Politicon: A Mad Dash to Shake Hands

Our correspondent goes gonzo at the first annual gathering of politicians, pundits, and comedians.

I arrived at Politicon fifteen minutes before Edward Snowden (my absolute fucking hero) was meant to appear via live stream. The first thing I had to do was go through a set of metal detectors. I thought it was strange that such a seemingly tame event would need metal detectors, but then I remembered some of my least favorite politicians would be there, including Michele Bachmann and Newt Gingrich. That’s not to say I would ever harm these devils, because I wouldn’t, but then I’m much more reasonable than some of the crazies who hate these politicians.

I was politely greeted by the event staff and got my press credentials. “Where’s Snowden?” I asked. “Up the escalator, take a left, then it’s room 502,” a girl said. I made my way up the escalator—the stairway to obesity—and waited in a short line outside room 502. I’m not sure if I was supposed to skip the other line to the left of me, which seemed to be about two-hundred people deep, but I was press, and there has to be some kind of perk to the badge beyond filing frenzied reports.

When a man who looked vaguely like Snowden came on stage, I literally jumped over the back of my seat and ran to the front.

Shortly after I sat down, The Yes Men, a couple of guys who identify as both activists and comedians, appeared on stage. They would be interviewing Snowden. They introduced themselves and then explained that Edward Snowden had recently received a presidential pardon and would be appearing at the event—right here, right on the stage upon which they were standing—in person. I almost tweeted out this breaking news. When a man who looked vaguely like Snowden came on stage, I literally jumped over the back of my seat and ran to the front. But the second he spoke, I knew it wasn’t actually Snowden. I shouldn’t be so gullible.

Snowden did come on a while later and did what he always does. He spoke about how privacy and free speech are essential to a democratic society and how we can’t trust the government. I’ve probably watched over thirty interviews with him since he began his Russian exile, so I knew what to expect. It was really great to see him live, but there’s something very different about seeing someone live over video feed rather than live in person.

After Snowden, I took a look at the schedule. I had not planned my day out, and it became the first of many times I would nervously look at the grid to figure out what to do next. The problem is, the event had so many things going on at the same time, you had to make some tough decisions about what you were willing to miss. Of course, I’ve experienced this at many music festivals, but speakers can be a bit less predictable than bands.

photo by Thor Benson

This is when the panic set in. How was I to meet all of the people I wanted to meet and see all of the people I wanted to see? Impossible! I had no idea what to do next. I started heading toward the “Women’s Health Panel,” because Lizz Winstead, co-creator of The Daily Show, was going to be speaking. I sat in that room for a moment before realizing I was missing Slate‘s Mike Pesca interviewing Tony Hale (Arrested Development, VEEP) and Reggie Love, former personal aide to President Obama. Shit! Everyone out of the way! I rushed into the room and found Buster Bluth sitting somewhat awkwardly onstage next to Pesca and Love before a packed crowd.

Hale said the difference between Buster on Arrested Development and Gary Walsh on VEEP is that Buster had anxiety and couldn’t get anything done because of it, while Gary has anxiety and still gets shit done when he has to. Love, meanwhile, seemed like the kind of guy you could call at any time for a favor and know he’d show up.

In Newt’s logic, Obama is to be vilified for refusing to let the Republicans put a gun to his head while they pass a budget that would defund the organization.

Once the Slate event ended, I got some food and caught the end of a foreign policy talk hosted by political commentator Sally Kohn. I’ve engaged with her on social media and via email before, so I wanted to say “hello” in person. I talked to her for a moment, made jokes about throwing eggs at Newt Gingrich, and then headed to see The Daily Show’s Jordan Klepper at a comedy show Upright Citizens Brigade was hosting. Klepper seemed easy and natural on stage doing improv with the UCB gang.  

After the UCB show, I ended up at a discussion centered around the 2016 elections, in which The Daily Beast’s John Avlon moderated a panel that featured Newt Gingrich, David Axelrod, James Carville, and Alex Castellanos.

photo by Thor Benson

photo by Thor Benson

This talk was probably the most interesting of the whole conference. Axelrod, who has been the senior strategist for President Obama’s election campaigns, spoke intelligently about topics ranging from organizing citizens for political action to the need to regulate markets that might otherwise go wild. Gingrich made the assertion that if the government shuts down over the Planned Parenthood issue, it will be President Obama’s fault—in Newt’s logic, Obama is to be vilified for refusing to let the Republicans put a gun to his head while they pass a budget that would defund the organization. He believes the president is forcing the country to live by his beliefs, regardless of the consequences or the will of the people. It’s an assertion that’s as ridiculous as it is ironic, coming from a member of the party holding the gun. Not to mention the fact that polling shows the vast majority of the public is against a potential shutdown.

The fact that Uber doesn’t give employee benefits, pays their workers very little, and gives them no job security might be evidence that deregulation ideals aren’t based in any reality that working Americans would appreciate.

My favorite Gingrich moment was when he tenaciously complained that the United States might soon elect its first socialist president—Bernie Sanders (why that might be a bad thing he didn’t specify). In response to this, at least eighty percent of the crowd cheered loudly, and some even began chanting “Bernie! Bernie! Bernie!” Gingrich didn’t appreciate this response. At least Newt is departing from his party’s narrative about the current president’s economic philosophy.

James Carville, the hilarious political commentator with the thick Louisiana accent, was the star of the show. Pretty much any time someone said something he thought was ridiculous, he would scream out, “You just aren’t making any sense!” and throw his hands in the air while he explained why. “Are you kidding me?!” he’d yell.

Castellanos spoke  in depth about how bad regulation is, saying specifically that we should be a country that moves into the future and chooses to be like Uber, rather than the taxi industry, which he sees as antiquated. While I agree that we should move into the future (seems like a good move) and eventually abandon many older industries, the fact that Uber doesn’t give employee benefits, pays their workers very little, and gives them no job security might be evidence that his deregulation ideals aren’t based in any reality that working Americans would appreciate. He asked if we’d rather have a country that lets the government manage businesses from the top down or a country that lets innovators grow the economy from the bottom up. “False dichotomy!” several audience members shouted.

Politicon-2015-Thor_Benson-1

photo by Thor Benson

Toward the end, the organizers gave a microphone to the audience, letting people get in line to ask the speakers questions. I was thoroughly prepared to ask Newt Gingrich about the motivations behind some of the more terrible decisions he’s made, but I was the person next in line when they decided to stop taking questions.

Finally, after refreshing myself in the event’s VIP room, it was time for the main event. Trevor Noah would be doing stand up, then would be interviewed by Carville.

 “Do you know why I pulled you over?” the officer asked. “Is it because I’m black?” Noah responded.

Trevor Noah turns out to be as good standing up as he is sitting behind a desk. He talked about the first time he was pulled over by a police officer while driving in the United States. “Do you know why I pulled you over?” the officer asked. “Is it because I’m black?” he responded, as he had legitimately been told that might happen. The cop responded with a nervous smile and a sort of “Why would you ever say that?” response. Carville’s interview was pretty uneventful, strangely, and included the typical “What’s it like being in America?” kind of questions.

With that, the whole thing was over, and I was ready for a drink. Spending nine hours listening to people talk about politics and freaking out about which event to go to next is an exhausting experience, but there are few scenarios where you’ll get to see so many people engaging in the kind of political dialogue this country so desperately needs to be having. We didn’t save the world, and we probably didn’t solve any major problems, but damn it, we made some noise. FL

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