The Magazine

Keyes to the Presidency?

If talking were all it took, Alan Keyes would be on his way to the White House

Jan 24, 2000, Vol. 5, No. 18 • By TUCKER CARLSON
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Council Bluffs, Iowa

It's dinner time on Wednesday night in Council Bluffs and close to 400 people have gathered on the basketball court at Iowa Western Community College to hear presidential candidate Alan Keyes give one of his famous speeches. Keyes hasn't actually shown up yet (he's often late), so Chris Jones, the director of his Iowa office, takes the podium and does his best to describe what an Alan Keyes speech is like. Several months ago, Jones says, the Keyes campaign sent him a video of the candidate giving a speech. Jones was home in Utah with his wife and four children at the time, and was pretty certain he never wanted to work in politics again. Then he popped the Keyes tape into the VCR. By the time it was over, Jones isn't ashamed to admit, he was weeping, overwhelmed by the force of Keyes's personality and ideas. Jones left Utah, joined the Keyes campaign, and never looked back.

Just remembering it all seems to put Jones in an emotional mood. A few minutes later he is talking about the American Revolution -- a grass-roots revolt against government tyranny that, come to think of it, has a lot in common with the Alan Keyes for President campaign -- when without warning he begins to cry. Jones's voice is breaking, but with effort he makes his point: Alan Keyes is an American patriot on the order of Samuel Adams. "He has never changed his mind," Jones says, "because his mind was made up in 1776."

It's not clear if Jones means this literally (Alan Keyes, man out of time). Before he can elaborate, Keyes himself appears at the back of the gym. Microphone in hand, his gold crucifix bouncing against the outside of his shirt, Keyes jogs to the front of the room and greets the crowd. For the next 55 minutes, he gives the best speech of the 2000 presidential campaign.

Actually, that isn't quite right, both because every Alan Keyes speech is the best speech of whatever campaign he happens to be running in, and because what Keyes does bears so little resemblance to an ordinary political performance. A Keyes speech doesn't open with jokes. It isn't held together with anecdotes about Real Americans and the problems they face. It contains almost no biographical information about the man giving it. And of course it is never written down. Keyes speaks without notes -- always -- and in two or three hours on stage orating and answering questions he is unlikely to utter a single sentence that isn't grammatically perfect. He never says "um."

Most unusual of all, a Keyes speech rarely mentions politics, at least as most people understand it. Keyes is a preacher, his rallies religious revivals, down to the passing of the hat at the end of the service. (Or, in Keyes's case, a plastic jug stuffed with bills.) Keyes doesn't bother to give sermons on policy minutia. Instead he begins with a topic like The Purpose of Government, moving fluidly to The Meaning of Liberty, before winding up in an extended rumination on The Relationship Between God and Law. Almost everything Keyes says is totally abstract -- a violation of Rule One of political oratory -- but perfectly comprehensible. And not at all boring. Audiences are spell-bound.

Keyes is so good on the stump, it's a shame he's campaigning at all. There's something humiliating about having to pretend you're going to be elected president when just about everybody in the world knows you're not. Midway through Keyes's speech in Council Bluffs it occurs to me that someone -- a foundation, maybe, or any one of the seemingly countless eccentric rich conservatives out there -- ought to pay Keyes a salary and have him travel the country full-time giving his sermons. Keyes would no longer have to pose as a politician, and audiences could hear the most compelling articulation of the pro-life position currently on the market. As a politician, Keyes has been trounced twice running for the Senate in Maryland and receives single-digit support in Republican presidential primaries. As a public speaker, he can give Americans a fascinating kind of civics lesson.