Friday, Aug. 16, 1996
It could be a sickness. It’s definitely An American Thing, this easy susceptibility to nostalgia. Someone said nostalgia is America’s substitute for history. I am sick of this place, of the terrible television show we’ve agreed to be forced to watch. It has become one of the week’s instant clichés to refer to the convention as an infomercial, but it’s worse than that. It has elements of the post-Percodan Jerry Lewis Telethon, and that deep-voiced announcer who introduces most of the people who magically appear at the podium is straight from the People’s Choice Awards. And yet, I’m beginning, as this day starts, to feel nostalgic for all this.
It’s sad. I feel nostalgic when 30-second commercials come to an end. But as I go through the metal detector out in front of the Convention Center and engage in the light banter with the security people that is the unique hallmark of easy-going San Diego, I’m thinking to myself, with a teary catch in my inner voice, “This is the last time I’ll be going through this particular metal detector.” I’ve come to the hall in the late morning to make yet another television appearance. “Face time,” they call it in Washington, that all-important measure of getting your puss on the tube. I’ve come specifically to be on CNN’s TalkBack Live, a show which has booked me, Fred Travalena, and the Capitol Steps for yet another of those dreary mastications of the subject of political humor. An earlier chapter of this diary has made clear my lack of affection for the all-too-cabaret act of the Steps, D.C.’s court jesters, but this week I’ve shared a stage with Orrin Hatch, so it’s a little late to draw fine aesthetic lines. The show’s egregiously pseudointeractive pose is perfectly exemplified by the first question from the studio audience, folks in shorts who are sitting in the giant atrium mall of CNN Center in Atlanta, their words piped into one of those little things in my ear. Anchor Susan Rook points her big ol’ mike at a 10- or 11-year-old black boy, who pauses for a moment, and then tells us, and the world that watches CNN, “Uhhh … I don’t remember.” After the show, apologies from the staff are profuse, and I’m offered some free CNN food. Ted, the pasta with hot peppers was okay, the chicken breast was a little tough.
Upstairs above the hall, I make a sentimental journey back along the tacky souvenir stands that had seemed so funny yesterday. Today, a bittersweet shadow falls across them. I would never again see former FBI agent Gary Aldrich sitting at a table autographing copies of his screed about the Clintons. My reverie is broken, fortunately, by Bob Dornan’s son, a redheaded, ponytailed kid who has his father’s pipes. “Harry!” he barks. He wants to tell me how ticked off his dad was that convention officials had excised a Dornan video from this evening’s schedule. They had script approval, he says, it was only 60 seconds long, but they axed it for–and he winks knowingly at the deceit–scheduling reasons. “I told my father last night,” he confides as we leave the souvenirs behind, “that he’s a man without a party.”
I’m now armed with something very dangerous, the nugget of something that might be the teensiest bit newsy. Like anybody who’s just heard that a celebrity died, I can’t wait to tell the people I run into next, who happen to be a WashingtonPost reporter and a floor correspondent for CNN. Suddenly, I’m a source. Not that reliable, as things turn out.
Thank God people at conventions wear name tags, or I would never have recognized the guy who introduces himself to me in the front foyer of the hall. Long ago, when Bob Dole was still married to Phyllis, I worked for a year at the California State Legislature as an intern. There were 10 of us, and eight or nine were liberal Democrats. One guy was a die-hard Goldwater Republican, as they were then known, who had a brittle kind of sense of humor about his lonely status. Now, he tells me, he’s a $25-thou-a-year contributor to the party, a member of some gold or platinum circle, and retired. A person my age is retired! The Republicans, as Fitzgerald didn’t say to Hemingway, are different from you and me.
The convention universe is a Newtonian one, and there is an equal and opposite reaction to Ted Koppel’s departure. The backlash has started, and it takes this form, expressed to me by several journalists: Ted knew there was no news here before he came. One goes further: It’s legitimate to be here because, whatever this is, it’s part of “the national conversation.” By that debased standard, the Psychic Friends Network is part of the national conversation. Let’s face it: If the conventions were held in October, when the networks have new programming and the potential audience level is much higher, they’d have been out of here, all of them, faster than you can say “Nielsen.” The only reason we’re having this discussion about the national conversation is because it’s August, a garbage month for the networks.
A perk of hanging around CNN is that I’m included in the paper flow not normally directed to lonely scribes. Specifically, I’m walking around with a copy of tonight’s schedule. It is, as you may have heard, timed down to the minute. As in: 07:12-07:52: Acceptance Speech. 07:52-07:57: Floor Demonstration. Applause is listed and scheduled. Nonetheless, Kemp goes on significantly early. I’m down on the floor, utilizing a borrowed pass to slither among the delegations like a regular Cokie Roberts. There are speeches preceding Kemp, and like all the early speeches on all the other nights, they are delivered to an audience that is chatting, mingling, ignoring the speaker. It’s not an enviable task to stand at that podium in this long and narrow hall, and try to speak above what sounds like Extremely Happy Hour at TGI Friday’s. Tonight, it’s worse, because the delegates are hit with a wave of nostalgia, too, and they’re all taking snapshots of each other to prove they were here. Kemp speaks in an enthusiastic monotone, what a magazine reporter I run into later describes as “that ‘80s motivational-speaker thing.”
Arianna Huffington bustles past me on the floor, crowing that “we’ve got an embargoed copy of Dole’s speech and,” eyes twinkling at the notion, “he calls himself the most optimistic man in America. And it’s underlined!” When I get back to my allotted little space in Press Row, a vantage point from which you can see only the delegates, not the podium, I find that we’ve all been given embargoed copies of the speech, and that he does call himself that. I know what Dole’s going for there: Someone on his staff understands that Americans only like to elect two kinds of presidents, happy conservatives and tough liberals–but in a speech that relies on building an image of trustworthiness for Bob Dole, it’s a foolish and obvious lie. Ronald Reagan on his worst day is more optimistic than Bob Dole at his sunniest. It’s as audacious as if Richard Nixon had said to the ‘72 convention, “Hey, I’m a people person.”
Bob Dornan does appear on video, for about a second and a half. Somebody’s made a deal. Somebody’s got a party. My chance at the $25 for best news tip of the week is down the toilet. Then, suddenly, the way these things happen, without warning, large areas of the floor are declared no-go zones. It’s the preparation for Bob Dole’s entrance. Liddy did a walk-and-talk, as they call it in TV news, last night, and it got a great reaction from the TV people. Of course it did. She mastered one of their skills. Outside the convention hall every day, you could see local guys from around the country rehearsing their walk-and-talk, starting over, getting their stride right, trying to remember to look at the camera, and you might understand why the network folks bought Liddy’s act. So if she walked and talked, the least Bob Dole could do is walk, strolling slowly toward the stage, shaking hands. When he finally gets to the podium and starts to talk, he ad-libs for two minutes before getting on the text. The sound I thought I heard was antacids being gobbled in the Dole strategists’ trailer as they waited for him to start reading the damn script.
I end up buying a velvet Gingrich painting. It was the last day, they were making deals, and a friend of mine is in GOPAC, and, hey, Christmas is not that far away. Exiting the convention hall for the last time would have had more of a glow, but for the pro-abortion, pro-gay-rights demonstrators who stood blocking my route to the parking lot, yelling and waving placards at the departing Republicans. Look, gay rights and choice are all very well, but they’re not worth making me walk two blocks out of my way. I had dinner in, imagine this, an Italian restaurant in the old-town district, with a bunch of editors from Money magazine, including one woman who thought Dole’s speech was effective, partly because it’s about time we got tough on crime.
And then, thanks to a tip from a CNN reporter and a spare pass handed to me by a friendly stranger, I’m riding up in a freight elevator to a party in honor of Ohio Rep. John Boehner (pronounced “bay-ner,” come on) in a converted warehouse called, naturally, “the best little warehouse in San Diego.” I meet a congresswoman from East Seattle, and we make the minutest of small talk about whether Microsoft’s campus is in her district. My departure is delayed by a young reporter from NationalJournal who earnestly passes on the word that Dole is coming in. Really. A party that I’ve entered with a borrowed pass, where the Secret Service hasn’t bothered to sweep the crowded, poorly lit room, is going to be visited by The Nominee. I tell her I’m old enough to remember when every party was enlivened by a rumor that Bob Dylan was about to make an appearance. She looks at me with the ruefulness unique to a journalist caught acting gullible.
I promised an inventory of my goody bags: A box of Hefty One-Zip storage bags “from your friends at Tenneco,” a plastic Budweiser beer stein, a kiss-ass letter to delegates from the local NPR station, free Windows software to purchase flights on the official airline of the convention, a mini-pak of Dole raisins and a Dole-provided cookbook called “Fun With Fruits and Vegetables,” a polo shirt from a “premier money manager” who’s a “proud sponsor” (where are the shamefaced sponsors when you need them?), free temporary e-mail software for Windows, a Neiman-Marcus catalog called TheBook, a free copy of George, a George T-shirt, and a packet of cookies from my friends at the San Diego Zoo.
I’m too nostalgic for conclusions, but one thing seems clear: Republicans are not Mac people.