Chatterbox Demands a Recount!

While most Americans spent the holiday weekend in shorts and T-shirts, and a few of that dwindling band of patriotic orators draped themselves in the flag, Chatterbox donned sackcloth and ashes. There was a reason for this self-flagellation–and it had nothing, absolutely nothing, to do with Nurse Wolf, the New Yorker’s favorite dominatrix. The moon fell on Alabama last Tuesday night when right-wing Gov. Fob James walked away with the GOP primary with 56 percent of the vote, and Chatterbox was humiliated to discover that he was not infallible.

Back on June 12, Chatterbox dashed off one of those oracular sentences beloved by political pundits: “James is going to lose his June 30 run-off primary in Alabama.” True, the last time Chatterbox passed through Alabama was during an all-night drive to Florida as a college student. But such pesky details never deter a columnist from passing off airy speculation as unequivocal fact. After all, who’s going to remember if somehow you turn out to be wrong? Answer: Cursed editors remember, that’s who.

Chatterbox resisted heavy editorial pressure to bring in Floyd Abrams to conduct an internal investigation of this maladroit prediction. Instead, your bloodied, but unbowed, opinion-meister bravely volunteered to delve into the Alabama returns to see if he could come up with a convincing collection of even-David-Broder-couldn’t-have-known excuses. Luckily, most of the political reporters who actually set foot in Alabama were engaged in the same sadder-but-wiser exercise. Here are some of the mitigating factors:

*Even God Didn’t Know: Ralph Reed, the master strategist of the James campaign and the media’s favorite pipeline to the divine will, confessed in a June 23 interview with Larry King that the race was “too close to call right now.”

*Even God Can’t Predict Turnout: As voting increasingly becomes an oddball activity, akin to reading the classics in the original Greek, prognosticators have a devil of a time predicting turnout. As the Washington Post admitted in a post-election analysis, “The one thing that pollsters have trouble gauging is passion and intensity.” Fearing a national conspiracy by secular humanists to dethrone Alabama’s up-with-Christianity governor, rural conservatives flocked to the polls in unanticipated numbers to re-elect James.

*You Can’t Beat God and Race in Alabama: Long after Chatterbox made his fatal prediction, Richard Arrington, Birmingham’s five-term black Democratic mayor, endorsed Republican Winton Blount, James’ primary rival. Rather than attracting cross-over Democratic voters, the Arrington endorsement brought out the George Wallace backlash vote of yesteryear. Last-minute TV ads and fliers distributed by the James campaign denounced Arrington as “a liberal Democratic political boss.” Just so nobody missed the racial motif, Arrington’s picture was displayed prominently.

*God Help the Pundits: Chatterbox freely concedes that he is best equipped to handicap primaries in Sodom and Gomorrah. As USA Today columnist Richard Benedetto provocatively argues in today’s paper, the outside experts who ridiculed James as a “buffoon” failed “to take into account that many people in Alabama take their religion seriously.”

Ralph Reed Redux

All this brings us back to Chatterbox’s obsession with Ralph Reed, whom the press, along with many secular Republicans, revere for his seemingly miraculous ability to turn old-time religion into new-era votes. Reed presumably helped develop James’ victorious strategy to turn Richard Arrington into Willie Horton for the 1990s. That style of racial demagoguery, of course, comes right out of the late Lee Atwater’s Republican playbook.

But, holy smokes, hasn’t Reed piously disowned that kind of soulless, win-at-cost politics?

God’s favorite strategist certainly took the moral high ground in a lengthy January interview in the New York Times Magazine. He began by admitting that he had been “trained in the Southern Republican political operative school–for which Lee Atwater set the tone.” But this attack-dog past was merely prelude for Reed’s moment of revelation. As he told the ever-gullible Times, “My thinking totally changed to let’s be sure that every word we speak, every meditation of our hearts is something we will be able to stand before a judgment seat and not be ashamed of.”

Chatterbox, who never loses his child-like amazement at the humbug and hypocrisy of modern politics, can come up with only three possible explanations for the seeming contradiction between Reed’s high-minded comments and the down-and-dirty conduct of James’ campaign:

1). Reed stubbornly believes that he did a Good Thing in aiding and abetting James and will boast of it when he stands before the judgment seat;

2). Reed believes that God has a hidden permissive streak when it comes to Alabama politics; or

3). Reed was totally out of the loop, and deserves none of the credit he has received for James’ come-from-behind primary victory.

Meanwhile, Reed has now reached a peak of media celebrity that rivals Zsa Zsa Gabor’s achievement of being famous for being famous. The GOP strategist is now adoringly quoted even when he admits he hasn’t a clue. As Reed put it in the kicker of a front-page New York Times story today on the battle for control of the House, “The big question that none of us has been able to answer is what happens with the scandal?”

God only knows, Ralph.

Walter Shapiro