Authors: Jim Lehrer
Tags: #General Fiction
“Relevance is in the eye of the beholder,” Turpin said. “I am the beholder in this case, Chuck, not you.”
Lilly appealed to Dewey. “Nancy, I do not approve of this way of doing things. It’s right out of the fraternity blackball system.”
“All we can do is recommend,” Hammond said. “We cannot force either of you to accept anybody on the panel.”
“That is exactly right,” Turpin said. “You force, we walk—there’s no debate.”
“Let’s not talk about force,” Lilly said to Turpin. “If you are going to
treat each one of these four panelist slots as if they’re nominations to the Supreme Court, then we are never ever going to get this done.”
Turpin, using words and phrases he had worked out in advance, said: “Let’s review the situation we are involved in here, Brad. Negotiations for debates between you and me and our respective brethren went nowhere for weeks. You accused us of being the stumbling block, of not wanting to debate. We denied that, accusing you of wanting only the most rigid, controlled kind of joint appearance—not a real debate. That argument aside, the end result is this one event. Only one debate. It is impossible to overstate the potential impact that debate could have on the outcome of this election. You know that. I know that. So let’s not play games about it. I care very much about who the four people on the panel are going to be. So do you. You must. I want Ray Adair off this panel.”
Brad Lilly, distracted by a myriad of problems in his faltering campaign, truly had not seen the selection of the Williamsburg Debate panelists as being that important. It wasn’t until Turpin made his little speech that he realized the explosive potential for this particular exercise. By then it was too late. He acceded to Turpin’s complaint. Ray Adair was history.
Turpin’s notebook identified Maria Chavez-Jones as a “typical anti-Republican leftist NPR reporter” who had come out of a strong labor-union background. Her father had been a paid organizer in the San Diego area for the retail clerks’ union. Her mother worked as a caseworker for the California Department of Public Welfare. She had a brother who was a Democratic member of the California Assembly and a sister who taught English to recent immigrants from Mexico and other Latin American countries. Good-bye, Maria Chavez-Jones.
And over the course of the next forty-five minutes it was also goodbye to scores of others on the Hammond and Dewey second page, the B-list. They included for moderator all of the principal anchorpeople for the commercial networks, cable and public television, the morning and magazine programs, as well as the nightlies. Turpin gleefully shot the anchors down one at a time with anti-Meredith news-story counts from their newscasts, complaints about an anti-Meredith tone in their interviews, and tidbits of family or personal history that marked them unacceptable as liberals, Democrats, or hostiles. Not only was Lilly
unprepared to offer any resistance, but so were Hammond and Dewey. Chuck Hammond did not think it was the commission’s job or right to do screening investigations of potential panelists. “We compiled our list from our own long experience with and observations of various journalists in Washington,” he said. “It was a subjective list, I will admit.”
The turning point, known at the time only to Turpin and Hill, came when Turpin offered no objections to Joan Naylor, the CNS News weekend anchor, serving as one of the panelists. He had rejected her earlier as moderator.
“She’s OK for the panel,” said Turpin. “She’d be in over her head as moderator. She’s no Barbara Walters.”
“I don’t think women should be compared only to women,” said Nancy Dewey.
She was left out there by herself. Lilly was so grateful by then to have someone agreed to he signed off on Joan Naylor without any further discussion.
Henry Ramirez and Barbara Manning, despite being in their late twenties, also passed quick and easy muster with Turpin. The quickness and easiness should have raised warning flags to the others, but apparently it did not.
Lilly’s primary interest by then was, in his words, “finding four live humans.” He was only vaguely aware of Barbara Manning because of some pieces she had written for
He had never even heard of Henry Ramirez and considered his employer, Continental Radio, to be a “third- or fourth-tier” media outlet. But. She was black, he was brown, so fine. Yes, they were young. But she was black, he was brown.
Hammond and Dewey, too, knew of both only because of their respective races. They were put on the list because of the need to have a good representation of black and Hispanic candidates. Manning’s name was one of twelve submitted at the commission’s request by the National Association of Black Journalists. Ramirez was on the National Association of Hispanic Journalists’ list of twelve.
Now it was three down, one to go. The one was the important job of moderator. By the time Turpin got through, only Mike Howley of
The Washington Morning News
remained on the list. Lilly voiced some objection before he said OK.
“The sunavabitch has done nothing but trash my man’s campaign,” Lilly said.
“He’s trashing you, in other words, if he’s trashing the campaign,” Turpin said. “I don’t blame you for not wanting him as moderator.”
“That’s not the point,” Lilly said.
“It’s always the point,” Turpin said.
Turpin assumed everyone in the room knew what he meant by that, i.e., that many professional political campaign managers—the best ones, mostly—eventually saw all of their campaigns as contests between them and the opposing professional campaign manager. That was always the point.
The point of the meeting had also been reached. They had four panelists—four live human beings. Mission accomplished, meeting over.
Quiet beginning over.
The next morning in a suite at the Holiday Inn in Rapid City, South Dakota, Brad Lilly tried his best to make it all look good to Governor Greene. Or at least not as bad as he was so afraid it really was.
First, there was the NBS–
Wall Street Journal
poll. Lilly told Greene that he had heard it was coming and that the news was apparently not going to be great.
“He’s caught us, is that it?” the candidate asked his campaign manager.
“Yes, sir—and then some,” the campaign manager replied. “But it could be a blip, an air bubble, a quirk, a bad batch.”
“Batch? A bad batch of what?”
“Voters, poll respondents.”
To Lilly and the others in the room it appeared for a split second that Governor Paul L. Greene of Nebraska was going to break out—or down—into laughter. But it passed and instead he stuck it right back and into Lilly. He said: “Maybe the stories will say the candidate of the great Brad Lilly, the Democratic party’s political-consultant prince, has fallen seventeen points in the polls in seven months. Maybe they’ll leave me out of it altogether.”
Lilly was overcome with a marrow-deep disgust for his candidate for
the first time since the campaign began. All he wanted at that moment was out of there. Out of this room, this Holiday Inn, this Rapid City, this world. He moved on to the next piece of business, the debate panel, feeling it would only take a few seconds.
It didn’t work because of Joan Naylor.
“She is unacceptable to me,” Greene said. “That is it and that is final.”
“I really am sorry, Governor, but we did not realize you had such a huge problem with her,” said Lilly. “She’s not any worse than the others—”
Greene interrupted: “You heard her the other night, Brad. You heard her call me ‘the man who is rapidly writing his name in the political histories as the single worst campaigner of all time.’ ”
“Those weren’t her words. She was quoting somebody.”
“She lied about that the way they all do. They were her words. She said they were spoken by a ‘veteran Democratic mover and shaker who asked to remain anonymous,’ but I do not believe that. They were her words. She spoke them to the American people. And she did not even have the guts to say they were her own words. She ducked. She is a coward. She is not somebody I want on this debate panel.”
“I will not answer any questions asked by her during the debate or on any other occasion ever as long as the both of us shall live.”
“I hear you.”
Brad Lilly was a campaign pro who had worked in the Udall, Carter, Mondale, Dukakis, Kerrey, and Clinton campaigns. He was not close enough to Greene to say what his new disgust led him to want to say, which was: Oh, knock it off, please. You’re going to lose anyhow, so what difference does it make who is on this goddamn panel?
Almost as if he had been reading Lilly’s mind, Greene said: “If the new poll is right, it may mean I might lose this election, possibly by a landslide that will make Goldwater, McGovern, Mondale, and Dukakis look like winners. So somebody could reasonably ask, What the hell difference does one woman on a debate panel matter? Well, the answer is that it makes a difference to me.”
Yeah, and that is really some tough, smart answer, thought Lilly.
Lilly reminded himself that the election was now less than a month away and looked around the hotel suite for some help. Anderson and four other campaign operatives were there, each in his own way trying his best to make himself invisible. Lilly claims most everyone in the campaign at this particular time was trying to be invisible.
Lilly looked right at Marvin Al Garrison, the campaign press secretary. “Tell the governor, Marvin Al, what kind of shit would hit the fan if we go back to the debate commission now and try to get Joan Naylor scrubbed from the panel. Tell him, Marvin Al, please, sir.”
Marvin Al, a man from Alabama already not happy in his work, stepped forward to say: “They would kill us, Governor. I mean kill.”
“Who would?” Greene asked.
“Everybody. The women, the networks, the editorials, the talk shows, the polls, the carrier boys, the truck drivers, the Ph.D.’s, the R.N.’s, the shrinks, the skunks, the punks, the clownalists. Everybody.”
“So? How much deader can I get than I already am? You can’t kill a dead man, Marvin Al. He’s already dead.”
Now, there is wisdom for you, thought Lilly. He said: “Marvin Al is right, Governor. It would probably even get the debate itself canceled. The other side would raise hell and pull out. If they didn’t, the other three panelists—you know how these pompous asses hang together in moments of public phoniness—would probably refuse to participate if Naylor is dropped. Nobody would come forward to replace them.…”
“Why didn’t you run these names by me beforehand?”
“There were so many other matters on the plate, it just slipped through the cracks. I didn’t see any serious problems with any of them except for Howley, whom I detest, as you know. But the chances of getting anybody better were doubtful. But, at any rate, I did not want to bother you with such details. You have so much more important things to do. But clearly that was a mistake.”
“I thought the arrangement was that we had an opportunity to vet the panel,” Greene said. “I thought nobody got on without our approval.”
“True. I did the approving at a meeting yesterday with Turpin and the commission’s people. Turpin came with a lot of information about the possible panelists. I meant to get some together, but there simply wasn’t time. I blew that, too, I regret to say.”
Greene was sitting in an overstuffed chair in the center of the room. He swiveled it halfway around to the right and then back around to the left.
“Maybe Joan Naylor is right when she says I am the worst candidate there has ever been for president of the United States,” he said quietly. “I guess it is only appropriate then that I have a campaign staff that is a perfect match. Isn’t that what Mike Howley wrote about you-all a few days ago, Brad? Didn’t he say something about the only thing worse in my campaign than the candidate might very well be the campaign staff?”
“He said something like that, yes, sir.”
“It was exactly like that, Brad.”
The three men and one woman around the large Sunday-school classroom table stood when David Donald Meredith came in. That was what they always did every morning at the First Light staff meeting, at the beginning of their workday at the highest levels of the Take It Back With Meredith For President campaign.