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
PERHAPS BECAUSE of some obscure government regulation, Al Gore's security guys aren't wearing coats. The temperature is hovering near zero in Des Moines, but the men in charge of securing the vice president's next campaign event have only thin polyester suits and mirrored sunglasses to protect them from the cold. Gore is supposed to arrive any minute and begin a short, very staged walk down a residential street, where he will knock on doors and meet voters. At the moment there are no actual voters in sight. Apart from the media horde, stamping its feet behind the rope line, the neighborhood is weirdly deserted, like a movie set.
Down a side street two members of Gore's security detail are taking a break from checking for bombs. One is on his haunches in the snow picking up a handful of discount brand cigarettes that have spilled out of his pocket. The cigarettes are wet and flecked with mud, but the guy's doing his best to get each one back into the pack. As his stiff hands fumble with the damp tobacco, a couple of warmly dressed, well-paid, smug-looking male reporters walk by. One of them has a ponytail and a couple of earrings. The other is wearing a state-of-the-art down parka with a fur-lined hood. The security guy whips around to see the reporters staring at him. He looks murderous.
There's a fair amount of crankiness at the Gore event. The wind has picked up, and Gore is more than an hour late. A cable news producer says she has heard that the vice president is parked in his idling limousine a mile away, watching a football game on television. It's probably not true -- inconsiderate as Gore may be, he's not lazy -- but most in the press gaggle seem happy to believe it.
The public, meanwhile, hasn't shown up either. Gore aides often brag about the campaign's grass-roots organizing, but whoever was in charge of today's event forgot to bus in the usual crowd of sign-waving supporters. A couple of animal rights protesters dressed in pig costumes pull up in a white convertible and make a brave attempt to get themselves on television. It doesn't work, and they leave. Then Gore arrives. Flanked by the coatless security men, he tramps up the front walk and knocks on the door of the first house on the street. A woman answers. Gore speaks to her for about 45 seconds before she closes the door and he heads to the next house. As it turns out, the woman and her husband are the local precinct captains for the Bush campaign.
Pretty embarrassing. The grand prize for bad Iowa advance work, though, almost certainly goes to Gary Bauer. The day before the caucuses, Bauer held an event at Glendale Cemetery in Des Moines. With cameras rolling, Bauer laid roses on the grave of "Baby Isaiah," a stillborn boy whose body was found dumped at a wastewater treatment plant several years ago. Bauer gave a speech about the sanctity of life, took questions from the press, then left. No one stayed behind to clean up.
By coincidence, a Bauer supporter named Steve Evans happened to be at Glendale that day to visit the grave of his grandson. Stampeding camera crews crushed the teddy bear Evans had left on the boy's headstone, before going on to commit numerous other acts of unintentional desecration. As the Des Moines Register put it the following day, "broken glass and cigarette butts littered the graves." The 68-year-old Evans promptly called reporters to say he was no longer planning to vote for Bauer. Then he contacted half a dozen other people whose family sites had been damaged, vowing to organize a kind of class action suit against the Bauer campaign. In all, it was not a successful event.
It's hard to imagine the Forbes campaign making a similar mistake. Forbes events are the best planned, best choreographed, and often best attended of the primary season. An Iowa voter could feed and clothe (in campaign T-shirts, anyway) a sizable family simply by following the Forbes bus around the state. Whether the family could stay awake is another question. Years of campaigning haven't done much for Forbes's speaking ability. He still drones and grins mechanically, incapable of the slightest ad lib. His hands have started to move a bit while he speaks, but the effect is more menacing than humanizing.
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.