In March, America Goes Mad

March is the month of madness. “March madness” or “the madness of March” is one of the national rituals, like the Super Bowl. Far from being insurmountably divided, the country joins together in a communal frenzy. Football has nothing to do with it. The madness of March is due to basketball — more precisely, a university tournament among the best teams in the country. Those who will say that there is no reason to fall into a trance do not know of the “bracket,” the little piece of paper where one writes one’s predictions.

It’s simple: At the start, 64 teams are on the list. At each match, the losing team is eliminated. The system favors surprises and often makes adrenaline rise at crunch time.

Each year, millions bet on the results. In offices, employees fill out their “bracket.” Productivity is affected, but company social workers advise to let it be: 86 percent of employees do not see a problem with following the matches during working hours. And with smartphones and tablets, it’s difficult to stop them. For $3.99, fans can follow the tournament by streaming the NCAA site, the university sporting association. When the boss comes in unannounced, just click the “boss button,” and the match turns into a fake e-mail…

Barack Obama, who is a passionate basketball fan (he coaches his daughter Sasha’s team every Saturday morning), also filled out his own bracket in front of the cameras of ESPN, which created a special “Barack-etology” sequence.

Pen in hand, he weighed up the teams’ chances with the authority of a sporting commentator. (In 2009, he guessed the winner.) On Mar. 14, he brought David Cameron, the British Prime Minister, to the match in Dayton. The two leaders ate hot dogs in the stands like everyone else. The game was one of the more mediocre ones, but the White House, with its eye on the electoral calendar, had (again) picked Ohio, a crucial state on the road to re-election.

Seven months from the election, the other bout of “March madness” occurs on the fundraising circuit, the collection of funds for the campaign. On Friday, the President-candidate broke his record: five meetings in one day and in two different states.

In Chicago, he gave a speech in front of 600 party members that had paid $2,500 each before pursuing a round table with 60 faithfuls (more than $10,000 a head). At 5:25 p.m., he touched down in Atlanta. At 6 p.m., he was at the home of a businessman in the residential suburb of Sherwood Forest (75 guests, $10,000 each). At 6:45 p.m., he was in the studios of actor-producer Tyler Perry (1,000 people, from $250 to $500). At 8 p.m., he was in the French manor of same Tyler Perry ($35,800 a head). At 10:57 p.m., Air Force One took off from Atlanta. The receipt from the day was $5.5 million.

The polls have gone mad too. Last week, Gallup reported a seven-point drop in popularity for the president in one night — and on Mar. 19, a turnaround of six points in the opposite direction, but just as inexplicable. It is now up to Michelle to keep two meetings per day. She details the measures taken by the “extraordinary president” that is “Barack” and cajoles her listeners. “[He] has a memory like a steel trap… He might not remember your name, but… he will never forget your story,” she said Monday in New York, in Robert De Niro’s restaurant in Tribeca.

The actor himself has reversed the logic of 2008, according to which the country was not ready for a black president. “Callista Gingrich. Karen Santorum. Ann Romney,” he enumerated. “Now do you really think our country is ready for a white First Lady?” The crowd blushed, and De Niro added, “Too soon, right?”

That same evening, Michelle appeared on David Letterman’s show. Even Bo got his compliments: “He is the smartest dog on the planet.” On Monday, Vice President Joe Biden, who doesn’t mean to miss his turn, asserted that the raid in which Osama bin Laden was killed surpassed everything that had been done in the last half-millennium. “You can go back 500 years. You cannot find a more audacious plan.”

And there are still 230 days before the election. Madness, I tell you…

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