The Democrats Have Had Their Fun. Now It’s Time to Rumble

The past few months, heartland Republicans have felt like hitchhikers on the highway of life, watching big black limousines speed by. The limos have been full of happy Democrats on their way to The Fight. Democrats clinking glasses and placing bets on Dean in five, or Kerry with a TKO. Democrats having a ball. Zoom.

The Republicans, meanwhile, have been out there all alone, looking for a lift. They just wanted to get home, have macaroni with the kids, watch a little TV. Even though when they did watch, when they turned on a cable TV news-talk show, what they were likely to see was an Inside Political Hotspot Beltway Hotbuzz segment that began with questions like, “Bush: Madman or Moron?” Or “Scooter Libby: Evil Force or Waning Power?” Or “Dick Cheney: Will the Bush White House Replace Him . . . or Kill Him?”

For two months, the Democrats have dominated the news and turned their presidential debates into commercials for their party. What have the Republicans had? A wan presidential interview with Tim Russert.

But now the battle appears to be joined.

The Democrats struck first, questioning the president’s character: Bush, they said, was a shirker of military duty, AWOL from the National Guard 32 years ago. Republicans hit back: Not only did Bush meet his responsibilities, but in 1972, John F. Kerry, now the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, was a left-wing flake. Democratic congressman Sherrod Brown of Ohio tried to hit the secretary of state with a shot on the AWOL charge. Colin Powell backed him to the wall: “Let’s not go there.” On CNN, Jane Fonda fired for her side. By the time you read this, someone will have fired at her.

Few knew the Civil War would start at Fort Sumter, and few would have guessed that the 2004 campaign would start in Vietnam. Which, three decades after its end, continues to seem less like a war than a societal event like France’s Dreyfus Affair: Where did you stand in the great divide, and what price did you pay to stand there?

Will people buy George W. Bush as a shirker and an operator? Those who hate him will. But the rest—that would be the majority – – have watched him for three years in dramatic circumstances, and they know who he is. Will they reject Kerry outright because he said offensive things 32 years ago, slamming his country and suggesting that U.S. soldiers were war criminals? Some will. But in all fairness, there must be some statute of limitations on youthful political idiocy. The question is whether past statements reflect old thoughts or current views.

This first skirmish is about biography—not who the candidate is, but who he was. In this fight Bush has the advantage, because people know him. They don’t know Kerry. It’s the difference between neighborhood gossip about the man next door whom you know and respect, and gossip about the guy who just moved in down the block.

What’s startling, though, is that it’s all begun so soon. In the past, each party got a little quiet time. There was some skirmishing in the spring, a great unveiling of candidates and platforms in the summer at party conventions, and then the outright battle in the fall. No longer. Politics is endless now, as we know. It’s always the political season.

Over the past week, I talked to Republicans in Washington and asked how they see the campaign year shaping up. A political strategist who’s deeply familiar with White House thinking told me, “We are now in the very early stages of what will be seen as a vigorous engagement with the opposition.” The GOP strategy all along, he said, has been to wait until the Democratic field narrowed down to a single person. When we spoke, it seemed obvious that that person is Kerry.

The Bush campaign will engage, he said, on the issues. “Kerry keeps saying, ‘Bring it on.’ I suspect we will oblige. He has a long and manifestly liberal message; the record will undoubtedly be a central part of this debate.”

Republicans believe that the more the election seems to be a high- stakes and crucial one, the better for their man, who led America through the first three years of the high-stakes era. They believe that in presidential elections, the true nature of the candidate always emerges. This they see as a big advantage for Bush. “Kerry is smart and able and impressive in many ways,” the strategist said, “but he is also liberal, angry and not particularly likable.” In fact, the White House believes there is a marked lack of passion for Kerry, even among his supporters. He was the most credible candidate when Dean imploded, but he lights no one’s fire. “He’s a choice of the head, not the heart,” the strategist said.

Meanwhile, the president continues to be underestimated by the chattering classes, and Republicans are glad of this. It’s a good thing when the enemy underestimates you. Republicans believe the president connects with the public in a way that cannot be quantified and that the Eastern Establishment (my strategist used that term—I hadn’t heard it for years, and it’s due for a comeback) does not fully understand, or admire.

And there is the Bush political record itself, which speaks of unacknowledged and forgotten power. Ten years ago, Bush challenged popular incumbent and Democratic Party star Ann Richards in the Texas gubernatorial race and won with a disciplined and almost error- free campaign. He won reelection by a historic margin, with almost 70 percent of the vote. In 2000, he won the Republican nomination against a respected war hero named John McCain, and went on to defeat a tough incumbent vice president after eight years of stunning prosperity, and peace. Bush put his personal prestige on the line in the 2002 midterm election and won again, making history once more by picking up congressional seats. This is a remarkable record, and lately it is remarkably unmentioned.

Everyone I’ve talked to, including a senator who had just come from a meeting with him, says the president himself is feeling feisty and peppery, up for the battle. He believes he did the right thing in Iraq and feels internal confidence about it. He continues to hope that the question of what happened to Saddam’s WMDs, which the dictator had used before in Iran and on the Iraqi Kurds, will be fully answered in time. Were they destroyed, or sold? Are some still hidden? I was told that whenever U.S. troops find and search a new facility, Bush wonders if something will be found.

What about staff? There’s a lot of brains on both sides. Bush’s staff has been through a great deal. But when you’ve been in a dramatic White House for three years, you are exhausted by history – – and you don’t know it. Democratic staffers who’ve been out in the cold for three years will seem crisper and fresher. Well, after they sleep off the primaries, they will.

But none of that will matter much in the long run. What matters in terms of the game of politics is that both sides begin this political year hungry, one for power and revenge, the other for unquestioned victory and mandate. One senses that it may be a year of surprises. Washington has that kind of low-key buzz it gets before a long and protracted battle. Energy in the air. Gossip, too. What are Ralph Nader’s plans, and what impact will a Nader run have? What—exactly—did that unnamed Democratic strategist mean when he told the New York Times that if Bush paints Kerry as soft on defense “then everything is on the table. Everything.”? My, my. Was that blowing smoke or a real threat? Kerry has a history of grabbing victory from the jaws of defeat by infusing big money into his campaigns in the final weeks. What if his wife lends him $30 million in the last three weeks of the campaign? What if that’s the October surprise? What about reports that Dick Cheney could leave the ticket? Is that the media making mischief? Why that particular mischief?

Here’s a prediction: This is going to be a big election with a lot of twists and turns, with drama—it’s going to decide how the war for American safety is led, or not led, or misled—and some desperate fighting on both sides. Those Democrats zooming by in the limousines should continue to enjoy the ride, but like everyone else, they should probably fasten their seat belts.

How to Read Bush’s Body Language

Here is what you should know about George W. Bush as you ponder his surprising vow that “not over my dead body” will he accept a tax increase: The phraseology was impromptu but the philosophy was thought through; it was utterly political and completely principled; and he was both winging it and thinking strategically.

The phrase made a number of people wince slightly, understandably. Presidents should never refer to their dead bodies. There are a number of reasons for this, including the fun cartoonists might have down the road with, say, Tom Daschle and Dick Gephardt holding a passed tax hike bill and high-fiving each other over a prone Bush with RIP on his chest. But after the wince you have to ask if Bush’s vow was a smart move, a mistake, a slip of the tongue or a whopper.

Let’s start with Bush as public speaker. Bush is a speechwriter’s dream in that he understands exactly how the White House speech vetting process works. Most presidents don’t, have to learn, and usually master it only after it’s damaged them. But Bush knows how a speech is created because he watched it on and off for 12 years during the administrations of his father and of Ronald Reagan, whom his father served as vice president. W knew what a first draft sent to his father looked like, and what the final draft his father approved looked like. He watched the people around his father when they were trying to delete or add a phrase; he listened to them talk about why, how and when exactly (in the helicopter, or at the TelePrompTer rehearsal) they were going to make their move. He absorbed it and tucked it away.

Today, Bush’s speechwriters tend to write speeches that are pointed and brisk, or eloquent and lofty. Then the speeches go through the vetting process, in which scores of staffers attempt to add or delete things, and the speeches get soggy and soft. I used to think the process did to words what cotton gins did to cotton: It took the good stuff out and took it away, leaving behind dry brown unconnected branches. President Bush, having seen what he’s seen, understands how good work becomes less good. So these days when he gets a speech he tends to use it as a departure point.

He’ll get to the podium, hold the cards or talking points, refer to them for all the thank yous—“I want to single out the Rosemont High Marching Band, number one in last week’s state competition, all right!”—then begin his remarks and add whatever he wants to say. Which is often what was edited out of the speech. Bush off the cuff, extemporizing, is, those around him say, an interesting thing to see. That’s where he puts the cotton back in. Normally when a politician starts winging it, he throws out a joke, tells an anecdote or two, makes a reference to someone in the crowd. But Bush, when he wings it, is telling you what he thinks. His off-the-cuff remarks are his considered views. Which makes his remarks in California last week all the more significant. His vow wasn’t on the cards. But it was in the cards.

Bush has an increasing tendency toward a certain thudding bluntness when speaking impromptu. This might stem from a boyhood in Texas, where a valid murder defense still on the books has been boiled down to, “He needed killin’.” Pressed by a reporter in September to define his intentions regarding Osama bin Laden, Bush famously said: “Wanted, dead or alive.” He was roundly criticized for this, though mostly not by New Yorkers, who thought: Can’t he go a little further? Osama is wanted dead or alive, and Bush said it because he meant it. More to the point he was being candid: He was telling us what he no doubt also told the joint chiefs. And the world got to hear it, too. Now he has declared that we will have tax cuts “Over my dead body.” Or actually, “not over my dead body,” which is grammatically less sound and more evidence that he was revealing The Essential Bush.

What Bush said last Saturday at a Town Hall meeting in Ontario, Calif., was that the economy is in recession and the worst thing you can do at a time like that is to raise taxes. And yet “some in Washington” want to do just that. “Not over my dead body will they raise your taxes.” This got big applause from the largely Republican crowd. Why the vivid words? For the same reason John F. Kennedy said, “Ich bin ein Berliner,” and not, “I support Berlin.” Bush wants everyone to understand he means it. When you want people to understand you mean it, you use words that pierce, not words that cloud.

Why now? Because Democratic Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle made an important and ballyhooed speech on the economy the day before Bush made his remarks. In that speech Daschle attempted to draw the battle lines for the 2002 elections. The deficit is rising, and Bush has worsened the recession through his tax cuts passed last year. Daschle did not quite say the tax cuts should be rescinded (as Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton has), he just said they’re bad and destructive and the cause of our woes.

Bush decided he had to help the Daschle speech be better understood. So the next day he picked up the presidential megaphone and told everyone what Tom Daschle really meant. Daschle means that he is going to take away our tax cuts and raise our taxes. And will he succeed? Not over my dead body. Daschle tried to frame the debate on Friday. Bush tried to reframe it Saturday, using language that he no doubt hopes will demand a similar vividness in response. Daschle will likely not say, as presidential hopeful Walter Mondale did in 1984, that he will raise taxes. But he’ll have to say something, and it will be in response. Because on Saturday Bush seized the initiative.

Is Bush to be believed when he says he will not accept a tax increase? The biggest evidence that he is telling the truth is the element that makes some others wonder if he is. And that is the Bush Family Tax Vow History. George Bush knows better than anyone in America—anyone—what happened to his father in 1990 when he reversed his bluntly put, “Read my lips, no new taxes” pledge—a pledge he had given two years earlier at the Republican National Convention in New Orleans.

Dubya, after all, was there. He knew breaking the vow was a mistake. But he was still considered young back in 1990, still called Junior behind his back by his father’s aides, and no one really listened to him on matters of policy, not even, it seemed to me then, his father.

But people around W knew he had a sharp political sense. He knew that rescinding the tax pledge would not only anger the GOP base, it would put his father in a delicate position regarding that key four- letter word—luck. The economy would have to stay high and healthy for Bush to get away with breaking his pledge. That is, he’d have to stay lucky to not pay a price. You’re in a bad place when you’ve got to stay lucky to stay alive. As for the making of the pledge in his father’s acceptance speech, which I worked on and drafted, I don’t remember being told explicitly what the younger Bush’s position was. But I gathered from others that he supported the policy and the pledge, and I thought on my own that he supported it for two reasons.

One is that he knew his father had pledged not to raise taxes throughout the campaign. His father had won the Republican nomination in part because he had signed the Americans for Tax Reform no-tax pledge. (Bob Dole had not.) To not mention the vow in his acceptance speech, or to gloss over it, would have caused either a big controversy or a small revolt. It would have de-energized the base. W would have known this and said it, as his similarly political friend Lee Atwater knew it and said it.

The second reason I have for thinking he backed it is this: Though I did not know him then, sometimes I passed him in the hall of campaign headquarters, and the only words he ever spoke to me about the speech were, “Don’t forget the contras.” Don’t forget the anti- communist rebels fighting the Sandinista government of Nicaragua. There weren’t many people around George H.W. Bush, or Ronald Reagan for that matter, whose first comment on a speech was, “Don’t forget the contras.” I was struck by it and thought: He’s a conservative. Conservatives live to cut taxes.

I left the tax pledge out of a draft of that acceptance speech, having grown weary of one Bush aide’s opposition. I sent it, as I had others, to a sophisticated friend who’d been observing the process from outside. He phoned me, alarmed. Where is the tax pledge, he asked. I told him I had let it drop. He caught me up sharp. “This is Bush’s decision, no one has the right to make it for him.” I thought: You’re right. I put it back in, and gave the next draft to Bush. Twice we went over it line by line; once he asked that I take out a line I especially liked and thought he agreed with. But he didn’t take out the tax pledge. He didn’t even mention it. People within the campaign were paying more attention to his promises on job creation, and by the time the president gave the speech the tax pledge was old news; the press was more interested in, “I want a kinder, gentler America.”

But “Junior” was always there in those days, and if he had not supported the tax pledge as much as he later protested its reversal I would have heard about it. And I would have remembered.

The point is, President Bush knows the tax pledge history and its aftermath better than almost anyone. He honestly believes a tax hike or rescinding the tax cuts would be destructive to the economy. He knows what it means when he says “Over My Dead Body.” And he knows what he is trying to do. Tom Daschle wanted to sound like Bill Clinton—we have to protect Social Security, we have to keep a deficit from rising. But Bush, with his vow, is trying to make him look like Sen. Robert Taft—“They’re for accountants and green eyeshades, we’re for growth.” Seems to me that either Bush’s vow was a matter of tactical flair and savvy, or he has learned nothing from the history he so closely observed and is a truly stupid man. Time, of course, will tell: That’s what time does. But I imagine Bush flying east after the California speech, kicking back and saying to some aide, “Guess we’ll be hearing from Daschle soon. Wonder what he thinks of my strategery.

Here’s My Advice To ‘The Laz’

“You may remember I was always for Lazio. I never thought Rudy was really right for it, I was pulling for Rick.” So said a former Republican official and party donor about Rick Lazio, Hillary Rodham Clinton’s new opponent in the race to be senator from New York.

In fact I didn’t recall his enthusiasm, though he may well have felt it. He just didn’t talk about it much.

Republicans in New York are talking now, though. It’s hard to exaggerate the relief and delight they are feeling after watching “Rick Who” campaign these past three weeks. They’ve seen him, they like him, and one senses they’ll be referring to him by the nickname his campaign aides use: The Laz. Short a, as in “Ah.”

The Long Island congressman is in a good place. The latest poll, from Quinnipiac University, has him even with Clinton, each with 44 percent of the vote. In the past few weeks, he’s gained 10 or more points, depending on which poll you’re using. And Lazio’s aides say it’s better than that. Clinton has been touring the state and campaigning hard for a year, she has 100 percent name recognition, and yet she seems stuck in the mid-40s. Lazio is still introducing himself to the electorate. He has room to grow. Clinton may not.

Lazio campaign aide Mike Murphy says, “Fifty-four percent are really against her. Hillary has replaced the glass ceiling with a steel one. Those last four points are a million miles for her.”

Lazio has already won the support of the Conservative Party, which New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani would not have received. He is not expected to inspire a big turnout to vote against him, as many said Giuliani would have. And Clinton’s message seems untooled and still unclear. Murphy: “No one in the state can really answer the question, ‘What has Hillary Clinton ever done for New York? How has she earned this? Are we a stepping stone to New Hampshire?’ And she’s too liberal for New York. She doesn’t fit, ain’t earned it, don’t want it for the right reason.”

So it looks like one thing Lazio doesn’t need right now is advice. But why should I let that stop me? If I were on board the Mainstream Express, the bus in which Lazio has pulled a McCain, touring New York and making himself completely accessible to the media, this is what I’d tell him:

Congressman, the great job for your campaign now is to keep breaking through, keep making strides. And you can do that by being audacious and daring. But here’s the challenge: It’s hard to be audacious and daring and do the other big thing you have to do, which is not make a big mistake. That’s really the challenge at the heart of modern media politics now, how to push the envelope hard, like a hero, and not wind up pushing it too hard, like a doofus.

Keep being happy, and don’t get spooked. Happiness is a gift and always good, and your friendly enthusiasm and good humor are contagious. As for being spooked, the Clintons have been giving Republicans the willies since 1993. Their campaign organization is always considered to be the sharpest, their campaigning peerless. But Mrs. Clinton’s campaign has plenty of problems—infighting, disagreements on theme. And beyond that, I gleaned an insight on my recent book tour that might be helpful: I made the case against Clinton on radio talk shows, and listeners called in angrily. I asked them to make the case for Clinton’s senate candidacy. And they never did, not one of them, not once. Instead, they’d change the subject.

It told me something that her own supporters couldn’t make the case for Clinton. But it’s easy to make the case for Rick Lazio, based on your background and beliefs, your votes and your stands. You should be specific, because Clinton isn’t and can’t be. She’s afraid that if she talks too seriously about her beliefs and desires she’ll turn off moderates. But if you talk about where you’ve stood—as a relative conservative on fiscal matters, a relative liberal on social issues—you’ll please moderates.

There is a seemingly small thing that is not without meaning, and it’s that you have a real Long Island accent. Which is to say: You sound like you’re from New York. My advice? Talk like you talk. The words you grew up with are the words Clinton doesn’t use and cannot use. You sat on the stoop, not the steps, the girls played potsy, not hopscotch. You stood on line, not in line, for footlongs, not hotdogs, and said, “Let’s get Carvel” which is New York for, “Would you like ice cream?” The talk you grew up with is rich with the great ethnic words of the eastern port cities, from schlemiel to Maronna (which is Neapolitan for “Mother of God!”) Forget “putzhead.”

Candidates unconsciously clean up their speech and make it more official sounding, less colloquial, when they speak in public. Try not to do that all the time, congressman. Remind voters that you come from where they came from.

The teachers’ unions are all for Clinton. But that doesn’t mean all the teachers are; they’re not. Make the union’s support of Clinton an albatross around her neck.

The unions won’t let her support the school liberation movement— vouchers, truly independent charter schools, the works. When you announced your candidacy, you were asked by a reporter where you stood on vouchers, and you said that in the toughest cases and the toughest places it’s immoral not to let kids find something better. Not impractical—immoral. Keep that up. When people understand school liberation, they’re for it.

And you’d be amazed how many teachers are taking a look at you. A friend of mine who is a public school teacher on the Island is about to become one of your volunteers; another teacher at her school just sent money to a campaign Internet site for the first time in his life- -and it was yours. Teachers felt they couldn’t vote for Giuliani because of how he treated teachers in the City, where he held up their contract. But when he dropped out, that made it more of a ballgame.

Give teachers the reassurances they need and deserve on where they fit in and how they will benefit from school reform. Surprise everyone with a TV spot called “Teachers for Lazio.”

Pundits put down what they call your puppy-dog quality. They call it undignified, and say “Down Rick, down!” Don’t listen to that. Be yourself. In this race the two candidates could hardly be less alike. Clinton’s face is opaque, guarded; voters have to make their way past the Secret Service and the rope line to go to her. You are expressive and open; you reach out, even lunge, to shake voters’ hands. She is watchful, you are exuberant. True, you sometimes fall down and she never does. But your ingenuousness contrasts well with her artifice. So don’t squelch yourself. She has to do soft-focus commercials, sweater thrown over her shoulder and “Tin Cup” pearls, whose subtext is: I’m not a terrible person, I’m normal! You don’t have to prove you’re normal—some people think you’re rather too normal, i.e., too average.

You have to do commercials that show you’re serious, that you stand for certain clear and understandable things, and that you mean it when you talk about them.

As soon as you were nominated, you hit Harlem. That was great. But now, Enrico, go to Spanish Harlem, to Queens—the great international mini-city, home of the new immigrants—again and again. Go everywhere Democrats are expected to go, everywhere Clinton thinks she has an edge, and hit those places hard. Show from where you go that you can go anywhere—while she only goes to neighborhoods where she has a chance of support. She wants a mere plurality, you want the people.

Writers for elite and mainstream newspapers and magazines are doing another round of think pieces on what they call “hostility” toward Clinton: Why do all these New Yorkers say they dislike her so? What engenders such passion? The suggestion is that she is a “lightning rod,” or as Clinton herself says, a “Rorschach test” for our emotions; she is a breakthrough woman, and people “fear change.”

The truth is rather simpler than that. After seven years, everyone knows a story about Clinton that gives them reservations about her. For some it begins, “There were these people who worked for years in the White House travel office . . . “ For others it is, “She came up with this big bureaucracy health care thing in secret.” For still others it is all the lawsuits against the first lady by former White House staffers in the e-mail case, or the Filegate case. For some it is Yankee Hillary, Jewish Hillary, Kissing-Mrs. Arafat-Hillary, Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy Hillary.

It is often remarked that no one has absorbed all the stories and scandals of the past seven years, that normal Americans don’t have time to study them and remember them. But everyone remembers one, and a lot remember two.

Congressman, you should ask those involved in some of the Clinton low points to do commercials for you. A former staffer who faced threats over the missing White House e-mails, for instance. Or Billy Dale, who was fired from the travel office.

Turn the tables on Clinton. She’s been trying to brand you as a radical, “a Gingrich clone.” Fine. You’re not a radical, but you can ask if she is one, and by using her own words. Quote from what she’s written about children’s rights, and the state and its rights over those of parents. Get your hands on that mysterious college thesis they’ve been hiding up at Wellesley all these years. Show how radical the health care plan was with its command-and-control-style liberalism.

Some people think debates will be tricky for you, but I don’t see why they should be. True, if you come out tough, Clinton may play Wounded Lady, look at you softly and say, “What really counts, congressman, is the children, not personal attacks and the politics of personal destruction.” And if you’re soft, or what used to be called gentlemanly, she’ll probably a) eat your lunch, b) blow your doors off, and c) pull down your pants.

What’s a fella to do? Come straight out swinging, with an opening statement that acknowledges with respect Clinton’s well-earned reputation for toughness. And acknowledge that toughness is appropriate, for politics is a serious and meaningful business that can make the lives of our people better, or worse. Say with a nod that you accept her toughness, and would never patronize her by showing anything less in response. Then blow her doors off.

She has a temper—and when she’s tired, it shows. If she swings back wildly, sit back and enjoy. If she hits hard, hit back harder. Use wit; she doesn’t. Use good humor and joy. Be a happy warrior.

I thought a Clinton-Giuliani debate would be like Marie Antoinette versus Jake LaMotta, the raging bull. You make it more like Marie Antoinette versus Jimmy Stewart. You’ll be better because you won’t be as nervous as Giuliani would have been; he had a lot to lose, she could ruin him. You have nothing to lose; win and you win, lose close with style and you have a big future. She’s the one who’s got to win now.

And above all, stay happy. Stay hungry. This is fun. This is one of the great battles. You can’t lose, really, unless you blow it, big time.

And you’re not going to, are you? Because deep down you know something.

You know you’re going to win.

That’s why you’re always smiling.

Red Meat And Astroturf: Decoding The Convention

In Houston last week, the delegates heartily repudiated Bushism in their platform and unanimously renominated George Bush at their convention. They had unity right from the start. They all arrived depressed, and they all left feeling better.

Now the race is a race, and the ambivalence is about to become energy. After all, nothing inspires troops like the possibility they will not die.

A prediction: This is going to be one of the great campaigns, a bruising contest, two groups of guys on a hill in the mud, wrestling in the rain for control of the ball. An inch-by-inch battle, and every week the observers will be saying, “This team is winning,” and then the next week, “That team is winning.”

When politics gets this tough and this tight, a wonderful thing happens, as if by accident. The talk turns to serious questions, they argue over serious issues, over different ways of seeing the world and how the American people ought to go about their pursuit of happiness.

We’re all going to remember this one. Keep the kids up—they’re going to see democracy in one of its great barbaric yawps.

[Header] Floor Mirages

The delegates stood during the opening program Wednesday night as a chorus sang “Proud to Be an American.” Men in straw hats with blue bumper stickers on the brim, women in leis and little elephant earrings—they looked around and half sang, half clapped. It was as if they were wondering: Where is the convention? Where is the convention I imagined when I imagined this week?

You look at the podium, at the network booths, at each other, smile and nod and finally show—happiness, or approval of the singers, by clapping or waving a clacker in the air. You find that a big challenge for delegates to modern conventions is to locate “reality.” Another is to locate what you feel when you are surrounded by the inauthentic—by artfully constructed platforms, TV network booths, films, by bright light and correspondents scanning the hall for a story and you realize you’re the story and you know something else: You’re not much of a story, you’re just a guy in a hat.

You ponder this and smile and a network camera catches you smiling and a CNN producer puts it on the air because he thinks you’re responding to what the speaker at the podium just said. You see your face on the monitor. You stand there surrounded by inauthenticity so pervasive, so inescapable that it feels like a balloon drop.

[Header] Truth in C-SPAN

The authentic sound of the Republicans in August was the authen-tic sound of the Democrats in July: “Richmond, Virginia, you’re up next.” The man and woman to whom all eyes turned in trust and for inspiration were C-SPAN’s Brian Lamb and Susan Swain. You could walk the halls of the big hotels, the Stouffer El Presidente and the Doubletree, and from room after room would come the gentle buzz of their voices. C-SPAN broadcast both conventions “gavel-to-gavel,” considered a seriously outmoded approach by the networks.

Lamb’s livelihood does not depend on advancing the story, so he can be humane and curious in his approach. His guests are not frightened and so reveal themselves, which advances the story. Swain is intelligent and calm. Her body language says, “I’m so interested, please tell me more.”

Tuesday afternoon, Lamb interviewed three delegates, all women, none of them famous, all of them delighted to be there. He asked how much it cost them to have this week in Houston. One said it cost $1,000 air fare and hotel, but “we’re sharin’ rooms and havin’ a great time!” They were. He asked who inspired them to be there, and one, a young woman with brown hair, said, “I’ll start to cry if I talk about it, but it was my dad, who’s a Democrat, who told me to always stand up for what I believe.” Her eyes welled.

It said more about who goes to conventions than any number of bright, gently spoofing network pieces. And unlike your basic anchor booth bluh bluh about whether Dan Quayle timed his floor appearnace to undercut Pat Buchanan’s speech, it was actually interesting.

[Header] The Presence of Lee

I met a friend of Lee Atwater at a hoedown Monday night. We stood in red bandannas, ate barbecue from plastic plates and drank from long-neck beer bottles. Later we shared a car home and talked about the Republican National Committee chairman who died of a brain tumor at the age of 40. Tell me something Lee taught you about being an operative, I say. He smiles, looks at his hands. “Play dumb, keep moving, take credit, stir the waters.” He laughs. “It’s hard to explain Lee. No one’s ever really got it.”

[Header] Strangers in the Night

Two men standing together at a reception.

    Consultant: Hello.
    Politician: Hey!
    C: So, we gonna win?
    P: Well . . . yeah.
    C: {Surprise} We are?
    P: {Alarmed} I don’t know, are we?
    C: Yeah!

They laugh, and look for other people to talk to.

[Header] Notes in the Night

Words jotted in a notebook after the first dozen speakers: “Do not mistake volume for passion, lectern-slapping for conviction. Fist-making does not convey strength but strength’s opposite.”

[Header] James & Mary

Walking, the Saturday before the convention, along the empty rows of the Astrodome, I saw Mary Matalin doing an interview. She stood so straight and looked so serious. I thought perhaps something had happened. Later, on TV, a reporter spoke of the interview. Matalin had been asked about whether her relationship with Clinton campaign manager James Carville has hurt her professionally. She said, “Yes, it hurts me because reporters always ask if it hurts me. They never ask the man, which in my view is sexist and unfair.” It’s nice when people say things that are both blunt and true.

[Header] In the Oratorical Zone

These are some of the people America watched last week:

Mary Fisher: An angel in pearl earrings and a black velvet dress who said, We must not judge each other, we must be kind to each other. She communicated this first through her presence, which said, I am a beautiful, wealthy, white, heterosexual mother, and when you think of AIDS, think of me. She used words not so much to assert as to underscore, and she manipulated the audience toward compassion by starkly stating her plight: “If it is true that my HIV will inevitably turn to AIDS, then it is true that my children will inevitably turn to orphans.”

Decoded: It is good that you care about traditional values. Moral generosity is such a value. Human beings sometimes see clearly only through tears, so I will make you cry.

Pat Buchanan: That wasn’t red meat, it was gristle and marrow. He defined: “Wrong, Albert. The central organizing principle of this country is freedom.” And merrily insulted: “Well, speak for yourself, Hillary!” His approach was bracing but hard, and he has forgotten Reagan Lesson No. 1: Conservatives who go national must be happy warriors who envelop, not pierce.

Problem to work on: The angry, unsmiling Pat looks slit-eyed and thuggish.

Marilyn Quayle: Flinty, unbroken and tough, she reminds me of the pioneer woman who, when the wagons were circled and the Sioux were coming over the ridge, kicked the cowering cowboys and told them to shoot, dammit. All this while sifting flour and breast-feeding a foundling.

It was a direct, substantive speech about societal arrangements and their meaning: Having a profession is not incompatable with being a good mother and wife; there are real trade-offs.

Problem to work on: When she tries to show her good humor, when her eyes take on a glint and her mouth a smile . . . well, to me she looks a like a Stepford wife who has a few wires just a little too tight.

Bad joke: After being introduced by the actor Gerald McRaney, Marilyn Quayle said, “If only Murphy Brown could meet Major Dad!” As some pre-school friends of mine say when they hear an adult say something dumb, DOYee.

Decoded: I don’t care if the media don’t like us, we’re not backing down. You don’t scare us.

Barbara Bush: Everybody in politics could learn from her canny knocking-down of expectations—“Oh, it’s just a silly little speech from silly old me, please don’t pay any mind!” She knows intuitively what some of the president’s men learned slowly: Don’t promise a great speech, a defining moment, an oration that will make your spine tingle and your teeth dance. Play it down, do your best, act modest. Don’t point to the bleachers unless you’re Babe Ruth.

George P. Bush: Touching testimonial from a poised teenager. “Viva Boosh!” was great.

Mrs. Bush and George P. decoded: On traditional values we don’t just talk the talk, we walk the walk. We have Hispanics in our family.

Ronald Reagan: Four-score years and one and hauling into the Astrodome to do it again: concentrating, speaking, acting, timing the jokes, trying to control the audience when he can’t quite differentiate the sound of cheers and chants anymore and has to go by what he sees, by the clapping and the faces moving, knowing exactly what he has to do, coming through, and, at the end, blithely kicking back a balloon and exiting, with a wink, stage right.

“I knew Thomas Jefferson . . .an empire of ideas . . . . The sky would not fall if an American president told the truth . . . . Of course, at my age, every night’s a special night.”

Those kids who crowded the platform, they wanted to chair him through the hall, hold him high and rock the house with “Thank you Ron, thank you Ron . . . . “

It’s nice when you see someone get the three little words they deserve.

Disclaimer: I adore Ronald Reagan.

Phil Gramm: A keynote speech is a hard old speech. This one won no converts at home.

Problem to work on: When Gramm juts out his chin to make a point, he looks like a startled turtle whose head popped out of the shell after someone touched his belly.

Dan Quayle: I was among those who weeks ago advised the president to remove Quayle and start over. I said he had been a good vice president, but he’d never, ever, win the confidence of the people, and in a close race this would count. But after his speech, I think maybe I was wrong.

History is funny. This man who never should have been chosen may turn out to be the grittiest guy in the fight. The speech started out goood, got better as it built, was delivered with force and had a nice joke about the Democrats: “If they’re moderates then I’m a world champion speller.”

Quayle’s eyes usually aren’t expressive, they don’t seem to widen or narrow much as he speaks, and it makes him seem—preoccupied, absent somehow. Maybe he’s just a little too careful. Whatever, he was plenty expressive in his speech.

The Quayle Film: Not as polished or as long as the Clinton film, but good. Great old family movies, great Indiana faces, made the name J. Danforth touching instead of a joke. But oh, Marilyn, “We met over the death penalty.” Like a satire of young conservatives in love.

Bob Dole: We see him so much in Washington we forget to notice. He has style, conviction and a wit that is an expression of a different, interesting sensibility. “If the polls were always right, I’d be speaking next.” How old will he be in ‘96?

President Bush: The night after the Gipper, a friend told me, “The problem with Reagan’s speech is it’s going to get better as the week goes on.” Meaning, it will make it tougher for Bush,

But it didn’t. All Bush needed was a good solid speech in which he proved he was up for the battle, showed he could admit a mistake and demonstrated that he understands history, his own and the world’s. He had it. He did it. If it didn’t always sing—can capital gains, bless them, sing?—it still hit the right notes, and the president appeared relaxed and eager for fun.

Most important words: “When it comes to taxes, I learned the hard way . . . . It was a mistake.”

Most important argument: You’re better off with a man who raised taxes once and learned not to than with another who isn’t at least philosophically opposed to raising them.

Unanswered question: Was the president suggesting he intends to liberate Cuba? Is something up?

Verdict: The other night on CBS, Terrence Smith found beneath the bleachers the Astro’s third base. He kneeled down, pointed and said, “This is where George Bush has to hit the ball.”

That is where George Bush hit it.

[Header] One of Them

Reporters work hard. They are up at 6 for the prayer breakfast, then to the Southern Belles for Safe Sex news conference, then to the Democrats’ news conference at Papadeux’s Restaurant where reporters tried to get the quotes and facts right as 400 placard-waving Bush/Quayle kids pounded on the windows and screamed. (Ron Brownstein of the Los Angeles Times said, “I feel like I’m in `The Birds.’ “)

Then they rush to the workspace, work the phones, wait for calls for a quote from the president’s cousin for the Bush profile that you have to file by 6, and he’s not calling. (Maybe it was that column where you sort of suggested another family member was a squash-playing, Repp-tie-wearing Greenwich weenies. Can’t these people take a joke?) And you wait, and worry, your stomach lining twitching with acid . . . and then the president’s cousin finally calls and you have to get told off for five minutes before he gives you, after long negotiations, the quote: “As a boy, George was always—polite!” You finish the piece, argue with the editor, then on to the Reagan Reunion cocktail party and then B/Q ‘88 Alumni Dinner, file again, cover the floor, go home at 2 and get up three hours later if you’re a woman to do your hair and makeup so your competitors won’t say, “That’s why she’s not on TV.”

I do not mean that hard work is an exonerating virtue; Mafia guys work hard. I do mean most of the politicians I know have only a passing sense of what a reporter’s life is. For instance: Journalists resent the relentlessness of spin—of political hacks shading facts and omitting truths to get the reporters to see things the way you want them to see them. This is the political journalist’s lot: to be patronized by dart-eyed campaign aides just out of business school, to be spun like fine silk by your intellectual inferiors.

Reporters resent being called an elite, but they are at least a hard-working one. I would offer them only one view they have not entertained lately: Referees are good, but the nation does not need a pack of schoolmarms. It’s a fight; let it unfold.

[Header] Waiting for ’96

Every serious Republican challenger for 1996 spoke at this convention. It was Jack Kemp, speaking to the big heart of conservatism, who most sounded like a president.

The Eye of the Beholder

The novelist and journalist John Gregory Dunne once described himself as “one of life’s neutrals, a human Switzerland,” but he sure got over it. This collection of his essays, magazine pieces and book reviews is full of sharp, tough prose-he is a wonderful writer, wry and educated-that is funny, mordant, acerbic and depressed. He’s on the side of the good guys, only he doesn’t find a lot of them, and he’s on the side of the truth, which is also pretty hard to find. Resisting intellectual currents to get at what at least seems to be true (a tough piece on Chappaquiddick becomes a tough piece on John Kennedy; he says of the work of a Camelot apologist, “This is not history; I would call it perjury”), he journeys to Israel before the Intifada, to Hollywood during the McCarthy era, to all the gin joints in Chinatown.

Does he have something to say? Yes, that life is hard, and full of shadows and deceit. He writes of a friend as having “the eyes of someone who has seen too much, too many violations of the human contract,” but those are also his eyes, and the fun in this collection is seeing them at work. He is drawn to morgues, courthouses and the scene of the crime “the way some people are drawn to church” (lots of Catholic imagery here; a friend has the look of “a Graham Greene priest; he had heard too much in confession”) and finds there the usual assortment of transgressors. “Whenever I meet a cop, I am struck by a certain element of performance in his persona.” He is a reporter who knows whom to listen to. A defense attorney tells Dunne about his favorite kind of defendant: “I like the guy who says, `Sure, I was in the store . . . but there was no way that bastard could’ve recognized me with my mask on. It was a Batman mask. Who’d she think I was, Bruce Wayne? And I didn’t have no shotgun. It was a twenty-two. If she says she can recognize me, she’s blowing smoke up your {obscenity}.’“ The attorney smiles. “That is an easy client to defend.” Another lawyer says of the case backlog in Santa Monica, “The only cases that go to trial are the unimportant crimes of important people and the important crimes of unimportant people.” That’s the most succinct definition of modern urban criminal justice I’ve ever heard.

There is an intellectual wildness to some of Dunne’s observations. “My Lai was the last major American victory, body-count-wise,” he says in an essay on the Mideast. Newt Gingrich is “of course, the moral equivalent of a bowel movement.” The columnist Robert Novak is “that fat and flatulant little bully” (I myself prefer Mark Shields’ explanation that Novak is simply living proof that Calvin Coolidge and Ma Barker were more than just good friends).

Dunne has a soulful edge-his Catholicism has not left him, or he has not left it-but he’s no romantic, he’s not sentimental, his heart doesn’t soar. One senses he faced a tough decision when leaving college: Join the priesthood, or run the Westies? He became, as some gifted ambivalents do, a writer, armed with Eyes of a Killer Nun. In a review of William F. Buckley Jr.’s memoir, Overdrive, he is admiring and impatient: “And yet at stage center, he is really not very giving of himself, except for that sly self-deprecation that comes so easily to the self-infatuated.” The writer Alexander Cockburn is “the salon Stalinist fancy man.” Does Tommy Lasorda swear a lot? “To say Lasorda has a mouth like a sewer is to pin a bad rap on the department of sanitation.”

But writers who search for what is true, and who try not to be guided by politics in what they see, deserve admiration. It occurs to Dunne, a former screenwriter himself, and author of a sympathetic piece on a writer who had been a figure in the “witch hunts,” that “had there not been a blacklist, all the Hollywood Communist screenwriters, penitent and unpenitent, would have languished in the well-paid obscurity they essentially deserved.” The most memorable and moving part of the book is his trip to Israel in the days before the Intifada. He is drawn to spies, hoping to get a clear read on things from those who have no investment in illusion. No one satisfactorily answers his questions, not even “V,” a young American Jew, an editor distrusted by all and reliably used as a conduit by all sides. Dunne asks him “if it was not corrupting for the whole state of Israel to have this raj in an area where the Jews were outnumbered nearly fourteen to one by the Palestinians.” V shrugs: That’s the Peace Now line. His question neither answered nor addressed, Dunne spends a sleepless night reading the Jewish quarterly Tikkun and thinking that being in Jerusalem, with its constant assault of ideas, is like “being an eyewitness to a bad marriage and the poisonous bickering therein.”

When he writes about writing, world weary becomes, perhaps by accident, invigorating. He is still excited by his trade, about which he is not in the least romantic, and has good simple advice: blocked? gone dry? confused by our own plot, confused by why we wanted to be a novelist in the first place? Tough it out. “What civilians do not understand-and to a writer anyone not a writer is a civilian-is that writing is manual labor of the mind: a job, like laying pipe.” Go to the office every day, break the block by showing up. “The professional guts a book through this period, in full knowledge that what he is doing is not very good. Not to work is to exhibit a failure of nerve, and a failure of nerve is the best definition I know for writer’s block.”

It has been asked of collections such as this: Why should anyone want to buy old opinions on old topics, and isn’t this taking literary recycling too far? And these are valid questions, but it seems to me that it is always interesting to see a review that shows you how a writer like Tom Wolfe was viewed by his contemporaries in the pre-Bonfire days; it’s interesting to see a meditation on Renata Adler’s impressive work flicking the lid off the New Grub Street revealed in the Ariel Sharon-Time case and the Westmoreland CBS case. Years later such pieces can tell you things about the age, the way reading a William Manchester essay on his short war with the Kennedys over Death of a President tells you about the hothouse angst of the mid-’60s. It’s old news but its still news. The real question is what do you want to spend for old news, and the answer is maybe you want to buy the paperback version and keep it in a small pine bookcase from college, picking it up every few years and getting reminded.