Patrick O'Brien's The Last Campaign

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Sept. 21 1996 3:30 AM

Patrick O'Brien's The Last Campaign

... hard upon forging their unexpected alliance amid the quadrennial panoply of the Grand Old Party's nominating convention, our protagonists, acting in unavoidable response to the exigencies of a contest dominated by the incumbent's strategy and tactics, set out for the heartland in a manner similar to his, where, beneath storm-riven skies suggestive of incunabular Turners, the desperate reality of their task began to reveal itself, rising like a black basalt orogeny from the soft soils of internecine enthusiasm.

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Chapter 5

... the locomotive, a diesel-burning Class 2900 Santa Fe 4-8-4 that had been constructed in 1943 but had survived the decades most admirably and now gleamed like a Secret Service agent's lapel pin, was gaining speed swiftly, its one hundred and five tons departing another whistle-stop in another anonymous town whose inhabitants clustered where the rails seemed to converge, their fluttering hands and smiling faces congealed into a tuberous mirage that already was beginning to deliquesce, its bipedal spores gamboling away from the station where, only moments before, the candidates had stood to receive the traditional accolade from the traditional close-packed crowd.

The last car, with its funereal platform and tufts of bunting, gave off a flapping chorus that enveloped Dole and Kemp as they looked backward down the rails. Around them edged subalterns, each plucking away like a blue-suited migrant worker the decorations that went up before each stop. The crew had to work quickly, lest momentum send the froufrou and gewgaws drifting onto the roadbed. In a minute the removal had been accomplished, and the two men on whose behalf this excursion had been undertaken again had the expanded-steel protuberance to themselves. Even Glassner, for dog's years Dole's body man and coat carrier, had retired to the common area, where the staff would be attempting its usual stab at gaiety. They believed in Bob Dole; they had to believe in him, even as his brooding presence infected the farthest corners of the campaign with an acidity specific to him. His people would never admit what he was admitting: that the prize he had chased almost all his adult life was bound to elude him in the most humiliating manner.

His capacity for gloom had ever equalled his capacity for work, but he could never have foreseen his worst musings out-galloped by the campaign of 1996, a broken-backed stumble in which no error was too small to convert into an enormous problem. He had, in his wretched twenties, dangling by a wrecked arm on a homemade exercise gibbet, accepted, no, hugged to himself the knowledge that life was hard and then you died. It was damnably unnatural, this state to which he had most ironically ascended. When things were in their proper order, a buoyant spirit led, not a mordant one, and what was he if not the most mordant man in America? It was a cruel fate to replay in parallax the role he had taken decades back with the affable Ford, a man who, like Kemp, could be counted on to float above any malaise like an empty water cask. It was as if he had been struck by a hail of red Kryptonite and instantly become the Bizarro candidate, immensely strong, yet unable to prevail against the backward-beating current.

Dole, who at the rally had projected a steely excitement, the contained enthusiasm of a veteran politician in firm grip of his emotions but willing to share with his supporters what bits of them he must, sank back into himself, simmering in a glumness he wished he could contain but knew he could not. Terrible things had always happened to him, and always would; this was only the latest of them, but it was a terrible thing of a specifically galling nature. He was the most prestigious passenger on a hell-bound train, a shining doomed conveyance hurtling down a narrow and fatal track. Through all his trials, darkness had always been his strength, an obsidian girder holding him to the path; now it stood to crush him and, perhaps not coincidentally, the entire Republican ticket, which his opponent's ever-clever propagandists had labeled as "Dole-Gingrich," as if he and the pumpkin-headed speaker had conspired like Jesuits to ruin the nation.

Kemp leaned closer, speaking more loudly than was necessary, perhaps to compensate for the rush of air around them and the clatter of steel wheels beneath and behind. "Something preoccupies you, Bob," Kemp said. "I thought that was really neat back there, didn't you?"

It was Kemp's habit to voice such banalities in an utterly unironical manner, a gift of naiveté withheld from Dole since birth and made even more distant by life. Why could he not have been born a Kemp, blessed by luck and genes with the smiling disposition of a boy who is shown a stable full of ordure and instantly concludes that there must be a pony in there somewhere? Dole was sentenced to always know better than what he wanted to believe.

"Yes, most assuredly," he replied, struggling not to answer with a grunt. "I sense we might profit from a few minutes out of the weather." Of course, there was no "weather" to speak of; but he had learned a thousand years ago that sometimes, he had to say something.

"Certainly," his running mate said, stepping aside so the older man could enter the rail car. He did so with surety, using the elbow of his bad arm to steady himself at the threshold, then raising both fists in a stretch. At the far door, a steward stood.