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For These Junkies, Drug of Choice Is Politics


He held off for most of the dinner party, but the craving grew too strong. Avoiding his wife's eyes, Jon Palmer Claridge slipped into the living room, flicked on the television, and felt a surge of relief as Sen. John McCain flashed on the screen.

Relief quickly changed to agony. Election returns were coming in, and Claridge couldn't get the sound to work.

"It was awful," Claridge said. "A political junkie is the same thing as anybody else who's a junkie. You have to find out what's going on right then."

In a nation of passions and addictions, where the line between fan and fanatic is regularly blurred by everyone from shopaholics to bingo gamblers, the political habit is one of the oddest of all.

These are the folk who watch six talk shows on a Sunday morning or who actually know that there are 132 living former U.S. senators. They hoot at Al Gore's proprietary feelings for the Internet, chortle at instant replays of George W. Bush's interview gaffes and delight in the pitter-patter of pundits.

With four round-the-clock cable news networks up and running, political junkies have more suppliers than ever. Dozens of new political Web sites also beckon. And nothing both inflames and satisfies the urge like a presidential election.

Claridge, 48, fits the profile. When he was 16, he and two buddies took a 10-hour bus ride to Miami Beach, not to peek at bikinis but to sneak into the 1968 Republican National Convention. At age 5, he spurned Sunday morning cartoons to watch "the tall man in a suit" named David Brinkley.

Decades later the attraction remains so strong that he and his wife have deliberately disconnected the cable TV in their home in Arlington, Va. But in a presidential season, it is hard not to succumb when a neighbor's TV beckons.

"You go to a crack house to get crack," he said. "If you're addicted to politics, you go to the talk shows, you go to C-SPAN or CNN and get your stuff."

That night at the dinner party, his hosts rescued him by turning up the sound as the Michigan primary returns rolled in. But "they didn't really understand," he said. "There's a sense of urgency that the so-called normal person lacks."

Planning His Day Around Talk Shows

Every book on Claridge's bedside table is about politics. He is not to be disturbed until after noon on Sundays; mornings are set aside for watching the talk shows from bed. On a recent shopping trip to Costco, he gasped when he saw the full Nixon tapes on sale but restrained himself because "I knew my wife would yell at me."

Ron and Jeanne Ortega yell at each other almost every night as they watch Washington pundit Chris Matthews on MSNBC. But it's good-natured. The St. Louis couple have been yakking about politics since they met at a Jimmy Carter rally in 1976. Their first date was sitting on her sofa with a bowl of popcorn, watching election returns.

These days, "I have to go upstairs and watch [on the second TV] when she gets really ticked off," Ron Ortega said. "Last night it was Dianne Feinstein. They were asking if she had any ideas about being vice president, and I told my wife, 'There is not a snowball's chance in hell Dianne Feinstein will get nominated,' and my wife said, 'She'd make a very fine vice president, thank you very much.' "

Ortega, a driver for a car service, often makes innocuous political remarks to passengers. If they bite, he said, "then I let them know how I feel."

Although he is a staunch Democrat, Ortega said Republicans produce the liveliest discussions and are the best fares.

"Oh, yeah," he said. "The madder you get them, the bigger they tip."

Each weeknight, Ron hurries home from work, has a beer, practices his Buddhist meditation, then tunes in to the cable talk shows, usually four a night.

"Every night you listen to three or four senators, governors, people from everywhere, and it's exciting," he said. "It expands me. . . . I find politics extremely relevant and current. I find it astounding that most people don't."

In his account of the 1992 presidential race, "Better Than Sex: Confessions of a Political Junkie," journalist Hunter S. Thompson wrote, "It's a rush that a lot of people will tell you is higher than any drug they've ever tried or even heard about, and maybe better than sex. . . . Not everybody is comfortable with the idea that politics is a guilty addiction. But it is. They are addicts, and they are guilty and they do lie and cheat and steal--like all junkies."

Thompson was writing about professional politicos: campaign consultants, congressional staffers and Capitol Hill lobbyists. But there are millions more far from the Beltway. University of Missouri political science professor John Petrocik calls them "political groupies," as opposed to "operatives" who toil in politics or "activists" who volunteer on campaigns.

Petrocik admires true political junkies.

"They're fans, they're dedicated, but they're people who live a larger life," he said.

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