Keyes like me

It's tough when everybody mistakes you for a presidential contender, that is, until you start getting used to it.

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

I hope that Alan Keyes stays in the Republican Party's presidential race right up to the bitter end. This, I know, may be not helpful to the party leaders as they try to fashion a coherent strategy for winning back the White House, but the man is entertaining, and having him run has added a whole new dimension to my life.

That's because I'm probably the only reporter in the history of the republic to be repeatedly confused with a presidential candidate he's trying to cover, in this case Alan Keyes. All I lack is the goatee. Accordingly, I'm getting kind of used to being addressed as "Ambassador" or "Your Excellency."

Pretty much every day out on the campaign trail, someone will approach me and ask to shake my hand or congratulate me on my eloquence. Others, when they walk past my table, turn to sneak a better look. For me, New Hampshire in the days before the primary was heaven. After all, given the state's tiny African-American population, the odds that a black man sitting in a restaurant here in January is running for president are pretty good.

Of course, initially I had to adjust to the idea that when people stared at me they were seeing a guy crusading against the "howling moral void" in America. Howling? There's something about voids that suggests silence to me, but hey, he's the one with the Ph.D. from Harvard.

The first time I was mistaken for Keyes was actually some time ago back in Washington. I was walking across the Capitol Rotunda when somebody I didn't know walked by and nodded, mumbling: "Ambassador." I paid no attention at the time. But once Keyes started appearing on this winter's television coverage of the debates in Iowa and New Hampshire, the double takes become more common.

Keyes finished a strong third in the Iowa caucuses, jumped into a mosh pit and came out with his tie still straight. Gary Bauer, whose candidacy on behalf of the lipless was on the verge of vaporization, attacked Keyes for this immoral act. Not in keeping with the dignity of the office, etc.

With a straight face Keyes responded to Bauer that his straight tie was an outward sign of his inner dignity, dignity he learned "from my people."

Listening to Alan Keyes talk about race is like watching someone blow their nose at the dinner table. It's not unnatural -- he is black after all -- but it's unnerving just the same. The purity of his argument that America's glory lies in its past, when it was closer to God and to the Founding Fathers, would seem to minimize the importance of racial victimization, which was so much a part of that past. His basic problem, however, is one that all budding zealots must confront: a loss of credibility.

All that aside, if forced to point out a weakness in Keyes as a candidate, I would choose his utter lack of irony, a complete lack of any awareness of how over the top he is. His rage seems aimed at everything that happened after God rested on the seventh day, with the notable exception of the U.S. Constitution. Still, the great lesson of the Keyes candidacy, and this election season generally, is what it tells us about the wave of contentment washing over the electorate.

The longest economic boom in our history seems to have rendered us almost fearless. No one can hurt us now -- not Al Gore or George W. Bush or Bill Bradley or John McCain or Pat Buchanan, not to mention Keyes or the recently departeds, Bauer and Steve Forbes. As a result, we are choosing to view politics much more as entertainment than we could in the past. We are no longer repulsed by what we see and hear, no matter how fabulous or ridiculous it may sound. We are in this for the laughs -- and no one is more entertaining than Keyes.

Given all this, I'm beginning to see the opportunity for some mischief here. I'm thinking of rolling out the Straight Tie Express.

The day after the Iowa caucuses, it snowed in New Hampshire, as if to discourage the invading political and journalistic hordes from coming east. Of course, we came anyway. That night I sat in a Chinese restaurant in Nashua with a dozen other reporters ordering more food than we could possibly eat. A couple of staff people from the Forbes campaign were at our table as well. Everyone was white except me -- that still happens a lot out on the trail.

A guy approached from my left. "I know who you are. Is this the campaign dinner, are you celebrating?" he asked. In fact, I was considering the crispy duck.

"Oh no," I answered, intending to tell him we were journalists. Then I realized what he was thinking: Alan Keyes and his staff out for a celebratory dinner. He thought I was running for president and all these white people worked for me. Talk about playing against the stereotype. I had a sudden flash of why Keyes may well keep this thing going all the way to Philadelphia. "You did great in Iowa, good luck here," the man said.

Then I told him that he had mistaken my identity. He apologized and slunk back to the corner. My table, meanwhile, was in stitches, and I was embarrassed. Is it possible that people see me and think I am the guy in the full-length leather coat, telling the country that we are having too much fun, so cut it out, right now?

Most depressingly, do we all still look alike?

I got my answer soon enough. The next night was debate hell. First the Republicans, then the Democrats. Bradley essentially called Gore a liar in the second one, after Keyes took on Bauer on the mosh pit issue in the first one.

Going into the pit was an expression of trust, a metaphor for his relationship with the American people, Keyes insisted. When Bauer challenged him again, Keyes put on a fireworks display that grew more spectacular as it proceeded. It was hard to believe what we were hearing.

"The real test of dignity is how you carry it through in hard times. I think I learned that from my people. We went through slavery when we didn't have outward signs of what others would call dignity because we understood that dignity came from within, and that whatever circumstances you are going through you carry that dignity with you and no one can take it away."

I was left mulling whether Keyes had just compared surviving slavery to emerging from a mosh pit with your tie straight. I'm still not sure. But it was an incandescent piece of work.

The next night I was watching the State of the Union marathon in the bar at the Bedford Village Inn. With me were some of my campaign staff from our earlier Chinese dinner. I had just put down my scotch when a woman said she just wanted to shake my hand.

"Ambassador Keyes, you spoke to my daughter's fourth-grade class today; she said you were a terrific speaker."

"Thank you," I said.

"I just think you're doing a really terrific job with your campaign, and I just wanted to say how much I enjoy hearing you talk about the issues."

Again, I thanked her. The people at the bar were stifling back what clearly would be gales of laughter once she retreated. Finally, I decided to let her off the hook. "I am not who you think I am, but it happens all the time." She did not believe me and plowed ahead. "My husband is probably under the table over there because I decided to do this, but best of luck."

"Thank you," I said.

Let them laugh, I decided. This is good for them and good for me, because this entire broadcast was meant strictly for their viewing pleasure and may not be rebroadcast, in part or in its entirety, without my express written permission ...

"And now it's on to South Carolina."

By Terence Samuel

Terence Samuel is a national correspondent in the Washington bureau of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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