Thanks for the memories …
CONCORD, N.H. — For me, the 2000 presidential campaign begins in the spring of 1999, riding around New Hampshire in a minivan with John McCain, then an unheralded Arizona maverick with exactly one New Hampshire supporter, former Sen. Warren Rudman.
The traveling staff consists only of the driver, and when the cell phone rings — as it does often, these being the opening days of the Kosovo hostilities — the senator often answers himself, delivering his impassioned calls for a forceful American response to the ethnic cleansing.
At breakfast and dinner, he is even more profanely outspoken — showing the one reporter who is traveling with him the same disarming trust that will later beguile a much larger press corps on the "Straight Talk Express."
Eager to assemble any kind of crowd, McCain invites the 400 members of the New Hampshire Legislature for a get-acquainted lunch at a restaurant across from the statehouse. Told by the reporter afterward that most of his guests — who get a salary of $100 a year and never pass up a free meal — are Democrats, McCain just laughs. "Well," he says, "it’s not too late for them to change parties."
AMES, Iowa — It is a perfect 1999 summer day, and the area around the Iowa State University Coliseum has been transformed into a combination county fair and political convention — for the famous "straw vote" that will begin sorting the Republican presidential field.
Thousands of good, wholesome Iowa families, three generations of them, converge to enjoy the free food and tell the world their political preferences. Pat Buchanan offers the best barbecue and makes the most-applauded speech. But he finishes fifth — an accurate augury that his time has passed.
LEBANON, N.H. — It’s the Saturday before the New Hampshire primary, and at 4 p.m., Al Gore is running more than an hour behind schedule. But the junior high gym is filled and Gore announces he will stay as long as any of them have questions.
Two hours later, having been challenged from every imaginable angle — including a put-down by a woman who accuses him of selling out his environmental principles to gain political advantage — Gore says, "I expect many of you would like to get home to supper, but I’ll stay around."
And he does. The circle of questioners starts with perhaps 40 people and dwindles one by one, until Gore is face to face with a woman who is urgently recounting some traumatic experience she has had with the health care system.
His aides are frantically phoning to the next event — a large dinner in Nashua — but Gore shows no sign of impatience. It’s this persistence and endurance that bring him a narrow — but crucial — victory in New Hampshire three days later.
BOEING FIELD, Wash. — It’s the Sunday evening before the Washington primary and George Bush has just released a letter to the American cardinals, apologizing for having spoken at Bob Jones University in South Carolina without making clear his opposition to the anti-Catholic venom its leaders have spewed.
Having finished some local TV interviews, Bush walks over to two reporters filing their stories from the terminal building, and says, "This really hurts." The reporters assume he means politically, but he quickly sets them straight. "I can’t deal with anybody thinking I’m prejudiced. I wasn’t raised that way and I’m not that way. I’d rather lose than have anyone think I’m a bigot."
BELLEVUE, Wash. — It’s the afternoon of the same day, and Bill Bradley has made Washington the unlikely site of his last stand. A loss Tuesday to Gore will end whatever flickering chances he may have. He’s been joined by his friend, Jack Sikma, formerly of the Seattle Supersonics, and they are in sweat suits putting on a clinic for preteen basketball players and their parents at the Boys and Girls Club in this Seattle suburb.
Patiently, Bradley coaches some of the youngsters on their shooting technique, mixing corrections with words of encouragement, then divides them into two teams — the Bradleys and the Sikmas — for a game of horse.
And then he says, "I want to talk to you and your parents" and begins to recount how he learned to deal with defeat in the NBA from Cazzie Russell and other Knicks teammates. He goes on, in a soft, conversational voice, and gradually the adults realize he is also talking about the presidential campaign — that it’s not so bad to lose if you’ve done your best and have not betrayed your principles. "If you do that," he says, "your opponents will respect you — and you won’t feel like you failed."
Every campaign produces more losers than winners. This year, many of them showed their class.
Thank you so much. …