A Comedy of Political Errors

“I Am Martin Eisenstadt” by Martin Eisenstadt, (Faber & Faber)

Martin Eisenstadt, a former McCain campaign adviser, television talking head, and senior fellow at the neoconservative Harding Institute for Freedom and Democracy, is the bedrock upon which our illustrious nation rests—if he does say so himself. “Pundits have been essential to American democracy since the birth of our great country,” he says. “If George Washington was the first American president, then it could be said that Ben Franklin was the first American pundit. And guess whose face is on a higher denomination bill? I rest my case.”

“I Am Martin Eisenstadt: One Man’s Wildly Inappropriate Adventures With the Last Republicans,” Eisenstadt’s memoir of his political life and his work on the 2008 Republican presidential campaign, is filled with just such pearls of political wisdom. Over the course of a whirlwind narrative, the book offers telling glimpses into the ill-fated McCain/Palin presidential run, including the dysfunctional dynamic between the two halves of the ticket. Eisenstadt also drops juicy quotes from key players across the political and journalistic spectrum, giving us access to meetings, manipulations and machinations that took place behind the scenes of the Republican ticket.

Such insider information would be most valuable if not for the minor disadvantage of it being entirely fabricated. The book is in fact a work of fiction, as is the character of Martin Eisenstadt himself. But readers could be forgiven for being taken in. Indeed, for many months, no less than the Los Angeles Times, the Weekly Standard, CBS News, and even The Times of India were quoting authoritatively from Eisenstadt’s blog posts and press releases, believing him to be a staple of the Republican establishment. At one point, Time Magazine published his ‘tweets’ online alongside those of such luminaries as Newt Gingrich and Meghan McCain. In reality, however, Eisenstadt was the ingenious Internet concoction of two filmmakers, Eitan Gorlin and Dan Mirvish—a fictitious pundit working out of a non-existent think tank.

Backed by a series of authoritative-seeming dummy web sites, from a political blog to the Harding Institute itself (whose only real address was its virtual one), Eisenstadt pontificated on everything from the Jonas Brothers’ alleged terrorist sympathies to Sarah Palin’s geography woes. After finally being revealed post-election as a hoax and a scam artist, Eisenstadt returns, this time in book form, to tell his side of the story, writing in his foreword: “Trust me. I exist.”

As constructed by Gorlin and Mirvish (the book’s true authors), Eisenstadt is the pundit par excellence—a Washington operative with an inflated sense of self-importance, a political skill set inversely proportional to ego, and a grab bag of talking points in the form of arguments by assertion. His knowledge of international affairs is sketchy, but he is quite sure of America’s historical preeminence within them. His achievements are few, but his sense of self-importance is vast. He is obsessed with image and public perception—the kind of man who takes pride in signing his emails “Sent from my Verizon Wireless Blackberry,” not because he has one, but because it makes others think he does, giving him an excuse to write shorter correspondence. His is a certain personality type taken to its logical and hilarious extreme.

The book mixes satire of the Right (“I assured her that waterboarding is not considered ‘torture’, because by definition, the United States does not torture people”) with criticism of political culture in general. We are taught how to draft an official apology that does not, in fact, apologize. We are given a politician’s guidebook to having a tryst with a prostitute and not getting caught (“Pay with cash. Preferably, Canadian.”) and how to make a controversial blog statement that will get you on TV. The book takes a few chapters to find its groove—Gorlin and Mirvish clearly have much more to work with when it comes to the actual campaign than Eisenstadt’s pre-2008 political history—but once there, the narrative is consistently both entertaining and thought-provoking.

But in the end, who exactly is the butt of the Martin Eisenstadt joke? Though it is true that Eisenstadt’s pronouncements are often parodies of neoconservative slogans, the people truly made to look the fool by him were not conservatives at all. Readers might laugh knowingly whilst perusing the book’s numerous examples of important bloggers and newspapers that took Eisenstadt’s extremist rhetoric and ran with it, but in reality this is no laughing matter. The Eisenstadt hoax reveals numerous newspapers that failed to do basic fact-checking and a coterie of liberal bloggers such as those at “Mother Jones” and “Talking Points Memo” who saw utterly absurd reactionary rhetoric and believed it to be authentic, no questions asked—and then used Eisenstadt’s blog posts to pillory his party.

Ultimately, then, “I Am Martin Eisenstadt” is a cautionary tale. It warns against media outlets that prefer a sensationalist story to an accurate one, and about writers across the political blogosphere who are often too willing to believe the worst about their opponents without the slightest bit of charitable skepticism. It is a story that should be comic for its implausibility—and is unsettling because it is not.

—Staff writer Yair Rosenberg can be reached at yrosenb@fas.harvard.edu.

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