Running with Jesus
GOP primary a test of faithBY JASON VEST
'Tis early yet, and the crowd here at Dole HQ is still a bit thin. Dole (aka Dead Man Walking) hasn't arrived to celebrate his Lazarus-like electoral resurrection, but he is supposed to appear shortly in all his glory to claim primary victory over Pat Buchanan, America's answer to Juan Peron.
The past few days have been uncertain for the Kansas-based lackey of Ernest and Julio Gallo (total contributions to Dole: $381,000). While he blew into the state with the support of former governor Carroll Campbell, the dimwitted sitting Gov. David Beasly and the nearly calcified bone of the American body politic, Sen. Strom Thurmond, Pat Buchanan's aggressive pursuit of the Save-The-Unborn-And-Say-Hallelujah! vote caused Dole to flee the state and wait for the exit poll results. (To risk staying in the state after defeat would look humiliating, and in American campaigns, the image, as we know, is everything.)
So Dole blew out but made sure he was in striking distance of South Carolina. A good hour and a half before the polls closed, the exit numbers were looking good, so it was wheels up from Maine. Any moment now, he'll be touching down and rolling towards this building at the state fairgrounds, where the crowd of predictably young, well-coiffed adjutants and aging but enthused supporters will whoop, holler and wave their placards with glee.
Meanwhile, a band that sounds like it was recruited from a local version of Bob's Country Bunker plays bland, conventional countryish melodies and feel-good white blues the latter arrangements no doubt played in honor of the memory of the late Lee Atwater, the Machiavellian political operative and amateur blues guitarist who both built the GOP machine in South Carolina and presided over George Bush's ascension in 1988.
In many respects, tonight is something of a tribute to Atwater's political vision for this state. It was Atwater who hit upon the notion of putting the primary in between the pivotal poles of Iowa/New Hampshire and Super Tuesday, thereby giving South Carolina considerable influence in determining the outcome of tight primary races. The arrangement also confers increased importance on the GOP power brokers in South Carolina in this instance, former governor Campbell, who hopes Dole will offer him the vice presidency (or at least a cabinet position) for his efforts here and elsewhere in the South.
But it's Dole's night nonetheless. "This is one of those nights you will remember where you were, because this is the launching pad now, [victory] is inevitable," one of Dole's underlings told the assembled crowd. Of course, the sap also told the crowd that Dole deserved respect for not taking a pay raise in 10 years, which should give one a sense of the banality of the modern campaign. Dole is, after all, not a poor man; he routinely flees Washington not for the plains of Kansas, but for his Bal Harbour condo just north of Miami Beach. (The condo, it bears noting, was sold to Dole at a below-market price by Dwayne Andreas, a longtime contributor to Dole's campaigns and CEO of the gigantic Archer Daniels Midland, one of the largest recipients of Senate-originated corporate welfare in America.)
Dole's wife, meanwhile, has collected tens of thousands of dollars in speaking fees and appears to have been involved in a shady real estate/bank loan deal herself profited off a dubious business deal herself, a la Hillary, as both The New Yorker and the Center for Public Integrity have noted in recent months.
But these finer points are either unknown to this crowd, or they are of little consequence. Based on a quick round of interviews with those in attendance, on balance, they seemed remarkably ignorant of specifics. "I like his positions on character and moral issues," explained Heather Zemp, a 28-year-old paralegal.
Which particular issues?
"Uh, basically how family. Basically we have to get back to the family, to children, right and wrong."
"God," she said, not as an answer, but as an invocation for guidance. "I'm trying to think here probably hmmm. I think helping middle income families basically with taxes, Social Security stuff like that."
And with that, she flitted away.
Not that Ms. Zemp has been the only person down here to do that in past week. Whenever matters that require either specifics or thought come up, most everyone including the candidates and the journalists covering them seem to casually but decisively recede into the fog. Not that this should be surprising: campaigns, after all, are the antithesis of anything vaguely thoughtful. If anything, they are a working illustration of Plato's Gorgias: that, compared with philosophy, oratory has no intrinsic value, because while oratory seeks to persuade by whatever rhetorical means necessary, philosophy is about discerning the truth through sometimes painful self-reflection.
Simply put, there is no room for intellectual honesty on the campaign trail.
Buchanan has, perhaps, proved to be the best manifest example of this principle, though Dole runs a close second. Buchanan would be an absolutely hilarious political oddity to behold if everyone, as opposed to the roughly 70 percent who do not vote for him, had consecutively firing neurons. Of all the phonies in this campaign, he stands out the clearest: the quintessential insider posing as the outsider; the longtime defender of corporations and Reagan conservatism now acting as advocate of the working man; the proud Irish Catholic who employs the same nativist rhetoric used against his ancestors 100 years ago; the former FBI propagandist posturing as champion of the forces against the Orwellian "New World Order"; the millionaire conservative media maven (who became the first pundit to appear in various mediums seven days a week) "victimized" and "attacked" by a supposedly liberal media.
But Buchanan is a master melder of rhetorical styles, combining, as ex-Nixon speechwriter William Gavin recently noted in a Washington Post op-ed column, George Wallace's rhetoric of anger with Hubert Humphrey's rhetoric of compassion. Additionally, he has fused in the code phrases the far-right uses in its appeals ("New World Order" for the militias, "Ruth Bader Ginsburg" for the Zionist Occupation Government conspiracy theorists, "Jose" for the xenophobic constitutionalists, "disarming" for the NRA zealots, etc., et al., ad nauseam) to appeal to the more warped, disaffected elements of the American polity.
Finally but at least honestly he hocks up his verbal sputum about the necessity of sustained "cultural warfare" against everyone who doesn't believe the passing of Coughlin, McCarthy and Franco were good things for the world, and indulges himself, and his followers, with heartfelt homilies to the unborn.
All these elements stewed together result in a distinctly potable stump brew that his crowds get drunk on, which is a strangely compelling sight to behold, as if elements of a Chataqua lecture, a George Wallace rally, a Pentecostal revival and a Leni Riefenstahl film simultaneously converged in short, fanaticism coupled with base spirituality. But to people in either remote physical environs or small homogeneous communities both realms where The New York Times is seldom seen, where "family" has become a freestanding political ideology and abortion is seen as the advance guard against "family" the message resonates.
And while the message may not resonate with the media, its sheer peculiarity, along with Buchanan's humorous and energetic style, does. So much so, in fact, that not only has the mainstream media erroneously anointed him an embracer of leftist ideas based on his positions against NAFTA and GATT, but even some bonafide leftist journalists, most notably Alexander Cockburn, have become Buchananites. I present the following partial exchange with one such journalist:
"My experience with Pat has been that he's honest, and I believe he's honestly concerned about the plight of working people," said Nation contributor Eric Alterman, whose column is supposedly devoted to checking right-wing extremists.
"Yeah," I said, "but he's not for raising the minimum wage, banning striker replacement, allocating money for worker retraining or strengthening unemployment insurance provisions all of which are part of the labor agenda."
"But he's honest when he says he doesn't believe unions are good for America." A pause, during which I think, since when have leftists been against unions? Alterman resumes: "I'm really having a hard time, though, reconciling these anti-Semitic code statements he's been making, because it's been my experience he means what he says, and that just doesn't sound like stuff he'd mean."
Which, if true, would at least put Buchanan on the level of Karl Lugar, the mayor of late-19th century Vienna, Austria. While Lugar built a career on anti-Semitism, many of his closest friends were Jewish; Lugar, in fact, had little true antipathy for Jews. But like most who seek office and become determined to hold onto power, he realized the value in slight, slander and demonization and, to further his political fortunes, employed these more vile tools of the political trade without hesitation. If Buchanan is doing the same thing, he is worse than a true bigot; he is an opportunist.
But, then, so is Dole, who has been in full pander mode since he arrived here. While Buchanan may not think about what he says, or understand how to solve the nation's ills, there is little doubt that one some level he feels for people. With Dole, it's a bit more difficult to tell.
In South Carolina, there are essentially three demographics: traditionalist whites, poor blacks and New Southerners, the latter of which is middle- to upper-income, educated and racially mixed. For the purposes of the primary, the second group is of little consequence, and much of the third group is Dole's for the taking. The New Southerners are a vaguely enlightened strain of libertarian conservatives, the architects and beneficiaries of a successful decade-old state economic policy rooted in foreign trade and investment. To them, Buchanan's isolationist and protectionist sentiments are buncombe.
The traditionalists (or, more specifically, conservative Christians), however, are another story, and the battle has been for their votes. As such, one of the more important events in this primary was a Christian Coalition rally/presidential candidate forum on Thursday night.
After interviewing about 15 of the assembled brethren, it became clear that many in attendance were Buchanan supporters and they were not supporting him based on his trade views. The majority interviewed cited stopping abortion as their highest priority. Beyond this, there seemed to be little else that mattered. Connie Harness, the 49-year-old wife of a country doctor, said she was for Buchanan based on his pro-life views. "As president, I expect him to do what he's said do away with abortion, and put America First," she said.
Another attendee, Lutheran pastor John Groth, had come from Hickory, N.C., his family in tow, to determine "which candidate is going to do the most to save the lives that are being lost to abortion." It was a common theme in every interview, and one Buchanan played to when he addressed the crowd.
But before Buchanan and the rest appeared, the assembled media had to endure the requisite number of saccharine, inspirational songs sung by blow-dried evangelicals and a lengthy opening prayer, which included one "for those on the other side of the culture war.")
Luckily, a few of us hacks had fortified ourselves with the appropriate numbing, anti-nausea inebriants in the parking lot awhile before, and we were grateful, for none other than Ralph Reed (Machiavelli with a Cross?) showed up to excoriate all the "Christian-bashers" (read: Christian Coalition critics) in American politics. [and, in a simultaneous call for theocracy and payment of lip service to those at the IRS and FEC who keep an eye out for signs of partisanship in tax-exempt organizations, reminded his soldiers that ultimately, they marched not "under a banner which bears an elephant or donkey, but under the banner of our savior."
Then the crowd sang "God Bless America," prompting me to wonder if it might be possible to seek words of reassurance from Woody Guthrie via Ouija board.
Finally, Pat bounded out on stage, wife in tow, and launched into his spiel. While his defenses of the Confederate flag and condemnation of the World Trade Organization were well received, his vow to appoint anti-Roe vs. Wade Supreme Court justices inspired many in the crowd to rise to their feet, chanting "Go Pat Go" and waving "Buchanan for President" bumper stickers (and technically violating the integrity of the Christian Coalition's 501 c3 status).
It looked like it would be a hard performance to beat. But then Gov. Beasley, a proud born-again, came out and spoke of Dole's devotion to the cause of conservative Christianity. Then the man himself appeared on stage, flanked by Campbell, senators Thurmond and John McCain (R-AZ) and Rep. J.C. Watts (D-OK). As they stood on either side of Dole, the candidate almost immediately thanked "my good friend Pat Robertson and my good friend Ralph Reed," and, in a tone that sounded cranky and petulant, reminded the assembled that on their past three legislative scorecards, "Bob Dole has scored 100, 100, 100!," punctuating each "100" with a jab of his chronically balled up left fist.
He seemed to hit every specific issue of concern the Coalition truly cares about, from abortion to that favorite culture war bogeyman, the National Endowment for the Arts.
"I know the difference between Michelangelo and Mapplethorpe," he sort of wheezed. "The government shouldn't be taking your tax money and paying for filth like Mapplethorpe, and when Bob Dole's president, it's not going to happen!"
The applause on that point was more than respectful, and by the time he was done (having, among other things, vowed to kill the Department of Education and return America to the era of "Just Say No"), the crowd seemed swayed.
And in the end, they were Dole effectively split the conservative Christian vote here, and won the day. It's an important victory for him, but looking at him, one can't help but wonder if the strain is coming to bear. Not only is his tendency to mumble and verbally stray off course increasing, but he looks exhausted. His partisans here have told everyone they can that above all, people should vote for Dole because "he can win." Doubtless he will get the nomination. But by the time he reaches San Diego, his campaign coffers will be nearly empty, and he will still be contending with the annoyance of Buchanan in short, not the ideal scenario on the eve of a general election.
But if anyone stands to benefit from this contest, it is Carroll Campbell. It was Campbell and Lee Atwater who effectively made the state a GOP bulwark, and Campbell has kept it so. Much like Arkansas, South Carolina is one of those places run by an oligarchy comprised of a handful of white business families and a coterie of alternatively genteel and combative but always shrewd politicians. Campbell and Atwater delivered the state to George Bush in 1988, and while Campbell was governor, Atwater became the most powerful South Carolinian in Washington. Since then, Campbell has been like the GOP's southern capo, a key player in strategic party decisions.
He is now on the verge of stepping out from behind the scenes and onto the national stage, and even if Bob Dole goes down in flames, he wins. Should Dole offer the nomination to him and the ticket loses, Campbell's profile on the national scene rises dramatically which will allow him to start laying a foundation for a presidential bid in 2000. If he is not offered the v.p. slot and Dole wins, he will certainly get a cabinet appointment, and continue building his national power base from there.
But even in the apparently worst case scenario no v.p. nomination, no cabinet appointment, no Dole election Campbell still wins, my sources here tell me. As inveterate political junkies may know, Thurmond, at 93, has declared he will run for yet another term. GOP intimates here say that Thurmond has no intention of actually serving his term; rather, he will resign shortly after re-election, and Gov. Beasley who owes his political viability to Campbell will appoint Campbell to Thurmond's seat, giving Campbell a national position.
This plan may yet be foiled, though, because though feared, Thurmond is weak, and rumor has it that the secretary of state, Jim Miles, will challenge Thurmond in the primary; if successful, so much for Campbell's hopes of going to the Senate without having to endure an election.
But even then, life won't be bad for Campbell. This proponent of devolution now lives in Washington, tooling around town in a fuchsia BMW, raking in over a million a year as an insurance lobbyist.
D.C.-based writer Jason Vest wrote this story for the Kansas City New Times. Our thanks to both for permission to reprint.
These elements stewed together result in a potable stump brew that Buchanan crowds get drunk on...in short, fanaticism coupled with base spirituality.
The assembled had to endure the requisite number of sacharrine, inspirational songs sung by blow-dried evangelicals and a lengthy opening prayer, including one "for those on the other side of the culture war."