A certain time lag exists between this world of the arenas and the world as we know it. One evening in New York between the Democratic and Republican conventions I happened to go down to Lafayette Street, to the Public Theatre, to look at clips from documentaries on which the English-born filmmaker Richard Leacock had worked during his fifty years in America. We saw folk singers in Virginia in 1941 and oil riggers in Louisiana in 1946 (this was Louisiana Story, which Leacock had shot for Robert Flaherty) and tent performers in the corn belt in 1954; we saw Eddy Sachs preparing for the Indianapolis 500 in 1960 and Piri Thomas in Spanish Harlem in 1961. We saw parades, we saw baton twirlers. We saw quints in South Dakota in 1963.
There on the screen at the Public Theatre that evening were images and attitudes from an America that had largely vanished, and what was striking was this: these were the very images and attitudes on which “the campaign” of 1988 was predicated. That “unknown territory” into which George Bush had pushed “with the kids and a dog and a car” had existed in this vanished America, and long since been subdivided, cut up for those tract houses on which the people who were not part of the process had made down payments. Michael Dukakis’s “snowblower,” and both the amusing frugality and the admirable husbandry of resources it was meant to suggest, derived from some half-remembered idea of what citizens of this vanished America had laughed at and admired. “The Pledge” was an issue from that world. “A drug-free America” had perhaps seemed in that world an achievable ideal, as had “better schools.”
I recall listening in Atlanta to Dukakis’s foreign policy expert, Madeleine Albright, as she conjured up, in the course of arguing against a “no first use” minority plank in the Democratic platform, a scenario in which “Soviet forces overrun Europe” and the United States has, by promising no first use of nuclear weapons, crippled its ability to act: she was talking about a world that had not turned since 1948. What was at work here seemed on the one hand a grave, although in many ways a comfortable, miscalculation of what people in America might have as their deepest concerns in 1988; it seemed on the other hand just another understanding, another of those agreements to overlook the observable.
It was into this sedative fantasy of fixable imperial America that Jesse Jackson rode, on a Trailways bus. “You’ve never heard a sense of panic sweep the party as it has in the last few days,” David Garth had told The New York Times during those perilous spring weeks when there seemed a real possibility that a black candidate with no experience in elected office, a candidate believed to be so profoundly unelectable that he could take the entire Democratic party down with him, might go to Atlanta with more delegates than any other Democratic candidate. “The party is up against an extraordinary end-game,” the pollster Paul Maslin had said. “I don’t know where this leaves us,” Robert S. Strauss had said. One superdelegate then still uncommitted, The New York Times had reported, “said the Dukakis campaign had changed its message since Mr.Dukakis lost the Illinois primary. Mr.Dukakis is no longer the candidate of ‘inevitability’ but the candidate of order, he said. ‘They’re not doing the train’s leaving the station and you better be on it routine anymore,’ this official said. ‘They’re now saying that the station’s about to be blown up by terrorists and we’re the only ones who can defuse the bomb.’ ”
The threat, or the possibility, presented by Jesse Jackson, the “historic” (as people liked to say after it became certain he would not have the numbers) part of his candidacy, derived from something other than the fact that he was black, a circumstance which had before been and could be again compartmentalized. For example: “Next week, when we launch our black radio buys, when we start doing our black media stuff, Jesse Jackson needs to be on the air in the black community on our behalf,” Donna Brazile of the Dukakis campaign said to The New York Times on September 8, by way of emphasizing how much the Dukakis campaign “sought to make peace” with Jackson.
“Black,” in other words, could be useful, and even a moral force, a way for white Americans to attain more perfect attitudes: “His color is an enormous plus…. How moving it is, and how important, to see a black candidate meet and overcome the racism that lurks in virtually all of us white Americans,” Anthony Lewis had noted in a March column explaining why the notion that Jesse Jackson could win was nonetheless “a romantic delusion” of the kind that had “repeatedly undermined” the Democratic party. “You look at what Jesse Jackson has done, you have to wonder what a Tom Bradley of Los Angeles could have done, what an Andy Young of Atlanta could have done,” I heard someone say on one of the Sunday shows after the Jackson campaign had entered its “historic” (or, in the candidate’s word, its “endless”) phase.
“Black,” then, by itself and in the right context—the “right context” being a reasonable constituency composed exclusively of blacks and supportive liberal whites—could be accommodated by the process. Something less traditional, and also less manageable, was at work in the 1988 Jackson candidacy. I recall having dinner, the weekend before the California primary, at the Pebble Beach house of the chairman of a large American corporation. There were sixteen people at the table, all white, all well-off, all well-dressed, all well-educated, and all socially conservative. During the course of the evening it came to my attention that six of the sixteen, or every one of the registered Democrats present, intended to vote on Tuesday for Jesse Jackson. Their reasons were unspecific, but definite. “I heard him, he didn’t sound like a politician,” one said. “He’s talking about right now,” another said. “You get outside the gate here, take a look around, you have to know we’ve got some problems, and he’s talking about them.”
What made the 1988 Jackson candidacy a bomb that had to be defused, then, was not that blacks were supporting a black candidate, but that significant numbers of whites were supporting—not only supporting but in many cases overcoming deep emotional and economic conflicts of their own in order to support—a candidate who was attractive to them not because but in spite of the fact that he was black, a candidate whose most potent attraction was that he “didn’t sound like a politician.” “Character” seemed not to be, among these voters, the point-of-sale issue the narrative made it out to be: a number of white Jackson supporters to whom I talked would quite serenely describe their candidate as a “con man,” or even as, in George Bush’s word, a “hustler.”
“And yet…” they would say. What “and yet” turned out to mean, almost without variation, was that they were willing to walk off the edge of the known political map for a candidate who was running against, as he repeatedly said, “politics as usual,” against what he called “consensualist centrist politics”; against what had come to be the very premise of the process, the notion that the winning and the maintaining of public office warranted the invention of a public narrative based only tangentially on observable reality.
In other words they were not idealists, these white Jackson voters, but empiricists. By the time Jesse Jackson got to California, where he would eventually get 25 percent of the entire white vote and 49 percent of the total vote from voters between the demographically key ages of thirty to forty-four, the idealists had rallied behind the sole surviving alternative, who was, accordingly, just then being declared “presidential.” In Los Angeles, during May and early June, those Democrats who had not fallen in line behind Dukakis were described as “self-indulgent,” or as “immature”; they were even described, in a dispiriting phrase that prefigured the tenor of the campaign to come, as “issues wimps.” I recall talking to a rich and politically well-connected Californian who had been, through the primary campaign there, virtually the only prominent Democrat on the famously liberal west side of Los Angeles who was backing Jackson. He said that he could afford “the luxury of being more interested in issues than in process,” but that he would pay for it: “When I want something, I’ll have a hard time getting people to pick up the phone. I recognize that. I made the choice.”
On the June night in Los Angeles when Michael Dukakis was declared the winner of the California Democratic primary, and the bomb officially defused, there took place in the Crystal Room of the Biltmore Hotel a “victory party” that was less a celebration than a ratification by the professionals, a ritual convergence of those California Democrats for whom the phones would continue to get picked up. Charles Manatt was there. John Van de Kamp was there. Leo McCarthy was there. Robert Shrum was there. All the custom-made suits and monogrammed shirts in Los Angeles that night were there, met in the wide corridors of the Biltmore in order to murmur assurances to one another. The ballroom in fact had been cordoned as if to repel late invaders, roped off in such a way that once the Secret Service, the traveling press, the local press, the visiting national press, the staff, and the candidate had assembled, there would be room for only a controllable handful of celebrants, over whom the cameras would dutifully pan.
In fact the actual “celebrants” that evening were not at the Biltmore at all, but a few blocks away at the Los Angeles Hilton, dancing under the mirrored ceiling of the ballroom in which the Jackson campaign had gathered, its energy level in defeat notably higher than that of other campaigns in victory. Jackson parties tended to spill out of ballrooms onto several levels of whatever hotel they were in, and to last until three or four in the morning: anyone who wanted to be at a Jackson party was welcome at a Jackson party, which was unusual among the campaigns, and tended to reinforce the populist spirit that had given this one its extraordinary animation.
Of that evening at the Los Angeles Hilton I recall a pretty woman in a gold lamé dress, dancing with a baby in her arms. I recall empty beer bottles, Corona and Excalibur and Budweiser, sitting around the loops of television cables. I recall the candidate himself, dancing on the stage, and, on this June evening when the long shot had not come in, this evening when the campaign was effectively over, giving the women in the traveling press the little parody wave they liked to give him, “the press chicks’ wave,” the stiff-armed palm movement they called “the Nancy Reagan wave”; then taking off his tie and throwing it into the crowd, like a rock star. This was of course a narrative of its own, but a relatively current one, and one which had, because it seemed at some point grounded in the recognizable, a powerful glamour for those estranged from the purposeful nostalgia of the traditional narrative.
In the end the predictable decision was made to go with the process, with predictable, if equivocal, results. On the last afternoon of the Republican convention in New Orleans I walked from the hotel in the Quarter where I was staying over to look at 544 Camp Street, a local point of interest not noted on the points-of-interest maps distributed at the convention but one which figures large in the literature of American conspiracy. “544 Camp Street” was the address stamped on the leaflets Lee Harvey Oswald was distributing around New Orleans between May and September of 1963, the “Fair Play for Cuba Committee” leaflets that, in the years after Lee Harvey Oswald assassinated John F. Kennedy, suggested to some that he had been acting for Fidel Castro and to others that he had been set up to appear to have been acting for Fidel Castro. Guy Banister had his detective agency at 544 Camp. David Ferrie and Jack Martin frequented the coffee shop on the ground floor at 544 Camp. The Cuban Revolutionary Council rented an office at 544 Camp. People had taken the American political narrative seriously at 544 Camp. They had argued about it, fallen out over it, had hit each other over the head with pistol butts over it.
When I went to look for 544 Camp that afternoon twenty-five years later there was, it turned out, no more such address: the small building had been bought and torn down in order to construct a new federal courthouse. Across the street in Lafayette Square that day there had been a loudspeaker, and a young man on a makeshift platform talking about abortion, and unwanted babies being put down the Disposal and “clogging the main sewer drains of New Orleans,” but no one had been there to listen. “Satan—you’re the liar,” the young woman with him on the platform had sung, lip-syncing a tape originally made, she told me, by a woman who sings with an Alabama traveling ministry, the Ministry of the Happy Hunters. “There’s one thing you can’t deny…you’re the father of every lie….” The young woman had been wearing a black cape, and was made up to portray Satan, or Death, I was unclear which and it had not seemed a distinction worth pursuing.
Still, there were clouds off the Gulf that day and the air was wet and there was about the melancholy of Camp Street a certain sense of abandoned historic moment, heightened, quite soon, by something unusual: the New Orleans police began lining Camp Street, blocking every intersection from Canal Street south. I noticed a man in uniform on a roof. Before long there were Secret Service agents, with wires in their ears. The candidates, it seemed, would be traveling north on Camp Street on their way from the Republican National Committee Finance Committee Gala (Invitation Only) at the Convention Center to the Ohio Caucus Rally (Media Invited) at the Hilton. I stood for a while on Camp Street, on this corner which might be construed as one of those occasional accidental intersections where the remote narrative had collided with the actual life of the country, and waited until the motorcade itself, entirely and perfectly insulated, a mechanism dedicated like the process for which it stood only to the maintenance of itself, had passed, and then I walked to the Superdome. “I hear he did OK with Brinkley,” they said that night in the Superdome, and then, as the confetti fell, “Quayle, zip.”