Ambassador Duke

COON RAPIDS, Minn., Sept. 14, 2000—Hosed again. Bowing to pressure from the sole female director on its board, Valvoline just withdrew as the Official Lubricant of the Duke2000 campaign.

It’s been that kind of day.

It began at 7:30 in the morning, with a long, snotty phone rant from an attorney representing Kathie Lee Gifford. Four months ago, with great fanfare, I had selected Kathie Lee to be my vice-presidential running mate, and apparently, she had just gotten wind of it. Under no circumstances, her attorney shrieked, under absolutely no circumstances, would Ms. Gifford ever consent to even meeting me (a lost, moot point since I’d already had my picture taken with her outside of Cats in 1992), much less join me on the Duke2000 ticket. He went on to demand that I cease and desist in any further attempt to exploit his client’s good name and reputation.

I asked the lawyer, Harrington S. Boyden III, what he would do if I persisted in using Kathie Lee’s name in conjunction with the campaign. He told me, and then I asked him if his response (“I’ll cut your fucking nuts off”) was for publication in Slate. He said no. I then briefly mocked him for his naiveté and hung up.

If the Kathie Lee Gifford appointment goes south, as it now appears it might, it’ll be a bitter pill for this campaign to swallow. You can’t imagine how long we’d agonized over whether the public would accept a Hebrew-American as vice president, and how vindicated we felt when Gore stole our idea a couple of months later. Looking back on it, perhaps we presumed too much, but at the time, the choice of Kathie Lee Gifford, nee Epstein, seemed a slam-dunk.

Why? Because in the first place, although she was technically Jewish, she was obviously a New Testament kind of gal, embracing not the reproachful, genocidal God of Abraham, but the more inclusive, caring God, Jesus’ Dad, the benign shepherd and protector of people like little Cody and his sister. At least that’s what her publicist fed me. I have to say, I originally had my doubts, because if the sweatshops showed us anything, it was that this woman’s executive style is strictly Deuteronomy. But as I thought it over—and I recalled her brief flirtation with Jesus (and everybody else) during her talk show stint—I realized that the lack of specificity about her religion, coupled with the novelty of her race, could make Duke2000 a magnet for the diversity crowd, for Minority Nation, which grows every night there’s cloud cover over the Rio Grande.

There were other reasons, many of them honorable. First, there was the compassion angle: In a full-employment economy, Kathie Lee Gifford was out of work. The woman couldn’t get arrested on a SAG picket line. Secondly, there was the Kathie Lee persona. Where many people see a silly, irritating celebrity, I see headline bait—guaranteed, wall-to-wall coverage in the supermarket media from now until November. And lastly, she’s perky. I think the American people want perkiness in a veep, and we haven’t had it since, well, you’d have to go all the way back to Dan Quayle.

Of course, we knew the risks in choosing her, and now there’ll be lots of finger pointing and recriminations within the campaign over what went wrong in the vetting process. It’s true the pool of plausible candidates was a little thin last summer, as Dubya found out when he had to settle for a running mate with a serious heart condition. But why didn’t we go for someone else on the short-list—Jesse Ventura, for instance, or the delightful Pamela Lee Anderson, or Pablo Escobar, who would have been so helpful in raising cash? (I did actually put out feelers to Escobar last spring, but I was told there were citizenship issues, plus there was some concern on the staff that he might be dead.) Of course, none of this matters now—we’ve made our choice, and there’s no turning back. Whether we like it or not, the facts on the ground include Kathie Lee Gifford, her attorney, and her two scary children. We’ll just have to work around them.