Screw the 30-second sound bites. Damn those enslaving "talking points" meant to keep a candidate on message. We've had it up to here with these synthetic, cautiously scripted campaigns. If you want to read a good yarn on what our politicians have to say about privatizing Social Security or raising gas taxes to fund additional infrastructure, well, check out the Post-Dispatch.
Throughout this election season, our candidates have been measured by the campaign cognoscenti in all the dreary, traditional ways. But before you enter that ballot booth six days from now, wouldn't you like something better, something a little more up-close-and-personal -- you know, like who can carry a tune the best or chug Pimp Juice the fastest? Of course you would. And that's why we're bringing you the Riverfront Times' first-ever Candidate Forum.
It's late on a Tuesday morning, and in an hour or so the Cardinals will begin kicking some Dodger butt in Game One of the National League Division Series. Wearing a goofy grin and a Redbirds jersey fully tucked into his pleated khakis, Third District congressional candidate Russ Carnahan enters Pin-Up Bowl, our chosen venue for this groundbreaking event. His Republican foe, Bill Federer, is running late, and the other two candidates who've shown up on time -- U.S. Senate contender Nancy Farmer and First District congressional hopeful Leslie Farr -- are milling around like kids on their first day at a new elementary school.
They have no idea what's in store for them.
Baffled expressions abound, the kind of deer-in-the-headlights look that once creased the confused face of Ross Perot's 1992 running mate, Admiral James Stockdale, who, in the middle of the veep debate, asked the immortal questions: "Who am I? Why am I here?" Seems our political contingent on this fine fall day is having similar thoughts. They're probably thinking to themselves, "I could be getting more votes bird-dogging the early feeders at Denny's than I'll get here today."
The RFT invited about a dozen candidates to the forum, including George W. Bush and John Kerry (they had other engagements they felt were more important, if you can believe that). Invitations went out to Missouri's gubernatorial combatants, to the duo running for St. Louis County Executive and to Farmer's opponent, Christopher "Kit" Bond, a man who has never pulled in more than 53 percent of the vote in the his three bids for office.
Sensing that perhaps they might be in store for a little political mischief, most of our invitees respectfully declined this rare political opportunity. For each passing minute, awaiting Federer's arrival, those already in attendance wish they'd done likewise. We feel like telling them, as that fun-loving jock John Riggins once advised Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, "Loosen up, baby."
At last, Federer arrives. "I really like the Loop," he confides, gingerly casing the bowling alley. "I love that root beer at Fitz's."
The big show is set to begin. An RFT editor serves as moderator. He thanks everyone for coming and asks the candidates to deliver a brief opening statement. With the exception of Leslie Farr, who throughout his talk makes vague references to "things that go bump in the night," the speeches are all refried hash -- though Farmer does offer a spirited riff on Bond's increasingly fractious campaign. But mostly it's working-class tax relief, prescription-drug costs, education reform. Blah, blah and more blah.
When the speeches come to a merciful end, the moderator lays down the ground rules, which basically boil down to this: Have fun, show some spontaneity, and let the voters see a side of you they probably never have seen -- and never will see -- on the campaign trail.
If you're looking for our endorsements in the Senate and First District congressional races, don't worry: Our minds were immediately made up. And the coveted endorsements go to Farmer and Farr, just for mustering the political chutzpah to show up -- unlike their 'fraidy-cat opponents. For the Carnahan-Federer race, it'll be more difficult to choose, as the possibility of a tie exists.
"And for this," intones the moderator, "we have devised the ultimate tie-breaker -- a best-of-five game of 'Rock, Paper, Scissors.' Let the games begin."
Federer and Carnahan meet at the bar like two grizzled gunslingers. Out of the gate, Federer takes a commanding two-nothing lead when his rocks dull Carnahan's scissors.
By round four, though, it's unclear whether Federer understands the game. He's thrown four rocks in a row, and Carnahan is on to him, smothering each rock with a hand of paper. The game is tied at two. The fifth and final round, Federer goes back to rock. It's a strategy akin to Mike Matheny calling for Jason Isringhausen's high heater, even though the Cardinals closer's last two fastballs left the park. In this case, Carnahan is Mr. October. He reads Federer's face and throws paper. Carnahan wins, 3 to 2.
"Serving in Congress requires more than idle hand gestures," says the moderator, after congratulating Carnahan. "We need leaders who are powerful, people who can strike down the mightiest barriers of opposition -- or, at the very least, clean up a nasty seven-ten split. That's right, we need to send good bowlers back to Washington!"
On the video monitors above the lanes, Britney Spears lip-synchs her latest hit, a cover of Bobby Brown's "My Prerogative." The young temptress wears nothing but lingerie as she writhes around on a bed of satin sheets. Sitting on the benches behind lanes three and four, Carnahan and Federer take off their shoes.
Lacing up his red, white and blue rentals, Federer takes an unequivocal stand on the issue: "Bowling is one of the few activities you can do anymore as a family."
Carnahan may be leading Federer in the polls, but when it comes to a three-frame bowling showdown, the Republican and best-selling author of America's God and Country Encyclopedia of Quotations has the solid edge. After all, Federer took his entire clan bowling just a few months before. Talk about good political prep. Carnahan says he hasn't tossed the rock for a good three years.
On an adjoining lane, Nancy Farmer is having trouble getting adjusted. Abandoning modesty for comfort, Missouri's state treasurer trades in her size seven-and-a-half shoes for a pair of eights. It takes another five minutes for her and her aide to find the right ball. When at last she's settled, it's clear why she's so finicky: Farmer is a hell of a bowler.
She throws two spares in a row and follows up in the last frame by knocking down all but two pins. This from a woman who says she last bowled twenty years ago. After three frames she finishes with a very respectable 44 -- almost double what any of her male counterparts will throw.
On lane two, Farr tosses one gutter ball after another. Like his political leanings, his balls veer wildly to the right. After three frames, he finishes with a sorry thirteen.
The better match is shaping up between Federer and Carnahan. After one frame, the political adversaries are tied at nine points each. In frame number two, Carnahan knocks down five pins with his first ball, only to follow up with a gutter ball. Seizing on his opponent's weakness, Federer throws a two, and then a seven, to lead, eighteen to fourteen.
Carnahan needs a big roll in the final frame, and with a determined toss he knocks down nine pins. One more and he'll have a spare, and the chance to augment his score with a bonus ball. But it's not to be: He misses the solitary pin left standing. Federer must knock down six pins to win. His first throw clears five, and the second toss picks up the requisite obstacle.
"This is so fun," exclaims Sue, Federer's effervescent wife. "This is the most fun we've had on the campaign."
Final bowling score: Federer 24, Carnahan 23. After round one, it's Federer 1, Carnahan 0.
The candidates may prove their mettle on the bowling lanes -- but this race is about a lot more than bowling, the moderator gravely notes.
"Our city and state yearn for leaders," he says, "who will not give us the same song and dance. We need leaders who can make the whole world sing, leaders who can give voice to our hopes and dreams. In short, it's time for some karaoke."
"How'd you guys come up with this?" a bewildered Federer asks when handed a list of some 40 songs pre-selected for the competition. The selections run the gamut -- from Elvis to patriotic, from rock to country, from soul to a section titled "Songs Your Mother Wouldn't Let You Sing."
By now Farmer has participated in the forum for 45 minutes and senses this may be the only time to leave with her dignity intact.
"I can't carry a tune in a bucket," she admits to the crowd. Being a good sport, Farmer at least makes a selection: "Stand By Me." It plays softly in the background while she uses the stage to give one last pitch.
Next up is Leslie Farr, who in August lost his job as an Amtrak conductor when he got on the train's PA system and urged passengers to vote against Kerry -- because Kerry's campaign train held his train up for two hours. He approaches karaoke with the same irreverence he demonstrated on that fateful voyage across Missouri.
In a private moment earlier in the forum, Farr describes an ideal date as cuddling on the couch with his wife. Now he chooses the raunchiest tune in the lineup -- Clarence Carter's "Strokin'." Making the song his own, he interjects his name into the lyrics:
Now when I start making love to my woman
I don't stop until I know she's satisfied
And I can always tell when she gets satisfied
Cause when she gets satisfied she starts calling my name
She'd say: "Leslie Farr, Leslie Farr, Leslie Farr
Leslie Farr, ooooh shit, Leslie Farr!"
The song brings the house down, but not all audience members are impressed, including one of Federer's aides. "I must say, I found that a little appalling," she whispers.
As Farr's song goes on and on (apparently we erred in selecting the extended remix), Carnahan laments that Willie Nelson's "On the Road Again" is not on the list. He's also concerned about following Farr.
Having fun, Russ? "This is a side of the campaign you don't get to explore much," he offers. "It's, um, a good thing."
From the get-go, Carnahan delivers a stilted version of Presley's "Blue Suede Shoes." He completely misses the opening lyrics and spends the rest of the song trying to catch up to the beat. To spice up the act, he attempts to shake the rigor mortis from his limbs, but it's too little, too late. The music is all Elvis, but his lumbering dance moves are Bela Lugosi doing the "Monster Mash."
As the curtain falls on Carnahan's performance, Bill and Sue Federer continue to pore over song titles, looking for the perfect ditty to summarize his campaign. At last they settle on the Motown classic "My Girl." Bill wants to know if Sue can participate, and the moderator says there's nothing in the rules to preclude it. As Bill belts out the lyrics, theatrical Sue stands at his side pumping her fists up and down as though holding make-believe pom-poms. Before you know it, the couple is casting goofy bedroom eyes at each other. If the audience wasn't blushing during Farr's rendition of "Strokin'," they are now, as the Federers launch into a sort of Partridge-family foreplay.
To our panel of critics, Farr clearly wins the karaoke competition -- for sheer uninhibited lunacy. But in the head-to-head vocal competition between Carnahan and Federer, the returns pour in for Federer. After two rounds, Federer leads 2-0.
At this point Federer seems as happy as a little boy who found a puppy under the tree on Christmas morning. The moderator returns to the microphone. "All right," he announces, "time for round three. We're looking for a candidate thirsty for change, and what better way to demonstrate that desire than with a cool, refreshing can of Pimp Juice?"
Surely everyone knows that our town's rap superstar, Nelly, developed Pimp Juice as the world's premier energy drink. Just one eight-ounce can of Pimp Juice contains 100 percent of the body's daily requirement of the vitamins needed for optimal mental and physical performance. It's also fun to drink -- really, really fast.
"Can you believe this?" the moderator muses under his breath. "They're actually going through with it. My God, they're like trained seals." Why, just a few days ago, RFT editor Tom Finkel predicted that they'd probably all walk out en masse -- even, maybe, before the bowling. But no: They're following every command. Egged on by Leslie Farr, the candidates are all over the Pimp Juice challenge.
"Yeah, I had some of this stuff the other night!" says Farr, who's literally licking his chops when handed a can.
Head back, lips pursed, Farr drains the can in an impressive 7.91 seconds.
Next up is Carnahan, who transforms from mild-mannered Bruce Banner to the Incredible Hulk when presented with the stuff. He's halfway finished with the drink when he crushes the can in his hand, rocketing the juice down his throat. One doesn't acquire this trait in his first chugging contest. It is a learned technique, and it propels Carnahan to a remarkable time of 5.65 seconds.
With a wipe of his lips, he deadpans, "That took me back to college."
With juice dribbling down his chin, it takes Federer nearly nine seconds to finish off his Pimp Juice, and even then, the can is not entirely empty.
Carnahan wins the Pimp Juice event by a landslide. The score: Federer 2, Carnahan 1.
"As representatives of our city and state, we don't want our politicians looking like a bunch of hayseeds," the moderator makes clear. "For that reason, we've invited St. Louis' own veritable 'Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,' Darin 'D-Sly' Slyman, to weigh in on the candidates' fashion taste."
Dressed in a pinstripe charcoal suit accented with an orange hooded sweatshirt, D-Sly knows a thing or two about fashion. To aid him in his critique, we've borrowed a wardrobe of presidential ensembles from the Lord & Taylor at Shoppingtown West County and asked the candidates to mix-and-match the hippest outfit. But what D-Sly finds is alarming.
Besides Farr, whose fashion consciousness D-Sly claims to be as "seasoned and mature as a fine Italian Chianti," the candidates fail this portion of the forum. The bad notes begin with Farmer, whom D-Sly quizzed as she headed out the door. D-Sly encourages Farmer, an adherent to the red power suit, to let her hair down.
"You've got a great figure, you should show it off," he tells her.
Still, when presented with a dozen outfits, Farmer can't help herself and chooses the only red outfit in the bunch -- a red wool suit embroidered with a fur collar.
"Okay, good choice, but what if you were attending a campaign rally on a hot July day?" D-Sly asks.
Again, Farmer prefers the red wool suit. Frustrated by what he sees as wasted talent, D-Sly gives Farmer a score of six (out of ten) style points.
"I have a feeling she sees her wardrobe as a uniform," he speculates.
His harsher comments are reserved for Carnahan. Before the candidate gets the opportunity to pick an outfit, D-Sly berates him for tucking in his Cardinals jersey.
"When faced with fashion, Russ is like an old-school frat jock," complains D-Sly.
He gives the monochromatic Carnahan a style score of four for picking out a blue suit, blue tie and blue shirt.
But at least true-blue Carnahan is able to come up with something. Federer stares blankly at the clothes in a tortuous fit of fashion constipation. It's now seems apparent why Federer was late this morning. Evidently the 47-year-old politico was forced to dress himself. Fumbling for help, he turns to his wife.
"Shut it down, Mama!" yells D-Sly when Sue tries to assist her fumbling husband. At long last, Federer arrives at a white shirt, red tie and navy-blue suit. D-Sly gives him a three for his effort. Carnahan barely wins the fashion vote, and the score reads: Federer 2, Carnahan 2.
It's now down to the final event. The stakes are high. A coveted RFT endorsement hangs in the balance. A state of apprehension falls over the bowling alley.
"Ladies and gentlemen, I suggest to all of you today that we would prefer that our representatives in the nation's capital be fast on their feet," says the moderator, his eloquence soaring higher with each event. "We need skillful politicians who can take an important piece of legislation and deliver it across the finish line." After a dramatic pause, he barks, "You guessed it: time for the 50-yard dash."
Along the sidewalk on Delmar Boulevard, the candidates huddle at the starting line.
In high school, Federer was a state finalist in the high hurdles, and he expresses disappointment that there will be no leaping in today's forum finale. Farr, who has added significant girth since his days at Lafayette High School, was also an accomplished track star in the 100- and 200-yard dash. It would seem Carnahan is the underdog.
With a blast of the starter's pistol, the candidates are off. Farr jumps to a quick lead. To his left, Federer breaks into a long steady gait, a veritable Smarty Jones. His face twisted into a grimace, Russ Carnahan is pounding the pavement as hard as he can, but still he's bringing up the rear. Now he's gaining, gaining...falling back...then gaining again. Still, Federer is a half-step ahead of Russ.
"Go, Bill, go!" yells Sue Federer.
It's going to be tight.
As quickly as it began, the race is over, with all contenders crossing over a well-marked crack in the sidewalk in just under six seconds. And the winner: Leslie Farr, by a good stride and a half. "Yesss!" he cries out.
But it's the result of the Federer-Carnahan sprint that is of greatest consequence at this moment. Time stands still. It's close, very close. But the photos taken make it unmistakably clear -- Bill Federer has nipped his opponent by a mere step. The RFT Candidate Forum is over. The final score: Bill Federer 3, Russ Carnahan 2.
Congratulations, Mr. Federer, you have our endorsement on November 2.
Note to our readers: The RFT will be back in Fall 2006 with our Second Biannual Candidate Forum, with an all-new array of political competitions. Can they get any sillier? Why, yes. Yes, they can.