VITAL SIGNSrnPOLITICSrnMailer, Breslin,rnThompson,rnand Sternrnby Jesse WalkerrnThere has never been an electionrnconducted above the local levelrnin which one single ballot determinedrnthe outcome. And even if there were, Irndoubt it would matter. Suppose yourncould cast the deciding vote in a contestrnbetween Bill Clinton and Bob Dole.rnCan you honestly say that you wouldrnbother?rnVisiting the polls is more a religiousrnact than a political one, an affirmation ofrnone’s fealty toward America’s civic faith.rnThis confession does not stress individualrnrevelation and one’s personal relationshiprnwith the Deity; nor does it express arncommunal identity through mystery andrnpageantry—though it sometimes tries.rnThe point of this church is to show uprnmost Sundays and try not to fall asleep.rnCreative voters often try to transcendrnthe bland affirmations of the CivicrnChurch. They may embrace a splinterrncult—a protest campaign or a thirdrnparty. They may go pagan, and write inrntheir own gods: Faustus Kelly, RandyrnWeaver, Donald Duck, or whoeverrnstrikes their fancy on the spur of the moment.rnThe best of them become selfmadernprophets and enter the race themselves,rnon their own terms. These holyrnmen constitute a religious tradition inrntheir own right, an esoteric order thatrnonly occasionally slips, partially, into thernspotlight.rnThe last time this happened was inrn1994, when infamous radio personalityrnHoward Stern earned (some say, stole)rnthe gubernatorial nomination of thernNew York Libertarian Party. His platformrnconsisted of reinstating the deathrnpenalty, using criminals’ corpses to fillrnpotholes, “staggering tollbooths” (whateverrnthat means), and resigning afterrnthree weeks. Across the land, punditsrnasked, “Is this a joke?”rnWell, yes and no. It was not a joke inrnthe sense of Canada’s Rhino Party,rnwhich advocated turning the entire privaternsector over to the public sector andrnvice versa, or the mid-60’s HamiltonianrnParty, a wholly imaginary group led by arnFlint, Michigan, college freshman whorncalled himself “Mike, Mighty Man ofrnCod.” Unlike the Rhinos and Hamiltonians.rnStern seemed to believe at leastrnmost of his slim platform. Nor was it arnjoke in the way Bill Clinton or GeorgernBush or Bob Dole is a joke. Stern, atrnleast, meant to be funny. No, HowardrnStern’s campaign was a dead-seriousrnjape, an electoral prank. And this placedrnhim squarely in the Tradition.rnIn 1969, Normal Mailer ran for mayorrnof New York City on a Paul Goodmanesquernplatform of radical decentralizationrnand community control: neighborhoodrnsovereignty for black militantsrnand right-wing ethnics alike, and citywidernsecession from New York State.rnCars would be banned from Manhattan,rngangs would fight formalized joustingrnmatches in Central Park, and everyonernwould celebrate “Sweet Sunday”—onernday a month when, in Mailer’s words,rn”New York would stop for 24 hours. Everythingrnwould stop running. Electricity,rncars, planes, trains, name it. If nothingrnelse, it would give New York a chancernto clear itself once a month. And peoplernwould hear themselves think for arnchange.”rnJimmy Breslin ran for City Councilrnpresident as Mailer’s running mate,rnand—paralleling Stern’s Libertarianrncandidacy—the pair gained the endorsementrnof Murray Rothbard’s tiny RadicalrnLibertarian Alliance. Other than that,rnmost of their unconsiderable supportrncame from the left.rnA year later, gonzo journalist HunterrnThompson ran for sheriff of Aspen on arn”Freak Power” ticket, promising to sodrnthe streets, put dishonest drug dealers inrnstocks, rename the town “Fat City,” andrncrack down on the developers he feltrnwere raping his Colorado home. His wasrnnot the only tongue-in-cheek counterculturalrncampaign that year; hippies andrnyippies across the country were runningrnfor municipal or county office. ButrnThompson did something none of themrn(or Mailer or Breslin) could manage: hernalmost won. He carried the city, losingrnonly because of the “Spiro Agnew vote”rn(his phrase) in the suburbs.rnPerhaps the greatest of the jape campaignsrncame in 1979, when punk rockerrnJello Biafra ran for mayor of San Francisco.rnBiafra, then frontman for the DeadrnKennedys, called for “bringing governmentrnout from behind closed doors” byrnauctioning off high city positions publiclyrnrather than in smoke-filled rooms.rnHe also wanted to legalize squatting inrnany building left empty for a tax writeoff,rnrequire downtown businessmen tornwear clown suits between nine and five,rnrehire laid-off public employees as panhandlersrnat 50 percent commission,rnmake police officers stand for election,rnand create a Board of Bribery to set standardrnrates.rnHe finished a solid fourth in a field ofrnten, with 3.5 percent of the vote. Thernvictorious Dianne Feinstein admitted hern”made the race more interesting.” Herrncampaign manager added that if someonern”like that” could do so well, “this cityrnis in big trouble.” (Some of us feel thatrnway about Feinstein.)rnTo some extent, this Tradition is selfconscious.rnBiafra, for example, has admittedrnbeing inspired by another campaignrnbuccaneer: “In my hometownrn[Boulder] there was a history of peoplernpulling stunts like that. In particularrnthere was a man named John Davenport,rna 50-year-old independently wealthyrnhippie who would run for city councilrnadvocating all kinds of weird things. Everybodyrnelse would appear in their suitand-rntie photos for the candidates’ profilesrnin the newspaper, and he’d be in arnpirate’s suit with an eyepatch and somernof his teeth blacked out. He wrote greatrnletters to the editor, attacking the cops.”rnNone of these people really expectedrnto win; even Thompson started his candidacyrnon a lark. Mailer publicly statedrnthat it would take “a miracle” for him tornemerge the victor. This freed them, notrnonly to push radical ideas that makernmore sense as poetry than as policy proposalsrn—calling for a “Sweet Sunday”rnmakes a fine satiric point, but surelyrnMailer did not really want to shut thern44/CHRONICLESrnrnrn