Behind Enemy Lines

The veteran political reporter R. W. Apple had the blues. He was sitting in the makeshift New York Times bureau off the convention floor, hunched over his laptop computer, looking the way Tom Wolfe once described Jimmy Breslin—like a bowling ball radiating steam. “These Democrats,” Apple groused. “Aren’t they acting like . . . Republicans?”

It was a serious allegation, but true. It seemed to me, a former Republican speechwriter asked by NEWSWEEK to observe the Democrats, that they were acting just like us—now brawls, no epithets. Even Jesse Jackson was showing up time.

The delegates, like their nominees, were proper boomers, businesslike and tailored. There was much talk of unity, but what I saw was the pretty homogenized gathering of one of the great parties of an increasingly homogenized country—a country that has been ironed out, no lumps and wrinkles and grass stains, a country in which we are becoming all alike, sophisticated, Gapped, linened and Lancomed.

This is one of the things that leave reporters depressed, this is why Johnny Apple had the blues: they want life to be authentic, they want people to be vivid, they want conventions that are a punch in the nose, they want to play a role. But it’s hard to play the part of city-slicker reporter now, because no one will play the part of rube.

You look to the podium, and you want to hear thoughts as big as the room, words bright as balloons. You yearn for something spontaneous and real, for a moment when reality breaks through the screen—a chant begun in the back of the hall that spreads and rings the rafters, a demonstration nobody planned, a speech full of things that are true.

You get lonely for the big heart of politics. You root for the rhetoric.

But—life is life and not bad but sometimes thin—and what you get is this:

Jesse Jackson and Mario Cuomo. Both hit it out of the park in ‘84, both this time hit a double.

Note to those who would be great speakers: Jesse Jackson doesn’t use a TelePrompTer. He memorizes set pieces that he has debuted elsewhere and weaves them together into a new whole. And he knows how to use fear. When he first comes out he stands back and sucks in the tension and high stakes in a great nostril-flaring inhalation; somewhere in his chest they turn into energy and the actor’s art. This is a trick particular to born politicians and schizophrenics.

Mario Cuomo also is a great actor. You have to act a speech. It’s a paradox of modern politics: to “act” is to be phony, but because of the demands and limitations of bigroom oratory, if you don’t act the text you’ll look wooden and—phony. Natural politicians understand and master this intuitively, without thinking.

When Cuomo puts out his hand to maintain his command—that movement that says, “Don’t clap yet, the applause line is coming”—it is the short, blunt hand of a masseur. He’s not only controlling the crowd, he’s massaging them. He’s touching the audience’s shoulder and saying, “Lie that? Wait’ll I get to your back.”

Cuomo talks about justice, Jackson talks about love, and something else. The constant subtext of his speeches is how hard it is to be alive, how tiring it is to go every day to a job that hurts your soul, your back. “She works haaaaaard for the money!”

Delegates and reporters want to be moved; Jackson moves them. Which is why they forgive him anything.

Al Gore. Earnest, modern, blandly debonair, he was the surprise of the convention, with the best speech. He had context: the war is over, the world has changed, our next great battle is not on the land but for it. Great Elvis joke—focus groups must be showing the Elvis stuff is a plus—“It is time for them to go” a good chant. Gore seems half suburban high-school principal and half preacher man; he’ll be good on the stump and tough in debate. Kids, Tipper and mom are great, dad made me think of the John Huston character in “Winter Kills.” I believe he may be running the secret government Perot found out about before he quit.

Ann Richards. The only person in America of whom one can say: she reminds me of Lana Turner and Stu Spencer. Actually she’s like the matriarch of a big family of deeply attractive sons and daughters on a Ponderosa-like spread in a TV show with a name like “El Paso!” Cursed like Mario and Jesse with high expectations, her speech wasn’t the dazzler of yesteryear, but it was solid and did the job. In a quiet moment outside the convention hall, Richards ruminated on human nature and said, “People are what they appear to be. That’s been true in my experience. People aren’t good at hiding what they are.” This struck me as the smartest thing I heard anybody say in four days.

Bill Clinton. Oh Bill. For days I’d been picking up great speech ions, I could feel it coming. I was wrong. The big speech was good, not great, and not quite the equal of Dukakis’s—“The Reagan erruh is ovuh”—in ’88.

It may have been a focus-group speech—“We gotta say something about Bush’s lack of vision,. that gets a very strong response in groups”—or a committee speech—“That pretty part from Ted, that can be one of the endings!” Whatever, the result was a weak cup of coffee, somewhat stimulating but essentially insubstantial.

“We can do better” was JFK.” Now that we have changed the world it’s time to change America” is almost word for word George Bush. This is known in the speechwriting dodge (William Safire) as being fiercely derivative (Oscar Wilde).

You think Republicans won the past 12 years with lines, not ideas, so the Clinton speech was a series of applause lines largely unconnected to thought, ideas, philosophy. And a chicken in every pot– or, as you put it,” “An America where health care is a right, not a privilege” is a promise—not, as you said, a vision.

“I don’t have all the answers . . .” was refreshing. “ More empowerment, less entitlement” has potential and should be developed. Ditto “A government that is leaner, not meaner.”

Big tonal mistake: Bush is down, but Americans are fair; they’re mad at the president, but you don’t convince them you’re better by treating him with scorn. Put-downs are most effective when you’ve established a spirit of generosity. (And if you’re going to be a pugilist you better be a poet.)

Second total mistake: references to “my fighting spirit” and “the passionate commitment that I have.” Never talk this way about yourself in a speech. Or in a conversation, either. (You don’t have to put a hat on your virtues and make faces. Your hero JFK’s references to himself were self-mocking.)

The new covenant sounds both Biblical and, well, new. If it catches on it will be because people understand it, which so far they don’t. Repetition alone won’t do it; context and clarity are all. (Note to speechwriter: context, as you know, is often lengthy and rarely snappy. Your communications director will resist what he calls “long globs of no sound bite.” Write it the way you know it should be and smuggle it to Bill on the plane. If the communications chief threatens to fire your, offer to return home to write a snappy campaign memoir. After he takes you to dinner and asks you to stay, keep smuggling.)

The Film. The most compelling rhetoric of the last convention night was in the Bill Clinton bio. It was wonderful—stirring, soft focused and emotional—and alarming. Clinton’s focus groups show people think he was born rich; in the film, Hillary just happens to mention that when she talks to people they tell her the most amazing thing, they think Bill was born rich!

And can we get this one straight? Reporters and the Clinton organization keep saying he was “born in poverty,” but from all the pictures and the facts that have been revealed, Clinton appears to have been born middle or lower-middle class—the meaning of these phrases keeps changing—like just about everybody else in those days. Grandma and grandpa, with whom he lived as a child, had a cook/housekeeper. Grandpa had a store. Billy had a cowboy hat. This is poverty only by the standards of—forgive me—Northern boomer media snots who see Southerners as . . . naturally impoverished. (It was probably the outhouse that began the hagiography.)

I bet half the parents in America suspect that the real nature of Clinton’s deprivation wasn’t financial but emotional. Grandma and grandpa worked, mom was at school, his father was dead. But politicians can’t say, “I was born in loneliness . . .” to show they know something about pain.

Speaking of which: it is good that those who seek to lead us tell us of their lives, and the events that shaped them. But—there was a lot of my dad died, my son almost died, dad was a drinker, my sister died.

Why do modern Democrats have to declare to each other that they have suffered, that they are victims? In group therapy this is known as saying hello, but—this is government. The real pain in a person’s life is interior; the anguish unveiled in these speeches seems a surrogate for genuine pain, and the device seems not revelatory but deceptive.

But then, this is a party half in love with death. It is almost three decades since his passing, but JFK was the most popular man at the convention, RFK the most beloved; the first great moment of applause came when their pictures came up on the squares of a screen. All conventions are obsessed with something, but Democratic obsession with the Kennedys speaks of their continuing confusion about the facts of their predicament. They didn’t lose the presidency because when the Kennedys died they lost their charisma; they lost the presidency because they lost their voting base.

The Suit. This is a departure. Most people running for president wear your basic Brooks Brothers suit, but the one Clinton wore through most of the convention has bigger, sloped shoulders, and a sharper break. Kind of a Montclair, N.J., real-estate salesman’s suit. I wonder how many days or weeks his staff debated it. “Look, I don’t wanna get in your way but we’ve already got a Slick Willie problem, OK? You look at it and see chic breakout outfit, but other people are gonna think of the guy who screwed ’em at the closing.”

By the way, Clinton goes home to Little Rock to get his hair cut at a local place. This is so he’ll have an average-guy haircut so the voters will think he’s a regular guy. And the voters do notice it. They think to themselves: he goes to the local Clip ’n’ Snip so he’ll have an average-guy haircut so the voters will think he’s an average guy.

Clinton’s charm and warmth and intelligence are obviously real. His friends whisper the famous flaw: he wants too much to be liked. So do most politicians, of course. They love the roar of approval, the hands outstretched to touch their faces. Clinton’s flaw, I think, starts with a fleshy calculation, an instinct to blunt disagreement and split the diff, to shade and swallow. All presidents manipulate. FDR did, and so did Ronald Reagan. But with them, people perceived that beneath the overlay was a core of hardness and toughness. Clinton has survived a great deal this year. But one wonders: at the core, where it counts, what is there?