Retail Politics, Up Close and Personal
With Gore in Iowa and Bradley in New Hampshire
Feb 7, 2000, Vol. 5, No. 20 • By TUCKER CARLSON
On caucus day, Forbes holds one of his last Iowa press conferences, on the sidewalk outside Scruffy's Pizza in downtown Des Moines. With two of his daughters at his side, Forbes gives his usual rap about the Evil Washington Elites. In person, Forbes comes off as a nice guy. He doesn't seem like the sort of vain eccentric billionaire who would routinely describe himself, improbably, as "a strong leader who has these bold new ideas." Alas, he turns out to be just that sort of person. Reporters listen for a few minutes, then lay in with the questions. Every one has the same theme: At what point will you be forced to give up this pathetic charade and slink back to New Jersey? Forbes, of course, is unfazed by suggestions that he won't soon be president; he ignores them every day. His poor daughters aren't as seasoned. They keep smiling. But if you look down you notice that both have clenched fists. The younger one is digging her thumbnail into her index finger.
Every campaign finance reform activist in the country ought to be required to spend a week following Steve Forbes around, not just as punishment, but also for the important lesson it would provide: In politics, money isn't everything. Forbes and Bill Bradley both spent huge amounts of money on advertising and organizing in Iowa, as much, maybe even more, than anyone in their respective parties. Both lost decisively. In the early primary states, the professionals agree, retail politics still matters.
On the other hand, if you've ever tried to have breakfast in the Merrimack Restaurant the week before the New Hampshire primary, you know why wholesale politics isn't so bad either. There is such a thing as being too close to candidates. After a few hours of it, you begin to long for inauthentic, slickly produced campaign ads.
Located on the main drag in Manchester, the Merrimack is your garden-variety New England diner (homey interior, mediocre food). One morning last week, the place was filled nearly to fire code violation with presidential candidates. Within the space of an hour, no fewer than four candidates showed up with press in tow. First came Gary Bauer, totally enveloped by the camera crews surrounding him. Then Alan Keyes arrived, orating and gesticulating as he walked from the hostess stand to the men's room and back. A number of Keyes volunteers came, too, passing out stickers and tracts about "tax slavery." One of them left a carton of Keyes buttons on the floor, which a cameraman, walking backwards to film Bill Bradley's arrival, later tripped over.
Bradley is the one candidate tall enough to be spotted above the boom mikes. Another reporter and I were sitting in a booth as he walked by. We were just digging into breakfast when the waitress arrived with two pots of coffee for refills. Except it wasn't the waitress. It was Senator Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, who had come to the Merrimack to stump for his friend Bradley, and in the meantime apparently decided to make himself useful. I asked for regular, my friend took decaf.
A few minutes later, Bradley himself came over. He shook our hands, then looked down at my plate. I thought I saw him crinkle his nose. "Be careful of all that bacon," he said.
The first thing that popped into my mind, of course, was, "Hey, pal, I'm not the one with the heart condition." But I didn't say it. Not till he left anyway. It struck me a few hours later that this is the real problem with retail politics. You can't tell a presidential candidate what you really think if he's standing right in front of you.
Tucker Carlson is a staff writer at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.