Making It Even Verse

Writer Looks at Race in Rhyme

Posted December 8, 2008 at 4:08pm

Everyone knows this year’s presidential race

Began long before November 2008.

But it takes a rather seasoned writer

To explain how America decided its next decider.

By the time the nation chose Barack Obama as the 44th president on Nov. 4, even the most ardent political observer had reason to be burnt out on election news. The relentless coverage of campaign minutia left no gaffe uncovered, no quip undissected and little room to appreciate the period’s more trivial moments. But now that the long race has come to an end, a new book by Calvin Trillin offers a refreshing, humorous look back.

“Deciding the Next Decider: The 2008 Presidential Race in Rhyme” is a 116-page extension of the weekly poems that Trillin writes for the Nation magazine. Last spring, as he was putting together his political rhymes about the campaign trail, it occurred to him that he might be able to take the installments a step further, into a longer look at the election.

“It seemed like sort of a bizarre thing to do,” Trillin said in an interview. Still, he decided to see whether the material was suited to the form of an epic poem. He ended up spending the summer putting it together.

Trillin was removed from the immediate political action for the first few months of writing, as he worked from his summer house in Nova Scotia. He kept up with the news while he was there and used the Internet for a refresher on early campaign events. By September, however, he had “caught up to real time” in the race.

The four main candidates feature prominently, of course, but Trillin reaches back to the very beginning of the campaign, resurrecting even those politicians whose presidential bids were short-lived.

In two early chapters on the “Almost Rans,” he calls to mind the reasons that some of them did not make it very far.

On the Republican side were former Sens. George Allen (Va.) — described in the poem as “quite cheerful, Reaganesque and not too bright” — and Bill Frist (Tenn.), whose run was hampered by a “blind trust that seemed capable of seeing.”

The Democrats had their own fleet of potentials, most of whom made early departures from the race, as Trillin notes: “Tom Vilsack joined the race for just a minute,” “Russ Feingold, early, bid the fray good-bye” and “Al Sharpton had some other fish to fry.”

Even speculation about a possible run from former Vice President Al Gore gets a nod, or at least, his expanding physique does. “Some said that if the presidential glimmer was in Gore’s eyes he’d try to get much slimmer,” Trillin writes. “Presumably, they looked for photo ops to see what Gore was stuffing in his chops.”

The focus quickly narrows down to the more plausible candidates, such as former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former Sen. Fred Thompson (Tenn.) for the GOP; and former Sen. John Edwards (N.C.), New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) for the Democrats; and of course, the eventual nominees, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Obama.

Trillin also lampoons former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani (R), recalling how unpopular “America’s mayor” was in his own city.

In the short poem, “An Out-of-Towner Questions A New Yorker About America’s Mayor,” a visitor asks a native, “So tell me the most charming feature then of he who saved the city from collapse.” The New Yorker replies, “It might take me a while to think of that. Offhand, I’d say vindictiveness, perhaps.”

Even the Sunday talk-show hosts are mentioned, although they are given the more unfortunate nickname of “Sabbath gasbags.”

Such quips might seem to come off as more cutting than funny, but it becomes clear that no one is spared in Trillin’s rhymes. The lighthearted feel to the book also gives even the sharper jabs the sense of being written good-naturedly.

Humorous as Trillin’s poetry is, he recognizes that 100-plus pages is a lot to digest, so he sprinkled more personalized poems and original songs throughout, to keep things interesting.

The author’s personal favorites include a country song that he calls “Yes, I Know He’s a Mill Worker’s Son, But There’s Hollywood in That Hair,” a tribute to Edwards’ infamous $400 haircut, and “Sweet Jesus, We Hate Him a Lot,” a tune for McCain sung by right-wing preachers. They later reverse their feelings in a reprise, titled “Sweet Jesus, We Like Him Much Better.”

Sometimes, these asides are just waiting to be written. Like Trillin’s Sarah Palin number, “On a Clear Day I Can See Vladivostok.”

“That one was just sitting there,” he said.

Naturally, much of the fodder for the book comes from the two major parties, but Trillin throws a bone to those of the Libertarian persuasion, too. His song, “Just Leave Us Be,” bemoans big government and is meant to be sung by Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) to the tune of Irving Berlin’s “What’ll I Do?”

With all the news and memorable moments that came out of the race, one would think it would be difficult to condense them all into rhymed setting. Not so, Trillin said.

“I was surprised how easily everything fit in,” Trillin said. “There really weren’t any serious parts of the campaign that I left out.”

Even the different aspects of the campaign divided easily into chapters, he said.

Of course, not everything came so naturally. Balancing the candidates’ names, for instance, proved a challenge at times.

“McCain has a nice iambic balance,” he said. “Biden is not a good name for me.”

Trillin said that he hopes readers are entertained by his “antic version of history” and that it reminds them of some of the earlier moments of the race, some of which may now seem a little unbelievable.

“It’s easy to forget that the person who the smart money people were betting on was George Allen,” he said, or that people were paying attention to whether “Al Gore was having seconds or not.”

Trillin does turn to a more serious tone at the end of the poem, however, when the outcome of the election becomes clear.

“And foreigners from Rome to Yokohama, were cheering an American: Obama,” he writes. “From this vote they were willing to infer we aren’t the people they had thought we were. And Lady Liberty, as people call her, was standing in the harbor somewhat taller.”