Every presidential cycle has its losers — the zany dimbulbs like Herman Cain, the gallant nerds like Dennis Kucinich, the unloveable schmucks like Rick Santorum. You can’t help but wonder when you watch these losers speak why, exactly, they’re bothering to run for office in the first place. Don’t they realize they can’t win? Do they believe they’re running for a greater cause?
Or maybe they’re just that delusional — perhaps when they wake up and drag combs across their heads in a bathroom mirror in a Day’s Inn outside of Des Moines, they see someone destined for the seat of power. Honestly, it’s hard to say which is sadder — if they know they can’t win and they subject themselves to the circus anyway, or they don’t know they can’t win and so they debase themselves for what they perceive to be a greater good.
But even sadder than the also-rans are the never-weres. Journalist Craig Tomashoff’s book The Can’t-idates: Running for President When Nobody Knows Your Name profiles 15 of the more than one thousand ordinary Americans running for president in 2016. With the exception of one notorious internet phenomenon — Vermin Supreme, who famously makes public appearances wearing a rubber boot for a hat — you’ve never heard of any of these people.
Tomashoff leaves his home in Los Angeles and drives around the country meeting the folks he refers to as “can’t-idates.” In many cases, he’s the only person who’s ever even asked to interview them. You get the sense that he might be the only person who ever will interview them. With the exception of Mr. Supreme, they’re all fairly normal humans — ordinary folks, mostly living in flyover country, with facile understanding of policy. It seems that many of them aren’t even really clear on what the president even does.
But that probably doesn’t matter. To most people, the presidency stands for more than just commander-in-chief, or leader of the free world. The president, especially to Tomashoff’s can’t-idates, is someone who has agency. The president isn’t someone things happen to: the president makes things happen. So these cranks and embittered loners and cheerful flameouts, all of whom are looking for a little more agency in their lives, run for office. Some of them think they’re going to win. Many of them don’t harbor any illusions of victory. But still they run.
A few moments in The Can’t-idates are genuinely heartbreaking. The first person Tomashoff interviews is a lonely guy who thinks the American people should vote for him because it would be great for national morale if a single president fell in love and got married in his first term of office. Another person, worried that Tomashoff will mock her, struggles to protect her dignity. When he reveals their humanity, it’s incredibly moving.
They’re not all so sympathetic. A few are racist. Some are narcissists. And a couple are just plain dumb. But they are all interesting, and when Tomashoff gives the can’t-idates room to advocate for themselves, the book is downright fascinating. Even more interesting than the people running for president are all the friends and family members in the can’t-idates orbits, some of whom are supportive, others of whom are barely tolerant. It takes a village to run for president, even if the campaign barely draws the attention of a podunk local TV station.
Sadly, Tomashoff doesn’t often give these people the opportunity to speak for themselves. You see, Tomashoff has written The Can’t-idates in the form of a quest. He’s looking to become a better father to his own son, who is just about to graduate high school. For the first half of the book, Tomashoff continually reminds us of his capital-Q-Quest. Later on, he barely mentions it, perhaps because he realized that the pursuit of an epiphany is easier than a truly earned moment of profound personal change.
In fact, Tomashoff can’t seem to pull himself out of his book. Nearly every chapter begins with an irrelevant personal anecdote: “Maybe it’s the Virgo in me,” the first chapter, awkwardly, begins. The next chapter’s first sentence: “I’ve never been a big fan of road trips.” The third; “Back in the ‘80’s, I worked as a rock critic because I figured it would: a) get me into lots of shows for free, and b) make me seem cooler than I actually was.”
None of these facts are especially unique or interesting, and they take the spotlight off the people who should be at the center of the book: the can’t-idates themselves. This is a terrific idea for a book, but Tomashoff, unfortunately, seems to believe he should be the center of attention throughout.
It’s a bad instinct, and it robs the book of drama on many occasions. Perhaps the worst offense is when a can’t-idate is just revealing a deep personal trauma that identifies a significant reason why she might be crazy enough to run for president even when everything is stacked against her. Just before she admits this secret, Tomashoff interrupts the narrative to write:
I have to make a confession here. I’ve been a journalist most of my adult life, and part of the job description involves possessing a somewhat Grinch-like heart. We don’t wish people ill, of course. But if something bad has happened to them, we zero in on it. Maybe we’re just depressives by nature and looking for ways of share the misery, but when the person you’re interviewing hints at a sad moment in his or her life, you rip into it like a five-year-old with a wrapped birthday present. tragedy equals reality, and we always want reality. So in I went…
The only purpose that paragraph serves is to sap the narrative of any forward momentum it may have enjoyed enjoyed. It stops the personal revelation short to reveal absolutely nothing of interest.
Combine these many confessional intrusions with a litany of typos and it’s obvious that The Can’t-idates suffers from either bad or nonexistent editing. If someone had successfully urged Tomashoff to ignore his worst writerly instincts, The Can’t-idates would be one of the better pieces of campaign journalism of the 2016 season. As it is, it’s a sideshow, a portrait of a few eccentric characters who deserve more dignity than they’re given. Sometimes a loser just needs someone to listen to them; too bad Tomashoff is too busy trying to stuff them into his preconceived narrative to truly pay attention.
Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the Los Angeles Times, the Seattle Times, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.
Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant