The Most Important Canvassing Story Ever
It was the first moment of my first day in the field when it happened.
I was in Chelsea.
He wasn’t the very first person to cross my path, as I had been standing there for a couple of minutes, off to the side, just sort of watching the people walk down the sidewalk, mustering up the nerve to greet total strangers and wheedle them into giving me money.
Hi, do you want to help beat George Bush?
That was the start of our ‘rap.’ A tight script composed to get straight to the point where we would put a clipboard in a person’s hand, get them to sign a ‘pledge’ of support, and then get them to sign a check (or cash or card!).
I’d received a half-day of training on reciting that rap and gaming the responses, and another half-day of observation. And now here I was, in Chelsea, facing a brisk stream of pedestrians.
So once I felt like my nerve had been mustered, I stepped into the position we’d been trained on – legs hip-width apart, leaning slightly forward, arms out in a welcoming arc – held out my hand, took a big breath, and then looked to make eye contact with the next soul coming my way…
And my ‘Hi!’ got snagged.
My mouth hung agape.
He was shorter than I’d have imagined (but then, I reasoned, that’s the one thing everyone says about him). And he was surprisingly grey under his baseball cap (which I think might actually have been the Mets). But yeah: this was a face I saw four days out of seven in a week. It was him! By the time I’d processed all of this, he was already passing to my left; he was way past the zone (three to ten feet in front) in which you can effectively hail someone and expect a response. I half-turned, dumbfounded. He was gone.
I’d missed my chance to canvass Jon Stewart.
I felt exhilarated and stupid at the same time. He probably wouldn’t have made a donation. But he probably would have shot back a clever response! Maybe I would have cleverly rejoined his response! And maybe then he would’ve mentioned the whole exchange at the start of his show.
I definitely would have had one of the best entries on the Celebrity Sighting Wall back at the office (which was on Lispenard street just south of Canal, literally located in a sweatshop, which is now ten years later a string of boutiques that sell very small numbers of hugely expensive items). Unique among offices across the country i the NYC street canvassers regularly came back with tales of brushes with fame.ii As it was, I rushed over to tell my field manager but kept quiet afterwards because I was too ashamed of having choked.
Of course the internet has no shortage of think pieces saying as much right now but it’s still worth recalling how culturally singular Jon Stewart and that show was back then. I’d liked the Daily Show since it began, back in high school. Craig Kilborne was fine; whatever. Mostly I watched for the correspondents and crazy interviews and the Moments of Zen. When Jon Stewart took over, suddenly there was something better than fine, something that caught an edge. Suddenly someone on television appeared to find the world to be alarming and ridiculous. Gradually it came to part of my life rhythm.
When I went abroad in the summer of 2001, I felt cut off from the world primarily for lack of the Daily Show; after September 11th, I spent an expensive few hours in an internet cafe trying to figure out where I could see the first episode to come back on the air. When I finally found Stewart’s monologue, I watched it twice in a row. During the first viewing, I wept for only the second time since the event itself; after the second viewing, I felt something new. I felt like I could go back to my new English friends — to whom I’d spent the past couple of weeks basically apologizing for America — with some answers, some language about an American Dream that was, despite all the bullshit, still a beautiful and meaningful and illuminating thing.
From that point on, as the world got more and more serious, the Daily Show seemed to step up to match it. It’s hard to remember now; I wouldn’t say that the media has improved, but at least there are critical perspectives, intelligent commentary (Rachel Maddow; Chris Hayes; MHP). Back then, the Daily Show was the solitary counterpoint to everything else. It was the lone crying wolf. It was that which almost made the madness of America worth paying attention to at all.
During the months leading up to the 2004 election, and following up from it, watching it was like participating in some kind of resistance. An impotent kind of resistance, but at least an acknowledgment of truth: This is insane. If this is the government and the media that our country deserves, then we will at least have ridicule and scorn.
Rachel Sklar wouldn’t remember this, but while we were both at mediabistro in 2005, I diligently read along as she did what seemed to me to be the Lord’s work: basically transcribing the Daily Show, night after night, for regular recaps. Occasionally she and I would Gchat about it; maybe once or twice I even helped fill in some blanks. This was before it was available on the website, before youtube embeds were really a thing — it was actual valuable commentary, and it deserved to be brought from the air and into the conversation on the internet.
The years, they passed. The correspondents rotated out, the rest of TV became a bit snarkier and maybe even a bit more progressive… it took a while after the bleakness of 2004, but eventually it seemed like there was stuff worth caring about again…
and maybe, sometime after the Rally to Restore Sanity, maybe I eventually came to resent the Daily Show. A little. Just like you would an old friend whom you love although maybe they drive you a little crazy. I still watched, almost every day — every morning now, on my computer, waking up… but it would often just be background to other browsing. It was just there. And maybe I felt sullen, after more than a decade, after so many turns in the political saga, that no matter how pithy the barbs — no matter how many other voices emerged on television with their own brand of still-familiar barbs — the bullshit was unmitigated. The flow intensified. A ray of light like Barack Obama only seemed to deepen the darkness all around it. And the barbs would keep coming, but to what end? We had settled with idle bitter laughter — the puns, the gotchas, the occasional monologue: sincere, outraged, correct, and futile. Scratching the itch while the rash got worse.
I wasn’t surprised when Stewart announced his retirement. Especially once Colbert was out. He was clearly tired. He had been throughout the Obama years. The show had become cartoonish, the tone occasionally strident. And the innovations in the form made the old format seem tired — first the Colbert Report, then Last Week Tonight (a common-sense next-level development that goes beyond the innovation of mere length and focus, to apply actual direct action tactics, which are actually occasionally effective in the real-world, all which has made me interested in the potential of the medium the first time in a long time).
Although if you go back to earlier Daily Show episodes, the pacing and delivery is so much improved in the last ten plus years that it seems this feeling of staleness is as much a function of the show having so consistently raised its own bar right up to the top of the form, where it just got stuck. With us still hanging on. It just somehow seems like his work has been done.
Anyway: back in 2004. That first morning. I’d run around to tell my fellow field crew what I’d seen (“does Jon live in Chelsea? I heard that somewhere”) I finally stepped back into the sidewalk and assumed the position. Deep breath, now ready for anything.
The first man I hailed was large, and clearly muscly right through a nice suit. I remember expensive-looking shoes.
“Hello, sir!” I said, beaming with belonging, doing this thing right here in New York City, the greatest city in the world. “Would you like to help us beat George Bush today?”
He looked at me with disgust, and without breaking stride, barked at me: “Are you a faggot too, like Kerry?”
“And I guess that’s a ‘no,’” I said with half a laugh.
This job, I thought to myself at that moment, is awesome.
(Four weeks later, when I shipped out of fundraising in NYC and into GOTV in Miami, I felt kind of dead inside.)
Anyway, again, it sticks with me. The moment when I could have hailed my hero – “Hi, do you want to help beat George Bush??” – which feels like a weirdly funny thing to ask of the guy in the crowd who was already mocking George Bush almost daily in front of an aghast and giggling fraction of the American public.
It’s filed in my set of instances in which I hesitated, held back, delayed, and missed a brush with with greatness. The question I didn’t ask Aaron Swartz at the Freedom 2 Connect conference. The interview I didn’t take at Facebook back in 2007. All the unwritten blog posts I ever swallowed before spitting out.
The world spins, and the absurdity ratchets. Few setups get the punchline they deserve. Maybe punchlines aren’t what the world really needs.