By Jason Zengerle
“I miss you guys,” John Heilemann says. He is sitting in the desolate courtyard of a Brooklyn pizzeria with three slices on his table, talking by phone with the other hosts of Showtime’s weekly political documentary “The Circus.” In a normal election year, Heilemann, Mark McKinnon, Jennifer Palmieri and Alex Wagner would be together in some swing state, just back from a campaign rally, hanging out in a dimly lit restaurant and dissecting each candidate’s strategy over a meal and some booze. But the pandemic has all but erased that campaign trail, and so the group is meeting virtually: Heilemann from the pizza parlor, McKinnon from an empty Denver brewpub, Palmieri from a Hudson Valley coffee shop and Wagner from a goat farm. “It sucks not to be having a round-table with the round-tablers,” Heilemann laments.
Still, the show must go on — and so the team dives in. It’s August, and Joe Biden is days away from choosing his running mate, a decision McKinnon predicts will be “tectonic.” Biden has pledged to pick a woman, but Wagner notes that the previous two female picks — Geraldine Ferraro and Sarah Palin — were “Hail Mary” selections by trailing candidates. “This could play badly for Biden,” she warns. When Biden chooses Kamala Harris, Heilemann heads to a mostly empty Delaware high school gym for the ticket’s first joint appearance. “This has been a flawlessly executed and, in most respects, totally normal vice-presidential rollout,” he concludes, “until this event. There’s no applause. There’s no energy in the room.” McKinnon travels to Iowa for a Trump rally, where Mike Pence tells the crowd that Harris once supported dietary guidelines that would reduce Americans’ consumption of red meat. (“We’re not gonna let Joe Biden and Kamala Harris cut America’s meat!”) “That,” McKinnon sagely notes, “is a little preview there of the attacks.”
Two months later, the optics and stage-managing of the Harris selection are forgotten, but the 30 minutes “The Circus” spent obsessing over them serve as a useful reminder of how political reporters have tried, and often failed, to craft conventional narratives out of this decidedly unconventional election. The race has featured, in just the past few weeks, Donald Trump’s taped remarks to Bob Woodward (admitting he downplayed the seriousness of the pandemic), the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the revelation of Trump’s income taxes and Trump’s becoming infected with the virus. By early October, the pressing questions for reporters didn’t involve the results of polls, but of Covid and blood-oxygen tests. The standard models of campaign reporting didn’t seem up to the task of explaining the race. And nowhere is that more evident than in a show like “The Circus.”
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