When I was asked to write the “Diary” this week, I envisioned myself leisurely composing elegant pensées. Little did I expect that my entries would quickly lapse into the Thursday-it- rained-and-Mom-made-spaghetti-for-dinner style of the diary I kept when I was 11 years old. But now, Tuesday morning, just 13 hours after the anticlimactic Iowa caucuses, I’m obsessed with one stark reality: The weather in New York failed to meet expectations. A snow storm has, for the second time in four days, toyed with my attempt to dart home to Manhattan for a brief reunion with my wife, Meryl, and a fresh set of clothes. Without trying to sound like the Odysseus of the campaign trail, I am currently on a Northwest flight from Des Moines to Minneapolis (where I’ll probably be stuck until tomorrow morning), lamenting my failure to fly directly to New Hampshire late last night on a plane of one of the candidates.
(This far-more-disjointed-than-I-would-like narrative now picks up at the Saint Paul Hotel, a charming old-fashioned way station, with a mirrored-glass-and-wood bar so beautiful it can make a drinking man weep, that I discovered while covering Paul Wellstone’s Senate campaign in 1996. This will serve as my base camp for writing my newspaper column and plotting my renewed assault on La Guardia Airport.)
Covering politics is governed by serendipity even more than it is governed by the weather. This principle is illustrated by the way that all day Monday I kept crossing paths with retiring Nebraska Senator Bob Kerrey, who was one of Bill Bradley’s leading surrogates for the Iowa caucuses. (In political lingo, a “surrogate” is a candidate substitute dispatched to second-tier events, not the kind of sexual mentor made famous by Masters and Johnson.)
Footloose political reporters, impatiently waiting for the start of the caucuses, all made a late-morning pilgrimage from Des Moines to Ames, where both George W. Bush and Bradley were addressing lunchtime audiences in the Student Union at Iowa State. (Candidates love college campuses, because they can assemble a crowd with minimal advance work.) As I listened to Bush give the 838th rendition of his standard stump speech, I noticed Kerrey standing on the fringes listening with rapt attention like a theater critic assessing a road-show performance of Cats. I didn’t know Kerrey well, having covered Bill Clinton in 1992 rather than following the senator’s ill-focused presidential campaign that ended with the New Hampshire primary. As a columnist with a scant tolerance for spin, I asked Kerrey off-the-record about Bradley’s problems. Kerrey spoke forcefully about the need to tar Al Gore with complicity in the 1996 campaign-finance scandals, an argument that he noted with approval had been made by Bill Safire in his Monday column in the New York Times.
Recounting this off-the-record conversation does not violate any journalistic confidences because minutes later Kerrey publicly made the same point while introducing Bradley at Iowa State. Invoking Dick Morris and the anything-for-a-buck fund-raising abuses, Kerrey warned that the Republicans would make an issue of the dark side of the Clinton legacy even if Bradley didn’t. The ferocity of his rhetoric reminded me of a conversation I had in late 1998 with a Gore strategist at a time when Kerrey was still mulling a primary challenge to the vice president. My Gore source theorized that Kerrey, if he ran, would be the candidate most likely to go for the jugular because in his second run for the White House he would have nothing left to lose.
My next Kerrey encounter was Monday night at the Fort Des Moines Hotel after Bradley made his concession speech. (Anxious for a respite from the Bradley entourage, I had originally planned to join Gore’s motorcade to the State Fairgrounds, only to stomp off the press bus in frustration after the departure time kept being delayed.) Searching for Wellstone, Bradley’s other senatorial surrogate, in the crowd, I, of course, stumbled on Kerrey. When I was joined by Deborah Orin of the New York Post, Kerrey quizzed both of us as New Yorkers about our views of the New School, whose presidency he is considering accepting. Half an hour later, as I was walking past the bar in the Fort Des Moines on my way back to the Marriott, Kerrey spied me through the window and motioned me over to join him and Bradley speechwriter Rick Stengel (a former Time colleague and, more relevantly, a neighbor who lives just across the courtyard from me in our building on the Upper West Side). By the end of this third conversation, Kerrey and I were the political equivalent of old friends. And I also got a glimpse of the frustrations of a senator haunted by the knowledge that if he were the one opposing Gore, he would be running a very different campaign.
I’ve glossed over the results of the caucuses because, frankly, there isn’t much more to say, a problem that I will soon wrestle with as I write my column. Forbes’ showing vindicated my prior upbeat assessment and liberated me from any further emotional involvement in his fortunes. (That’s it, Steve–no more Mr. Nice Guy.) Reports of Bradley’s imminent demise are, in my view, exaggerated. Alan Keyes’ reward for his third-place finish will likely be intense press scrutiny of his tangled campaign finances. And as for me, sleep-deprived and travel-plagued, I derive sustenance from the knowledge that I never have to set foot in the great state of Iowa until … well … probably 2003.