I Am Martin Eisenstadt:
One Man's (Wildly
with the Last Republicans
by Martin Eisenstadt
Faber & Faber, 366 pp.
he 2008 presidential election will be remembered for a lot of things, but moments of levity aren’t one of them. The highlight may have come in the days just after Obama’s victory, when bitter McCain staffers launched a torrent of anonymous criticism at Sarah Palin that painted her as selfish, venal, arrogant, and, above all, criminally stupid. For many of us, what erased the last shred of doubt about Palin—what seared in our cerebral cortex the unshakable conviction that Tina Fey was channeling the real person—was a Fox News report in which anonymous McCain staffers revealed that Palin had thought Africa was a country.
Not long afterward, a McCain staffer named Martin Eisenstadt came forward to take responsibility for leaking the Africa stuff. At first blush, Eisenstadt seemed exactly the sort you’d expect to cruelly betray his candidate: a vaguely familiar, middle-tier neocon hack affiliated with an outfit called the Harding Institute for Freedom and Democracy—a guy whose natural place in the universe is on the third block of Hardball, his command of the latest GOP talking points and lapel-pin flag both obnoxiously on display. That was enough for MSNBC, the Los Angeles Times, and a host of other media outlets to run with the story that the culprit had been found.
The only trouble was that Martin Eisenstadt was not a McCain adviser or even a real person. He was a hoax perpetrated by two filmmakers, Dan Mirvish and Eitan Gorlin (who played Eisenstadt on television). The Harding Institute didn’t exist, nor did the Eisenstadt Group political consulting firm, though phony evidence of both can be found online. It was all an elaborate ruse that worked to perfection. The media made the obligatory hiccup of remorse and hurried on. But the hoax was worth savoring because it was funny on so many levels. Not only did it embarrass a facile media—which is not, let’s be honest, like putting a man on the moon—but it slyly mocked American political culture in a way that barely registered. The joke was not that an imposter could infiltrate cable news for as long as Martin Eisenstadt did. It was that our entire system of politics has become so mindlessly rote, and campaigns such stage-managed shams, that it didn’t really matter whether the guy spouting talking points on Hardball was the real deal or a fraud. Both said exactly the same thing.
“Martin Eisenstadt” could have hung it up right there, assured of immortality as a curious footnote to a historic campaign. But Mirvish and Gorlin evidently had too much fun. They’re back—or, rather, Eisenstadt is back—with what purports to be a tell-all memoir of the campaign. The shtick in I Am Martin Eisenstadt is that Eisenstadt won’t cop to being a hoax—it was all a misunderstanding, we’re told, a sinister campaign by a liberal blogger to discredit him. Now, with the election over, Eisenstadt, like any good political hack, wants to “set the record straight” and make a quick buck while he’s at it.
This is a much harder stunt to pull off. Getting readers to commit to a story for 300-plus pages when they’re already in on the joke demands skill and cunning. But as the original hoax suggested, Eisenstadt’s creators are shrewd observers of Washington, and they delight in sending up its countless absurdities, particularly in the universe of Republicans. They begin by fleshing out Martin Eisenstadt, who turns out to be the product of an illicit affair by a promiscuous secretary for John Ehrlichman. Young Marty is raised, Tarzan style, by Nixon henchmen. Imbued with these values, he naturally excels in the Reagan years and eventually fulfills his promise by becoming a rotten-to-the-core Republican consultant.
Eisenstadt worships Lee Atwater and eagerly embraces the full panoply of vices and ethical failings that characterize the very worst of the pundit-consultant class. He is lazy, sexist, opportunistic, and disloyal. He’s mean to his staff and always poised to dump his current candidate if a better one comes along. The only thing he desires more than a rich foreign client to bankroll his lifestyle by enlisting his “professional services” is the singular glory of cable-news prominence. Eisenstadt is something like a poor man’s Jack Abramoff. In other words, he’s a wonderful narrator.
The book’s driving conceit is that Eisenstadt is a Zelig-like figure who happens to have been at the center of every meaningful political event in the past couple years, usually to the detriment of whomever he was ostensibly trying to help. This affords the opportunity to skewer the major conservative figures and many liberal ones, too. Rudy Giuliani’s abortive campaign, Sarah Palin’s disastrous turn in the spotlight, and John McCain’s landslide loss all trace their descent to Eisenstadt’s cretinous incompetence.
As he zigzags between campaigns, ticking off his colleagues’ indiscretions and settling imaginary scores, Eisenstadt spins his own yarn in an attempt to explain how he mistakenly came to be thought of as a hoax. Here, the plot gets a bit zany and hard to follow because Eisenstadt weaves together outrageous and clearly fabricated anecdotes that usually involve notable Beltway personages—binge-drinking with Donna Brazile, for instance—with footnoted links to actual YouTube videos in which he appears and blog posts from real bloggers who got taken in. The book drags when it detours into descriptions of blog fights, which overwhelm the authors’ considerable comedic talents (and demonstrate once again why bloggers—even fake ones—need editors). But this is a minor gripe. The real business here is tweaking the bizarre culture of Republican Washington since Nixon, and a phony consultant turns out to be a good vehicle for the job.
I Am Martin Eisenstadt is an odd mixture of high and low comedy that, on balance, is pitched at about the level of a Judd Apatow movie. If you don’t find the idea of Dennis Hastert oil-wrestling the Turkish foreign minister to be inherently funny, this probably isn’t your book. On the other hand, the authors know Washington so well that if you’re a creature of the Beltway you can’t help but admire their curator’s appreciation for the tiniest details. Anyone can milk humor from the idea that Republicans are greedy and corrupt. Only connoisseurs of conservative excess would think to parody the warped machismo of the Reagan years that led members of the preppy youth group Young Americans for Freedom (including Grover Norquist) to visit Angola on behalf of the UNITA rebels and style themselves “freedom fighters,” which mainly seems to have entailed being photographed with an AK-47. Martin Eisenstadt’s machine-gun-brandishing picture appears on page 15.
What’s consistently funny about the book is that for all that Martin Eisenstadt is an obvious parody, there is a striking similarity between his character and demeanor and those of many of the people you routinely encounter in green rooms and cocktail parties around Washington. This time, like the last time, the joke goes both ways. That’s why I intend it as real praise when I say that I Am Martin Eisenstadt is the best fake memoir of the campaign season.
Buy this book:
I Am Martin Eisenstadt: One Man's (Wildly Inappropriate) Adventures with the Last Republicans