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.
“Not really,” the reporter said. “He covered three major markets.”
Among those who traveled regularly with the campaigns, in other words, it was taken for granted that these “events” they were covering, and on which they were in fact filing, were not merely meaningless but deliberately so: occasions on which film could be shot and no mistakes made (“They hope he won’t make any big mistakes,” the NBC correspondent covering George Bush kept saying the evening of the September 25 debate at Wake Forest University, and, an hour and a half later, “He didn’t make any big mistakes”), events designed only to provide settings for those unpaid television spots which in this case were appearing, even as we spoke, on the local news in California’s three major media markets. “On the fishing trip, there was no way for television crews to get videotapes out,” the Los Angeles Times noted a few weeks later in a piece about how “poorly designed and executed” events had interfered with coverage of a Bush campaign “environmental” swing through the Pacific Northwest. “At the lumber mill, Bush’s advance team arranged camera angles so poorly that in one set-up only his legs could get on camera.” A Bush adviser had been quoted: “There is no reason for camera angles not being provided for. We’re going to sit down and talk about these things at length.”
Any traveling campaign, then, was a set, moved at considerable expense from location to location. The employer of each reporter on the Dukakis plane the day before the California primary was billed, for a total flying time of under three hours, $1,129.51; the billing to each reporter who happened, on the morning during the Democratic convention when Michael Dukakis and Lloyd Bentsen met with Jesse Jackson, to ride along on the Dukakis bus from the Hyatt Regency to the World Congress Center, a distance of perhaps ten blocks, was $217.18. There was the hierarchy of the set: there were actors, there were directors, there were script supervisors, there were grips. There was the isolation of the set, and the arrogance, the contempt for outsiders. I recall pink-cheeked young aides on the Dukakis campaign referring to themselves, innocent of irony and therefore of history, as “the best and the brightest.” On the morning after the September 25 debate, Michael Oreskes of The New York Times gave us this memorable account of Bush aides crossing the Wake Forest campus:
The Bush campaign measured exactly how long it would take its spokesman to walk briskly from the room in which they were watching the debate to the center where reporters were filing their articles. The answer was three-and-a-half minutes—too long for Mr. Bush’s strategists, Lee Atwater, Robert Teeter and Mr. Darman. They ran the course instead as young aides cleared students and other onlookers from their path.
There was the tedium of the set: the time spent waiting for the shots to be set up, the time spent waiting for the bus to join the motorcade, the time spent waiting for telephones on which to file, the time spent waiting for the Secret Service (“the agents,” they were called on the traveling campaigns, never the Secret Service, just “the agents,” or “this detail,” or “this rotation”) to sweep the plane.
It was a routine that encouraged a certain passivity. There was the plane, or the bus, and one got on it. There was the schedule, and one followed it. There was time to file, or there was not. “We should have had a page-one story,” a Boston Globe reporter complained to the Los Angeles Times after the Bush campaign had failed to provide the advance text of a Seattle “environment” speech scheduled to end only twenty minutes before the departure of the plane for California. “There are times when you sit up and moan, ‘Where is Michael Deaver when you need him,’ ” an ABC producer said to the Times on this point.
A final victory, for the staff and the press on a traveling campaign, would mean not a new production but only a new location: the particular setups and shots of the campaign day (the walk on the beach, the meet-and-greet at the housing project) would fade imperceptibly the isolation and the arrogance and the tedium all intact, into the South Lawns, the Oval Office signings, the arrivals and departures of the administration day. There would still be the “young aides.” There would still be “onlookers” to be cleared from the path. Another location, another stand-up: “We already shot a tarmac departure,” they say on the campaign planes. “This schedule has two Rose Gardens,” they say in the White House press room. Ronald Reagan, when asked by David Frost how his life in the Oval Office had differed from his expectations of it, said this: “…I was surprised at how familiar the whole routine was—the fact that the night before I would get a schedule telling me what I’m going to do all day the next day and so forth.”
American reporters “like” covering a presidential campaign (it gets them out on the road, it has balloons, it has music, it is viewed as a big story, one that leads to the respect of one’s peers, to the Sunday shows, to lecture fees and often to Washington), which is one reason why there has developed among those who do it so arresting an enthusiasm for overlooking the contradictions inherent in reporting that which occurs only in order to be reported. They are willing, in exchange for “access,” to transmit the images their sources wish transmitted. They are even willing, in exchange for certain colorful details around which a “reconstruction” can be built (the “kitchen table” at which the Dukakis campaign conferred on the night Lloyd Bentsen was added to the Democratic ticket, the “slips of paper” on which key members of the Bush campaign, aboard Air Force Two on their way to New Orleans, wrote down their own guesses for vice-president), to present these images not as a story the campaign wants told but as fact. This was Time, reporting from New Orleans:
Bush never wavered in support of the man he had lifted so high. “How’s Danny doing?” he asked several times. But the Vice President never felt the compulsion to question Quayle face to face [after Quayle ran into difficulties]. The awkward investigation was left to Baker. Around noon, Quayle grew restive about answering further questions. “Let’s go,” he urged, but Baker pressed to know more. By early afternoon, the mood began to brighten in the Bush bunker. There were no new revelations: the media hurricane had for the moment blown out to sea.
This was Sandy Grady, reporting from Atlanta:
Ten minutes before he was to face the biggest audience of his life, Mike Dukakis got a hug from his 84-year-old mother, Euterpe, who chided him, “You’d better be good, Michael.” Dukakis grinned and said, “I’ll do my best, Ma.”
“Appeal to the media by exposing the [Bush campaign’s] heavy-handed spindoctoring,” William Safire advised the Dukakis campaign on September 8. “We hate to be seen being manipulated.”
“Periodically,” The New York Times reported last March, “Martin Plissner, the political editor of CBS News, and Susan Morrison, a television producer and former political aide, organize gatherings of the politically connected at their home in Washington. At such parties, they organize secret ballots asking the assembled experts who will win…. By November 1, 1987, the results of Mr. Dole’s organizing failures were apparent in a new Plissner-Morrison poll….” The symbiosis here was complete, and the only outsider was the increasingly hypothetical voter, who was seen as responsive not to actual issues but to their adroit presentation: “At the moment the Republican message is simpler and more clear than ours,” the Democratic chairman for California, Peter Kelly, said to the Los Angeles Times on August 31, complaining, on the matter of what was called the Pledge of Allegiance issue, not that it was a false issue but that Bush had seized the initiative, or “the symbolism.”
“BUSH GAINING IN BATTLE OF TV IMAGES,” The Washington Post headlined a page-one story on September 10, and quoted Jeff Greenfield, now an ABC News political reporter: “George Bush is almost always outdoors, coatless, sometimes with his sleeves rolled up, and looks ebullient and Happy Warrior-ish. Mike Dukakis is almost always indoors, with his jacket on, and almost always behind a lectern.” The Bush campaign, according to that week’s issue of Newsweek, was, because it had the superior gift for getting film shot in “dramatic settings—like Boston Harbor,” winning “the all-important battle of the backdrops.” A CBS producer covering the Dukakis campaign was quoted, complaining about an occasion when Governor Dukakis, speaking to students on a California beach, had faced the students instead of the camera. “The only reason Dukakis was out there on the ocean was to get his picture taken,” the producer had said. “So you might as well see his face.” Pictures, Newsweek had concluded, “often speak louder than words.”
This “battle of the backdrops” story appeared on page 24 of the issue dated September 12, 1988. On pages 22 and 23 of the same issue there appeared, as illustrations for the lead National Affairs story (“Getting Down and Dirty: As the mudslinging campaign moves into full gear, Bush stays on the offensive—and Dukakis calls back his main street-fighting man”), two half-page color photographs, one of each candidate, which seemed to address the very concerns expressed on page 24 and in The Post. The photograph of Vice-President Bush showed him indoors, with his jacket on, and behind a lectern. That of Governor Dukakis showed him outdoors, coatless, with his sleeves rolled up, looking ebullient, about to throw a baseball on an airport tarmac: something had been learned from Jeff Greenfield, or something had been told to Jeff Greenfield. “We talk to the press, and things take on a life of their own,” Mark Siegel, a Democratic political consultant, said recently to Elizabeth Drew.
About this baseball on the tarmac. On the day that Michael Dukakis appeared at the high school in Woodland Hills and at the rally in San Diego and in the school-yard in San Jose, there was, although it did not appear on the schedule, a fourth event, what was referred to among the television crews as a “tarmac arrival with ball tossing.” This event had taken place in late morning, on the tarmac at the San Diego airport, just after the chartered 737 had rolled to a stop and the candidate had emerged. There had been a moment of hesitation. Then baseball mitts had been produced, and Jack Weeks, the traveling press secretary, had tossed a ball to the candidate. The candidate had tossed the ball back. The rest of us had stood in the sun and given this our full attention, undeflected even by the arrival of an Alaska 767: some forty adults standing on a tarmac watching a diminutive figure in shirtsleeves and a red tie toss a ball to his press secretary.
“Just a regular guy,” one of the cameramen had said, his inflection that of the union official who confided, in an early Dukakis commercial aimed at blue-collar voters, that he had known “Mike” a long time, and backed him despite his not being “your shot-and-beer kind of guy.”
“I’d say he was a regular guy,” another cameraman had said. “Definitely.”
“I’d sit around with him,” the first cameraman said.
Kara Dukakis, one of the candidate’s daughters, had at that moment emerged from the 737.
“You’d have a beer with him?”
Jack Weeks had tossed the ball to Kara Dukakis.
“I’d have a beer with him.”
Kara Dukakis had tossed the ball to her father. Her father had caught the ball and tossed it back to her.
“OK,” one of the cameramen had said. “We got the daughter. Nice. That’s enough. Nice.”
The CNN producer then on the Dukakis campaign told me, later in the day, that the first recorded ball tossing on the Dukakis campaign had been outside a bowling alley somewhere in Ohio. CNN had shot it. When the campaign realized that only one camera had it, they had restaged it.
“We have a lot of things like the ball tossing,” the producer said. “We have the Greek dancing for example.”
I asked if she still bothered to shoot it.
“I get it,” she said, “but I don’t call in any more and say, ‘Hey, hold it, I’ve got him dancing.’ ”
This sounded about right (the candidate might, after all, bean a citizen during the ball tossing, and CNN would need film), and not until I read Joe Klein’s version of these days in California did it occur to me that this eerily contrived moment on the tarmac at San Diego could become, at least provisionally, history. “The Duke seemed downright jaunty,” Joe Klein reported. “He tossed a baseball with aides. He was flagrantly multilingual. He danced Greek dances….” In the July 25 issue of U.S. News & World Report, Michael Kramer opened his cover story, “Is Dukakis Tough Enough?” with a more developed version of the ball tossing:
The thermometer read 101 degrees, but the locals guessed 115 on the broiling airport tarmac in Phoenix. After all, it was under a noonday sun in the desert that Michael Dukakis was indulging his truly favorite campaign ritual—a game of catch with his aide Jack Weeks. “These days,” he has said, “throwing the ball around when we land somewhere is about the only exercise I get.” For 16 minutes, Dukakis shagged flies and threw strikes. Halfway through, he rolled up his sleeves, but he never loosened his tie. Finally, mercifully, it was over and time to pitch the obvious tongue-in-cheek question: “Governor, what does throwing a ball around in this heat say about your mental stability?” Without missing a beat, and without a trace of a smile, Dukakis echoed a sentiment he has articulated repeatedly in recent months: “What it means is that I’m tough.”
Nor was this the last word. On July 31 in The Washington Post, David S. Broder, who had also been with the Dukakis campaign in Phoenix, gave us a third, and, by virtue of his seniority in the process, perhaps the official version of the ball tossing:
Dukakis called out to Jack Weeks, the handsome, curly-haired Welshman who good-naturedly shepherds us wayward pressmen through the daily vagaries of the campaign schedule. Weeks dutifully produced two gloves and a baseball, and there on the tarmac, with its surface temperature just below the boiling point, the governor loosened up his arm and got the kinks out of his back by tossing a couple hundred 90-foot pegs to Weeks.
What we had in the tarmac arrival with ball tossing, then, was an understanding: a repeated moment witnessed by many people, all of whom believed it to be a setup and yet most of whom believed that only an outsider, only someone too “naive” to know the rules of the game, would so describe it.
The narrative is made up of many such understandings, tacit agreements, small and large, to overlook the observable in the interests of obtaining a dramatic story line. It was understood, for example, that the first night of the Republican National Convention in New Orleans should be for Ronald Reagan “the last hurrah.” “REAGAN ELECTRIFIES GOP” was the headline the next morning on page one of New York Newsday; in fact the Reagan appearance, which was rhetorically pitched not to a live audience but to the more intimate demands of the camera, was, inside the Superdome, barely registered. It was understood, similarly, that Michael Dukakis’s acceptance speech on the last night of the Democratic National Convention in Atlanta should be the occasion on which his “passion,” or “leadership,” emerged. “Could the no-nonsense nominee reach within himself to discover the language of leadership?” Time had asked. “Could he go beyond the pedestrian promises of ‘good jobs at good wages’ to give voice to a new Democratic vision?”
The correct answer, since the forward flow of the narrative here demanded the appearance of a genuine contender (a contender who could be seventeen points “up,” so that George Bush could be seventeen points “down,” a position from which he could rise to”claim” his own convention), was yes: “The best speech of his life,” David Broder reported. Sandy Grady found it “superb,” evoking “Kennedyesque echoes” and showing “unexpected craft and fire.” Newsweek had witnessed Governor Dukakis “electrifying the convention with his intensely personal acceptance speech.” In fact the convention that evening had been electrified, not by the speech, which was the same series of nonsequential clauses Governor Dukakis had employed during the primary campaign (“My friends…it’s what the Democratic party is all about”), but because the floor had been darkened, swept with laser beams, and flooded with “Coming to America,” played at concert volume with the bass turned up.
It is understood that this invented narrative will turn on certain familiar elements. There is the continuing story line of the “horse race,” the reliable daily drama of one candidate falling behind as another pulls ahead. There is the surprise of the new poll, the glamour of the one-on-one colloquy on the midnight plane, a plot point (the nation sleeps while the candidate and his confidant hammer out its fate) pioneered by Theodore H. White. There is the abiding if unexamined faith in the campaign as personal odyssey, and in the spiritual benefits accruing to those who undertake it. There is, in the presented history of the candidate, the crucible event, the day that “changed the life.”
Robert Dole’s life was understood to have changed when he was injured in Italy in 1945. George Bush’s life is understood to have changed when he and his wife decided to “get out and make it on our own” (his words, or rather the speech-writer Peggy Noonan’s, from the “lived the dream” acceptance speech, suggesting action, shirtsleeves, privilege cast aside) in west Texas. For Bruce Babbitt, “the dam just kind of broke”during a student summer in Bolivia. For Michael Dukakis, the dam is understood to have broken not during his student summer in Peru but after his 1978 defeat in Massachusetts; his tragic flaw, we have read repeatedly, is neither his evident sulkiness at losing that election nor what many since have seen as a rather dissociated self-satisfaction (“We’re two people very proud of what we’ve done,” he said on NBC in Atlanta, falling into a favorite speech pattern, “very proud of each other, actually…and very proud that a couple of guys named Dukakis and Jackson have come this far”), but the more attractive “hubris.”
The narrative requires broad strokes, Michael Dukakis was physically small, and had associations with Harvard, which suggested that he must be an “intellectual”; the “immigrant factor,” on the other hand, could make him tough (as in “What it means is that I’m tough”), a “streetfighter.” “He’s cool, shrewd and still trying to prove he’s tough,” the July 25 cover of U.S. News & World Report said about Dukakis. “toughness is what it’s all about,” one of his advisers is quoted as having said in the cover story. “People need to feel that a candidate is tough enough to be president. It is the threshold perception.”
George Bush had presented a more tortured narrative problem. The tellers of the story had not understood, or had not responded, to the essential Bush style, which was complex, ironic, the diffident edge of the northeastern elite. This was what was at first identified as “the wimp factor,” which was replaced not by a more complicated view of the personality but by its reverse: George Bush was by late August no longer a “wimp” but someone who had “thrown it over,” “struck out” to make his own way: no longer a product of the effete Northeast but someone who had thrived in Texas, and was therefore “tough enough to be president.”
That George Bush might have thrived in Texas not in spite of but precisely because he was a member of the north-eastern elite was a shading which had no part in the narrative: “He was considered back at the time one of the most charismatic people ever elected to public office in the history of Texas,” Congressman Bill Archer of Houston has said. “That charisma, people talked about it over and over again.” People talked about it, probably, because Andover and Yale and the inheritable tax avoidance they suggested were, during the years George Bush lived in Texas, the exact ideals toward which the Houston and Dallas establishment aspired, but the narrative called for a less ambiguous version: “Lived in a little shotgun house, one room for the three of us,” as Bush, or Peggy Noonan, had put it in the celebrated no-subject-pronoun cadences of the “lived the dream” acceptance speech. “Worked in the oil business, started my own…. Moved from the shotgun to a duplex apartment to a house. Lived the dream—high school football on Friday night, Little League, neighborhood barbecue…pushing into unknown territory with kids and a dog and a car….”
All stories, of course, depend for their popular interest upon the invention of personality, or “character,” but in the political narrative, designed as it is to maintain the illusion of “consensus” by obscuring rather than addressing actual issues, this invention served a further purpose. It was by 1988 generally, if unspecifically, agreed that the United States faced certain social and economic realities which, if not intractable, did not entirely lend themselves to the kinds of policy fixes people who run for elected office, on whatever ticket, were likely to undertake. We had not yet accommodated the industrialization of parts of the third world. We had not yet adjusted to the economic realignment of a world in which the United States was no longer the principal catalyst for change. “We really are in an age of transition,” Brent Scowcroft, Bush’s leading foreign policy adviser, recently told Robert Scheer of the Los Angeles Times, “from a postwar world where the Soviets were the enemy, where the United States was a super-power and trying to build up both its allies and its former enemies and help the Third World transition to independence. That whole world and all of those things are coming to an end or have ended, and we are now entering a new and different world that will be complex and much less unambiguous than the old one.”
What continued to dominate the rhetoric of the campaign, however, was not this awareness of a new and different world but nostalgia for an old one, and coded assurance that symptoms of ambiguity or change, of what George Bush called the “deterioration of values,” would be summarily dealt with by increased social control. It was not by accident that the word “enforcement,” devoid of any apparent awareness that it had been tried before, kept coming up in this campaign. A problem named seemed, for both campaigns, a problem solved. Michael Dukakis had promised, by way of achieving his goal of “no safe haven for dope dealers and drug profits anywhere on this earth,” to “double the number” of Drug Enforcement Administration agents, not a promising approach. George Bush, for his part, had repeatedly promised the death penalty, and not only the Pledge of Allegiance but prayer, or “moments of silence,” in the schools. “We have to change this whole culture,” he said in the Wake Forest debate; the polls indicated that the electorate wanted “change,” and this wish for change had been translated, by both campaigns, into the wish for a “change back,” a change to that “gentler nation” of which Vice-President Bush repeatedly spoke.
To the extent that there were differences between the candidates, these differences lay in just where on the time scale this gentler America could be found. The Dukakis campaign was oriented to “programs,” and the programs it proposed were similar to those that had worked (the encouragement of private sector involvement in low-cost housing, say) in the boom years after World War II. The Bush campaign was oriented to “values,” and the values to which it referred were not postwar but prewar. In neither case did “ideas” play a part: “This election isn’t about ideology, it’s about competence,” Michael Dukakis had said in Atlanta. “First and foremost, it’s a choice between two persons,” one of his senior advisers, Thomas Kiley, had told The Wall Street Journal. “What it all comes down to, after all the shouting and the cheers, is the man at the desk,” George Bush had said in New Orleans. In other words what it was “about,” what it came “down to,” what was wrong or right with America, was not an historical shift largely unaffected by the actions of individual citizens but “character,” and if “character” could be seen to count, then every citizen—since everyone was a judge of character, an expert in the field of personality—could be seen to count. This notion, that the citizen’s choice among determinedly centrist candidates makes a “difference,” is in fact the narrative’s most central element, and also its most fictive.
The Democratic National Convention of 1968, during which the process was put to a popular vote on the streets of Chicago and after which it was decided that what had occurred could not be allowed to recur, is generally agreed to have prompted the multiplication of primaries, and the concomitant coverage of those primaries, which led to the end of the national party convention as a more than ceremonial occasion. A year and a half ago, as the primary campaigns got underway for the 1988 election, David S. Broder, in The Washington Post, offered this analysis of the power these “reforms” in the nominating procedure had vested not in the party leadership, which is where this power of choice ultimately resides, but in “the existing communications system,” by which he meant the press, or the medium through which the party leadership sells its choice:
Once the campaign explodes to 18 states, as it will the day after New Hampshire, when the focus shifts to a super-primary across the nation, the existing communications system simply will not accommodate more than two or three candidates in each party. Neither the television networks, nor newspapers nor magazines, have the resources of people, space and time to describe and analyze the dynamics of two simultaneous half-national elections among Republicans and Democrats. That task is simply beyond us. Since we cannot reduce the number of states voting on Super Tuesday, we have to reduce the number of candidates treated as serious contenders. Those news judgments will be arbitrary—but not subject to appeal. Those who finish first or second in lowa and New Hampshire will get tickets from the mass media to play in the next big round. Those who don’t, won’t. A minor exception may be made for the two reverends, Jesse L. Jackson and Marion G. (Pat) Robertson, who have their own church-based communications and support networks and are less dependent on mass-media attention. But no one else.
By the time the existing communications system set itself up in Atlanta and New Orleans the priorities were clear. “NOTICE NOTICE NOTICE,” read the typed note given to some print reporters when they picked up their credentials in Atlanta. “Because the National Democratic Convention Committee permitted the electronic media to exceed specifications for their broadcast booths, your assigned seat’s sightline to the podium and the convention floor was obliterated.” The network skyboxes, in other words, had been built in front of the sections originally assigned to the periodical press. “This is a place that was chosen to be, for all intents and purposes, a large TV studio, to be able to project our message to the American people and a national audience,” Paul Kirk, the chairman of the DNC, said by way of explaining why the podium and the skyboxes had so reduced the size of the Omni Coliseum in Atlanta that some thousand delegates and alternates and guests had been, on the evening Jesse Jackson spoke, locked out.
Mayor Andrew Young of Atlanta apologized for the lock-out, but said that it would be the same on nights to follow: “The 150 million people in this country who are going to vote have got to be our major target.” Still, convention delegates were seen to have a real role: “The folks in the hall are so important for how it looks,” Lane Venardos, senior producer in charge of convention coverage for CBS News, said to The New York Times about the Republican convention. The delegates, in other words, could be seen as dress extras.
During those eight summer evenings this year, four in Atlanta and four in New Orleans, when roughly 80 percent of the television sets “out there” were tuned somewhere else, the entire attention of those inside the process was directed toward the invention of this story in which they themselves were the principal players, and for which they themselves were the principal audience. The great arenas in which the conventions were held became worlds all their own, constantly transmitting their own images back to themselves, connected by skywalks to interchangeable structures composed not of floors but of “levels,” mysteriously separated by fountains and glass elevators and escalators that did not quite connect.
In the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans as in the Omni Coliseum in Atlanta, the grids of lights blazed and dimmed hypnotically. Men with rifles patrolled the high catwalks. The nets packed with thousands of balloons swung gently overhead, poised for that instant known as the “money shot,” the moment, or “window,” when everything was working and no network had cut to a commercial. The minicams trawled the floor, fishing in Atlanta for Rob Lowe, in New Orleans for Donald Trump. In the NBC skybox Tom Brokaw floated over the floor, adjusting his tie, putting on his jacket, leaning to speak to John Chancellor. In the CNN skybox Mary Alice Williams sat bathed in white light, the blond madonna of the skyboxes. On the television screens in the press section the images reappeared, but from another angle: Tom Brokaw and Mary Alice Williams again, broadcasting not just above us but also to us, the circle closed.
At the end of prime time, when the skyboxes went dark, the action moved across the skywalks and into the levels, into the lobbies, into one or another Hyatt or Marriott or Hilton or Westin. In the portage from lobby to lobby, level to level, the same people kept materializing, in slightly altered roles. On a level of the Hyatt in Atlanta I saw Ann Lewis in her role as a Jackson adviser. On a level of the Hyatt in New Orleans I saw Ann Lewis in her role as a correspondent for Ms. Some pictures were vivid: “I’ve been around this process a while, and one thing I’ve noticed, it’s the people who write the checks who get treated as if they have a certain amount of power,” I recall Nadine Hack, the chairman of Dukakis’s New York Finance Council, saying in a suite at the Hyatt in Atlanta: here was a willowy woman with long blond hair who was standing barefoot on a table and trying to explain how to buy into the action. “The great thing about those evenings was you could even see Michael Harrington there,” I recall Richard Viguerie saying to me at a party in New Orleans: here was the man who manages the action for the American right trying to explain the early Sixties, and evenings we had both spent on Washington Square.
There was in Atlanta, according to the Democratic National Committee, “twice the media presence” that there had been at the 1984 convention. There were in New Orleans “media workspaces” assigned not only to 117 newspapers and news services and to the American television and radio industry in full strength but to fifty-two foreign networks. On every corner one turned in New Orleans someone was doing a stand-up. There were telephone numbers to be called for quotes: “Republican State and Local Officials” or “Pat Robertson Campaign” or “Richard Wirthlin, Reagan’s Pollster.” Newspapers came with teams of thirty, forty, fifty. In every lobby there were stacks of fresh newspapers, the Atlanta Constitution, the New Orleans Times-Picayune, The Washington Post, the Miami Herald, the Los Angeles Times. In Atlanta these papers were collected in bins, and “recycled”: made into 30,000 posters, which were in turn distributed to the press in New Orleans.
This perfect recycling tended to present itself, in the narcosis of the event, as a model for the rest: like American political life itself, and like the printed and transmitted images on which that life depended, this was a world with no half-life. It was understood that what was said here would go on the wire and vanish. Garrison Keillor and his cute kids would vanish. Ann Richards and her peppery ripostes would vanish. Phyllis Schlafly and Olympia Snowe would vanish. All the opinions and all the rumors and all the housemaid Spanish spoken in both Atlanta and New Orleans would vanish, all the quotes would vanish, and all that would remain would be the huge arenas themselves, the arenas and the lobbies and levels and skywalks to which they connected, the incorporeal heart of the process itself, the agora, the symbolic marketplace in which the narrative was not only written but immediately, efficiently, entirely, consumed.
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.”
October 27, 1988