Notes from different corners of the world.
Nov. 7 1996 3:30 AM


       There's a parlor game called "I've never," in which you go around the table and admit the most shocking thing you've never done--seen Gone With the Wind, read Hamlet, smoked pot, or whatever. My dirty little secret is that as a political reporter, I have never been to Little Rock. But on Election Day, I wake to the noise of a ringing phone in the seedy City Center Holiday Inn with the awareness that this shame is behind me.
       Not only am I in Little Rock--I'm here with time to kill. Election Day is always a black hole. Until the polls close, there's nothing to do but pester your friends at the networks for exit-poll results. So I wander around Little Rock, as dreary a place as you'd ever care to visit. Downtown, most of the surviving 19th-and early 20th-century buildings are studies in comparative decay. In most places, they've been cleared to make way for a particularly dingy assortment of skyscrapers with names resonant from Whitewater hearings and Clinton disclosure forms: Arkla, Stevens, TCBY. I keep expecting to chance upon the Rose Firm, but, for some reason, I never do.
       I stop for lunch at a place called Your Mama's, which serves white soul food and is jammed with Clinton celebrants wearing "Honored Guest" passes around their necks. After consuming some "chicken fried chicken" served with greens, macaroni, corn bread, and double pumpkin pie, I poke into the tobacconist around the corner. The 70ish proprietress plies me with free cigars and tells me how the building superintendent, a fundamentalist Christian, nearly had a heart attack when he discovered her smoking one after closing time. I tell her I'm from New York. "New York! Bless Your Heart," she says, and hands me another cigar. I agree to leave some pamphlets for her shop back at the Holiday Inn.
       Over at the filing center, which has filled with reporters from Finland and Jordan and Peru, the returns start to trickle in around 7 p.m. It's soon clear that the only Senate race most people care about--Harvey Gantt vs. Jesse Helms in North Carolina--will come out the same unfortunate way it did six years ago. It's also evident that the Democrats won't capture either chamber of Congress, or even gain more than a few seats in the House. The Clinton victory is in line with predictions. Even Boris Yeltsin, it appears, will stay on.
       There's no point watching Clinton's acceptance speech inside on a monitor with a bunch of reporters. After much scrounging and wheedling, I scare up a "lawn access" pass, which gets me out in front of the Old State House with Clinton's staff and the more privileged of his supporters. Barbra Streisand walks past, led by the hand by an aide and followed by a huge phalanx of guards. The Clinton kids are swigging from bottles of champagne and high-fiving each other.
       Finally, just before 11, the first family emerges, trailing the Gores. The vice president has returned to ponderous form. He does his speech Academy Awards style, thanking his family and fulsomely praising his campaign manager, Peter Knight. He introduces the president as only the seventh Democratic president elected to two terms, intoning the names: Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Jackson, Wilson, Roosevelt, Clinton. Maybe historians of the future will feel differently, but for now, this still sounds like an entry in "Which of These Things Doesn't Belong?"
       Acceptance speeches are seldom memorable. You thank everybody, say something magnanimous to your opponent, and talk about the stakes in the election. Clinton's speech is a fairly proforma version--a medley of the applause lines and campaign themes that have worked for him over the past several weeks. He does "It takes a village," "Building the bridge," and "Work to do." He uses the same stuff I quoted yesterday about being "born in a summer storm to a widowed mother," where he talks about all the people who helped him along the way. Only, this time, he leaves out the guy at the Red Roof Inn who used to cheer him up, a lovely improvised touch from last time, and the whole thing falls flat. Where I'm standing, people chat as the president speaks. The night before, in Sioux Falls, there was a moved silence.
       A friend I run into at the speech suggests that Clinton no longer makes the same kind of emotional connection with his audience because of the way he was burned after 1992. He's like someone wounded in love, who shuts down and becomes more protective of himself. My friend finds this disappointing.
       To me, it's good news. Clinton's second term surely will not be a passionate period in American politics. He lacks not only his original fervor, but also the bold agenda with which he swept into office in 1992. But boldness only brought Clinton grief. Where he lowered his sights, he made measured gains and proved to be a competent manager. My realistic hope for the next four years is for a period of sound, dull stewardship à la Eisenhower's second term. As a journalist, I have a bias in favor of drama, but I also know that good theater, which is what I've been looking for in the past several months, has very little to do with good government.

Jacob Weisberg is SLATE's chief political correspondent. His column, "Strange Bedfellow," appears weekly.