Politics should, in theory, be the subject of some of the most compelling narrative journalism. There’s built-in drama! There are winners and losers! The stakes are high! That’s why it’s so depressing that most politics stories, even those of the narrative variety, are painfully boring. They tend to fall into one of two traps – and I don’t mean right or left. Sometimes they’re “objective” to a fault, stripped of all perspective and written as a description of an ideological Pingpong match in which the reporter, if she gets too close to the action, reduces herself to an awkward ghost. (“A visitor was offered a glass of water.”) Then there are pieces with the opposite problem: The writer, seemingly by design, uses every quote and detail to confirm her assumptions about the people on both ends of the American political spectrum, and does little more than recite familiar arguments and retrace caricatures that were first doodled decades ago.
The exceptions tend to be stories written by journalists who don’t usually cover politics. Recently, when the Supreme Court ruling that upheld Obama’s health care bill eclipsed the election as the dominant political story, I reread John Jeremiah Sullivan’s “American Grotesque,” a reported but essayistic GQ piece on the political ramifications of Obamacare. From a major tea party rally in D.C. to a quieter controversy in rural America to an even quieter familial fight over taxes, Sullivan manages to capture the political moment. It’s because he doesn’t just describe the debate; he engages with it on a personal level.
At first you think it’s going to fall into the second category of political narrative – one that is designed to confirm stereotype. Indeed, this piece has several details we’ve all read a million times, like this description of an offensive tea party sign:
A guy behind me is holding an ingenious sign he’s made. He’s cut out the mouth from a giant cardboard poster of Nancy Pelosi’s face, creating a hole, a gaping maw, and attached a bag to the back of it, like a corn hole at the fair. He’s handing out Lipton tea bags to people and urging them to “tea-bag Nancy Pelosi.” People are doing it and laughing, even ladies. Pelosi, with her giant crazy eyes, gulps the tea bags eagerly.
But the entire rally scene is written in the first-person plural. From there he continues:
It’s only fair. Liberals made fun of us because, at first, some of us didn’t know what “tea-bagging” meant—that it meant dipping your testicles into a woman’s or, if you lean that way, another fella’s open mouth—and a few of us, the older ones, may have referred to ourselves for a brief span as “tea-baggers,” in ignorance and in innocence. Now we’re turning the joke back on them. No one who has any sense of humor gets hurt.
It’s not just that we’re there. We’re marching. Sullivan identifies himself – and the reader – with these people who, let’s face it, are probably not GQ subscribers. It’s … jarring. I was at that tea party rally. I did not feel like one of them.
But where this piece really begins to diverge from the template is when Sullivan starts writing about his family. Sure, we all know that where politics gets interesting is where it intersects with the personal. But rarely does such an intersection make its way out of the personal essay and into a reported piece of journalism. When Sullivan is hanging out with his much-more-conservative cousin, perched high above the National Mall, that’s when, finding it tough to suppress his own ideological leanings, he chooses to break reporter-character:
My cousin told me a casual story about a breakfast three months earlier with a leading Republican senator, by the end of which this senator had vowed to “make the public option radioactive.”
Suppressing screams, I said something about recognizing people from home on TV, and we laughed.
People from home. The other great thing about this piece is that he manages to say unexpected things about not only the ideological divide in America, but the geographical divide as well. Our next stop is Kentucky, a stand-in for the far-flung places from whence many of these ralliers came. And yeah, it’s far from Washington, but subject to the same fights, the same assumptions. A census worker has been found dead, and reporters have descended on this rural county. Sullivan runs into a sheriff on a near-deserted county road near where the body was found:
When I pulled away, I saw he hadn’t moved far. It was a sheriff’s deputy, parked in the middle of the road. His finding me here in all of Clay County, unless he’d been watching the graveyard day and night, seemed Stephen Hawking-size, oddswise. Was I supposed to stop and get out? I sat behind him with the engine on awkwardly.
I decided to pass him. As I went by, we waved. A smiling gray-mustached man with glasses. “Come on back,” he said, and just let me go by.
And most journalists would leave it at that. End on the quote. But Sullivan overthinks it. What really sets him apart as a writer is his ability to take details that appear minor and explore them, turn them over and over and inside out, in a way that doesn’t feel overwrought. These three words – “Come on back” – are the prompt for a great paragraph on how Americans don’t really bother to get past stereotype, political or otherwise. About how most of us are just visitors in other people’s comfort zones, about how we don’t attempt to really get to know what it’s like there. It’s an insight into the nature of American politics, but it’s also instructive for political journalists.
Ann Friedman is an editor and writer. Formerly the executive editor of GOOD, she’s now hard at work on a crowd-funded magazine called Tomorrow. She curates the work of female journalists at LadyJournos!, makes hand-drawn pie charts for The Hairpin, and dispenses advice about journalism using GIFs. In July 2012, the Columbia Journalism Review named her one of 20 women to watch.
For more installments of “Why’s this so good?” see our archives. And check back each week for a new shot of inspiration and insight.