Tuesday, Aug. 27, 1996
Before arriving in Chicago, I promised myself that whatever happened, I wouldn’t write some whining self-referential story about not being able to get my press credentials. But damn it, I haven’t been able to get my press credentials, despite several tiresome visits to the hotel where they are theoretically available, and despite several phone calls between, variously, the convention press office, assorted SLATE honchos, and myself.
What bothers me isn’t so much my failure to secure my credentials–I’m told that’s pretty much par for the course at events like these. No, what’s genuinely provoking is the attitude of the people who control the credentials. They apparently have day jobs in the Senate and House press galleries, and they are a living embodiment of Hamlet’s phrase, “the insolence of office.” They seem to be taking positive delight in maximizing my inconvenience. As one man invaded my personal space this morning, gesturing emphatically with his index finger, wheezing his refusal into my face, I had the feeling I had made his day simply by providing him an opportunity to throw his weight around. If all bureaucrats were as smirkingly unhelpful and arrogant as this batch, I’d be tempted to give up my Democrat’s faith in government. Hell, I’d be tempted to give up my faith in the humanrace.
CNN party last night. As Laura and I entered, we encountered George Stephanopoulos staggering in the other direction. “It’s hellish in there!” he gasped, as he groped for the exit. I don’t know it if it was an especially hot ticket or whether the organizers simply cast their net wide, but the entire population of the city of Chicago as well as every Democrat in the continental United States was present. Plus, mysteriously, Haley Barbour! It was, in consequence, very hot, very stuffy, and very, very crowded–so crowded that the main room was completely unattainable, glimmering in the distance like the Emerald City of Oz. And the din was overwhelming, bad enough that no meaningful conversation was possible. Meaningless conversation wasn’t much easier.
One CNN employee suggested to Laura and me that his network has a bit of an inferiority complex, and hence needed to throw the biggest, most over-populated bash conceivable. It succeeded. My voice is still hoarse from trying to tell Laura we should leave. I began making these suggestions the moment we arrived, and I suppose must finally have gotten through to her around the time we fought our way through the throng and exited.
Because this convention is even more of a coronation than most (and let’s face it, both parties’ conventions have been first-ballot charades for a couple of generations now, with all suspense artificial and extrinsic), the press is eager for any snippet of anything even remotely resembling controversy. And only one issue qualifies: the president’s having signed the welfare bill. A vast majority of the delegates, I’d hazard, disapprove strongly. And I’m one non-delegate who shares that feeling. But when I encounter really vehement opposition–opposition without nuance or any semblance of political sophistication, I find myself veering nauseatingly in Al From’s direction.
Last night, after escaping from the CNN shindig, Laura and I had dinner with a certain media mogul, or at least moguloid, and he began twitting her about the welfare bill. Hadn’t the president alienated his base, this man demanded. How did Laura herself feel about it? Why did the president do it? Didn’t it qualify as cynical opportunism?
Laura finally got impatient. “What would your paper have said,” she countered, “if he had vetoed the bill?”
The man smiled thinly. “We would have said it was a suicidal act of political idiocy,” he conceded.
There is a classic chess game, Capablanca-Marshall, New York, 1918. Frank Marshall, the American champion, had devised an ingenious attack in the Ruy Lopez opening, and, showing extraordinary restraint, kept it in his pocket for 10 years, waiting for an opportunity to play it against an opponent worthy of the innovation. The occasion finally arose when he found himself on the black side of the board across from Jose Raoul Capablanca, not yet world champion, but already generally conceded to be the world’s best player. When Marshall made the move that defines the gambit, the Cuban walked right into the complications, wittingly or not. And over the board, having had no advance preparation or warning, he nevertheless succeeded in finding perfect move after perfect move, suffering a terrible pounding, often apparently one maneuver away from catastrophe, but always managing to hold on. And when the smoke cleared, when Marshall’s assault finally petered out, Capablanca was sitting on a strategically won game, which he polished off in his characteristic economical style. The game is now rated one of the greatest defensive efforts in the literature.
The last two years of the Clinton administration remind me of this game. Rocked back on his heels by the 1994 Republican sweep, unable to take any initiative, an apparent lame duck halfway through his term, the president was forced to play a restricted and reactive role. He was nevertheless little short of brilliant in that role, finding ways to frame the dialectic that made the Gingrich revolution appear mean-spirited and negative. (The fact that it was mean-spirited and negative made the task easier, no doubt.) It’s true that the president had a lot of assistance from the Republican Congress, which badly misjudged its own situation, but then, Marshall didn’t play perfectly against Capablanca either. He merely played well enough that almost any other opponent would have collapsed.
It seems silly to me, after what happened in 1994, to take Clinton to task for failing to lead some sort of political crusade. He was forced to play defense. He had to back and fill, he had to acquiesce in some things which I at least hope he found distasteful. But still, he conducted himself effectively enough so that the country was spared the brunt of the Contract With America. It’s unreasonable, given political realities, to have asked much more of him than that.
I received my press credentials this afternoon, at long last. Dealings with the press office had become so overtly rancorous that when I was finally handed my documents, it was difficult to know how to act. We were all elaborately courteous with one another and carefully avoided any eye contact. I thanked everyone effusively. They assured me I was entirely welcome. The woman I had called “officious” yesterday gave me a benign smile. The man who this morning assured me he would not give me any credentials made an apologetic little joke when he requested my ID. We were like Germany and the United States after World War II.