Alan Keyes and I got into a tiff a few days ago.
The scene was just after the GOP debate Thursday, as all the Republican candidates, except George W. Bush, graced the press room at WMUR-TV -- where hundreds of reporters were typing out their stories -- to offer a bit of post-debate analysis.
And the topics we were arguing about were the press, race and Alan Keyes.
What started it all was another post-debate pressroom session, this after the GOP Dartmouth debate on Oct. 28. The fiery Keyes, mad that the members of the press assembled there weren't asking him any questions, burst into a string of invective at our apparent snub.
"The people of this country have gotten over their racial sickness -- I don't know that you folks have," Keyes said. "I think that merit means nothing to you because you can't look past race. And I think I'm deadly sick of it." It was a bizarre eruption, odder still because our reticence had nothing to do with his race, and everything to do with the fact that we were all busy writing our stories.
Even if we hadn't all been so busy, though, Keyes is at best a fringe candidate -- he's more than $80,000 in debt, an asterisk in the polls and couldn't even get elected to statewide office in Maryland.
Still, his rant was intriguing. In a story about the Dartmouth debate, Slate's Jacob Weisberg observed that "the racial factor works mildly in Keyes' favor" because, "if he were a white Republican, and thus less of a novelty, the press would portray him more directly as a fanatic. Ignoring Keyes is the kindest thing the press can do for him."
Keyes was queried about the outburst during last Thursday's debate. WMUR's Karen Brown asked if the "apparent [un]interest in you during a press availability" was "racism or is it a reflection of your standing in the polls?"
Keyes responded, "I think these polls are phony to begin with. They are a manipulated result aimed at trying to usurp and preempt the choice of the American people."
He suddenly decided to hang his hat on "some of these phony polls" -- specifically those that "show me ahead of people you've given more attention to, including folks who are standing right next to me right now. So by the criteria that the phony folks in the media use, you are violating your own criteria. And I have to look around for another explanation when that happens. And I know that explanation from the time I stepped forward. You know, when I first stepped forward, the only thing people in the media wanted to ask me about was race."
Keyes is right about one thing: The press should treat him equally. We should behave toward him no differently than we would a candidate who happens to be white.
Keyes may be brilliant, but he is also a hectoring megalomaniac. He should be analyzed and criticized the way any other candidate would be. For instance: He paid himself a salary of $100,000 out of campaign contributions to his losing 1992 Maryland Senate race. That's not illegal, but it is fairly sketchy.
And unlike many other Christians who "hate the sin but love the sinner," Keyes preaches an angry intolerance of gays and lesbians.
While Keyes demonstrated a command of the issues perhaps unrivaled among his fellow candidates Thursday, he also made some statements worth challenging. For instance, his assessment that the NATO operation in Kosovo had little merit and was a "propaganda war" was ludicrous and superficial at best. And for an ideologue, Keyes is remarkably inconsistent: The polls are "phony" when he's behind, but not so when he makes gains; reporters shouldn't bring up his race, though his comparisons between taxation and slavery -- and his sneers at "Massa Bush" -- are fine.
So when Keyes came to the pressroom Thursday night, there was no way I wasn't going to ask him a few questions. I had no idea it was going to get so ugly -- but given Keyes' unhinged way, I should have known better.
Keyes strode to the podium looking like a guy itching for a fight.
Fox News Channel's Brit Hume had pointed out that "there are other black political figures, Republican and Democrat alike -- Jesse Jackson and Colin Powell being signal examples -- who have not experienced this problem."
To this, Keyes elaborated on his theory that the media is racist, saying, "If you're not in the mold that's supposed to correspond to what you folks say is 'black,' what you claim are supposed to be the attributes of the race, then you're shut out." Jackson is liberal, and Powell is pro-choice, he said.
"J.C. Watts gets a lot of positive media coverage, and he's an African-American, very conservative, pro-life," I asked when Keyes returned to the mike. How did that square with his theory?
"The very question is a racist question!" Keyes exclaimed.
But, I said, "You're the one that brought up race."
"No, No!" said Keyes, "You brought it up. When I [began running for President] several years ago, I would go into forums just like this. I would talk about the issues: the moral challenges we face, the issue of abortion, and so forth. I would get out and the first question asked of me by reporters would be a racial question. You guys can't see anything but my race."
But, I pointed out, Keyes himself brought it up this time around. "You accused us of being racist at the last debate when we were filing our stories," I said.
Keyes said that the media's hostility toward him stems from the fact that, "I refuse to play the role of a racial politician. And because I refuse to play the role of a racial politician, you are refusing to take seriously my impact, and the strong constituency that I've built in the Republican party, and the things that I articulate better than anyone else in this country today.
"I am sick and tired of having individuals who will ignore that reality in order to do what? You do to me what you did to my ancestors! ... Well, I'm very proud of my heritage. And I'll tell you something, heritage gives me ability to stick to the issues that matter most to this country right now. And I think you ought to pay attention. Not only to what I say, but to the fact that I am in fact gaining in New Hampshire," Keyes said.
He brought up the poll again, noting that the week he placed third in a New Hampshire poll (which was thus presumably no longer "phony"), the media started labeling it a "two-man race."
That was a stretch -- and not only because polling had suddenly become a legitimate science in his eyes. I said, "The reason people acted like it was a two-man race was because all of a sudden John McCain was ahead of Bush -- and that was the news."
"Excuse me, sir," Keyes said, "You're ignoring a phenomenon that is actually taking place. And you're doing it, as I said in the debate, because blackout means black out. And if I'm doing well in a non-racial way, you don't want to let the American people know about their own people. You didn't let them know about the Alabama straw poll. Now that wasn't reported around the country!"
"Because only two people participated in the straw poll!" I said. Keyes and Hatch had been the only ones to show; the event was a joke.
"That's a lie, sir!" Keyes exclaimed. "Everybody's name was on that ballot! And people had organized throughout the state of Alabama! They didn't show up finally because had we the state sewn up and they knew it!"
Keyes was growing angrier by the second. "You ignore my successes, just as you ignored my ancestors' successes," he went on heatedly. "You ignore it and then you report it so people can think badly of me. And then you want to tell me you're not a racist!"
"Yeah," I said. "I'm telling you I'm not a racist, Mr. Keyes. I'm telling you I'm not a racist."
"You better think about it, my friend!" Keyes said. "You better think about what you're doing!"
OK, I've thought about it. Keyes has become unhinged and unreasonable. He's an even more inconsistent and paranoid egoist than I even could have remotely conceived before. And he's remarkably unqualified to be president.