It Looks Like a President, Only Smaller: Trailing Campaign, 2000by Joel Achenbach
It Looks Like a President Only Smaller is the hilarious, eviscerating diary of one of the most amazing contests in American political history from the presidential primaries in New Hampshire, to the fat-cat convention parties in Philadelphia and Los Angeles, to the bizarre vote-counting debacle in Florida. The diarist is a veteran Washington Post/i>
It Looks Like a President Only Smaller is the hilarious, eviscerating diary of one of the most amazing contests in American political history from the presidential primaries in New Hampshire, to the fat-cat convention parties in Philadelphia and Los Angeles, to the bizarre vote-counting debacle in Florida. The diarist is a veteran Washington Post reporter, satirist, and explainer of the inexplicable.
This is his summary of the historic Supreme Court decision in Bush v. Gore: "In keeping with the Court's ambition to provide an unambiguous and unanimous decision in Bush v. Gore and thereby legitimate the outcome of the 2000 presidential election, we present herein a majority opinion signed by Justices Rehnquist, Scalia, Thomas, O'Connor, and Kennedy, with a partial dissent to the majority by Justices Rehnquist, Scalia, and Thomas, a full dissent by Justices Stevens, Souter, Breyer, and Ginsburg, a partial dissent to the full dissent by Justices Breyer and Souter, a needling, invective-filled dissent to the partial dissent to the majority opinion from Scalia, and a spitwad [attached] from Justice Stevens...The Court will note that it did manage on Tuesday afternoon to assemble a respectable 6-3 majority in favor of the Chinese take-out."
As Joel Achenbach trails Campaign 2000, he channels the unfocused rage of the street protesters, gleefully infiltrates celebrity-choked Hollywood bashes, and roams the remote highways of the battleground states. Whether ruminating on the Confederate flag controversy in South Carolina, rewriting breaking news in the form of a le Carré novel, or mimicking the dyspeptic voice of the editor of the (fictional) newsletter Chad Watch, Achenbach fashions a page-turning comedy that takes the measure of America at the millennium.
- Simon & Schuster
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Read an Excerpt
from Part 2: Deep into Hollywood
The political conventions of 2000 were supposed to be coming-out parties for all the various Internet news operations. Never before had any event been so maximally wired for online coverage. We were ready to cover World War III. The audience, however, declined to materialize in the expected numbers. Word went around that the Internet coverage was a bust. Technological brute force could not by itself create an "Internet story."
Bush, meanwhile, had surged far ahead, up 18 points in one poll. The Democrats would need a bounce from their convention in Los Angeles. Gore had become an oddly indistinct figure on the political landscape, barely remembered. President and Mrs. Clinton weren't helping matters, as they planned to arrive early in Los Angeles to attend glittery fund-raisers for Hillary's Senate campaign. They also had commandeered pretty much the entirety of the first night of the convention. They were stealing the show and, not incidentally, a lot of the money that might have gone to the party nominee what's-his-face.
Less than a week before the convention, Gore made a bold move: He picked as his running mate a man who was most famous for making a speech denouncing President Clinton's behavior in the Lewinsky matter. It was a delicious moment for armchair psychologists. The Beta Male was finally making his move against the Alpha. Pundits went into a frenzy; I did my best, on deadline, to pound out something that was certain to be unduplicated by any other political observer.
This just in: The Democrats are playing the Lewinsky card. It's bizarre. It's counterintuitive. It could turn out brilliantly. I believe it is part of the Deep Game, an ultrasecret strategy that is three or four levels of strategy below the surface strategy.
Consider a few facts. The Republicans in Philadelphia managed to get through the entire week without directly speaking about Oval Office gropings, the impeachment, the blue dress, or anything of the sort. At one point George W. Bush mentioned the word "scandal," but he did it so quickly it barely registered. Instead, the Republicans spoke in code, saying they would restore "honor" and "dignity" to the nation's highest office, without adding that they would have the whole place "steam-cleaned" and "thoroughly disinfected."
The Democrats, watching and listening, saw an opening. If the Republicans weren't going to exploit to its fullest extent the Lewinsky scandal, the Democrats would. Cut to this week. The vice president has a choice of sensible running mates, but he surprises everyone by picking the one who is by far the most moralistic. The whole "Jewish" issue is just cover. Joe Lieberman gets picked because he dreams at night of passing new laws against jaywalking. He's sanctimony incarnate.
The tactic works beautifully: The news media gleefully resurrect Lieberman's 1998 speech calling Clinton's actions "immoral." The electorate is forced to remember a trauma that has been carefully repressed. Long-dormant neurons start firing Starr Report footnotes from one hemisphere of the brain to the other.
But the Democrats aren't done. They must pound home the notion that they are vulnerable on moral issues. Thus they concoct an entirely new sex-related controversy, this time about a fund-raiser being thrown at the Playboy Mansion by Representative Loretta Sanchez. The party bosses say they're horrified by the association with a sleaze peddler like Hugh Hefner.
All this is staged for maximum media sensationalism. Unless Sanchez moves the party, the result will be massive, almost round-the-clock coverage of the alliance between the Democratic Party and the flesh industry.
A strategic blunder? Not at all. The Democrats want to bring up moral issues because they want to remind everyone of the Lewinsky scandal all in keeping with a theory that the American people blame the Republicans for the scandal more than they blame President Clinton. His were sins of a base nature; the Republicans, however, carefully considered and carried out their prosecution of the president. Blame for the national nightmare is thus meted out according to the extent to which the sin is premeditated.
The designers of the Deep Game know they need still another bold move if they want to implement fully their strategy of victory-through-self-abasement. So guess what they do: They sacrifice the king himself. They tell President Clinton he must once again confess his profound remorse for mistakes that the entire country no longer wants to think about.
The president dutifully goes to a meeting of evangelists in suburban Chicago for a very public encounter session. The president says, "I'm now in the second year of a process of trying to totally rebuild my life from a terrible mistake I made."
He doesn't proclaim triumph. He doesn't say he has conquered his reptilian urges. Instead, he says, "It's always a work in progress and you just have to hope that you're getting better every day, but if you're not getting better, chances are you're getting worse; that, you know, this has to be a dynamic, ongoing effort."
In other words, he's raising the specter of relapse. He's saying, I'm holding it together, but any second now I could be at Hef's, swimming in his grotto.
The Deep Game is unfolding so fast, even the professional pundits are dazed. The triple-backloop subterranean Democratic strategy is so complicated you can't measure the results with a poll. No one can quite see how any of this plays to the advantage of Al Gore which, again, is exactly what makes the strategy so inspired.
I don't think we should even be sure that Al Gore actually wants to win the election. "Winning" is just a surface strategy. Gore may have bigger fish to fry. He may represent people for whom a Gore loss is preferable to a Gore victory.
Remember: The people who run this thing are completely unknown to us, and it's only when we think we've finally figured out their motives that we've arrived at the point where we've been completely snookered.
There's not much that's democratic about the Democratic National Convention. It appears that the priority for party leaders this week is to hobnob with Hollywood moguls and movie stars. There is a dazzling array of parties to which you, the ordinary person, are specifically not invited. Some parties, like David Geffen's, or Barbra Streisand's, are so exclusive you have to be on a special list even to be allowed to think about them. Forget I brought it up.
The convention itself doesn't entirely radiate a sense of a happy democracy, what with the imposing security fence surrounding the entirety of the convention center complex. It looks like an industrial prison fence, anchored in concrete, bent outward at the top to make an exterior assault all the more difficult. In a concession to democracy it is not topped by barbed wire. It's possible that the Democrats, looking carefully at poll numbers, are hoping to keep Al Gore from getting inside.
Through journalistic connections I managed to get on a special list that allowed me to stand in the broiling heat outside Studio 23 on the Warner Brothers lot, where I was able to watch people whose names were on an even more special list attend a party on the set of the TV show The West Wing. I was covering what is known as "arrivals."
When you cover "arrivals" your job is to watch the famous, important, powerful people the people who are "players" arriving at the party. You have to hope they'll stop and talk for a moment as they stroll up the red carpet and snag flutes of champagne from silver trays held by waiters in black tie. I was separated from the party guests by a velvet rope. The Warner Brothers publicity people did provide those of us on the outside with bottled water and sodas. Although they later rejected my request for one of the goodie bags, they were still perfectly pleasant about it.
So the whole thing was fairly civilized, as intensely humiliating things go.
It was hot. It was, indeed, scorching. But heat is democratic. Sweating is democratic. When you stand in the heat in the media scrum, covering "arrivals," you feel democratic down to your pores.
Martin Sheen arrived. He plays President Josiah Bartlet. So debased has my station in life become that, instead of telling him how much I liked Badlands, or asking him to reenact the mirror-punching scene in Apocalypse Now, I asked him a bunch of substantive questions about politics. (True fact: At these convention parties you feel like a phony, a completely artificial person, if you talk about serious political issues. The other party-goers will play along, but you can tell they pity you, because you just don't get it.)
Have the Democrats become too beholden to corporate interests?
"I think all of us are in danger of surrendering too much to corporate America," Sheen answered. "I would wish that the party would be more liberal, of course. I'm an old Democrat. I'm a Kennedy Democrat."
Jack Valenti, legendary lobbyist for the film industry, arrived to lusty greetings ("My hero!" proclaimed Gerald Levin, head of Time Warner and the boss of everything in sight). Valenti is Hollywood in human form, magnificently tan, handsome, with a comb within easy reach for an emergency spin through his shock of white hair. In keeping with his job as a representative of the industry, he is a small man with a large head.
He rejected any suggestion that Hollywood is at fault for generating trashy movies.
"Hollywood is not a monolith," he said. There were 660 movies produced last year, he said, and no one can tell the makers of all those movies what to do. Besides, crime is down in America. If violent movies cause crime, he said, and there are more violent movies, then how come crime has fallen?
"What about the Internet? You can go on the Internet and see unbelievable stuff!" he said. "It's squalid!"
Those of us from Washington were interested in the Hollywood stars who were arriving; the Hollywood media people were interested in the real White House staffers who were here to mingle with their television counterparts. What's confusing is that, in Los Angeles, even nobodies sometimes look like celebrities. You can't tell if that guy over there with the nice suit and the slicked-back hair is a celebrity or just one of the Warner Brothers security guards or, more confusingly, if he's an actor who plays a security guard on the TV show.
Donna Shalala, secretary of health and human services, came along, and ventured that there's nothing wrong with the schmoozy relationship between the Democrats and Hollywood.
"This is part of our convention. And politics is glitzier. We use glitz to communicate our messages," she said. "We've learned a lot from Hollywood about how to communicate."
The party started to wind down. One of the guests, leaving, complained that she couldn't get into the Oval Office portion of the TV set. The Oval Office wasn't like the rest of the set. To get in, you had to be wearing a special pin. And how did you get the special pin?
"You had to be on a special-pin list."
The Clintons were about to speak inside the Staples Center when, just outside, the very loud band Rage Against the Machine got several thousand people jumping up and down in a warm-up exercise for the rioting to come later. Rage Against the Machine is not a subtle band, and the musicians play their instruments as though they want to destroy them. My impression was that the band members are not Gore Democrats. The tip-off may have been the moment the band led the crowd in a chant of "F k Gore! F k Gore!"
But at least Gore got mentioned. The vice president has had the feeblest of profiles at what has been, so far, Clinton Convention III.
Speakers cite Gore's name dutifully, but he needs to get into town quickly, in some dramatic way, perhaps landing in a parachute or descending in a one-man helicopter. He should show up with green hair or with a pierced nose, or with his Secret Brother, or with a radically intensified Southern accent and a wad of Red Man in his cheek. What Al Gore can't do at this point is be Al Gore. That's courting catastrophe.
President Clinton has completely stolen the show, starting with his rockstar entrance into the Staples Center, a Long March through the backstage corridors, alone, chin up, a single camera documenting his journey. As he neared the stage the audience roared, cheered, and squealed. To my limited knowledge it was the most egregiously self-aggrandizing and pretentious moment in the history of the presidency. Some of us in the press corps were hoping he'd have a Spinal Tap misadventure, get lost back there in the bowels of the arena, and finally burst through some security doors into the parking lot.
What the convention really needs is more split-screen coverage. Just as the president was speaking, the police were taking action outside, clearing the protest area by force. A police spokesman told me earlier in the day that the police want to "facilitate" the protests. He said, "We're all prepared to facilitate the two-thirty march and the five o'clock march." From what I could see later on TV, they might want to use fewer rubber bullets in their facilitation.
As in Philadelphia, the protests are chaotic and all over the place, geographically and ideologically. You got your anti-death penalty folks, your anarchists, your socialists, and your people with extremely specific issues, carrying signs saying "Gore-Oxy Out of U'Wa Land" or "Save Ballona Wetlands." One man wore a fake nose and mustache, and carried a "Vote Lemming" sign. I'm not sure who was behind the disguise, but he vaguely resembled Michael Dukakis.
By definition, conventions are about crowds, about flesh converging, about thousands of people finding themselves sucked into some central mosh pit of political togetherness. You can't come to a convention if you have an aversion to physical contact. The whole point of the thing is to create a throng, to literally rub elbows. You hear speeches, you eat and drink, but the main thing you do is search for the center of gravity.
The mosh pit inside, on the convention floor, features famous TV correspondents and anchorpersons mixing it up with senators and cabinet officers and, almost as an afterthought, the delegates. Everyone has to keep moving. If people stop moving the place will congeal into a hardened mass of meat.
The central tenet of the Democratic Party has always been "More." More government. Longer speeches. Physically bigger delegates. You walk through the convention hall, you'll see some mighty well-fed Democrats. You get the sense that this is not a party that's terribly adept at dieting. There are also simply more delegates than at a Republican convention. The Democrats have determined that they cannot nominate a candidate unless they have the participation of 4,300 delegates. There are 270 from a single government workers union, AFSCME.
The Democrats also throw parties with more guests than the Republicans about twelve thousand people, in the case of California Governor Gray Davis's party at the Paramount backlot Monday night. This was an eight-searchlight party. At the entrance was a roller coaster, a series of long, phallic balloons that streamed toward the night sky, some Hawaiian dancers, a Jim Carrey impersonator, a faux Joan Rivers, and, dangerously, a slinky Marilyn Monroe, perhaps hoping to sing "Happy Birthday" to the president.
By Hollywood standards, the party was a bit too democratic. It was so democratic there were actual delegates in attendance. That's always a red flag, a sign of a shindig in serious trouble. Delegates wear funny hats and buttons and are true believers with a sense of purpose. They play important roles in their communities and work as teachers and nurses and union organizers. They are decent, hardworking, fair people. That's not the element you want at a Hollywood party.
"This is the kind of party I like. Fanfare!" said Virginia Graves, a delegate from Salisbury, North Carolina.
"Fanfare. Action. Hopefully food," said her friend, Shirley Wiggins of Gastonia, North Carolina.
So you see the problem. These bad apples show up, looking for fanfare, and you find yourself scanning the crowd, wondering, where are the vain, loutish egomaniacs? You want billionaires. You want TV talk show screamers. You want movie stars with giant heads and a steady stream of emaciated starlets. It was looking pretty grim until Angelica Huston showed up. I asked her what she thought of Gore. She said what everyone had been thinking: "He's got a tough act to follow."
Security is so tight here that merely exiting the convention and entering the streets of downtown Los Angeles can be an ordeal. You have to hike across the vast parking lots and find one of the narrow gates in the infamous fence that surrounds the complex. Last night the queue to leave stretched as long as a football field, and for a moment I feared that the police were now requiring a special credential to enter the outside world or, worse, an engraved invitation. "I'm sorry, you're not on the list," they might say, forcing me to turn around and spend the night on the floor of the Staples Center.
Only when I finally punched through the perimeter did the reason for the delay become clear. When you exit the compound, you have to run the Causes Gauntlet.
"Al Gore supports sweatshops!"
"Go ahead, vote for genocide!"
"No blood for oil; end the sanctions now!"
"Corporate tools! Corporate tools!"
The people with the causes lined both sides of the sidewalk. A man in a ragged robe held an enormous cross. Another held a photograph of an aborted fetus. A third had a sign saying "Romans Go Home. Welcome Visigoths."
So it's a diverse coalition. One consistent theme is the revulsion at corporate America and the consumer culture it has spawned. The more radical protesters believe they are trapped in a police state. Imagine how validated they must feel, getting shot with rubber bullets in downtown Los Angeles outside a convention ringed with a prison-caliber fence.
Last night, the cops busted fifty people for riding bicycles. These weren't exactly the Hell's Angels. Their radical cause includes a demand for more bike lanes. They're linked to a San Francisco-based group called Critical Mass, which wants to take back the streets from the car culture.
I stumbled across the big bicyclist bust while walking to Arianna Huffington's Shadow Convention. Sympathetic witnesses said the cyclists were forced, by police barriers, to ride the wrong way down a one-way street, which triggered a sudden crackdown. "The response has been totally out of proportion to the thing itself. It's as though this was a terrorist attack," said one witness, Cherilyn Parsons.
The captured cyclists were handcuffed in a line along a chain link fence on Flower Street, directly under an off-ramp for the I-10 overpass. They were not allowed to move. More than a hundred police officers stood in rigid formation along the street. A few carried heavy weapons, including one that looked like it would be handy for launching grenades.
"Shame! Shame!" shouted the protesters.
A young guy eating an apple, one of the bikers who escaped, surveyed the scene without the slightest trace of rage. He was slowly, deliberately eating his apple down to the core, seeds and all. I was struck by his calm demeanor. "This is a police state and here's the proof," he said.
He had his confirmation; perhaps there's serenity in that.
Los Angeles is a strange land, one of the strangest. The future of America is already here. There are sharp divisions between rich and poor. There are millions of immigrants. There are gangs, riots, street violence. There is bad air and not enough water. The traffic jams are apocalyptic.
Sometimes the great issues of our day can sound rather abstract, especially when spoken on a stage. To make them come alive, you just need to leave the building and go for a walk if that's still allowed.
We heard last night from his adorable daughter, Karenna Gore Schiff, and from his craggy-faced college buddy, Tommy Lee Jones. The message: Al Gore, despite all appearances, is an actual human being. He's super nice. He does normal-person things all the time. He's only weirdly stiff, mannered, and mechanical on the exterior. You'd really like him if you were to spend twenty or twenty-five years getting to know him.
"He's been the most wonderful father in the whole world," said the adorable daughter.
"He is a good, caring, loving man," said the craggy-faced college buddy.
They painted charming vignettes. Al Gore shooting pool. Al Gore running with the coon dogs through the Tennessee woods. Al Gore slathering butter on the toast in the morning. He helped with the dinosaur diorama! When the kids camped in the backyard igloo, he brought them hot chocolate and warm blankets! What a mensch.
Gore has no choice but to put this stuff out there, because after eight years as vice president, and a quarter century in elected office, he still hasn't succeeded in convincing a majority of Americans that he's likable. A startling poll in USA Today showed that 47 percent of likely voters say there's "no chance whatsoever" they'd ever vote for him. The Gore people have to pray that part of the problem is that Gore still still! hasn't sufficiently introduced himself.
His problem is partly what has been called the High Southern Formal speaking style. It's incorrect to say that Gore speaks down to people, as though they're children. Rather, he speaks as though he's addressing his grandmother in her parlor.
His father spoke in that same tone to his son throughout the lad's childhood. The princeling was to the manor born. Combine that with a tendency toward political caution (a little voice in his head is constantly screaming Danger! Danger!) and you have something that is the opposite of combustible. I think one scientific term that's applicable is "vitrification."
So what we saw last night wasn't the nomination of Al Gore so much as the attempted humanization. As we await his big speech tonight, we have to wonder how far he'll go in his campaign to seem normal. He may bring out a toaster and demonstrate how he makes toast. You'll know he's desperate to win if he shows how he cut the crust off.
The "real" Al Gore has become an almost mythical figure, a chimera, a creature with the head and torso of a politician and the lower body of a normal human being. The Post published an excellent story this morning on the duality of the vice president, the Public Gore versus the Private Gore, and concluded that they co-exist, with remarkably poor integration. I think this duality actually gives Gore much of his sense of humor. Humor, as repeatedly noted in this space, is a phenomenon that involves overlapping but incompatible frames of reference. The tension caused by the collision of these referential frames is released through laughter. Al Gore's entire life very stiff politician co-existing with wise-cracking normal guy is structurally humorous. By strict definition, his life is a joke.
The big danger tonight is that he'll try too hard to deliver the greatest speech by the greatest man and greatest husband and greatest father in the history of the Milky Way Galaxy. Don't be shocked if he tries to get someone to rise from a wheelchair.
Looks like we got us a contest here. Al Gore and George W. Bush have both given first-rate speeches. Though some of us get mileage out of caricaturing the candidates (Gore's dull, Dubya's dumb), the truth is that neither of these guys is some lame party hack or empty suit. There's no Millard Fillmore in this race. (I don't actually know much about President Millard Fillmore, but over the years, for reasons unknown but probably associated with his name, he's become my go-to-guy when I need an example on deadline of an ineffectual, dweeby president.)
Perhaps this upbeat outlook will fade before my plane gets east of the 100th meridian. We've seen elections get ugly round about Labor Day. We've seen stupid, trivial issues grip a campaign and suck up all the attention. We've seen candidates turn themselves completely over to their strategists and handlers and after that all we hear are slogans and sound bites. But this election might actually be full of substance, if the American people can stand it.
Bush and Gore are vigorous, confident, and ready to wrassle. Neither man is a Milquetoast. Gore's march to the podium was punctuated by a spectacularly passionate embrace of his wife. Zowie! For a second there I thought we might be getting into V-chip territory. (Note: From my vantage point within the hall, The Kiss, as it would become known, was dramatic, with elements of zoo-animal public mating, but the TV viewers had a close-up view and could better appreciate the face-mashing intensity of the thing.)
Both candidates came up big when they had to. Bush's speech back in Philadelphia was more eloquent in the sense of being speechwriterly but Gore's achieved the greater miracle, turning a notoriously mannered politician into an authentic character. A simple line "I stand before you as my own man" proved dramatic, a cymbals-crashing declaration of independence from Clinton. The speech was full of policy wonk material, but that's the genuine Gore.
Gore professed humility acknowledging that his Vietnam War service wasn't that dangerous, for example, and later saying that he would never be the most exciting politician but he didn't take it too far. He's trying to become president. He has to fill the arena with his passions and ambitions. He knew why he was there, knew the foundation he was operating from, his debt to his parents, his blessings.
To be a presidential nominee is to be anointed a gladiator. Bush and Gore have steeled themselves for the role. They both pump iron maniacally we've probably never had two candidates in such fighting trim. Bush stood ramrod straight when he delivered his speech in Philadelphia. Gore put a little more body English into his big lines (the passionate words are literally underlined on the TelePrompTer). He'd kind of lurch upward on his tiptoes, as though trying to head a soccer ball. This is physical, heart-pounding, adrenalized work unless you're Joe Lieberman.
When Lieberman took the stage earlier, he radiated an almost unnatural serenity. He's got so much inner peace he might well have decided to take a nap on stage. He did survey the arena a lot, looking up at the nosebleed sections, as though calmly noting the scale of the hall. He was thinking: "Jeepers. Big room. Neat!"
One of the hardest parts of writing about these people is remembering that they're human beings and not just "material." Of course they are not human beings like everyone else. Some politicians have egos that can fill a place like the Staples Center to the rafters. They walk in, see thousands of people waving pennants with their name on it, hear the cheers, acknowledge the screams of adoration, and think: "Why can't there be more red balloons?"
One night at about 11:00 P.M., outside a party, a top adviser to President Clinton said his cell phone had died. He borrowed mine, called the White House (I confirmed this later by scrolling through the phone's call log), and gave the operator my cell phone number. A few minutes later the call arrived. It was, I realized, from the nation's Talker-in-Chief.
Clinton had flown back to Washington already. His wife was campaigning for the Senate, and he had the house to himself. What do you do when you're the president of the United States, alone at home, at 2:00 A.M. Washington time, in the middle of a Democratic National Convention? You could sleep, conceivably. Or you could stay up really late, calling your advisers on their cell phones at parties in Los Angeles and gabbing about the speeches and the latest poll numbers and whether Gore has the right strategy and so on.
I did not eavesdrop, but I kept an eye on my cell phone. They talked for five minutes...ten minutes...twelve minutes, thirteen, fourteen...Lord have mercy, my batteries were going to die! Shut up already!
Eventually the call was over, and I got my cell phone back. I spent the rest of the night in an agitated state, unable to socialize normally. The big guy at the White House still had my number. He'd probably call again. I might have to interrupt a conversation already in progress "Excuse me," I'd say calmly, "I need to take this call from the president."
Copyright © 2001 by Joel Achenbachs
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