It seemed a big comedown. And it was even sadder, when I got to the conference room, to find that there was no crowd; that Cleaver was not the most important person there, that he was sitting on the far right of the second row, that some people didn’t seem to know who he was; that the few journalists asking questions were more interested in the other people of the Populist Conservative Tax Coalition.
So ordinary now, so safe, this black man for whom a revolutionary’s desperate death had been prophesied. I had known him only from his younger photographs. He was now forty-nine and almost bald; what hair he had was gray. There was something Chinese, placid, about his eyes and cheekbones; he looked very patient. His eyebrows were thin, like penciled arcs, and his hooded eyes were quiet.
The speaker at the lectern was winding up on the theme of liberals. “They’re not soft on communism…. They’ve been softened up by communism.” The speaker was a big man in a dark blue suit; there was a suggestion of flabbiness, loose flesh, below the waist. The lectern was stamped “Sheraton-Dallas Hotel & Towers,” in case someone took a photograph: everyone, after all, had something to sell. To the speaker’s right was a US flag, hanging down from a pole; beside that was a portable film screen.
Then the speaker asked for some words from a colleague—a former CIA man, of small stature, who more or less repeated what had been said before—and from “Eldridge.” And at last Cleaver stood up. He was tall beside the CIA man. He was paunchy now, even a little soft-bellied. His blue shirt had a white collar and his dark red tie hung down long. The touch of style was reassuring.
Somebody asked about his political ambitions. He said he wanted to get on the Berkeley city council. And then, inevitably, someone asked about his attitude to welfare. His reply was tired; he gave the impression of having spoken the words many times before. “I’m passionately opposed to the welfare system because it’s made people a parasitic dependency on the federal system…. I want to see black people plugged into the economic system…. Welfare is a stepping-stone to socialism because it teaches people the government is going to solve our problems.”
That was more or less it. It seemed to be all that was required of “Eldridge,” that statement about socialism and welfare. And soon the session was declared closed. A repeat began to be prepared. As in a fair, shows were done over and over again, and in between business was drummed up.
The film Whose Side Are You On? started once more, on the screen next to the flag. It was a film about American postwar decline and muddle: a modern voice over old newsreel footage from 1945: MacArthur, Shigemitsu, the Japanese surrender. Away from the dark corner, Cleaver, placid, gray-haired, leaned against a wall. Two or three journalists went to him. But the very simplicity of the man on display made the journalists ask only the obvious questions, questions that had already been asked.
There was a many-layered personality there. But that personality couldn’t be unraveled now, with simple questions in a formal public gathering. To find that man, it was necessary to go to his book, the book of 1968, Soul on Ice. And there—in a book more moving and richer than I had remembered—that many-layered man was: with his abiding feeling for religion and his concern with salvation (as a Roman Catholic, then as a Black Muslim, then as a revolutionary); his need for community constantly leading him to simple solutions; his awareness of his changing self; his political shrewdness.
I was very familiar with the Eldridge who came to prison, but that Eldridge no longer exists. And the one I am now is in some ways a stranger to me. You may find this difficult to understand but it is very easy for one in prison to lose his sense of self. And if he has been undergoing all kinds of extreme, involved, and unregulated changes, then he ends up not knowing who he is….
In this land of dichotomies and disunited opposites, those truly concerned with the resurrection of black Americans have had eternally to deal with black intellectuals who have become their own opposites….
In a sense, both the new left and the new right are the spawn of the Negro revolution. A broad national consensus was developed over the civil rights struggle, and it had the sophistication and morality to repudiate the right wing. This consensus, which stands between a violent nation and chaos, is America’s most precious possession. But there are those who despise it.
The task which the new right has feverishly undertaken is to erode and break up this consensus, something that is a distinct possibility since the precise issues and conditions which gave birth to the consensus no longer exist.
The “new right” of 1968 had become the New Right of 1984, to which Cleaver belonged. Of this New Right I knew nothing until I got to Dallas; and what I learned was bewildering. The New Right seemed to be as much a creation of modern technology as air-conditioned Dallas was; and the creator, Richard Viguerie, seemed to be as extraordinary and bigvisioned a Texan as Trammell Crow.
Viguerie was in the business of raising money by direct mail. He served a number of conservative clients—Conservative Books for Christian Leaders, No Amnesty for Deserters, the National Rifle Association (Frances FitzGerald gave this client sample in The New York Review of November 19, 1981). Then it occurred to him that people who contributed to one narrow or quaint conservative cause might be encouraged to contribute to other conservative causes, might be presented in the end with a larger and more satisfying conservatism. He used his mailing lists and computer and his flair; he discovered, and his computer could name, the conservative core of the country. And just as oil can be made to gush from the minute porosities of rock or even heavy green Texan marble, so, at Viguerie’s bidding, money gushed from the conservative American bedrock. He raised millions. He was in demand; he was a man politicians had to court.
Viguerie was the star of the press conference (“Are Liberals Soft on Communism?”) in the Sheraton-Dallas room. It was Viguerie, rather than Cleaver, whom the journalists wanted to see and hear. But I did not know his glory. I came away only with my mental picture of Cleaver and a copy of the Conservative Digest for June 1984. This was Viguerie’s paper. I found no substance in it. It was like a missionary magazine; it repeated and repeated a single idea, and was tedious (and intellectually embarrassing) for that reason. And in that paper the name of Viguerie seemed at least as important as the conservative message.
It was hard, in fact, to avoid the name. The name was given as the publisher; the magazine was “a publication of Viguerie Communications, a division of the Viguerie Company, Richard A. Viguerie, President.” The verso of the front cover advertised—with a photograph—“A Daily Radio Commentary featuring Richard A. Viguerie,” and Viguerie’s name was mentioned seven times. In the body of the paper itself there was a two-page article by Richard Viguerie as well as a two-page letter from the publisher, Richard Viguerie; and the back cover advertised a book by Richard Viguerie predicting a revolution against “the elite establishment” and prophesying a new “populist” party. One advertised theme of the book, The Establishment vs the People, was “How to take liberal rhetoric and merge it with conservative ideas.”
That, I suppose, was where Eldridge came in.
You could get a “press kit”—with a story or stories already written up—about almost everything at the convention: about the Southwestern Bell Mobile telephone systems; about the AT&T operations (“more than 60 miles of cable and more than 5,000 telephones within the 2 million square feet of the convention center to meet the voice and data needs of the 4,470 delegates and alternates, 10–15,000 guests and 13,000 journalists”); and even about Morrow’s Nut House (“since 1866”), suppliers of a “shuttle mix” of nuts and dried fruit to the delegates, a “shuttle” mix because it had been previously supplied to astronauts on the space shuttle.
On the Saturday before the convention opened, no less a person than Carol Morrow, vice-president of Morrow’s Nut House (“over 260 nationwide outlets”), was pushing a trolley with the shuttle mix (and the press kits) somewhere near the press entrance. It was extraordinary—so casual the meeting, so grand the lady. It was like running into the owner of Dunkin’ Donuts (if such a person does exist) carrying sample bags of his doughnuts.
The man who gave me my accreditation cards (to be hung around the neck: everybody in the convention hall and press areas had things around their necks) said, in response to an inquiry, “Upstairs there’s more information than you can carry away.” And indeed, in the Media Operations Center there must have been tons of paper on narrow long tables: biographies about everybody who was anybody, stories about everything, and, starting on the Monday, copies of convention speeches that hadn’t yet been delivered. On the television monitors you could see what was going on in the convention hall itself: there was no need to witness the actual event. The energetic reporter, with his ready-written information and the AT&T facilities, could telephone back stories to his paper all day.
But neither photographs nor television screen could give a true feel of the convention hall. The scale was staggering. The deep crisscrossings of the steel girders of the ceiling made me think of the iron-framed railway stations of London, Paddington, and Waterloo (and somewhere in Dallas, beside a highway, someone was building a replica of the 1851 Crystal Palace). But the scale was too big: I couldn’t trust my sense of size.
The figure on the podium was small. But above the podium, and at the back of the hall, was a big screen; and on this screen there was a cropped or partial image (head and shoulders, perhaps), many times larger than life, of the figure on the podium. Smaller screens attached to the steel girders of the ceiling frame multiplied this image; loudspeakers amplified the voice. To enter the hall for the first time was to have one’s sense of actuality unsettled; it was to be in the middle of a scene replicating and magnifying itself, making itself very important: as though here time, the passing moment, could be stretched.
The invocation was being spoken, by a rabbi; and the piety seemed correct. The occasion, with its magnification of man, had a feel of religion. Not religion as contemplation or a private experience of divinity; but religion as the essence of a culture, the binding, brotherhood transcending material need. That, rather than political debate, was what people had come to Dallas for. The scale and the mood, and the surreal setting, made me think of a Muslim missionary gathering I had seen five years before in a vast canopied settlement of bamboo and cotton in the Pakistan Punjab. And I felt it would not have been surprising, in Dallas, to see busy, pious helpers going around giving out sweets or some kind of symbolic sacramental food.