Friday, Aug. 30, 1996
There is a God, and He listens to the prayers of journalists. Fifteen thousand of them had been lamenting for two weeks, in two different time zones, that the political conventions had been clear-cut of content, that they had been declared news-free zones. Then, too late for the TodayShow (on whose satellite feed Bryant Gumbel is rejecting an Afro wig for a gag segment because "it just looks like a Jheri curl out of control"), the Dick Morris story breaks, and the old adrenaline starts flowing.
Haley Barbour makes a show of resisting the temptation to comment at his midmorning press conference. But what temptation? The same Dick Morris who tried to impress a prostitute by letting her hear the president's telephone voice also worked for Jesse Helms and Trent Lott. Could the prospect of hearing either of them on the phone impress a hooker enough to make her suck Morris' toes? The very asking of the question must be enough to seal Barbour's lips for the duration.
On Thursday morning at the Republican Convention, the press office was already clearing out, its brochures and laminates either handed out or packed in cardboard cartons, the surplus packages of elephant-shaped Kraft macaroni all assembled for donation to the homeless as soon as they were shipped back into town. The same feeling that this convention was over before it's over affects the satellite spectrum. Some of the channels that had been pumping out video gruel from Chicago are already returning to normal fare: One transponder today offers a lengthy seminar on the privatizing of the corrections industry. I can't linger, but I'm sure there were some useful tips on the importance of buying your window bars from the right vendors.
O.J. Simpson is holding a press conference in Washington, tiptoeing on the edges of a gag order as he defends his appearance last night at a black church, and attacking the media for allowing Geraldo Rivera to live. There is an upside-downness to today's events: America's political journalistic elite is chasing after a story from the Star, while O.J. conducts a spin session inside the Beltway.
When the pool feed from the convention hall lights up, we're treated to a show of security. It used to be that you could tell real security, because those in charge never talked about it. Today, like everything else, security is a production. A guy in a shirt with black-and-white vertical stripes twice the width of referee's markings is leading a German shepherd around the podium, the video wall, the flag-striped entrance. Another dog works the other side of the stage. In the hours right after the Morris story breaks, no one in Chicago looks as cheerful as those dogs. The pool camera zooms in to make sure we can see the dogs in action. Any would-be terrorist with a dish would be suitably impressed, and deterred.
The contortions of the press in dealing with the Morris story are gymnastic in their grace and daring. "Legitimate" papers wait for the NewYorkPost to pick up the details from its sister publication, the Star. A tabloid TV show feeds an interview with Star editor Richard Gooding, and the reporter politely but firmly refuses to give up filming until Gooding locates the prostitute's alleged diary books and agrees to flip through them. He will not, however, read aloud from the slim volumes. Still, this constitutes sufficient documentation to allow the show to use this piece. Or, more likely, it makes for a nice cutaway shot in a story they always intended to air.
Gooding alleges that Morris showed the young woman in question Hillary's and Gore's speech drafts days in advance. She didn't, he relates, think it was right for Morris to show her that stuff. Everybody draws the line somewhere. Some would refuse to perform sex acts for money; others are repulsed by the sharing of advance speech drafts. Morris also allegedly had her watch Clinton commercials before they were used, and clips of the president's public appearances, and he would ask her opinion of them. The obvious, but unspoken, conclusion: This entire episode has been grotesquely misinterpreted. Morris had a one-woman focus group at his disposal, and at $250 a pop, it was a steal.
Be careful what you deride, because things can always get worse. So, after three days of the Macarena, the delegates today get to go through the motions of "YMCA." Of course, going through the motions is what this event is all about, but in retrospect, convention planners might have thought twice before handing Republicans the specter of Democrats giddily miming to a gay anthem. It's weird enough for the Bulls crowd, but nobody's running against them on the platform of family values.
The drugs vs. tobacco debate, at least, is being clearly drawn. Neither side is retreating toward the middle. John McCain, at the morning Republican naysayathon, points out that lung cancer takes a long time to develop, while crack addiction occurs fairly quickly. No one bothers to ask about the relative frequency of the two misfortunes. Lawton Chiles is sending interviews home to Florida that do everything but declare armed struggle against the neighboring, tobacco-growing states. A possibly related note: The Chicago Tribune Convention Web site has a section of political gossip called "For Junkies Only." Even metaphorically supplying heroin users with Capitol chat must be making Col. McCormick eat turnovers in his grave.
How low you can you be on the Democratic Party's totem pole? This low: During the president's acceptance speech, the two party spin channels still have functionaries, recognizable only to their kin, offering video vittles to local stations. These people have gotten their hinies to Chicago, to be a part of history, and their reward is to miss the speech and opine about it for Channel 67 in Las Cruces.
This is David Brinkley's last convention. Just enough time, then, for him to observe to Peter Jennings during a commercial break that Chelsea Clinton "has to do something about her hair." Jennings, ever the diplomat, points out that "she probably thinks it looks fine." This is not Sam Donaldson's last convention, but he's yelling at President Clinton as he makes his way off the podium, yelling at both Clintons that he only wants to ask two questions, then shifting seamlessly into comedy for his colleagues' benefit as the Clintons flow away, and yelling in an indeterminate accent, "But I invented the Macarena, Mr. President." He gives up the comedy as well as the journalism, sighing, "The business has changed, kids."
And just before going on Nightline to analyze the week's events, Jeff Greenfield asks his producer the most cogent question heard on the feeds: "Is there any glitter or confetti on me?" The God of Journalism has been merciful; Jeff is glitter- and confetti-free.