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The Messenger

Earlier this afternoon, Alan Keyes thundered through yet another appearance in a Republican presidential debate. In 1996, Michael Lewis profiled Keyes for TNR.


My initial reaction to the spectacle of Alan Keyes spewing moral outrage at various Republican gatherings was to wonder how this man ever got himself taken seriously. I doubted whether he was even capable of having an ordinary conversation--one in which he hears the other person out, considers his views and in some way attempts to accommodate them. I soon learned that Keyes enjoyed the distinction of having been the only guest on "Crossfire" whose behavior was so outrageous that the producer apologized to the other guests after the show. I didn't think it possible to behave badly on "Crossfire." Out of curiosity I requested a copy of the transcript. Sure enough, the show opened with Keyes vomiting vast paragraphs about the moral decay in America, barely punctuated by the attempts of Michael Kinsley, Fred Barnes and Clifford Alexander to break in. Even on paper you could tell that Keyes shouted at the camera at the top of his lungs. When it became clear that someone else would be permitted to speak, he cut them off as soon as they opened their mouths by saying, "I listened while you spoke. Now let me finish the point I'm making." A brief excerpt can serve to give you some idea of the whole (we join the action after Keyes has spoken a few volumes on modern American morality):

Kinsley: All right, Alan--

Keyes: How are we going to restore the moral identity and values that will finally--

Kinsley: Alan, Alan, you've made your point--

Alexander: I don't think it's going to be restored by you shouting at the rest of us.

Keyes: That is the--

Alexander: If I may finish--

Keyes: The great--

Alexander: Ten years ago--

Keyes: Wait a minute!

"Do you get points for loudness on this show?" a forlorn Alexander asks later.

I was dreading the moment I would finally have to hunt this man down and listen to him for days. I began to think up ways to cheat, but the evening before my plan of evasion was fully formed I ended up in a car with my friend Joel Achenbach of The Washington Post, heading north from Des Moines in search of Alan Keyes.

Two hours later we were waiting in a small town library. Keyes arrived and took the stage. He is striking to look at: his face is coal black with gleaming white teeth and a beard that seems to grow out of his shirt and up around his throat until it diverges and reconnects on his upper lip. His arms are jerky, like a dictator's. But his most noticeable features are his long slim feet, which form an unstable base on his round body, like a pair of flippers. (He's not much more than five seven, and his feet are size eleven- and-a-half, AAA.) As he rocked back and forth on his flippers while waiting to be introduced, I braced myself for the madness that was sure to come. Then Keyes spoke.

His subject was of course the theme of his campaign: moral decay and the need to restore "the marriage-based two-parent family." According to Keyes, all our problems derive from the decline of the family, which was brought about by evil liberal policies of the last fifty years. All our solutions depend on recreating the incentives for marriage by reforming welfare, education and the tax code and above all restoring a sense of shame to the culture. "Our problems are not money problems," he says, "our problems are moral problems."

What he says, however, is overwhelmed by how he says it. Even after that first time, when I assumed that he, like the other candidates, was working pretty much straight from memory, that he was just reproducing the same talk he had given a couple of hours before, I was struck dumb by the force of his eloquence. After the first twenty minutes I looked up at Joel and found that he was looking back at me with the same stunned expression. "I don't know about you," he said, "but I'm about to go work for the guy."

When Keyes finished speaking the audience did something I have never seen an audience do. They were so entranced that they actually forgot to applaud; and then suddenly it was as if everyone in the room remembered that he had a role to play, and the place erupted.

Afterwards I presented myself at the front door of Keyes's Winnebago. A distinguished reporter from a big newspaper told me that he had been trying to land an interview with Keyes for the past six months--phone calls, faxes, even e-mail messages had gone unanswered. In six months Keyes had been unable to spare him even thirty minutes of his time. I had been led to believe that getting to him was nearly impossible, and, before I heard him speak, that was fine by me. It turns out that this has less to do with the reticence of the candidate than the disorganization of his campaign; from moral certainty, it seems, follows logistical chaos. At any given time no one who works for him knows where Alan Keyes is, only where he stands.

But if in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of the night, a perfect stranger presents himself at the front door of the campaign Winnebago, Keyes will pull him up and in. And so sometime before midnight I ditched my rental car and took off on a 1,000-mile tour of Alan Keyes's Iowa.

January 31:

In the darkness of the cabin, Keyes offers a brief tour of his past. His father made a career of the army, which meant Keyes was raised in about ten different places. His family has deep roots in Maryland, but unlike many black Marylanders was not Roman Catholic but Baptist, at least until Keyes's mother persuaded his father to convert. Keyes studied political philosophy with Allan Bloom at Cornell, and left with Bloom out of disenchantment with the Vietnam war protests. After a year with Bloom in Paris he wound up at Harvard, where he finally took his doctorate. He became proficient in Greek, German, Spanish, Italian and Russian. His Ph.D. thesis on Alexander Hamilton's thought dwelled on a speech that Hamilton gave to the Constitutional Convention that lasted for six hours and advanced the proposition of an electoral monarchy, the rule by the elite, of which only the notes of the listeners survive. I am not sure which is more appealing to Keyes now, the substance of the address or the possibility of speaking for six hours without interruption.

Keyes discovered a talent for public speaking in schoolboy tournaments but became disenchanted with the skill upon leaving home for college. "Part of it is a natural gift which has a certain effect apart from substance. What bothered me about that was that you could go on producing that effect as a kind of trick. This struck me as the worst kind of life. And so after high school, I stopped giving speeches for, oh, I think it was a good ten years." When at length he came back, he gave a Lincoln Day talk at Harvard's Dunster House. "I remember wanting them to be too struck by it to even think of applauding. The tribute I wanted for that speech was silence."

Since then he has been, in no particular order, a State Department official, an ambassador to the U.N. in the Reagan administration, a university president, radio talk-show host and candidate for the U.S. Senate. He ran twice, weakly, doing worse the second time than he did the first. Each time he left a trail of unpaid campaign debts in his wake and wound up with no visible means of support. In short, he is a kind of mirror image of the society he seeks to depict: his problems are not moral problems; his problems are money problems. After a few hours sleep, we rise and hit the road: a motel, two universities and the community center of a savings bank. One Keyes event is much like another Keyes event. Keyes arrives late and delivers a glorious thirty-minute oration followed by an even more glorious thirty- minute question-and-answer session, in which the answers occupy all but about forty seconds. After the standing ovation, but before the question period, a lone Keyes volunteer passes a collection basket and invites the audience to reach down deep to help the badly funded campaign. The main difference between one Keyes event and the next is Keyes himself. His message is always the same, but the language he deploys to convey it is so different as to constitute a whole new speech each time. He takes his thesis statement and weaves these marvelous intricate kaleidoscopic word patterns around it. Commonly he finds a keynote--a phrase or a quote--and just runs with it. Maybe ten times, I heard him find his way back to Lincoln's famous description of America as "the last best hope of earth," but each time he followed it with a different fireworks display of sound and sense. Even then I thought he was working from memory--that he just had an uncommonly large store of these wonderful riffs. But, once, I asked him afterwards if he would repeat what he had said. He looked at me like I didn't know what I was talking about. "I don't remember," he said.

The other unusual thing about a Keyes event is the kind of people who turn out to buy what he is selling. A Keyes crowd is entirely white--in three days with Keyes I did not see a black person besides the candidate--but otherwise bears not the slightest resemblance to the crowds who come out for Dole and Forbes. A roomful of liberal Harvard professors would mix more naturally with either wing of the Republican Party than the two wings mix with each other. With Dole and Forbes, you are always vaguely aware of what the people who show up do for a living. With Keyes, there is never any visible means of support. Whoever they are, they are not defined by their economic station but by their states of mind. Here are the conservatives who have lost the money game: type-B males and the women who love them.

The appeal to them of Keyes's message is that it confirms their choices in life, or rather the choices life has made for them. If the marriage-based family comprising God-fearing people is the ideal state of man, these people immediately are at the top of the heap. The pursed-lip expression that falls somewhere between pride and determination (like the one Clinton assumes whenever he has to salute a soldier) is what you see on a Keyes crowd at the end of the speech. Ask them for compassion, and you'll be amazed by how much they have to give; lend them money and you'll regret it for the rest of your life.

February 1:

A boat club on the banks of the Mississippi, two Best Westerns and an American Legion Hall. I wish I could be more dismissive of Keyes and confine him to the class of harmless lunatics, but that's not what he is. Saying exactly what he is is the problem--not just for me but for all the people who turn up to cheer him on and, I believe, even for him. He's not a viable presidential candidate; his campaign has reached the point where it has discovered the nobility of failure. It derives its strength and fervor partly from losing. Nobody who turns up for him seems to care much to win. What they want is to be among the select to be called. "Those of us who believe in the existence of God," says Keyes, "have a certain advantage in making moral arguments," and he's right.

At any rate Keyes is clearly much smarter than I am, and by the end of a full day with him he has me persuaded of just about everything he believes right up till the moment I leave him for my own room in the Best Western. For the first time in my life I am persuaded that we are in the midst of that crisis of character that will determine whether the Republic lives or dies, and so on. I worry that Keyes will think I am part of it. Whenever possible I flash my wedding ring and generally attempt to appear marriage-based. That is, I am not immune to the allure of the little status group he is creating; it's the only status group in sight.

But inevitably, just when I start thinking of Alan Keyes as a boon companion and a reasonable person much like me and you, he goes and flies into a rage about some subject that heretofore he has evinced no interest in. Probably this is some sort of test--to see if I am a genuine follower or merely a pretender. Once every few hours I feel as the more skeptical disciples must have felt whenever Christ lost it; for example, when he chased the money changers from the temple. Today the first flash point occurs when I ask Keyes why he, the most God-drenched candidate, didn't get the support of the Iowa Christian Coalition; the second when he asks himself repeatedly why Pat Buchanan is making use of Michael New, the soldier who was court- martialed for refusing on constitutional grounds to wear U.N. blue. Keyes's point on the subject is extremely well taken: the president is commander in chief, and when a presidential candidate encourages soldiers to interpret the Constitution he undermines the authority of the office he is seeking to occupy. He wigs out and becomes furious, his arms jerking around and his voice becoming a megaphone. During a quiet moment when I ask him why he is getting so totally worked up he says, "I surprise myself sometimes. I was surprised by that. It offends me. Maybe there's something else going on ..." but he drifts off into his own thoughts. I tell him he'd be better if he controlled his temper. "You're like my wife," he says. "My wife says I should never seem angry."

At the end of another long day--four long speeches and nearly 400 miles on the road--we pull into our last Best Western for one final counterblast. We were due at 7:00; it is now past 8:00; and there is some doubt, in my mind at least, whether the citizens of Fort Madison, Iowa, will have lingered for Keyes, especially since the thermometer is predicted to plunge from zero to nearly 40 below. We are met by an amazing sight: the conference room is not only still filled to the walls, but the 150 people inside are perfectly silent, rapt. They are watching a video of one of Alan Keyes's speeches; and they are so fixed upon it that they hardly notice when the man himself appears in the flesh. For any other candidate this would mean putting the crowd through the same speech twice. The only other candidate who would risk a TV at the front of the room would be Morry Taylor, and he would have it there to raffle it off.

February 5:

The drive west through the cypress swamps between New Orleans and Baton Rouge never fails to remind me of the many other times I have passed through this place. Like Keyes and his admirers, I am nostalgic not merely for the past but for a past I've never really had, and as a result I always find the cypress swamps vaguely disappointing. My memory of the place is a movie memory, not a real one. From the tape deck boom the speeches Keyes has made and recorded for sale over the past year--to the Christian Coalition, the New Hampshire State Republican Committee and other, smaller groups of followers. His collected works, as it were.

"We will rebuild our families or we will perish."

"Every civilization is built on some basics... One is getting your younger children to avoid fornication. The other is getting your older children to get married before they have children."

One strange thing is how different it is to be in the hands of a speaker than it is to listen to him alone in the quiet. I recall as a schoolboy having to pretend to be moved by tape recordings of JFK and Martin Luther King. With Keyes what moved you now seems slightly sinister. I wonder if maybe the trouble with Judas was not his greed but that he spent too much time away from the boss.

On the tapes I notice something that I missed in the flesh: he knows exactly when an audience is about to burst into applause and tries to squelch it, redirect it and husband it, rather than encourage it. Over and over again you can see him holding up his hand as if to say, "No wait, let me finish. What I have to say is too important for mere applause." He's a master at managing the crowd's emotions, bringing them right up to the brink of something and then not letting them have it.

An hour and a half later, I somehow remain pro-choice. I pull onto the LSU campus and find my way to the Student Union. Inside the building is a ballroom, and inside the ballroom are Keyes and his followers. Or so I was led to believe by the woman who plans Keyes's campaign schedule. But aside from a lone lean figure of another magazine writer, the ballroom is empty. A call to Keyes headquarters reveals that we are at the start of a mystery. "I know, I know," says the woman who only two hours before had assured me that the thing I must do to hook up with the Ambassador was rent a car and drive to Baton Rouge. "Everyone is looking for him, and no one knows where he is." Keyes has vanished; all that is left of him is his voice on the tape player. Strangely it doesn't make much of a difference. By the time I get back to New Orleans, I am spent.

February 6:

Today between 4:00 and 8:00 in the afternoon the first votes that count will be cast in Louisiana. Either way it's bad news for Phil Gramm. If he wins they'll say it was rigged; if he loses they'll say he couldn't even rig a win. Buchanan is bigfooting across the state claiming total victory. Keyes, on the other hand, is saying that his campaign "is not about winning caucuses and primaries and things like that," which will come as news to everyone else in the race. This morning a small group of Keyes supporters gathers in a restaurant not far from the New Orleans airport and gets a whiff of what the Keyes campaign is about. What follows is about one-tenth of one answer to a question from the audience about his electoral hopes:

We are in an era where I think some of the success that has been enjoyed by Christian political activism is having a little bit of a confusing effect. Because people have had success and they've come to leadership and all the media people say, "Well, the Christian Coalition is going to decide this, and this is going to decide that." And some people are sitting there and starting to think in a way that they didn't think when all of this started. Because the way to get into it is, to finally realize that someone has got to bear witness pure and simply to what they think is right. So go for it, act on your heart, act on your conscience, act on your faith, and let the chips fall where they may. But now you start to enjoy a little success, and you look around and you say, Yeah, well if I follow this, I may enjoy a little more success. Well, yeah, well okay, so that one is not really committed to these things, but he's going to win. And since he's going to win we need a place at the table, we need to be there' and so forth and so on. Now that is the calculation that starts to interfere with the judgment. And the judgment then becomes, Yeah, he's saying all the things I believe, but I can't just act on what I believe any more. That's unsophisticated, that's immature.' Is it really? I thought that was why we got involved in this in the first place. And then, for some inexplicable reason, Keyes becomes angry. He recalls the question I asked him about the Iowa Christian Coalition (why, in the wake of Dole's weakness, he didn't seek to win their support), and the rise in his voice causes everyone to jump in his seat.

"I have never talked to or asked anyone for an endorsement at any time in this campaign. I have never even asked any one of the people like John who are working for me to come and work for me. Never! He cannot say that Alan Keyes ever came and said to him, John work for me.' John, did I ever do this?" (Fixes John with a commanding stare.)

"No," says John.

"John didn't come here because Alan Keyes asked him to. I just present the message. If they care about it they come forward. I don't thank anybody. I don't care what their name is, what their background is, who they think they are for helping this campaign. Because I think this campaign has to rely on the strength of the message and the power of God, and we will get where we're supposed to get. If people feel that's right they'll come forward. If they don't think that's right they won't. I think what the person was suggesting was that I'd give the Christian Coalition a way out. Because now that Dole is sinking..."

He lets that thought hang for a moment, then continues:

You see, this must be a terrible feeling. You make a decision based on expediency, and it doesn't work. And then you are left without expediency and without principle. With nothing. This is sad. I never want to wake up the day after an election or anything else with that emptiness in me. Knowing I have given away the things that matter most for the sake of what I thought would win and finding that I have lost and have nothing. I have not said one word or done one thing with the principles that I believe in. And I never will. And knowing that, it doesn't matter how many times I lose because I'm not losing anything. I will carry it home right with me to the grave, till that moment when I look to see whether God approves. And that is all that really matters.

After I left him I recalled that the last evening I was with him I asked Keyes whether he did not suffer from messianic fantasies. In the front of the Winnebago, his two aides chuckled. At the time I thought they were laughing at the audacity of the suggestion. Now I think that they were laughing at its naivete.

By Michael Lewis