Ed’s note: Marc Herman covered the 1996 presidential campaign, with uncommon insight and grace, for a number of periodicals, including Might, which folded soon after. We asked Herman to offer timely remarks about this year’s contest, and he agreed—as long as he could do so from his new home, in Chile. This is the first in a series of dispatches. These are very real.
Santiago is a nearly perfect city. Any American mayor would be pleased to run it. Downtown, the cobblestone walkways fill each evening with people buying pastries and browsing in shoe stores. Children eat excellent ice cream and give dimes to puppeteers, who present elegant one- act plays with marionettes. Old men gathered on benches debate why Fiats break down. In the restaurants, 95-pound women eat three-pound steaks and young men drink their beer slowly, without pressure to buy more. The buildings are heavy stone, peeling Spanish colonials that in America would be registered historic but in Santiago house auto parts wholesalers. You enter through wooden doors twenty feet high, expecting Batman, or at least a roomful of aging patriarchs in smoking jackets petting cats. Inside, instead, is a young man wearing a gas station attendant’s uniform, seated behind a glass showcase of fuel injector nipples, expectantly.
There is a kiosk selling papers every few yards on the paseo, but there is little news of the campaign here. CNN’s Spanish edition has spent the past few cycles on an American effort to sell frigates to Taiwan, and a Belgian desire to prosecute the local ex-dictator, Augusto Pinochet. Elian Gonzales, “the little Cuban boy,” usually comes next, and then the plane crashing off Point Mugu on its way from Mexico. In all, as far as news, various people from the South seem to end up detained or dead in the North. The impression is of a place where many go but few return. Whoever runs the North has not figured much into the discussion.
To the great credit of the Chileans, Gary Bauer did not seem important enough to discuss either, so his withdrawal from the Presidential race the day after the New Hampshire primary did not make the news here. By then it seemed pointless to try learning anything via television anyway. CNN shows different news to the rest of the world than it does to the U.S. anyway, and constant cricket scores were getting tiresome. That the worlds news channel has a different world to report for different markets was for about fifteen minutes a fascinating fact, then it was clear mealtimes were reversed in the southern hemisphere and it was time to get roast beef.
Please bear with a brief explanation of why this election is being covered from Santiago. It is the only essay portion of this coverage, after which events will be expected to speak for themselves. Unfortunately, there have not yet been any events, and Santiago is a strange enough vantage point to demand some talking through.
Living in Indonesia in the first half of 1998 was like watching an old sick man fall slowly down a flight of stone stairs. The banks collapsed and the food supply dwindled. Eventually Jakarta exploded and students took over the parliament. Suharto, the dictator, stepped down on May 21st but things haven’t gotten much better yet anyway.
Observing a foreign nation’s collapse is a bad move for a campaign reporter. I recall returning from Indonesia and understanding, for the first time, that the U.S. government was not always able to hold things together, and that the President was not always in charge. Perhaps this is obvious, but it wasn’t to me then. Indonesia had simply decided to stop listening to its leaders. The number of people who actively turned against them was very small; only a few hundred showed up at the parliament building to wave flags. Everyone else just started ignoring the government, and that was enough.
After Indonesia, the last American presidential campaign, in 1996, finally came into sharp focus. I looked in my old notebooks from four years ago. Everyone involved was hateful. “Rahm Emmanuel shits ice,” said one page in my old 1996 notebook. This was the President’s campaign spokesman.
I was paranoid. The same people everyone hated in college, those frat boys studying business administration, now seemed the only bulwark against mayhem. The United States was so large, and ran on such high levels of communal trust, that it had to be, like Indonesia, unsustainable. I did not trust my bank; checks languished on my desk while I rebuilt my confidence in the financial system. I read compulsively about hedge funds. I looked carefully at my food to make sure it hadn’t spoiled: Indonesia had run out of chickens about the time Suharto fell, and they had started serving sick ones.
Santiago collapsed also, but the results are harder to see. Indonesia looks like the kind of place where bad things have always happened. Santiago today seems as likely to have suffered a coup as Vermont.
At home our election seemed devoid of consequences, an absurdist world series for former student council parliamentarians. The only drama was whether Ted Koppel would stick out the convention this year. It feels more important here, where Pinochet could step off a plane any day now.
Chile is a developed nation; you can drink the water and flush the toilet paper. Transitions of power are peaceful now. Everyone has to vote, so everyone does. Crime is up but manageable. The police look like police, not like soldiers. They are authoritative without seeming threatening, and helpful with directions.
The old colonial buildings with the auto part stores on the first floor need paint, but have a gothic charm. A new President takes office in March. The soccer team is going to the Olympics. Wine is available at soda fountains. Steaks are the size of hats and cost four dollars.
In Santiago there was until very recently a young woman living in a glass house, really about the size of a very small studio apartment, one block from the presidential palace. The intent of her temporary residence in the house, she says, was to present a work of art on the general themes of privacy and surveillance. Of course what happened is that a crowd gathered every day for her bath, people looked at her while she was naked, then left. This was New Hampshire.
A block away is a coffee house called the Cafe Haiti, part of a chain which in retrospect follows a fairly obvious business plan. Cafe Haiti, one of which is located nearly every other block downtown, is a “cafe con piernas,” or cafe with legs. This means it is exactly like any other cafe in the city, except that the waitresses serve espresso in their underwear. The idea is a porn Starbucks. It is wildly successful and broadly imitated. This is South Carolina.