old deputy campaign manager, has run campaigns for Wisconsin state senate candidates for a decade. He recently left a congressional race in Western Wisconsin to help RonJon.  He is one of the oldest staffers in the office.

“Oshkosh is like a working man’s Eau Claire,” he says, as one who had spent many nights sleeping under a desk in Eau Claire running other campaigns.  He’s miserable and wants to go home.  Jablonski’s wife, Courtney, gave birth to his first child, a boy, just weeks ago – and Jack wants to see him.

In his remote cubicle, Jablonski is holding court with the other staffers, detailing a study he read that could bode well for RonJon.  Apparently, some political scientists have determined that voters are more likely to support the candidate with the narrower face.  It makes them look more trustworthy, or something.  These researchers actually used Feingold’s 2004 race against construction company owner Tim Michels to prove their point – Feingold’s face was narrower that Michels’ giant meaty head, so study respondents correctly picked Feingold as the winner by overwhelming margins.

“Ron’s face is even narrower than Feingold’s” Jablonski points out.  “Let’s all just go home – it’s a done deal,” he jokes.

It has fallen to the tightly-wound Jablonski to prepare RonJon for the rigors of campaign question-and-answer sessions.  (Friends say that Jablonski may be the only person on earth that actually has to drink Red Bull to calm himself down.)  The early days of Johnson’s campaign have been beset by verbal stumbles and misstatements, such as when Johnson suggested he was running for office because he heard Fox News consultant (and notable prostitute enthusiast) Dick Morris say that “some rich guy” should take Feingold on.  “I told Ron to never utter the words ‘Dick Morris’ in public again,” said Juston.

Clearly, in mid-June, Johnson isn’t exactly a skilled interlocutor, which has become the central focus of his campaign.  “Ron is prone to mistakes,” said one staffer, explaining why they were keeping him away from the media for the time being.

One of the times RonJon’s inexperience as a public speaker became most evident occurred in early June, when the new candidate was speaking in front of a conservative group that should have been predisposed to his way of thinking.  Johnson was asked a question about illegal immigration, and began giving a good answer.

Johnson was telling the group all about how we need to secure the border and enforce the laws on the books.  He could have ended there and been just fine.  Then, when he should have stopped talking, he started asking himself rhetorical questions.  Johnson, not knowing what was going to come out of his mouth next, said, out loud, “of course, that brings up the question – what do we do with the illegal immigrants that are already here?”

Johnson’s staff was horrified.  Clearly, the only reason to ask yourself a hypothetical question out loud is because you probably don’t know the answer.  And not knowing things isn’t exactly a strong resume point when applying to be a U.S. senator.

As a result, Jablonski, Juston, and Ruesch began a “candidate boot camp” for the new candidate.  They locked Johnson into a room for three days in mid-June, firing questions at him.  These quickly became known as the “murder sessions.”   Among the questions Johnson was posed:

  • Should British Petroleum (BP) be required to suspend its dividend payouts to ensure set aside for liabilities or put it into an escrow fund?
  • What do you feel caused the financial crash?
  • When is it appropriate to use the filibuster?
  • Who is responsible for preserving and protecting the Gulf of Mexico?
  • Is Obama a Marxist?
  • Are you the tea party candidate?
  • Are you in favor of a Fair or Flat Tax?
  • Should we audit the Fed?

Both Jablonski and Juston acknowledge that RonJon is a smart guy.  “He’s said ‘every day I wake up, my goal is not to say something that will completely sink my campaign,’” recounts Juston.  “And he’s a very willing learner – he’d sit and study policy papers all day if he could,” he said.  “But he’s also very impatient and sensitive to his own vulnerabilities.  He can’t stand just saying ‘I don’t know,’ when asked a tough question.  It’s our job to teach him that sometimes it’s okay to give a 10 to 15 second answer, then pivot to jobs and the economy.”

Despite Johnson’s willingness to learn, these behind-the-scenes question and answer sessions often got testy.  At times, Johnson’s obduracy ground the meetings to a halt.  He didn’t think he’d be asked many of the questions his staff posed him.  They often had to go back over issues several times.

For instance, staff told him three separate times not to say he’s a better candidate than Dave Westlake because he has more money.  Then, at a candidate forum in Brookfield, Johnson answered a question about why he’d be a better candidate by essentially saying he had more money.

Through the murder sessions, Jablonski says he became convinced Johnson was smart and well-read enough to pull this off.  But Johnson was clearly a neophyte, while Feingold has been at the political game for over 30 years now.  “For eighteen years, taxpayers have been paying Russ Feingold to know everything there is to know about the federal government,” Jablonski says.  “And Ron has to learn it all in, like, two weeks.  Can you name anyone in the state who would be able to step into a situation like that?”

In June, Democrats are betting Johnson can’t.  That is why they’ve put a tracker on him – a paid staffer carrying a video camera, recording Johnson’s every utterance.  Johnson’s staffers say the tracker follows within two feet of Johnson any time he’s in public, which tends to creep out many of the voters RonJon talks to.  All so they can capture a “Macaca moment.”  (In 2006, Virginia Senator George Allen’s campaign was felled by a tracker who caught him on camera calling an Indian-American questioner “Macaca.”)

Johnson’s staff said the Democratic tracker was particularly obnoxious during 4th of July parades in Oshkosh, Franklin, Hartford, Menomonee Falls and Sheboygan, where Johnson tried to walk the parade route and talk to people with his tracker by his side.  Staffers said they thought about giving the tracker some campaign lit and asking him to hand it out, as long as he was going to be following Johnson everywhere.  They openly wondered if they should hire a tracker to follow the tracker, just to show how obnoxious the whole situation was.  (They mention Republican gubernatorial candidate Scott Walker also has a Democratic tracker, but that his tracker is actually a pretty cool guy.)

Over in her own office, Kristin Ruesch has just finished the call with the Wall Street Journal that Juston sent her way earlier in the day.  She’s still waiting for Oshkosh’s charms to present themselves to her, as she’s only been a part of the campaign for a little over a week – having left her position as communications director of the Republican Party of Wisconsin.  In order to stay motivated, she ends each day by reading a short passage from former President Bush advisor Karen Hughes’ book, “Ten Minutes From Normal.”  (Ruesch is on the board of Wisconsin Women in Government, and got to meet Hughes, her hero, just three months ago.)

The call from the Wall Street Journal was to find out whether Johnson has fallen out of favor with the Tea Party movement, which many people believe helped spawn his campaign.  In the early days of his candidacy, RonJon has come out in favor of the Patriot Act, which many libertarians in the right-wing Tea Party movement believe to be an infringement on their civil liberties.  Johnson believes it is necessary for the protection of our country, but several Tea Party groups have opposed his candidacy as a result.  (One such group, the “Wisconsin 9/12 Project,” released a “poll” of its members that showed Dave Westlake beating Johnson 95% to 5% – which likely means exactly 20 people took the poll.)

This is quite a sea change for Johnson, whose first major public appearance as a potential U.S. Senate candidate took place at a Tea Party rally on the Wisconsin Capitol lawn on April 15th.  On Tax Day, Johnson gave an impassioned speech before conservatives and libertarians – at the time, he was just known as “the rich guy who might run against Feingold.”  And it took him a full month after that speech to formally declare his candidacy.

In May, Feingold was more than willing to play up Johnson’s connections to the Tea Party.  In Kentucky, “Tea Party candidate” Rand Paul won a landslide victory in the Republican U.S. Senate primary, and celebrated his victory by announcing that he’d like to see a portion of the 1964 Civil Rights Act repealed.

After the Rand Paul Civil Right imbroglio, Feingold pounced on RonJon.  “[Johnson] refused to say whether he favors the continuation of Social Security and Medicare. He hasn’t even said he supports the Civil Right Act,” Feingold said in a June 16th interviewwith

Feingold also took some shots at Johnson during the senator’s speech to the Wisconsin Democratic Convention on Friday, June 11th.  Feingold said he fought against deregulating the banks in 1999, while “Mr. Johnson was silent.”  Feingold said he fought against President Bush’s policy to let corporate America “run wild,” and, again, “Mr. Johnson was silent.”

The mere mention of these Feingold quote gets Jablonski red-faced with anger.

“So let me get this straight – Ron Johnson is just some guy up in Oshkosh running a business and employing people, and Feingold thinks he should be putting out press releases saying he supports the Civil Rights Act?  What the fuck?  Maybe we should issue a statement accusing Russ Feingold of never saying he opposed child abuse.  Or say ‘Russ Feingold sat idly by while Brett Favre bought a cell phone.’ It’s ridiculous.”

Furthermore, later in the Politico interview, Feingold actually portrayed himself as the Tea Party candidate, pointing out that he agrees with many of their factions on the Patriot Act.  Feingold said Johnson “doesn’t match up with some of their views. He’s trying to use the label of the tea party, but under closer scrutiny, they’re going to realize they don’t match up.”

This puzzled Ruesch.  “So in the same interview, Feingold claims Ron is a racist because he’s a Tea Party member, but then criticizes him for not being enough of a Tea Party member?  Which is it?” she asks.

One of Feingold’s initial shots at Johnson dealt with RonJon’s wealth.  Feingold pointed out that Johnson would be the 70th millionaire in the Senate, and pleaded for a little “economic diversity.”

When Johnson first entered the race, he said he would spend $15 million on the campaign if he had to.  From this figure, political experts tried to extrapolate how much Johnson was actually worth – $100 million?  $200 million?

In fact, Johnson was worth almost exactly what he said he would spend – around $15 million.  When asked by Washington Post columnist George F. Will how much of his personal wealth he would use on the campaign, he said “all of it.”

But Johnson was used to giving away his money.  Between 2005 and 2009, Ron had donated $2.2 million to charity, much of it to Catholic schools in the Oshkosh area.  But the fact that RonJon often gave gift anonymously hurt him when trying to accumulate name ID for his campaign.  “He’s a rich guy in a small town, but nobody knows who he is,” said Juston.

A millionaire challenger is actually something Feingold clearly dreaded.  Part of the famous McCain-Feingold campaign law was a provision that prevented independently wealthy candidates from spending their own money on their campaign.  This so-called “millionaire’s amendment” was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2008.

Feingold likely knew that the only way a challenger could catch up with his $5 million warchest was for a millionaire to spend his or her own money.  So he authored a law to keep them from taking him on. But now, thanks to the law being declared unconstitutional, Feingold had a capable millionaire on his doorstep.

While the campaign dealt with these little brush fires, Juston knew these Feingold jabs were tepid compared to what was headed their way as the campaign progresses.  In fact, he was surprised Feingold and his surrogates hadn’t been more aggressive up to that point.  He said that if he were running the Democrats’ campaign at that point, he’d be spending millions to “kill the Johnson campaign in its crib.”  He notes that currently, Johnson “doesn’t have the resources or staff infrastructure to respond to anything big they could throw at us.”

Soon, he would get his wish.


Russ Feingold began his advertising campaign in earnest on July 6th, when he commenced running a 60-second radio ad called “Penny Pincher.”  The ad, which features only Feingold’s own voice, bragged about the senator’s vote against the 2008 bank bailout, saying that in Wisconsin, “we pinch our pennies.”

The ad is emblematic of the way Feingold sees himself – despite being one of the Senate’s most stalwart liberals, he seems to have convinced himself that he is a thrifty protector of taxpayer dollars.  Ads like these essentially serve as political mascara – when he doesn’t like the face he has, Feingold just draws one on that he likes.

In the same ad, Feingold attempts to bolster his credibility as a fiscal conservative by touting his plan to end pay raises for members of Congress – a transparent strategy to run against the body in which he had served for 18 years.

The calculus is easy to follow: in the preceding legislative session, Feingold voted for a number of bills that put Congress’ approval ratings at slightly lower than “athlete’s foot.”  Unable to wriggle out from underneath those votes, Feingold tried a little political jujitsu – vote for wildly unpopular legislation, tarnish the reputation of Congress, then try to score political points by running against the Congress that he aided in casting into disrepute.

The Republican Party of Wisconsin quickly fired back, highlighting Feingold’s vote for the health care bill, which is expected to cost $2.3 trillion over the next ten years, and Feingold’s vote for the $1 trillion “stimulus” bill.  Somehow, they pointed out, Feingold let a few hundred trillion pennies elude his grasp.

Yet this pro-Feingold as served merely as an hors d’oevre to the television campaign the senator had up his sleeve.  On July 13, Feingold began running an ad called “Just Say No,” in which he attacked RonJon for purportedly wanting to drill for oil in the Great Lakes.

The ad, which attempted to cash in on the still-fresh (and still-disastrous) BP oil spill, began like an erectile dysfunction commercial – with serene scenes of beaches and sunsets.  Six seconds in, Feingold appears, talking about how he has “stood up” (pun unintended) to the big oil companies and opposed drilling for oil in the Great Lakes.  As he accuses Ron Johnson of wanting to do that very thing, a graphic of a giant, amorphous oil slick moves from the Gulf of Mexico coast to Lake Michigan, hypothetically blanketing the hypothetical state in hypothetical sludge.

Days before Feingold began running his ad, Johnson had issued a statement saying he unequivocally opposed drilling in the Great Lakes.  But Feingold’s assertion that Johnson supported drilling for oil in Lake Michigan was rooted in an interview Johnson conducted with the website in mid-June.  Johnson was asked:

Wispolitics: Do you want to open up more of the United States – continental United States – to, to drilling? I mean, would you support drilling, like, in the Great Lakes for example if there was oil found there or (unintelligible) using more exploration on Alaska – ANWAR or those kinds of things?

Johnson: Yeah, you know, the bottom line is that, uh, we are an oil-based economy. And we’re really, there’s nothing we’re going to do to get off of that for many, many years.  So I mean we just have to, we have to be realistic and recognize that fact, and you know, I, I, think we have to we have to get the oil where it is but we need to do it responsibly, we need to utilize, you know, American ingenuity and American technology to make sure that we DO do it environmentally, you know, sensitive and safely.

The crux of Feingold’s argument hinged on Johnson’s beginning his answer with the word “yeah.”  When written, it could be construed that Johnson is agreeing with the entire line of questioning.  But the audio clearly shows that RonJon only uttered “yeah,” in the sense of “yeah, I am acknowledging your question.”

This nervous tic of Johnson’s, answering any question posed to him with “yeah,” ended up being a big concern for his staff.  They thought if Feingold was smart, he’d ask Johnson a question like,  “so, you would get rid of social security for seniors, knowing that by making a change, that you believe needs to be done, it would help the next generation have social security in the future, because you support sustainable social security fund, right?”

In this case, simply beginning his answer with the word “yeah” ended up costing Johnson hundreds of thousands of dollars.  RonJon had to write check after check to respond to Feingold’s ad based on his reflexive response.  OnMessage Media, the national firm Johnson was using for his television ads, rushed furiously to get a counter-ad out the door explaining that Johnson never supported drilling in the Great Lakes.

The “drilling in Lake Michigan” attack isn’t one the Johnson campaign had anticipated, so their ad had to be cobbled together from scratch.  Yet within 12 hours, the national ad guys had produced “Stuck in the Mud,” which not only criticized Feingold’s 28 years as a “career politician,” but also accused Feingold of being “the only Great Lakes senator to vote no” on a bill that banned drilling in the lakes.

The vote itself, dug up by one of the campaign’s Wisconsin researchers, was a good catch – only the way it showed up in the ad, it wasn’t true.  Senators Hillary Clinton and Chuck Schumer of New York both voted against the law, and New York borders both Lake Ontario and Lake Erie.  Thus, Feingold wasn’t the only “Great Lakes senator” to vote no on the bill.

RonJon didn’t like the ad to begin with. And when this mistake was pointed out, it caused some friction between the Wisconsin and Washington D.C. arms of the campaign. (The campaign used various publications and entities that defined “Great Lakes States” differently.  Some included New York and some did not.)

It was the D.C. guys that went ahead with the ad with the disputed fact, but the Wisconsin staffers thought that some of their east coast consultants were ignoring the media fallout.

“They’re not on the ground – their decisions have no impact on their lives,” one staffer complained. “We have to deal with the day-to-day onslaught of an aggressive state media that will blow up any issue it can.”

Three months to go. And soon, the campaign would have more to worry about.

The third week in July, Johnson began a tour of the western half of Wisconsin.  His public appearances in places like Hudson, River Falls, and La Crosse were limited primarily to “Tea Party,” or other like-minded events.  The trip was planned stealthily, in order to avoid Johnson’s Democratic tracker coming along.

When speaking in front of these groups, RonJon often got too comfortable with his message.  While it appeared he dodged a bullet by denying he wanted to drill in Lake Michigan, he soldiered on with his message that BP shouldn’t be vilified.

This caused much consternation with his staff, as they pleaded with him to stay away from anything but the most basic talking points on the whole BP issue. During one closed door meeting, they asked Johnson to tone down the BP rhetoric. “I will not stop defending the producers of America,” he shot back. At one point, he jokingly referred to some his staff as “professional liars” – as he was committed to running the campaign on his own terms.  Johnson made it clear that if he was investing this much money and time, the campaign was going to stand for what he stood for.

To the Tea Party groups, Johnson’s free market rhetoric was like having liquid gold poured directly into their ears.  Johnson believes strongly in the power of free markets and the ability of the private sector to pull Wisconsin out of the recession.  And none of his campaign staffers would necessarily disagree with that philosophical foundation.

But they had a campaign to win.  And as long as the man-made hole in the Gulf of Mexico belched out barrels of liquid disaster, it remained an open wound to Americans.  Yet Johnson bucked his advisors, saying in one interview with a local newspaper, “I’m not anti-big oil.”  (Translation: “I am pro-big oil.”)

As the campaign dodged bullets, Johnson began to think very fondly of his own campaigning prowess. As a result, he began tuning out his advisors even more, saying whatever came to his mind whenever he felt like it.   “He thinks that he can win people over with arguments,” said one staffer.  “That would be fine if this were a debate club – but this is a campaign,” the staffer added.

On this campaign swing, Johnson’s favorite trick was quoting verbatim entire glowing passages of what Milwaukee radio talk show host Charlie Sykes had said about him, despite nobody in Western Wisconsin knowing who Charlie Sykes was. Staff noticed peoples’ eyes glazing over when he began his typical Sykes spiel.

It didn’t help that Johnson was seeking counsel with political figures urging him to push his message forward in the way he saw fit. At one point, Johnson had a discussion with Newt Gingrich, who told him to ignore his advisors, because consultants were prone to mistakes by using the same political tools from the past. (Ironic, as Newt Gingrich has spent decades advising political candidates.)

The denouement of the late July road trip came when RonJon was in Prairie du Chien talking in front of about 20 people at the 3M plant.  The plant’s employees asked him if he was a Viking or a Packer fan.  (Johnson grew up in Minnesota, saying he only visited Wisconsin to drink beer with his friends, since the drinking age was lower.)

When Johnson replied that he was a Packer fan, the employees collectively began to boo him.  After stumbling a little, he began to backtrack, saying that he still rooted for erstwhile Packer-turned Viking quarterback Brett Favre.

Amazingly, Johnson was willing to backtrack on the Minnesota Vikings, but not on BP.

Back in Oshkosh, the campaign staff tried to assess the damage.  During the trip, Johnson had repeatedly defended Big Oil.  He called free trade “creative destruction,” implying that people had to lose their jobs to factories overseas in order to create new jobs here in America.  He had said that “poor people don’t create jobs.”  And Johnson expressed his opinion that people should be able to get their primary health care at Wal-Mart.

Again, on none of these issues was Johnson necessarily wrong.  But the campaign trail isn’t necessarily the best place to introduce ideas to the public that require more than a fifteen second explanation.  On all these things, the public needed to brought along gently.

Staff was most worried about the fact that the Democrats had pulled the tracker off Johnson.  “I’m sure they have enough stuff by now.  We’re creating new material by the day,” one staffer groused.

Part of that new material emerged soon thereafter, when RonJon said he would be selling his stock in BP in order to fund his campaign.  The young chairman of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, Mike Tate, whose initial foray into politics has been slightly less successful than Travis Bickle’s, immediately pounced.

“Ron Johnson has been cheerleading for Big Oil on the campaign trail, saying that now isn’t the time to be beating up on oil companies,” said Tate in a statement. “In each and every case he didn’t say one word about the hundreds of thousands of dollars he had invested in BP and Big Oil. He’s not shooting straight with the voters.”

Some staffers were convinced that while Johnson had done reasonably well before controlled crowds, he wouldn’t go over so well in crowds of mixed ideologies.  “He’s stubborn,” said one staffer.  “He’s not going to shy away from cutting government, and that’s good.  Really smart, but sometimes really stubborn.”

At this point, the behind-the-scenes “murder sessions” have gotten extremely tense.  In fact, it is the campaign staff that is taking most of the barbs.  When staffers suggested to Johnson that he shouldn’t defend the “Bush economic agenda” so stringently, he lashed out at them.

There were instances where they could tell Johnson was trying.  On the morning of July 26th, Johnson was scheduled to do an interview with Wisconsin Public Radio’s Joy Cardin.  In the pre-interview sessions, Johnson kept reflexively saying we need to drill for oil “where it’s safe, like the Gulf of Mexico.”  Staffers kept reminding him that he couldn’t say that on the air, as the public didn’t necessarily consider the Gulf of Mexico to be a safe place to drill.  Johnson nervously kept slipping it into his answers.

Sixteen minutes into the interview, “Larry from Neillsville” called in to ask Johnson if he’s ever told anyone it would be okay to drill for oil in the Great Lakes.  Johnson said no, but went on to point out that America is an oil based economy.  Then he said “we need to drill where it’s safe…” before pausing and moving on to another talking point.  He stopped precisely where he needed to in order to avoid an ongoing story.

Even if his staff thought he was making progress, Johnson had already produced a Thanksgiving feast of cringe-inducing statements.  And Feingold had his knife and fork ready.

On August 10, Feingold began running a radio ad he called “Stuff,” in which he plays an excerpt of RonJon indicating he was open to the “licensing” of guns “like we license cars and stuff.”  The clip was taken months before Johnson had any campaign staff to explain to him that the word “license” to a gun owner is like the word “garlic” to a vampire.

What Johnson meant to say was that he supports allowing permits to carry concealed weapons, which is currently not allowed in Wisconsin. (It is one of the two remaining states that do not allow “concealed carry.”)  But at the time, he didn’t know the political lingo, and misspoke.

Within a day, the Johnson campaign cut a radio ad explaining the mix-up.  The script for the ad was actually written by RonJon himself, as many of the early radio ads were.  It simply features Johnson’s voice, saying “in my first days as a candidate, I used the wrong terms when discussing my strong support for concealed carry rights for gun owners here in Wisconsin.  I’m not a slick politician, and I made a mistake.  It wasn’t the first time, and it probably won’t be the last.”

The Johnson campaign felt they had dodged a bullet, but worried that they couldn’t keep playing the “I’m just a confused new guy” card.  “That’s going to be us from now on,” said one staffer.

However, Feingold’s gun rights attack on Johnson seemed a curious one, and exposes a small window into his view of himself.  Nobody in Wisconsin seriously believed Feingold was somehow more of a defender of gun rights than the conservative Johnson.  But Feingold actually thought the “maverick” tag he has hoisted upon himself would be enough to convince people.  Soon, the ad faded away without any real effect.

Johnson’s staff felt they had turned a corner by the time mid-August rolled around.  None of Feingold’s attacks appeared to be sticking to RonJon, and their candidate was learning to smooth out the message a little.

Ruesch’s life also got easier, as the campaign hired a new press secretary.  Sara Sendek had come to work for Johnson after working on former congressman Pete Hoekstra’s unsuccessful campaign to become Michigan’s governor.  Ruesch and Sendek hit it off immediately, moving in to an unfurnished, run down apartment together.

On Friday, August 13th (which would retroactively become ominous), the team began prepping Johnson for his Monday editorial board visit with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Wisconsin’s largest newspaper.  The prep sessions were broken off into two-hour segments, and a wide spectrum of issues was discussed.  Staffers lobbed questions at RonJon for a total of 10 hours in preparation for the interview.

On the morning of August 17th, Johnson and his staff made their way into the room with the Journal Sentinel editorial board.  Once the interview began, Johnson dutifully soldiered through questions about Iraq, gun rights, health care, and tax cuts with characteristically laconic answers.

Then he was asked about global warming.

Johnson, who had previously characterized theories of man-made global warming as “crazy,” and “lunacy,” told the editorial board that he absolutely did not believe in the theory of man’s role in causing climate change.

“It’s far more likely that it’s just sunspot activity or just something in the geologic eons of time,” he said, adding that be believed excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere “gets sucked down by trees and helps the trees grow.”

Naturally, the headline in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel the next day read “Sunspots Are Behind Climate Change, Johnson Says.”  After an hour of being posed dozens of questions, the paper had decided Johnson’s enthusiasm for sunspots was the show-stealer.

At no point in the 10 hours of interview prep were sunspots discussed.  Staff was perplexed as to where it even came from – maybe Johnson had once read a book that briefly mentioned it and it just popped into his head.

After the article broke, the campaign was more worried about the second part of Johnson’s answer than they were about sunspots.  “Excess carbon gets sucked down by the trees and helps them grow,” said one staffer.  “He’s essentially saying pollution is good for the environment.  Think that’ll sell?”

Of course, Feingold immediately attacked Johnson for his stance on man’s role in global warming.  But in the same new article, Feingold made an equally puzzling assertion in an attempt to prove man-made global warming existed.  “Do you notice the heat lately, my friend?” he told a Journal Sentinel reporter.

Obviously, if Ron Johnson had argued that global warming didn’t exist because he had to wear his fleece vest a few days extra last year, the paper would have destroyed him.  But Feingold’s evidence – that it’s hot in Wisconsin in August – seems to be scientifically bullet-proof.  Just stick your finger in the air to see if the world is on the verge of eradication.  (If Feingold had been caught soliciting a prostitute, he’d be hailed by the newspapers as “creating jobs.”)

News of Johnson’s views on global warming went national.  Jon Stewart joked on The Daily Show that Russ Feingold was going to lose “to some guy who thinks global warming is caused by sunspots and toaster ovens.”  Basements all over the country were illuminated with lefty blog posts mocking Johnson.

Sendek, three days into her new job as press secretary, was cast right into the middle ofl’affaire sunspot.    “Welcome to the campaign – our candidate just said pollution is good for trees. Have at it.”

Within days she was sending reporters emollient e-mails attempting to regulate the message.  “It has been misconstrued to say that Ron believes sunspots are the sole cause for global warming” she wrote.  “He  has never made a statement that says sunspots are unequivocally to blame for global warming.”

Of course, amid the charges and accusations, one issue flew under the radar: do sunspots really have anything to do with global warming?  The Journal Sentinel followed up with a respected researcher that said they do, but less so than greenhouse gases.

So it’s not as if Johnson was completely off base.  For instance, he didn’t say global warming was caused by dolphin tears.  But campaigns aren’t necessarily set up to introduce new, unknown facts into the public discourse.  As P.J. O’Rourke has said, in the American political system, “you’re only allowed to have real ideas if it’s absolutely guaranteed you can’t win an election.”

While the Johnson campaign braced for calamity, the most unexpected thing happened:


Polls had shown the race to be a virtual dead heat since May.  And even with all the hits Johnson had taken over the past two months, it appeared to still be a toss-up.  A Rasmussen poll taken on August 24th, one week after the sunspot story broke, had Johnson up 47% to 46%.  Only 5% of voters were undecided, with more than two months to go.  Johnson’s missteps may have been pulling the campaign in one way, but the nation’s Tea Party zeitgeist was pulling the polls in the other direction.

In fact, the national media began to take notice.  In late August, the New York Times ran a feature on the Feingold-Johnson race, calling it a “bellweather” for national G.O.P. hopes.  It cast Johnson in a very positive light, even when Johnson was asked to comment on his frequent misstatements.

“I’m used to being in business, when you have a half-hour and you can hash things out, you can wax philosophical about things,” Johnson was quoted as saying. “It’s pretty hard to do in a political campaign when someone says, ‘What’s your position on this?’ And you get a microphone thrown in your mouth. That’s difficult.”

The conservative Weekly Standard was one of many right-leaning publications to begin featuring the “Ayn Rand-loving, pro-life Lutheran, plastics manufacturer from Oshkosh.”  An article published on August 9th discussed RonJon’s public speaking style, saying “Johnson is personable and rolls off facts, figures, and anecdotes with ease when discussing the issues.”

Just as Feingold attempted to use his greatest weakness (being a career politician) to his own benefit, the Johnson campaign tried to pivot and make light of his occasional blunders.

On August 24th, Ron began running a television ad called “The Johnson Family,” in which his two daughters, wife, and son all extolled RonJon’s virtues.  The grown children are intentionally made to look as if they are reading implausible compliments off of cue cards, before the music stops and Johnson admits to not being a career politician, nor are his kids professional actors.

The ad, written by Brad Todd at OnMessage Media, was an attempt at using humor to diffuse many of Johnson’s public statements.  (The bar for a political ad to be considered “humorous” is pretty low – like being called the prettiest girl at a Rush concert.)  But the ad itself, aided by the hundreds of thousands of dollars Johnson spent to air it, helped soften his public image.

On the other hand, Feingold had been making news with his television ads – but not in the way he intended.  In early August, Feingold produced an ad called “Homegrown,” in which he tries to make the case that the stimulus plan he supported actually created jobs.  The ad features a woman named “Elizabeth Ackland” attaching a new nameplate to her cubicle, to represent someone recently hired.

The Johnson campaign quickly scrambled to point out that there is no “Elizabeth Ackland” currently living in Wisconsin.  It may seem like a minor point – campaigns use actors and fake names all the time – but it provided Johnson with a legitimate talking point: Russ Feingold couldn’t find a single living human being that benefited from the stimulus, so he had to make one up.

In mid-August, Feingold began running an ad called “On Our Side,” in which he proclaims his allegiance to “regular folks” over special interests. Yet one of the “regular folks” featured in the ad was a lobbyist for the AFL-CIO. According to Project Vote Smart, Feingold had a 94% rating from the AFL-CIO until 2009, which doesn’t exactly buttress his “maverick” persona.

But that didn’t keep Feingold from going on offense, even if Johnson was sharpening his message.

On the morning of August 30th, Johnson was set to conduct an interview with the Wisconsin Radio Network.  When the radio interview started, Johnson began talking about entrepreneur Steve Wynn moving jobs to China.  “He’s also creating resorts in Macau in China, communist China. And his point is, the level of uncertainty, the climate for business investment is far more certain in communist China then it is in the U.S. here,” he told the host. “We’ve created such a high level of uncertainty in this economy because, quite honestly because of the agenda that Senator Feingold represents.”

After the interview, Ruesch counseled against mentioning Wynn, thinking it would only invite more questions. Dissatisfied, Johnson asked for Jablonski’s second opinion.  Jack told Johnson he tentatively agreed with Ruesch.

Of course, saying jobs are moving to China is normally an innocuous observation.  But the Wisconsin State Journal published an article about Johnson’s statements, wondering if “RoJo” was a “big fan of China.”  Obviously, had Feingold accurately noted that jobs were moving to Hong Kong, he’d be hailed as standing up for working people.  When Johnson did it, it was as if he had pledged allegiance to Chairman Mao.

Wisconsin State Journal reporters tweeted a link to the story, saying the story “Could go national.”  Surely, they were hoping it did.  This suddenly emerged as a theme for Johnson – not only do politicians and staffers use campaigns as a ladder to move up, but members of the media do, too.  If a reporter could manufacture a “gotcha” moment with a gaffe-prone candidate like Johnson, their name could be all over the national blogs.

The day after the story “broke,” Feingold was a guest on “The Ed Show” on MSNBC.  He told host Ed Schultz that Johnson was “coming unraveled” before he responded to Johnson’s comments on China.  “Here’s a guy who claims to be for freedom, who claims to be for free enterprise and jobs, who’s praising the communist Chinese system over our system,” Feingold said.  “That’s not going to play well with the people of Wisconsin.”

 After watching the interview, Jablonski laughed.  “Well, I guess ‘Rojo’ is Spanish for ‘red,’” he chuckled.

Once again, however, Feingold’s swipe failed to connect.  While the last Rasmussen poll, taken August 24, had the race a virtual tie, internal state GOP polling had Johnson pulling slightly ahead.  According to the poll, Johnson was overperforming in traditionally Democratic areas, and slightly underperforming in strong Republican districts.  For instance, Johnson was only up 51% to 46% in the Milwaukee suburbs, where he was almost certain to win by twice that margin.

“Jesus Christ,” said the characteristically pessimistic Jablonski.  “We might actually win this thing.”


The day after Labor Day, September 7th, is colder than usual this year in Wisconsin.  The farm houses around Oshkosh are already framed with trees dappled orange and red, and one can already see his or her breath. (Using Russ Feingold’s logic, this is proof that global warming doesn’t exist.)

The parking lot at the Johnson headquarters on Oregon Street is now full of cars, as the campaign’s statewide staff has grown to 51 employees.  Visitors are greeted by a dog named Bourbon, a Shar Pei owned by Kirsten Hopkins, Johnson’s principal fundraiser.

Numerous staffers now occupy the rows of cubicles in the headquarters.  They all walk with pieces of paper in their hands, as if the fate of the campaign hinged on whatever information they are carrying.  Johnson’s kids, Ben and Jenna, also working on the campaign, wander the halls.  They are easily recognizable, given their ubiquitous position on televisions all over the state.  Given, they’re not exactly “stars” per se, but this is Oshkosh, Wisconsin – they might as well be Tom Cruise and Miley Cyrus.

Johnson is sitting at a large wooden desk in his office, getting ready to do a national interview with Sirius XM Satellite Radio.  Sendek sits across from him with a pad in her hand.  As he discusses pension issues with the host, he scribbles a drawing representing a sun, with lines shooting out of it.

The interview seems to be the standard Ron Johnson interview – he throws out statistics, while seeming a little short of breath.  His hands shake a little.  But then, Johnson’s asked a question about health care, and the whole interview dynamic shifts.

He begins discussing his daughter Carey, who was born with a heart deformation 27 years ago.  At the time, her specific disease was considered to be 75 percent fatal.  Johnson went from doctor to doctor, searching for one that could perform the procedure to save his little girl’s life.

And it is golden.  Suddenly, by talking about something from his own experience, Johnson has come to life.  Like flipping a switch, he has gone from being a candidate to a dad.

After the interview, we talk about some of his verbal flubs.  I ask him about sunspots.  He shrugs.  “Sometimes you just say things,” he says.  I ask him if he thinks reporters are purposely trying to trip him up now.  “Absolutely,” he answers.

He says his staff has been working with him on committing errors of o-mission rather than errors of co-mmission.  Nobody will ever criticize you for something you don’t say, they have told him.  But he is now aware that things he does say can cost him a million dollars’ worth of ads.

The conflict in Johnson is evident – he got into the race because of his disgust with smooth-talking politicians.  But now, he’s struggling to become a plausible politician himself.  People say they want an outsider, but once a candidate gets too outside, it harms their brand.  (Ask Republican Delaware Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell, whose past statements forced her to cut a television ad publicly denying she is a witch.)

Most of September would be spent raising money, issuing new television ads, prepping Johnson for the debates in October, and fending off Feingold’s attacks.  But one minor inconvenience stood in the way: RonJon had to win the primary on September 14th.

To most political observers, Johnson’s primary victory over Dave Westlake was a mere formality.  Westlake had run a campaign with virtually no money – he sold blaze orange t-shirts to raise cash, and posted internet videos of himself giving impassioned speeches about liberty.  In these videos, Westlake very much resembled Wisconsin native Chris Farley’s famous “Matt Foley, Motivational Speaker” character.  And it wouldn’t surprise any voter if Westlake himself were living in a van down by the river.

During the campaign, Westlake had criticized Johnson for not being sufficiently right-wing, hammering him particularly on RonJon’s support for the Patriot Act.  But Westlake’s credibility was damaged irreparably when the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel unearthed some of the details of Westlake’s business dealings.  (The Johnson campaign denies they had anything to do with leaking the details.)

Westlake was being sued by a former business partner, Fawaad Khan, over a business they owned together called High IQ, LLC.  Private e-mails between Westlake and Khan released to the public not only showed Westlake to be whiny and evasive, but exposed his disastrous business plan.  Basically, Westlake had taken out government loans to pay himself a salary while he traveled the state campaigning for U.S. Senate, instead of using those funds to benefit the business.  Thus, the “real conservative” candidate was depending on government aid to run his campaign.

It’s not reassuring to voters when it becomes clear someone is running for office simply because they are virtually unemployable anywhere else.  So on election night, Johnson beat Westlake by a USA versus Angola Olympic basketball Dream Team margin – 85% to 10%.  Given the nature of polls –  for instance, 10% of Americans think Dick Cheney secretly planned the 9-11 attacks – the Johnson campaign considered this to be a virtual sweep of Republican voters.

While the primary was a mere formality, the news following September 14th proved to be a bit of a surprise.  A Rasmussen poll conducted the day after the primary showed Ron Johnson up 51% to 44% on Feingold.  The campaign had expected a post-primary bump, but not that kind of bump.

Seeing his numbers begin to slip, Feingold began to step up his attacks on Johnson.  The first came in the form of a television ad Feingold ran featuring news footage from a Madison television station that investigated whether Johnson had gotten government assistance to start his business 31 years ago.  It includes a clip of Johnson saying he never lobbied for “special treatment or a government payment,” then shows headlines indicating Johnson received $4 million in “government” loans to aid his business.

At issue were a tool called “Industrial Revenue Bonds, (IRBs),” which grant a business a lower interest rate for loans which the business has to secure from the private underwriting market.  There is no government guarantee, no government money, and the taxpayers are never at risk – and Johnson’s company paid it all back on time.

In order to counter this attack, Johnson’s campaign contacted two former Wisconsin secretaries of commerce, Bill McCoshen (who served under Governor Tommy Thompson) and Dick Leinenkugel (whose service under Democratic Governor Jim Doyle killed his own chances of running for the GOP senate nomination Johnson eventually won.)  The two secretaries wrote a letter pointing out that IRBs aren’t “government aid,” as Feingold’s ad suggested.  In fact, the program urges government to get out of the way to provide more business growth – a position on which Johnson had been wholly consistent.

This was a Feingold charge for which the campaign had been prepared.  In fact, it was one of many potential Feingold attacks that Johnson had anticipated.  While it’s much publicized when a candidate hires a private investigator to dig up dirt on his or her opponent, more often a candidate will hire someone to investigate his or herself.  This gives a candidate an idea of what negative information their opponent is likely to use against them.  Johnson’s campaign did just this, so they already had a good list of the attacks Feingold was likely to launch.

In fact, the tricky part of running a campaign isn’t knowing what will be used against you, it is guessing when those things will be employed by your opponent.  Way back in July, Jablonski assumed Feingold’s next negative attack on Johnson would be on free trade issues.  That attack came, but not until mid-September, when Feingold began running ads accusing Johnson of supporting international trade agreements like NAFTA, which Feingold said cost Wisconsin 64,000 jobs.

In late September, word got to the Johnson campaign that Johnson would be attacked for his involvement in the Catholic school system in the Green Bay and Fox Valley areas.  For years, Johnson had donated millions of dollars to various Catholic schools in Northeastern Wisconsin, despite not even being Catholic himself.

When a bill came before the Legislature to lift the statute of limitations for people who want to accuse the church of sex crimes, Johnson opposed it.  He thought that it could make the very system he helped keep alive a magnet for lawsuits that could bankrupt it.  While he supported tough criminal penalties for pedophiles, he didn’t want to see all the good he was trying to do torn apart by 30-year old lawsuits.  He also worried that such “window” legislation could harm other non-profits like the Boys and Girls Clubs.

On September 28th, a publication called “Veterans Today” published the video of Johnson’s testimony against the bill before the Wisconsin Legislature.  In the video, a bearded Ron Johnson, looking like a skinny Wolf Blitzer, reads through his objections to the bill.  A bill, incidentally, on which the Democratic-controlled Legislature agreed with Johnson.  It never passed either house.

Nevertheless, the Johnson campaign took proactive measures to get ahead of the story.  The left-wing blogosphere (where spelling and proper English are treated as if they were prisoners in Guantanamo Bay) pounced immediately, posting “Ron Johnson supports pedophiles” entries everywhere.  On Keith Olbermann’s MSNBC show (which The Weekly Standard’s Matt Labash described as “the sound of a man having unprotected sex with the sound of his own voice”), Olbermann had an adult victim of pedophilia on the air to discuss his disgust with Johnson.

But Johnson’s campaign was ready.  They issued a fact sheet on the allegations that Ruesch had actually drafted back in June while working at the state Republican Party.  Johnson called for full disclosure by the Green Bay diocese in any ongoing investigations.  Calls were made to media outlets all over the state to explain why this was a non-story.

And it worked.  A story on the subject by Milwaukee Journal Sentinel investigative reporter Dan Bice rumored to be following the allegations never materialized.  (Bice had done an article on the issue two months earlier.)  The story faded, at least for the time being.

But it didn’t mean the campaign was out of the proverbial woods just yet – there was still material out there that could be used against Johnson.  Running a campaign is very much like the movie Carlito’s Way – just when you think you’ve escaped, Bennie Blanco from the Bronx returns from the past to take you out.

And the left-wing blogs kept trying.  Their next charge was that Johnson had once hired a sex offender in his plastics plant.  Never mind that in any other circumstance, these same liberals would be all for giving ex-cons a second chance at employment.  But in Wisconsin, it is actually against the law to take someone’s arrest or conviction record into account when deciding to hire them.  If Johnson hadn’t hired this guy, he would have been breaking the law – and the blogs would use that against him.  But because he did hire this man, feeling he had been rehabilitated, that was then used against him.

Again, none of the attacks stuck.  A Rasmussen poll taken on September 29th had Johnson up by an unbelievable 54% to 42% margin.  The day before, RonJon had issued two new ads – one featuring Johnson standing in front of a white dry-erase board writing down the number of lawyers that currently serve in the Senate (57) as opposed to the number of accountants (1) and manufacturers (0).  In the initial shoot for the ad, the numbers were wrong, so the ad had to be re-shot and some CGI blurring added to correct the numbers on the board.

The second ad was slightly more negative in tone.  (Campaign rule: if your opponent is running a negative ad, it’s called a “negative ad.”  If your campaign running a negative ad, it’s called a “contrast ad.”)  The ad criticized Feingold’s vote for the health care bill, noting that before the bill passed, 55% of Wisconsinites opposed a “government takeover of health care.”  (The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel eventually labeled the entire ad as “false,” as they incredibly didn’t believe the bill amounted to “government healthcare.”)

It wasn’t a hard-core negative ad, though – the health care bill is fair game under any circumstance.  Jablonski said that, given Johnson’s big lead, the plan was to stay positive.  “Even if they start running ads with video of a fake bearded Ron Johnson sex offending,” he said.

In that vein, the campaign cut an ad with Johnson and his daughter, Carey, discussing her heart problem at birth.  But it needed to be re-shot, because they felt Johnson didn’t deliver his lines with enough emotion.  The goal was to get a positive ad on the air featuring Carey, who “presents well on TV.”  (Campaign-speak translation: “she’s attractive.”)  Eventually, they shelved the ad altogether.

Yet Johnson’s ads – simple, yet effective – were the envy of campaigns around the country.  Brad Todd, of OnMessage Media, said when producing an ad, his competition isn’t the other candidate – it is the ad that airs directly before and directly after his campaign ad.  “What you produce has to hold a viewer’s attention and look like it belongs will all the other ads on the air,” he said.

Soon, Johnson’s measured, disciplined campaign was starting to get national recognition.  At the Washington Post’s “The Fix” blog, Chris Cillizza said Johnson “has run one of the best — if not the best — Senate campaigns this cycle.”  The Oshkosh Northwestern, Johnson’s hometown paper, called his campaign staff “brilliant.”  The Washington times said RonJon, “aided by a smart and savvy campaign staff, has refined his message and appearance.”

But Feingold wasn’t helping his own case, either, stumbling into a few uncharacteristic missteps.  For instance, one of the senator’s favorite talking points during the campaign was that he has been outspent in every one of his Senate races.  For this oft-repeated claim, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s “Politifact” feature gave Feingold a “Pants on Fire,” rating as he significantly outspent challenger Tim Michels in 2004.

For weeks, Feingold had said he would not be attending a campaign rally held partly for his benefit by President Obama on September 29th.  At the very last minute, Feingold appeared at the rally, leading to suspicion that he had been hectored by the White House to attend.

In an interview with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel editorial board, Feingold complained about Johnson’s insistence that the 18-year senator was a “career politician.”  “I think it’s a pretty sad thing for our society when somebody runs a campaign telling young people, ‘Don’t you dare go into public service, or you’re going to be mocked,’” Feingold told the board.  Of course, it was Feingold that, within weeks of joining the race, called Ron Johnson a racist and a communist sympathizer, and had fabricated his positions on numerous issues.  So exactly who was keeping people from entering politics?  Did Feingold expect a telethon for three-term U.S. senators?

Feingold even bumbled some of his television ads.  On October 1st, he began running an ad bragging about his vote for the poisonous health care bill – a bill that, according to Rasmussen, 57% of Americans wanted repealed (46% “strongly.”)  At the end of the ad, two women urge Ron Johnson to “keep your hands off my health care.”  As if people couldn’t figure out that a government takeover of health care is the ultimate “hands on” approach to medical care.  From watching the ad, one would get the impression that it was Ron Johnson who wanted to take over health care – in fact, it was obviously the exact opposite.

But that paled in comparison to Feingold’s next TV ad blunder.  On October 5th, the Feingold campaign ran an ad accusing the Johnson campaign on “dancing in the endzone” too early.  The video featured a clip of one of the most notorious moments in recent Wisconsin sports history – then-Minnesota Viking Randy Moss mooning the crowd in a playoff victory over the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field.  (In an odd twist, Moss was traded back to the Vikings from the New England Patriots the very day the ad began running.)

As soon as the ad began running, the Johnson campaign sprung into action, personally calling the National Football League offices.  Since anyone who has ever watched an NFL game knows that footage of the games is copyrighted material, the Johnson campaign suspected Feingold hadn’t gotten clearance to use the clip in his ad.  As they soon found out, the clip was used without permission.

That very afternoon, Feingold had to pull the ad off the air via NFL directive.  Perhaps most ironic, however, was the fact that here was Russ Feingold – who had made a career of telling people what was permissible to put in television ads – having to cancel his own ad for using illegal material.

Feingold’s missteps helped Johnson stay ahead in early October: a poll released by an organization called “We the People” showed RonJon up 49% to 41% on October 4th.  But that didn’t necessarily mean all was well with the campaign staff.

In fact, the pressure to win was now causing some significant fissures within the staff.  This is common with campaigns – by the end, people who have been trapped in a headquarters for months can barely stand the sight of one another.  But amongst the Johnson campaign staff, these divisions ran deep.

Many of the staff had to move desks in the Johnson headquarters to avoid seeing staffers from other departments.  Some staffers appeared to be more worried about positioning themselves for a job with Senator Johnson than doing the work they had been assigned.  There was talk of firing a number of the more troublesome campaign workers, but it was decided that, with a month to go, there’s no way the campaign could train replacements.

The campaign was also fending off political consultants trying to work their way into the operation.  Three months earlier, when Johnson was a longshot, the campaign had struggled to find help.  Now, with the polls showing RonJon well ahead, consultants began to descend like locusts, offering their advice on how to run the campaign.  Undoubtedly, these consultants would then pad their resumes, taking credit for having “worked” on the expected stunning Johnson win.  If victory has a thousand fathers, the Johnson campaign was quickly becoming the Maury Povich Show of campaigns.

The campaign was also fending off pressure from national politicians to allow them to come to Wisconsin to campaign on Johnson’s behalf.  Seeing as how Johnson was running as the anti-politician, a decision was made to turn almost all of them down.  “You name the national Republican figure, and we told them there were better places they could be,” said one staffer.

Some state representatives and senators were calling regularly to offer their directives.  One state senator called to tell the campaign they could improve Johnson’s numbers by buying an ad in a political leaflet printed in a Milwaukee-area conservative activist’s basement.  Other state legislators, many of whom had never run a competitive race, called on a daily basis to offer their advice.

Perhaps the most unexpected time-consuming task was given to the campaign by school teachers.  All over the state, teachers were assigning their students the task of asking a senate candidate a question.  As these requests came flooding in, staffers had to handle each of them individually.  (They were never signed as if they were coming from Johnson; they were always attributed to the staff member handling it.)

But even with all of these sudden pressures from the outside world, the campaign had to internally deal with their most daunting task of all:

Johnson had to get ready to debate of the U.S. Senate’s most capable orators, Russ Feingold.


Ron Johnson’s debate preparation had actually begun in earnest more than a month before the first scheduled matchup with Feingold on October 8th.  Feingold, likely thinking he could handle the newcomer Johnson fairly easily, had proposed six debates, Johnson agreed to three.

Mark Graul, who had run Congressman Mark Green’s unsuccessful race for Wisconsin Governor in 2006, was brought in to help with the debate preparations.  (Ruesch said she was pretty sure they were paying Graul with Arby’s coupons.)

Initially, a larger team was in the room during debate prep, but the more people in the room, the more Johnson bristled.  So attendance in debate prep was scaled back to only the essential staffers.

Early on, there were rumors that the campaign would get national conservative darling Congressman Paul Ryan to play the part of Feingold during debate sessions.  In his youth, Ryan’s father actually worked as an attorney in the same Janesville building as Feingold’s father.  This would have been quite a scene – seeing a nationally recognized free market stalwart like Paul Ryan strenuously arguing for higher taxes and greater government involvement in health care.

But Ryan’s schedule couldn’t accommodate the commitment.  Instead, the campaign enlisted the help of attorney Chris Mohrman, a former member of Governor Tommy Thompson’s administration.  To play the part of Russ Feingold, Mohrman returned from Washington D.C., where he was working for a national virtual schools organization at the time.

From the beginning, the campaign knew their strategy for the debates: just don’t make any news.  Senate debates are universally watched by no one – you can’t win a campaign by performing well, but you can certainly damage your campaign by saying something that can be used in a television ad against you.

In other words, in a debate against Russ Feingold, a tie is a win.

Johnson and his staff spent the better half of September locked in a room, practicing his debate tactics.  It didn’t always go well.  At times, Johnson was irritated and irascible, objecting to the questions he was asked.  Sometimes, he would throw his papers up the air and walk out of the room.  His staffers initially sensed that he was mad at himself for not knowing more of the material, but they eventually figured out he was just as mad at them for not preparing him well enough.

Johnson encouraged a more inclusive method of debate prep, where he could sit around a table with his staffers and discuss issues before distilling what he learned into usable sound bites.  He complained that his staff continued to “murderboard” him. (Johnson uses the term “murderboard” like a terrorist would use the term “waterboard,” and it isn’t coincidental.)

During one particularly grueling session, Johnson and staffers debated a detail regarding Social Security.  It was important that Johnson get the Social Security issue down pat, as it is one of the bedrock issues Democrats use to demagogue Republicans.

In the days before the debate, Feingold had telegraphed where he would attack Johnson during the debate.  He’d go after Johnson’s lack of specifics on economic issues, and his lack of a plan to turn the economy around.  The campaign staff worked hard to give Johnson a rejoinder to this line of criticism.

Feingold clearly would also deem himself the “underdog” in the race, so campaign staff prepared Johnson to say Russ was the underdog only because he had made himself so through his bad votes.  “If the A&W Root Beer Bear was in the race, he’d call himself the underdog, too,” cracked Jablonski.  Sadly, the campaign opted not to put this line in Johnson’s preparation materials.

Johnson himself had watched tapes of Feingold’s previous debates in order to prepare.  The campaign saw how aggressive the senator was in criticizing challenger Tim Michels during the debates in 2004.  If Feingold was that truculent when he was up in the polls by double digits – how much would he attack being substantially behind?

Adding pressure to Johnson’s first debate was the reputation he was earning as a “no show” candidate.  Word was spreading that Johnson’s campaign was keeping him away from public appearances to avoid the gaffes that plagued his campaign during its early days.  Don Walker of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel wrote an article complaining that Johnson wouldn’t release his daily calendar to the media.  (Feingold wouldn’t release his calendar, either, but that fact didn’t seem to fit the media narrative that Johnson was avoiding public appearances.)

Thus, given his limited appearances in September, people were anxious to see how the new candidate would match up against one of the Senate’s most skilled debaters.  But debate preparations were still going poorly.  As of three days before the Friday night event, one staffer said that debate prep was “off the rails.”

As Friday approached, it was still unclear to staff how the debate would go.  It was possible, given Johnson’s willingness to make fun of his own gaffes, the public would be more willing to forgive any misstatements he made.  In 2008, the public’s expectations of Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin were so low, many people actually believe she debated rival Joe Biden to a draw.  Whether RonJon managed expectations to a similar degree was yet to be seen.

In the final debate prep before the big show, staff said they thought Johnson wasn’t nervous at all.  One staffer said Johnson looked “terrified” before he left Oshkosh, but another said he was more “stressed” than afraid.  The grueling debate prep had sapped him of his energy.  He was accompanied to the Milwaukee debate by Ruesch, Sendek and Juston.  Johnson took a nap in the RV on the hour and a half drive south.

When they arrived at the television studio on the Milwaukee Area Technical College campus, Ruesch took her place in the holding room, where she began to prepare press releases.  The other staff were in the studio, with Sendek tweeting the proceedings.

The debate began with moderator John Laabs explaining the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association (WBA) preference that candidates not use video of the debate in political ads against their opponent.  Johnson agreed to the policy; predictably, Feingold did not.  (Just that day, an independent group began running ads against GOP gubernatorial candidate Scott Walker, using footage from his earlier WBA debate.)

And then it began.  Even if a candidate has millions of dollars to spend, the best staff in the world, and a lead in the polls, debates are a different world.  It’s just two candidates, two microphones, and dozens of people watching at home.  There’s nowhere to hide.

Feingold was first to give his opening statement.  He began by mentioning that he was born and raised in Wisconsin – a subtle shot at Johnson’s Minnesota upbringing.  Feingold stressed his independence on trade agreements and the Wall Street bailout.  As expected, he criticized Johnson’s lack of specifics on issues.

Then, it the time everyone was waiting for.  Johnson began his opening statement, explaining that he had no political aspirations, and that running for Senate was not his life’s ambition.  In an unexpected twist, he actually took some direct shots at Feingold, criticizing his vote for the health care bill and for expanding the nation’s debt.  Johnson finished by emphasizing his status as a potential “citizen-legislator.”

As the questions began, Johnson looked nervous, but was hitting his talking points.  On a question about health care, he stumbled a little before inevitably getting to his birth story about his daughter.  In his answer to a question about energy, he used the phrase “exploit our oil resources,” which he had worked to avoid in debate prep.  But it was a minor point.

When both candidates were asked about global warming, Johnson inexplicably defended his position with regard to sunspots.  Staff pleaded with him to drop that talking point, but he soldiered on.  “He just can’t help himself,” said one staffer.

About halfway through, one thing became evident: Ron Johnson was actually hanging in there with Feingold.  In fact, he was landing a few punches of his own.  This risk seemed to pay off, as Feingold wasn’t able to refute many of Johnson’s criticisms.  As Omar says inThe Wire, “if you take a shot at the king, you best not miss.”

Feingold wasn’t necessarily helping his own cause.  He jabbed repeatedly at Johnson, but did so with an oleaginous grin, as if he were a traveling salesman pitching mustache wax from the back of a truck.  At one point, he criticized Johnson for agreeing with President Obama on some issue, but disagreeing with Obama on others.  In the very next line, Feingold bragged that he agreed with President Bush on immigration reform.

At one point, Johnson predicted Feingold would accuse him of wanting to “privatize” Social Security, and pre-butted the accusation.  Predictably, Feingold went right on to accuse him of wanting to privatize Social Security.

Even more oddly, Feingold resurrected his trial balloon from June, in which he appealed to Tea Party members for their votes.  Again, he tried to make the case that he is truly the Tea Party candidate, given his vote against the Patriot Act – which demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of the Tea Party movement.  Yet it was telling that while once Feingold publicly derided Tea Partiers, he was now attempting to court them.

Afghanistan was one of the issues Johnson’s staff thought would give him the most trouble, but he navigated it smoothly.  Same with stem cells, which could have been problematic had Johnson not handled it as well as he did.

Throughout the debate, Johnson got more comfortable.  But he looked nervous.  To television viewers at home, it appeared as if a bead of sweat had run down his forehead and across the bridge of his nose.  Had he not already been gaunt, he probably would have lost five pounds in perspiration.

When the one hour debate ended, it was clear: Johnson didn’t exactly win on style points, but more than held his own on substance.  It was like a naked steak on a plate – lacking in presentation, but to the Johnson campaign, ultimately satisfying.

While Johnson could decompress a little after the Friday night debate, that relaxation was short-lived.  There were only two days until the second debate, to be held in Wausau on Monday.

While it would make for a grueling four-day stretch, it worked to Johnson’s advantage to get two of the debates out of the way in such a short period.  Plus, the second debate would fortuitously be held on the same night that Brett Favre was returning to play his former New York Jets team, after he was accused of sending cell phone pictures of his penis to a former female Jets employee.  Given Wisconsin’s fascination with the former Packer legend, the number of viewers for the second debate would make the first debate look like “Dancing with the Stars.”

Johnson’s campaign immediately began reviewing film of the Milwaukee debate, breaking it down Vince Lombardi-style.  In retrospect, they understood how eerily dead-on Mohrman’s portrayal of Feingold in debate prep had been.  Not only had he nailed Feingold’s rhythm and inflection, he actually predicted the actual companies Feingold would cite when bragging about stimulus jobs created.

Johnson’s team scrambled to come up with rejoinders to some of Feingold’s lines in the debate.  They needed something for Johnson to say when Feingold pulled an obscure issue from out of nowhere.  For instance, in the first debate, Feingold mentioned a New Zealand trade compact that he said would hurt the dairy industry in Wisconsin.  Johnson had never heard of the compact, and his response was a little disjointed.

In between the debates, a story ran on that gave readers a glimpse of Johnson’s displeasure with overly “handled” on the campaign trail.  “So he watches his words, ignoring the fact that he’s already making the trade-offs conventional politicians make to win office,” wrote Jim VandeHei, a Wisconsin native. “It will be different once and if he wins, he promises. Then, his true feelings can take voice.”  (Translation: you think the shit I say is crazy now, wait until I’m elected!”)

The second debate itself wasn’t as pressure-packed as the Milwaukee debate, as it wasn’t televised anywhere outside the Wausau area.  The format was more conducive to discussion between the candidates, and that showed up in a volatile discussion about campaign finance reform nearly halfway through the debate.

Several days earlier, Feingold’s campaign had accepted over $600,000 from the liberal group  This was the same group that in 2007 had run a full page ad in the New York Times calling the American Commanding General in Iraq, David Petraeus, “General Betray-Us.”  (Since Petraus was picked by President Obama to lead the American forces in Afghanistan, this reference has conveniently been scrubbed from the website.)

Earlier in the debate, Johnson asked Feingold why he didn’t vote to condemn the “General Betray-Us” ad, as a majority of the Senate had.  Feingold remarked that this group had the right to “free speech.”  Later, however, Feingold called on Johnson to tell “extreme” third party groups to stop running independent ads on Johnson’s behalf.  Johnson responded that these groups, too, had the right to free speech.

What Johnson missed was the chance to ask Feingold – “if these third party groups are so ‘extreme,’ why did you just accept $600,000 from one of them?”  Staffers were kicking themselves after Johnson missed this softball – but then again, this debate was nearly invisible.  Any shot landed against Feingold would be just as quiet as a shot landed against Johnson.  And in the end, that benefited RonJon a great deal more.  (More importantly to Wisconsinites, Brett Favre threw a late-game interception to lose the game for the Vikings.)

And with that, the first two debates were in the books.  While the Feingold campaign could probably find some footage of Johnson to work into a TV ad, it wasn’t going to be very damaging material.

Further buoying the hopes of the Johnson campaign was the unimpressive slate of national debates taking place for the U.S. Senate across America.  In a debate two nights later, Republican Delaware hopeful Christine O’Donnell was asked what Supreme Court decisions she disagreed with – and she couldn’t name a single case.  Her opponent, Chris Coons, fended off charges he was once a “bearded Marxist.”  Senate Majority leader Harry Reid and Republican challenger Sharron Angle participated in an embarrassing debate in which both candidates didn’t even seem knowledgeable enough to program a thermostat.

Compared to these national disasters, Wisconsin seemed as if it were hosting the Lincon-Douglas debates.  “Ron would have smoked any of them,” boasted Ruesch, proud that her guy was once known as one of the most error-prone candidates in the national field.  She said that while watching Johnson give a newspaper interview recently, she was brought to tears twice.  “We’ve had a lot of ups and downs,” she said.  “And I remembered why I got into this in the first place.”

In the days following the debate, Johnson began to loosen up.  The immense pressure from the first two debates was off his shoulders.  His relationship with Ruesch warmed considerably.  They developed a routine that whenever they would go eat with reporters or supporters, Johnson would give Ruesch the pickle from his sandwich.  This always gave him the opening to begin a soliloquy about how he hates to waste things (even pickles, which he loathes.)

One day, Ruesch accompanied Johnson to an event to raise funds for breast cancer research. Part of the event involved Johnson getting on a treadmill for a photo-op.  Earlier in the campaign, Johnson had told his staff that they can’t consider themselves “real runners” unless they can run six miles.  So when RonJon stepped on the treadmill, staffer Nathan Naidu walked up next to him and held up a homemade sign that simply said “SIX MILES.”

While Johnson was in a better mood, the local media tasked with covering his campaign were not.  According to the campaign, prior to the Wausau debate, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Don Walker called Sendek and once again demanded Johnson’s full schedule.  When she didn’t grant it, the campaign said Walker vowed to start writing stories about Johnson’s refusal to produce his schedule until she did.  (“That’s not even close to being accurate,” said Walker in an e-mail following the election.)   Not wanting to rock the boat, the campaign granted Walker an exclusive sit-down with Johnson to smooth things over.

The race was starting to draw more attention from the national television news programs.  NBC and CBS sent crews out to do stories on Johnson, and despite the campaign’s attempts to limit his exposure in the national press, RonJon gave them plenty of time.  (Rumor had it Feingold would only give the national reporters four minutes apiece.)

This was the extent of the national exposure the campaign allowed – they figured the more under-the-radar they were, the better.  Accordingly, they turned down big offers to debate Feingold on national Sunday morning talk shows like “This Week with Christian Amanpour” on ABC.

However, it’s not as if Johnson had to go out of the way to dodge national media – most of the media coverage was being sucked up by comely Republican Delaware senate candidate Christine O’Donnell, who Jablonski called “the best thing that could have happened to Ron Johnson’s campaign.”

O’Donnell’s bizarre Tea Party-fueled candidacy fascinated the national press – they hinged on her every misstatement, despite it being clear that she had no chance of winning her race.  But the O’Donnell media sponge kept other lesser known, but just as important, candidates dry.

The last two weeks before an election are excruciating for campaign staffers.  Ironically, the only way to stay sane is to remain paranoid.  Instead of watching the clock and counting the days down, you’re better off checking and re-checking all your work.  Even if your candidate is ahead, you have to keep pushing forward.

The fact that Johnson still had one debate left helped keep his staff on task.  On October 22nd, Johnson was scheduled to take part in a debate at Marquette Law School in downtown Milwaukee.  The debate format would be tough – 90 minutes long, with candidates able to jump in and interrupt each other at any time.

Debate preparation for the final debate went smoothly.  Johnson still insisted on using lines that his staff abhorred – for instance, he had become fond of saying he not only wanted to win, but win by a large margin.  But he was more confident that he wouldn’t make the singular gaffe that could sink his campaign in the last week.

To the campaign, it had become evident that if Johnson made another verbal miscue, he wouldn’t have gotten a free pass from the state media.  Newspapers across the state continued to crank out negative, slanted stories about him.

On October 15th, the Wisconsin State Journal issued a blog post entitled “Johnson Spending a Fortune to Beat Feingold,” pointing out that Johnson had donated $5.3 million of his own money to his campaign.  What’s missing from the story – and from every story bemoaning Johnson’s use of his personal money to run his campaign – is that Feingold started the race with a head start of nearly $6 million in the bank.  Newspapers would print a manual detailing how to set up a meth lab in your basement before they printed the fact that Feingold was actually outspending Johnson during the election cycle.

(Of course, had Johnson raised enough from donors to close his funding gap with Feingold, he would have been criticized for raising money from “special interests.”  Somehow, Johnson has been corrupted by… his own money.)

Days later, an even weaker attempt to besmirch Johnson showed up in the Journal Sentinel, this time courtesy of Don Walker.  Walker wrote a story pointing out that five Pacur employees were on BadgerCare, Wisconsin’s program to help lower-income residents obtain health insurance.  The story was meant to paint RonJon as a hypocrite; Johnson was fond of criticizing the federal health care bill, while five of his 120 employees received government aid themselves.  Feingold himself jumped in, saying, “when somebody runs on this notion that government can never assist business, it kind of gets embarrassing,”

Of course, the article completely mischaracterized BadgerCare, which is a program for individuals, not businesses.  Feingold tried to shoehorn this into his previous “Ron Johnson hates government, but benefits from government subsidies” talking point.  But, in fact, Johnson had no clue any of his employees were on BadgerCare – all his employees had the opportunity to buy the Pacur health plan; if they didn’t, they had to go get it on their own.  When his staff asked Johnson if he could even guess which of his employees were on BadgerCare, he couldn’t come up with a single name.

Jablonski tried to predict the next headlines that would show up in the Journal Sentinel.  “Five Johnson Employees Use Public Roads to Get to Work,” or “Johnson Employees Breathe Air Kept Clean by Government Regulation” seemed the most likely.

With stories like this leaking out every day, the Johnson campaign realized the deck was stacked against them.  No newspaper had ever thought of stretching such a specious piece of information into a negative story on Russ Feingold.  And it was happening virtually every day against Johnson.  (Ironically, newspapers love bemoaning negative campaigning – yet much of what they do is cover attacks fed to them by candidates.)

The constant drum of negative stories against Johnson created a schism within his campaign staff.  Ruesch and Sendek, the public relations team, wanted to keep open lines of communication with the press.  They felt that’s what they were there for.  By continuing to use their judgment with reporters, they might be able to head off more negative stories.

Juston and Jablonski, on the other hand, had a different philosophy.  Juston indelicately described his preferred strategy as “don’t ever fucking talk to the media. For any reason.  Ever.”  They figured the press was going to write unflattering stories about Johnson no matter what, so there was no sense in giving them more material.  And their best bet was taking Johnson’s message directly to the voters, via television ads.  “The press is worse than the Feingold camp,” said Jablonski.  “We spend a lot of time worrying about the press, and almost no time worrying about Feingold.”

The paranoia over unfavorable media coverage reached its high point one day when Johnson’s nephew showed up at the campaign headquarters wearing an Adrian Peterson Minnesota Vikings jersey.  The campaign made him take it off, to avoid the Feingold camp ginning up some innuendo about Johnson being a Viking fan.

The inter-staff media discussion continued up until October 22nd, when Johnson arrived in Milwaukee for the third and final debate with Feingold.  Outside brand-new Eckstein Hall on the Marquette campus, supporters of each campaign waved signs for their candidate.  Two men wearing Chairman Mao masks waved large Chinese flags, holding signs that said “Ron Johnson will send my job to China.”

Inside the lecture hall, spectators filled into their seats, which formed a half-circle in front of the candidates.  Ruesch and Sendek, both dressed in their best skirt suits, glided among the crowd, chatting with members of the media.  They smiled and laughed earnestly at some of the same reporters that they secretly dreamt of throwing off a building.

Johnson and Feingold appeared on stage, took some photos together, and settled into their seats.  It was an uncomfortable 20 minutes before the debate would actually begin – during which time Feingold smiled and joked, and Johnson sat and stared straight ahead.

Once the debate began, it was clear that it was going to be monumentally boring.  It wouldn’t have been surprising if some of the oil painting portraits in the room got up and walked out.

But this was the best-case scenario for Johnson.  Feingold had the option of stirring things up, and opted instead to keep to the debate restrained.

Johnson did an adequate, if unspectacular, job of answering questions.  In debate prep, he was told not to refer to the “Bush tax cuts.”  He uttered the term once, but then when it came back around, he said the letter “B” before stopping himself and saying “the 2003 tax cuts.”  When asked later about what he felt about being told what specific words to use, he pursed his lips and said “it’s annoying.”

As the event moved on, however, it became clear that this wasn’t a debate between Ron Johnson and Russ Feingold – it was instead a debate between Feingold and the voters of Wisconsin.  Feingold continued to try to convince the audience that the health care and stimulus bills he supported were to their benefit.  Polls still show that the public strongly disagreed with him.  Johnson’s presence at the debate was largely superfluous.

When listening to a debate, it is easy to focus on what the candidates are immediately saying.  It isn’t until after the debate that one can tally up the message of what wasn’t said.

And upon reflection, the things Feingold didn’t say spoke volumes.  He fired the occasional obloquy at Johnson, but it always pertained to the question at hand – there was no mention of pedophiles, or of sex offenders in his business, or of BadgerCare, or anything meant to throw Johnson off.  Instead of setting the stage for a nuclear final week of campaigning, a stunning possibility became clear:

Feingold knew he was going to lose.  But he was going to lose like a man.

After the 90-minute debate, Ruesch and Sendek retreated to their holding room, where Sendek furiously banged out a press release.  Johnson, his brain free of  debate  facts, and linguistic rules, strode out into the night to speak to 400 GOP loyalists at Serb Hall on Milwaukee’s south side.  But first, he had a message for one of his staffers:

“That was hard.”


On the Friday before the election, Ron Johnson is stretched out in the back seat of his campaign van.  He is loose and relaxed, talking about how he just can’t get used to people recognizing him in public.  He describes the experience as traveling “through the looking glass.”  “I can’t wait to get home and get my pajamas on at night, so I can get back to being Ron Johnson again,” he says.

It has been a mercurial final week for the campaign.  The week began with the Associated Press publishing a ridiculously slanted article against Johnson (headline: “Wisconsin Senate Race Pits ‘Maverick’ Against ‘Rich Guy’”), which the National Review’s Andrew Stiles intuitively described as the AP “endorsing” Feingold.

Feingold has also started running a flurry of ads against Johnson, including one that uses Johnson’s quote to Politico about being able to say what his “true feelings” are after the election is over.  “I guess we should have clarified that we need him to not say he is not saying things,” said one staffer.

On the national scene, Johnson remained a fairly well-kept secret, thanks to Rand Paul in Kentucky.  Prior to a debate on October 25, a Paul campaign volunteer had been filmed stomping on the head of a protestor that was trying to present Paul with a fake “RepubliCorp” award.  Video of the melee dominated cable news talk shows for days afterwards.

Ironically, had stung Johnson with the same prank earlier in October.  At a meeting at the University Club in Milwaukee, a protestor dressed in a suit attempted to present Johnson with a fake “RepubliCorp” award for “standing up for the top 2%.”  When it was clear what was going on, the interloper was removed.  (Johnson’s campaign had previously issued a memo to staffers regarding how to peaceably deal with protestors.)

But with three days until the election, confidence was high on the Ron Johnson campaign bus.  In the past couple of days, several polls had been conducted that showed Johnson up by around seven percentage points in aggregate.  While holding court at the back of the bus, Johnson explains how honored he is to have been featured in a recent edition of The Onion.  The satirical newspaper had recently printed a humorous article ridiculing Johnson’s attempts to distance himself from Washington D.C. (titled, “My Opponent Knows Where Washington is on a Map; I Don’t, and I Never Will.”)  Johnson had asked his daughter to pick up a few copies of the paper when she visited Madison.

Johnson’s day began at 6 AM, when he visited the N&M Transfer headquarters in Neenah.  From there, he made his way to a McDonald’s on Jackson St. in Oshkosh to shake hands and conduct a brief interview with Ben Smith of Politico.

The McDonald’s stop illustrated the wildly disparate reactions candidates receive on the trail, often within seconds of each other.  While in the restaurant, Johnson was approached by a young nurse who was ecstatic to meet him; she excitedly took a picture with him.  On the way out of the restaurant, Johnson was met by a woman who harangued him for his positions on gay marriage.  RonJon listened politely, until it was time to get back on the bus.

This is perhaps the most jarring aspect of campaigning for new candidates; the fact that everyone in the world now has an opinion about you and how you’re doing your job.  Six months ago, nobody would have walked up to Ron Johnson and forcefully explained to him how he was manufacturing plastics incorrectly.  But now, he’s a public person with public responsibilities.

From there, the bus headed to WOSH 1490 for a radio interview with local host Bob Burnell, then to Father Carr’s Place 2B, a local food bank and homeless shelter.  The center is a converted warehouse with bright lime green walls, with a makeshift chapel set up in the back – complete with pews and an altar.  Johnson takes a tour of the center, delighting Sam, Patrick, Marty, and Mary Claire, a small group of adorable little kids there for the festivities.

From there, Johnson would hop back on the bus and head to Mike’s Place Family Restaurant on Jackson St. in Oshkosh.  When he walks in, all eyes in the restaurant turn to him.  This is the case with many politicians – they simply have a look about them that draws people to stare when they enter a room.  In many cases, it is easy to tell who the Senator is at a public event, even if you don’t know who they are.  They simply have “it.”  And based on how people react to him in public, plastics manufacturer Ron Johnson now has it.

When I asked him later about whether he thinks he has “the look” of someone important, he laughs.  “That’s what a couple million dollars’ worth of television ads will get you,” he said.  “Then again, maybe it is the good looks,” he adds, cracking a sarcastic smile.

At Mike’s Restaurant, there’s a reporter from the UK Independent newspaper waiting to ask him a few questions.  Johnson has also picked up a photographer from the New York Times, who would follow him around for much of the rest of the day.

Johnson finishes talking with restaurant patrons ahead of schedule, so the bus makes an unscheduled stop at another family restaurant.  While Johnson shakes hands, a group of about 20 ten year-old kids wearing Halloween costumes floods into the restaurant.  The last child in the group is wearing a hat meant to make him look like he has been beheaded, with bones and veins sticking out the top.  Ron Johnson, meet the kids whose futures you are trying to save.

Quickly, Johnson is back on the bus and headed for a strip mall, where he would visit a bank, a chiropractic office, and a data company.  On the bus, Joe Leschke, Johnson’s driver, discusses how unsettling it when people come up and try to peer into the bus, as if Pearl Jam were inside.  “They’re a little disappointed when they see me behind the wheel,” he says – although he says Johnson does drive the bus home by himself at night.

Still ahead of schedule, the bus heads back to the campaign headquarters for a little “down time.”  Back in the office, Johnson learns of a potential terrorist attack that was thwarted, in which suspicious packages were found on planes originating in Yemen and headed for America. Ron huddled quickly with Juston Johnson to discuss the day’s happenings.

Down time is short, however, and soon Johnson is back on the bus and headed for Jon’s Sport Shop.  The hunting and fishing store features a row of shotguns that looks like it goes on for a half mile.  The owner of the store presents Johnson with an obscenely large hunting knife.   It is engraved with Johnson’s campaign logo and the words “blade designed specifically to cut big spending, cut taxes, cut pork fat, and guard those who pledge allegiance to the flag.”

One staffer gazes at a gallon jug of deer urine and wonders why it costs $25.  “Because it’s the best,” says a store worker.  One wonders what the test to determine what the “best” deer urine is entails.

On the way to RonJon’s next engagement, the Northeast Wisconsin Chambers of Commerce luncheon, Johnson is joined by Reince Priebus, chairman of the Wisconsin Republican Party.

Before the luncheon, Priebus noted why Johnson hadn’t been considered a “Tea Party” candidate in the mold of Rand Paul or Christine O’Donnell, despite starting his candidacy by giving speeches at Tea Party events (Johnson says he has never met any of the other Republican senate candidates).  Priebus points out that it was the Republican Party that recruited Johnson, and got him hooked up with advisors, fundraisers, and advertising people.  And Priebus is proud of the fact that the Republican party in Wisconsin works with the Tea Party, so both entities can support a candidate without there being any bad blood.

Over a mass lunch of roast beef sandwiches, Johnson gives his stump speech to a receptive audience of businesspeople and local politicians.  Journalists Byron York of the Washington Examiner and Rich Lowry of National Review have joined up with the entourage.  In his speech, Johnson hits all the points – this is a job interview, we need to repeal the health care bill, the future of America is at stake.  The speech lasts about 20 minutes and he receives a warm ovation on his way out.

Another diner, a furniture store, a coffee shop, a hardware store.  All Johnson’s stops are starting to blur together.  He visits several places by walking up and down Main Street in Oshkosh.  His entourage now includes three journalists, two photographers, four staffers, and a Democratic tracker, who has emerged wielding a video camera.  As a group they waddle from store to store like a family of ducks, all lined up.  Several people congratulate Johnson on winning Charlie Sykes’ weekly “Right Stuff” award on the radio an hour earlier – as if Johnson had just won a Nobel Prize.

Johnson gets a must-needed chance to rest during a half hour drive out to the Magnum generator plant in Berlin, Wisconsin.  Waiting for him there is a group of about 150 employees, who have been given an hour off from work to gather around a makeshift stage in a garage to see Johnson talk.  Magnum is the type of factory that, despite its workforce being one-third female, still allows employees to mount posters of half-naked women holding greasy wrenches at their workspace.  (Which, incidentally, is the dream of no living man.)

Johnson delivers a speech to the shivering employees that mirrors his earlier speech, with a little more emphasis on jobs and manufacturing.  He’s joined by Congressman Tom Petri, who has spent 31 years in the House of Representatives, and who could accurately be described as the type of “career politician” Johnson purports to abhor.

On the drive back to Oshkosh, Johnson is still energetic.  He says he maintains his fitness by doing NordicTrack to music as much as possible.  He has a CD of “Rock Hits of the ‘80’s” that he cranks up to maximum volume when his family is out of the house (including such hits as “Keep Your Hands to Yourself” by the Georgia Satellites and “I Hate Myself for Loving You” by Joan Jett.)

Up next on the schedule was the antidote to fitness – a trip to Leon’s Frozen Custard shop in Oshkosh.  In addition to their delicious frozen custard, Leon’s signature dish is an artery-attacking sloppy joe sandwich called the “Joos Burger.”  Johnson shakes hands with about a dozen assembled supporters and talks to the owner, before conducting a quick interview with a Channel 11 television news reporter.  He then grabs a dish of custard and jumps back on the bus (counting about 30 times today that he had taken his suit jacket off and put it back on.)

The day ends up back at headquarters, with Bourbon the Dog still carefully eyeing up suspicious visitors that enter.  But the rest is short-lived, as the night schedule features a rally at the Eagles Club down the road in Oshkosh.

The main ballroom of the Eagles Club itself is an impressive venue – flanked by an ornate balcony, its hardwood floors still have the freshly-refinished smell that harkens back to high school basketball games.  As people file in, they are handed miniature American flags and Ron Johnson campaign signs.

Within the past few days, Johnson’s staff contemplated changing the venue for this rally, thinking they wouldn’t get enough supporters there to fill it up.  But as warm-up act James T. Harris thundered through his monologue, more and more people pressed up to the front of the stage.  Soon, the balcony would fill up.

The rally began with emcee Charlie Sykes telling the crowd the story of how he started the Ron Johnson phenomenon by simply reading some RonJon’s pre-candidacy speeches on the air.  Sykes’ portion ended with the talk show host predicting Russ Feingold’s re-introduction to the private sector in four days.

Sykes then introduced Congressman Paul Ryan, who threw out many of his tried and true free-market verbal bouquets to the crowd.  Ryan emphasized that the future of the country was at stake.  When he left the stage, Sykes implored Ryan to run for president, and Ryan sheepishly shrugged it off, as if he hadn’t been asked that question every ten minutes of his life for the past two years.

When Ron Johnson took the stage, the crowd was energized beyond a typical Republican campaign event.  Johnson gave the same stump speech he had given earlier in the day, but threw in a story about the selflessness of soldiers to emphasize his belief in American exceptionalism.  (Earlier in the day, he had mentioned he was pulling out “the soldier story” for his speech and warned me to pack a tissue.)

The crowd surged forward during his speech, demonstrating an enthusiasm reserved for people other than plastics manufacturers.  But on this stage in his hometown, Ron Johnson was more than “a guy from Oshkosh.”  He was the living embodiment of the crowd’s trepidation about the future, and their passion for change.  Johnson was the antenna through which they channeled their vision of what America should – and could, once again – look like.

And he had come a long way.

Five weeks before Russ Feingold’s first election in 1992, a brash young quarterback named Brett Favre made his first start for the Green Bay Packers.  Days before the 2010 election, the broken body of old, gray, scandal-ridden Minnesota Vikings quarterback Brett Favre laid on the ground, gushing blood from his chin.  The Johnson campaign hoped there was a modicum of symbolic symmetry between those two legendary Wisconsin figures.

The Ron Johnson election night victory party was held in a converted airplane hangar at the EAA Museum in Oshkosh.  The walls were adorned with large, colorful maps, and the floor featured roped-off airplanes such as the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress and the Chance Vought F40 Corsair.  One could accuse the Johnson campaign of using such a setting metaphorically – a future senator getting his political career off the ground – but they most likely picked it simply because it was a really cool place.

At about 6 PM on election night, Johnson enthusiasts began to file in the hangar.  It’s sometimes jarring for campaign staff to see actual voters – while locked up in an office during the election cycle, voters are merely antiseptic numbers and trends.  But on election night, here they are in the flesh – real people with outrageous mustaches, pot bellies and insensible shoes.

Inside, the crowd exhibits the anticipation of a group that has only seen one Republican senator in 47 years.  They drink, laugh, and watch the large screen projection television that has been set up for them to see results.  Their kids sit catatonic, angry at their parents for dragging them out to this thing.

Also in attendance is Jack Jablonski’s wife and now-5 month old son, who he’s only seen one day a week since his birth.  “After the election, he’s going to be pissed that there’s some new guy moving in to his house,” Jablonski jokes.  Jack spent most of the night tied to a headset in the “war room,” receiving vote totals from poll watchers around the state.

In the meantime, Ruesch and Sendek deal with the gaggle of 80 media members who have assembled on a high-riser to document tonight’s proceedings.  Sendek has already done a couple of on-camera television interviews.  When Ruesch talks to Channel 12 news from Milwaukee, it is beamed down to the large screen televisions at the Scott Walker victory party near Waukesha, eliciting big cheers from partygoers there.

When the polls close at 8 PM, the large television starts flashing results from the race.  Early results show Johnson up, and faux cheers arise every time the television shows “Johnson 58%, Feingold 41%” or a similar result.  The campaign staff, tucked away in a side room, are getting different numbers that show the race to be much closer.  Sure, the early returns had been favorable, but Johnson was going to have to get a big lead and cling to it as the heavily liberal City of Madison numbers made their way through the process, as a swallowed pig makes its way through a python.

At around 9:00, Republican Scott Walker was declared the winner of Wisconsin’s gubernatorial race.  To get some fresh air, Ron’s wife Jane and daughter Jenna walked out to observe the gathering from the back of the room.  They hid behind some of the airplanes, where they were all alone.

But then, just like that, it happened.  At 9:39 PM, NBC news called the race for Ron Johnson.  The 1200-plus people in the hangar erupted with applause.  And after all the fundraising, and all the shaking hands, and all the battling with the press, and all the learning how to be a candidate, Ron Johnson was now a senator-elect.

Of course, networks have been wrong before when they call races – so it took until nearly 11:00 PM for Feingold to call Johnson and concede.  Shortly thereafter, Feingold took the stage and gave a brief, but emotional concession speech.  It was clear he was trying to look upbeat, but he gave the speech as if there were a lobster in his underwear.

Feingold quoted Bob Dylan, saying “But my heart is not weary, it’s light and free, I’ve got nothing but affection for those who have sailed with me.”  He finished by thundering, “it’s on to the next battle, it’s on to 2012,” which led many to believe Feingold would be back to run for the U.S. Senate in two years, should 75-year old incumbent Herb Kohl decide not to run.

As soon as Feingold finished at his party in Madison, Senator-elect Ron Johnson strode to the podium in Oshkosh.  Flanked by his family, he thanked his wife, kids, and campaign staff (Juston was the only one he recognized by name.)  He bragged that he had gotten up to 40,000 Facebook fans. (On the bus three days earlier, he was ecstatic about passing Scott Walker in Facebook fans, and set his sights on Paul Ryan, who leads Wisconsin politicians with 47,000.)

In total, Johnson’s speech went about twelve minutes – four times as long as Feingold’s curt concession.  It was a version of his stump speech, with the soldier story tacked on the end.  But it didn’t matter how many times his supporters had heard these words fall from his mouth – he stood before them one of the most astounding political stories of 2010.

By night’s end, Republicans would win control of the Wisconsin Assembly, Senate, governorship, one U.S. Senate seat, and two House seats.  It was a bloodbath for the Democrats, who saw both their Speaker of the Assembly and Senate Majority Leader lose their seats.

Nationally, Republicans won over 60 seats and regained control of the House of Representatives.  In the Senate, the GOP picked up six seats, short of the number needed to take control.  Yet many of the states where the GOP gained seats (Illinois, Pennsylvania, Arkansas, North Dakota, Indiana) routinely elect Republicans statewide; Wisconsin hadn’t elected a GOP U.S. senator since 1986.  National media darlings like Marco Rubio and Rand Paul sailed to election, but did so in seats previously held by Republicans.  Ron Johnson’s pickup stands alone as perhaps the most stunning of GOP victories.

One of the most famous skits from Monty Python’s Flying Circus involves a man who tries to return a dead parrot to a pet store.  The store’s owner insists that the parrot isn’t dead, it is only “resting.”  Hilarity ensues as the owner stubbornly refuses to acknowledge that the parrot has “ceased to be.”

In defending his votes for the health care and stimulus bills, Russ Feingold repeatedly tried to convince the Wisconsin public that he hadn’t sold them a dead parrot.  Feingold’s unfailing insistence that the public didn’t understand how good they had it made him look completely out of touch with the electorate.  And he paid for it with his job.

In early April of 2010, Michelle Litjens, the chairwoman of the Winnebago Republican Party, found some local guy that was thinking of running for the U.S. Senate.   She brought him down to a meeting of a handful of conservative operatives in Madison.  He didn’t even know he was supposed to speak at this meeting, and patched together a few talking points in the car on the way down.

When Litjens introduced businessman Ron Johnson to the group, people rolled their eyes and checked their watches as he ambled through his reasons for running.  There were already a few people thinking about running for senate, and even Wisconsin political legend Tommy Thompson was considering getting in the race.  The last thing Wisconsin needed was another rich guy to serve as fodder for the Feingold political machine.  Just who did this thin-faced, white-haired guy think he was?

Six months later, everyone found out who he was.  He was Ron Johnson, Republican Senator from Wisconsin.

« Older posts