Saturday, October 30, 2004

Broken brains

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Democracy is the greatest form of government known to man, and on Tuesday -- Election Day -- we will prove to the world that America knows best of all countries on earth how to approximate something sort of almost like it.

We have a mind-bogglingly strange system, friends.

I'm thinking about the time I visited Government Center to register in person, and I saw my name written in the elections office's big ledger -- in pencil.

And I'm thinking about the times I've visited my polling places and I've seen the names of at least six total strangers listed as being registered to vote from my address.

And I'm thinking about the 2000 primary, when one fantastically ancient and nosey poll worker lady told me I should vote for Sen. John McCain in the primary and then for Vice President Al Gore in November.

I'm thinking of that 2000 election, and butterfly ballots, and chads dimpled, pregnant or hanging, and overseas ballots counted past the postmark, and the Supreme Court of the United States stopping recounts, and minorities stricken unfairly from the voting rolls.

And I'm thinking of the Electoral College, too, the completely dumb system we use to count votes. If you feel like your vote isn't being counted, rest assured -- it sort of isn't. Blame the centuries-old Electoral College for turning your vote into a persuasive suggestion instead of an agent of true democratic power. I once wrote before that we should take the crippled Electoral College out behind the barn and put a bullet through its head. This guy wrote to me in uncivil language, saying that the Electoral College ensures small states have power. News flash! We're not a collection of separate states anymore. Besides, when was the last time the candidates cared about a small state -- or any state that wasn't Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida, Michigan or Missouri?

I'm thinking of how the Electoral College can end in a tie, leaving it to the House of Representatives to appoint the president and the Senate to appoint the vice president -- and how that should scare the bejeezus out of every single one of us.

I'm thinking of how a West Virginian elector -- a member of the Electoral College -- has decided not to support Bush if the state goes that way, thus chucking out the window the shaky honor system by which the Electoral College has hobbled by this long.

I'm thinking of how easy it is to vote more than once, and how many people will do just that.

I'm thinking of how easy it is to register pets as voters by mail in some states.

I actually thought, for about 10 minutes, about trying to register my dog as a voter. I'd walk her over to the polling place and see how far we got in the door. I decided against it because a) I like not being in prison for election fraud and b) I couldn't get her to decide which party she wanted to join. On one hand, she's quite conservative with her chew toys. But on the other hand, she's basically on welfare -- she does no work around the house and then expects constant handouts.

I'm thinking of this year's election, of touch-screen voting computers that have no paper receipts in case the machines crash and lose their information when some asshole trips over the power cord.

I've seen pictures of voting machines in other states, where people have to use levers or long needles, or they have to flip pages all around, or they have to stand on one leg with a crowbar and a No. 2 pencil. Is it so bloody difficult for some underemployed federal government person to figure out one really good way we can all vote in every state? Instead of letting some of the more stupider states come up with their own less than foolproof methods?

Look at the way Massachusetts ballots work. They're simple. All the names are listed in a functional way. They have cute little broken arrows near them. You use a Sharpie to complete the arrow of the candidate you like best. You're out of there in like two minutes. It's marvelous.

Although I'm sure Floridians would find a way to fuck that up, too. They're not too good with paper.

I was researching the ways that people vote nationwide when I came across an interesting Associated Press story: "Brain scans may unlock candidates' appeal."

This may not be feasible in time for Tuesday, but by 2008 we could have a great way to count votes. It leaves no room for chads of any sort, pregnant or sorta-pregnant, and it forces you to vote your conscience -- even if you try not to. It's also a lot of fun, and helpful if you find a hidden tumor.

These scientists at UCLA dragged 10 Republicans and 10 Democrats to their mad scientist lab and hooked their brains up to a machine, doubtlessly one with a lot of buttons and lights. "Applying some of the brain-scan technology used to understand Alzheimer's and autism," the story reads, "scientists are trying to learn what makes a Republican's mind different from a Democrat's."

I could crack wise all the livelong day, but let's move on, shall we?

"When viewing their favorite candidate, all showed increased activity in the region [of the brain] implicated in empathy. And when viewing the opposition, all had increased blood flow in the region where humans consciously assert control over emotions -- suggesting the volunteers were actively attempting to dislike the opposition."

There were peculiar differences between the two parties' brains.

"One Democrat's brain lit up at an image of Kerry 'with a profound sense of connection, like a beautiful sunset,' " according to Dr. Joshua Freedman. "Brain activity in a Republican shown an image of Bush was 'more interpersonal, such as if you smiled at someone and they smiled back.' "

So there's some Republican out there who sees Bush as some stranger he'd grin at in the elevator, and some Democrat out there who thinks of Kerry as a gorgeous astrological phenomenon.

Anyway, this seems like an excellent idea. You'd visit your local senior center or elementary school and have your brain wired up. The old ladies who volunteer there would show you flashcards of each candidate and monitor your neurons for positive flashes, such as the part of your brain that lights up when you cuddle on a freshly laundered blanket with a basket full of kitties. People who could get their entire brains to light up at once would get the door prize of a $10 gift certificate to Taco Bell.

There's no word yet on whether this will work on pets that have registered to vote. Just in case, I've been feeding my dog Snausages every time she finishes a New York Times article. It never hurts to stay informed.

Saturday, October 23, 2004

Bacon in the morning, gas in the afternoon

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We at The Herald News are dedicated to making your life better, or at least the part of it that involves reading The Herald News.

So that's why, if you look at the front page lately, you'll notice that it looks a little different. G'head -- look, as long as you promise to turn back.

Are you back yet? The trained eye will notice that we have tweaked the look of the thingies at the top of the page and the look of the thingy at the bottom left. The ones are the top are called "skyboxes." The thingy at the bottom is a "thingy."

A group of people here spent some time designing the new front page to give it more style, to make it more eye-catching. The end result? The front page now comes with 33 percent more cool. The old, tackier front page just said to readers, "Here's your news, I guess." Now, the page has some funk. It's all that and a bag of chips. It gets all up in your face and says, "I'm a hometown newspaper, I've got the obits and the daily lottery numbers, and I'm not afraid to be sexy."

It must have meant that figuratively.

More importantly, it now has better information in it. You can see more of what's inside before you actually open the paper. It's like having superpowers.

Since then, I've been trying to figure out other ways to make this a better paper. So over the past week I put on my green eyeshade, sat down at my desk with a spiked cup of joe to stoke the old cranial furnace, and came up with many splendibulous innovations that will enrich your reading experience.

This is a fantastic time to be a part of the Herald News family. I don't want to oversell it, friends, but you are bearing witness to history in the making.

No -- I am not taking that back.

History...in the making.

--

FANTASTIC CHANGE No. 1: If you're a regular Herald News reader, you end the week with a stack of newspapers about yea high (1 yea = 7 inches). You then have to recycle this paper or, worse, throw it in the garbage. It's such a waste of paper, isn't it?

Imagine, then, a day in the not-so-distant future. You've finished reading your morning paper and you've gotten your fill of the day's events. But, drat it all, you've spent the entire morning abuzz with information, and it's getting late for work!

When you head out to the driveway you realize your car is nearly out of gas. And only a few precious minutes to get to the office! What a predicament!

Ah, but you've got the all-new Herald News Gasoline-Newsprint Hybrid Edition. You roll your paper into a tube and cram it down the fuel chute of your vehicle. Within minutes, a chemical reaction converts the special paper into liquid energy, the needle on your gas tank quivers into the plus territory and the engine sputters delightedly. The only byproducts are trace amounts of carbon monoxide and shreds of Stop & Shop flyer propelled from the tailpipe.

POSSIBLE DOWN SIDES: The cost of implementing this change would necessitate a slight price increase, from four bits a copy to $45 a barrel.

WHY THIS WOULD CHANGE YOUR LIFE FOR THE BETTER: If you spent half your day reading the paper and the other half pumping gas, this would be a time savings of 50 percent.

--

FANTASTIC CHANGE No. 2: People sometimes tell me they're not totally satisfied with their newspaper delivery. The paper often gets wet -- a common occurrence in moist New England, you stupid bastards. Or, the paperboy or papergirl or paperlady or whoever just chucks the rolled-up paper into the bushes, your average shrubbery being an uncomfortable place to sit with grapefruit and the crossword.

My plan, called Herald News Platinum Service, fixes these issues. For a modest delivery surcharge, my specially trained newspaper deliverypersonages would take the utmost care in bringing you the latest events of record. Not only would they not fling the paper into your border plantings -- they would go into your house before you awake. Then, as part of their duty, they would fire up the coffee maker for you and whip up a batch of eggs and bacon (vegetarians could substitute soy sausage links for an extra $1.50).

We all know how cold it gets in Fall River for the winter. Nobody likes to handle an icy newspaper come a winter morn. So my delivery team would then, probably while the bacon's on the stove, microwave the paper ever so gently to break the chill, then slip it tenderly under your pillow to bring it to your own body temperature. And with a peck on the cheek and a gentle rubbing of the shoulder, they'd carefully rouse you to answer the day's call.

POSSIBLE DOWN SIDES: The modest surcharge I spoke of would be in the neighborhood of $2,000 a week.

WHY THIS WOULD CHANGE YOUR LIFE FOR THE BETTER: Bacon in the morning always makes people smile.

--

FANTASTIC CHANGE No. 3: There are a few people who, bless their hearts, read the paper cover to cover every day. But many others only have time enough in their hectic workaday lives to skim the headlines. That's no way to obtain your information about local and national events -- you might as well give up and watch TV news!

Ick!

But with the help of a new space-age technological process, together we can make reading the newspaper more efficient and more fun, too.

My proposal would harness the power of "scratch-'n'-sniff," used in stickers for decades, and remodulate it for use in our newspaper inks.

So instead of sitting and spending 15 minutes reading about a City Council meeting, by merely rubbing the Fall River dateline with a fingernail you could smell the entire story in one whiff. The votes, the citizens' input, the atmosphere thick with decision and local government at work -- our scientists would distill all that into odor form. All it would require is your willingness to scratch the text, lean your nostrils near the paper and breathe deeply.

The same process would also work for the photographs. Stop living vicariously through two-dimensional images! The scratch-'n'-sniff photos could give you a three-dimensional whiff of the Durfee boys' basketball game, down to every sneaker. Or, if you're still feeling undecided about the national election, you could scratch the pictures of President Bush and Sen. John Kerry to see which guy has the better aroma.

POSSIBLE DOWN SIDES: Turning the pages too quickly could cause nauseating waves of conflicting odor. And it would be a nightmare extracting the scent of liquefied natural gas into a form that won't explode when you scratch it. Also, who would read the landfill stories?

WHY THIS WOULD CHANGE YOUR LIFE FOR THE BETTER: When people say The Herald News stinks, there'll be a good reason why.

Saturday, October 16, 2004

Working hard? Or hardly working?

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The 2004 presidential debates now belong to history, but it remains to be seen whether history will ever take delivery. We did not witness anything like Lincoln-Douglas, friends. At one point in the third presidential debate, President Bush rebutted John Kerry with, "Whoo!"

I sat through four debates at 90 minutes apiece for a total of six brain-tenderizing hours, and spent at least twice that much time on the Internet and with my nose buried in the AP wire, checking facts.

At the end of it, I know a great deal more about the candidates than I did before, but I wish the rest of October would take a flying leap. Let's just elect one of those poor bastards now and get it the hell over with. We'll finish out the rest of October next year sometime -- I say we tack it onto the middle of May and have a longer spring.

But no -- we have to slog through until November. Thank you very much, Founding Fathers.

In the meantime, I've distilled those four debates into a form considerably less stupefying, I hope. Here are the four most important things I learned from the debates:


1. Being president is hard work.

If Bush did nothing else during his performance at the first debate, he convinced me that being president is hard work. It's tough work. There's a lot of good people working hard. It's hard work. I understand how hard it is. Everybody knows it's hard work. I see on the TV screens how hard it is.

Which is nice to know. I had been laboring under the impression that being president of the United States of America, the most powerful head of state on planet Earth, was somehow easy.

Maybe Bush thought the same thing. Or maybe ... wait, yes! He was using reverse psychology! How could I not see it? He was hoping Kerry hadn't figured what a hard job the presidency is -- but if Kerry only knew that it involves being constantly on call up to eight hours a day, 30 or so weeks out of the year, he'd drop out. A wily stratagem indeed, Mr. President.


2. Kerry has at one time, probably, supported the idea that some people who are quite wealthy should pay more taxes, and thinks the same thing now.

Back in the summer, the Bush campaign accused Kerry of voting for higher taxes "350 times."

The nonpartisan Web site FactCheck.org coolly dismissed the "350" claim as nonsense. Then, in August, the Bush campaign suddenly flip-flopped, claiming Kerry had cast "98 votes for tax increases." FactCheck also dismissed this as garbage -- but the campaign keeps using it, including in all the debates.

For the record, from FactCheck: Most of those 98 were multiple votes on single bills, like votes to discuss it now or later. A full 16 of those 98 votes were on one item, "Clinton's 1993 deficit-reduction package, which raised taxes almost exclusively on the highest-earning 1 or 2 percent of households." That's fine by me. I'm not one of those rich assholes, and if I were, I'd expect to pay more. That's how it goes.

But then, during the VP debate, Sen. John Edwards went temporarily insane said Kerry had voted for tax cuts "over 600 times." At that point, a swoon came over me, and as I tumbled to the floor I imagined Cheney and Edwards arguing over whether Kerry had raised taxes a bergillion times or cut them a bergillion plus one times.

Let me make it simple: Kerry would raise taxes for the rich. Bush cut taxes mostly for the rich. The difference? When Bush cuts taxes for the rich, it trickles down onto us regular people, on the local level -- water bills, property taxes, fees for government services, they all go up. There goes your tax cut.

I remember a few years back, Bush stuck a $600 check in my cap and called it macaroni. Apparently, I'm supposed to be grateful. I put the money in my checking account, and now it's gone, because I had to spend it on things like utilities and food. All I know is, Bush says thanks to his tax cut I have more money in my pocket, but I checked -- I have like two bucks and a half in change, and I need that for coffee.


3. Kerry has Blue Cross Blue Shield.

I was in the newsroom watching the last debate. Referring to his campaign's health plan, Kerry stated, "I have Blue Cross Blue Shield."

Greg Sullivan of the Sports Department walked by and said gratefully, "That's the clearest thing anybody's said so far."

It's true. I'm still trying to figure out his health care plan, but I can't look at him without thinking, "There's the guy with Blue Cross Blue Shield."


4. When you're stuck, say "education is good."

In the final presidential debate, I thought Bush was running for school superintendent. He avoided talking about the lost jobs under his administration and affirmative action by talking education, and he said just 15 measly words on raising the minimum wage before he switched abruptly to school funding.

There's a bizarre rumor going around on the Internet that Bush was wired during the debates with a radio feeding him answers. Some people claim they saw a "bulge" on his back, under his jacket, in the second debate. I think it was more likely just a sandwich he accidentally rolled on top of while taking a nap -- but a radio could explain the C student's sudden fascination with education. What if it started picking up an NPR show about public schools, eh?

The Hidden Radio Theory could explain something else, too:

--

SCENE: The first debate. It's hot under the lights, and Jim Lehrer is so mean. Kerry's glib remarks are swinging voters all over the place. Bush has been receiving signals through a radio on his back and vibrating in one of his teeth fillings, but suddenly the sound starts to crackle and pop in his mouth -- causing him to scowl extravagantly.

LEHRER. Mr. President? What are your thoughts on Iraq?

(Bush begins to sweat and stare blankly at America. Cheney said this would be perfect... But soft! He hears voices buzzing through!)

VOICE 1. Try to fix it!

VOICE 2. I'm trying, but it's hard work! It's very tough work!

VOICE 1. I know how hard it is! I understand how hard it is!

CHENEY'S VOICE. (crackled) We have him back yet?

KARL ROVE'S VOICE. There's a lot of good people working on it, sir, but it's very hard work...

VOICE 2. Yes, it's very hard!

VOICE 1. Everybody knows how hard it is -- we can see it on our TV screens!

LEHRER. Uh...Mr. President?

(Bush purses his lips -- the green light is already on! He starts to speak.)

BUSH. Well, it's hard work...

Saturday, October 09, 2004

I Wanna Rock

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One of my favorite fiction writers, T.C. Boyle, once said in an NPR interview, "Every writer of my generation and down is only writing because we can't have our own rock bands."

I'm a writer.

Um ... I have a secret.

I want a rock band.

Not some soft rock band, either, with songs about romance and being a sweetie-pie.

I mean a hard rock band that plays in dive bars and then makes it to big arenas, wailing lyrics about whiskey and psychotropic chemicals, songs full of naughty sexual innuendo. I mean nasty guitars turned up so loud the volume spanks you in the chest. I mean screaming notes so high-pitched your eyes water and dogs feel hung over for miles around. Long hair whipping in the breeze. Long chest hair whipping in the breeze also. Me in leather pants. You heard right: me in leather pants -- I'm not taking that back. Thousands of roaring fans. I purse my lips and yell, "You ready to rock, Faw River?"

You may be either too young or too old to remember -- but you know the Twisted Sister video for "We're Not Gonna Take It" in the early 1980s? Quick synopsis: A father bursts into his son's room and berates the lad for daring to listen to heavy metal and/or rock music, which means therefore the kid's challenging the square community's conventional mores and, by extension, one could say, post-World War II capitalism and Judeo-Christian ethics.

"A Twisted Sister pin? On your UNIFORM?" the father cries skeptically. Then he sneers, "What do you wanna do with your life?"

"I wanna rock," the kid mutters, and a stroke of his trusty electric twanger unleashes an overdriven chord so filthy, so rockin', that it blows the poor chap clear through a nearby window to the yard below.

I loved that video.

Being a writer is dull. I wanna rock.

I have the guitar necessary for rock stardom -- two, in fact. One's acoustic and is named Molly, and the other is electric and is named Dot. I have a small amplifier that I pretend is much bigger than it is. I haven't named the amplifier. That would be silly.

There are a few reasons I won't ever become a rock star, though -- why the music world is destined never to be graced by my looming presence.

For one thing, my facility with the guitar is mediocre on an average day. On a bad one I play with the accuracy of a piano rolling down a flight of stairs.

I'm self-taught and don't practice enough, so I play about as well as somebody who's self-taught and doesn't practice enough. I can get through quite a few songs, but I'm sloppy about my choices. I can fake it most of the way through Led Zeppelin's catalog, but I can't remember how to play a major scale. I can play some of "Oye Como Va" by Santana, but I can't play the noodley part at the end. I figured out how to play "Blackbird" by the Beatles, but if you requested "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star," I'd be lost.

That probably doesn't matter. Arthur and the Fonzarellis would rarely get requests for "Twinkle Twinkle." That's my rock band name.

Even if my guitar-playing skills improve -- I spontaneously grow several extra fingers, let's say -- the statistics are against a chubby Portuguese kid from Fall River being a rock star. Look at the stars in the Portuguese music scene: Jorge Ferreira. Marc Dennis. Glenn Medeiros. They're not what I had in mind -- I want to be more like Keith Richards, less like Englebert Humperdinck.

Glenn Medeiros, by the way, is -- was -- a Portuguese soft-rock star in the late 1980s. He had some sissified, schmaltzy song about love with an MTV video on a beach somewhere, and then his career was promptly kidnapped by gypsies. We're of no relation. He's from Hawaii. There are many Portuguese immigrants in Hawaii. Which makes me wonder why Mom and Dad immigrated here, to cold, wet Fall River, instead of to Hawaii, with the constant sun and the fruity drinks and the hula girls in coconut bras. But that is a problem I shall have to examine some other week.

Moving right along: If I am to be a rock star I must learn to say "baby" effectively. I should also adopt an English speaking accent but a southern singing one.

I must learn how to unleash my "guitar face." Every decent rock guitar player makes guitar face -- an expression of agony when mangling the strings that looks not unlike intestinal distress.

My wife tells me that when I play my guitar I look "serious." I've noticed it, too -- my nostrils flare, my jaw clenches. My appendix appears to have burst, or perhaps I've eaten a raw lemon. It's because I'm trying not to make guitar face. That's half my problem -- I'm afraid to rock out fully right now, because I'm just a schmoe playing alone. But if I'm Arthur of Arthur and the Fonzarellis, I have a reason. It would be my job to make guitar face. It would be required.

While I work on my guitar face, I'll finish writing my song. Didn't I mention my song? It's Arthur and the Fonzarellis' first single: "Heat-Seeker." Like a good hard rock song, it's catchy, it has lewd undertones and it mostly rhymes:

I'm just a heat-seeker!
Le Freaker!
Guest speaker
At the symposium of your heart!

Yeah, I'm a heat-seeker!
Take-a-peeker!
You're up the creek-er
'Cause I'm a heat-seeking missile of luh-uh-uhve...


I'll need a few people in this band to help me be a rock star -- if they could play instruments, that'd help, and one of them must be an incorrigible drug addict so we have a juicy story for VH-1's "Behind the Music."

I don't have any time to attend practices, and I'm too petrified of playing on stage that I'd never show up to concerts. But that's OK. That'll give Arthur and the Fonzarellis something to break up for.

Wednesday, October 06, 2004

A gift on a silver platter: An interview with Ralph Nader, October 2004

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Today, from 3 to 4:30 p.m., at Brown University's Salomon Auditorium in Providence, independent candidate for president Ralph Nader invites you to hear him speak and to listen to his campaign platform.

Take note -- pitchforks and torches will be confiscated at the door.

I voted for Nader in 2000, and then I watched in horror as Bush flushed America's economy down the toilet, squelched dissent and stuck our collective derriere in a messy war in Iraq. Now, I'm desperate for Democratic Sen. John Kerry to be elected -- but like a lot of people on the left, I'm worried that Nader's campaign might steal the precious few votes that might decide the election in Kerry's favor, thus locking the country into another four wretched years of The Bush Problem.

To sum up, I was worried that Nader might be insane.

As it turns out, he's not. His strategy is actually quite ingenious.

In advance of today's event in Providence, and because of my worry, I pestered his campaign for an interview with Nader. By a miracle, I actually got one. No joke.

He was in Halifax, Nova Scotia, at the time. He was due to give a speech there. Why Nova Scotia? No idea. I didn't bother to ask, either. Instead, I imagined hordes of Canadians impersonating Americans on Election Day and over-inflated Nader figures along border towns in New England.

Nader answered his own phone. Not only that: he said tiredly, "M'yello?"

Nader's campaign for president can be charitably described as quixotic, given the reputation he has for being the fly in the 2000 election ointment.

Polls show Nader's support is eroding. He's pulling an average 2 percent in national polls. That's down from his 2000 numbers, and expect it to drop further on Nov. 2.

Nader can't even get on the ballots in many states, including Massachusetts -- Naderites here will have to write him in. So far, he's on 32 state ballots and in D.C. He's in court to determine his status in 12 other states, he's a write-in for six, and Oklahoma won't even return his calls.

But he said the task of being placed on ballots state-by-state doesn't distract from his campaign -- it's part of why he's running.

"First of all, there's a collateral benefit in that it's raised to a national stage ... the systemic barriers in one state after another installed by the two major parties against competition, against third parties," he said. "It's only when we stretched the system that the political bigotry erupted from what otherwise are laws that could be called trapdoors in waiting. ... And that will provide very rich material for reform after November 2."

I asked if, as part of that reform, he included scrapping the Electoral College and the use of the popular vote, the only accurate gauge of actual support, to count elections. The New York Times, in an excellent and persuasive Aug. 29 editorial, called for just that.

Nader agreed, but noted, "That's very difficult to do by constitutional amendment because states -- the small states -- will likely object."

He hinted at one of the major complaints about the Electoral College system -- that your vote doesn't count -- when I asked why I should vote for him, the safe vote for Kerry be damned.

"First, you're in Massachusetts, so you don't have to worry," he said. "You can vote your conscience, because Kerry's going to take Massachusetts. Bush doesn't even think he's going to compete."

What impressed me about Nader, besides his effortlessly articulate manner that left me ashamed of the sound of my own voice, was his reason for running.

"If you're going to vote for Kerry, if you don't make demands on him, you're complicit with Kerry moving into the corporate realm even more rigidly. Because corporations are making demands on Kerry and pulling him in their direction all the time. And the people who are 'least-worsters' ... they'll vote for Kerry with the mantra, 'Anybody but Bush,' 'Leave Kerry alone,' 'Make no demands on him' -- they're letting the Democratic Party and Kerry be pulled away from them," he said. "They have signaled to Kerry that their vote can be taken for granted, because there's no demand in return, by way of positions like living wage for all, full single-payer medical, Medicare for all, getting out of Iraq, cracking down on corporate crime and abuse, ending corporate subsidies.

"So if you're going to vote for Kerry, you won't make Kerry better -- corporations will make him worse. ... He's surrounding himself with corporate consultants, corporate advisers, corporate financiers. Why? Because liberals and progressives are giving him a free ride. They're so desperate."

Right then, I'd figured out his campaign secret.

Listen: Nader isn't quite opposing Kerry -- he's making sure Kerry doesn't run as a Republican Lite.

By courting the left-leaning vote, Kerry must stay competitive among his own people. Nader's keeping Kerry honest for Democrats.

It's a thankless job, but somebody has to do it.

When I realized that, I mentioned something I'd read on Nader's Web site, VoteNader.org, as research. Nader gave the Kerry-Edwards campaign what he called a "Gift on a Silver Platter": advice on how to beat Bush. Nader lists 10 points on which Bush is weak and shows Kerry how to exploit them. You can read it on his Web site, under the "Media & Press" section.

He seemed genuinely pleased when it became obvious that I figured out his strategy.

"You liked that?" he asked. "I thought [the Silver Platter] would become a better news story, but the AP and others didn't pick it up. I thought it had everything. It had topicality, it had substance, it had visual images. ... In fact, one of the reasons we're doing this, among many reasons, is to expand the opportunities against Bush in ways the Democrats won't pick up."

Even if Nader is concerned that the Democrats aren't covering their own bases well enough, he did point to the discussion of the draft -- one of the points on the Silver Platter -- as a hopeful sign.

"We've been hammering at Bush and Kerry to come out against the draft, and Kerry's come out against it," he said.

I wondered toward the end of our conversation how somebody like me, a columnist at a small hometown newspaper in a spoken-for state, could get through to one of the most controversial presidential candidates in modern history. It occurred to me that perhaps nobody else called him. He sounded alone, and even though he'd agreed to give me just five minutes, he ended up doing all the talking for more than 10. Everybody's so quick to forget he's even running. Everyone thinks it'd be simpler without him -- but then no one would keep Kerry on his guard.

Before I left him to prepare for his speech, he asked eagerly, "Can you put our Web site in?"

"Sure, I can mention that," I said.

Here it is again: VoteNader.org.

"That's good," he said. "The way I like to put it is, 'Those who want a recess from sound-bite journalism, visit our Web site: VoteNader.org.'" Then he said, with a smirk I could hear over the phone, "Which is, you know ... a sound-bite."
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