Countdown to Victory
What I saw at the devolution
"Mr. President," says campaign adman Sig Rogich, "We need to do another take. For the coverage." It's 11 days until the election, and George Bush is getting slaphappy. "That's what they always say!" he tells the 30-odd real Americans in the makeshift studio audience. Rogich and his boys reshoot the ad, a two-minute spot on character and the presidency. "Who d'ya trust?" asks the president. It's a wrap! Polite as ever, Bush thanks the crew, then signs everything put in front of him: napkins, photos, business cards.
Jim Pinkerton, the campaign's six-foot-nine celebrity policy wonk, is hanging out in a comer, trying to blend into the scenery. Male height is usually a harbinger of power, but Pinkerton is so far off the ground he seems cartoonishly vulnerable: He could faint, bump his head, get snapped in half like a brittle twig. He's Bush's New Paradigmer, the designated vision czar to a re-election effort that could politely be described as conceptually impaired. Ads aren't his metier, but Siggy's a friend, and Pinkerton doesn't have much else to do these days. Suddenly, Bush spots him. "Hey, Pink! Come with me! Ride with me to the plane!"
Inside the limo, Bush speaks first: "So whaddya think's happening?" The president has got Perot on the brain. "That little shit," he mutters. Bush is mad at Jim Baker for sending a Bush-Quayle delegation to Dallas to pitch the Republican ticket to Perot's paid volunteers. "I would've wanted to knock the socks off the little bastard," he offers. Pinkerton doesn't have much to add, except to agree that Perot doesn't seem to like the president very much.
Bush looks good: eyes alive, nose clear. But he's subdued, conversational. "I know you're busting your ass out there," Pinkerton tells him. "I can't keep it up," the president replies. "Going every night until 10 p.m." Pinkerton touches him awkwardly on the shoulder, trying to communicate some sense of empathy. "I really felt sorry for him," he tells me later.
We felt pretty sorry for ourselves, too. After Labor Day, our work at the Bush campaign had begun to resemble Tama Janowitz's description of a martini: "like drinking freeze-dried headache." How else to describe the creeping sense of psychic nausea? We knew we were going to lose, and all the familiar emblems of political anticipation—brightly colored bumper stickers, buttons, slogans, rallies, confetti—were taking on a ghoulish and parodistic aspect, like the horror-movie clown dolls who turn evil and lunge at you with machetes. We were the political Undead, eyeballing the "COUNTDOWN TO VICTORY" calendars like prisoners awaiting the guillotine.
Nobody told me there'd be days like these! Having awakened to partisan consciousness during the Reagan era, I left for Washington last June on the day after my college graduation, deeply impressed by the folklore of Republican campaign brilliance. From the podium imagecraft of Mike Deaver to the deft cultural brinksmanship of the late Lee Atwater, the GOP's strategic virtuosity was a political fact of life. I didn't agree with everything Bush had to offer, but I admired the progressive, idea-driven conservatism of some in his administration—Jack Kemp, Jim Pinkerton, Bill Kristol—and was enthusiastic about the chance to be a grease monkey in the president's famously competent Republican victory machine.
"He who has ideas," wrote Diderot, "has style immediately." The Bush campaign turned out to have no ideas, and so formlessness followed functionlessness. From Bush's doleful glance at his watch during the Richmond debate to the televised rantings of our hate czar Pat Buchanan, nothing, not even stylistics, seemed to go right for us.
"It's the product," Baker would tell aides during the long, morale-sapping homestretch. "We got a weak product." Making allowances for the Texas mahatma's self-exculpatory talents, our candidate was a tough sell—a foreign-policy crisis manager in an age of domestic disquiet. "Wouldn't be prudent" was more than a Bushism. It was the sum of the president's convictions and beliefs. "If you could convince Bush that problems were so complicated that to do anything would make them worse," griped campaign chairman Bob Teeter to Pinkerton toward the end of the campaign, "that argument would prevail." Even after the Los Angeles riots, Bush was more worried about creating the perception of panic than he was about not having a plan.
Pinkerton, the campaign's new-ideas spewtron, was my boss. His goal was to energize the ticket—and party—with a politics of activist domestic reform. For six months, I watched him crash meetings, lobby speechwriters, and distribute earnest 10-page memos, only to lope back to his office in defeat. "It's not so much that these guys are incompetent and horrible," he would tell me, propping his size-13 black Reeboks up on the desk. "It's that they just sort of sit there."
One night in late October, Pinkerton wearily asked Teeter over dinner whether Bush and his crowd viewed ideas as a threat, as some had suggested. "No," said Teeter, a longtime Bush confidante. "They see them more as irrelevant to the proper way to spend a couple of hours. Telling dirty jokes. Playing 'shoes. Writing thank-you notes. Making deals."
Bush was not a leader in the true sense of the term, the two agreed. He was an overseer, a manager, a competent, workmanlike CEO of a company that wasn't necessarily going to make it. "Most managers of up-to-date corporations understand the need for smart people—people like you, Jim," Teeter told Pinkerton. "And they'd enjoy at least hearing about ideas, because they'd see the value of them. I could never even get Bush interested in education," Teeter said, ordering more chili.
Bush never formed a coherent strategy for campaigning or governing, relying instead on the fact of his incumbency and the advice of his friends. "The problem with my old man," First Son George W. Bush told Pinkerton after a meeting with school-choice crusader Polly Williams last summer, "is that he thinks you can solve problems one at a time, with good character, good judgment, a good team, and all that stuff. Jebby [his younger brother] and I understand that you need ideas, principles—based on belief." George Sr. had no philosophical compass, save a blinkered loyalty to his dysfunctional family of squabbling aides—OMB Director Richard Darman chief among them. The budget director's strategy all along, according to Teeter, had been to characterize all action as panic, thereby keeping Bush from acting.
Pinkerton was 21 when he started working for Reagan in 1979. "In three years at the White House," he told me, "I shook the president's hand exactly twice. But I knew why I came and I knew what I was supposed to do." The poverty of vision at the Bush campaign flowed from the top down, giving the whole operation existential jitters. Why were we here? We had to peek inside the color-tabbed BACKGROUNDERS binders in the Issues Office to learn what we were supposed to be for and what we were supposed to be against.
When the GOP convention platform committee denounced the 1990 budget agreement and came out strongly for tax cuts, our campaign spin cyclers panicked, asking for talking points. "If we're going to talk about low taxes and Republicans," stammered deputy spokeswoman Leslie Goodman, "we need the facts!" Tax cuts: the sine qua non of Republican fiscal policy. It was, Pinkerton told me later, "like the Pope fumbling around for instructions about how to do the Eucharist—'I know there's something significant about this wafer!'"
As G. K. Chesterton said, if you don't believe in anything, you'll believe in everything. Our half-hearted attempts to "get some issues" yielded only a daily dribble of gibes and insults, lacking any semblance of thematic continuity. Even our positive agenda was other-directed. "Damn good," fumed senior campaign adviser Charlie Black, upon seeing Perot's ads. "Very effective. Very Republican. Only Republicans'll be interested. All geared to do us in." So our theme team "jiggled around the issues agenda," headlining deficit reduction.
At another senior staff meeting in late September, somebody brought up D.C. statehood, favored by Clinton and Gore. "We can say the Democrats' first act will be to bring in two new senators—Marion Barry and Jesse Jackson!" The suggestion was greeted with enthusiasm, until one Bush overlord asked: "Wouldn't an anti-D.C. message just energize blacks?" That was the end of that.
We had no encompassing ideas or strategy, so we were down to "tactics"—otherwise known as gimmicks. In the absence of a giant message, the best we could hope for was a giant attack. "This is an 'against' election, not a 'for' election," we told each other. We were looking for the political equivalent of a drive-by shooting.
But the joke was on us. In 1988 Dukakis panted after every liberal bone the Republicans threw at him. This year, we had neither meat nor marrow. "The secret is that there are no secrets," Pinkerton would tell people. From January on, the question we kept hearing was, "When are you going to drop the bomb on Clinton? When are you going to reveal the goods?" Well, we'd say. This is the bomb. These are the goods.
David Tell, the wiry, intense redhead in charge of Opposition Research, was under enormous pressure to produce another Willie Horton. Journalists called Tell "wan." "I think," he would say through clenched teeth, "that I'm better described as 'Mr. Happy.'" Whenever Perot mentioned a "Republican dirty tricks squad," Tell would lift his clenched hands overhead in mock triumph, yelling, "That's me!"
Just as Hannah Arendt had been shocked to learn of the banality of evil, I was shocked to discover the banality of opposition research. I came to Washington expecting the Republican skunkworks to resemble something out of a Tom Clancy novel, where pointer-waving professionals, graceful under pressure, would push buttons and murmur into headsets, guiding righteous missiles to their cigarette-pack-sized targets half a planet away. Instead, I found a bunch of recently graduated interns herded into veal-fattening pens much like my own, placidly generating columns of statistics on worker safety in Arkansas. "Oppo," as we called it, lacked the technology to change the type font on a document, much less doctor a photograph of Ross Perot's daughter Carolyn.
I was thrilled and mystified by the CLINTONWATCH packet Pinkerton received each day, expecting it to be full of secret sightings, deep-laid plots, and other nuggets of James Bond–style political daredevilry. How sad—and how symbolic of the entire campaign—that it turned out to be a bunch of stapled-together A.P. clips about Clinton.
The Hidden Imam of Muslim lore sleeps in his cave for 13 centuries, waiting until judgment day before awakening and saving humanity. Our Hidden Imam was the secret letter in Baker's top drawer, the black-and-white film clip of Clinton in a tree urinating on American soldiers, the tape of Hillary throwing a Bible at Secret Service agents. Deputy campaign manager Mary Matalin was sure that Clinton's health records would reveal a history of herpes or depression. But the records were released, and our Hidden Imam slumbered on. "Give him some coffee!" we were screaming as November 3 neared. "Wake him up!"
On draft evasion, the Moscow trip, "Hillary," and all the other belches from our little smog factory, we didn't have any more information than the average voter did. Our goal was to create a crescendo of innuendo. "We didn't know shit about any of this stuff going in," Pinkerton said angrily of the campaign's beginnings. "We were just hoping! We figured the election would be over before people realized how hollow it all was."
The issue was always supposed to be Clinton's "pattern of prevarication," not his draft-dodging, pot-smoking, America-hating ways. "Remember," campaign manager Fred Malek told senior staff during a September 8 strategy meeting, "Nixon had to leave office not because of the break-in, but because of a pattern of lies." Bush was supposed to bring up the subject himself in a September 15 speech to the National Guard. National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft had been cued for follow-up; Sens. Bob Dole and John McCain were waiting on the Hill. But the president pulled back. "Bush took the high road," the press reported.
The president's staff was less enthusiastic. "We gave the issue away," fumed communications director James Lake. "We lost it." Quayle aide Richard Porter called Pinkerton up, furious. "We pulled Quayle—who would have said anything, anything—off the issue. Why?" Pinkerton speculated that maybe Bush didn't want to win. "We're getting elegiac," he said. "We had fusion potential on this, but we stuck in the carbon rods and cooled it down." Baker and Teeter cried on George Jr.'s shoulder.
When news of Clinton's 1968 Moscow sojourn came to light, the Bush squad was determined not to suffer from underzealousness. As Clinton liked to say, fool me twice, shame on me. Senior staff meetings grew perky again. Clinton had more foreign-policy experience than we knew, the Bushies gloated. He hopped across the Iron fucking Curtain! Jim Lake jokingly offered to cook up a composite photo of a young, heavily bearded Bill Clinton sitting on a park bench with Kim Philby and Fidel Castro. We wrote guidance for Fitzwater as the president dutifully slammed Clinton on Larry King Live.
"We don't want to overstate our case," warned Pinkerton. He was worried that the campaign's legion of tin-eared Eisenhower-era conservatives would veer us over the edge into McCarthyism. "Clinton's not a leftist, he's an ex-leftist, a second-thoughts guy," he argued. "If he were still saying, 'I'm glad the Vietcong won,' saying 'hooray for the Khmer Rouge,' calling them agrarian reformers, then maybe we would have something." Pinkerton's betters disagreed, reminding him that the National Guard speech proved that if you want the press to cover a story, the president had to carry the ball.
"This is something my dad really believes in," George Jr. volunteered. "At last!" Pinkerton responded. "Pinky, you're getting cynical!" the president's son admonished him.
The press called our Moscow strategy "bonkers," "ballistic," "bananas." "Not a plus," Pinkerton noted. Indignantly, we read off our talking points. We're not questioning his patriotism! we yelped. We're questioning his candor and judgment! But our argument was too cute. Aside from tenured English professors, few voters made that kind of distinction between form and content. We were playing the politics of insinuation, and everybody knew it. Moreover, our focus groups showed that while people thought Clinton lied about personal stuff, they thought we lied about public stuff. "No wonder Perot's on his way up," Pinkerton concluded.
Toward the end, even the conservative Washington Times was reproaching us for red baiting. This cracked Pinkerton up. "When The Washington Times is saying, 'Enough already,' you gotta figure we crossed the line," he mused. "That's the equivalent of Roy Cohn saying, 'Hey folks, you've gone too far.' It's Woody Allen saying, 'She's too young for me!'"
The Moscow issue flopped, as did our other forays into the dirty-tricks twilight zone of winks, rib pokes, and code words. Still without an intelligible message to our credit, we were left to a strategy of what Freud would have called "overestimation." We had our "Daily Distortion": a thousand points of trite, faxed out each evening to media outlets around the country. This was the hairsplitting campaign, reduced to chasing nits and gnats with dribs and drabs. Whatever Clinton said, we felt an obligation to say: It's a lie.
When, during the Richmond debate, Clinton said, "Russia is demilitarizing," the Bush flunkies in the audience let out a pro-forma howl of disbelief. Miles away, our research division began spewing out fact sheets, arguing that Clinton's remark about Russia ought to rank just behind Ford's single-handed liberation of Poland in '76 in the annals of famous presidential-debate gaffes. Pinkerton was bewildered. "We micro-analyze and overinterpret everything," he said. "Say Clinton fails to pound the podium hard enough when he says, I'm for what's right and what's good. We say, 'Aha, we've got him. Clinton failed to come out strongly enough for what's right and what's good. He only praised Mom. He forgot apple pie.'" We had lost our ability to distinguish between genuine gaffes and our own wish-fulfillment fantasies.
We couldn't think big, so we thought small. We elevated the shallow and prosaic over the grand and poetic, making clumsily literal arguments at the expense of larger truths. Instead of running on the original Truman strategy—presenting a positive agenda to an opposition-controlled Congress, then challenging them to pass it—Bush simply declared he was Truman. Instead of pounding home what Clinton couldn't deny—the Democrats planned to raise taxes—we decided to go with decimal-point-specific dollar amounts, inviting challenges to our credibility and distracting voters from the broader truth.
"These fucking ads," Pinkerton said, disgusted. "There's only one problem with them—they're not true! It's like somebody saying to you, 'Ruth, when you're 24, you're going to marry an Arab sheik.' You can't rule it out, but it's not likely."
We were so pleased with our cleverness in generating reams of statistical factoids about Arkansas that we didn't pause to notice that nobody remembered or reported them. "If Clinton were governor of New York or California," Pinkerton observed, "and we said, 'People are living in tar-paper shacks,' they'd say, 'Hell, that's terrible.' But people expect Arkansas to be Dogpatch!"
Pinkerton was a Republican triumphalist who always said that voters were with the GOP on the big issues; they just didn't know where Bush was. The businessmen at the top were no help. They were far more comfortable dealing with concrete facts and details than airy-fairy theories. The resulting campaign was Bushism on steroids—one massive, $100-million non sequitur.
Amidst all the incoherence, there was one issue that infused the campaign with a sense of group solidarity and common purpose. That transcendent ethic was a wild-eyed hatred of the president's budget director, Richard G. Darman. Loathing of Darman transcended race, gender, and class boundaries, linking the former cabinet secretaries who prowled the power floor with the acne-faced opposition researchers who subsisted on pizza and No-Doz. None of us could understand our candidate's chivalric fealty to the architect of the 1990 budget deal—a three-month, blood-on-the-floor, do-you-know-where-your-children-are psychodrama that ultimately worsened the deficit, increased pork-barrel spending, and broke the president's one memorable promise to the American people.
Waiting for the elevator, standing in line at the copy machine, and scouring the bulletin board for roommates, we swapped unverified rumors of the budget chief's departure. "Lotta undecided out there!" we would tell other. "Clinton's unfaves are way up!" And then, sotto voce, "Did you hear about Darman's offer from Shearson-Lehman?" It was reverse Messianism—he would leave, and we would all be saved. Of course, it never happened, but we kept hoping. I called it Darmanana: Bush will fire Darman…tomorrow. Bush-Quayle Harvard alums circulated a petition asking Kennedy School administrators not to give him his old job back.
The clincher, coming less than a month before the election, was Bob Woodward's sensational Washington Post series on Bush's economic team, seemingly ghostwritten by the budget superstar himself. The series was a four-part screw-you-gram to Bush. It featured Darman at his best: trading insults with Treasury Secretary Nicholas Brady, ruminating at length on his own genius, describing Bush's policies as "sheer idiocy." Around the campaign, shoulders sagged at the sound of Darman's ripcord being pulled and the silk chute opening up. Even our chief number-cruncher thought we were going to lose! When asked about the Post series on Good Morning America, the president dully replied that his budget chief continued to have his "full confidence." Pinkerton shook his head. "If the unexamined life is not worth living," he said to me, "then Bush is dead."
Pinkerton and Darman had been sworn enemies since late 1990, when Pinkerton responded to the budget director's public attack on his "New Paradigm" of non-bureaucratic government by quipping to the Post: "It's good to see that after the success of the budget deal, Dick's returning to the dialogue of ideas." Darman was furious, but several GOP heavyweights rallied to Pinkerton's defense, vaulting the junior aide out of bureaucratic obscurity and establishing Bush's budget chief as the bête noire of reform-minded Republicans.
With the Post series, however, Darman confounded even his apologists. Jim Baker, Darman's mentor, was furious. "Very bad!" he thundered to Teeter. Teeter was angry too. "Lying, sniveling bastards," he said, disgusted. He even approached Bush about it. "Mr. President," Teeter pleaded. "Take any five executives, and ask them: If your team was doing this bad a job, what would you do? You'd change your business plan! You'd change V.P.s! You'd fire everyone! You'd do something!" Bush looked at him blankly. "We'll get through it," he said.
On CNN that week, senior campaign adviser Charlie Black was asked for his take on the Woodward series. "I think there were some oversmart people around George Bush during the 1990 budget deal," he drawled. Later, sitting in a conference room with Pinkerton and George Jr., he fumed quietly. "I've been Darman's friend," he said. "To the extent that he has any. I've stuck up for him. But this is too much!" Black shook his head. "I'm gonna do somethin' that I've never done before. I'm gonna burn his ass where he'll really feel it—in the Newsweek book!"
Teeter walked in with Sig Rogich, and the conversation turned serious: how to win the election. Black got up and closed the door. "I still think we can win this thing," he said. "We got a 50-50 chance to win. But we can't do it doin' what we're doin'. We're gonna have to do everything perfect." Black leaned forward, crooking his neck and cocking his eye at Junior. "You gotta put on your Grim Reaper outfit," he told the president's son. "After the Richmond debate, Brady needs to announce that he's going to the private sector in January. That'll get a lot of attention. Then, the next day, Darman needs to say that he's going to the private sector. Not to another position in the government."
Black wasn't finished. "Then," he said, "you need to announce that there'll be a five-man Economic Security Council—with Baker, Kemp, and some new faces. You don't have to say precisely which job each guy's getting. You aren't saying that Baker can't go back to the State Department. But if Kemp thinks that he's auditioning for treasury secretary in the next term, he'll be on his best behavior for the next month."
George Jr. said he'd talked to his dad, and Dad had said it was too late. "Well, it's never too late!" said Black brightly. "People have to sense that it'll be different, and the lift that we'll get out of conservatives and the business community is worth a few points to us." Junior looked doubtful. "I can't just go and free-lance this," he said. "I have to talk to my dad first. It might not be so easy with Brady." Brady was a close friend of the president's. "Listen, if you can take care of Dick, Teeter can take care of Nick," said Charlie.
Pinkerton then asked George Jr. why Baker—our Comforter, Consoler, and Intercessor; the deputy President, the Lord of Lords, the Chief of Staff—was keeping such a low profile. Why wouldn't he go on the Sunday shows? The First Son said Baker had been telling him that he was worried that if he was too political, Congress wouldn't reconfirm him as secretary of state, especially if they ended up appointing a special prosecutor for Iraqgate. The group exchanged doubtful glances. "That's bullshit," Pinkerton said. "He just doesn't want to be associated with failure." Glum agreement all around. "Baker's the stealth chief," someone scoffed. "There've been more sightings of Elvis!"
Black gave George Jr. his wicked gimlet eye. He twisted his neck around and dropped his voice to a whisper. "Baker ought to understand," he hissed, his face just inches from Junior's, "that if he's to have any chance of getting elected in '96, it better be with Bush getting re-elected."
The next day's Wall Street Journal featured Chris Buckley's "Witness to Idiocy," a spoof of a Dick Darman kiss-and-tell. Junior said he'd talked to Baker the day before about firing Darman. "We're working on it," Baker had told him. "That doesn't give you much to go on," Pinkerton said, looking anxious.
He had taken a call from Bob Novak the other day. "Jim," Novak had asked him, "did you know that Dick Darman is going around town telling reporters that no one would be more responsible for a Bush defeat than Jim Pinkerton?" "Gee," Pinkerton had replied, winking at me. "I can't believe Dick would say that. Logic would force you to ask: What's hurt this administration more—support for the budget deal, or support for school choice and empowerment?"
Now Pinkerton was pondering another showdown with the budget chief over the resulting Evans and Novak column. "I think maybe I'll get fired," he told me, folding his arms behind his head. I looked at him. Behind wire-rimmed frames, his eyes met mine, peaceful and amused. "You've seen Thelma and Louise, when they drive off a cliff," he said. "There is beauty in martyrdom." I watched the late-afternoon sunlight make patterns on the floor. Pinkerton saw my anxious face. "I probably won't get fired," he said, backing off. "The worst thing that could happen is they pull me off the debate trip, because Darman will hate me so much he won't want me to come along."
But the campaign hierarchs, disgusted with Darman, didn't yank Pinkerton off the trip. "They promoted me to assistant spinner!" Pinkerton marveled, waving a briefing book. He had walked into the morning senior staff meeting with a copy of that day's Evans and Novak column in his hand. "I'm not sorry," he had told the group. "But if things get hot with Darman, I'll jump off the debate tour."
Charlie Black had looked up at him. "No," he'd said, steel in his voice. "You stay. If Darman gives you a hard time, I'll kick his ass off the tour." Black was baffled by the Darman quote. "How can he say that you cost Bush the election?" he'd asked Pinkerton. "Everything you proposed was rejected. Everything Darman proposed was enacted. And we're losing!"
Pinkerton was happy. Beatification without martyrdom! "Darman hates Cicconi too," Pinkerton told me. Jim Cicconi was director of the Issues Office. "But every time Darman attacks me, I get more famous! Poor Cicconi is just being hated in obscurity." He paced giddily up and down his office, taking calls from friends and reporters. "Allies and enemies agree—Darman's a prick!" he gloated. "Post series unzips the fly of truth! Now see him in all his unsheathed splendor!"
The Darman imbroglio was the last frothy moment in the Bush-Quayle final days. By the end of September, the campaign temper had shifted from quaking denial to resigned acceptance to enthusiastic self-loathing. "Torie, I gotta share this one comment from the voter response line!" I heard an intern tell campaign spokeswoman Torie Clarke. "Oh no!" she called back over her shoulder. "They hate us!"
"A lot of our reputations have been ruined," opposition-research man David Tell said to her later. "Get used to it!" The two of them exchanged high fives. "We don't have any credibility," she said of the new tax ad. "We only have one alternative: increase the buy!"
Pinkerton was spending a lot of time on the phone with reporters, gliding seamlessly on and off the record. "What does it show?" he said. "Well, it shows we've lost our business base, our cultural base, our national security base." Can Bush win? Yes, Pinkerton said, but it would take a picture of Clinton burning the flag with one hand and taking a check from Brezhnev with the other. "It could even be black-and-white!"
"This is a shitty campaign," Tell said to Pinkerton. "Our ads are lousy. The schedule isn't working." He tugged at his beard. "It's not a matter of staying 'on message,'" he reflected. 'There is no message."
Mary Matalin was glum too. "People volunteer in focus groups that Bush doesn't care," she said. She started cleaning out her office the Wednesday before the election.
Campaign manager Fred Malek told senior staffers they ought to get members of Congress to plug the president's "Agenda for American Renewal." "They should get out there and say it's the greatest!" he said, excited. Political director David Carney raised his eyebrows. "They've had four years of being screwed over and lied to by us," he said. A murmur went up around the table. "We can't have people on our payroll sounding like that," said Jim Lake, irritated.
On the ninth floor, I passed a grim-looking man in his shirtsleeves. "That's David Hansen, in Polling," a friend whispered. "The numbers down there are so bad they've taken away his belt, his tie, and all sharp objects." Down on the fourth floor, Siggy and his boys had begun to play around with a new theme: "Don't Take It Out on America!"
By the end of October, BUSH-QUAYLE '92 banners and stationery had begun to look strangely retro and inert, like foreordained museum pieces. The pageantry of spin, bite, and talking point had lost its semiotic charge, becoming a sort of post-modern commentary on itself. "I think Perot's entry into the race will help my dad, because it confuses the electorate," said Jeb Bush to a reporter. "We'll have to see how it plays out," argued the president during the first debate, mentally focus-grouping his decision to attack Clinton's Moscow trip. The politics of politics: I think of Dana Carvey on his knees at the end of Saturday Night Live's election edition. "Please vote for me! Please vote for me!"
For the first time, Charlie Black was starting to feel a little bit down. He was doing all the interview shows himself, since nobody else would do them. He was on three or four shows a day now—Good Morning America, Mac–Neil-Lehrer, NewsHour, CNN's Inside Politics, whatever came up.
A number-crunching twentysomething in my office got a call from Political, asking if he wanted to go out into the field and canvass for the president. I heard him politely decline. "Why'd you say no?" I asked him after he got off. He looked at me. "If you had a good desk job at the Pentagon," he said, "and a week before Tet, somebody asked you if you wanted to go out into the field, what would you say? You'd say, 'Fuck, no. I'll sit right here and keep my head down and wait for the damn thing to be over.'"
On the elevator, I overheard a visiting Bush supporter provide a few words of stumbling advice, then back off. "Hell, how would I know," he apologized. "All you campaign geniuses will have to figure it out." His friend, a Bush-Quayle staffer, laughed bitterly. "If there are any genuises around here, they're all in straitjackets and locked in closets."
Self-deluding cynicism masqueraded as optimism. "The dead weights on the polls," Torie Clarke offered during a morning meeting, "are New York and California. Once you write off those states, we're fine." Yeah, somebody else said. Once you write off 87 electoral votes! "The silent plurality," we babbled to each other. "Who would admit they're voting for Bush?" Former Reagan-Bush speech-writer Peggy Noonan summed up voters' mood on Election Day. "They're tight-stomached about Clinton," she concluded, "but they can't stand the thought of Bush."
Minister of Truth Fred Steeper, our head of polling, had been assuring Pinkerton and the gang that the tracking polls had been closing roughly proportional to the days left before the election. Now it was D-Day. "Steeper," Pinkerton called out around 7:40 a.m., "it's your last chance to give me some encouraging words." Weekend polls hadn't looked good, but Steeper had insisted it was because our people were all out yachting and playing golf. Now he poked his head into Pinkerton's office. "It's over," he said grimly.
It's November 4, and campaign chairman Bob Teeter is holding a post-defeat meeting in the sixth-floor conference room. My expectations are low. For the first "All-Hands Campaign Meeting" back in July, I wore my new Ann Taylor suit and arrived with legal pad in hand, thinking we were actually going to discuss strategy. Instead, the July meeting was an Orwellian pep rally. "Our armies are progressing on all fronts," they told us then. "Our victory over Oceania is assured!" I crept over to the corner of the room and quietly slipped my legal pad behind the radiator, not wanting to look like a dork.
During the campaign, senior staff members wouldn't have been caught dead at any of these meetings. Now I see Torie Clarke, wearing a red baseball cap with a miniature American flag looped through the back, squished in with the rest of us goats. Defeat—the great equalizer. How are we going to spin our way out of this one?
Bob Teeter begins to speak. "When people criticize the campaign," he tells us, "Don't believe a word of it!" He clears his throat. "I've been in a lot of campaigns, and usually they're fraught with tension and problems. But here, at no time did we have any internal problems in the campaign, or between the campaign and the incumbent White House. We didn't have any of those, that I'm aware of."
I feel slightly ill. Too many people in the conference room, I think. So I wander out into the hallway. "Countdown to Victory: Zero," says the wall calendar.
Ruth Shalit is a reporter-researcher at The New Republic.