Press the Flesh

By

new york, new york

A presidential candidacy begins here, in a grim Sheraton Hotel
reception room with a faded carpet below, harsh fluorescent lights
above, and subtext all around. It's 8:30 a.m., and Senator Chuck
Hagel of Nebraska is standing at a lectern before the Iowa
delegation to the Republican National Convention, pretending not to
be doing what he's doing. Hagel, a second-term senator and former
telecom executive, is looking sharp in a crisp blue suit as he
ruminates on national politics for the 100 or so assembled
delegates. This is ostensibly a casual drop-by, a chance to say
hello to some fellow Republicans--and, indeed, to an outside
observer that's just how it might appear. But, from the throng of
fascinated reporters bunched in the back of the room, it's clear
there's something more going on.A couple of weeks ago, Hagel let slip to a Nebraska reporter that he
was mulling a run for the White House in 2008. It was a subtle
suggestion, couched as just one of many future options (leaving
politics, running for reelection). But it was also a clever one: a
well-timed signal to the thousands of reporters here in New York,
who are desperate for dramatic subplots to a hyperscripted
convention, that Hagel would offer a worthy diversion.

Some White House aspirants have it easy. If you're Rudy Giuliani or
John McCain, a prime-time convention speech is all it takes to
vault you to the top of everyone's list of future White House
contenders. But, for a second-tier Republican like Hagel who
doesn't have built-in star power, the task is harder. You need to
broadcast your intentions clearly enough that people understand
your interest in the presidency. But the unwritten rules of
political conduct demand a certain coyness. In New York this week,
Hagel was a case study in the bizarre ritual of becoming a
"mentioned" presidential candidate.

And so here is Hagel speaking to the Iowans, whose caucuses will be
the first real test of the 2008 nomination fight. "Being the
shameless politician that I am," he says, Hagel mentions that he
has several relatives in Iowa and extols the virtues of ethanol. He
issues platitudinous calls for entitlement reform and more civility
in politics, and engages in such banal pol-speak as "that's
dynamic, that's the world, that's change." And he makes what has
become his signature argument back on Capitol Hill these days: that
America needs to conduct a more multilateral foreign policy. "We
will not win any war against the terrorists--the radical
fundamentalists--alone," Hagel explains to the crowd.

After speaking for a few minutes, Hagel bolts from the room without
bothering to work the crowd. A pack of reporters chases him--some
literally run down the hall after him, holding their tape recorders
in the air. Another ritual unfolds as Hagel walks for a few feet,
feigning disinterest in all the attention, then comes to a halt and
takes ten minutes of questions. He demurs when asked about his
presidential intentions, insisting he's focused on getting George
W. Bush reelected. But then he lets slip that "I've been to New
Hampshire five times in the past four years." By the time his aides
hustle him off, Hagel has spent more time talking with reporters
than schmoozing Iowa delegates. And that, of course, is the point.
When it comes to drumming up buzz for your presidential dreams at a
party convention, it's not actual primary voters you need to
impress--it's the press. Hagel's New York schedule included
sit-downs with editors from The Washington Post, Newsweek, and
National Review. And by midweek, his media-first strategy was
yielding demonstrable benefits: Hagel was written up in several
stories about 2008 contenders, from The New York Times to the
Chicago Tribune to the Los Angeles Times to, well, The New
Republic.

Back among the Iowa delegation, however, there was far less
excitement with Hagel's performance. After his speech, I caught up
with Leon Mosley, the co- chairman of the Iowa Republican Party. He
is an unlikely character for the role of Midwestern Republican
official: a hulking black man of at least six-foot- three with
several metal teeth and a white cowboy hat. (Imagine an African
American version of the James Bond villain Jaws.) While Hagel's call
for multilateralism played well in the national media--particularly
because it is a challenge to Bush administration orthodoxy--it
hardly impressed the formidable Mosley. "Let me tell you
something," he explains to me. "I don't get on my knees and beg for
help. When it comes to [terrorists] killing our people, I don't
need no help." Did Mosley have a higher opinion of Hagel's positions
on so-called values issues? "Values?" he snaps. "I don't know
anything about his values." But at this point, as far as Hagel is
concerned, he doesn't have to. Mosley and the rest of the Iowa
delegates were simply scenery in a piece of political theater
played almost entirely for the benefit of journalists.

Other future White House aspirants put a little more effort into
wooing influential delegates. George Pataki and Mitt Romney gave
long and well-crafted speeches to the New Hampshire and Iowa
delegations, respectively. In a speech to the Granite Staters,
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, who usually derides the liberal
Northeast, makes multiple mentions of the fact that he spent more
than a decade living in Boston as a medical resident; Frist also
conspicuously sported a lapel pin that read, New Hampshire: A
Proven Primary Tradition.

Based on the concerns of Iowa's delegates, at least, all of these
candidates might do well to sport wwjd bracelets. After Hagel
spoke, Mosley took the lectern to remind his delegates "what's
paramount in our life: God," a line that drew roaring applause. He
added that GOP stands for "God's Official Party. " And, when Romney
took questions from the Iowans, the first thing he was asked was
whether he would be able to pass a gay-marriage ban in
Massachusetts. The second delegate he called on had no question: He
just wanted to thank Romney "for your stand on the marriage
amendment."

Hagel, in contrast, never even bothered with such back-and-forths.
Later the same day, it's a similar scene--a hotel ballroom filled
with delegates, this time from the all-important primary state of
New Hampshire. New Hampshire's GOP delegation is smaller than
Iowa's, so now the ratio of reporters to delegates in the room
approaches one-to-one. And, this time, the delegates barely seem
interested as Hagel reprises his speech from the morning. His brief
remarks are almost drowned out by conversation from the back of the
room. Hagel finishes after less than ten minutes and steps
immediately into another throng of reporters. Why are you here? a
scribe asks. Are you running for president? "I know there's always
indications anytime you drive through or set foot in Iowa or New
Hampshire," Hagel explains. But at the moment, he says, he has no
plans. Yet, when someone suggests that senators like John
Kerry--and Hagel himself-- historically have trouble winning the
presidency, Hagel is ready with a convenient response about how
today's dangerous world favors members of Congress steeped in
foreign policy. After the reporters put away their notebooks, Hagel
shakes one or two hands, and then he's gone. Half the delegates in
the room seem not to have heard a thing he said. But it doesn't
matter. His work here is done.

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