Honky-tonk nights

From a drunken debate hall in South Carolina to nightclubs in Iowa, the candidates for president and their supporters in both major parties spend a weekend whoopin' it up.

Published January 10, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

For the first time this year, a bunch of unruly drunks have had a visible effect on the political process.

At the South Carolina Republican Party's "Silver Elephant" fund-raiser and GOP presidential debate Friday night, MSNBC anchor Brian Williams was just trying to ask Texas Gov. George W. Bush a question. But the event -- held in an enormous converted warehouse and attended by roughly 3,000 party faithful -- featured an open bar every 8 feet.

So, in addition to trying to get a straight answer out of Slick Georgie, Williams also had to contend with the obnoxious boos of hundreds of drunk Southerners. Not an easy task.

Williams, who somehow remained composed, was shouted down for merely asking Bush what he thought about the current controversy in the Palmetto state about whether it's appropriate for the Confederate flag to wave above the state capitol.

"Does the flag offend you personally?" Williams asked Bush -- who is campaigning as a "compassionate conservative" and is drawn like a magnet to African-American children whenever photographers are nearby.

But Williams was barking up the wrong Palmetto tree. Bush has shown in the past that, photos of him and kids of color aside, he's not willing to expend one iota of political capital if it risks costing him the vote of even one bigot.

"The answer to your question is -- and what you're trying to get me to do -- is to express the will of the people of the South Carolina is what you're trying to get on," Bush said.

"No, I'm asking you about your personal feelings," Williams said.

"Brian, I believe the people of South Carolina can figure out what to do with this flag issue," Bush said, to raucous applause. "It's the people of South Carolina's decision. If I may, I don't believe it's the role of someone from outside South Carolina and someone running for president to come into this state and tell the people of South Carolina what to do with their business when it comes to the flag."

Williams gamely tried again. "As an American citizen, do you have a visceral reaction to seeing the Confederate flag?"

"As an American citizen," Bush said, "I trust the people of South Carolina to make the decision for South Carolina."

"Yee-haw!" roared the crowd.

Williams' question was certainly relevant. In 1962, to commemorate the centennial anniversary of the Civil War (which some die-hards down here refer to as "The War of Northern Aggression") South Carolina and other Southern states raised the stars and bars above their statehouses.

South Carolina, however, is the only state that has yet to take down the flag, which civil rights organizations and others see as a symbol of slavery.

Indeed, the issue has political implications. In November 1998, Republican Gov. David Beasley was defeated at least partially because he and the state Chamber of Commerce tried to bring the flag down -- largely in response to boycotts by pro-civil rights groups. And at the exact time as the GOP debate, a pro-flag rally was going on down at the statehouse, complete with the recital of the names of 18,600 Confederate soldiers killed "defending South Carolina from invasion."

From the first five minutes of the debate -- when Bush was enthusiastically applauded for his typical wussiness -- to its end, the event often took on the ambience of a WWF "Summer Slam." When a local TV reporter asked the candidates what their biggest personal mistake as an adult was, the crowd shouted her down in a tangible display of the hostility many feel toward the media.

"You know, in hearing that question," said Alan Keyes, "I think about the biggest mistake I might make as an adult would be to treat that as if it's a question that is appropriate to be asked... I think that we have to understand that there ought to be in our public life a certain decorum, a certain dignity. There are things that I'll tell my priest in the confessional that I will not tell you or any other American. OK?"

Arizona Sen. John McCain responded to the "mistake" question by recalling his role in the "Keating Five" scandal.

"The biggest mistake that I made in my life was attending a meeting with four other senators and four regulators," McCain said, "because of the appearance of impropriety. And it's something that will always be a mark on my record and something that people will judge me for the rest of my life."

Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch suggested that his biggest mistake might have been throwing his hat into the presidential ring a little late -- on July 1. Intriguingly, when he was asked the same question by the Des Moines Reigster in December, Hatch said that his biggest mistake was his past opposition to a federal holiday in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Perhaps Hatch didn't think mentioning that mistake would go over too well with this crowd.

Publisher Steve Forbes -- who has been progressively fading from sight at these match-ups, evaporating slowly but surely like the Cheshire Cat -- owned up to penning some magazine columns in his 20s which perhaps were a bit misguided. "I saw merit in things like raising the gasoline tax, raising the age for Social Security retirees and things like that," Forbes said. "But I've learned and grown."

Bush, who many assumed the question was aimed at, had a joke ready: noting that when he was managing partner of the "mighty Texas Rangers, I signed off on that wonderful transaction: Sammy Sosa for Harold Baines."

Added Christian activist Gary Bauer, "Well, I just want to point out to you, ma'am, that if you asked the president of the United States that question it would be an essay answer."

Unlike at Thursday night's debate in New Hampshire, on Friday the Republicans' shots seemed mainly targeted at Democrats.

When it was his turn to ask a pre-designated rival a question, Forbes asked Bauer about Vice President Al Gore's campaign manager, Donna Brazile, who recently said that the GOP likes to keep former Gen. Colin Powell and Oklahoma Republican Rep. J.C. Watts around so they can pose for photographs while remaining insensitive to the plight of black America.

Characterizing the comments as "very racist remarks," Forbes asked Bauer to join him in calling on Gore to fire Brazile.

"Steve, you're absolutely right," Bauer said. "And let me just say to the good people in this audience, you have watched for 10 years while the Democratic Party has attempted to smear our party with charges of racism, with charges of not caring about the poor, all sorts of scare tactics that we don't care about the weak and the sick and the handicapped. They do it time and time and time again. And all too often our party, in the face of that, has run for the tall grass."

All of the candidates voiced opposition to preferential "quotas" for minorities. "I think it's maybe more important to ask whether it's helped the people it was supposed to help," said Keyes. "And I think it has actually hurt them by damaging the reputation of many minorities in this country and not giving them credit for their real achievements, and I think that's wrong."

All of the candidates expressed a general disdain for gambling -- "South Carolinians are going to be voting on a state lottery later this year," Williams noted. "The problem with these lotteries," McCain said, summing up the group's general consensus, "is that the poor people are the ones who buy the lottery tickets; and it is a very regressive tax. But I would leave the decision up to the people of South Carolina. And I will respect and admire their decision."

Largely because of the chaotic vibe of the event, only two real debate moments occurred -- and both highlighted the chasm between the two leading candidates, Bush and McCain. Mired in what Bush called "a fundamental disagreement" in their tax policies (McCain jokingly reduced it to a question of "whose is bigger"), McCain said, "George, the American people are tired of people who make promises, who make promises about tax cuts that they can't keep." But the acoustics were so poor and everyone seemed so sauced, no one could really hear -- so the effect of his jibe was pretty much lost.

Then, after drawing Hatch's name for his direct Q&A, Bush -- as he has done so often in this campaign, asked for help against his chief rival, McCain.

"Sen. Hatch, as you know, my good friend John McCain and I have a dispute over campaign-funding laws," Bush said. "I believe the McCain-Feingold bill will hurt the Republican Party and hurt conservative causes. I want you to answer to me, you've been involved in this debate on the floor of the Senate. Would you please explain to me and the folks of South Carolina why so many Republican senators rejected the McCain-Feingold campaign funding reform bill?"

Like the good candidate for attorney general in a potential Bush administration that he is, Hatch called the bill unconstitutional and said "John is starting to sound like the accordion player who only knows one tune, 'Lady of Spain.'"

But since Bush had been such a weasel in not really asking Hatch anything having to do with Hatch, McCain was given an opportunity to respond.

"You are defending an illegal system," he said to Bush. "You are defending a system that has caused the debasement of every institution of government and it's got to be stopped... It is now legal in the United States of America for a Chinese army-owned corporation to give unlimited amounts of money to an American political campaign."

All of the candidates drew applause, especially as the crowd got increasingly liquored up, but Bush was clearly the favorite. It was a meeting of the establishment party faithful, after all, and from Anchorage to Miami those folks are Bushies.

"I appreciate Sen. Strom Thurmond's strong support," Bush said in his closing statement, though at roughly 150 years of age it's unclear how "strong" anything of Thurmond's is at this point. "I appreciate the lieutenant governor, the attorney general, the speaker's strong support. I appreciate former governors' Beasley and [Caroll] Campbell's strong support."

A similar outpouring of entrenched establishment backing could be seen -- on the Democratic side -- just 14 hours later, 1,100 miles away, as Gore and former Sen. Bill Bradley faced off in Johnston, Iowa. Like Bush, Gore trotted out all his Iowa all-stars -- Gov. Tom Vilsack, Attorney General Tom Miller, Rep. Leonard Boswell, Cornman, and even his lovely daughter, Karenna, who not long ago married some stiff from New York.

It was a good day to be Al Gore. The Des Moines Register had just released a poll showing Bradley to be stuck in a holding pattern with virtually identical poll numbers to the newspaper's November results - Gore with 54 percent, Bradley with 33 percent.

And then, at the Register-sponsored debate, Gore ate Bradley alive.

There was little new to the exchange, though Bradley seemed even more distant than usual, while Gore seemed more confident and relaxed, his barrage of attacks coming in deftly but effectively. In addition to Gore's same old song about Bradley's health care plan -- which Bradley deemed "misrepresenting" and "a scare tactic" -- the veep went after Bradley for his long and checkered anti-agricultural voting record.

There was the usual bit about ethanol subsidies, of course, but the most effective hit didn't even come from Gore -- at least, not directly. Gore called on a local farmer in the audience, Chris Peterson, to stand.

"Let me introduce a friend of mine to you," Gore said, saying that Peterson is a farmer "with 400 acres, he farms beans and corn" who suffered a tragedy in 1993. "Three hundred of his 400 acres were flooded out," Gore said. "I joined with [Iowa Democratic Sen.] Tom Harkin to get the extra billion dollars of disaster relief to help Chris and the others who were flooded out. Why did you vote against the disaster relief for Chris Peterson, when he and thousands of other farmers here in Iowa needed it after those 93 floods?"


Bradley -- who hates it, hates it, when Gore pulls shit like this -- didn't answer. "This is not about the past," he said. "This is about the future. This is about what we're going to do to change the agriculture policy we've had the last eight, 10 years."

It was a classic exchange for these two. Gore uses what Bradley calls a "ploy" or a "tactic." Bradley tries to ignore it.

If the tactic doesn't work, Gore can look like an ass, something that has certainly happened in the past. But if it does work, the audience is left with the feeling that Bradley never really answered the question, as was the case with farmer Peterson.

A Gore staffer later told me that the campaign researched that vote meticulously. "Some of these disaster relief bills are Christmas trees," he said, packed with various pork project presents. "Gore has voted against some of them in the past for that reason. But this one wasn't. It was a straight up or down vote. We were really surprised that he voted against it." But really glad to have the ammo.

Bradley communications director Anita Dunn said that the reason Bradley had voted against the bill was that too much of the relief aid went to large farm conglomerates instead of family farmers like Peterson. "Even [pro-agriculture Nebraska Democratic Sen.] Bob Kerrey voted against that bill," she said. So why didn't Bradley just say that? His disdain for Gore's tactics can sometimes end up playing as disdain for the audience.

If you want to see a Bradley at his stiffest and most sanctimonious, see him during a debate. But if you want to see him at his loosest and most charming, check him out afterwards.

Bradley spent the rest of Saturday hopping from event to event, doing his effective Bradley thing -- joking, smiling, horsing around and then turning his schtick into lofty idealism. His speech hasn't changed much, but it still works. From an Italian restaurant to a house party in Republican West Des Moines, to a hotel in Altoona, he killed.

At night, joined by his wife and Harvard University professor Cornel West, Bradley got even better. At an American Legion chili dinner, he drank beer from a pitcher and danced to the Righteous Brothers. Someone handed him a cool Coors Light, which he sipped until a reporter jokingly reminded one of his body men of the Coors family's right-wing political bent. Bradley was hustled into the bathroom, where the damning Coors can was disposed of and the beer was poured into a cup.

That night, Bradley also dropped by an East Des Moines hole in the wall called Johnny Mac's, where he clowned around with other Saturday night revelers.

"We're getting beat, Bill," said a man watching the Iowa-Michigan State basketball game. "Give us some luck."

Bradley scattered his fingers in the air, aimed at the wide screen TV. Then he circulated some more.

But after Bradley left -- he bought the house a round, but didn't want to be there when his generosity was announced -- his charm proved inadequate for the hapless Iowa cagers. They lost the home game by 22 points, roughly the same margin by which Bradley trails Gore in Iowa's polls.

By Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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Al Gore Democratic Party George W. Bush John Mccain R-ariz.