JUST ANOTHER TUESDAY NIGHT INSIDE THE BELTWAY
11:00 PM, Nov 17, 1996
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