Among the Clowns

Article excerpt

Byline: Martin Amis

Meet Rick 'Crotch' Perry, Newt 'the Vulgarian' Gingrich, and the rest of the GOP contenders as they scramble for the prize in the Des Moines debate.

"OOPS" SOUNDS EVEN worse--even more sheepish and abject--if you say it with a Texan accent: something like "Ewps." It was certainly an arresting moment. When was the last time a would-be emperor denuded himself in the space of a single syllable? Yet it also pointed to more general confusions.

Over the course of about a generation, it has come to seem that while the Democratic Party represents the American mind, the Republican Party represents, not its heart, and not its soul, but its gut. The question is as old as democracy: should the highest office go to the most intellectually able candidate, or to the most temperamentally "normative" (other words for normative include "unexceptional" and "mediocre")? In the rest of the developed world, the contest between brain and bowel was long ago resolved in favor of brain. In America the dispute still splits the nation. Things are slightly different, and more visceral, in periods of crisis. Nine years ago, if you remember, the populace looked on in compliant silence as the president avowedly "went with his gut" into Baghdad.

Until very recently it looked as though the GOP had been blessed with the most intensely average candidate of all time. Rick "Crotch" Perry (the nickname derived from his habit of readjusting his blue jeans) was a shoeless farm boy from an old Rebel family, a straight-C student and Aggie yell leader, a devout Air Force pilot who rose to become the potent governor of a major state.

All right, he speaks like a drunkard or a stroke victim (for example, his attempt to say "Joe Arpaio" came out as "Joe Aroppehyeh")--but so did George W. Bush. All right, he used to hunt deer at a game reserve called Niggerhead--but he carefully avoided that other Texan beauty spot, Dead Nigger Draw. All right, he may be prone to errors of fact--but don't we feel that it's somehow quite manly to make mistakes? Here was a gut candidate with a barrel chest. What on earth could go wrong?

But now it is time to meet the people. This, we're still told, is what presidential campaigns are all about. So on a cold and frosty morning the car trundles east out of Des Moines, across the North Skunk River, and into the great tray of the Iowan plain. The destination is Marshalltown. You go past Casey's General Store and the GitnGo gas station, past signs saying "Snowblower Sale" and "Masonic Temple," past the fuming hulks of vague industrial shapes in the misty distance, till you reach the modest community center tucked in behind the railway tracks and the rusty rolling stock.

I took my seat among about a hundred windbreakers and woolly hats, in an atmosphere of friendly inclusiveness, and passed the time with the complimentary pamphlet The Ron Paul Family Cookbook--28 pages of recipes "to warm your kitchen and your heart." Why, here we have the Razzle Bo-Dazzle Tenderloin and Mama's Peanut Butter Cookies. As 10 o'clock neared, I turned to the biblical tags, and then to Carol Paul's family newsletter, where I caught up with the huge Paul dynasty and the doings of Rand, John David, Collin, Caylee Joy, Kelly, Lori, Valori ...

Glowingly introduced, the candidate takes the stage: Mr. Ron Paul, 76, lean-faced and thin-lipped under a silvery comb-over, and with that endearingly excitable crack in his voice and his laugh. Fiscally responsible, Ron is an isolationist and a constitutional fundamentalist; he is also "a pro-life libertarian"--which means that he favors minimal state intervention except when it comes to pregnant women.

All this has its eccentric side, but you could reasonably claim that the community center, that day, showed us American democracy at something close to its best: an uncynical candidate affably bonding with his base. Paul told the constituents that their votes, in the coming caucuses, would be "magnified a thousandfold," which is true in the anomalous case of Iowa (and Paul remains everyone's tip for a surprise winner on Jan. …