What This Country Needs . . .

Actor Brian Pickett is resurrecting the once perennial candidate's campaign. Sophie Nimmannit assists.
Actor Brian Pickett is resurrecting the once perennial candidate's campaign. Sophie Nimmannit assists. (Photos By Helayne Seidman -- For The Washington Post)
By Robin Shulman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 6, 2007

NEW YORK -- The politician took the stage amid red balloons and American flags and spoke his famous fighting words: "I'd rather vote for something I want and not get it than vote for something I don't want and get it."

With this, Eugene V. Debs last week announced his sixth bid for U.S. president.

Dead man running.

The real Eugene V. Debs passed away in 1926, after five unsuccessful bids for the presidency from 1900 to 1920. But actor Brian Pickett is staging a modest, mock presidential run in his name, starting with Wednesday night's campaign kickoff in a tiny, crowded bar in Manhattan's East Village.

The actual Debs ran on the Socialist Party ticket -- the fifth time from a prison cell -- after being convicted under the Espionage Act of 1917 for speaking out against World War I. Though never even close to being elected, he became a national figure who galvanized people with his fervor and idealism. Pickett's theatrical performance, to continue in various forms until the 2008 election, "will resurrect this fiery leader from historical bondage," according to the campaign literature.

The quadrennial season of windbaggery is upon us. Canned speeches, quick retractions, the same old sound bites -- we're in for months and months of it. The more we hear, the more we pine for something authentic. This small-time utopian campaign speaks to that frustration, said Pickett, 28, who teaches drama to New York public school students and has appeared in independent theater productions.

Pickett, like Debs, is tall and wiry. You could even say his gaze echoes Debs biographer Nick Salvatore's description: "piercing yet loving." On Wednesday, Pickett wore a three-piece suit with watch fob and spectacles. As the race develops, he plans to work with campaign manager Sophie Nimmannit, 27, the "Red Genie" -- who wore a short red dress, red feather hat, slash of red lipstick and a scarf printed with the word "Vote" -- in street, bar and theater performances in New York and other cities ( http://www.myspace.com/votedebs).

"I wish you were all socialists," Pickett told his audience of about 35 people. They were artists, activists, at least one Wall Streeter -- and they laughed. Even in Debs's time, many of those who came to hear his impassioned speeches were not socialists. He attracted working- and middle-class people and whipped them into such a frenzy that at one event, according to Salvatore, in the book "Eugene V. Debs: Citizen and Socialist," one woman asked another, "Is that Debs?" and the first answered, "Oh no, that ain't Debs -- when Debs comes out, you'll think it's Jesus Christ."

Debs, originally from Terre Haute, Ind., married an upper-class woman who became famous for wearing diamonds to visit him in jail, and he grew more radical as he got older. His life spanned that brief window when socialism was not yet a dirty word but rather a new idea from Europe. He tried to Americanize it, claiming Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau as precursors, wrote Salvatore. America was becoming the greatest industrial power of the world, and the questions socialism addressed were on everyone's mind. In 1912, Debs drew 6 percent of the national presidential vote.

Things have changed. The socialist demands of Debs's time -- the eight-hour workday, abolition of child labor, equal pay for equal work -- have become standard, if not always applied. The word "socialist" seldom comes up. And there are new problems.

"Oh where, oh where have my benefits gone, oh where, oh where can they be?" sang a character in Wednesday's show. The finely dressed Capitalist chimed in: "My PDA's beeping, I'm afraid I can't stay. I'm self-employed and I work all day."

"I would vote for him in a New York minute because he speaks his mind," said Andy Shulman, 34, the actor playing the Capitalist, who works a Wall Street day job. He adds that he is not interested in the radical or extreme, but in someone without the slickness and distance of the big campaign.

"Has a dead man ever run for president?" asked Nola Strand, 24, who played accordion for the show. "Dead men have voted."

Pickett's idea came from television's "West Wing," when Jimmy Smits's character, Matthew V. Santos, ran for president, and fans of the show donned "Vote Santos" shirts and bought "Vote Santos" mugs. If a fictional character could gain a constituency, why not a dead one?

But the ardors of a Debs campaign could wear on him.

In 1900, Debs crisscrossed the country and slept upright on long train trips, refusing to take a Pullman berth with a bed because of labor problems at that company. In 1908, he traveled on his own Red Special train. His speeches could run to two hours, and he would often give 10 a day.

Pickett said he's not sure he has the funds to command a 2008 Red Special. He cut Debs's speeches to something like sound bites, which often sound familiar, except for the florid language. (On war: "The working class who fight all the battles, the working class who make the supreme sacrifices, the working class who freely shed their blood and furnish the corpses, have never yet had a voice in either declaring war or making peace. It is the ruling class that invariably does both.")

Asked if he would work as a method actor and go drinking and visiting brothels, as Debs had done, the candidate flipped up his glasses and became Pickett -- "I'm reading this great book right now with dirt on Debs!" -- then pushed them back down to return sternly to character: "No."

Nothing's what it was. Someone bought him a beer and this incarnation of Debs began, in his mild way, to carouse -- not far from the Capitalist, who was chomping on a soggy cigar, which he could not light because of New York's anti-smoking laws.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company