Sunday, September 16, 2012

DISCUSSION: Chapter One Hundred Twenty to Epilogue

From Matt Bai, author and New York Times Magazine correspondent

Hart's "Hell no."
Now and then, it's true, you can get a glimpse of real character in the way a candidate handles defeat in the moment. The most striking example, of course, is probably Richard Nixon's defeat in California in 1962, with the whole "You won't have Nixon to kick around anymore" riff. (Lesson: never elect a guy who refers to himself in the third person. It hints at psychoses.) In 1988, specifically, I think of Gary Hart's defiant withdrawal speech, which is largely forgotten now but which presaged everything that was to come in American politics. Even in defeat, Hart was clear-eyed and visionary and willful.

I can vividly remember sitting alone with Bill Bradley after his withdrawal in 2000, as he prepared to leave his campaign office for the last time and as the Secret Service detail packed up the car for the last escorted ride home. Bradley seemed almost relieved to me as we talked that day, the burden of public scrutiny and brutal itineraries lifted at last, and I think that probably said a lot about the way he ran for president and why he didn't succeed in beating Al Gore.

The Joy of Pepsi
That said, I'd say you learn a lot more about candidates in the months and years that follow defeat. Think of how John Kerry, whatever his flaws as a candidate, went back to the Senate and worked even harder on leaving some kind of legacy, to the point where he is now on an inside track for the State Department. That took real determination. Contrast it with John McCain, who four years later returned to the Senate feeling embittered and victimized, and who squandered a chance to become a genuine elder statesman and force for cooperation. It makes you wonder what kind of president he might have been, internalizing every slight and holding onto every grudge.

Of the 1988 crowd, Bob Dole is probably the most universally admired (even though he lost the general election in 1996), probably because he handled both defeats with grace and humor and never seemed to personalize it. By remaining constructive and engaged after losing for a second time, Jesse Jackson probably did a lot to dispel the 1960s stereotypes about reactionary black men in America, and in this way, I would credit him with making possible Barack Obama's election 20 years later.

Hart spent most of the next two decades in his Colorado cabin, waiting for someone to bestow redemption; he was entitled to it, but his refusal to seek some kind of public rehabilitation also said something about his considerable pride and obstinance. (That Hart never reentered public office was a deep loss for the country, and the legacy of that scandal is the subject of my next book.)

The Majority Leader, 1991.
Perhaps the most confounding story from 1988 involved Dick Gephardt, who served another 16 years in the House (several of them as minority leader) before running for president and losing again. Then this hero of the populist left started his own lobbying firm and took on clients like the pharmaceutical industry and the Chinese telecom company. He bought a giant house in California's wine country and stopped giving interviews.

What this tells you, perhaps, is that losing politicians often feel they're owed something for their years of service. And who knows, maybe they are.


It's actually his fault.
It is the end. The Bobster's "The Other Thing" is gone. Dick Gephardt is weeping in Jesse Jackson's arms like Matt Damon to Robin Williams in Good Will Hunting. Hart is drifting, waiting. Joey Biden is working on his house again. Michael Dukakis is on the right and just path. And Poppy Bush does what it takes.

In the last paragraph of a book with many, many paragraphs, Bush says he will do whatever it takes to win reelection. "People wondered . . . why would he say a thing like that?" That's what the previous one thousand forty-six pages were meant to explain.

Bob Dole's "People of Earth" speech is just one of many disasters in the making in this book, only the disasters at the end have a sense of finality -- the latest chapter, closing. Dole's Klingons spent all his money, running the New Hampshire 'Footprints-in-the-Snow' ad in Florida, where they never saw snow. Elizabeth insists Bob's half-hour on WGN broadcast live from the Lincoln Room in Galesburg, and Mike Murphy and Alex Castellanos are scrambling and ready to boost a satellite truck if they have to. The lights go out, the signal is lost, Bob is forced to ad-lib his way through the end. It was wretched, yet they had to do it again, clean, for rebroadcast. That's just how it goes in the campaign. You get your head kicked in, then you get up and say, 'OK, how about we try that again?'

Like how Dick was getting pummeled and his campaign team had given up on him, but he threw it all into the Michigan primary anyway. You get so far into these things, it becomes impossible to stop.

Michael and Estrich
Michael -- famous for his campaign's policy of 'Don't Tell Michael' . . . well, it turned out, he couldn't be told anything. He showed Massachusetts how wrong they were for kicking him out, that by 1982, he was a message machine. He thought he knew all there was to hardball and bridge-building. So when he started to slide in '88, you couldn't tell Michael anything. Lord knows Susan Estrich tried. He would listen to others' advice -- after he'd been proven correct, of course. And no, he didn't need Sasso's help. "Look," Michael told him, "I'm gonna beat this guy. This may be a blowout. You start thinking about the first hundred days. I'll take care of this guy."

Bar and George
On the other side of the coin was George Bush. Reagan was aloof, the polls were slipping and Bush could feel it, the Mercury in retrograde. Atwater went into a panic, wondering if this was his end, how he could avoid embarrassment. Then the three-by-five card to the research director: get him the stuff to beat Dukakis and put it on the card. Then he sold it to Bush . . . Atwater wanted Bush to let him loose. But Bush insisted he would do it himself. And so he trotted out the "vows and threats" he would take all the way to November.

That was who Bush was, as Roger Ailes sussed out in an interview about his near-deadly bombing run in World War II. There were flames on the wing and smoke in his cockpit, but Bush stayed the course. "Why didn't you bail out?" Ailes asked.
Bush didn't pause, didn't think, didn't blink. "I hadn't completed my mission," he said.
People once wondered about George Bush. Thanks to Cramer, we don't have to wonder anymore.

The First Person

The author is present.
In the Epilogue, Richard Ben Cramer puts the readers in his shoes for the longest chapter in the book, as he pans the national locker room to show the fighters, bruised and bloody, after the bout.

Cramer begins the book telling us how the people who became president seemed like no one he ever knew. And by the end, he knows. He looks into Bush's eyes on the bus, as the Beach Boys' Mike Love is telling him about a double-girl rubdown, and Cramer can see that nobody's home. Bush was on autopilot, doing what it took to get through to the end. By election day, friend-to-all Poppy is so thoroughly drained that he's not even Poppy anymore. He's not inviting friends back to jaw; he's going home.

Presidents: they're not like us.

Biden starts taking his time
Cramer pays his respects to the dearly departed. He talks to Hart about his woes, the constant disrespect visited upon him, treated like a professional scandal assessor. Gary is wary toward all, even Cramer, telling him he's got "a Washington answer" to a question.

Dick's already thinking about what's next -- not governor or senator but president. Majority Leader simply falls into his lap, so, he sees something to do, something to get him back to where he needs to be to do it again. Bob Dole, well, he always thought about the future. He gets himself set for the vice presidency (just in case) and keeps moving forward. Joe Biden's got his house, and he's not thinking about '92 or any other time soon. He hadn't lost his motor, it was just running at a slower speed.

And Michael. He's too busy beating up on himself for blowing it. The chapter in which he says he had the campaign in his pocket is the shortest of the book. The epilogue, its longest section, explains all the ways Michael did not have it, nor would he find it again once he got home. The Massachusetts Miracle wasn't so miraculous once the paperwork was sorted. Back on Perry Street, Kitty had lost herself to the campaign and, sadly, drink.

It took Bush some time before he became President, a real president who had busted skulls and gotten his man. Meanwhile, the boys who built his bubble left in bubbles of their own, and the reader can sense that it's all about to pop, even though the book was completed long before the '92 election.

Because the end exudes the folly in it all. Yes, there is the great power that Bush possesses. It's the getting there that matters, the powerlessness over so much in it that reminds us what they had, what they gave and what it took.

Share more quotes and scenes in the comments.


  1. Why-oh-why can't I find footage or photos or anything from Dukakis' Midwood, Brooklyn event during the New York primary? Congressman Chuck Schumer shouting into a P.A. while three dudes life Dukakis up to the rim to dunk. MY KINGDOM FOR A .GIF!

  2. I remember going to a small campaign event (maybe a breakfast) where Kitty was the speaker. We all agreed afterward that she was terrible. She was like a robot that someone had programmed. She spoke in a monotone with no facial expressions. She would pause every so often and give a fake smile, then continue to speak. It all made sense later when it came out that she was addicted to drugs.