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The Dog Ate My Candidate

Or how I helped make Fritz Hollings what he is today.

Stephen Jaffe/AFP/ Getty Images

The Symbolic Moment came one morning about a month before the New Hampshire primary. This Week’s Campaign Manager was holed up in his office. The national headquarters of Hollings for President was nearly deserted, more like a warehouse than a political campaign. It had been that way for weeks. Staff had come and gone. Trips had been scheduled and canceled. But the dramatic groundswell of affection that we had hoped would propel Senator Ernest Hollings into the White House had somehow failed to materialize. We were still dragging along at 1 or 2 percent in the polls. 

Then, suddenly, the phones began to ring. Two, three, four of them at once. The lights on our state-of-the-art Rolm phone system blinked frantically, and the receptionist could not handle them all. “This is it!” exulted Mark Epstein, our “issues” man, rushing out of his windowless office into the hallway. “We’ll be running on adrenaline from now on!” 

It wasn’t, though. Within two minutes the phones had stopped ringing, and Hollings headquarters had regained its unearthly quiet. We missed out on all the cliches. Adrenaline. The Boys on the Bus. Hunter Thompson. Motel rooms with girls in them. Theodore White. Banks of hot television lights. Maybe they happened for the Hart people. Not only were there no motel rooms with girls in them, there weren’t any motel rooms, period. Federal laws now limit the dollars each candidate can spend in any one state, and most candidates prefer to spend them on advertising. So all campaigns—even the best financed—are short on phones and rooms. Wherever possible, workers stay in the homes of supporters. In New Hampshire, I slept on an air mattress on the floor of a lawyer’s house.

Actually, I felt the air mattress was a bit much. I was not some enthusiastic Clean-for-Gene college type; after all, I was 32 years old. I was former politics editor of Harper’s. My back ached. David Broder had a hotel room. Pat Caddell, the alleged mastermind of Hart’s surge, had a hotel room—I had seen somebody carrying his suitcases at the Sheraton Wayfarer. My mistake was going to work for the Democratic candidate I thought would make the best President. (Hart was my second choice. Really, Gary. Honest. The resume is in the mail.) I haven’t changed my mind about Hollings, but I would probably not hold up our campaign as a model for others. You’ll see what I mean.

Washington, D.C., November 1983: I start work for Hollings as a speechwriter—one of those mundane subordinate white-collar occupations, like paralegal or librarian, with dangerous professional pretensions. Speechwriters even have their own newsletter, with little features like “My Toughest Assignment” (“I remember when my boss walked in and said, ‘I need this speech in two days. . . .’ “). The dirty little secret of speechwriting, I discover, is that it’s incredibly easy. Either you know how or you don’t. I’m not sure whether I do or don’t, but I do learn to moan and roll my eyes when my boss says that he wants a speech in two days—although I know I will actually write it (for better or worse) in two hours. 

The idea seems to be to use quotations to fill up the space between the emphatic statements of concern and the bold policy initiatives. I am bad on quotations, however, because in college, when I should have been stocking them up like a strategic petroleum, reserve, I spent my time studying the works of Karl Marx. Marx actually said some things that were pretty relevant to the 1984 campaign (“Easy come, easy go,” Eighteenth Brumaire, page 19), but Senator Hollings does not exhibit much interest in his pithy aphorisms. Instead, I was asked to draw on my knowledge of Hamilton, Jefferson, Montesquieu, the whole “petty bourgeois” crowd I cavalierly dismissed in college. After proffering Hollings a rather complex thought from the Great Emancipator (“That’s the sorriest Lincoln quote I’ve ever seen”), I decide to abandon quotations altogether. The point is to get them to quote you, not for you to quote them, right?

Speechwriters are supposed to sit behind the scenes, carefully crafting the themes and imagery that “the candidate” will “communicate.” Caddell is said to play this role for Hart, although in fact Hart has been practicing his “generation” shtick for decades. The only authentic puppet masters in the campaign, I suspect, are those pulling the strings on John Glenn, who is changing “themes” faster than the doomed test pilots in Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff (“I’ve tried A, I’ve tried B, I’ve tried C”) and who reads his speeches complete with typos.

Hollings, unfortunately, seems to feel his job is actually to convince the voters in his audience. (Hart, by contrast, repeatedly delivers speeches that play well in the press, even though the actual audience response is described as “not overly enthusiastic”) The low point of the campaign for our “advance” team comes in Boston, where T.C. tosses aside a carefully prepared anti-Mondale broadside (“Fritz Mondale takes his orders from Lane Kirkland”) because he thinks the Harvard audience would prefer to listen to his provocative analysis of the 1930 Smoot-Hawley tariff. The audience applauds, but the TV reporters—who have dragged their cameramen to the event after being promised T.C. would blast Kirkland—take a while to cool off.

My toughest assignment is a speech in January on the federal deficit for a crowd of businessmen. It is a success, although my colleagues break it to me gently that T.C. departed somewhat from the text. Still, Tom Wicker actually quotes a sentence from it that I, and not T.C. have written. I am very proud of myself. I begin to like speechwriting.

A few days later. This Week’s Campaign Manager pulls me aside and asks me to forget speechwriting and “go to New York.” I am suspicious of this new opportunity, since this particular campaign manager had opened his first meeting with T.C. by tactfully asking me to leave (“Mickey, do you have something else to do?”). But I detect a note of genuine desperation in his voice, so I go to New York.

New York: In New York, it becomes apparent that the desperation is amply justified. The problem is the New York ballot: you need 10,000 signatures to get on. We are told we have “commitments” for about 6,000. That leaves us one week to get at least 4,000 more. Mondale’s organization, it is rumored, already has 50,000 signatures in the can. But his organizers are still out on the streets, trying to soak up signatures that might go to other candidates. This causes a certain amount of ill will. 

Hollings’s signature-gathering operation is headquartered in the cramped three-room office of one of New York’s booming service industries. The service provided by this particular industry is a system for betting on horse races. Tattered testimonials from celebrities who use the system line the walls, and the bright green carpeting is turning up in the corners like stale cheese. (Later, when we are packing up, we discover a box of Glenn leaflets. The entrepreneur who has lent us his office is also the local coordinator for Glenn.) 

I get my assignment. It occurs to me that a campaign that sends its speechwriter out onto the streets of New York to gather signatures is either a campaign that wants to get rid of its speechwriter or a campaign in serious trouble. But I am eager to find out what actual Americans think about T.C. 

Have you ever tried to stop New Yorkers on the street to ask them—excuse me, ma’am—if by any chance they are registered Democrats, and if so would they mind signing this petition held out by a stranger for an unknown southern Senator whom the 1 percent of New Yorkers who’ve heard of him think is a Claghorn racist who despises artists and homosexuals, believes the Rosenbergs were guilty, and will start a nuclear war? Yes, ma’am, he is the one whom Carohne Kennedy endorsed. No, he’s not opposed to abortion—that’s Askew. Sure, you can sign someone else’s petition (only it won’t count, heh, heh). Now, if you could just give me your full address, too, with zip code. No, we won’t be sending you any mail. We don’t have the money. Thanks anyway, ma’am. 

At first I try the sidewalk in front of the big Barnes & Noble bookstore at Fifth Avenue and Eighteenth Street. Nice bookish crowd. Good signature territory, I figure. Except that most of the customers turn out to be Nigerian immigrants who are very apologetic about not being able to vote in this country.

I try the Village (too many apolitical gays). I try the Whitney Museum (tourists). I try Zabar’s delicatessen (a hotbed of Cranstonites). I try the Bloomingdale’s subway stop (pretty good). But it is only four days later, when I am wandering around Washington Square, unshaven, accosting passersby with what must by now be a somewhat menacing tone of desperation, that a young, wellscrubbed man wearing a Hart button gives me some better advice. “You should try SoHo,” he says. “It’s the best place.” I sense something right then about the Hart campaign that is borne out by all my subsequent encounters with Hart volunteers, who are invariably clean, friendly, and slightly nerdy, while exuding an air of complete technical competence. “We got our ten thousand yesterday,” the Hart techie tells me. “Good luck.”

After a while at signature gathering, you develop specialties. My partner one day is a pasty-faced young press aide named Brooks Fudenberg, who talks with a laborious precision (“Hellowww, this is Br-r-rooks Few-den-berg”). But Fudenberg has a mystical rapport with blacks, who invariably respond to his somewhat stereotyped pitch about how T.C. (whom Fudenberg calls “my man”) is a major supporter of the Women, Infants, and Children nutrition program.

My speciality is fiftyish white women whom I can treat as if they were my friends’ parents. Young, clean-cut males are treacherous—they could turn out to be friendly grad students, but they could also be surly New Wave types who will start muttering “Fuck politics! Fuck all the politicians! Fuck the whole goddamned ball game!” as they stumble off backward down the street, knocking over garbage cans. Pretty women are more likely to sign than unattractive women, I discover, perhaps because they are more accustomed to being accosted.

A man with a clipboard on a good corner in SoHo can collect approximately 18 signatures an hour. In five hellish days, three of us gather about 2,000. Most will never stand up to a challenge. Some are from New Jersey. One is from Ontario, Canada. At headquarters, I learn that the political operator who promised to get us 5,000 of our 10,000 signatures has come in with none. That means we are still short, with less than twenty-four hours to file. No one knows where the extra signatures might come from. I’m not sure I want to know. When This Week’s Campaign Manager decides to pull the plug eight hours before the deadline, I am relieved. The news release is held for Saturday, traditionally the day fewest people read the papers, but it leaks out on Friday. “Senator Ernest F. Hollings of South Carolina dropped out of the New York Presidential primary today, and his state manager contended that the rules for getting on the April 3 ballot were stacked in favor of Walter Mondale.” I think it plays rather well, considering.

New Hampshire: After New York, Manchester is a relief. We have a real office, right above the Frugal Fashion Outlet on the main street. Voters seem to have heard of T.C, and most seem to like him, although the polls put us at 4 percent instead of the rumored 9 percent. There are no surly New Wavers. I love it. Still, something is missing. I remember a cynical friend of mine telling me that grown men join Presidential campaigns for three reasons: to get jobs, to write about it, and to sleep with starlets. Now I realize what is missing. Hart has all the glamorous celebrities— Goldie Hawn, Mary Tyler Moore, Warren Beatty, Carole King. We have Ruth Warrick, who plays the aging bitch on the soap “All My Children.” Warrick draws enthusiastic mall crowds, but somehow she’s not what this ol’ yuppie’s fantasies are made of. It could have been worse, I tell myself. Cranston’s big celebrity is Lillian Hellman.

I am put “in charge” of Salem, a growing town of 10,000 not far from the Massachusetts border. A private contractor has canvassed Salem’s voters by telephone for us. Depending upon what they have told the canvassers, they are ranked as follows: (1.) committed to T.C. (2.) leaning to T.C. (3.) undecided (4.) committed to someone else. There is a separate index card for each voter. My stack of 3’s is huge, but I have only about twenty 1’s.

The index cards are designed to help “pull” our voters to the polls, but I have so few voters to pull that it is decided I should concentrate on establishing a “presence” in Salem. This means distributing leaflets and putting up lawn signs. After trying to hammer two signs into the frigid earth, I give up and concentrate on door-to-door leafleting. Our press secretary has designed a cute foldout number that cleverly does not mention T.C.’s name until the intrigued voter opens it up. We consider it far superior to Hart’s fliers, which hammer unsubtly at his trite “new generation” theme.

The main problem with leafleting is storm doors. Do you open the door and stick your leaflet inside, outraging the more privacy-conscious tenants, or do you stick the leaflet in the crack between the storm door and frame where it is at the mercy of any passing breeze? A tough policy decision. Still, I like leafleting. It is healthy, and seems more productive than standing around the office waiting to get in a word with T.C. or This Week’s Campaign Manager. On the other hand, it is exhausting. I am telling myself that this is my last campaign when I pass by a wheezing middle-aged man with a sunken look on his face, trudging up the same street that I am working. I realize that he is a door-to-door salesman who does this sort of thing for a living. I am flooded with a mixture of admiration and pity.

In the remaining four days before the primary I try to call my 3’s (undecideds). I make it through about half. Virtually none of the 3’s have made up their minds since they were last called—ominous news for Mondale. A shocking number of voters seem to be taking their decision extremely seriously. They have read up on the candidates’ positions, and they are planning to do more reading over the weekend. They talk intelligently about the issues. At least part of this conscientiousness, it seems, is the direct product of the much-lamented “disproportionate influence” these first-in-the-nation voters wield. They are, in a sense, professional ballot casters. They have changed history before, and they take their power to change it again very seriously. The voters in subsequent states may be stampeded by media hype, but I don’t think the New Hampshire voters who start the stampede are.

More and more, however, these conscientious citizens are not answering their phones, or using their children to screen out callers. When they do answer, they tell me I am the seventh or eighth call they have received that day. The Mondale camp has so many troops that they are calling every voter three times, and then sending each a little note to apologize for the disturbance and warn that, nevertheless, “we’re going to call you one more time.”

T.C. begins the day before the election with a tour of three diners in West Manchester. A profile of Hollings on CBS News had featured a voter who, failing to remember T.C.’s name after shaking his hand, said, “I think he said his name was ‘Rollins,’ or something.” So the diner tour is immediately dubbed the Rolling Rollins Rally by cynical staffers. The most cynical staffers chant “Rollins! Rollins! He’s our man!” as T.C. enters the diners to greet one or two bemused breakfasters. The tour is a disaster. I go home to the air mattress early, depressed. My host cheers me up by showing me a videotape of the speech T.C. had delivered at a Democratic fundraiser the day before. The speech is terrific—a funny, rousing, ad-libbed stem-winder that throws together every theme Hollings has come up with over the past four months. The sort of speech Gary Hart will never give.

On election morning, my roommate walks across the room in his sleep and turns off the alarm so by the time I get to Salem the polls have already been open for half an hour. I feel incredibly guilty (HOLLINGS LOSES SALEM BY 3 VOTES), even though I haven’t missed anything. There are basically two things you can do on Election Day: stand at the polls, and “pull votes.” I try both. Poll standing turns out to be complicated by arcane local election rules, which decree that if you want to stand by the door of the polling place you can’t talk politics or hold a sign. If you want to hold a sign or talk about anything other than the weather, you must stand outside at the entrance to the parking lot, 150 feet away, where, on this particular morning, it is twenty-five degrees and sleeting.

I decide to freeze for a few hours. With me is a friendly, stout Mondale man. He is holding his sign as a favor for his brother, he tells me. Later a Hart techie shows up. He looks as if he’d been up late hacking. I venture the opinion that Hart looks awfully good when you first know him but that he doesn’t sit that well over time. “I guess that’s a matter of opinion, isn’t it?” the techie snaps back. I am embarrassed and learn never to argue politics with an opposing volunteer.

As the day wears on, the camaraderie among the rival Democratic camps increases. I travel to a second polling place, where I encounter a freezing McGovern volunteer from Yale who needs a ride to another precinct. I give it to him. Then I give him a ride back. Then I tell myself what a rube I am for turning Hollings’s Salem campaign into a shuttle-bus service for McGovern.

Two well-dressed figures show up, and I recognize one as Bert Carp, a Mondale adviser. I ask Carp if Mondale is ready to be serene in defeat. Carp says confidently that the previous day’s poll, showing Hart even with Mondale, will only “get our people angry. We’re not going to get beaten.” At this point Carp’s partner, a sinister-looking fellow in a trench coat, walks up to a voter and says, “Hi, I’m Bill Mondale. Walter Mondale’s son.” Here is a way to talk politics without talking politics. I think about introducing myself as Ernest Hollings’s cousin, but give up. It is time to initiate my “vote pulling” operation.

One technique of vote pulling is to give rides to the polls to your supporters. The Mondale camp has four-wheeldrive vehicles circling in the snow for this purpose. I have an old Volvo that I have vacuumed for the occasion. I begin calling all my l’s and 2’s to make sure they have voted. Finally, I locate a 1 who says she needs a ride.

Now, it’s not sporting to make a voter promise to support your candidate before deciding whether to give her a ride or leave her stranded in the snow—secret ballot and all that. But my faith in the Hollings vote canvassers is somewhat shaken when my puUee, a short, middle-aged housewife (with, I couldn’t help noticing, two cars in her driveway), climbs into the passenger seat and asks, “Who is Hollings, now?” Perhaps a bracing earful of propaganda will remind her. I carefully outline T.C.’s strengths and his opponents’ weaknesses—rather skillfully, I think. I have learned something in the last two weeks, after all. I hold the door open for my guest, and hold my umbrella over her head as she makes her way through the muck and sleet into the polling place. Joking with my competitors outside, I feel like a fellow professional. I have gotten one vote. I wait and wait. At last my convert emerges. 

“Hollings, Cranston—I get them so mixed up. I’m not sure which one I voted for.”

It takes all my commitment to democracy to repress the strong desire to ask her how she plans to get home.

By the time I reach the Hollings victory party, T.C. has already delivered his concession speech. We have 4 percent of the vote, better than Askew or Cranston, but not enough to go on. Hollings pulls out of there two days later, and endorses Hart the next week. The official in-house line is that we were up at 8 or 9 percent in the tracking polls before the Iowa caucuses where we got a shot of bad publicity because we didn’t compete. I’d like to believe that, although I suspect that all losing campaigns have similar excuses, and I hate postmortems anyway.

Mainly, I’m still waiting for the adrenaline to hit.