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Authors: Jim Lehrer

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The Last Debate (30 page)

BOOK: The Last Debate
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Every poll, and even every radio call-in host, reported the public believed the accusers but mostly believed their own eyes that saw Meredith lose control of himself on national television. “The sound of those bad words and the crash of the podium may go down as the loudest and most critical sounds ever heard in a presidential election,” wrote David Broder in
The Washington Post.
David Donald Meredith, less than a fortnight away from being elected president of the United States, had been destroyed, shot completely and forever out of the political water, by four journalists and himself.

The arrival of Election Day was seen by most people in and out of politics and journalism almost as a form of mercy killing. Meredith had been kept alive by artificial means since that Sunday night in Williamsburg.
It was time to pull the plug, to put the sad, mean creature and the rest of us who had to watch him out of our misery.

But for the Greene and Meredith people and others closely connected with the campaign, the cat was by no means in the bag. The conventional wisdom that political polls are gospel to political pros is mostly wrong. I found that they sweat them and talk obsessively about them and use them to make points, but in the final analysis most of them don’t really believe the polls. They particularly don’t believe any that show anybody winning anything by an overwhelming margin.

So the operatives in both the Greene and Meredith campaigns and at the two national committees, and the reporters and editors and producers at the networks, wire services, and newspapers, started their day as they did all Election Days. At full expectation, at full edgy.

It was not until almost noon, Eastern Time, that the first of the exit polls began to come in from New York, New Jersey, Florida, Massachusetts, and the other New England states. It was then that it became real. The election most pundits, editorial writers, and political scientists had already called “the Greatest Turnaround in American Election History” was clearly going to be “the Greatest Turnaround in American Election History.” The sweeping nature of what had happened to Meredith was made dramatically evident when exit polls from Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia showed Greene way ahead.

As always, the networks and the wire services said not a word about the exit polls so as not to discourage people from voting later in the day. The stories talked only about turnout—which was heavier than expected—and what the pre-election opinion polls had predicted would happen.

It was not until 9:01
, Eastern Time, that the anchorpeople on all three commercial networks declared Governor Paul L. Greene of Nebraska to be the projected sure winner of the race for president of the United States.

Greene came out to a cheering crowd in the ballroom of the Park Plaza Hotel in Lincoln, Nebraska, a few minutes later to claim victory.

“I am overwhelmed by the show of confidence the people of this great country have placed in me on this historic day,” he said. “I am not overwhelmed by the task ahead. I will do it. I will do it in a manner that will
give no one who voted for me today any reason to ever regret their votes—no matter their reason for so voting.”

That line about reasons was as close as he came to acknowledging the extraordinary circumstances that had caused him to win this election.

David Donald Meredith became the first presidential candidate in modern times not to make a public appearance on election night. A crowd of his closest followers gathered at the Sheraton in downtown Charlotte, but they had nothing to celebrate, nothing to cheer. The networks did only fast brushes past their red-white-and-blue-decorated ballroom.

There was not even any definitive word on exactly where Meredith was. In the last three days of the campaign he had canceled all of his planned national television commercials and made only a handful of perfunctory campaign appearances. There had also been stories of massive layoffs and a possible shutdown of the entire Take It Back operation in Charlotte.

As David Brinkley said on television that night: “David Donald Meredith’s demise gives real meaning to the term ‘defeated.’ Never has any candidate for president been so thoroughly and completely defeated.”

Joan Naylor, still under suspension “for her own good,” watched the returns with Jeff and the twins in their Cleveland Park den.

Barbara and Henry had planned to get together for a late-night drink among the ferns in the lush bar at the Four Seasons. But it did not come off, because both ended up having to spend the evening in their respective newsrooms. Neither had a real assignment other than to simply be there in their new famousness and watch it all on television with their less famous colleagues. Their deal with ABS was still a deep secret, but it was very much in the works and only days from being signed and announced. Each felt spending the evening at their old office was the least they could do before becoming Hank and Barb.

Mike Howley watched the returns by himself in the front room of his town house. His only companion was a bottle of Cutty Sark scotch.

He and the other three heard what was said on television after the 9:01 calls and every few minutes from then on. Pundit after pundit, anchorperson after anchorperson, campaign official after campaign official,
said this election had been historic, incredible, unbelievable. Nothing like it had ever happened.

Both Brad Lilly and Jack Turpin made the rounds of the network election-night programs. Lilly spoke glowingly of what the four panelists had done at the debate, comparing them to “all warriors who have risked their bodies and souls for their country.” He was less glowing in describing his candidate, the president-elect. The world was to find out a week later what caused the restraint. Brad Lilly would not be going to the White House with Greene, as everyone had expected.

Turpin’s anger with Howley, Barbara, Henry, Joan, and the press generally had not abated. He said they were “the political equivalent of war criminals,” “no more than thugs who used words instead of guns.” He was asked about the state of mind of Meredith, but he could honestly say he had no idea. Meredith had fired him as campaign manager right after the debate.

Mack McLarty, one of the twenty-seven pundits appearing on ABS, spoke for most of his fellow pundits when he summed it all up at the 12:30
, Eastern Time, sign-off this way:

“History is replete with times when the press of America was accused of deciding the outcome of a presidential election. This marks the first time such a charge is absolutely one hundred percent accurate, directly on the mark, and thus a remarkable milestone in the political and journalistic history of our still-young nation. Paul L. Greene was elected president of the United States today because four journalists made an unprecedented decision to act in an unprecedented fashion. I think, for the record, it is well to repeat their names. Michael J. Howley of
The Washington Morning News
, Joan Naylor of CNS News, Barbara Manning of
This Week
magazine, and Henry Ramirez of Continental Radio. Some are tonight, no doubt, calling them patriots, journalism heroes of a new kind. Others are calling them arrogant un-patriots, journalism villains of a new and scary kind.

“Whatever, those four individuals, as individuals, go to bed on this election night knowing that what they did was something momentous, something they must know with certainty will be the subject of debate—the debate about the debate—for a very long time. Maybe for all of time.”

Henry Ramirez told me that McLarty’s words, as well as others spoken
on election night, only reaffirmed his belief and pride in what he had done.

Barbara Manning said she sat there in the Washington bureau of
This Week
in front of Mel Renfro and all of the other white boys and cried and cried and cried.

Were they tears of joy or pain? I asked.

“Both,” she replied.

Joan Naylor said her twins hugged her and said how proud they were of their mother. Jeff said the same thing. She admitted to me that it was late, more than two hours after they went to bed, before she went to sleep.

“I didn’t have second thoughts, really,” she said. “Call them dawning thoughts. It truly dawned on me at 9:01, Eastern Time, what I had been a party to. I had participated in the changing of the course of this nation in a way that most people as individuals never have the opportunity to do.”

Should four individuals have such power? I asked.

“Thinking about that was what kept me awake,” she replied.

I asked Howley what was in his mind at 9:01. His answer was dismissive. “I don’t recall having anything in particular,” he said.

I considered it to be a stupid and completely unbelievable thing to say.

No real or sane person in Michael J. Howley’s position that evening could have avoided having a lightning storm of conflicting thoughts crashing, cracking, smashing, banging around in his head.

My first major breakthrough concerning Mike Howley came two days after the election and from a most unlikely source—Jerry Rhome, the executive editor of and Howley’s boss at
The Washington Morning News.
I called him that Thursday morning almost in a perfunctory checklist way, not really expecting anything but stonewalling and difficulty. I was stunned when he took my call within seconds, said he knew and respected Jonathan Angel and his magazine, and then without hesitation agreed to talk to me.

He told me to meet him in the lobby of the
building in a couple of hours—at one o’clock—and we could walk a bit and then eat some lunch.

“They’re waiting for Howley,” he said as we passed a covey of television crews waiting on the sidewalk outside the
building. “Everybody’s waiting for Howley.”

Instead of turning left in the direction of Lafayette Park and the White House we went to the right, toward Massachusetts Avenue. We crossed Sixteenth Street at Logan Circle and passed right in front of the headquarters of the National Rifle Association. Jerry Rhome raised the middle finger of his left hand high in the air in the direction of the building.

“I despise those bastards,” he said, almost by rote.

We cut across Rhode Island toward Herb’s, the restaurant in the basement of the Holiday Inn on the corner of Rhode Island and Seventeenth Street. Rhome said Herb’s was a hangout for writers and others in what passed for the working arts world of Washington. He said it was his favorite place to have lunch because the noise, the company, and the price were all right.

“I hate being interviewed,” he said as we sat down. “The only thing I hate more are people like me—people in the business—who refuse to be interviewed.”

We were given a table—I had the feeling it was his whenever he wanted it—in a corner of a room with walls covered with autographed photographs, framed theater posters, and paintings and sketches by local artists. The table was right next to a large glass-enclosed bookcase full of books by Washington writers who came here for lunch. Two of Mike Howley’s “Campaign Diaries” books were in there along with the one he had co-authored with Pat Tubbs and five of the more recent and more famous ones written by Tubbs alone.

Rhome ordered Cobb salad. I ordered a turkey club sandwich on toasted wheat bread, and he asked me where I wanted to begin. He was a straightforward man of charm and edge, the kind most of us—particularly those of us in journalism—would love to be. I had no trouble understanding why he was admired, feared, and mythologized by the people who worked with, around, for, and against him.

I told him I wanted to start at the very beginning, with the decision of the
to change its policy on debates.

“Mike said he had been invited to moderate Williamsburg. I heard
him out and we changed the policy,” he said. I then asked for and he gave me the details of his long walk to Lafayette Park with Howley.

“Did you know he was going to go after Meredith the way he did?” I asked.

“Hell, no, I didn’t!”

“He didn’t call you or talk to you to clear it with you?”

BOOK: The Last Debate
10.69Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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