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The Late Show

The dark blue curtains part. As delegates cheer, the nominee walks toward the lectern, arms loose, shoulders somewhat rigid like a man who…. No, as Henry James once said in quite a different but no less dramatic context, it cannot be done. What is there to say about Richard M. Nixon that was not said eight years ago? What is there to say that he himself did not say at that memorable “last” press conference in Los Angeles six years ago? For some time he has ceased to figure in the conscious regions of the mind, a permanent resident, one had thought, of that limbo where reside the Stassens and the Deweys and all those other ambitious men whose failures seemed so entirely deserved. But now, thanks to two murders in five years, Richard Nixon is again a presidential candidate. No second acts to American careers? Nonsense. What is lacking are decent codas. At Miami Beach, we were reminded that no politician can ever be written off this side of Arlington.

THE WEEK before the convention began, various Republican leaders met at the Fontainebleau Hotel to write a platform, knowing that no matter what wisdom this document might contain it would be ignored by the candidate. Nevertheless, to the extent issues ever intrude upon the making of Presidents, the platform hearings do give publicity to different points of view, and that is why Ronald Reagan took time from his busy schedule as Governor of California to fly to Miami Beach in order to warn the platform committee of the dangers of crime in the streets. The Governor also made himself available to the flower of the national and international press who sat restively in a windowless low-ceilinged dining room of the Fontainebleau from two o’clock to two-thirty to “just a short wait, please, the Governor is on his way,” interviewing one another and trying to look alert as the television cameras, for want of a candidate, panned from face to face. At last, His Excellency, as Ivy Baker Priest would say, entered the room, flanked by six secret servicemen. As they spread out on either side of him, they cased us narrowly and I know that simply by looking into my face they can see the imaginary gun in my pocket.

Ronald Reagan is a well-preserved not young man. Close-to, the painted face is webbed with delicate lines while the dyed hair, eyebrows, and eyelashes contrast oddly with the sagging muscle beneath the as yet unlifted chin, soft earnest of wattle soon-to-be. The effect, in repose, suggests the work of a skillful embalmer. Animated, the face is quite attractive and at a distance youthful, particularly engaging is the crooked smile full of large porcelain-capped teeth. The eyes are the only interesting feature: small, narrow, apparently dark, they glitter in the hot light, alert to every move, for this is enemy country—the liberal Eastern press who are so notoriously immune to that warm and folksy performance which Reagan quite deliberately projects over their heads to some legendary constituency at the far end of the tube, some shining Carverville where good Lewis Stone forever lectures Andy Hardy on the virtues of thrift and the wisdom of the contract system at Metro Goldwyn Mayer.

The questions begin. Why don’t you announce your candidacy? Are you a candidate? Why do people feel you will take votes away from George Wallace? Having answered these questions a hundred times before, the actor does not pause to consider his responses. He picks up each cue promptly, neatly, increasing the general frustration. Only once does the answer-machine jam. “Do you want to be President?” The room goes silent. The smile suddenly looks to have been drawn in clay, fit for baking in a Laguna kiln. Then the candidate finds the right button. He pushes it. We are told what an honor it is for any citizen to be considered for the highest office on earth…. We stop listening; he stops listening to himself.

Governor, even though you’re not a candidate, you must know that there is a good deal of support for you….” The questioner’s irony is suitably heavy. Reagan’s lips purse—according to one biographer this is a sign he is displeased; there was a good deal of lippursing during the conference not to mention the days to come. “Well,” he speaks through pursed lips, “I’d have to be unconscious not to know what was going on but….” As he continues his performance, his speech interlarded with “my lands” (for some reason Right Wingers invariably talk like Little Orphan Annie), I recalled my last glimpse of him, at the Cow Palace in San Francisco four years ago. The Reagans were seated in a box, listening to Eisenhower. While Mrs. Reagan darted angry looks about the hall (displeased at the press?) the star of Death Valley Days was staring intently at the speaker on the platform. Thus an actor prepares, I thought, and I suspected even then that Reagan would some day find himself up there on the platform. In any case, as the age of television progresses, the Reagans will be the rule, not the exception. “Thank you, Governor,” said a journalist, and everyone withdrew, leaving Ronald Reagan with his six secret servicemen—one black, a ratio considerably better than that of the convention itself where only two percent could claim Africa as motherland.

SEVENTY-SECOND STREET BEACH is a gathering place for hustlers of all sexes. With some bewilderment, they watch one of their masters, the Chase Manhattan Bank made flesh—sweating flesh—display his wounds to the sandy and the dull, a Coriolanus but in reverse, one besotted with the vulgar. In shirtsleeves but firmly knotted tie, Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller stands on a platform crowded with officials and aides (most seriously crowded by the Governor of Florida Claude Kirk who wears a bright orange sports-jacket and a constant smile for his people, who regard him, the few who know who he is, with bright loathing). Ordinarily Rockefeller’s face is veal-white, as though no blood courses beneath that thick skin. But now, responding to the lowering day, he has turned a delicate conch pink. What is he saying? “Well, let’s face it, there’s been some disagreement among the pollsters.” The upper class tough boy accent (most beautifully achieved by Montgomery Clift in The Heiress) proves effective even down here where consonants are disdained and vowels long. Laughter from the audience in clothes, bewildered, looks from the hustlers in their bathing suits. “Like, man, who is it?”

But now Harris and Gallup have agreed that I can beat….” Rockefeller quotes at length from those polls which are the oracles of our day, no, the very gods who speak to us of things to come. Over and over again, he says, “Let’s face it,” a phrase popular twenty years ago, particularly among girls inclined to alcoholism (“the Governor drinks an occasional Dubonnet on the rocks before dinner,” where did I read that?). Beside him stands his handsome wife, holding a large straw hat and looking as if she would like to be somewhere else, no loving Nancy Reagan or loyal Pat Nixon she. The convention is full of talk that there has been trouble between them. Apparently…one of the pleasures of American political life is that issues seldom intrude. Personalities are all that matter. Is he a nice man? Is she happy with him? What else should concern a sovereign people?

Rockefeller puts down the polls, takes off his glasses, and starts to attack the Administration. “Look at what they’re doing,” he says with a nice vehemence, “They’re exhilarating the war!” But although Rockefeller now sounds like a peace candidate, reprising Bobby Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy, he has always been devoted to the war in Vietnam and to the principle underlying it: American military intervention wherever “freedom is endangered.” Consequently—and consistently—he has never found any defense budget adequate. Two years ago at a dinner in New York, he was more hawk than Johnson as he told us how the Viet Cong were coldbloodedly “shooting little mayors” (the phrase conjured up dead ponies); mournfully, he shook his head, “Why can’t they learn to fight fair?” Nevertheless, compared to Nixon and Reagan, Rockefeller is positively Lincolnesque. All of us on 72nd Street Beach liked him, except perhaps the hustlers wanting to score, and we wished him well, knowing that he had absolutely no chance of being nominated.

BY ADDING the third character to tragedy, Sophocles changed the nature of drama. By exalting the chorus and diminishing the actors, television has changed entirely the nature of our continuing history. Watching things as they happen, the viewer is a part of events in a way new to man. And never is he so much a part of the whole as when things do not happen, for, as Andy Warhol so wisely observed, people will always prefer to look at something rather than nothing; between plain wall and flickering commercial, the eyes will have the second. As hearth and fire were once center to the home or lair so now the television set is the center of modern man’s being, all points of the room converge upon its presence and the eye watches even as the mind dozes, much as our ancestors narcotized themselves with fire.

At Miami Beach television was everywhere: in the air, on the streets, in hotel lobbies, on the convention floor. “From gavel to gavel” the networks spared us nothing in the way of empty speeches and mindless interviews, but dull and uninformative as the events themselves were, something rather than nothing was being shown and the eye was diverted while the objects photographed (delegates et al) reveled in the exposure even though it might be no more than a random shot of a nose being picked or a crotch rearranged. No matter: for that instant the one observed existed for all his countrymen. As a result the delegates were docile beyond belief, stepping this way and that as required by men with wired helmets and handmikes which, like magic wands, could confer for an instant total recognition.

The fact that television personalities so notoriously took precedence over the politicians at Miami Beach was noted with sour wonder by journalists who have begun to fear that their rendering of events that all can see into lines of linear type may prove to be as irrelevant an exercise as turning contemporary literature into Greek. The fact that in a hotel lobby it was Eric Sevareid not John Tower who collected a crowd was thought to be a sign of the essential light-mindedness of the electorate. Yet Sevareid belongs to the country in a way few politicians ever do. Certainly most people see more of David Brinkley than they do of their own relatives and it’s no wonder that they are eager to observe him in the flesh since he has been so often a visitor in their house. Only Ronald Reagan among the politicians at Miami exerted the same spell, and for the same reason: he is a bona fide star of the Late Show, equally ubiquitous, equally mythic.

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