MARCH 10, 1996
It's an hour before the final New Hampshire debate. I thought that by arriving early I might sneak into the back of the studio with the candidates or, at any rate, find some way to avoid the sensory deprivation chamber where they stuff the journalists. I was out of luck. Already, the candidates are safely inside, Morry Taylor's Land Yachts hog all available parking, the police haul away thugs and a phalanx of guards blocks the front door of the television station. The perhaps 400 demonstrators in the dark snow drifts are the loudest and, seemingly, the most scary yet; look closer and you can see that it is just a bunch of kids holding signs that say "balance the budget."
The first rule of campaign journalism is to look as if you belong where you don't; and so I summon a false sense of entitlement and stride through the glass doors of the television station. Alas, within seconds I am surrounded by cops, who drag me before a man with a wire coming out of his ear and a woman holding a clipboard. I had to say something so I said, absurdly, "I have an urgent message for Morry Taylor." But before they have time to throw me back out into the snow the doors blow open and New Hampshire Senator Bob Smith, pretending not to regret endorsing Phil Gramm, marches through, together with Jim Courtovitch, Gramm's campaign manager. I say hello to Jim, who in the spirit of democratic politics has forgiven me for writing nastily about his boss. ("I had to explain to him what a foot masturbator was," he says, spinning even in the grave.) It's easy for him to be magnanimous; he has had many job offers since Gramm withdrew from the race. Go bankrupt in business, and you are a pariah. Go belly up in politics, and you are hot property. The cops let him pass.
But something good has happened. Having seen me shaking hands with a bigwig, the woman with the clipboard is much less inclined to chuck me out into the snow. We chat. Each candidate is allowed only five staffers, she explains sadly, and so if there are five with Morry Taylor I am out of luck, no matter how urgent my message. I bluff: Morry came with only four, I say, he's waiting for me. She checks the guest list. Amazingly, I'm right.
Upstairs is indeed the inner sanctum of Republican presidential politics: the candidates, their aides and a handful of ABC's biggest clients. The only two journalists are Tim Russert of "Meet the Press" and Howard Fineman of Newsweek, both of whom have the air of men who have been invited. The candidates are enclosed in glass offices with their five advisers. Richard Lugar is writing out his remarks longhand; Lamar Alexander is scheming; Morry is drinking a glass of red wine and reciting into a dull beige wall. As usual Bob Dole has the biggest space and the special privileges: all the political bigshots who have endorsed him--Governors Weld, Merrill, Branstad, etc.--have been let in with their guests, too. The Dole people try to create a sanctum within the sanctuary. They rope themselves off from the other candidates.
The debate lasts ninety minutes and, while it is no doubt tedious to anyone who hasn't followed the eight remaining candidates, it is the highest entertainment for those few of us who have. It's like watching a B movie: everyone remains in character. Bouncing up and down like a Puerto Rican shortstop, Lamar lashes into Dole while at the same time decrying negative advertising; Steve Forbes lashes into Lamar about his personal finances, prompting Lamar to lash back; Pat Buchanan lashes into "Mister Greenspan and Mister Rubin," thus creating job opportunities for anti-anti-Semites; Morry lashes into the English language. Between Morry's brain and Morry's mouth all manner of strange events occur; for instance, "practicality" becomes "pracality." In the space of five minutes he is capable of referring to himself as a "country pumpkin," or claiming that he bought his wife a "Norman Mailer dress" or speaking soaringly of America as "that shining city in the sky."
Dole for his part mutters disconnected phrases in response to the attacks on him from all sides. He treats the event as he treats the press and the voters--as an undignified distraction from his lifelong quest for the White House. "It's an abomination," a Dole aide later tells me, "that Bob Dole has to share a platform with Morry Taylor." But it's worse than that: Dole has arrived at the point where he needs Morry to defend him. "Senator Dole," Morry says in his closing remarks, "he's been a champion, a good old warhorse for the Republican Party. He's taken all the blows they whack at him tonight." Good old Morry.
The debate produces one memorable moment, when Dole waves a few snapshots and tries to make a joke of Steve Forbes's advertising about him. "They didn't even use a good picture of me," Dole says, "so Steve, I brought some pictures. So if you are going to use negative ads--"
"Senator, no pretty picture can get around what you've done on taxes," replies Forbes.
"Yeah, yeah. I know your problem," says Dole. "You've got a lot of money. You're trying to buy this election."
The joke's gone sour; Dole's gone sour; there is an awkward moment when Dole fumbles the snapshots with his left hand to Bob Dornan on his right, who passes them on to Forbes, who doesn't even bother to look at them. The biggest winner is B-1 Bob Dornan, who now produces a foot-high blowup of himself holding his grandchild. The timing is so perfect that it looks planned, but it is a stroke of pure luck--Dornan had no idea Dole was going to turn up with pictures. Like all the luck in this campaign, it isn't Dole's. You know you have hit bottom when you are successfully parodied by Bob Dornan.
As the debate winds down, we the elect are led downstairs to the studio, together with George Stephanopoulos, who is on hand to answer for the president. We enter the room with the candidates as the final insults hurtle through the air. Amid the confusion there are a couple of things worth noticing. One is the alacrity of the Alexander people. They rush in like an Indy 500 pit crew, clean away the notes Alexander has taken at the podium and sweep him away in a concerned flutter. That man is handled! The other point of interest was all the stuff the candidates left behind on their desks; even the Alexander people permitted a piece of paper on which the candidate had scribbled notes to flutter to the ground. It said:
Let people decide Best ever Forb dull
As if to retaliate, Forbes left behind a war of chicken scratches, which read in part:
Taxes-flat. Confidence Flat tax. Alex-s Flat tax-business Alexander # tax
Which about summed up their jousting war for third place. But as George Stephanopoulos licked his chops like the Cowboys before a Super Bowl and prepared to tell the world that Bill Clinton was not complacent and that he was taking this very seriously, I noticed the photographs. They lay on the shelf beneath Forbes's podium. They were not prints but originals, curled and soiled, as if they have been sitting in some shoebox for years until Dole stumbled across them late one night while he was worrying about how to retaliate against Steve Forbes in the big debate. Two are color: a bad one of Liddy, stunning in the flesh, looking tired and plain; a better one of Dole's dog, Leader, rubbing noses with a yellow lab (see page 24). The third is a black and white of Dole smiling broadly and holding a baby. He looks twenty years younger. The black pen he clutches to keep his right arm in place juts up and is set off by the baby's white gown (see cover). Dole is looking at the camera; the baby is looking at Dole's gnarled, wounded hand.
I ask five different Dole aides the identity of the baby held by Dole in the photograph he gave to Forbes. It seems an innocent enough query--after all, this was the picture Dole had selected for publication. I get no answer. The basic pose of the Dole campaign is the less anyone finds out about their candidate the better. You can spot the Dole office in the row of glass boxes on the ground floor of the Holiday Inn: it's the one with newspaper taped up on the glass to prevent people from looking in. Dole himself remains largely out of sight: he makes two or three very brief appearances each day and is otherwise unavailable for interviews.
Dole's speeches add nothing to the general blank picture. A dozen times I listened to his talk, pen poised idly over paper. Nothing. Not a thought, not an image, not a quote. It took me awhile to figure out why this was, but then it struck me: Bob Dole wasn't running for president. The concept of Bob Dole was running; the man himself had subcontracted out all the dirty work to people who make their careers out of this sort of thing. That was why he was referring to himself in the third person. He wasn't there, at least not in any meaningful way.
It turns out that everything I will discover about Bob Dole I will discover by stealth. My first discovery: he's embarrassed by his own vanity. I catch him in a back room at one event just before he's about to go on stage. He thinks no one is looking. He checks out his reflection furtively--his hair is sprayed and dyed--and then whips out of his pocket a tiny canister and squirts two quick blasts of breath spray into his mouth. His wit is also genuine; it's not just an act. I stalk him through the snow at the world dog-sledding championship and watch him meet and greet the pooches. A schoolgirl approaches him as he's about to leave and, after nabbing a photo, asks him if he's had fun. "You learn a lot out here campaigning," Dole says, motioning to a sled of twenty dogs. "They're all nice dogs, too. Not like the Congress." He thinks no one is listening. He said it just for the fun of it.
All other data about Bob Dole must be inferred from the world he has created around himself. The Dole campaign consists of slick young men in blue suits forever whispering to each other in dark corners. The campaign pays top dollar for everything, and I get the feeling that most who work for it have some personal financial stake in Dole soldiering on and that they'll be the last to tell him that really he shouldn't be doing this again. You also get the feeling that there is very little the campaign would not do. One of their favorite techniques has been to hire telemarketing firms to call Buchanan supporters and, in the guise of pollsters, relate damning untruths. (Why not? It worked on Forbes in Iowa.) In response to Buchanan's complaints, the Dole people tell reporters that Buchanan is doing the calling to a few of his supporters to tar Dole.
It takes a special sort of credulity to believe them. I stopped half a dozen people carrying Buchanan signs who told the same stories of strange phone calls in the night. One afternoon I abandoned the Dole campaign for the steam room at the Manchester ymca to purge myself of the dreadful feeling coming over me. A few minutes later an extremely fat old man waddles in, spies me, drops his towel and sits on a plastic stool right next to me. "You're a new face," he says, "I always notice a new face." I say that's nice, grab for a towel and tell him I came for the campaign. He shifts on his stool and says, "I'm a Buchanan man, myself." (Buchanan men are the kind of guys who can sidle up to other guys in steam rooms without the slightest fear of being thought gay.) Moments later he's complaining about the calls he's been getting at home. Here, roughly, is what he said:
A guy calls. He says, "Hi, my name is William, and I'm calling from the Dole campaign. Are you aware that Pat Buchanan is an extremist?" And I say: "Whad-daya mean?" And he says, "Pat wants to give nuclear weapons to South Korea and Japan." So I ask him: "Where does this information come from?" He says he doesn't know. So I ask him: "What does Bob Dole think about that?" And this kid doesn't know that, either. He knows absolutely nothing about Bob Dole. So I ask: "Who are you anyway?" And he says he's with an organization called the National Research Institute in Houston. So I ask him for his phone number. And he says he can't give it to me. Then he hangs up.
There is, of course, no listing in Houston for the National Research Institute.
In short, the Dole campaign is a lot like what a lot of people probably suspect the Buchanan campaign is: closed, secretive, smug, a bit nasty. Maybe that's what happens when you lose once too often: you stop trusting the voters. By contrast, the Buchanan campaign is open, honest, friendly and helpful. Buchanan has campaigned honorably with a decent respect for the process. He has put himself before the press and been very open about what he believes. On the other hand you can only afford to campaign dirty if no one expects you to.
And yet I still want badly to like the man; I'll bet Dole is the guy in the race that people most badly want to like but can't quite figure out how to do it. Every night after a day with Dole I return home and recall to my mind a pair of mental pictures that the day has badly blemished. The first is the one of Dole recuperating from his war wounds as described by Richard Ben Cramer: hanging by his bad right arm and trying to straighten it out until he was sweating and crying from the pain. The second is a windy afternoon last June in a graveyard on the French coast, when Dole says he realized he had to run for president one last time. I had traveled there on Clinton's plane to witness the D-Day celebrations, but about halfway through I lost interest in writing about it and just started watching. You gazed down the cliff on the beach and just marveled: how did these men do this? Just before Clinton addressed the veterans of the Normandy invasion I found myself walking alone through the rows of white crosses until I reached a place where there was no one else but a pair of veterans. They seemed ancient though, of course, they could not have been much older than Bob Dole. They were trembling and leaning on each other as they looked down on a cross, and at first I thought it was just from the strains of age. Then I saw the name and place on the cross: Stenson (I'll say) from Mississippi; the boy had died at the age of 19 on the first day of the invasion. The old men wore name tags, too. Stenson from Mississippi. Two of three brothers had survived that day. They were crying without tears.
That's a bit like Dole, I would like to believe. He is crying without tears. He has the emotions, or at least you can sense them lurking inside him, but he has no idea how to give them proper expression.
Dole's February 19:
A rally at the Town Hall in Milford on the eve of what may be Dole's final New Hampshire primary. A large crowd has gathered outside the red brick fort, but, as usual, half of it consists of journalists and Buchanan supporters there to dance on the grave. This evening the local fire marshal, who has somehow gotten involved, is allowing only a relative handful into the hall to hear Dole speak. The rest will have to stand in the snow and the dark and stare into the bluff facade of the Town Hall, from which Dole's voice is piped. But, just when they shut the door for the last time and say no one else will be let in, a pair of bigfooting journalists cuts through the crowd. Robert Novak climbs the steps with Jonathan Alter right behind. The crowd and the fire marshal part for Novak, and the large wooden door opens for just long enough to let him through. Then, bam! The gates of paradise shut fast in Alter's face.
"What are you doing?!" wails Alter. "Bob Novak and I were together."
The fire marshal stonewalls him.
"I'm from Newsweek!" shouts Alter.
The chief seems even less impressed, but Alter wants to get in more than the chief wants to keep him out. Invoking Newsweek and Novak he finally gets in ... and then out again. Like just about every other journalist he has concluded that nothing is to be gained from watching Dole in the flesh.
The act, I should say, is always the same. The announcer brings on stage one at a time all the politicians who have endorsed Dole; they race out onto the stage like ballplayers before a game. Dole waits in the background until the crowd reaches a low fever pitch. A quick squirt of the breath spray and he's on. He stands at the podium with his left foot and left side jutted forward, though he is right-handed. His crippled right hand rests on the podium, but it's not a prop. He'll start in with something self-deprecating: "That's a lot better than the speech is going to be," something like that.
Presently the voice of Dole emanates from the Town Hall's faiade. It's not so much a speech as a series of disconnected phrases uttered in an elegiac tone, some of which cause the people around me to break out into giggles. ("Like everyone else in this room I was born.") A Dole speech sounds like the sort of thing a red brick building would say if a red brick building could speak. He pulls the rhythms of his One America refrain up short just as it starts to flow.
"We're not rich, we're not poor, we're not urban, we're not rural, we're not black, we're not white, uh--you can go on and on and on and on."
I have a dream, kind of. And gentleman in England now abed ... well ... I dunno ... maybe they should get up.
It is more like the Cliff Notes of a Great Speech than the speech itself. The only lines Dole can deliver with any kind of strength sound like they were cribbed from Robert's Rules of Order: "Start the hearings. Go through the process. Do it in an orderly way." The whole time Dole is speaking, it is as if he is saying: This is the speech I would give you if I was the sort of person who gives speeches. I'm not sure whether Dole is actually modest or simply embarrassed by immodesty.
I leave thinking that a man like this runs for the presidency not because he thinks he should be president. He thinks no one else should be president, so it might as well be him. But before I do, I land in trouble again.
Normally I don't argue with the supporters. There's no point--their views are their identity. Nothing you can tell even the most phlegmatic follower of Dick Lugar will shake his faith in his man; it will only make him think worse of you. And so I should have known better than to open my trap at the back of a crowd in Milford; but I was tired, the hour was late. "If Clinton had been 19 in 1941 he would have been a war hero, too," I said to a pair of old men wearing Dole stickers. "And if Dole had been 19 in 1969 he would have found a way to avoid the war." What had been until then a pleasant conversation turned sour. There was no place here for a heretic; but if not here and now, where and when?
Buchanan's February 19:
I skip an early Dole event to go with Buchanan. I assume that if I feel this way a lot of voters must, too. But following Buchanan is suddenly not so easy, unless of course you want to ride on the press bus. With a pair of fellow scribes I whip out of the parking lot in my Nissan Pathfinder and immediately come upon a minivan parked in an alleyway. A strangely familiar hand karate chops out of the passenger window. Buchanan! He's making some point to an enterprising journalist who has caught him ducking out of the back of the hotel. My colleague James Bennet of The New York Times races out to catch the exchange. "Is it true that you said that Hitler was a man of courage?" asks the English journalist. Buchanan just breaks out into delighted laughter. We start out right on his tail, but soon there are about six other cars filled with TV crews and photographers speeding past us in the emergency lane, competing to suck Buchanan's exhaust. Crazy people, willing to risk life and limb on the off chance that Buchanan stops at Dunkin' Donuts.
Buchanan is meant to tour a lumber mill an hour or so north of Manchester, but the bubble effect prevents it from happening. About 150 journalists make it impossible for Buchanan to have his factory tour, and so after about five minutes we end up standing in the snow while he answers the questions posed by the pushiest journalists. "Capital Gang" satellites circle the fringe of the crowd while their star shines. There's Margaret Carlson! There's Robert Novak! And ... Arianna Stassinopoulos Huffington! Picasso's biographer! Inside a lumber mill!
But maybe the strangest sight is the half dozen forlorn Japanese and Koreans perched on piles of logs trying to overcome their height disadvantage and get a clean shot of the man who plans to stick a wrench in global trade. Alone off to one side of the logs stands a South Korean version of Sam Donaldson, reciting to himself what he is about to say to the camera. "Did you know," I ask him, after introducing myself, "that Pat Buchanan wants to give South Korea nuclear weapons?" He looks surprised: "For free?" he asks. So far as I know, I say. He turns excitedly and tells it to his camera: tomorrow South Korea will know, too.
Just when I'm about certain that there is no voter in the teeming peristaltic mass swirling around Pat, a bearded man in a hat grabs me and doesn't ask but says, "You're from The New Republic." I agree. He introduces himself as a fan of both Pat and Marty Peretz. The lone human bridge between this magazine and Pat Buchanan is a rabbi.
It was nearing midnight when I walked across the tarmac alone with Scott Mackenzie, the treasurer of the Buchanan campaign. We were both early for the flight to Mount Rushmore. There was something strange: the plane was big. Coming out of Iowa, after Buchanan shocked everyone, he had with him only about twenty journalists. Back then he flew commercial because the campaign didn't have the money to charter a plane. Yet here waiting on the tarmac was a 124-seater, bought and paid for. Not a runner-up plane; it was a winner plane. I ask the obvious question.
"We've known our numbers all along," says Mackenzie. "We knew we were going to win Alaska. We knew we were going to win in Louisiana. We knew we were going to finish close in Iowa." I wonder aloud how he could know Pat was going to win in New Hampshire when the margin of victory was so slight. "We didn't think it was going to be so close," he says. But where did the numbers come from? Tracking polls are expensive; only the real candidates can afford them. Mackenzie smiles. "The Dole campaign leaks like a sieve," he says.
This article originally ran in the March 11, 1996 issue of the magazine.