JUST ANOTHER TUESDAY NIGHT INSIDE THE BELTWAY
11:00 PM, Nov 17, 1996
Jerry McEntee, head of the public-employees' union known as AFSCME, is presiding over one of the most delightful of tonight's victory celebrations: Shake 'n' Bake chicken, lots of (American) beer, Magic Marker-and-stick-pin electoral maps. . . . AFSCME may now be made up of welfare caseworkers and teacher's aides, but the place was as jovial as Saturday night at the pipefitters' local. Standing behind a lectern, McEntee called off the results as they came in over the (perfectly audible) television set.
"Guam has gone for President Clinton," says Peter Jennings.
"Guam! Guam has gone for Bill Clinton," shouts Jerry McEntee.
Nearly every table is full, packed with the usual assortment of lobbyists and other permanent Washington types digging into blackened steaks and cuts of sea bass before heading off to one of the night's many election parties. The Palm first became famous in New York, where it was a meeting place for wellknown figures from Broadway and the sports world. In Washington, of course, all the really glamorous people are involved in one way or another in politics, and the staff at The Palm respond accordingly. "Torricelli took New Jersey," reports one burly waiter in a white apron while refilling a water glass. "Helms is up in North Carolina, but it's going to be a while before the numbers from Prop. 209 in California come in." Maybe in New York the waiters can recite box scores.
Nobody swings like movement conservatives -- why do you think they call them movement conservatives? -- but the lowest voter turnout since 1924 manifests itself at the "conservative central" clubhouse, the Leadership Institute in Arlington, Va. It is apparently the place not to be. The invitation promised conservative stars galore, "spin doctors on call," but it's a Who's Who of no-shows. The American Conservative Union's David Keene wasn't there. Nor was Accuracy in Media's Reed Irvine. Poll cutie Kellyanne Fitzpatrick? On camera at CNN.
But the party does have its host, Morton Blackwell, the institute's founder and a sort of Baton Rouge-ish version of Jerry Falwell. He was asked to distill why Dole was flaming out, and he responded by offering free take-home handouts on The Ten Worst Mistakes of Losing Candidates, The Ten Worst Mistakes of Winning Candidates, The Eight Political Lessons Some People Never Learn (#4: "If people believe that the main reason you want to be elected is that you want to be elected, you're toast"), and The 45 [45!] Laws of the Public Policy Process ("Keep your eye on the main chance and don't stop to kick every barking dog").
Any number of the above apply to the Dole campaign. But the campaign's real big shortcoming, as Morton explains it, is that "I talked to a half-dozen top people in the campaign -- I'd prefer not to identify them -- and I offered repeatedly to take a leave of absence from day-to-day activities and try to put together a technologically proficient youth effort for Dole. Nothing ever happened!"
If only they'd listened!
This is undoubtedly the most high-powered of the small Democratic celebrations -- a party thrown by Bill Clinton's alma mater, the Democratic Leadership Council, at the Sheraton Carlton. A smattering of intellectuals is here (Seymour Martin Lipset is one), and like all intellectuals on Election Night, they're glued to the TV sets. The DLC people brim with a not-unmerited self-satisfaction, as Will Marshall talks with his friends about how much of a role the president's DLC-inspired welfare reforms had in his smashing comeback. Relatively conservative though the DLC may be, these are all party regulars. There's unfeigned glee at the triumph of every Democrat, not just the DLC-model "moderates" running against southern troglodytes. When John Kerry, a decidedly old kind of Democrat, is proclaimed the winner over the decidedly moderate Bill Weld, the assembled moderates let out a communal Heyyyyy and send up a forest of raised fists. Moderation isn't what it used to be.
It's hard to know exactly how reckless Dick Morris must have been until you stand on the porch of Room 205, Morris's erstwhile suite at the Jefferson Hotel. This is the place -- an open stone verandah clearly visible to dozens of hotel rooms above -- where Star photographers caught the presidential confidant embracing his own confidante, Sherry Rowlands. Months later, the porch still smells of defeat, bad judgment (only a man with a professional death wish would carry on an affair in such a public setting), the crash of a successful, if sleazy, career. It is, in other words, the perfect vantage from which to watch the presidential returns on Election Night.
Republican media consultants Mike Murphy and Don Sipple have chosen Room 205, as well asmbrace yourself for a blast of irony -- the Presidential Suite on the eighth floor for their "It's Over" party. A couple of dozen consultants, reporters, and other wizened campaign hands sip drinks and chat as a television blares incoming results in the background. Others pose for pictures on the famous porch. Still others giggle and recline on what is said to be the actual Morris "foot couch." No one in the room doubts the Dole defeat is coming, of course, but somehow, viewed from the Hiroshima of Dick Morris's life, an ordinary electoral defeat doesn't seem like such a big deal.
In the absence of the promised conservative spin doctors, you can still get your ears bent at the buffet table by retired major general Jack Singlaub, the former contra-booster and all-around war hero. Buzz-cut and Perot-eared, still sporting his dogtags under an elegant spread collar, Singlaub is from the hoist-the-black-flag-and-begin-splitting-throats wing of the party, to which someone obviously forgot to circulate the memo on the New Civility.
If you ask Gen. Singlaub about Bill Clinton, you get: "He's such a professional fabricator, prevaricator, and liar that he could no doubt pass a polygraph." And on a second Clinton term: "He'll be indicted, or impeached at the very least." And why shouldn't he be? For if they don't nail Clinton for his actual criminal behavior, the major general says, he should be taken out for his defense cuts, Korea policy, foot-dragging on those Tailhookers' promotions -- and especially for "this whole concept of putting lesbians and sodomites in the armed forces. It's terribly damaging."
The networks called it a half hour ago. No surprise, of course, but the mood here at the Renaissance Hotel is a mix of agony and relief, like the last rites for someone whose huge medical bills the insurance company won't be covering. No one wants to speak about the patient while he's on his deathbed, but everyone is relieved the end is near.
Indeed, an unsuspecting visitor wouldn't guess that this party marks Dole's defeat -- what with all the freshly scrubbed Young Republicans exchanging glances, phone numbers, and sometimes more on the ballroom floor. Some senior Dole campaign staffers pass the time in the invitation-only "West Salon A," only to find a cash bar and cold cuts. The more entrepreneurial among them sneak their way into the VIP room, where at least the booze is free.
And from time to time, campaign chairman Donald Rumsfeld appears, to tell waiting reporters that Dole is still going to win.
Here is the big Democratic do of the evening, the Soccer More of All Election-Night Bashes, with thousands and thousands of guests in the half- dozen largest banquet rooms at the Capital Hilton. A madhouse, a mess -- lines all the way down the corridor for the men's rooms and five deep at the phones. Everybody who isn't anybody is here: One mid-level DNC employee estimates the crowd at one-third labor volunteers, one-third Clinton/Gore volunteers, and one-third interns for various Democratic pols. All the good Clintonites are down in Little Rock.
You can, however, get a good sense of who makes up Democratic activists: Hugging, flamboyant gays make up probably a fifth (take that, Alfred Kinsey!) of the crowd. The entire middle rung of the District of Columbia's local government accounts for, say, another tenth, with all of them lining up for interviews with Channel 8, the local all-news cable channel. Then there are the labor people, i.e., the welfare bureaucracy. If only the housewives in North Carolina who voted for Bill Clinton because "he represents people like me" could see it.
With a Clinton victory finally confirmed, talk turns -- as it inevitably does at times like this -- to speculation about four years hence, to the Next Time. Who will be the Republican candidate? Christie Whitman? Fred Thompson? Lamar Alexander, who, smiling and relaxed in the corner of the room, suddenly looks more presidential than he ever did on the campaign trail?
One person the nominee will almost certainly not be is Jack Kemp. Kemp has, by almost unanimous agreement among those who have spent time with him recently, thoroughly discredited himself as a candidate. Sipping a drink, a campaign operative fresh from the Dole plane recounts how Kemp recently exploded in anger at his conservative critics. Such people, the staffer swears he heard Kemp say, have an insidious agenda, one that has nothing to do with Kemp's own lousy performance: "They just don't want to see more blacks in the Republican party."
Kemp regularly implies that he is the only Republican in America who doesn't secretly (or not so secretly) long for a return to segregated water fountains, so it's not hard to imagine him saying something like this. The explanation doesn't seem to have carried much weight with Dole, however, who is reputed to be angry with his running mate. During the final days of the campaign, the staffer says, Dole all but ignored Kemp's presence. "He only used the word 'Kemp' once in 96 hours."
The real line of demarcation among the Democrats in the ballroom of the Capital Hilton is between two types. There are those who are aware that the real bigwigs' parties -- the ones where Democratic party chair Don Fowler and Senatorial Committee chair Bob Kerrey are holding court -- are upstairs in the hotel suites. And there are those who are not aware. Downstairs are hot dogs by the bucket and chips by the garbage-bagful and mystery booze. One sozzled 19-ish labor intern squints past the barman towards the (a) Darnoc vodka, (b) Bull and Bear gin, (c) Moraga Cay rum, and (d) Mac Burns VSO (Scotch) Whiskey and mutters, with an air of expertise, "This is unbelievable. Have you ever heard of any of this stuff?. There can't be a bottle on that shelf that cost more than a dollar forty-nine."
Most of the downstairs partiers are as camera-happy as Miami Dolphins fans, spending all their time negotiating with cameramen to get into shots so Mom can spot them back in wherever. Others jitterbug (but only when there's a camera in the immediate vicinity) to the sad-sack washboard-and-cello quartet of someone called Les Cuje. These are the small fry, who pay only desultory attention to the video monitors: When a soundless ABC graphic shows that Bedford leads Sessions in Alabama by 55-45, the crowd goes berserk. No one reads the fine print: that this is the first tally of the night, and that the raw numbers, with 0 percent of precincts reporting, are 362 votes to 291.
Sessions later wins.
Armstrong Williams, a bald and black conservative talk-radio host who endorsed Steve Forbes during the Republican primaries, tries to energize the crowd at the Renaissance with a call-and-response routine that leaves the WASPy crowd wondering why this nice black man is shouting. Soon Dole emerges from behind the curtains to begin his concession. The speech itself is anodyne, apart from a harrowing joke: "Tomorrow's the first day of my life I won't have anything to do." He tries to quiet the rowdies in the crowd with an admonition he perfected during his last weeks on the campaign trail: " You're not going to get that tax cut if you don't be quiet" -- forgetting, as no one else does, that he's no longer in a position to be promising tax cuts to anybody, no matter how well they behave.
Upstairs, away from the masses in the Capital Hilton ballroom, the mood is more adult. There are carving tables, malt scotches, chilled Perrier with copious limes, and a kind of lighter-than-air cream-filled rum sponge-cake bonbon, of which THE WEEKLY STANDARD'S correspondent consumes fourteen before he loses count. At the nicer parties, like the Chairman's Reception on the twelfth floor, hotel guards are posted at the elevators to keep the riffraff from wandering in. But most Democratic party activists look like riffraff, and if you tell the cops, "Yeah, the chairman invited me," how are they to know you're not Roger Clinton? The only party with any appreciable vetting is the DSCC's, four floors up from the ballroom. There, an ascetic and Lennon- lensed 39-year-old unlocks the door to a group of young donors' daughters who have wandered up, and asks them, "Are you invited here?"
"Uh, no," the kids stutter.
Surprisingly absent upstairs is a level of political sophistication much greater than that of the kids downstairs. These are the movers and shakers, but they're also partisans, and it seems they've bought into the optimistic predictions of Dick Morris and others that the Dems are due to pick up, oh, 45 seats or so. These people are set for a rude awakening later in the evening. You can tell when a bunch of people camped in front of a 27-inch television at the Chairman's Reception watch David Brinkley interview George Stephanopoulos.
Brinkley begins, "Now that it looks like the Republicans will hold both houses of Congress -- "
A couple of the loyalists positively snicker at Brinkley, and one of them snorts, "Yeah! . . . Right!"
Lamar! hovers by the hors d'oeuvre table, praising the imported cheese spread and drinking Coke from a wine glass. A sloshed and uninvited guest notes the Coke and suggests that the former presidential candidate switch to the hard stuff, so they can head over to the Democratic party at the Hilton and "rustle us up a few broads."
Looking edgewise, Lamar! replies, "Thirty years ago I might have been stupid enough to do it."
Elvis-like, Dole has left the building -- back to his two-bedroom apartment at the Watergate. The party is emptying out. Most of Dole's humbled senior staff mingle outside the hotel, enduring the half-hour wait to get a cab. For a while Scott Reed, Dole's campaign manager, mingles too, and then is whisked away in his chauffeur-driven taupe-colored sedan.
Things are slowing down at the "It's Over" party. Maybe it really is over. Another guest sidles up to Lamar! and asks if he thinks you have to be a southerner or a movie star to be elected president these days. Pensively, Lamar! swallows another cheese log. "I think you have to be a nationally tested governor with a good disposition," he smiles, "with a conservative vision, a broad base of support, who knows the difference between Chopin and Hank Williams. These are the crucial things."
By the Staff of THE WEEKLY STANDARD