It's a rare occurrence, a meteor shower of verbal Chex Mix — a quirk of democracy that gives 100 people in America the ability to turn C-Span into their own private infomercial for hours on end. Instead of hawking reverse mortgages or diet pills — save that for later — these senators sell never-ending speeches about things they don't like in politics. It's a filibuster, a weird Senate tradition that allows legislators to try to prevent a bill from passing. You can say absolutely whatever you want during one, as long as you promise not to leave your desk and consign yourself to the horrors of dancing while trying to not think about peeing and talking at the same time in front of the few people still watching C-Span at three in the morning.
Isn't America great?
Most filibusters aren't as dramatic as the one by Senator Chris Murphy that wrapped up Thursday morning after nearly 15 hours — because usually the threat of an evening wasted on speechifying is enough to stop a bill. But every once in awhile, senators feel the need to make a point, or get a bit of attention before their reelection bid. So they leave a throat drop at the altar of Mr. Smith, go to the floor, and hold their peers hostage with their voice. And although each filibuster starts out with a different goal, they all reach the same place in the end.
The last hours of a filibuster are a painful and bizarre place.
First, there are your legs. You will want to sit down badly, even if you were wise and wore comfortable (and photogenic) pink sneakers. The desire to sit down, or maybe just take a nap, will be far worse if you didn't change out of your dress shoes. "I sort of lost my sense of balance. I found myself swaying," said Senator Allen Ellender, who was filibustering for the wrong side of history by signaling opposition to an anti-lynching bill in 1949. "Frequently, I would have to grasp my desk to steady myself."
The exhaustion isn't limited to the person speaking; listening to someone drone on for hours also requires a kind of athletic fortitude. In a 1954 New York Times article titled, "Catnaps on Cots Are the Order of the Night in Senate," Senator Wayne Morse vowed to keep talking until the red rose he was wearing wilted. Many senators disappeared to go sleep on couches — or go play cards and drink in their office — instead of staying to watch a flower die in real time.
Figuring out what to eat is an important part of surviving the harrowing last stretch of a filibuster, too. Murphy received a care package of Diet Mountain Dew and Red Bull before starting. Cough drops will be useful, as will candy bars. In the age before the invention of Skittles-flavored caffeine juice, senators relied on orange or tomato. The Associated Press reported that Ellender averaged "about 4,680 words to a tumbler of water and 4,781 to a glass of orange juice." Do not drink milk with raw eggs in it, unless you want to filibuster while food poisoned.
Also, drink water — but not too much. Remember, you don't want to pee in those last hours of the debate, either. If you forgot your catheter or didn't dehydrate yourself beforehand, just have one of your colleagues bring a trash can and a big sheet when you get desperate.
You haven't even gotten to the worst part!
After all that, you still have to think of something to say after hours of trying to salvage every thought you have ever had and regurgitate it for your captive audience. Also, you have to do this when your brain is probably more fried than an Oreo at the state fair, and your throat is having nightmares about that time Marco Rubio gave the State of the Union response. You can take comfort in the fact that most people stopped listening to you long ago, and that your words are only being saved for posterity at this point. Or maybe that's not comforting at all.
There are two ways to deal with the inevitable linguistic paralysis that comes at the twilight of a filibuster. There are the righteous few who soldier on and refuse to concede their original point, the one that convinced them it was a good idea to start filibustering in the first place. Senator Bernie Sanders, who probably says "the rigged economy" every time he is asked to identify a Rorschach blot, unsurprisingly deployed this method, still talking about tax cuts eight hours deep into his 2010 filibuster.
But even Sanders couldn't help but fall prey to the weirdness that casts a spell on all politicians tricked into performing the ancient Senate speech ritual. While reading aloud from a book about the massive wealth of the 1 percent, he paused to describe a picture of a yacht described within: "There is a photo. It is a nice boat. It stretches 315 feet and has 3,000 square feet of teakwood and a gym." A bit later, he referred to himself in the third person, and began saying "as I said earlier" repeatedly. The "uh"s crept in, and his words slowed down. He uttered the words, "It is not a sexy investment. It is not a sexy investment."
For those less committed to sticking to the topic at hand, there is another way: Just talk about anything. If you're in the Texas State Senate, talk about East Texas woodpeckers. Recite your recipe for Southern fried oysters. And when you're done with that, throw in your recipe for pot likker. You've got the time. Read Green Eggs and Ham. Quote Ashton Kutcher, impersonate Darth Vader, and make sure that the words, "Imagine Denny's combined with Benihana," are added to the Congressional Record. Bring up Alice in Wonderland, over and over again. Sing "South of the Border (Down Mexico Way)." Seize the opportunity to make the handful of people watching listen to your memoir. None of these solutions are elegant, but no one ever said talking for more than 10 hours at a stretch was pretty.
What do these high-profile standing contests, these feats of athletic small talk, achieve? Usually not exactly what they aimed to win; people on the verge of victory typically don't need to protest too much. In a way, the filibuster serves as the Senate's comments section — strange, angry, often completely off-topic, usually populated by dudes, and constantly threatened with eradication.
And all too soon after that transcendently strange, alternate-reality world where our entire legislative branch is transmogrified into a human Wikipedia Chatroulette manifests, the whole performance quickly ends with a defeated croak of "I yield the floor." Not a bang, but a nap.