Harry Shearer

Episode One
Monday, Aug. 12, 1996

“No Spikes Please.” That’s the deceptively provocative sign on the door of my Republican Convention hotel room. I have driven to the convention because, as an Angeleno, I try to drive everywhere. I came down Saturday afternoon and, despite myself, I still felt some trepidation when, after the nonstop suburbanity of L.A. and Orange Counties, I neared Camp Pendleton and saw the menacing words: “Next Services: 20 Miles.” That’s when all the dubious noises my mother made when I told her I was driving my 12-year-old Volvo down began reverberating in my head.

What brought me to my senses was another sign, in the middle of this desolate Marine base, with scrub-covered hills and power lines to the left, and the ocean to the right, of a very busy freeway: “Caution: Pedestrians Crossing.” We’re all going, at a minimum, 65 miles per hour. Exactly how are we to manifest this caution?

I didn’t expect the combined clout of this gig and my wee-hours commentary on ABC-TV to put me in the penthouse of the official convention hotel, but I wasn’t quite prepared for the place fate, or the Arrangements Committee, did put me: in the hills half an hour northeast of the convention center, at a golf and tennis resort hotel (hence the admonition against spikes). Me and the Kentucky delegation.

I have not picked up my press credentials yet, so I spend Saturday night as a civilian. This means I miss the big party the local paper is throwing for the media, where I would get to be elbow-to-elbow with your Brokaws and your Jenningses. Instead, I park in the bowels of one of downtown’s many arched and marbled tributes to the 1980s, and amble down to the Santa Fe depot just as the “Victory Train” pulls in. I find myself amazingly close to Newt Gingrich. I’m standing right next to him. He has arrived to speak to a rally that I’ve just been asked to leave, due to lack of credentials. As I’m walking away, the speaker at the podium boasts that, unlike at Bill Clinton’s appearance in town some weeks ago, everybody’s welcome here. Somebody forgot to tell security.

A short stroll away is the waterfront. I watch what is touted as the largest fireworks display ever on the West Coast of North America with a crowd of civilians. It’s pretty fine, although when it reaches its several climaxes, the noise the fireworks make sounds very much like a Judas Priest drum solo. We’re told on the PA after the finale that this show was put on not for the Republicans but for the international media assembled at, yes, that big party, where, the voice adds, some of the best chefs in California offered their wares for sampling. My internal grumbler is on again, and I have to remind myself that I had a fine dinner for 60 percent of what it would cost in L.A. I become an example of what I’ve observed so often in the entertainment and media worlds: No matter how much money a person makes, he or she will stop at nothing to get a free meal.

The sound the rally at the depot makes as I’m walking away from it has a palpably nostalgic ring. The trolleys are ringing their bells, the crowd is cheering and chanting, a local party functionary is offering up some tired rhetoric–he even refers to a local Democratic congressman as “comrade.” But it all sounds like hoopla, as opposed to hype–the kind of thing that, when it comes to your town on a warm summer night, could actually communicate some sense of excitement, politics as an event.

Sunday I make my way into Fortress Marriott and pass from hapless civilian to credentialed journalist. To mark the occasion, I am presented with a “goody bag,” contents to be described later. But no sooner do I place the magic lanyard round my neck than David Corn, a writer I know from TheNation, beckons me to watch Dole and Kemp arrive on the Embarcadero. No, we don’t speed down to the location; we watch the event from the outside terrace, where Eli Lilly is preparing to sponsor a lunch for the Arizona delegation. We have a view of the rally from the back, and the model of the White House that showed up on the news is, to us, the back of a stage set, a Potemkin Executive Mansion. The group entertaining the early lunchers as we watch is just what this country needs: a Republican counterpart to the Capitol Steps, a bad off-Broadway voice singing “Lie lie lie, lie lie lie lie lie lie lie” as Bill Clinton’s chorus of “The Boxer.” Please, man, my ribs.

I have come, from attendance at previous conventions, to love roaming through the hall on Sunday. The set is almost in place, the actors–pardon me, the speakers, are rehearsing their lines, and the network news stars are on the floor posing for snapshots with anyone who asks. Clearly this will make the fill-babble on the telecasts, but let me strike first–there is something strange about the shade of red the art director has chosen. It’s not a pure, strong, Republican red. Rather, it’s carmine or something–a little rosy, a little … soft. All the colors they’re splashing on the tiny podium–new touch this year–are soft. We are going to see a pastel Bob Dole.

The afternoon is spent driving to Escondido (Spanish for “hidden”), where Pat Buchanan, having written the platform, is holding what might be called a sweet grapes rally. When I arrive, the media are clustered in a stationary pack at the entrance. There has been, a reporter from the LA Reader tells me, a bomb scare. I think immediately, “Buchanan phoned it in; he has figured out the one legitimate excuse for keeping the press out.” Ultimately, the unclaimed bag in question has been linked to a mortified cameraman, and we’re allowed in. There is, again, the matter of credentials. Despite the cynicism Buchananites maintain toward the four-network hegemony, when it comes to handing out passes, the Buchanan operatives can turn up their noses at minor media with the best of them. I get in, and sit next to a woman who has come out from Boston specifically to attend this rally. She hates Dole, she hates “the clown,” as she calls the president, and she can’t understand why Pat didn’t make it. I leave early.

Because my motto, today at least, is, “No speeches, all schmoozing.” And, I have the text of his speech and it’s on the radio. Why do I need to linger in Escondido, when I can hobnob with the bigwigs at a party downtown, in the neoclassical atrium mall Paladion? I have, after all, felt under-partied. And I am rewarded with a Maalox moment: Arianna Huffington insists on introducing me to Bill Bennett, a man I have called many times on national TV “the most dangerous man in America.” No time now to explain, except to say that if he’d had his way, Newt and Susan Molinari would have paid for their youthful “mistakes” with years of guaranteed hard time. Never have I been gladder to encounter someone who didn’t know who I was.

True to my motto, I miss Newt’s and Kemp’s speeches, though again I am too close to them for the nation’s comfort. Over cigars, drinks and desserts, everyone is sending out trial balloons of enthusiasm over the Kemp choice. Driving back to my new Kentucky home, it occurs to me that maybe Dole has been a sly guy after all: Perhaps he thinks, “Nobody believes that I buy this tax cut stuff; Kemp shoved it down my throat, now let him sell it to the rest of the country while I talk about something sensible.” I take off my spikes and go in.