Originally published Sunday, April 13, 1986
Big-time national politics has all but lost its Weirdness Quotient. More and more, high-level political races tend to be between identical slim men in identical slim suits. Rational men, cool men, men who know the voting market, men who never say the wrong thing, men who are good on TV. Candidates who don't fit this mold -- the blatant hacks, the geeks, the loons, the people with bad teeth -- tend to get filtered out at the state- legislature level. At the Senate level, you wind up with Ted Koppel vs. Ted Koppel, both speaking in perfect sound bites.
These people are boring. I ask you: What is the point of watching a politician talk, if he doesn't make an ass of himself? Where are the weird candidates? Who, on the national level, will pick up the torch dropped, with a typical lack of manual dexterity, by Richard M. Nixon? Where are the fat candidates? Where are the ugly candidates? Where are the stupid candidates? Where are the candidates who go to formal dinners and pass out in the shrimp? Who set fire to themselves with cigars? I believe that if we are to keep the tradition of participatory democracy going in this country, if we are to revive voter interest, we need more weird people running for high office, and we need them right now.
And so I say: Thank God for Florida, whose very license plates should read, "FLORIDA: NOT A NORMAL PLACE." Because in a state like this, a state whose naturally humid climate has permitted a tremendous diversity of human and reptile life to flourish and mutate, we should not be surprised to find that this year, we are being treated to a Senate race between two politicians who are clearly not Standard Issue. I've spent some time watching both of them, and I can honestly state that regardless of which one is elected, we will all, as Floridians, have reason to be vastly amused. Here's a full report on the campaign to date.
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* * *
We are in Gov. Bob Graham's rental campaign plane, which is stout and bouncy, not unlike the governor himself, and we are going to someplace called "Bartow." Rumor has it that there is agriculture in Bartow. Graham is going there to show his concern for it.
On the plane with the governor is the press corps, including a couple of political reporters from Big Time out-of- state papers that are very interested in this race because (a) it is considered crucial to the Republicans' hopes of retaining control in the Senate and (b) it is nice and warm in Florida. The press corps is not crazy about landing in Bartow. The press corps frankly does not care about agriculture except insofar as it results in lunch. The press corps would rather hear Graham talk about his opponent, incumbent Sen. Paula Hawkins, and her hot new campaign issue, The Pipeline That Will Leak And Explode.
This is an issue that materialized out of the air, literally, in the form of two Hawkins campaign commercials suggesting that Graham is willing to let this pipeline spew oil and flame all over the state. Graham, who has long portrayed himself as a friend of nature, the Everglades, bunny rabbits, etc., fought back with a counter-commercial -- featuring a photograph of Hawkins that makes her look like she lost the Miss Room Freshener Pageant because the judges thought she was too vacuous -- in which prominent ecology nuts say that they favor the pipeline and like Bob Graham and think Hawkins' commercial is basically alligator poop.
But in a way, Graham has lost the round, because he had to spend money to make a commercial responding to an issue Hawkins raised in HER commercials.
The whole thing sort of reminds you of Coke vs. Pepsi, only with less substance.
Anyway, Graham would prefer not to talk about the pipeline, because it's Hawkins' issue. What he often does, in situations where he doesn't want to talk about what the press wants to talk about, is launch into lengthy anecdotes with powerful sedative properties. This time, up in his rental plane, he decides to talk about the manufacturing of phosphate, which has something to do with agriculture and which they apparently make bales of in the Bartow area. Graham knows all about how to make phosphate. The trick, he shouts to the Big Time reporters over the roar of the engines, is to get rid of the slime. The Big Time reporters try very hard to appear interested in slime disposal -- this man is, after all, a governor -- but it is clear they would prefer to read the instructions on their airsickness bags.
Finally I get a chance to ask Graham: "Will Faye Dunaway be having your baby?"
"I have too much respect for Miss Dunaway and what she stands for in America to answer that question, " he says. "If there's going to be any statement made, I think she should do it."
* * *
We land in Bartow, which apparently consists of a hangar. Inside the hangar is a smallish agricultural crowd, which Graham, using his oratorical skills, immediately whips into a stupor. He is not a gifted speaker. He is the kind of speaker who, if he were not the governor, people would shoot rubber bands at after a while. The high point of his Bartow speech comes when he holds up a can of Florida concentrated orange juice, which the crowd applauds, because frankly, and I am not trying to be cruel here, it exudes more charisma than the governor.
"Would you say, " I ask, "that spending a lot of time around cows as a child could make a person kind of dull?" Graham grew up on a dairy.
"It could have that potential, " he answers, "but on the other hand, some might say -- but I am too modest to personally say this -- that it brings out a quickness of wit, a sense of ironic humor, an ability to, with a -- not a destructive, but a positive uplifting way -- with words to bring humor into the world. That's what some people would say. I am too personally modest."
During the Bartow speech, I locate, just outside the hangar, an enormous insect of the type that you would never find in a state such as Ohio. I pick it up, using my notebook, which it spits brown glop on, to test a theory I have about Graham, which is that he will comment on anything. I show it to him, and ask: "Governor, would you comment on this insect?"
"This, " he says, picking his words very carefully, as he always does, "is an (here he says a name that sounds like "Execretius Bolemius, " which he is clearly making up). It is a Friend to Man. It is a member of the family of Almost-Flying Insects, and one of the many things that it does is that it titillates the toad."
He's very smart and he wants to be senator, and he'll do whatever it takes. He knows he can't get you with his voice or his looks. He has trimmed himself down, but his face still contains two-thirds of the known world supply of pudge. So he compensates. He meets you personally. Two or three times. If you're in the state more than 12 hours, he'll track you down. Shake your hand. Be Just Folks with you, cracker mouth talking, Harvard eyes watching. He'll write down your name in his little notebook. Send you a personal letter. Carry your luggage. Make you a sandwich. Take out your garbage. If you're a cattle rancher, he'll pet your heifers. If you're a humor writer, he'll give you funny quotes. Whatever it takes.
* * *
Back up on the campaign plane, the press is bitching to Graham that they have spent a whole day flying around with him, and he has not committed any news. Graham argues that he has, indeed, been newsworthy, and the press has missed it. Graham thinks the press should write about the Broad Sweeping Theme of his campaign, namely that Florida is a fast-growing state that must meet the challenges of the 21st Century and needs to be represented by a person of competence, breadth and vision, as opposed to some bimbo with hair like Harpo Marx. (The last part of the Theme is never actually spoken aloud.) This is the message Graham feels the reporters should focus on. So they ask him more questions about the pipeline.
* * *
Now we are somewhere around Orlando, and Graham is demonstrating his commitment to law enforcement by making a speech on the construction site for a new jail. He tells a small but extremely quiet crowd that he once did a workday as a SWAT- team member here, and -- I'm pretty sure this is what he said -- on that particular day, Central Florida was totally free of terrorists. Graham loves to refer to his workdays. They are a great idea, really: Here's a wealthy, highly educated man with all the power and prestige that go with being governor, taking off his suit and tie to go out amongst the common people and toil with them and sweat with them and get on their evening local TV news broadcasts.
By the way, if you ever need to get in touch with the governor and for some unusual reason he doesn't have a workday scheduled in your area that day, your best bet is to send a note to his wife, Adele, and ask her to tape it to the bathroom mirror. I got this tip from a story in The Miami Herald about this person named Alberto San Pedro, who is described in the story as a "crime figure, " meaning we just know he must be guilty of something, and who is trying to get a pardon in connection with his 1971 murder conspiracy conviction.
So it seems this friend of San Pedro's who is also a friend of the Grahams sent Mrs. Graham a letter about what a nice guy San Pedro is now, with two children, aged 2 and 4, and stating that he is "active in the community" (the police agree with this), and Mrs. Graham taped it to the bathroom mirror so Graham would see it. Apparently this is a standard method of communication in the governor's mansion. According to a Graham spokesperson, "It's known by acquaintances of the Grahams that, from time to time, when Mrs. Graham wants the governor to be aware of something, she tapes it on the bathroom mirror." I imagine if the note is really urgent, aides unscrew the mirror from the wall and rush it down to the state capitol so Graham can read it.
But anyway, my point is, if you need clemency or anything, this is the correct gubernatorial channel to go through, although you should be aware that, according to the spokesperson, Mrs. Graham "obviously doesn't tape all (the mail) to the mirror." Of course not! How would he shave?
* * *
Now we're at the state fair, in Tampa. Graham lulls the crowd at a luncheon featuring an opening prayer in which the Lord is asked to "have mercy on people not only in this state, but in other states, and people throughout the universe." Then Graham wanders among these truly wonderful exhibits extolling the glories of the various Florida counties, exhibits that show what you can do with a little money and practically no imagination. He admires them all with sincerely feigned interest. There is a giant papier-mche bird sitting on a humongous papier-mche hand. This is of course illustrating the concept: "A bird in the hand, " but it is not immediately clear, to the outside observer, why.
Next he goes to where they keep the cows. He knows cows. Knows their names. Seems to sincerely like cows. I think -- this is pure speculation -- that he likes cows better than people. But cows don't vote. If they did, Graham would have sent every one in the state a personal letter. But now he has to woo cow owners. Walks right up to them and talks cow. His press secretary, Ken Klein, scouts ahead for additional campaign livestock. "Governor, " he says -- I swear this is a true quote -- "we have a Palm Beach cow over here." The press corps roars at this. "We have a Key West cow over here, " we shout. We issue limp-wristed, lisping moos. Graham's Harvard eyes flash a laugh to let us know he heard us, then off he goes, bouncing away toward the Palm Beach cow.
Whatever it takes.
* * *
It's a beautiful morning in Fort Lauderdale, and the press has gathered outside the Broward County Commission building. Sen. Paula Hawkins is scheduled to hold a hearing on The Pipeline That Will Leak and Explode, and the press is hoping for a Sighting.
Hawkins has been hard to see. Her chronic neck and back problems recently forced her into a hospital for tests. The press relations for this event were handled with all the smooth, suave low-key professionalism of clowns hitting each other with dead fish. First, when Hawkins missed a couple of engagements and then disappeared, her office told inquiring reporters that she had taken an early vacation; then, when reporters found out that she was in fact in the hospital, her office announced that the previous announcement was -- these are the exact words -- no longer operative. This is of course the famous Watergate phrase that causes reporters to sprout facial hair and fangs and want to rip the flesh off everything that moves. Soon there was much speculation in the press about what was wrong with Hawkins, whether she was addicted to painkillers, whether she would drop out of the race, etc.
And so we are all standing on the corner in Fort Lauderdale, waiting to see if Hawkins will get out of the car and keel right over, or what. She does not. She gets out looking perky. She has huge perky eyes and a huge perky smile. She has perky hair. She wears lots of perky makeup and some big perky diamonds, which bring her weight up to maybe 18 pounds. One glance, and you understand why they whisper That Name behind her back. Betty Boop.
Well, forget Betty Boop. Hawkins is no nuclear physicist, and she does wear a lot of makeup (she looks like a person attempting to sneak valuable possessions through customs by hiding them under her mascara) and she does not have a dress- for-success hairstyle, but she is a very shrewd and tough woman who has managed to get herself elected to the U.S. By God Senate. She often refers to herself as "this senator, " in case anybody forgets. But the point is, she IS a senator, which is more than you can say for the people who whisper Betty Boop. They are small jungle birds, chattering from the safety of the trees; she's prowling down in the tall jungle grass, where you either kill or get killed. Where Graham's every move and statement seems carefully planed, Hawkins seems to rely more on instinct and reflex. But her reflexes are pretty good. And for now, she's the one in the Senate.
The Big Pipeline Hearing is a wonderful example of how, for all of its faults, the American system of free, open and representative government is still capable of being one of the silliest on Earth. Your Objective Observers generally agree that Hawkins' concerns about the pipeline's environmental threats are short on logic, but of course logic has nothing to do with this. What we are talking about here is street smarts. This issue lets Hawkins hit Graham right where he is supposed to be strong. Right in his bunny rabbits.
And so she is in Fort Lauderdale to hold a hearing. With her, to help, is her friend and Senate mentor, Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, a thin man with thin lips. He looks like a funeral director, only not as much fun. This is supposed to be a hearing of the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee's Subcommittee on Children, Family, Drugs and Alcoholism. But Hawkins and Hatch, both Republicans, are the only subcommittee members to show up. The Democratic senators, back in Washington, say the hearing is a sham. They say it's political.
Hatch announces that he is shocked by this charge. "This isn't a political thing, " he says, looking for all the world as though he believes there is nothing remotely unusual about a senator from Utah coming to Florida under the auspices of the Subcommittee on Children, Family, Drugs and Alcoholism to hold hearings about a pipeline.
The highlight of the hearing comes early, at the end of Hawkins' opening statement, in which she voices grave concern that leaking fuel might contaminate the groundwater. Suddenly she brandishes a bottle of Perrier at Hatch, startling him, and declares: "Not everyone, Mr. Chairman, can drink Perrier. And Perrier doesn't mix too well with infant formula."
A wonderful move. Some of us in the press are tempted to applaud. From deep left field, way out near the warning track, Hawkins has managed to drag in children, little children, babies, as victims of the Pipeline That Will Leak And Explode. It is a horrifying image: Mothers, forced to feed babies formula made with Perrier! Think of it! Think of the burping!
Hawkins brings up kids every chance she gets. Kids are HER issue. Kids and drugs. She is for kids, against drugs. She never misses an opportunity to remind everybody of this. Why not? Her concern is genuine, she conveys it well, and who on Earth is going to argue with her? Who is going to come out against kids and for drugs? Hitler?
Her critics say her near-obsession with these two issues means she is limited, as a senator. A lightweight. They chatter this, from the trees.
After the hearing, Hawkins and Hatch hold a press conference, and of course the last thing the press wants to talk about is the pipeline. (You may have noticed a pattern here: The press and the newsmakers never want to talk about the same thing. This is why the vast majority of the news consists of vague and insincere quotations.)
What the press wants to talk about is Hawkins' health. She opens with a bombshell: "The good news, " she says brightly, "is that I don't have cancer." This is a remarkable statement, since, as far as anybody knows, it was never reported that she did have cancer. Hawkins will sometimes emit offhand statements of the type that make press aides turn to hard liquor. She loves the quick quip, in sharp contrast to Graham, who usually speaks with all the spontaneity of highway construction. "Are you in discomfort?" a reporter asks Hawkins. "As long as I'm in politics, I'm in discomfort, " she shoots back. She can be very funny, very sharp, when she quips. She is far less effective in her other major speaking mode, the Soaring Ramble, where she swoops and swerves sharply from topic to topic, at some length and seemingly without mental punctuation, until you, her listener, start getting nervous for her, wondering if she'll find a safe place to land before she runs out of fuel.
Driving back from the hearing, I listen to a radio news broadcast about the great pipeline hearing. "Hawkins says she doesn't have cancer, " it says.
* * *
Now we are in Naples, where Hawkins is speaking at a Republican dinner at a very posh hotel, which is called "The Ritz-Carlton" only because it would be a little too obvious to call it "The Wealthy Protestant."
After she speaks, I corner her and tell her I'm a humor columnist for The Miami Herald.
"That must be hard, " she says. She is not nuts about The Herald.
I ask her if she sees any humor in the pipeline issue. This elicits a Soaring Ramble, which I will quote from here, verbatim, transcribed from my tape recorder, so you'll get a feel for what they're like:
" . . . So it's up to the people of Florida to decide if they want to make a safe pipeline, and that's why I'm trying to point the way towards that pipeline. I drink lots of water, and I just must tell you that we can live without a lot of luxuries we have in Florida -- we brag a lot about a lot more roads, and a lot more other of the luxuries I call them, and yet we want to keep it rural like it was 50 years ago, and we can't do that -- people are here -- but the least we can do is provide water for people who are here and for future generations -- my children certainly don't want to leave Winter Park; they love it there, and my eight grandchildren, they intend to have water, I have eight grandchildren under 8, and I want to tell you they all expect great quality water to come out of their tap. They think I should do that. I think there's a little humor that I started in politics, regulating 800 water and sewer companies. We used to regulate Florida Gas -- I don't know what they call themselves this year; they keep changing their name . . .
I interrupt. "What about Bob Graham?" I ask. "You see any humor in Bob Graham?"
She stops toying with her pearls. Her eyes cool; her smile hardens.
"None at all, " she says.
Those of you who wish to help Hawkins in her struggle to prevent drugs from being brought into Florida via pipelines and given to children are of course welcome to send in campaign contributions, but we do ask that you bear in mind an unfortunate and completely true incident recently wherein Hawkins had to return a $2,000 contribution from a Mr. Soghanalian after the television show 60 Minutes reported that he is what we in the news business refer to as an "arms merchant, " which we are not exactly sure of the definition of, but which sounds very bad. On top of that, according to 60 Minutes, Mr. Soghanalian threw Hawkins a large birthday party in his hangar, and "champagne flowed, " only Hawkins didn't show up because 60 Minutes had cameras there, although Hawkins' spokesman claimed that Mr. Soghanalian didn't throw the party, and it was his SON's hangar, and the reason Hawkins didn't show up was that it was a SURPRISE party and consequently she didn't KNOW about it, and so she was out sailing on a large boat and could not be reached, and also Hawkins, being a Mormon, doesn't even drink Coke, let alone champagne. So the point I wish to stress here is, by all means, give her a contribution, but be prepared to get it back, and if you plan to throw her a party, for God's sake TELL the woman.
* * *
About 15 reporters, mostly from Florida papers, have gathered at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., to have breakfast with Hawkins. This has come about because the reporters have been complaining that they never get to talk to her, and often can't even find out where she is. The press does not like this. The press is used to political figures like Graham, who are at least willing to pretend they think reporters are important. The Hawkins camp, on the other hand, gives the impression it wouldn't have minded if the journalist-in-space program had gotten an earlier start.
Hawkins arrives, and we have a tense little breakfast. She picks at her muffin and smiles in a bright and cheerful and obviously forced manner, so as to make it clear that she would frankly prefer to be undergoing eye surgery. Of course she doesn't want to talk about her health -- she is sick unto DEATH of reporters asking her about her health -- so we mainly ask her questions about her health.
Hawkins, always smiling, answers the questions patiently and sometimes condescendingly, as if lecturing small children. She gets in her digs where she can. Responding to a reporter's question, she begins: "I read in one of your columns -- which I don't read very often (huge smile here); I'm sorry, but they're so inaccurate that I have to get a better source . . . " then she goes on to answer the question in her sweetest, most cheerful voice. All in all, it's a fun half-hour for everybody, and Hawkins' press secretary promises we'll do it again sometime.
So there they are, your Senate candidates, both surrounded by little pieces of the molds that were broken when they were made, both desperate for the opportunity to Serve You. For the record, Graham is favored to win. Not that he's taking it for granted. He's probably mowing your lawn right now. Because he knows, as Hawkins knows, that it will be a long time before this particular storm oozes off the radar map of Florida politics. I think it's going to be a fun race. I urge you, the voters, to follow it closely, maybe even find out, by reading stories written by responsible journalists, what the issues are. Assuming there are any.
© 2010, Dave Barry
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