The night before Super Tuesday, Hart was in the bar of the airport Hilton, near El Paso. Clunky columns sheathed with mirrors held up an eight-foot ceiling that made the whole place feel sweaty and close. The bit of air between the tables and ceiling was pink with tremulous neon light, spiked with weird hanging lamps of postindustrial chrome, and loud with lite-rock guitars. The chairs were undersized, wheeled, bulbous pink pods. The waitress was oversized in a see-through blouse and a short skirt that squeezed the flesh of her legs. Hart and a writer were the only customers.
He drank tequila, up, with lime and salt. He was near the peak of the White Lightning Curve, ready to talk about awful truths.
This was the truth:
He would have to get out. His dream was over. He would not be President. He never wanted to say it, to let go of that… he’d given his life to that. “But I don’t want another round of editorials and op-ed pieces, day after Super Tuesday, saying I’m obsessed, I’m ridiculous, I’m pathetic. …”
Could they hurt him anymore?
Yes, they hurt. And in the end, they could kill his ideas.
Between his two ’88 campaigns, he’d shopped a book proposal around—no takers. … Then a woman from the New York Times Syndicate called to talk to Hart about a column. She was sure it would be a big winner. He sketched out thirty-six columns … but then he heard nothing. She finally called to say, all reactions were negative. There was no place for Hart’s column. … Finally, there was an agent in New Jersey who worked hard to put him on the lecture circuit. … “And when I finally did go out to speak, no less a publication than the L.A. Times editorialized: ‘Sit down, Gary. You have nothing to say. You have no place in public life in this country.’
“They can take my platform away, altogether. …
“I’m in a struggle to the death over who I am. And I feel my opponent is the press, who cannot allow me to define myself—they have a stake in this. They’re all on record, and they can’t bear to see me reemerge as a serious person in this country, because they went so far out and said such terrible things. They can’t allow me to succeed.”
The writer asked about Hart’s own argument: that he was the only reform candidate, that sooner or later, when it narrowed down, they would have to pay attention.
“You don’t understand,” Hart said. “I’m making these things up as I go along. I got up in front of the cameras after I got one percent in Iowa, and I had no idea what I was going to say. Out came this notion that I was the only reform candidate—happened to be true. It’s the muse. The muse was with me that night.
“But … I don’t know how it can happen.
“Do you know, Mike Stratton came out here to tell me that all my friends want me to get out now? That’s the message. …” Hart was staring at the lime on his tequila glass.
Said his companion: “What’s the point of being the stubbornest man in the world if you have to start listening to your friends?”
“Really?” he said. “The stubbornest?” He looked more cheerful. “Well … I’m going upstairs.” His eyebrows leapt once, with the joke. “Big day, tomorrow.”
It would be a big day … but not for him. In twenty races, Hart would gather, total, three percent. His best state would be Texas, with five percent—but no wins in any district, no delegates anywhere. And three days thereafter, at a calm press conference in Denver, Hart would get out … and let go his life … with no commotion, an absence of noise—with the sad and final quiet of a man in deep water who ceases to kick.
“Like Bob Dylan, he has peaked a few times.”
See, you had to understand how Joe thought about Bork. This was what lay at the base of Joe’s depression. This was why his son Beau was off to college next month at Penn. Hell, this was why Joe said that stupid quote to the Inquirer … Send us a Bork, he’d said.
Not because he knew about Dork. At that point, he didn’t know squat … except … Bork was big-time. He taught Constitutional law, for Chrissake, at Yale!
You had to understand how that was, to Joe.
One time—this was years before, his sons were young, in grade school—Joe was sitting around with his pals in Wilmington, a weekend, somebody’s backyard.
Joe said: “Where’s your kid going to college?”
One friend said: “Christ, Joe! He’s eight years old!”
Another said: “Ahh, there’s a lotta good schools now.”
“Lemme tell you guys something,” Joe said. And he wasn’t just shooting the shit. He had the clench in his jaw.
“There’s a river of power that flows through this country …”
His buddies rolled their eyes, but Joe acted like he didn’t see.
“Some people—most people—don’t even know the river is there. But it’s there.
“Some people know about the river, but they can’t get in … they only stand at the edge.
“And some people, a few, get to swim in the river. All the time. They get to swim their whole lives—anywhere they want to go—always in the river of power.
“And that river,” Joe said, “flows from the Ivy League.”
Robert Bork came from the River of Power.
And now he was going to the Supreme Court.
Unless he was stopped by Joey Biden—Syracuse Law, ’68.
Sometimes, Gary wondered why Oletha, why Lee, did not have that ease that was her accustomed grace … but he didn’t say anything. Not to her.
One day, at lunch in the Divinity School basement, he said to his friend Tom Boyd:
“It’s so strange … you go to the school you’re supposed to, and you date the kind of person you’re supposed to marry, you get married. … And you wake up six months later, and you say, ‘What am I doing?’ …”
But Tom knew (he was an old hand at marriage—three years!—he’d gone through the same thing), it wasn’t that Gary didn’t love Lee, it was just … he was questioning everything.
To Gary, it was just … everything was different: it was Bethany that now seemed another world, a smaller world, a narrow place. Gary and Lee went a couple of times to the Nazarene Church in New Haven, but it was … well, it was nothing: it was no more sophisticated than the church on Seventh Street in Ottawa!
It was almost funny, for Gary to look back … at that church, his little college … it was so strange, how they shrank, as he moved outward … it would be funny—if it weren’t tragic.
Years later, he would still be startled—shocked—when confronted again with the power of those places, the grip they had on some people’s lives … even when they tried to wriggle free.
Don Conway, God bless him, killed himself while he was doing graduate study at Berkeley, in 1967. … Then, Dale Tuttle, Gary’s best man, killed himself in 1971. … They were brilliant, both, the best of the best. Dale was likely gay. He suffered with it terribly. Don … well, who could know? But whatever it was, they could not turn away from the dark battle with their imperfect selves, their failures, their humanness. That was the Bethany disease: that morose, myopic self-investigation that never ended, never stopped cutting away inside. … And here was the horrible cosmic joke: it happened to the best! … Well, it would not happen to Gary.
He was not going to turn that diamond bit on himself. He was faced determinedly outward, to the wider world. He would not stop now—would not stop ever—to peer into, to pick apart the layers of his life. That was morbid. It was obsessive. It was not what his life was about!
And Bethany—well, he would not soon go back. (Not even when Lee did, in 1984.) And he would not look back. He would not concede it any hold on him. Not for years, anyway … not even to recognize the comic twist, the cosmic joke that God and Bethany played on him: he fell in love with Oletha Ludwig for her queenly ease, never knowing—how could he know?—that past Bethany she would so seldom find it again.
That was the reason for the Christmas cards, at least at the start: a way for George and Bar to keep beaming the glow to the folks they’d left back East, when they moved to Texas. But the way those two were about friends, the list just kept growing. Every year George Bush was alive on the planet, there were more friends to take care of. And the way Bar kept her file cards, no one ever dropped off the list. Bar moved her box of file cards from Midland to Houston, to Washington, back to Houston, to New York, back to Washington, to China, back to Washington, then back to Houston, and to Washington again. Of course, every year it grew, from family and schoolmates, to oil-business friends and new Texas neighbors, and Texas pols, to Washington friends and neighbors, fellow Congressmen, then UN Ambassadors from all over the world, and then local pols from all over the country, and more new neighbors, and Chinese officials, and CIA colleagues and foreign intelligence pooh-bahs, and more pols, now from all fifty states and a few from the U.S. territories, and campaign contributors, and volunteers, and staff, and ex-staff, and that wounded soldier he met at the VA, and that lady who told him such a sad story at the shopping center in Waco, and the cop who used to stop traffic every afternoon, as George Bush nosed his car out of the Houston Club garage. Some of the older entries were written over a dozen times for that friend’s successive new houses, amended for that family’s every new child, and when a child moved away from home, that child got a new file card. By the mid-seventies, say, while the Bushes sojourned in China, Bar had four or five thousand file cards, all updated by year-round effort, stored in a gleaming wooden four-drawer case that held pride of place, like the Roman gods of the household, in the upstairs family room of the residence of the U.S. compound in Peking. Bar used to point it out to guests, as one might mention a family heirloom. One visitor who saw it protested:
“Some of those must be just political friends.”
And Bar’s eyes turned icy as she snapped: “What’s the difference? A friend is a friend.”
It wasn’t till 1979, in the first George Bush for President campaign, that staff intruded in any way upon Bar’s Christmas card suzerainty. The friend list was growing geometrically as George flew around the country, and Bar was busy campaigning, too. So a group of volunteer ladies in Houston took over. Of course, Bar came by, every chance she got, to see that the cards were done right, addressed by hand with blue felt-tip pens, to give them a soft, kitchen-table look; and the cards for the closest friends pulled out of the bulk mailing and brought to the house for a scrawled P.S. and signature from George Bush.
Two years later, when the campaign was over and, in Bar’s phrase, “we became Vice President,” there was a VP Christmas card budget from the Republican National Committee, and a Houston Branch Office of the Vice President to do the heavy lifting. To be sure, the friend list was bigger now, embracing all U.S. Ambassadors overseas, and foreign dignitaries, and all members of Congress, and Governors, Republican Committeemen, campaign contributors, County Chairmen, and like stars in the new George Bush cosmology. By 1983, the ladies in Houston had the list cross-indexed on an IBM database. And a gentle, white-haired woman named Dot Burghard (a bit hard of hearing of late, but still possessed of beautiful penmanship) sat at a desk in the workroom of the Houston OVP, attending to the friend-list updates and then addressing envelopes, every day, beginning each year in May. By December, of course, it wasn’t just Dot, but a whole roomful of volunteers, bent to the three S’s (stuff, seal, and stamp) at the long table in the workroom, amid a murmur of old Bush-stories, and occasional shouted queries to Dot, and Betty Baker’s Texas trail-boss voice, on the phone, trying to rustle up more volunteers: “Hah, Suzie! Did Santa Claus visit yet? … Oh, well, tellya how ta assure it. Come on down here and give us a hand. … Well, we’re doin’ all right, but we could always use s’more … Gloria! What’re we up to—the H’s? … Fact, I’m a little worried ’bout gettin’ ’em out!”
And even after the bulk mailings, there were response cards to fire out, to people who were not on the friend list but who sent George Bush a card that year. And then, of course, returns started boomeranging in—someone moved, or dead, or God knows what—so the ladies had to peel back the stamp to read the code to find out which substratum of the friend list it came from: the Ambassadors, or contributors, or the 1944 crew of the USS Finback … or, in the worst case, it might be a card with the “CC” code hidden under the stamp, which meant “Christmas Card,” and which meant the name was from the crime de la crime, the Original Barbara Bush Christmas Card List. And that person had better be found. That card HAD to get out. It was often February and sometimes March before all the returns were investigated and rectified. Better late than never: people saved those cards, after all, and watched the kids (now the grandkids) grow up in the annual family pictures. This year, 1986, with new friends for the new campaign, it was bound to be March before it ended. They could almost count on that. This year—in fact, on the night of this party—there were thirty thousand George Bush Christmas cards in the mail.
It was only years later, when [George H. W. Bush] got into politics and had to learn to retail bits of his life, that he ever tried to put words around the war.
His first attempts, in the sixties, were mostly about the cahm-rah-deree and the spirit of the American Fighting Man. The Vietnam War was an issue then, and Bush was for it. (Most people in Texas were.) He said he learned “a lot about life” from his years in the Navy—but he never said what the lessons were.
Later, when peace was in vogue, Bush said the war had “sobered” him with a grave understanding of the cost of conflict—he’d seen his buddies die. The voters could count on him not to send their sons to war, because he knew what it was.
Still later, when he turned Presidential prospect, and every bit of his life had to be melted down to the coin of the realm—character—Bush had to essay more thoughts about the war, what it meant to him, how it shaped his soul. But he made an awful hash of it, trying to be jaunty. He told the story of being shot down. Then he added: “Lemme tell ya, that’ll make you start to think about the separation of church and state …”
Finally, in a much-edited transcript of an interview with a minister whom he hired as liaison to the born-again crowd, Bush worked out a statement on faith and the war: something sound, to cover the bases. It wasn’t foxhole Christianity, and he couldn’t say he saw Jesus on the water—no, it was quieter than that. … But there, on the Finback, he spent his time standing watch on deck in the wee hours, silent, reflective, under the bright stars …
“It was wonderful and energizing, a time to talk to God.
“One of the things I realized out there all alone was how much family meant to me. Having faced death and been given another chance to live, I could see just how important those values and principles were that my parents had instilled in me, and of course how much I loved Barbara, the girl I knew I would marry. …”
That was not quite how he was recalled by the men of the Finback. Oh, they liked him: a real funny guy. And they gave him another nickname, Ellie. That was short for Elephant. What they recollected was Bush in the wardroom, tossing his head and emitting on command the roaring trumpeted squeal of the enraged pachyderm; it was the most uncanny imitation of an elephant.
Nor were “sobered” or “reflective” words that leapt to Bar’s mind when she remembered George at that time. The image she recalled was from their honeymoon, when she and George strolled the promenades, amid the elderly retirees who wintered at that Sea Island resort. All at once, George would scream “AIR RAID! AIR RAID!” and dive into the shrubs, while Bar stood alone and blushing on the path, prey to the pitying glances of the geezers who clucked about “that poor shell-shocked young man.”
But there was, once, a time when he talked about the war, at night, at home, to one friend, between campaigns, when he didn’t have to cover any bases at all.
“You know,” he said, “it was the first time in my life I was ever scared.
“And then, when they came and pulled me out …” (Him, Dottie Bush’s son, out of a million miles of empty ocean!)
“Well …” Bush trailed off, pleasantly, just shaking his head.
Reading What It Takes, and it is just blowing me away. That first chapter, especially, was just terrific — the kind of first chapter that makes one ready to settle down and work his way through a 1000+ page book.
So now, he gets to the mound and turns, and stands center stage in the great canyon, stands full frame on the nation’s TV screens, stands alone before the forty-four thousand, and the fifty million. And yet there is not one instant when Bush is at rest, smooth, balanced, his hands easy at his sides. Hell, he can’t drop his hands to his sides: they’ve got him bundled up like a kid in a snowsuit!
He’s got his blue blazer, and a silver tie, and the blue shirt stuffed with him and the vest, and gray flannel slacks, and a brown belt that doesn’t match the lace-up shoes, which he’s now inching backward at the crest of the mound, feeling tentatively for the rubber, as he balances with baby steps on the slippery dirt. And at last, he looks up … and there’s the grin!
But, alas, no one gets to see the grin. Because as Bush looks up, what he sees is a person, Alan Ashby, the catcher, right there in front of his face, albeit sixty-and-a-half feet away. So Poppy’s got to have a thing with him—gonna be a friend, see. So he lifts up his right hand in front of his face, palm up, and with his wrist limp, flaps his fingers up together, as if he wants Ashby to come closer. A joke, see, just between Al and Poppy. But Ashby doesn’t know him, and he thinks it’s serious, so then Bush has to raise both hands, quick, palms out, with the ball flashing white in his left hand, to keep Ashby where he is, at the plate. By this time, there’s fifty million people who don’t know what’s going on with Bush, why he’s flapping his hands in front of his face.
By this time, ABC has cut to the center-field camera, and the nation has a view of the Vice Presidential back and backside. In this cruel shot, there is none of the athlete a fan might have seen up close, on the field. There is just the squarish silhouette of an aging white man, thick through the middle like any guy at sixty-something, looking every bit the interloper, like any guy in a jacket and tie who walks onto a ball field. Just a pol muscling in on a game that isn’t his—Hey, watch this … think he can throw?
This is it: the moment, the glorious nexus. Poppy is winding up—well, sort of. He can’t really get his arms above his head, so they end up together in front of his face, and he sort of swivels to his left, and his left arm flies back—but it won’t go back, so he gets it back even with his shoulder, and starts forward, while his right lace-up feels for the dirt on the downslope, and he can tell it’s short while the throw is still in his hand, and he’s trying to get that little extra with his hand, which ends up, fingers splayed, almost waving, as he lands on his right foot, and lists to his left, toward the first-base line, with the vent of his blazer aflap to show his gray flannel backside, with his eyes still following the feckless parabola of his toss, which is not gonna … oh, God! … not gonna even make the dirt in front of the plate, but bounce off the turf, one dying hop to the … oh, God!
And as he skitters off the mound toward the first-base line, and the ball on the downcurve of its bounce settles, soundless, into Ashby’s glove, then George Bush does what any old player might do in his shame … what any man might do who knows he can throw, and knows he’s just thrown like a girl in her first Softball game … what any man might do—but no other politician, no politician who is falling off the mound toward the massed news cameras of the nation, what no politician would do in his nightmares, in front of fifty million coast-to-coast, prime-time votes:
George Bush twists his face into a mush of chagrin, hunches his shoulders like a boy who just dropped the cookie jar, and for one generous freeze-frame moment, buries his head in both hands.