I suppose that if I were Si Leis, Mark Mallory, or Ken Blackwell, people would be less surprised by my campaign, since at least those folks have held elected office. If you’re one of those who wonders if Barack Obama has enough experience to run this country, you won’t have to waste any time worrying about me. Compared to me and my political experience, Obama looks like one of those well-worn, puffy-eyed, blimpish politicians—one who has put on plenty of excess poundage by sitting in the back rooms of Congress trying to work out compromises and eating an abundance of unhealthy dinners at political fund-raisers. In other words, I make Obama look like Ted Kennedy. But is experience overrated? I think it may be. In politics, lack of experience is another way of saying that you don’t have your head up a lobbyist’s rear end, that you aren’t entrenched in the same old political system that has gotten us into this mess in the first place, and that you’re open to new ideas, such as a national “Beer Friday” initiative. So, take that, you fusty, experience-mongering politicos.
With pitifully little experience, and even less name recognition, I’m often asked what kind of response I get from people as I campaign. At its core, the question is a polite way of asking, “Do people give a damn about you, Steve?” The short answer is: Not really. I had expected that more people would have been intrigued, if not enthused, by the notion of an average Joe diving head first into the murky, shark-infested waters of our political system and aiming (down, down, down…) for the highest office in the land. I like to imagine John Adams, Ben Franklin, and the rest of our Founding Fathers dancing in their hallowed graves because a regular citizen—me!—is willing to step up on the rostrum and declare his independence from our lobbyist- and corporation-dependent political system. I think they’d be pretty jazzed about my Web site, too, especially with its request that people e-mail me their thoughts on who should be my running mate. (I have received more than 20 nominations to date, unfortunately all of them with even less name recognition and money?than myself.)
But my delusions of small-d democratic grandeur aside, most of the people I approach are not open to the notion of a no-name, independent presidential candidate in the slightest. Often their reaction is one of outright dismay that a nobody such as myself has the gall to even make such a run. These folks find my campaign an affront to their sensibilities and our political system rather than, as I see it, a celebration of it. Others view my run as a colossal waste of time. Well, it may be a waste of theirs, but it’s not been a waste of mine. On the contrary, my campaign has forced me to stay on top of the issues and reacquaint myself with the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and some more interesting reads, such as the Starr Report.
For still others, my campaign is a sure sign of a mental disorder, a sort of political manifestation of the madman’s Jesus Complex. When I approach people and introduce myself as “Steve Kissing, candidate for president of the United States,” most smirk and wait for a punch line. The moment they realize one isn’t coming, they get a worried look in their eyes, awkwardly take my campaign paraphernalia, and quickly walk away. People want to keep their distance, it seems. It’s no wonder, then, that most of my “dialogue” with voters happens when I respond to the e-mails they send me suggesting ideas for my running mate or asking where I stand on their pet issue. These have ranged from the expected, such as immigration, to the less so, such as whether I will try to outlaw churches that engage in snake handling.
I HAVE TO admit that my campaign material doesn’t always help with that all-important first impression. That’s because my campaign materials are a bit unusual by design. I knew I had to shake things up to have any chance of being noticed and, ultimately, I hope, be taken seriously. For instance, one of my campaign handouts, the size of a standard business card, has this headline on the front: “Good for one free presidential pardon. (Limit one per felon.)” On the back of the card, I explain that the only way someone will get a pardon from me is by earning it the old-fashioned way: unjustly landing in jail.
Another one of my campaign cards reads: “Isn’t it time for a candidate who’s familiar with the dollar menu?” And yet another reads: “World peace? Don’t look at me, I’m running for president, not God.” My favorite campaign tchotchkes are tubes of ChapStick upon which the words “babies” and “asses” are printed, with a check mark in front of “babies.” It’s my way of saying that I’ll do my political duty and kiss your baby, even if the little devil looks like the love child of Condi Rice and Dennis Kucinich. But I won’t gratuitously kiss anyone’s ass. That said, if push came to shove, I would kiss some serious ass, and unashamedly so, if doing so would avert war, slow global warming, or get Tucker Carlson to shut the hell up. (By the way, I am kissing babies, virtually speaking, on my Web site: www.kissing4prez.org)
My campaign has not been met universally with snickers and mutterings of “No thanks.” One out of roughly 10 people are willing to engage me in polite political discourse when I’m out campaigning, at least for a moment. I speak fast to get in as much of my “elevator pitch” as possible: I’m an ordinary guy with no self-serving or corporate agenda that I’m obliged to put before the best interests of our country. I have no experience but I am a fast learner and I will surround myself with bright people who won’t hesitate to tell me no or call me crazy.
Inevitably, once I get this far with someone, his or her response is: “Well, you can’t be any worse than George W. Bush.”
“Thanks,” I say, though to be honest it’s not much of a compliment. These days, most people assume that a high-achieving chimp with sign language capabilities would perform better than W. But I’ll take some engagement, however fleeting, with the electorate any way I can get it. Same goes for publicity.
The major candidates have press corps that follow them around, attending every mind-numbing campaign event, hoping for a momentary blip of genuine reality to slip through the endless blather—or to catch some embarrassing slip-up, like when Senator McCain referred to himself as a “liberal Republican,” or something particularly witty, like when Mitt Romney said something to the effect of “I think most Americans can’t think of a worse nightmare than Bill Clinton back in the White House with nothing to do.” For better and for worse, I can slip up or say witty things all day and I won’t be a topic of discussion on Hardball with Chris Matthews. Which is, I think, a plus.
This lack of 24/7 press attention is why I say yes to every chance to get the word out about my campaign. Example: the good folks at Wikinews (sister site of Wikipedia) interviewed me and published the Q & A on their site (en.wikinews.org/wiki/Wikinews_interviews_Steve_Kissing,_
independent_candidate_for_US_President). Upshot: I’m getting some good exposure among college students who turn to the online faux-encyclopedia to “research” their papers.
My campaign is not limited to the borders of our great country. On the German Web site Die Zeit Zuender (which, ironically in this case, roughly translates as “the trend setter”) I was one of six independent candidates, including Ron Paul and Ralph Nader, who were recently featured, our photos embedded in a swirling pattern of red, white, and blue ribbons and stars (php.diezuender.de/gallery/gallery.php?gid=254&nr=6). The text of the article is in German, so I don’t know what it says. However, the phrase “…erg einmal Sex…” appears and has me a bit worried that my two years of inattentive high school German may have failed me in that interview.
I ALSO AGREED to be interviewed by The Naughty American, a Web site that collects original and syndicated oddball news stories, most of which are sexual in nature. (Apparently the site is operated by a soft porn company that publishes content in several genres, including “office sex,” “hot moms,” and “girls with glasses,” three heretofore untapped constituencies in modern American political campaigning, as far as I know.) To give you a sense of the kind of news circles that I and my campaign travel in, the week my profile went up on The Naughty American, so did a story debating whether or not a banner ad on the site, which showed a woman sitting cross-legged, revealed her, uh, special area. An investigation ensued and a magnified version of the image was published showing that the dark spot in question was actually a piece of the woman’s shoe. I enjoyed the spirited debate and hoped that it would increase site traffic and lead more people to my profile, which was titled, “Presidential Candidate Tells America: ‘Pull Your Head Out of Your Ass.’” (This is what happens when you don’t have a battle-tested campaign manager advising you about what you should and shouldn’t say on the record. But let’s not forget, porn stars and addicts are voters, too.)
Trying to maintain some level of respect as an independent candidate is a tough task, for sure. Besides lack of media attention, you may ask, what’s the most obtrusive hurdle? That’s easy: The other independent candidates. There was a move afoot earlier this year to bring all the independents together for a debate. Several of the candidates suggested that we promote the gathering as “the most important political event of the 21st century.” I tried to make them understand that such an audacious claim would only serve to make us look even crazier and out of touch. To no avail.
So while my fellow independents go make self-proclaimed history, I have set my sights considerably lower: I’m trying to get someone—anyone—to pay attention.
Yes, I will see my campaign through, but when it’s over I may choose to tackle something more manageable. Maybe I’ll run for governor. Or mayor. Of course, I could also choose to attempt something with a 99 percent greater chance of success, such as running for president of the Parent Teacher Organization at my kids’ school. But what fun would that be? No Secret Service, no Air Force One, and no command performances from big-time rock bands. Plus, PTO presidents have to work way too hard.
Illustration by Kevin Miyazaki / Redux
Originally published in the May 2008 issue.