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.

Of course, if he weren't running for president, Keyes wouldn't get to be in the debates, and with Keyes you get the feeling that participating in the debates is the whole point of the exercise. (For one thing, it allows him to refer to the other people on stage, the ones with actual voter support, as "colleagues" -- as in, "My colleague, Mr. Bush.") Fours years ago, Keyes, along with three other single-digit candidates, was excluded from a Republican primary debate in South Carolina. Keyes played the race card, accusing the debate's sponsors of trying "to stand in the schoolhouse door and tell me I can't participate in this process." Then he went on a hunger strike in protest. Three days later, a "tyrannical television station" in Atlanta barred him entry to the next debate. After two attempts to storm the studio, Keyes was led away in handcuffs. "My crime is being qualified to be president," he explained later.

At some point, the people who plan debates decided that keeping Keyes out wasn't worth the effort, and this time around he has appeared at all nine. He has savored every one. "A lot of people when they watch the debates think that I have won them all," Keyes tells the crowd in Council Bluffs. "I am not going to disagree with them."

Nor would most viewers who watched Keyes in action. He was, as always, masterful. But what have his performances achieved? Nothing Keyes could say will bring him much closer to the White House. On the other hand, his presence (both in the debates and on the ground in Iowa) has hurt Bauer and Forbes, both of whom are making roughly the same pitch to religious conservatives. Meanwhile, Keyes's eloquence has helped make Bush appear even shallower.

Last week in Michigan, for instance, moderator Tim Russert asked each of the candidates how the United States should respond to AIDS in Africa. "I think this is a compassionate nation," Bush said, "and I think we ought to rally other compassionate nations around the world to provide the money to help the folks in Africa." Bush went on to point out that "this is a compassionate land and we need to rally the people of compassion in the world to help when there's a terrible tragedy like this in Africa."

When the question came to him, Keyes, who speaks six languages and wrote his Harvard Ph.D. thesis on Alexander Hamilton, seized the opportunity to expound on the role of licentiousness in the global moral crisis. It's crisis that money cannot solve, Keyes said. "I think that this whole discussion is based on a premise that reveals the corruption of our thought." The audience applauded.

It's not unusual for Keyes to disagree with the premise of a discussion, or to imply that a question is almost as stupid as the person who asked it. At a recent debate in South Carolina, Keyes was asked to name the biggest mistake he has made as an adult. "I think about the biggest mistake I might make as an adult would be to treat that as if it's a question that is appropriate to be asked," Keyes replied. Alan Keyes has a temperament problem. And it's even worse in person, when there are no cameras rolling.

Keyes has finished his speech in Council Bluffs, and the hour-long Q&A after that, and yet another hour of talking to supporters in the receiving line. As a talker, Keyes has a bit of Fidel Castro in him -- he could probably do six hours without an intermission -- and he seems almost eager to sit down with the three reporters present and keep on talking. The crowd has gone home, and yet the two bodyguards Keyes brings with him everywhere remain vigilant, standing only a few feet away, arms crossed in front of them, trying to look menacing. (They succeed.)

Keyes has just finished snapping at a reporter for asking a stupid question. When he gets mad, Keyes's voice, never terribly resonant, gets even higher. Now he is explaining why the obvious choice for Americans -- the only real choice for anyone with any insight or intelligence -- is to elect him president. "I actually have more varied and preparatory experience than anyone running," Keyes is saying. In fact, he says, "I'm the only one who has spent any time thinking in any depth about the principles of the American Constitution."

Keyes is probably right. Which is why he'd make such a terrific civics lecturer.

Tucker Carlson is a staff writer at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.

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