UNION, N.J.--Once you're in the president's traveling bubble, life is easy. Everything is prearranged; all you have to do is follow the PRESS THIS WAY signs and make sure the bus doesn't leave without you. But breaking in from the outside world is sort of like jumping onto a moving train. When I finally penetrate the cordonsanitaire, here in Union, N.J., after dragging my gear past several blocks of gridlocked cars, passing through a series of magnetometers, and convincing various bouncers that S
is a real magazine (though this is a more interesting question than I let on), I find that I have picked up where I left off last time. Bob Torricelli is about to take the stage, this time to address not 34 senior citizens and five local reporters, but 10,000 chilly Democrats waving banners in the picturesque floodlit night outside the Union Municipal Building, along with the president of the United States, Whoopie Goldberg, and the entire White House press corps.
Well, perhaps not the entire White House press corps. Most remain cozily inside the filing center at the Union Public Library, where there's a steam table set up with quantities of food from a local Italian restaurant (the general idea being to feed reporters until they're as plump and docile as Strasbourg geese) and the usual "briefing," as it is self-importantly called, by Mike McCurry. As McCurry deflects questions about possible changes in the Cabinet, the latest developments in Iraq, etc., New Jersey's other senator, Frank Lautenberg, gets the introduction daisy chain going outside. Lautenberg introduces Whoopie Goldberg; Goldberg makes fun of how leaden Lautenberg is ("I want him to go on Letterman. He's refusing."), and introduces Bill Bradley. Bradley introduces Torricelli. Only, he doesn't just introduce Torricelli, he clambers underneath the lectern and pulls out a big papier-mâché torch, which he passes to his would-be successor with exaggerated yuks and an elaborate dance that is supposed to be an Olympic baton-pass, but in fact looks like the R. Crumb "Keep on Truckin' " character.
Torricelli clearly wants no part of this potentially catastrophic photo-op, though he very much wants to be identified with the respected Bradley. He grabs the torch and quickly puts it aside. On the sound riser where I'm standing behind the audio guys, the reaction to Torricelli taking the rostrum is instinctive and immediate. The sound-level guy clutches his headphones with his hands and forcefully but slowly guides the main volume knob down. Too late--the folks in the front half acre have already been sonically singed. "MY FRIENDS!" Torricelli intones, his amplified words reverberating in the cold night air. "IT IS LITTLE MORE THAN 70 YEARS SINCE MY GRANDMOTHER AND GRANDFATHER WALKED OUT OF A SMALL VILLAGE IN ITALY. ..."
Though it's about 30 degrees out, Torricelli wears no coat. Nor does Clinton, though Lautenberg, Bradley, and Goldberg do. This patterns holds at the next appearance, at an even more spectacular late-night rally on the steps of the gorgeous neoclassical town hall in Springfield, Mass. Ted Kennedy and Rep. Joe Kennedy wear overcoats, but John Kerry doesn't. (Only pseudo-Kennedys have to appear Kennedyesque. Real Kennedys can wear whatever they want.) Apparently, it's considered a sissy thing to wear a coat in winter if you're running for office. If you're not running, or have a very safe seat, you can dress rationally.
We're at the macho stage of the campaign. Dole's final-96-hours Bataan death march provokes Clinton to greater gratuitous exertions. Though there's no point in either side inflicting this upon themselves, both seem to take it as a mark of good political sportsmanship to nearly kill themselves in the last lap. Even the reporters, who are at this stage a bedraggled and sickly lot, participate in this game, boasting about how little sleep they've been getting. Clinton is doing a 20-plus-hour day today, and has a longer one planned for the next.
You wouldn't know from listening to him. The president has been in peak form all day. Before I arrived, he began at the St. Paul AME church in St. Petersburg, Fla., delivering a bunch of new material, trying out a rousing new Jesse Jackson-style refrain, "We have work to do." Afterward he came back to the press section of Air Force One, which he seldom does, to joke with reporters, offering to call the wife of one to clear up some sort of marital misunderstanding (which he apparently made worse when she thought it was Al Franken hoaxing her).
In his final days, Clinton is shifting his focus to the magnanimous theme of "common ground." "This is not an election of party," he says in New Jersey, "It is an election of nation and people. The Republican Party at times past has fulfilled this historic role for us. That's what Abraham Lincoln did, when he gave his life to save the Union and to end the abominable practice of slavery. That's what Theodore Roosevelt did, when he said it's wrong for children to work 70 hours in factories every week. ... It's wrong to destroy our natural heritage. It's wrong for monopolies to destroy the free-enterprise system. ... But today it is our party, it is our administration, and it is Congressman Torricelli who represent the view that we must meet these challenges together and go forward together."
Clinton has a lot of chutzpah to make this comparison--especially since, with his second-term agenda of free cell phones and school uniforms, he couldn't look less like Lincoln or Roosevelt. I expect the next four years will look a lot like Eisenhower's second term. But on a day like today, with everyone punchy with exhaustion and excitement at being almost done, grandiosity is easily forgiven.