California, Here They Come

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POLITICS AUGUST 19, 1996

California, Here They Come

Before rejoining the Dole campaign I fly with my friend Barbara Feinman to Detroit. I have made a deal with myself, as an incentive to get out of bed in the morning. For every three days I spend with Bob Dole I will allow myself a day with someone who is not Bob Dole. Normally, I would have waited until I had earned the reward to collect it. But circumstances--namely Barbara--intervened.

Until a few months ago Barbara was happily making a living helping famous Washingtonians—Ben Bradlee, Bob Woodward, a pride of senators—write their books. Her reputation as the best ghost in town led Hillary Clinton to hire her to help with It Takes a Village. For eight months Barbara toiled, to the apparent approval of the First Lady. But then suddenly and without warning everything changed. One morning Barbara was First Ghost, the next she was First Enemy. She still isn't quite sure how or why she fell out of favor. But it turned out that her desk in the White House had been just a few feet from the Whitewater files that proved Hillary had taken more than a casual interest in the deal. Her proximity to the files led both Senator Al D'Amato's committee and prosecutor Ken Starr to drag her in for questioning. Since then journalists friendly to the White House have accused Barbara without evidence of all manner of ill deeds, such as helping Bob Woodward with his unflattering portrait of Hillary in The Choice.

Barbara, it should be said, is the least likely person ever to get caught up in a Washington scandal: she has no taste for publicity, and she would require training before she could successfully scheme or lie. When I phoned her a few weeks ago she sounded fairly certain she didn't want to have anything to do with Washington or journalists or politicians ever again. Morry Taylor's political manifesto was another matter, however.

After a few days Barbara agreed to become Morry's ghost. The chief appeal of the project to her was Morry's reluctance to spend a lot of time on it. (The bane of every ghostwriter is the author.) As long as Morry stays out of her hair, she claims, she needs only a few sessions with him and a couple of months at the typewriter. For an entire book! "I've written whole books that the authors have hardly seen before they are finished," she explains. Already she is brimming with ideas about how to deliver Morry to a larger public. She insists that the book must be written in the first person singular. "It's easier for me to remember what Morry is trying to say if I'm channeling him through me." "That's a frightening thought: channeling Morry," I say. "I've channeled worse," she says.

By mid-afternoon she is sitting in front of a TV set clutching a Griz t-shirt and watching Morry--in a pink shirt with a cigar dangling from his mouth--fast-forwarding through a videotape of himself. At length he arrives at a new commercial for Titan Wheel. "Here," he says. "This is the best part." On the screen Morry morphs into a grizzly bear; he looks for a moment like the hero of An American Werewolf in London; and as he morphs he emits a menacing roar. "That's my roar," he shouts with glee. "My real-life roar. They just slowed it down."

Soon enough Barbara is taping Morry.

Q: Did anyone encourage you to run?

A: No.

Q: What did your friends say?

A: You're nuts. You're crazy. You can't win.

Q: Did you ever think you could win?

A: I ain't no dummy. I knew what was going to happen. On the other hand, it relieves some guilt for me. I said what I had to say.

All the while, Morry watches the Olympics on television. The whole book, it would appear, will be generated by an author who has one eye on the tube.

Slowly it emerges that Morry can't quite get free and clear of politics. The Republican Party is refusing to let him or his money go in peace. He has just returned from a lunch Dole hosted in Washington. Every one of the primary candidates but Pat Buchanan attended, and every one (including Buchanan) remained true to form. Phil Gramm, for instance, when pressed by Dole whether he thought Ross Perot would join the race, offered more of the political acumen that led him to run in the first place. "Gramm said he had just been with Perot and that he didn't have the look in his eye, that he wasn't going to run," says Morry with glee. "And Forbes!" Morry grabs the inside of his cheek with his index finger and yanks hard to illustrate the point he's about to make. "Forbes is completely hooked. He'd run over a kid to get to a camera."

By the end of the lunch Morry had agreed to cough up $100,000 for what will likely be the loudest party at the San Diego convention. A friend of Morry's in San Diego who goes by the name of "New York Mike" has arranged for 5,000 bikers to roar into town on Harley Davidsons. Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Ben Nighthorse Campbell (whom Morry keeps calling "Senator Lighthorse") will ride along with them. Morry himself is unsure whether he'll ride a hog, but either way he'll lead the parade, together with Dole and a truck carrying a giant Titan Wheel billboard: a grinning grizzly bear wearing a tractor tire and holding a triumphant thumb in the air.

This is just the beginning. Morry is still groping for a way to communicate his political ideas to the public. Polls have shown that voters who had no idea who he was clearly preferred his ideas to those of the other candidates. Running for president clearly didn't work. Hence the manifesto.

In minutes he's explaining the brutal facts of presidential politics. "There are a whole group of people who want people to think that things are too complicated for them to understand," he begins. "They are called consultants." He figures if Barbara can help him to simplify politics for ordinary people, the book might encourage more businessmen to do it. Thus the first purpose of Morry's manifesto is to inspire more people like himself to run for president. He reaches deeply into a bag of potato chips while Barbara looks on, nervously.

July 28:

After returning to National Airport, our plane taxied right up beside the Dole campaign plane, newly dubbed Citizen's Ship. All the passengers gawked and whispered. The danger, for a celebrity as well as a presidential candidate, is that he might mistake this sort of curiosity for sincere interest. Dole must make this little leap every day.

I walk out of one gate and find the entire entourage sitting around the next: forty journalists, ten aides and a dozen Secret Servicemen waiting to board the Dole plane for another West Coast swing. For the next ten minutes I try hard to think of something better to do, secure in the knowledge that as soon as I am aboard the Dole plane I'll want to be off it. No sane person could possibly be interested in this trip, I think. (Do you read the news accounts?) To make matters worse, Dole is headed back to California. There are some states in which there is absolutely no point for Clinton to spend any time or money. There are many more states in which there is no point for Dole to spend any time or money. California happens to be one of these states.

With the help of outside consultants employed by the campaigns, and of Charles Cook of the newsletter The Cook Political Report, I have taken to drawing a mental map of the United States (see illustration). On the map, I try to pinpoint which states each party will legitimately contest in the presidential election. The map attempts to describe not what is true but what the campaigns believe to be true, and it shows that the fall campaign will take place in less than half the country. In the minds of the strategists, states fall into one of three categories: those such as Minnesota, which neither campaign believes to be in dispute (not shown); those such as Michigan, which both campaigns believe to be up for grabs (red); and those such as California, in which one campaign believes it can draw the other into ill-advised expenditures (gold). This third category holds the most delicious possibilities for the strategists. For example, there are a number of states in which the Clinton campaign is running ahead in the polls but nonetheless expects to lose. It is now spending money in Nevada, for instance, but only because Clinton is hoping that his ads, alongside his lead in the polls, will spook Dole into wasting his precious time there.

 

July 29:

Yesterday afternoon Dole came to life in the middle of a Montana field. He jumped on the stage with a band called Bucky Beaver's Ground Grubbers and started singing a Bellamy Brothers song called "Redneck Girl."

"Gimme Gimme Gimme a Redneck Girl, Gimme Gimme Gimme a Redneck Girl."

After a few refrains, the bandleader whispered to Dole, "You want to try any more of this song, Bob?" Dole whispered back, "I'd like to try one more chorus with Bob Dole." And so together they sang: "Gimme Gimme Gimme a Bob Dole vote."

The amazing thing about this--and Dole's subsequent a cappella performance with a group of sonorous middle-aged women--was that Dole was having fun. "That's the first time I've seen him campaign," said a Secret Serviceman who has been with him for months. "That was Buchanan stuff." Afterward, Dole staffers burst into the press tent to tell anyone who missed the performance what had just occurred. They cooed over it for hours, like a proud mother over the accomplishments of a child in toilet training.

But this morning, we wake up in California. There is a spare seat in the van waiting on the tarmac, and so I take it. One of the stranger aspects of flying around with presidential candidates is that only about a fifth of the journalists at any one time are allowed into all the events. This rotating cast of cameras and scribes is called "the pool." The pool's job is to observe and question, and then to report back to the other journalists what they have seen. There is no incentive for anyone to see anything different; anyone who does is immediately required to share with the rest.

Today I break the rules--and incur the wrath of the Dole staffers--because the event is not to be missed. It turns out that Dole had flown to Los Angeles to see a movie. He will attend Independence Day today and praise it tomorrow. The speech has already been scheduled. "He's going to cite Independence Day as an example of a major motion picture that makes money but preserves the notion of patriotism, mankind coming together and the fight between good and evil," says Nelson Warfield, his press person, just before we depart for the theater.

The high point in Bob Dole's career as a presidential candidate came last summer, when he denounced Hollywood for its sorry values. The only glitch in his performance was that he had neglected to see the movies he denounced. This time his advisers have wised up. They will have Dole see a movie before he passes official judgment on Hollywood. No one seems to care that there is still a small problem: it is all scripted before Dole has seen the movie. Think of it! The response of Dole and his advisers to the perfectly reasonable criticism--if you are going to express moral outrage about Hollywood movies, you should at least have seen the movies--isn't to hide their heads in shame and resist the temptation to feign moral outrage for votes. It isn't even to have Dole go out and see a few movies and come back and tell us what he thought about them--the honest approach to moral philosophy. It is to orchestrate a tableau for the American public in which Dole seems to see the movie before he offers up his moral judgment. To remain sane, I have to believe that the end result of this crap is the continued indifference of the American public.

An hour after we land in Los Angeles, we crowd around the ticket booth, waiting for the Doles to walk up and buy their tickets. They then buy popcorn and a box of Goobers and proceed inside. Interestingly, none of the journalists or campaign staffers has to go through any of the rigmarole that's supposed to create the illusion this is a regular trip to the movies. Everyone in the motorcade but the Doles--journalists, staffers, Secret Service agents--simply marches into the theater and takes a seat. The Doles, on the other hand, buy their tickets for themselves not because they are having an ordinary experience but in an effort to pretend that they are having an ordinary experience. They have come full circle in a process that removes the players from ordinary life.

The theater is already pitch black. For the next two hours the Doles remain invisible, save for the moments when an American city is blown to bits by the alien spacecraft and the theater lights up to reveal the Doles staring impassively into the abyss.

Dole emerges to be asked, of course, what he thought. Fifty-odd journalists swarm around him, and I can't make out what he says. It doesn't matter. In the van on the way home the reporters replay their tape recorders and try to decipher Dole's comments.

Tape Recorder: Mumble, mumble

Reporter One: What was that? "We won in the end?"

Reporter Two: No. Just "We won. The end."

Tape Recorder: Mumble, mumble Reporter One: What was that? "It's a good movie. You can bring your family, too"?

Reporter Two: (impatiently) No. It's Dolespeak. Just "Bring your family, too."

And so it goes until Dole's full appraisal of Independence Day is assembled:

"We won. The end. Leadership. America. Good over evil. It's a good movie. Bring your family, too."

 

July 30:

Bob Dole woke up and gave his speech. He explained why Hollywood should make more movies like Independence Day and fewer like Striptease. Appropriately, he did this in the same studio at Twentieth Century Fox that once hosted a morally outraged Khrushchev. ("They were filming a Shirley MacLaine picture, and the ladies had can-can costumes on. Khrushchev thought it was not proper and got very upset," says the Fox employee who oversees it, as he waves his hand at the warehouse.) The speech is a bit confused. It starts out arguing that there is more money to be made in virtue than in vice--in which case the market would take care of the problem--and ends up saying pretty much the opposite.

But none of that matters. What matters is that it works. This time no one dares to suggest that Bob Dole hasn't seen the movies of which he speaks. "The nice thing about this place," says the Fox employee, "is that you can create anything in it."

This article originally ran in the August 19, 1996 issue of the magazine.

 

 

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posted in: politics, detroit, london, washington, dole, al d'amato, barbara feinman, ben bradlee, bob dole, bob woodward, hillary clinton, ken starr, morry taylor, pat buchanan, california, white house

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