Checking in with Calvin Trillin, Part 3

The third part in a series of chats with Calvin Trillin, the man who—among many other things—casts the U.S. presidential campaign in iambic pentameter. Discussed: the Romney-Obama debates, campaign media coverage, the 47 percent blues, the legacy of George McGovern, and how one actually becomes a "deadline poet."

November 1, 2012

Michael Takasaki is a regular contributor to Hazlitt. In his non-free time, he writes ads for things like cat food, mayonnaise, cereal, appliances...

It’s two days after the final presidential debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. It’s the last time Calvin Trillin and I will speak before the election we’ve been discussing since mid-summer. Trillin continues his work on Dogfight, an epic, satiric retelling of the campaign in iambic pentameter and I continue my work trying to get him to make a prediction regarding the race. 11Before the interview begins, I ask Trillin if he’s read the earlier installments in this series. “I did,” he answers, “and I was relieved to see that I made no predictions.” If not this time, I feel fairly certain I can get him to call the race next time.With Election Day fast approaching and the foreign policy sparring still fresh, we don’t waste much time getting down to business.

First off, what rhymes with ‘bayonet’?

‘Bayonet’, I hadn’t tried to rhyme, although I was trying to rhyme ‘sabre’ this morning. The rattling having disappeared from Mitt Romney since he had thrown away his sabre. It was an amazing turnaround of his views on foreign policy. I actually wrote a poem this week which will be one of the poems embedded in the book.

On the foreign policy debate:

Mitt seemed to agree with Obama a lot.
Divergence in policy got hard to spot.
He used all the moderate words he could muster,
So where was the Mittster’s past neo-con bluster?
He knew that those still undecided would hate it.
The answer, that is, that the Etch-a-Sketch ate it.

He was the Good Neighbour policy. I was amazed. The one theory is that by sort of being passive and peaceful and essentially agreeing with all the policies he’s supposedly going to replace by being president, that Romney gained by showing himself not to be scary. Although, of course, all of the people around him are, as I put it in another poem, “the folks who brought you the war in Iraq.” I mean they’re all people who keep talking about “American power, et cetera, et cetera.” Or I should say they’re all draft dodgers who talk about “American power, et cetera, et cetera.”

The only rhymes I could think of were ‘minuet’ and ‘Final Net.’

I’m not sure... Yeah, I guess you could use ‘minuet.’ I didn’t use it probably because it’s hard to explain the circumstances, you know, of the rhyme. You need stuff that’s out there and obvious for this stuff.

The last time we spoke, it looked like, post-conventions, the momentum had really shifted in Obama’s favour. But it must be good for the narrative of the poem that it hasn’t been the breeze that it seemed like it might have been.

I guess it’s good for the narrative of the poem... For the country, who knows? I used to say that for those of us in the small joke trade, we feel about turns that may not be good for the country the way dentists feel about tooth decay: it’s a pity, but where would business be without it?

And I think that the press has certainly treated it that way. Since the press covers this as strictly a horse race including an obsession with what the national popular vote (which is meaningless) is at one given time or at any one given hour, they’re happy to see a horse race. And I have no idea what’s going to happen. I don’t think anybody does.

In that vein, as a reporter, what have you thought of the coverage of the campaign and the debates so far?

Well, I think that the people I refer to as the Sabbath Gasbags, the people who pontificate from Washington on Sunday mornings... I actually have a line in the poem “They suffer from the rare affliction / They can’t remember any wrong prediction.” I mean they’re constantly saying things that are going to happen and about 80 percent of the coverage of American political campaigns is about who’s going to win, which is something we’re all going to know on Election Night. Even if the entire press corps was death-rayed, we’d still know who was going to win. So they’re really telling you something that they don’t know and eventually you are going to know, whether they tell you or not, because somebody’s going to announce it.

And for American reporters—or any reporters, I guess—politics is a lot more interesting that government, so they have always been more interested in the winning and losing part of the campaign.

I’m only interested myself in whether things have decent rhyme and meter. Otherwise, I’m the same.

I noticed that ‘binders full of women’ scans nicely.

Yeah, it’s a good scan, unlike certain things that have been troublesome. It’s more of the scanning than the rhyming that causes trouble. Tea Party, for instance. 22We discussed how he tackled the problems of the awkward meter of ‘Tea Party’ in greater depth in our first conversation. Some things come along and are very awkward and probably shouldn’t happen for that reason.

How are you handling the debates in the poem. Is it one by one or is it more of a summary of all of them?

I did some poetry, some lines, about the preparation for the debate, which is hard to remember now, but the first debate was a kind of a do-or-die for Romney. I talked a little bit about the advice he was getting and I say:

Newt Gingrich, who to judge by his career,
Might counsel Mitt to bite Obama’s ear,
Was much less snarky, offering advice
That humour often proves a great device.
But laughs from Mitt would be an aberration
As likely as some aural mastication.

I think that’s the first time ‘aural mastication’ has been used in a poem. I’m not sure. I don’t like to boast. I think it might be.

But then there’s also a poem about Newt Gingrich’s deepest feeling about Mitt Romney’s upcoming debate with Barack Obama and it says, “[Sung standing alone on center stage illuminated by a single spot, during a guest appearance by the speaker in Glee.]” And that’s the song, “It should have been me. It should have been me.

And I talk about also the way Mitt is sort of pivoting toward the middle, including a poem that “Mitt doesn’t think that nearly half the people in this country are moochers after all,” where he says now that it was just a mistake.

So, I guess I’m not handling them all together, but I’m not going into tremendous detail with each one of them.

And what about the 47 percent comment?

It’s interesting to me. I have a poem which is a blues poem, I’ve Got The Mitt Thinks I’m a Moocher, a Taker-Not-a-Maker Blues, which is sung by three members of the 47 percent. One of the verses—different people sing different verses—is:

Well I went to ‘Nam while Mitt went on his mission to France.
A buddy needed rescuin’ and I thought, well, I’ll take a chance.
A wounded vet pension’s not the salary I would choose.
I’ve got the Mitt Thinks I’m a Moocher, a Taker-Not-a-Maker Blues.

There are about three or four verses like that about the 47 percent. It’s amazing the amount of the 47 percent who... I thought the really telling part of that was that he said he could never persuade them to take responsibility for their own lives. Some of these people, of course, work two jobs and in payroll taxes pay a higher percentage of their income than Romney does.

I thought that there was, particularly for somebody raised with such privilege and not understanding the privilege that he had—he constantly says that he made it all on his own—it just showed a contempt for people that I think was surprising.

The odd thing that I haven’t seen anything about how that video was made. I know Jimmy Carter’s grandson was instrumental in bringing it to Mother Jones because he had seen snatches of it on Youtube apparently, but who snuck into the meeting? Who was there disguised as a Republican fat cat? I mean, in the first place, how would you choose your costume and your disguise?

It’s blue flannel or gray flannel, I imagine.

I guess, although it was in Boca Raton so it might have been those bright golf pants and a red blazer. I don’t know! I don’t know what fat cats in Boca Raton dress like. But I haven’t seen anything about who made it. If Obama wins, I think that that would be one of the turning points of the campaign.

You had previously mentioned Clinton’s convention speech as a turning point.

Yeah. I think those two things. And if Romney wins, I think it’s the first debate.

I was wondering about Biden’s performance in his debate and how much that help turn things around.

I mention that in some lines.

Joe Biden from the start had come out slugging.
Though Ryan’s team said what came out was mugging.
Joe’s smile, Dems said, would not have been so visible
If things that Ryan said had been less risible.

I thought that Biden was pretty good. Who won or lost these debates, of course, is again, kind of silly, kind of sports metaphor stuff. Because, you know, each person had a different goal to accomplish in the debates but the press tends to do won or lost.

For the second debate I said:

Within a day the pollsters would announce
Obama won but didn’t get a bounce.

So it didn’t really make that much difference that he won. And then in this last debate I think the goal of Romney was obviously to come off as somebody who wasn’t scary.

Quickly with astonishing velocity
He scrubbed away all signs of bellicosity.
Policies he hastened to malign
As weak and ineffective were now fine.

He’s a quick pivoter.

He could be attacked for that kind of pivoting, but it seems like it’s helping him.

Yeah, I think now that people say, “Oh well, he was never really one of those people any way. He just did it to get the nomination.”

And I think that must be their strategy. That they figure that it’s better to come across that way, that this is the real Romney. I mean, in fact there isn’t any real Romney, obviously. He’ll say anything. I mean, even as governor he governed one way to get elected and then switched toward the time he was going to run for president. All politicians switch, but he’s...

With all the attention the phrase “binders full of women” was given, I think the most interesting thing about that story was that it was a lie. He didn’t ask for binders full of women. This women’s group gave all candidates for statewide office who had appointive power lists of women who were qualified for some of the jobs they could appoint. It didn’t have anything to do with Romney. But it’s not a slip of the tongue. I mean, that’s sort of a calculated, obviously canned, ready-to-pull-out-when-the-women’s-issue-came-out story. So he’s willing to do a lot of things and that’s one of the parts of the campaign that astonishes me.

You know, I once wrote speeches for—the only time I ever sort of crossed the line was when Goldwater was running against Lyndon B. Johnson—and I worked in the White House writing speeches for the person I call “The Last Successful Democratic Peace Candidate,” Lyndon B. Johnson, because the other fellow said “We might send troops to Vietnam.” In my defence I have to say, he didn’t use a word that I wrote, so I’m not responsible for the war in Vietnam.

But one of the things I learned is that any numbers that any of those politicians say in a speech can just be discounted. I mean, you can do anything. You get these big briefing books and they have all these statistics. These guys can figure out a way to make any statistic look OK.

So I’m not naive about it, but what surprises me in this campaign is they’ll say something that is patently untrue. And then when they’re corrected instead of being embarrassed they just repeat it. I’m amazed by that. I thought, “Who let Paul Ryan attack Obama for allegedly taking $716 billion out of Medicare when Ryan’s own budget had precisely that figure?” So once they got caught, I thought, “Oh my god that must be terribly embarrassing,” but then they kept repeating it. It’s nothing to them! I guess the audacity of the campaign is surprising to me.

The thing that I saw being pointed out a couple of times during one of the debates was that Romney would insist that the government can’t create jobs and then later in the debate would say “I will create 120 million jobs” or however many he said.

Twelve million is what he said. And the 12 million jobs is an excellent example. I saw that analyzed once, where that 12 million is coming from. And in the first place, three million of it are jobs that are going to happen no matter what. Anyway, you analyze it and it’s meaningless.

It’s like all these figures. I saw an analysis of his claim that his the numbers for his plan would come out right after he cut taxes on wealthy people, et cetera, et cetera. He said there were six independent studies that showed that. Well, somebody analyzed that.

When I think of an independent study, I think of some, I don’t know, economics institution at Cornell or something like that. Professors that have no axe to grind. All of them were conservative sources. Three of them were bloggers. I mean, this is not an independent study.

The numbers just don’t mean anything. I just sort of tune out when people talk about numbers because they can get anything to sound like— It’s the same as American politicians accusing each other of having voted for or against some law because there are about ten votes and it’s on the amendments and on the procedure... You can say anything you want to. I think a lot of this stuff is just sort of tuned out and that leaves a lot of sort of impression of the candidate’s performance and stance and that sort of thing.

The day before this last debate, of course, George McGovern passed away. And we had talked before about Barry Goldwater being at the extreme right of American politics. And it seemed to me that McGovern was his opposite, that he was the high-water mark of liberalism.

Yeah, he was, although when you look at his votes and his record and everything, I’m not sure he was that much different from, say, Bobby Kennedy, who was supposedly going to win that nomination. But, yeah, he was sort of an unapologetic liberal.

It used to be said that the press, most of whom were Democrats, were very sympathetic to him until he announced that he thought taxes should be raised on people making a certain amount of money. I can’t remember what the exact figure was, but it was around reporters made and then they decided he wasn’t such a great person after all.

But yeah, he was sort of unapologetic. I mean, somebody with his politics I think could probably get the nomination now. I’m not sure his politics are all that different from the politics of most of the Democratic party, although Clinton sort of pushed it towards the center to a certain extent.

You know, the politics, the actual policies I should say, aren’t really what any of these labels are based on. As I think we may have discussed before, the Affordable Care Act or Obamacare, which is so attacked by the Republicans, is not only something that Romney did in Massachusetts, but was a Republican idea coming out of a conservative think tank. 33He’s right. We did talk about the Republican origins of healthcare in our second conversation.

Much like how you were saying that a number can be manipulated to reflect anything you want, or a voting record can be manipulated, in the same way you can always find a way to make a policy reflect poorly.

Yeah. And the Obamacare thing was literally the Republican answer to this idea of having a single-payer medical health care system. So they hate it ‘cause it’s his.

How does one become a deadline poet, by the way? Is that a calling?

I have to say that there’s not a lot of people scrambling for the job. I was formerly what I call a ‘Special Occasions’ poet. That is a person who did the long poem at the rehearsal dinner or the anniversary party.

I don’t know if I’ve mentioned it in our discussions 44He hadn’t. but I was inspired by John Sununu, George H.W. Bush’s Chief of Staff. It was a grey administration. It wasn’t very interesting and there wasn’t even any juicy corruption in it and a lot of the people even looked alike. there were all these nice Ivy League gentlemen in suits.

And the only person who stood out was John Sununu, who wasn’t shaped like the rest of them and also had that great attraction for people like me, which is that he was mostly interested in showing that he was the smartest person in the room. And then he had that great name, Sununu.

That name sort of stuck with me, Sununu. I used to mutter it on the subway, “Sununu, Sununu.” And then I thought of a poem called, “If You Knew What Sununu.” So I wrote it and said to The Nation, where I used to do a column, “Would you be interested in a poem?” And that started it. I think it’s fair to say that I’m the only poet inspired to poetry by John Sununu.  55It’s not the only funniness inspired by John Sununu, however. The mention of his name in this scene in the awful 1990 Bill Cosby movie, Ghost Dad, was the only funny thing in it. I laughed out loud in the theatre at the time. (I was alone.) 

There used to be a guy who did poetry for The National Review, William Buckley’s magazine and then of course John Allemang used to do a verse on Saturday in the weekend paper for The Globe and Mail. But neither one of them, I think do it any more, although Allemang, of course, is still a member of IDPO, the International Deadline Poets Organization. So I guess I’m the only deadline poet in the world right now. Or at least the only deadline poet in North America.

Last time we talked about Tom Lehrer...

But he doesn’t do it any more.

No he doesn’t.

Also, and I hate to say this about Tom Lehrer, because I admire Tom Lehrer: He doesn’t have any deadlines. A deadline poet has deadlines.

But That Was The Week That Was songs had deadlines.

Yeah, but that was a long time ago.

It was.

I guess he could be an emeritus member of IDPO.

I thought of broadening the field a bit and thinking of it more as ‘lyrical political satire.’

That’s a narrow field.

The only other person I could think of is Mark Russell.

Yeah, Mark Russell used to do that. He did it to music but it’s essentially the same sort of thing. Commenting on the news in verse. And there used to be a group in Washington called The Capitol Steps that was made up of—originally, I don’t know if it does now—but it was made up of staffers from Congress and places like that. And they used to set verse to songs that were already written.

But I have to say I haven’t heard an overwhelming desire from the public to have more of this. Somehow I haven’t sensed that.

I was going to say, the funny thing about Mark Russell is if he comes up at all now it tends to be as a punchline.

Oh yeah? I haven’t even heard that. I haven’t heard that much about him. Is he still performing?

I think he retired a few years ago.   66Wikipedia got it wrong here, as it seems Mark Russell has returned to some performing. Tickets for his shows in the new year are available here. He also keeps his website stocked with fresh jokes.

He had some funny stuff. I also admired the way he could play the piano standing up.

One last thing: Still no prediction?

Still no prediction. I’ve got a perfect record so far and I intend to maintain it.

Michael Takasaki is a regular contributor to Hazlitt. In his non-free time, he writes ads for things like cat food, mayonnaise, cereal, appliances, luxury German automobiles and banking products. In his free time, he enjoys a nice sandwich, gives away million-dollar ideas, and takes photos of people who look like his art director partner.