In late September, a couple of hours before the first Presidential debate of the 2020 election, I was scrolling Twitter, anxiously waiting for the big show to start, when I was reminded of a character I hadn’t thought of in some time. The recollection arrived in response to a tweet from PJ Vogt, a host of the popular podcast “Reply All”: “Really curious what America’s undecided voter will think about the debate tonight,” Vogt wrote, in what I took to be a tongue-in-cheek expression of incredulity that anyone, in today’s polarized, high-stakes political climate, could still be entering a debate night with no set opinion about which candidate to support. “What if they bring out Ken Bone?,” I tweeted back, almost before I could reflect on it. Remember Ken Bone? I didn’t think I did (neither, apparently, did Vogt—“Oh my god my brain has scrubbed him from memory,” he responded), but there he was, suddenly in my mind’s eye, as vivid as if he’d never left: the 2016 debate-watcher in a red sweater, whose image so many of us briefly but intensely engaged with for a few halcyon days that fall.

The American public was introduced to Bone at Washington University in St. Louis, during the second debate of that year’s Presidential election. A power-plant employee from Illinois, Bone was among a group of undecided voters who were selected to ask questions of the candidates Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, as part of the event’s town-hall format. When the moderator Anderson Cooper called on Bone, he stepped forward to inquire about Trump’s and Clinton’s energy policies. The question itself was straightforward enough—“What steps will your energy policy take to meet our energy needs?”—but it soon became clear that Bone had struck a chord that had little to do with his actual words. With his mild, bashful manner and Midwestern-everyman appearance—stout, with a pair of small, rectangular glasses, a trim mustache, and a white button-down tucked under a straining, tomato-red cable-knit sweater—Bone seemed to be from a different plane than the slugfest taking place on the debate stage, where Trump was largely setting a grandstanding, aggressive tone. At the event’s end, Bone was spotted wandering the stage, taking pictures, endearingly, with a disposable camera. Even his last name seemed gently humorous.

It was this apparent lack of forcefulness or swagger that turned Bone into an immediate—if counterintuitive—viral sensation. After trending on Twitter, he was invited on multiple talk and news shows (on CNN, he explained that he came to wear the red sweater after splitting the seat of his suit pants while getting into the car). Memes and emojis were made; Ken Bone cookies were sold; jokey “Sexy Ken Bone” Halloween costumes were rushed to market. As Bone says in the documentary above, “I guess folks decided I was worth looking at for a while.” And then, after a bit, it was all over. In the wake of his viral fame, Bone’s life seems not to have changed much—he is still married to the same woman, lives in southern Illinois, and works at the power plant—but, as I watched the portrait that emerges of him in “Gone Viral,” I felt a twinge of guilt. I was, after all, one of the countless thousands who saw Bone not as a person but as a thing, an online avatar whose only role was to embody a variety of projected ideas and preoccupations. What came to mind when I thought about Bone? A stand-in for a simpler time, when a Trump Administration still seemed like a far-fetched option? A quaint relic from a period when being an undecided voter seemed baffling to me, but not, like it does now, a matter of life and death? An avatar of heartland America, whose purported placidity we on the coasts could learn something from? Certainly, these notions had little to do with Bone himself, who is a real, complicated individual, and not a cookie-cutter symbol. “Once you realize that your time is over, you have this thought in your head your whole life. Is this really all there is to life? Getting up, going to work, coming home, eating dinner, watching reruns, going to sleep? I’m going to do that again forever,” Bone says in the documentary, of adjusting to the comedown after his brief window of celebrity. He, too, it appears, had to learn a lesson about the chasm lying between the real world and the world of online image-making.





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