It occurred to me, in California in June and in Atlanta in July and in New Orleans in August, in the course of watching first the California primary and then the Democratic and Republican national conventions, that it had not been by accident that the people with whom I had preferred to spend time in high school had, on the whole, hung out in gas stations. They had not run for student body office. They had not gone on to Yale or Swarthmore or DePauw, nor had they even applied. They had gotten drafted, gone through basic at Fort Ord. They had knocked up girls, and married them, had begun what they called the first night of the rest of their lives with a midnight drive to Carson City and a five-dollar ceremony performed by a justice still in his pajamas. They got jobs at the places that had laid off their uncles. They paid their bills or did not pay their bills, made down payments on tract houses, led lives on that social and economic edge referred to, in Washington and among those whose preferred locus is Washington, as “out there.” They were never destined to be, in other words, communicants in what we have come to call, when we want to indicate the traditional ways in which power is exchanged and the status quo maintained in the United States, “the process.”
“The process today gives everyone a chance to participate,” Tom Hayden, by way of explaining “the difference” between 1968 and 1988, said to Bryant Gumbel on NBC at 7:50 AM on the day after Jesse Jackson spoke at the Democratic convention in Atlanta. This statement was, at a convention which had as its controlling principle the notably non-participatory idea of “unity,” demonstrably not true, but people inside the process, constituting as they do a self-created and self-referring class, a new kind of managerial elite, tend to speak of the world not necessarily as it is but as they want people out there to believe it is. They tend to prefer the theoretical to the observable, and to dismiss that which might be learned empirically as “anecdotal.” They tend to speak a language common in Washington but not specifically shared by the rest of us. They talk about “programs,” and “policy,” and how to “implement” them or it, about “trade-offs” and constituencies and positioning the candidate and distancing the candidate, about the “story,” and how it will “play.” They speak of a candidate’s performance, by which they usually mean his skill at circumventing questions, not as citizens but as professional insiders, attuned to signals pitched beyond the range of normal hearing: “I hear he did all right this afternoon,” they were saying to one another in the press section of the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans on the evening Dan Quayle was or was not to be nominated for the vice-presidency. “I hear he did OK with Brinkley.” By the time the balloons fell that night the narrative had changed: “Quayle, zip,” the professionals were saying as they brushed the confetti off their laptops.
These are people who speak of the process as an end in itself, connected only nominally, and vestigially, to the electorate and its possible concerns. “She used to be an issues person but now she’s involved in the process,” a prominent conservative said to me in New Orleans by way of suggesting why an acquaintance who believed Jack Kemp was “speaking directly to what people out there want” had nonetheless backed George Bush. “Anything that brings the process closer to the people is all to the good,” George Bush declared in his 1987 autobiography, Looking Forward, accepting as given this relatively recent notion that the people and the process need not automatically be on convergent tracks.
When we talk about the process, then, we are talking, increasingly, not about “the democratic process,” or the general mechanism affording the citizens of a state a voice in its affairs, but the reverse: a mechanism seen as so specialized that access to it is correctly limited to its own professionals, to those who manage policy and those who report on it, to those who run the polls and those who quote them, to those who ask and those who answer the questions on the Sunday shows, to the media consultants, to the columnists, to the issues advisers, to those who give the off-the-record breakfasts and to those who attend them; to that handful of insiders who invent, year in and year out, the narrative of public life. “I didn’t realize you were a political junkie,” Marty Kaplan, the former Washington Post reporter and Mondale speechwriter who is now married to Susan Estrich, the manager of the Dukakis campaign, said when I mentioned that I planned to write about the campaign; the assumption here, that the narrative should be not just written only by its own specialists but also legible only to its own specialists, is why, finally, an American presidential campaign raises questions that go so vertiginously to the heart of the structure.
What strikes one most vividly about such a campaign is precisely its remoteness from the actual life of the country. The figures are well known, and suggest a national indifference usually construed, by those inside the process, as ignorance, or “apathy,” in any case a defect not in themselves but in the clay they have been given to mold. Only slightly more than half of those eligible to vote in the United States did vote in the 1984 presidential election. An average 18.5 percent of what Nielsen Media Research calls the “television households” in the United States tuned into network coverage of the 1988 Republican convention in New Orleans, meaning 81.5 percent did not. An average 20.2 percent of these “television households” tuned into network coverage of the 1988 Democratic convention in Atlanta, meaning 79.8 percent did not. The decision to tune in or out ran along predictable lines: “The demography is good even if the households are low,” a programming executive at Bozell, Jacobs, Kenyon & Eckhardt told The New York Times in July about the agency’s decision to buy “campaign event” time for Merrill Lynch on both CBS and CNN. “The ratings are about 9 percent off 1984,” an NBC marketing vice-president allowed, again to The New York Times, “but the upscale target audience is there.”
When I read this piece I recalled standing, the day before the California primary, in a dusty central California schoolyard to which the surviving Democratic candidate had come to speak one more time about what kind of president he wanted to be. The crowd was listless, restless. There were gray thunderclouds overhead. A little rain fell. “We welcome you to Silicon Valley,” an official had said by way of greeting the candidate, but this was not in fact Silicon Valley: this was San Jose, and a part of San Jose particularly untouched by technological prosperity, a neighborhood in which the lowering of two-toned Impalas remained a central activity.
“I want to be a candidate who brings people together,” the candidate was saying at the exact moment a man began shouldering his way past me and through a group of women with children in their arms. This was not a solid citizen, not a member of the upscale target audience. This was a man wearing a down vest and a camouflage hat, a man with a definite little glitter in his eyes, a member not of the 18.5 percent and not of the 20.2 percent but of the 81.5, the 79.8. “I’ve got to see the next president,” he muttered repeatedly. “I’ve got something to tell him.”
“…Because that’s what this party is all about,” the candidate said.
“Where is he?” the man said, confused. “Who is he?”
“Get lost,” someone said.
“…Because that’s what this country is all about,” the candidate said.
Here we had the last true conflict of cultures in America, that between the empirical and the theoretical. On the empirical evidence this country was about two-toned Impalas and people with camouflage hats and a little glitter in their eyes, but this had not been, among people inclined to the theoretical, the preferred assessment. Nor had it even been, despite the fact that we had all stood together on the same dusty asphalt, under the same plane trees, the general assessment: this was how Joe Klein, writing a few weeks later in New York magazine, had described those last days before the California primary:
Breezing across California on his way to the nomination last week, Michael Dukakis crossed a curious American threshold…. The crowds were larger, more excited now; they seemed to be searching for reasons to love him. They cheered eagerly,almost without provocation. People reached out to touch him—not to shake hands, just to touch him…. Dukakis seemed to be making an almost subliminal passage in the public mind: he was becoming presidential.
Those June days on which Michael Dukakis did or did not cross a curious American threshold had in fact been instructive. The day that ended in the schoolyard in San Jose had at first seemed, given that it was the eve of the California primary, underscheduled, pointless, three essentially meaningless events separated by plane flights. At Taft High School in Woodland Hills that morning there had been little girls waving red and gold pompoms in front of the cameras; “Hold That Tiger,” the band had played. “Dream…maker,” the choir had crooned. “Governor Dukakis…this is…Taft High,” the student council president had said. “I understand this is the first time a presidential candidate has come to Taft High,” Governor Dukakis had said. “Is there any doubt…under those circumstances…who you should support?”
“Jackson,” a group of Chicano boys on the back sidewalk had shouted in unison.
“That’s what it’s all about,” Governor Dukakis had said, and “health care,” and “good teachers and good teaching.”
This event had been abandoned, and another materialized: a lunchtime “rally,” in a downtown San Diego office plaza through which many people were passing on their way to lunch, a borrowed crowd but a less than attentive one. The cameras focused on the balloons. The sound techs picked up “La Bamba.” “We’re going to take child-support enforcement seriously in this country,” Governor Dukakis had said, and “tough drug enforcement here and abroad.” “Tough choices,” he had said, and “we’re going to make teaching a valued profession in this country.”
Nothing said in any venue that day had seemed to have much connection with anybody listening (“I want to work with you and with working people all over this country,” the candidate had said in San Diego, but people who work in San Diego do not think of themselves as “working people”), and late that afternoon, on the bus to the San Jose airport, I had asked a reporter who had traveled through the spring with the various campaigns (among those who moved from plane to plane it was agreed, by June, that the Bush campaign had the worst access to the candidate and the best food, that the Dukakis plane had average access and average food, and that the Jackson plane had full access and no time to eat) if the candidate’s appearances that day did not seem a little off the point.