Ryan: Diamond Joe Biden's gaffe


Joe Biden strolled into the cramped room and everybody got quiet, even the beer-bellied man in the T-shirt that said, "my DOG is smarter than the PRESIDENT." An interesting apparel choice given the setting, a local Plumbers and Steamfitters Union that doubled as a training center.

Around the corner, Gray's Lake and Jasper Winery. Biden's Thursday night town hall was organized by the Iowa Asian and Latino Coalition (IALC). Open only to members, but anyone could pay a fee, $25 or so, and join the union for admittance.
A group of six 20-somethings in rolled-up jeans and woke-slogan T-shirts shuddered at the price of entry and backed out of the room with their eyebrows cocked.

Also, there was an actual dog in the room, a French bulldog. Which did not appear to belong to the "DOG" T-shirt man, but there was no telling with that crowd.

Photo by Sean Ryan

Some of them were more Biden than Biden himself. Like the guy in an oversized button-up with embroidered parrots along the shoulder. The way he nibbled on the same croissant for at least 15 minutes. Did he eat everything like that? Like he'd been instructed how to chew by NPR?

Or the middle-aged woman in the lion-themed blouse with psychedelic designs. She yipped whenever she felt the urge, sang out with answers or praise any time she liked what Biden had said. Several times, she crabbed out of the room, shoving and groaning. Then when she returned all you could smell was booze. And the drunker she got, the more impressed she was with her observations. At one point, this lady was within arm's length of Joe Biden, which was as dumbfounding as it was cool or horrific.
"Folks, this is wrong," Biden would say. It was a phrase he used as punctuation.

Photo by Sean Ryan

The room was about half the size of a basketball court. Maybe smaller. It felt like a sweat lodge. The lights and cameras and laptops and people made it 15 degrees warmer.

The media swarmed at the back of the room, encroaching into the crowd of serious people in gray folding chairs. A row of video cameras like robotic creatures, all spindle and wire. Behind the videographers, journalists with laptops perched at a long wooden table, the measured clack clack clack clack slump clack of furious typing. Paper plates with finger foods stacked wherever there was space.

Photo by Sean Ryan

The photographers had the most freedom. They could wander around snapping photos like it was their birthday and this was their party. Which is not how they acted. The opposite. They climbed around the room with the intensity and skill of a Navy SEAL in a swamp. They got as close as they could before someone, usually a bodyguard or a secret service agent, told them to back off.

Nearly half of the audience were media. There wasn't an empty seat in the room, but it still felt odd, as if the media had taken up space that could've been used by, say, a group of 20-somethings without enough cash to see the former vice president of the United States of America speaking to a room full of local politicians and plumbers, as CNN and ABC and Fox News filmed it all.

Photo by Sean Ryan

In reality, the media were there partly as stand-ins for the hundreds of millions of Americans, of people throughout the world, who couldn't make it to the union hall in Iowa, as Joe Biden writhed into another cringy mistake.

*

Biden's campaign had spent money on perfecting optics. At every speech, he spoke into a brand-new PA system, facing spotlights like you'd see in a theater. All of the candidates knew how to plaster any given room with their campaign signs. Biden and Kamala Harris understood the deeper game. The optics. Bernie Sanders likely did as well, but chose not to play it. Which is to say that Biden looked great, better than he looks in the 22-second clip of the event, the clip that went viral, the 10-second hiccup of his two-hour talk. The gaffe. Quite possibly a deadly moment in his campaign.

Photo by Sean Ryan

"The other thing we should do is we should challenge these students," he said, firm and smooth. "We should challenge students in these schools to have advanced placement programs in these schools. We have this notion that, somehow if you're poor, you cannot do it."

He paused for a moment, then concluded: "Poor kids are just as bright and just as talented as white kids."
A chatter of applause, because everybody knew what he meant, that this was Uncle Joe fumbling his words again. And that was pretty much the end of it. The New Yorker framed the scene with a touch of the dramatic: "There were groans in the room, and a smattering of hesitant applause."
Biden definitely botched the landing, but he followed up quickly, "Wealthy people," he said. "Black kids. Asian kids."

Photo by Sean Ryan

The next day, the media leapt on Biden. Naturally, President Donald Trump took the opportunity to throw some shade. He told reporters that "Joe Biden is not playing with a full deck. This is not somebody you can have as your president." In a bizarre moment of unity, the media and President Trump agreed, though for much different reasons.

Biden may never outlive it: "Poor kids are just as bright and just as talented as white kids."

At the Presidential Gun Forum a few days later, Biden will say, "Look, I misspoke. I meant to say 'wealthy.' I've said it 15 [times]. On the spot, I explained it. At that very second, I explained it. And so, the fact of the matter is that I don't think anybody thinks that I meant anything other than what I said I meant."

For the past three years, President Trump has been the media's focus. Unrelenting. He's the giant prize at the arcade and they're pre-teens with leftover money, desperate to own that giant orange panda. When's the last time you heard a positive remark about President Trump from any mainstream media besides Fox News?

Now, President Trump doesn't seem to mind, not publicly at least. Because he has always played the media. During the 2016 election, the media lavished him with free advertising. He didn't even have a campaign website. Why bother, when the New York Times does the broadcasting and recruitment for you?

Maybe Biden lacked this acuity. This bull energy. And that's why he never recovered as well as he messed up. Or maybe Biden played the course as it was meant to be played. It wasn't time to activate the boosters. Too early. Just maintain a steady pace, hone the routine, and show your face to Americans. Because that's where Biden excelled.

All the same, there's hypocrisy to Biden's constant attack of President Trump. If you're going to paint someone as a lying, soulless, brainless, misogynistic racist, you better make sure that your room is clean, that your life, your language, and your presentation are spic-and-span. Otherwise, you lose. And, at the moment, Biden was losing.

*

He would be 77 in two months. He had lost a son to brain cancer. And when he was 30, his wife and daughter died in a car wreck. He's had private dinners and intimate conversations with the most powerful people on earth. Correction … He is one of the most powerful people on earth.

When then-President Barack Obama draped the Medal of Freedom around Biden's neck, he cried.
But, always, the gaffes. Even as vice president, he was the butt of many jokes, however, well-meaning. Like the Onion's satirical take on Biden, "Diamond Joe."

For the first half of 2019, the country mocked him. Depicted him as a creep. Turned him into a meme. All because he was old-school with his body language and affection. You can find the montage online.

For years, Biden used physical touch to break through the barriers and restraints of conversation on an impossible schedule. How do you make a meaningful connection with a stranger, or a roomful of strangers, when you have very little time?
And he had been affable Joe Biden for decades without a single issue. The times had changed. The latest generation was touchy about personal space, according to the focus groups and surveys.

Despite the outrage, Biden didn't apologize. But he acknowledged the issue.

"I will be more mindful about respecting personal space in the future," he said in a video. "That's my responsibility and I will meet it."

Photo by Sean Ryan

I think most people believed him. Agreed that he's not a predator. Maybe he's the guy who constantly tries to give everyone neck massages because he thinks he's good at it. But really he's just knotting people up and violating their space. Sometimes a person just needs to be told when they've become intrusive, or else they might never realize.

Or maybe Biden is neither, not a creep or a doofus, but a man who wants to connect. A man who wants the Oval Office, for real this time.

As Biden's campaign built steam, the "Creepy Joe" story slowly vanished. In its place, articles about Biden's gaffes became more prominent, and now 20 of his fellow Democrats were hoping for his downfall.

He was christened "Sleepy Joe" by President Trump, who scoffed that Biden was too old for the job, tongue-in-cheek referring to himself as a "young vibrant man." From the start, everyone attacked Biden because he was in the lead. Because he was, probably, the most qualified. So he had to just take it. With dignity, if possible.

Did he ever get tired of all the commotion?

*

His obsessive word that night was "solitary." As in, "every single solitary child." Earlier that day, it had rained. Poured down onto people at the Iowa State Fair. It must have soaked every single solitary person.

Photo by Sean Ryan

To add to it all, Biden has struggled in Iowa before. When he ran for president in 1987, he ended his campaign after plagiarizing a Neil Kinnock speech at a Democratic debate at the Iowa State Fair. As is usually the case with Biden, the whole thing seems to have been a misunderstanding. Around that time he fibbed about his law school grades or something like that. Middle Class Joe with his tall tales and lofty aspirations. Isn't that the ultimate Middle Class Joe move?

It's like how Iowa has the highest per capita number of golf courses in the country, and, in 2007, actor Rob Lowe whacked a golf ball and it catapulted up and hit a goldfinch mid-flight. His first round of golf in Iowa, as part of a PGA Pro-Am celebrity tournament, and he killed the state bird. That's an Uncle Joe move.

*

Democracy fails without journalism. Mass media connect us to reality. Journalists hold this incredible power. The power to utterly ruin someone who maybe doesn't deserve ruin, or lionize someone who should be leeching in obscurity.

This ultimatum hung in the air as Biden spoke, clumsy like he hadn't slept well in weeks, maybe longer. Which is probably the reality.

He'd already botched the speech, he knew it, likely with no forgiveness from the media.

Ideally, politicians and journalists are like sharks and pilot fish. The sharks don't devour the pilot fish and, in turn, the pilot fish eat the shark's parasites. Politicians need journalists in order to spread their message, to impact public opinion. And journalists depend on politicians for protection, in a business sense, and for access. People want to watch sharks be shark-like. Pilot fish keep them alive and save their own scales in the process.

I bet you're wondering, "So who are the parasites in this metaphor?"

*

Biden had class, that's for sure. Despite his goofs, he had an air of diplomacy. The presence of someone who, for eight years, had classified material delivered to him like the morning paper. He has seen the innermost workings of the world's governments.

He was one of the dozen-or-so people who watched the live feed of Osama Bin Laden's assassination, an occasion captured by that gripping, now-iconic photo of Biden, Obama, and the national security team in the Situation Room.
By this point, after decades in politics, he looks good as a matter of habit. He wears sharp, deep-blue suits like the rest of us wear a T-shirt and khakis.

In Iowa, he exuded prestige and wisdom. When he spoke, even when he misspoke, people listened. And he looked you in the eye with an avuncular kindness.

Then he fumbled a few words or stumbled into some bad optics and the media went full shark on him. They went shark on him. The shark! Which too often felt contrived.

Most of the time, you could tell what Biden meant to say. Although, yes, if you have a habit of bungling your words, then don't center your speech on the idea that a President's words matter, so, in the 2020 presidential election, vote for me, the habitual word-bungler.

*

All week, flags were at half-mast.

Two shootings within 13 hours of each other. And we, the whole country, all slumped around with a devastation. So I had expected every Democratic candidate to talk about guns. That morning, on the back of the Des Moines Register, a full page in red font was devoted to the Presidential Gun Sense Forum being held in two days at the Iowa Events Center. Where all of the candidates would give a speech at an appointed time. If the Iowa Star Fair had opened during the previous news cycle, the candidates would likely fume about immigration or Israel. And they all hated President Trump, or pretended to, with a ferocity usually reserved for cockroaches and murder.

Just that morning, Sen. Elizabeth Warren flagged down a journalist to say, "For the record, Donald Trump is a white supremacist."And the rest of them shouted in accord. They're politicians. Like male frogs, when one of them ribbits loudly and a female frog responds, the other male frogs do their best imitation. It's a real-life game of language poker. Bluff, wince, suppress, speak, listen, react. Do anything and everything to win win win.

Photo by Sean Ryan

So they had to talk about gun control and white supremacy in order to keep playing. They had to reference the primary topics of discussion for August 2019, but in a way that revealed authenticity, without seeming gullible. It's a matter of knowing what to say, always. Which is an insane expectation, for so many reasons.

Because the clarion call is different by the day, certainly by the month, depending how fervidly the media push it. Good news is, research shows that people aren't so gullible. We typically distrust the media. Because public opinion doesn't always line up with the media message. If Americans don't like the narrative being hammered down their throats, they'll shrug and change the channel, move on, stop caring. Like Bill Clinton's impeachment. The media wanted an opera, but most of the country just didn't give a damn what the man did behind closed doors, even if they were the doors to the Oval Office.

"The reason I call him Barack," Biden said, somewhat randomly, "is because I don't want to confuse him with the President." Soft spoken. Gentle voiced. Earlier, he compared Trump to Hitler. Hitler, leader of the Nazis, genocidal maniac, full-blown hellaciously prolific psychopath, an honest-to-God dictator who murdered and tortured millions of Jews. Trump, on the other hand, is the first President to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, but just happens to be, well, kind of an ass. Nobody denies that. Many people even happen to admire it. But Hitler?

Hyperbole is fine, but it becomes dangerous when exaggerations mutate into something uglier. It was like the Democrats were trying to psyche themselves up to fight the class bully or, better yet, the most popular kid in school.

Can you blame them for having shaky nerves? The man is a pulverizer. We all saw what he did to the entire stage of Republicans in 2016. He destroyed 16 Ivy League-educated lawyers and seasoned politicians, legacy politicians, American royalty. Poor Jeb Bush probably still has a stammer. Trump ruined careers by giving out nicknames. He went toe-to-toe with Hillary Clinton, a woman with a reputation for getting everything she wants no matter the cost, for being an impenetrable force that frightens many people, for having spent eight years in the White House as the first lady, and even she lost.

I'd be shaky if I were them, too. Any of us would.

But, every day, it's a more serious accusation. Yet another barb directed at President Trump. Which, oddly, just becomes further proof of President Trump's ubiquity. Every insult levied at him just bounces off his orange Teflon skin like a jelly bean and next thing you know you've got sugar stains on your forehead.

*

Sculpture on the lawn of the Plumbers & Steamfitters Local 33 in Des Moines, IowaPhoto by Sean Ryan

As Biden's speech entered its second lap, the journalists in the back of the room just seemed bored. How long had Biden been talking?

Earlier that day, at the Iowa State Fair, he performed better, although he got a tad weird in the press scrum afterward and shouted it out with a reporter from Breitbart.

The drunk lady in the trippy lion blouse kept chirping along with Biden, adding a weird dominant energy to a room that already had a weird energy of its own, and by then even the kids could tell the woman was wasted. What a time to get hammered. During a town hall? At a plumbers' union? In Iowa? On a Thursday night? In front of all of these people? In front of a man who once had his own customized 757, aka Air Force 2?

The dog-shirt man gawked at Biden as he strolled around the tiny island of space between the tables. The dog-shirt man was a clumsy lad. Several times, his arms windmilled around as he balanced. The room syncopated to his clumsiness, more out of obligation than respect.

Parrot shirt guy had finished his baguette at some point, and moved onto some other task. I do not know what he was doing, with his face and with his presence. I am at a loss of words. "Alien" is the best word I can come up with. He whispered with the lop-sidedness of a sinking boat, far too loudly, somehow.

But in America, we can eat our baguettes as slowly as we please. We can paunch ourselves into corner-store t-shirts then go to a formal event. We can get nice and revved up on wine or vodka or whatever else we please, within reason. Best of all, we can do these things in the presence of a former Vice President.

"I've never been more optimistic about America than I am today," he said.

Then he spiraled into an elaborate story about Chinese President Xi Jinping. How, during one of Biden's visits to China, as the two men ate dinner, Jinping asked Biden to define America. "One word," said Biden. "Possibilities." Now that woke everyone up. How could you not admire a line as good as that line?

Photo by Sean Ryan

The Q&A went as well as a Q&A can. The people with pre-written questions were nervous, like this was an audition. The first question came from an off-duty Sheriff, and he said, "Hi, I'm a Sheriff."

Without a pause, Biden said "Didn't do it!" leaning into the microphone. And it was great. Maybe I enjoyed it more than everybody else. But it just felt so playful and innocent. Then somebody asked about the Democratic debates. "I won't call them debates," he said. "I'll call them one-minute assertions." Another good ad-libbed line. Where was this delivery during his speeches?

Biden has shotguns, he told the Sheriff, then veered into a tangent that journalists have characterized as near-senile. To me, it was charming. It was him saying, "Look, we're spending this time together so how about I open up and let you see who I am." Or at least who he wanted to portray. The moderator quipped that, could Biden be a little more succinct with his answers? A joke. Everyone laughed. Then we all moved on.

Photo by Sean Ryan

Outside, the sun was still as red and orange as usually is, before evening. We were nearing the sanguine moment when day changes hands with night. A cool dampness skipped the air. 78 degrees? In August? And a low of 65? What was this place?

Iowa exudes an American rawness, in manner and spirit. Its State colors are red, white, and blue. Its flower is the wild rose. It's motto is "Our liberties we prize and our rights we will maintain." It is the birthplace of John Wayne. Home to the crimson-painted bridges of a fictional Madison County. It is heart-breaking how American Iowa is. The vintage America. With the worst cellphone reception I've ever encountered, and Amish-run gas stations that don't have credit card slots on the pumps. And everywhere, a slower pace, as if social media never happened.

On the lawn of the Plumber's Union, a statue of two hands clenching pipe wrenches and fastening a socket. In front of it, a plaque titled "Pulling Together," which noted, "This piece of art is not only about unions. It is about the human condition."

The American flag by the entrance had been raised to its peak. Possibly that day. Most other places still had their flags at half-mast. There was something triumphant about returning the flag to its proper height. It was by no means a slight against the recent shootings. If anything, it was a way of redistributing power.

A red SUV waited by the rear door. Next to a white van. My guess was that this was the subtle way that Biden traveled. Endurance. Meanwhile, Kamala Harris had her own fleet with her name in purple and yellow down the side. We've yet to see if hers might have been the better approach.

It was getting late, and Biden was still yammering and we had places to be. As my dad and I tiptoed out, the French bulldog snorted around the room. You could hear him chuff. And he hustled toward the kids slumping against the walls. He jumped away from his leash. When he finally arrived at the children, he licked and licked. Meanwhile Biden was talking about reality. "We choose science over fiction," he said. "We choose truth over lies." People murmured supportively. Then the French bulldog's owner turned to me, smiled, and said, "He really likes little kids."



New installments to this series will come out every Monday and Thursday morning. For live updates, check out this page or email me at kryan@mercurystudios.com

He may not be a super hero like he plays in the movies, but Chris Pratt is proving once again why he's a hero to so many. The silver screen protector of the universe announced on his Instagram page a contest that will benefit the Brain Treatment Foundation, who is a partner of Mercury One that does amazing work with veterans. The Brain Treatment Foundation specializes in helping combat veterans who are suffering from traumatic brain injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder.

The contest asks fans to donate $10 to the foundation for a chance to win a trip to drop in on the Guardians of the Galaxy star on the set of his new film Tomorrow War.

Watch his video below to hear all the details.


Ryan: The Ascent of Kanye West

Photo by Caroline Ryan

Apollo, god of poetry, light, prophecy, dance. Star of Greek mythology, rivaled only by Zeus, his father. God of justice. God of purification, knowledge, healing. God of the Sun. But most of all, god of music. So they called him the Leader of the Muses.

And on a bright Sunday morning midway through November, at the tail end of a decade, Kanye West looked out at the congregation of Joel Osteen's Lakewood Church, a 16,000-seater originally built for the Houston Rockets, and said, "Jesus has won the victory: Now the greatest artist God ever created is now working for him."

Photo by Caroline Ryan

Kanye's newest album, Jesus Is King, had been out for three weeks, and like every Kanye album, it was controversial, as adored as it was unaccepted.

Critics had shown a mostly tepid response, but nobody could tell if their disinterest was genuine, or if it was politically motivated.

After all, for the past year, Kanye had once again managed to penetrate the epicenter of American society. The last two Presidents had literally shamed and cursed Kanye, but, still, who could've guessed he would befriend this one?

Photo by Caroline Ryan

The week after Kanye's Olsteen appearance, at the House impeachment hearings, as the entire country watched and listened, Congressmen and diplomats would mention longtime Kanye collaborator A$AP Rocky no less than five times, in casual reference to the Kardashians and the deal between Trump and Sweden, struck at the urging of Kanye West.

Meanwhile, Jesus is King became the ninth consecutive Kanye album to debut at number one on the Billboard 200 — a feat he shares with Eminem and The Beatles — and the sixth time in the 2010s alone. And, to be fair, his only studio album not to debut at number one was The College Dropout, his first, which went triple platinum and earned the third-most Grammy nominations in one night, winning Best Rap Album and Best Rap Song with "Jesus Walks."

Photo by Caroline Ryan

Jesus is King was also the first record ever to top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums, Rap Albums, Christian Albums, and Gospel Albums simultaneously. All eleven tracks charted on the US Billboard 100, joining the other 96 Kanye songs to have landed on the Top 100.

Photo by Caroline Ryan

This album was different, and not just because of Kenny G. For the first time, Kanye was not a god or a self-destructive fallen angel. He was a father, a husband, a son, and, most important, a man full of belief, with his hands outstretched, surrounded by a choir.

"I remember sitting in the hospital at UCLA after having a breakdown," he told the congregation, "and there's documentations of me drawing a church and writing about starting a church in the middle of Calabasas."

That night, following an afternoon of ice-skating at the Galleria, Kanye returned to Lakewood Church and performed a concert. Imagine hearing a his electro-gospel opera in an arena designed, acoustically, for professional basketball games. Only better, because everything had been padded. With LSD graphics on the swirly blue carpet.

Photo by Caroline Ryan

When we experience art, it changes us.

So there I was, four rows from the stage, crying in front of FoxNews. Because Kanye had brought his Sunday Service choir with him, and they were singing "Ultralight Beam," one of the few perfect songs ever made, a song that played during my wedding ceremony, the song my daughter, God willing, will be born to, a song I have never once listened to without at least tearing up.

“Jesus Is King" A Sunday Service Experience at Lakewood Church with Kanye West youtu.be

"This is a God dream, this is a God dream. This is everything."

Kanye was the only person onstage dressed in his own clothing, a neatened blazer. The choir were draped in grey, like holy silhouettes.

Photo by Caroline Ryan

So who cares about FoxNews and their snotty reporters in their shoulder-padded blazers. The rest of us had drifted into the immediacy of it all. And I wasn't about to play stoic journalist here. I wasn't a reporter first and a human or an American later.

The choir zigzagged on the loft flanking the stage. Each of them had a headset microphone, like Garth Brooks.

God only knew how they sang so perfectly. How did they project their voices like that? More beautiful than anything we had ever heard, more beautiful than water.

After "Ultralight Beam," it was "Every Hour," the mesmeric opening track of Jesus Is King.

Sing every hour, Every minute, Every second, Sing each and every millisecond, We need you

Every Hour youtu.be

The performance felt all the more sacred because this was church, where people gathered to lose themselves, to sing as a chorus, to confront who they really are.

Across the street, one protestor stood hollering.

Meanwhile thousands of people waited at the entrance, giddy to get in. They would join us in no time. Soon, they would fill every seat in this church.

*

That morning, Kanye told Olsteen,

"It's like the devil stole all the good producers, all the good musicians, all the good artists, all the good designers, all the good business people and said, 'you gotta come over and work for me.' And now the trend, the shift, is going to change."

Jesus Is King was the result of a new cultural and artistic movement that more or less started with 2016's Life of Pablo, Kanye's closeted gospel album. Which was a surprising departure from 2013's Yeezus, with its tangled social commentary and fashionable solipsism. And that drum sound, the one every half-decent producer has spent the last six years failing to emulate.

The 2010's saw him grow more cerebral. He even teased a book of philosophy titled Break the Simulation.

Then, in 2018, he released Ye, the second of five albums in a Kanye-produced series, all recorded at his Wyoming studio. In keeping with the criticisms of hip-hop he voiced on "Ye vs. The People"

Photo by Caroline Ryan

Kanye eschewed many of the themes he'd embraced for so long, replacing them with meditations on mental illness, fatherhood, suicide, love, and addiction. The album's working title had been "LOVE EVERYONE."

On "I Thought About Killing You," he raps,

The most beautiful thoughts are always beside the darkest.

The title "Ye" is not just the diminutive of "Kanye."

As he said in an interview

I believe 'ye' is the most commonly used word in the Bible, and, in the Bible, it means 'you,' so it's [saying] "I'm you, I'm us, it's us." It went from being Kanye, which means the only one, to just ye – just being a reflection of our good, our bad, our confused, everything, that I'm just more of a reflection of who we are, just as beings.

Philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer wrote that

All individuality is a manifestation of universal life, and hence everyone carries a tiny bit of everyone else with him, so that divination is simulated by comparison with oneself.

In the months following the release of Ye, Kanye would live out this idea, and build his own movement, a reflection of who we are, then begin his church in Calabasas.

*

At 10:30 that morning, the three of us — Samantha Sullivan, my wife Caroline, and me —- strolled into the arena and claimed seats in the media section.

That place resembled the inside of an ant colony. We were three ants.

The service began with errorless music, then shifted into a quick, stirring message by Osteen, who always seemed to appear onstage from nowhere, privvy to the kind of big-money stage tricks you find at a Shania Twain concert.

The entire place and all the Jumbo-Trons and all the people, it all had a cinematic presence.

Photo by Caroline Ryan

A preliminary giddiness spread through the room. Then, Kanye emerged, there on the stage, and the place erupted.

A man in a "Jesus is King" shirt danced around his seat.

Photo by Caroline Ryan

Everyone took their seats, but one man standing in the crowd shouted affirmations. "Speak truth my brother," he shouted.

The man shouted several more times, then Kanye politely told the guy to hold off on the support because it wasn't helping, because Kanye needed relative quiet to capture and release his flow.

The ceiling glowed in skittish purple.

Photo by Caroline Ryan

Kanye described the corrupting force of the media. A chill came over the room. Behind him, the unapologetic blue of Jesus Is King.

It was my first encounter with Joel Osteen, and I was surprised and somewhat baffled to find him likeable, based on everything I'd ever heard about the man.

Kanye said as much, that Osteen is nothing like the version of Osteen many people have broadcast.

Photo by Caroline Ryan

Osteen laughed, "When you've got Kanye defending you, you've made it, man."

Rays of light danced through the arena. I'm talking Pink Floyd light show levels.

Photo by Caroline Ryan

With 21 Grammys, Kanye is tied with Jay-Z as the most decorated hip-hop artist of all time.

Osteen asked Kanye what he would say to his younger self, if he could go back in time.

"You know, it's nothing I can say to the younger Kanye through words," he said. "I could speak to the younger Kanye through music."

*

Osteen played the middle section of "God Is," arguably the focal point of the album.

And Kanye danced and rapped along with it. And the surreality of the situation was daunting. Was that really Kanye West up there? with Joel Osteen? dancing to his gospel song?

Six or seven years ago, I saw Kanye a mile away at the Toyota Center — coincidentally, the current home of the Houston Rockets — for his and Jay-Z's Watch the Throne tour. It was a much different experience than this.

Photo by Caroline Ryan

When Kanye finished, the media flooded out. As did a quarter of the people in the congregation. This bothered many of the regulars.

Security and ushers yanked big grey mop buckets from cabinets, and dispersed them down aisles, and money music played.

Photo by Caroline Ryan

Then the time for prayer. Prayer leaders lined the walls and pews. And anyone could walk over to them and pray. Men and women clung to strangers, crying sometimes, hugging. Holding hands, whispering phrases.

*

One of the media coordinators pulled us out of the sermon, led us through passageways and elevators, past classrooms and security guards, through a black sheet, then behind a barricade.

This is where all the media had rushed off to like old folks trying to get the best seat for bingo.

Each news outlet was allowed one question.

After 15 minutes, the energy changed and you could tell they were near.

Then, Kim Kardashian-West was walking our way, holding her daughter's hand, followed by Kanye, who was followed by Osteen.

Photo by Caroline Ryan

"Nice tags," Kanye said, referring to my "GOOD" necklace.

Then:

Brief interview with Kanye West and Joel Osteen at Lakewood Church, Nov. 17 in Houston, TX www.youtube.com

Some of the outlets asked more than one question, but that was on them. They were the ones sinning in church.

*

As Kanye and Olsteen shuffled away, down the line of journalists, I said hello to a small crew from FoxNews as they packed their equipment.

"We're from TheBlaze," I said, smiling. To which they sneered and glanced at one another then got back to their conversation.
Samantha rolled her eyes and the three of us wandered around for an exit.

"Did we just get stiff-armed by Fox News?" Said one of us. "I didn't think they were allowed to look down on anybody."
"I've had that with people from Fox on several occasions," one of us replied.

"I mean, I thought I was doing them a favor a favor by acknowledging them. Nobody else does."

Then it happened again, a few minutes later, this time with someone we had worked with, someone who knew us.
You bet we were salty.

Bad as it felt to be judged like that, it was good to be underestimated. A relief. It meant we could perform without anyone caring or watching.

They had no idea who we were or what we were really doing. Good.

*

In November 2007, Kanye's mother died during a routine surgery. He and his mom, Dr. Donda West, had always been incredibly close. She raised him alone, after Kanye's father left, when Kanye was three.

A few months later, his engagement with Alexis Phifer abruptly ended.

He was 30 at the time.

Oddly, this tragic sequence of events would cause the birth of auto-tune in rap. Broken-hearted, Kanye wanted to sing. So he ran his voice through a vocoder.

Kanye's album 808s & Heartbreak, which like Jesus is King has no curse words, shoved music ahead at least two decades, into a world of synth-driven robotic R&B/Rap love songs belted out in janky auto-tune. That description doesn't sound ridiculous today. But that's only because Kanye eschewed the stale hip-hop of the early 2000s and reinvented the genre, something he has accomplished with every album.

Photo by Caroline Ryan

Then, he went on tour. But he never took off any time following his mother's death. And, by the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards, he'd fallen to what he calls his sunken place.

He and then-girlfriend Amber Rose brought a bottle of Hennessy with them to the award show. They took slugs in the limo. Then on the red carpet.

When Taylor Swift won the award for Best Female Video, Kanye stormed the podium, sunglasses on, and grabbed the microphone, said "Imma let you finish," then let everyone know the award should've gone to Beyoncé, for "Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)."

He was kicked out immediately. He tweeted, "Everybody wanna booooo me but I'm a fan of real pop culture... I'm not crazy y'all, I'm just real."

Followed by an apology. Then a few days later, during an appearance on debut episode of "The Jay Leno Show"

Leno asked Kanye, "What do you think [your mom] would have said about this?"

That hit Kanyelike a punch to the jaw. He teared up, froze.

He publicly apologized to Swift. Several times.

But it did little to quell the blowback. Once again, it felt like the entire nation hated Kanye. Compounded by a hot-mic recording of Barack Obama — the country's first black President — calling Kanye a jackass.

So the embattled Kanye retreated to Hawaii to record a masterpiece, 2010's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.

*

"We are a Christian country," Kanye said at one point, to uproarious applause.

The vast majority of Americans, 90 percent, believe in a higher power.

Photo by Caroline Ryan

And America has the largest number of Christians in the world, with roughly 167,000,000, comprising 65-to-70 percent of the population. But that's down from 80 percent, as part of a downward trend over the last two decades.

The percent of Americans who attend a religious service of any kind — church, synagogue, or mosque — is even lower, less than half.

Photo by Caroline Ryan

One political scientist blamed the public's growing distrust in institutions. Another blamed conservatives. A writer from New York Magazine took it a step further.

Meanwhile, David French.

As always, the issue is far more nuanced than either side will admit.

Somehow, in the last twenty years, church and religion had become not just uncool, but slightly villainous.

All day, every time I looked around — at people singing, at people dancing, at people crying in joy or in the relief and recognition of their pain — I thought, "How could this ever be a bad thing?"

Photo by Caroline Ryan

I had spent my life going to concerts, had seen Kanye West numerous times, and this was something other than a concert, and unlike anything I'd seen from Kanye. It was also more than just religious or spiritual.

A family of strangers in a city of 6 million, in a world of 7-and-a-half billion, broadcast live, led by a man who fought off the devil in front of us for years. Who struggled with life just like we do, only we could nitpick through the one-way mirrors of our phones and our TVs.

But, now, he had been baptized in public.

Photo by Caroline Ryan

Some people were still negative about Kanye's recent faith, especially Christians. As Kanye raps on "Hands On"

What have you been hearin' from the Christians?
They'll be the first one to judge me
Make it feel like nobody love me

Consensus was, they couldn't believe him. As a Kanye fan since I was 13, I can tell you that he is genuine. It's really his only setting. Plus, his spiritual transformation has been building for quite some time.

*

By the time we returned to Lakewood that evening, the sky had turned dark blue, and frantic with airplanes.

The sidewalks around the arena overflowed with people. Police cars jutted out in crooked lines to block entrances or exits, the strobe of red-white-blue whirling onto pedestrians' faces.

Across the street, facing the giant arena, a man with a bullhorn ranted about the evils of sinful music.

Earlier that day, sheepish protestors had occupied the spot, holding red poster-sized letters that spelled out "I M P E A C H." There were only four of them, though, so they had to double up and share, and sometimes the "H" slanted down or the "I" slipped loose.

"Impeach Kanye?" one of us said, laughing.

"Kanye 2020," shouted someone.

The air was electric. People bounced when they stepped, or walked faster than normal, or turned oddly as they spoke like a third-year professor.

They sang along as they passed traffic-jam cars, most of which were blasting Kanye.

A chorus of police whistles and the usual rumble of semi-trucks passing on US-59. Just down the street, porn shops and strip clubs and a Ferrari dealership. Immediately Southwest, the Mahatma Ghandi District. West, the Galleria, home of the opulent Galleria mall, where Kanye and Kim and family gone ice-skating earlier.

Inside the arena, a different world, low-lit and glowing. A dreamscape of lambent crimsons and violets, a deeper, warmer, slower take on the lights atop the police cars outside. Globular squares of blue were arrayed along the ceiling.

Photo by Caroline Ryan

When the musicians emerged to their instruments, the arena was still half-empty. The show had already been delayed 40 minutes. The demand to get in was so ferocious that the security gate was jammed up like a glass Ketchup jar.

Then, like spirits, men and women drifted onstage in all-grey uniforms and matching hats that looked like they should say "VIETNAM VETERAN" but actually said "Sunday Service."

Every single member wore brand-new grey YEEZY Boosts.

From the start, the performance was cinematic, a sort of new-world opera sung by a chorus of young American muses with nose rings or gold chains or dreadlocks or pink hair.

Photo by Caroline Ryan

From the huddle, a young man rose, and began reciting a poem. It was the invocation of the muse.

Gadamer wrote that poetry "becomes a test of what is true, in that the poem awakens a secret life in words that had seemed to be used up and worn out, and tells us of ourselves"

*

After a whirling rendition of Carl Orff's "O Fortuna," the choir began "Ultralight Beam."

They let the song spread. It grew enormous.

The air swirled as the song widened.

Kanye waited out of view, then appeared without ceremony.

A collective gasp when people recognized the melody of Stevie Wonder's "Overjoyed." Which sounds like a dream already, with all that wilderness.

So it was even stranger when the song morphed into SWV's "Weak," a skating rink anthem written by Charlie Wilson of the GAP Band. A classic.

The choir were their own countervailing force. Yet they also connected us to the drama of the performance.
Looking back, I wish I could live in those moments forever.

*

Then came their cover of "Father Stretch My Hands" by Pastor T.L. Barrett And the Youth for Christ Choir.

Father Stretch My Hands www.youtube.com

Kanye has paid homage to Barrett's track on two different songs, from two different albums.

It was his prayer.

Pastor T.L. Barrett, a man who's lived an exciting and at times difficult life, only to become a Pentecostal preacher on Chicago's south side, and form a choir of 40 teenagers from his weekly choir practice.

If you dive into Barrett, you'll better understand what Kanye is doing.

*

Ten seats from Kim Kardashian-West, Rep. Dan Crenshaw (TX) stared ahead in a neat grey suit, occasionally poking at his phone and blasting people on Twitter.

Which means there were at least two people in the building who have appeared on Saturday Night Live.

There were other politicians, including Texas lieutenant governor Dan Patrick. And even more at the earlier service. You could tell they were politicians the same you can tell a vegan burger from a real Whopper. Several times, Kanye held up his phone up and read the words from his newer songs.

Like "Selah," which built into "Hallelujah"s at the end, intoxicating and perfect, like being sucked into an undertow. Which led into "Follow God," a continuation of "Father I Stretch My Hands."

Kanye uses the image of stretched hands to express his own submission and the process that leads to his healing. As a reference to John 21:18

Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.

But the song is also about Kanye's literal father, and an argument they had. Then, under it all, he adds a sample of "Can You Lose By Following God" by Whole Truth. He ended the song with his Kanye shriek, somewhat confusing and abrasive with a choir present.

Then — something I did not expect. The thumping bass of Cajmere's "Brighter Days (Underground Goodie Mix)."

And now this was cosmic gospel.

It felt like a rave. Have you been to a rave? It's people dancing, taking MDMA. That is what it felt like.

Flourishes like that were part of Kanye's genius. No other gospel performance would dare. You won't find that kind of diversity at any other hip-hop show, either. The acoustic instruments, the choir. Maybe during a set by electronic musicians like Moodyman or DJ Koze. But, no choir. Yet here Kanye was, at Joel Osteen's church, blasting classic techno.

Oddly enough, though, the most popular song of the night was "Closed on Sunday," Kanye's ode to Chic-Fil-A.

Everyone in the arena knew the words. So then there were two choirs, in a dialogue. I didn't think it was possible, but the collective harmony got even more intense and engulfing than it had all night. So much so that the house speakers started to peak in one corner of the arena.

Photo by Caroline Ryan

The Ancient Greeks were the first to use a chorus. In the 5th Century B.C., 50 actors would gather in the orchestra pit and sing in unison, commenting on the action of the play, describing scenes to the audience. They were a collective force. They represented one character, who was able to connect the audience to the characters and events onstage.

Kim Kardashian was front and center filming with her phone, as two of the West kids jumped around on the trippy blue carpet.

The performance was nearing its end, and suddenly Kanye was dressed like everybody else in the choir. Grey Yeezy kit and the Sunday Service hat. His transformation. From Kanye West to Pastor Ye, stretching hands.

Then, he was gone.
One by one, the choir began fluttering off the stage, to the Clark Sisters' "You Brought the Sunshine."

Half were gone, when I noticed the singer with braided hair crying. With every exhale, she collapsed her hands into the floor. Let them fall like tired flowers. Arrayed in fitful blue. She gasped. She heaved her shoulders like a wingspan. For a moment it was like she would actually take flight.

A security guard peered over the railing from above the stage. He looked like God.Symbolically, he was.

New installments of this series on the 2020 elections come out every Monday and Thursday. Check out my Twitter. Email me at kryan@mercurystudios.com

Don't believe in time travel? Think it's just a wild conspiracy theory reserved for late night alien radio programs? Well, we have unearthed bombshell evidence that will blow you away and have you questioning everything!

A 120-year-old photo PROVES climate change activist teen Greta Thunberg is actually a time traveler warning all generations of the dangers of global warming.

Glenn did some exhaustive research and found several other photos and subjects in historical paintings. Check them out here and see if you are now a believer:

Warning Elvis fans

Ryan: Suction energy, pt. 1

Photo by Sean Ryan

After his speech at the Boone County fairgrounds, Joe Biden nodded and people engulfed him like he was their oxygen. Journalists shouted questions, photographers shoved people aside. Biden's bodyguards even drew closer. I found a good oak tree and hid out in the shade, 100 yards from the chaotic huddle.

Photo by Sean Ryan

They shoved closer and closer and closer, with a vacant urgency to their eyes. They had to get as close as possible. It was like some force of nature had taken control of everyone, and now their only goal was to merge their lifeforce with Biden's.

The frenzy of writhing arms and contorted bodies reminded me of Shark Week, when the hulking Great White breaks through the protective cage and how's the diver gonna make it out alive this time?

*

A need for convergence, often leading to upheaval.

Most of the Democratic candidates caused this effect. As did their opponent, to a far greater degree. Because he was the president, and he was Donald Trump, so, for the time being, he embodied this magnetism more fully than anyone else in the entire world.

Photo by Sean Ryan

Every time Trump entered a room or a building or a space of any kind, every person within a reasonable distance felt it. And they couldn't help but bob their head around, and arch up on their tiptoes, scouring till they saw him, and then all they could do was lean forward and wonder if it was actually him.

Some of the Democratic candidates had a stronger magnetism than others. Which meant the gravitational pull had laws that guided it. The term I started using for it was "suction energy."

It was something you could physically feel.

At the Iowa State Fair, Bernie Sanders' suction energy was so intense, so visceral that it reminded me of a hurricane.

Photo by Sean Ryan

People wanted to be as close to the man as possible. They wanted a picture. Proof that it happened—that they had actually seen someone that famous.

And they were perfectly right. And their reactions were understandable and lovely even, and altogether innocent. Encouraging. Because they were genuine.

Even journalists were susceptible to suction energy. In fact, they could spazz even harder. Unlike the public, they were there as workers.

*

Suction energy is an art, something you cultivate. But it's also a result of luck and reality. Some people will just never have an ounce of it.

Take, for instance, Jay Insleey, who was apparently a Democratic presidential candidate in the 2020 election. At some point in my travels, I wound up in the same place as him.

Maybe it was a couple times. A couple, two, three. I can't remember.

All I know is that I went to Clear Lake, Iowa for the Democratic Wing Ding, to see Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren and the 20 other candidates, and this guy Jay Insless ... sorry, I mean Inslee took the stage at some point. It's hard to say when exactly because, as I mentioned, he was impressively forgettable, like a human thumbtack.

Wing Ding featured Jay Insee?Photo by Sean Ryan

He was yammering about something, and, man, he looked and sounded like P.C. Principal, from South Park, and that was pretty funny.

I told my dad, and then we were both laughing. Then my dad did an imitation of P.C. Principal, and we were really hooting.
Then all I could think about was P.C. Principal. So I ducked out into the hall to watch a P.C. Principal clip compilation, and I laughed and laughed and nobody went "Shush!," because there were plenty of others like me.

Photo by Sean Ryan

And, boy, I laughed. I was actually a bit sad when the clip was over. I'd forgotten where I was, and when I caught a glimpse of the guy onstage, my sadness deepened into pity. The feeling you get when you realize that the amateur thinks he can beat the professional. When the replacements think they will know valor. When your dog thinks they're going to the park, but really it's the vet, and they wake up without balls.

Do we have an obligation, a moral imperative, to tell a Square when she's trying to shove into a Triangle hole? How much teeth-lettuce does a person lodge into their incisors before you are inclined to alert them?

Like, after this speech, that guy John Insley, would wander around the walkways of the Surf Ballroom, same as Kamala Harris and Andrew Yang, only he'd lack their glow.

Crowds flocking to Kamala HarrisPhoto by Sean Ryan

At one point, he'd clench his jaw into what must have been a smile, ready for any nearby journalists to sneak a candid photo or rush forward for a quote.

Photo by Sean Ryan

If any of the others noticed, they didn't let on. So here was this chubby kid in a costume knocking on the front door, and I know full well Halloween was weeks ago, but who's gonna feed the harmless lie if I don't?

Photo by Sean Ryan

Nobody, that's who.

So I groaned and shrugged and told my dad, "Let's give the tubby kid some Starburst."

"Wha?" he asked.

Then I asked would he get a picture of that candidate over there.

"Who," he replied. As in, "I can't see an important person over there, which one is running for president?"

In other words, Insleep had absolutely zero suction energy. To a near-magical extent.

Within a few weeks, he would announce the end of his campaign on The Rachel Maddow Show.

Yet there he was, somehow center stage, looking out at the packed Surf Ballroom, where, on February 2, 1959, Buddy Holly played his last show.

Photo by Sean Ryan

Buddy Holly, now there's a man with suction energy. So much suction energy that, when he died, music went with him.

*

When I saw Kamala during the week of the Iowa State Fair, she was at the height of her campaign, having climbed to second place, within nine points of Biden.

Everywhere I went, there was Harris, with her personalized KAMALA bus, and her chartered press pool, and her entourage of staff and fans and media.

Photo by Sean Ryan

On the first Saturday of the Fair, my dad and I wound up seeing Harris five times. Five times! In part because she could hustle. She wanted that job. But also because she understood power and optics.

Before her speech at Jasper Winery, (when she played savage 4D chess with Andrew Yang, she spoke to several hundred people packed into the atrium of Valley Southwoods Freshman High School in West Des Moines, her fourth rally of that day.

Photo by Sean Ryan

When she finished her speech, a horde surged straight for her, eighty or so.

Photo by Sean Ryan

Just a month earlier, The New Yorker had run a glowing profile on Harris. That was huge. As of the release of this story, Harris was the only 2020 presidential candidate that The New Yorker had featured.

Photo by Sean Ryan

At that point of the election, excitement for Harris was so intense that it seemed obvious she would get the nomination, or close to it. So I wrote five pieces about her.

But by the time I finished all five stories and added them to the publishing schedule, Harris had sunk 11 points to 4 percent, which put her in 8th place. In New Hampshire, the first state to hold primaries, she was polling at 1 percent. By comparison, Biden, Warren, and Sanders were locked at 19.

Now, the only headlines were about her foundering campaign and her dwindling cash and her downsized staff. In each case, the sentiment was the same, "Whatever happened to Kamala Harris?"

Which answer a question I posed in my first story. Would Harris "I got this one in the bag" attitude help her or ruin her? Turns out the ostentatious bus and the unnecessary press accommodations had been a premature move, and now she just seemed cocky.
Because suction energy can, and often does, vanish in an instant.

A Bernie can always become a Jay InslepInslee. Nobody is immune, no matter how powerful they appear. Look at Bill Cosby. Harvey Weistein. Both were godlike in their power. Both had a gravitational pull so intense that they raped women for decades and nobody did a thing. Cosby's suction energy was so intense that he collected honorary degrees like a vacuum collects dog hair. 70 of them. Then, off to prison to eat pudding in the dark.

By the time I saw Harris at the Democratic Debate in Houston, a month after she stormed Iowa, she'd begun transforming into Joe Biden, focused on all the wrong things, laughing at her own jokes, without realizing that nobody else was laughing.

New installments of this series on the 2020 elections come out every Monday and Thursday. Check out my Twitter. Email me at kryan@mercurystudios.com