POLITICS MARCH 4, 1996
A losing political campaign must at some point cease to be about winning and start to be about something else: a moral crusade (Alan Keyes), a chance to be on TV (Bob Dornan), a fund-raiser for the next election (Phil Gramm). In Morry Taylor's case that something else is fun. He has spent six months and nearly $6 million laying the groundwork for just this moment. His staffers have papered Iowa and New Hampshire with several hundred thousand questionnaires, ostensibly to determine what the voters think. But the cover sheet of the Morry poll captures the true spirit of the enterprise:
The other guys pay a pollster $25,000 to ask the opinions of just 600 people, I'm polling everybody, and I'm giving away $25,000 in a drawing.
Inside are ten questions (#5: "Do you agree that we need an outsider to clean up the mess in Washington?") and beneath each of these two little boxes. One is marked "You're Right, Morry," the other 'You're Wrong, Morry." Anyone who checks the boxes is automatically included in one of five Iowa drawings for five grand in cash, one each night from now until the caucus.
This morning we have scarcely left the parking lot before the inside of the Land Yacht is hazy with cigar smoke. Morry leans back in his deck chair, responding to my questions about his future plans. He is perhaps the only presidential candidate in history to be overconfident while polling 2 percent four days before the Iowa caucus. On the off chance he loses, he says, he has no plans to run for anything else. He'll just go back to making tires and wheels. But then he pauses, exhales a cloud of smoke, and drops this bombshell: "I'm looking to buy a TV station."
"You got Rush," he continues, "but otherwise there's no one else out there. If I don't win this thing, the politicians are not going to like what I got planned for them. Fry 'em right up." As if to illustrate this point he produces a press release announcing the formal complaint he has filed with the Federal Election Commission against Lamar Alexander. Alexander, Morry claims, has been underreporting his expenditures in New Hampshire.
The rest of the day is spent whipping back and forth across farmland trying to scare up voters. Hardly anyone turns up for the scheduled events and so we go jump-shooting large, unsuspecting groups of citizens: at conventions, in courthouses, in restaurants. Finally we arrive at the one event in Morry Taylor's day guaranteed to attract a crowd large enough to make the candidate forget the obscurity of the past twelve hours.
Last night the winner of Morry's five grand was a pig farmer in the southeast named Wilfred McCreedy, who, conveniently enough, hosts the Republican caucus in his township. Tonight a large basketball court is teeming with hopeful Iowans; stragglers are directed to the jogging track above, which soon fills up as well. At every table happy voters scramble to complete the Morry poll before the deadline.
The show begins. The lights go down and, on a giant screen at the front of the room, a picture of the White House goes up. "THE LARGEST BUSINESS ON EARTH" read the words over the picture. This is followed by an eight-minute video glorifying Morry. At the end of the video the speakers blare Morry's theme song, "Dancing in the Dark," until the man himself bursts into the room, assumes the stage and recites the lyrics.
"You need a spark
To start a fire
And this gun's for hire... "
"You don't see the senior partners from the big law firms running for office," says Morry, by way of summing up all of American politics. "Our country is being run by the rejects from the legal profession." The $5,000 drawing gives the donor far more than $5,000 worth of pleasure. Afterwards, as we head for some airfield in eastern Iowa, Morry sounds intoxicated by the turnout. "Fifteen thousand votes will do it," he says. 'You never know but we might—" He pauses. "Ah—you never know, people are funny. But I'll tell you what." He smiles his Cheshire Cat smile. "It's doable. It's doable." All in all, a nice illustration of a general rule: any campaign, however moribund, can seem hot when you are inside of it.
At last we arrive at the airport. Waiting there are several vans and cars plastered with stickers for Lamar Alexander. Lamar is going places, but as he rises he is coming under attack not only from Morry but from Steve Forbes, who has a new commercial explaining how Lamar turned a thousand bucks into $620,000 with the help of a few friends. We enter the terminal. Lamar's jet is circling overhead! He's preparing to land! (Lamar does everything with exclamation points.) A few minutes later he does, in $25 million worth of jet, with LAMAR! emblazoned in red on its side.
Morry and his aides gather on the tarmac to watch the plane empty. The line is endless: first the security detail, then the camera crews, which, after Cramm's Louisiana disaster, have moved from him to Alexander, then the campaign staffers. Among the last group of smartly dressed young men is Mike Murphy, the legendary thirtysomething "media consultant," who, as it happens, grew up next door to Morry Taylor. Indeed, when Morry wants to make his point about the absurdity of professional campaign staff he tells his audiences about Mike Murphy, "a fat little kid from next door who dudn't know anything you don't know." Now as Murphy emerges from the plane, Morry shouts up at him, "Hey, Murphy! Look how fat you gettin'. You eatin' too many doughnuts!"
There follows an exquisite moment of status confusion. Murphy is the superior political force, but Morry is the bigshot businessman from next door. Rather than sort it out Murphy flushes and races into the back of one of the waiting cars.
At length Alexander emerges and is surrounded by the cameras. You can see he is looking for some way to take advantage of the new camera crews. Spotting Morry, now lingering disinterestedly on the tarmac's fringe, Lamar strides over to shake hands. He offers Morry a phony smile and a line from his stump speech, "I just bought my mudboots for all of that negative advertising up in New Hampshire." Morry stares at him for a few seconds, like he's some kind of nut case. "That's not negative advertising," he says. 'They're just telling you the truth."
LAMAR’S HAPPY FACE vanishes. Poof. A truly nightmarish soundbite has just occurred. The CBS cameras are rolling. The familiar fight-or-flight instinct takes over. So what does Lamar do? He simply ends the conversation, turns and race-walks into his car. "Gotta go!" he hollers over his shoulder as he disappears into the back of his car.
"That's what happens when you meet the Griz!" Morry booms after him.
But the night is still young. Thrilled by a rare authentic moment, the CBS crew newly assigned to Lamar phones New York. New York orders the crew to leave Alexander and to follow Morry wherever he goes next. Morry takes the crew on a tour of Alexander's jet, which looms massively beside Morry's own small plane. "Tell me what is wrong with this picture," I hear him saying. "Here you got a little plane made right here in America belonging to a guy who has made his own money. And over here you got a $25 million Falconer made in Canada being used by a politician." Four or five carloads of Alexandrians gaze on, helplessly.
Meanwhile, overhead. Bob Dole's jet is now circling. Unwisely it decides to land. There on a tarmac in the middle of the night in the middle of nowhere one-third of the Republican field has now assembled; even more astonishing, the one national news network on hand is trailing around behind the surest loser. Dole's plane rolls inexorably toward Morry and CBS, oblivious to the danger. "And here," says Morry, "we have another politician. Has he ever made any real money? No. So what's he flying in? A $19 million Challenger. This one is made in France." But then, just as it appears that Morry will have one last chance to ask Dole about his $4 million government pension, the front-runner spots Morry, dives straight into his car and beats Alexander to the airport exit.
AFTER TODAY MY editor will no longer permit me to travel with Morry Taylor. "I didn't send you out to write Morry Taylor's biography," he says. He thinks I have become compromised, like other political reporters who have been granted exclusive access. Never mind that my access is exclusive only because no one else ever turns up to ask Morry questions.
On the other hand perhaps our parting is all for the best. The morning brought this disillusioning report from a local paper in New Hampshire:
A class of middle-school students says GOP presidential hopeful Morry Taylor suggested cigar smoking and mimicked a girl's stuttering during a visit to their school....When one pupil stuttered while asking a question Taylor told her "Sp-sp-spit it out of your mouth, girl," according to two students who published a letter to the editor Wednesday in Foster's Daily Democrat.
I am sure that Morry would have an explanation. I am also sure that whatever it is it would only make things worse.
TO A CHURCH in Des Moines to celebrate heterosexual marriages and protest homosexual ones. Together with a crowd of maybe 800 people, Keyes, Gramm and Pat Buchanan have all turned up to take their whacks. All the rest except Morry have agreed to sign some pledge to make homosexuals as miserable as possible. ("Who gives a shit?" Morry said when I asked him why he wasn't going. "If you want to be fruity-tooty, so what?")
Lamar Alexander's name is on the list of scheduled speakers, yet he fails to show. I am discovering that Lamar has a special gift for waiting until the last minute to see who is going to share his platform and then canceling if he doesn't like the looks of the event, or if something better comes along. Yesterday he told the local PBS station that his presence at a debate was "as good as done"; but then he canceled when he found out that Dole and Forbes weren't going to attend. A couple of days ago he passed out a schedule that said he would attend church services this Sunday; but then "This Week with David Brinkley" called and God got stood up. In real life this is considered rude. Why not in politics?
THE FRONT of the room in which Lamar is scheduled to speak looks less like a political platform than a stage set on a children's television show. It is filled with props. In addition to the piano there is a red plaid shirt, a pair of L.L. Bean mudboots, three giant letter blocks (A, B and C, which stand for Alexander Beats Clinton) and a big banner that says Lamar! The Alexandrine taste for exclamation points—Come On Along! Is his campaign slogan—suddenly makes perfect sense. Lamar has decided that the way to reach the American people is by treating them the way adults usually treat 6-year-olds. Probably because he looked so familiar, Alexander has just won by a landslide the straw poll of Iowa schoolchildren.
Lamar's wife serves as his warm-up act. She is called Honey (Honey!), though to watch her you would never guess it; indeed, I think that if Lamar Alexander ever wins the White House we shall finally appreciate the soft, yielding qualities of Hillary Clinton. Honey is tight as a coiled spring, all steel and no magnolia. "Make him number one in Boone," she concludes, grimly, "and then Lamar can be number one next November"
"Thank you very much. Honey," says the young man who moderates the event, eliciting a single sharp giggle from the front of the room.
Next comes the man himself, and you can see why he likes to lead with his wife. His soft, fuzzy, intensely understanding nature is nicely accentuated by his wife's hardness. The Alexanders have the same bad cop, good cop thing going as the Clintons and for that matter the Reagans. Is this the model for the modern American presidency?
AS ALEXANDER SPEAKS he leans forward tensely but pleasingly, like a schoolboy proffering an apple to the teacher. "We made a decision some time ago," he says, "that all of our advertising in Iowa would be positive." The applause this fetches is only slightly less enthusiastic than the applause Lamar gets when he subtly slides the knife into the competition. He attacks Dole's State of the Union response ("It was not a pretty picture"), Forbes's viability and Clinton's mendacity. ("We know what he will do. Someone will ask him a question. He'll move out from behind the podium to walk over to the questioner. He'll feel the questioner's pain ") As he spoke I was overcome by the same creepy sensation I used to get whenever Up With People came on at halftime. In my experience people who make a big deal about being nice usually aren't.
Lamar is insistently upbeat. And yet his campaign is the most negative operation; it stands for nothing except what it isn't. Although Lamar is forever using the word "vision," his pitch is that he is not someone else—he's not Washington, he's not a negative advertiser, above all he's not Clinton. But of course he is Washington, he is negative and, above all, he is Clinton. (Without the charm.) Lamar is simply tapping into the cult of niceness to destroy his opponents. To whom does this appeal? Usually a candidate shares something important with his followers: Dole attracts veterans, cynics and the chronically risk averse; Buchanan attracts the angry rabble; Keyes attracts moralists. I could only conclude that Alexander attracts people who use niceness to get what they want.
A DAY WITH Lamar and I start to appreciate the virtues of negative advertising. The standards of honesty are higher in negative ads than in positive ones, just as the standards of accuracy are higher in negative pieces of journalism than in positive ones. Lamar's glowing tributes to himself contain all sorts of distortions, particularly about his financial life, that no one bothers to correct because they offend nothing but the truth. A negative ad that shaded the truth in this way would cause the victim to leap into action and discredit his attacker. Steve Forbes's ads are far more honest than the replies they have elicited.
WHEN I PHONED Wilfred McCreedy, the winner of Morry's $5,000 drawing, to ask if I could observe the caucus on his farm I could barely hear his response over the squealing of pigs. Upon my dropping of Morry's name he said, "That Morry Taylor, he has it exactly right." I was in.
I turned up around noon at the farm—a big white house on the side of a narrow road backed by several hundred acres of golden brown fields. Waiting for me is a hearty middle-aged couple, a wonderful concoction of meat and vegetables, a glass of milk and a brief family history. The McCreedys have been farming the same land in the middle of nowhere for 128 years. "I was at the top of my class in school," McCreedy says. "He was also at the bottom," says Mrs. McCreedy, "because he was the only one there." They've both traveled some—in the army in the late '50s he went to New York, and he was back as recently as 1986 after which visit he concluded that "the country is going to hell." But it's been ten years since the McCreedys had a vacation, and their farm hours make investment banking seem like a walk in the park. Unlike their neighbors—and just about every one else in Iowa—the McCreedys do not participate in any federal farm programs.
Before long the talk drifts to politics. On the phone McCreedy became a bit worked up about the marriage rally at the church in Des Moines. "Those gays and lesbians are going to protest that meeting," he said in a tone of utter disbelief. "Goddamn that makes me angry!" He said he would have driven the two and a half hours to Des Moines to throw his support behind the straights, but his sows were pigging. Now once again he says how angry the gays made him, but in the flesh his anger comes across differently. "You put a group of all female pigs out there, and they won't become homosexuals and lesbians," he says. At some level he may be angry, but his prejudice seems mainly to give him pleasure. As he lays into Clinton, homosexuals and the U.S. government, his real emotion is more like delight—the delight of a good fan rooting for his team. Go straights! ~
"Is it true that Forbes owns a Mapplethorpe photograph?" he asks.
I say it is.
"Dat gumit!" he says.
"Oh, Wilfred, what does that matter?" asks Mrs. McCreedy.
"That man took pornographic photographs of homosexuals!" bellows Mr. McCreedy, at which point Mrs. McCreedy just rolls her eyes.
I have tried to make myself as agreeable as possible, but it's only a matter of time before I have to come clean with my left-leaning associations. The tension builds as Mr. McCreedy stakes out a political position on the other end of the spectrum from mine. But it's nearly two hours before I discover that the McCreedys have no idea where I am from or what I do—only that I am a friend of Morry Taylor's. "You're not from PETA, are you?" asks Mrs. McCreedy, finally.
I have no idea what she's talking about. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, she explains. "You just never know when they are going to interrupt. Lately they've gone to our schools dressed up as carrots to tell the kids not to eat meat." It's truly astonishing: as far as these people knew I was some protester who had come to disrupt their lives and yet they still fed me and humored me before venturing to ask. One of the few things I recall from college was that in the Homeric universe the mark of a civilized person is his kindness to strangers. The good king feeds Odysseus first then asks questions later; the Cyclops questions him first then tries to eat him. The McCreedys have the gift of kindness to strangers. I put PETA on the list of things to be against.
BUT NOW THERE is no getting around it: I must explain what the hell I'm doing in their kitchen. I mention The New Republic and hold my breath.
"Is that Fred Barnes's place?" asks McCreedy.
I say that until very recently it was.
"Oh, man!" says McCreedy. "I love that guy. Really? Fred Barnes?"
It is true.
"He's my man," says Mr. McCreedy, slapping me on the shoulder. It's all very Japanese. Neither of us wants to put a fine point on political disagreement, and so I've been granted the status of conservative by association.
After a bit Mr. McCreedy announces that it's time to "go chorin'."
On the way over in the car he gives me an idea what it's like to host a caucus. In the past couple of days Gramm has called six times, Buchanan twice and Keyes once. Alexander has sent McCreedy two books about himself and a videotape. Pollsters call the McCreedys about eight times a day. On the way down the driveway he spots a FedEx package poking out from his mail slot. "Maybe it's one of those shirts from Alexander," he says, laughing. It is! Or at least, it's a collection of Alexandriana. At length I ask him who he's for. "I'm undecided," he says. "A week ago I was for Forbes. Then I got my check—I was for Morry Taylor. Now I don't know—you gotta find me one who's gonna beat Bill Clinton. Which one you think?"
"None of them," I say.
"Damn!" he says, slamming his hand on the steering wheel. But he's a good sport about it. He's unhappy for about four seconds, and then he's rueful.
At length we arrive at the pig sheds, long, low-slung buildings lined with six- by five-foot metal troughs filled to the brim with oinkers. McCreedy opens the first door; I recoil and gag. The blast of odor is the most moving thing I've experienced on the campaign trail since I last heard Alan Keyes speak. "If you want to be a billionaire,'" says McCreedy, "you figure out how to take the smell outta hog shit—you'll be a billionaire." While I choke in the corner of his office, McCreedy marches through the pens unfazed, checking to see that the pigs have food and that none of them are dead. "I don't understand," he hollers out over the noise of the pigs. "When that McLaughlin hollers out 'Fred Beetlebum Barnes.' What is that Beetlebum business? What's that about?" I have no idea.
A pig shed is organized like a college alumni parade—as you walk the length the pigs get younger until you arrive at the end and find the ones that have just been weaned. The shed I eventually toss feed into is filled with nursing piglets and sows about to give birth. In the first week of each piglet's short life Wilfred takes a pair of steel clippers and cuts their eyeteeth. "I'd like to do that to Eleanor Clift!" he booms out as I make my way down the row. "Clip her eyeteeth! Get Fred Barnes to hold her!"
A FEW HOURS later, at around seven o'clock, twenty-five voters arrive in the McCreedys' living room to discuss the candidates. Only three are even mentioned: Richard Lugar, Dole and Keyes. From the sounds of their talk the people in the room are divided between Keyes and Dole. Mixed in are few people who have bought Lugar's line that he is the last refuge of decency. Lugar supporters are a bit like Alexander supporters: they have persuaded themselves of the essential corruption of the other candidates. Keyes supporters, who you might expect to be that way, are not. That, I suppose, is the difference between genuine moral conviction and polite moral disapproval.
Just before 8:00 Mr. McCreedy passes around a pad of yellow Post-its. Two men then collect the votes in a silver pot and adjourn to the dining room table. There they quietly add the totals: Dole 11, Keyes 7, Alexander 4, Lugar 3. I ask Mr. McCreedy who he went for, and he laughs and says, "Guess." When the tally is announced to the room there is a murmur, and then someone shouts, "Wilfred, does that mean you got to give the $5,000 dollars back?" It's clear they all think that Morry was a fool: he spent five grand on the guy, and he couldn't even buy his vote. I prefer to see it another way. Who else but Morry Taylor could give a guy five grand and still leave him free to vote for whom he pleases?
This article appeared in the March 4, 1996, issue of the magazine.