Pat Piper has made a career learning something new. As a journalist in the news business, “something new” occurs every hour so he’s becoming an expert at understanding stuff he never thought about. Learning became a common word in “Future Talk: Conversations About Tomorrow” (Warner Books), the popular book he ghostwrote with Larry King as […]

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    Bill Who?

    An excerpt from Anything Goes by Larry King and Pat Piper.

    July 20, 1988.
    I’m sitting in a CNN booth overlooking the floor of the Omni Arena in Atlanta. A couple hundred feet below, five thousand Democrats were preparing to make Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis their nominee for president of the United States. My television show, “Larry King Live,” had been preempted in order to carry the speeches, all of which were designed to rally the delegates on the floor, but more important, the national television audience, around the fact this “son of Greek immigrants,” as he described him-self again and again and again, was preferable to George Bush. And, like most of the delegates, I wasn’t paying much attention. Someone was speaking and speaking and speaking and as he did, I kept thinking how typically democratic this was because every person whom we never knew before and will never see again gets a chance to make their point, get their fifteen minutes of fame (although this guy at the podium was way past that point), and then disappear until the next convention. Democratic conventions are like a Cubs game; there is noise and ethnics. Democrats will tell you 8:45 and they may get around to it by 9:20. Republicans, on the other hand, have orchestrated and smooth-running get-togethers. They tell you 8:45 and it’s 8:45. It’s a bunch of starched shirts and ties. It’s an Amway convention. I guess the difference between the two political parties goes like this: After the speeches at a GOP convention you can always meet for a drink. At a Democratic convention the speeches never end before last call. “Who the hell is that guy?” someone asked. “He’s doing ‘Hamlet,’ I think,” another said. “I don’t think so,” came another answer. “Even Hamlet never went on this long.” I thought about where I had been the past hour. CNN decided to send me to the convention floor for “quick hits,” short interviews with newsmakers, delegates, or celebrities who were just taking a stroll, if one can stroll with five thou-sand others and two thousand members of the media. It had been one of the most bizarre moments I’d ever experienced. At 8:30 I was scheduled to talk to Richard M. Daley, the mayor of Chicago and the son of Mayor Richard J. Daley, who, even after death, held the patent on the idea of machine politics. As I walked to my position I passed Chris Wallace of NBC and Sam Donaldson of ABC and Dan Scanlan of Mutual Radio, who were huddled around someone with name recognition. I remember thinking to myself how hungry they all looked in this Neverland where dogs eat dogs alive. At 8:29:10 I’m standing with Mayor Daley waiting to go on the air and looking at two delegates next to me with huge, plastic Swiss cheese hats on their heads. This is how we choose the person to serve in the most powerful office in the world. Then two people walk by handing out bags of their state almonds and state candy (and Ohio candy corn looks like the Iowa candy corn from my perspective. And while we’re on the topic, an almond is an almond, so that whole thing is a sham). “Something,” I said to myself, “is off here.”

    All the reporters wore these Mars-like antenna headsets with a producer yelling nonstop in their ears. I was amazed that CBS didn’t get into my CNN headset, and I figured if they did, I’d do what I was told. But I didn’t give anyone any grief, choosing, instead, to just listen for instructions on this maiden voyage into Wackoland. I was told to move closer to the Chicago mayor so we could be in a good camera position, to look in a certain direction, and to ask three questions and then throw it back to Bernie Shaw, who was anchoring in the booth next to where I was now sitting watching all of this. I talked to the mayor and handed off to Bernie. And then a producer said, “Larry, you’re outta here. Good job.” I walked away thinking my next contract with CNN will have a clause for combat pay. Actually, many of those who wear the daily media credential on a chain around the neck (yellow is Tuesday, which goes well with a blue shirt, white was Wednesday, which works with stripes) dress the part. I think in the month be-fore any political convention, Banana Republic sells out every khaki vest it makes. Everyone wears these things, pockets loaded with pens and notepads for recording history’s bold moments or, as is the usual case, dinner arrangements (I didn’t own one because my dinners were always at CNN). But the vests were everywhere. And the wearers wore a scowl, as if this assignment placed the burden of mankind on their shoulders. Every time I walked into the Mutual Broadcasting System booth that week I would see three of them in front of a microphone. Made me think I was looking at the Yalta summit or, when they smiled, the Andrews Sisters. I looked at the bank of television monitors to my side. He was still talking. CNN was, of course, carrying the speech. But both NBC and ABC had dumped out with one doing commentary and the other running some kind of documentary about the early years of the son of the Greek immigrants. I knew damn well that if I was getting restless, the folks watching at home were way beyond restless. It brought to mind a moment about a year earlier when the executive producer of “60 Minutes,” Don Hewitt, and I had been standing in the green room of “Larry King Live” before going on the air. Someone wanted to change the channel (away from CNN to a ballgame, if I remember correctly) and Hewitt said to me the most important invention of the twentieth century wasn’t the cure for polio or the Wright brothers’ flight or unleaded gasoline or talk shows. It was the remote control. And at that very moment, nobody could find the remote control. I changed the channel by hand just as an intern produced it from underneath a sofa across the room. “You know that clicker?” Hewitt said, looking at me. “It’s going to change the world more than any other thing.” For a moment, I thought about it. He was crazy. “It sits as a force in your hand. You can change stations with a button. You change advertisers’ income. You force networks to think about every fifteen minutes of programming now.” Hewitt was looking right at me as I did the math: Network execs think four times during my show. This was news. It was during a commercial break, and we were changing guests, that I realized Hewitt may be on to something. Here we were shifting into a totally different topic after half an hour on the air. I was ready to keep going with the discussion, but then I’m the guy who spent an entire hour in Atlantic City interviewing Kool and the Gang just trying to figure out the reason for the band’s name. I have no problem interviewing someone for an hour. Watching me inter-view someone for an hour, however, is a whole different matter. The audience has an “electronic restlessness,” as Washington Post columnist Howard Kurtz once told me, so if they start getting bored with a person or a topic or a segment or a suspender color, the finger goes to the clicker — if it isn’t already positioned on the clicker in the first place. That’s why guests are on and then off and we move to the next topic. Even as early as 1988, we were beginning to eat everything in sight and spit it out while moving to the next food source. The truth is, I didn’t get this at first. Hewitt’s theory stayed with me until a few days later, when I decided he wasn’t crazy at all. The clicker is control. If I can’t find it after the maid cleans my California house, all hell breaks loose. When I travel to my house in Virginia, I have to learn all the channel numbers all over again and that makes for some rough moments. I’ve learned we all want control in our life and I can say the happiest people I know are those who can generally control their environment. The clicker gives the bus driver control when he can’t do anything about the weather or tell his wife what to do. But he can control what he watches and what occupies his time. That’s one description about these times: Control is moving away from the outside and toward each of us. The clicker was the first step in that direction. Speaking of which, nobody in the Omni could control this guy at the podium, who was still going. I watched gestures from floor managers for him to get off the stage but they were ignored. Maybe, I thought to myself, this was another form of control? Maybe this guy had never before been the center of attention? I felt sorry for him, more so than for those at home watching him. Certainly, as I’ve said, nobody on the floor was paying any attention. Obviously, I reasoned, he must be a hard worker who delivered some key districts to Dukakis during the primaries in order to be given such a prominent platform this evening. And then I thought, “Keep your day job, pal.” That was the moment he said, “In closing …” The arena erupted in applause and the loudest cheers of the night echoed through the hall. Even the technicians and producers at CNN were yelling. I just shook my head as the name graphic appeared on the air monitor. This wasn’t any ward committee man who had delivered votes doing the telethon. It was the governor of Arkansas: Bill Clinton. Even before Clinton took the podium, one television-savvy person knew this was going to be a disaster. Bob Shrum had been a speechwriter for Ted Kennedy and was now a powerful political consultant for numerous congressional and presidential campaigns. He had been given a copy of the Clinton speech a few minutes earlier and could tell right away it was too long. Shrum tried to reach the Dukakis camp to warn them but realized there just wasn’t time to make any changes and, even if there were a few extra minutes for rewrites, someone with the Massachusetts governor must have approved the speech. Shrum was right. The Massachusetts governor did approve it. Michael Dukakis told me years later he thought it was a pretty good speech, but in glancing at the pages never realized how long it was going to run. He considered Bill Clinton a guy with a good sense of the audience and if he started to run long, a natural circuit breaker would kick in to telescope the words and thoughts he wanted to convey. Dukakis selected the Arkansas governor to give the nominating speech because he had worked with Bill Clinton on a number of projects with the National Governors’ Association. “He was just an extraordinarily able guy,” he told me. “You couldn’t work with Bill Clinton and not see it. We were philosophically in tune with each other and we took our politics seriously and it was so clear that Bill Clinton was one of the best.” Dukakis knew the man giving that nominating speech was a good communicator and figured his being in front of this national audience that July night was nothing more than nervousness from a new experience. A good nominating speech should run ten minutes. This way, you don’t get tired of the speaker, and even if you do, they aren’t on that much longer from the first time you start looking at your watch. Bill Clinton had been given twenty minutes and proceeded on a marathon comparable to a PBS fund drive before stopping at the thirty-two-minute mark. Shrum and I would later talk about it and he made the point that in Democratic conventions, while the cast changes over the years, they’ll only listen to about five or six people: Ted Kennedy, Jesse Jackson, Mario Cuomo, the presidential nominee and the vice presidential nominee and they’ll usually give the keynote a little bit of a chance. Other than that, forget about it. But people did pay attention to the speech. House speaker and convention chairman Jim Wright had frantically signaled the Arkansas governor twice to get to the end. Clinton’s close friend from law school Lanny Davis stood near the podium, running his finger under his neck. Congressman Norman Dicks of Washington later told reporters “it was the worst speech I’ve ever heard in my life.” Washington Post columnist Tom Shales wrote the next day, “As Jesse Jackson electrified the hall on Tuesday, Governor Bill Clinton calcified it last night.” David Gergen, an editor at U.S. News & World Report, a former staffer in the Reagan White House, and a pundit for my radio show’s network, the Mutual Broadcasting System, was having a late dinner in the Omni watching Bill Clinton on one of the many wide-screen televisions that were anywhere you looked (after all, Ted Turner owned the building and Ted Turner owned CNN. Some call it monopoly. I call it synergy). He would later tell me he had dinner when Clinton began and by the time Clinton finished he was having breakfast. Gergen knows everybody, which is why he is sought after to explain why something political has happened and, maybe more important, what the hell it means. Gergen finished eating and walked over to Clinton’s hotel, where he left a note in the Arkansas governor’s mailbox. The note said, “Cheer up. You’ll be okay and you’ll come back.” I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about it other than that anyone in a Speech 101 class knows you never want to follow a kid and you always know when to shut up. That evening I was doing my national radio show and the subject never came up, which to this day I believe is significant. One of the guests was Bert Lance, who was Jimmy Carter’s budget director in 1976 and, in 1988, a senior advisor to Jesse Jackson. That had been the story. Jackson let it be known he was ticked at Dukakis for announcing his selection of Texas senator Lloyd Bentsen for vice president before calling all the names on the short list for the job. And Jackson was on that list. There had been a number of meetings and phone calls between the two camps even before the convention began and I remember more than one pundit asking, “What does Jesse want?” To me it all seemed like much ado about nothing but that was the story coming out of Atlanta. Four months earlier, Jesse Jackson won the Michigan primary. He came to Atlanta with more than 1,200 delegates. So there was some basis for the attention. And the night before, Jesse spoke for fifty minutes, receiving eighteen standing ovations. Bob Shrum was right. People listen to a Jesse Jackson speech. It was one of the few moments in the Omni Arena when everyone stopped talking to hear the words. And as the speech went on, television ratings started to build. As I was interviewing Lance, Jackson’s manager, Willie Brown, was at the podium giving, in a gesture of unity, the Jackson delegates to the Dukakis camp. The fact of the matter was while Michael Dukakis had a celebrated record as the governor of Massachusetts, he needed a vice president who would complement his strengths as well as his weaknesses. Dukakis had no Washington experience. Jackson didn’t have it either. But Jesse talked about a different kind of complement in that speech twenty-four hours earlier:
    The genius of America is that out of the many we become one. Providence has enabled our paths to intersect. His foreparents came to America on immigrant ships. My foreparents came to America on slave ships. But whatever the original ships, we’re in the same boat tonight.
    Lloyd Bentsen did have those qualities for the ticket. He had been a senator since 1971 and was chairman of the powerful Finance Committee. It was also a move to gain Reagan Democrats and the South. So when I asked Bert Lance that evening, “Can you imagine Jesse having to fulfill the role of vice president by being sent to funerals?” Bert and I laughed. Jesse Jackson wouldn’t have been happy. There was more he could do from the outside, we agreed. After the radio show that night I sat in my hotel room watching the panel discussions, the highlights of the speeches (Clinton wasn’t pictured), and the floor reporters’ interviews with the many high-profile delegates, all with the mute but-ton on. After everything that had gone on that day, and there were still two days to go, I needed to spend some time with “off.” But my mind was locked into anything but “off.” It was racing. I thought immediately to a scene outside the Omni that afternoon. Free enterprise exists at every political convention. There are always campaign buttons, coffee mugs with (depending on the venue) donkeys or elephants, key chains, cigarette lighters, and best of all, Jesse Jackson beach towels. You want a definition of kitsch? Go to the next convention. Also outside the Omni was an area to protest anything that was going on inside and, as I watched, anything that wasn’t going on inside. You know, sometimes, you just gotta get it off your chest. There was always someone wearing a sandwich board that said “Nuclear Power Is Unsafe For All Living Things” and there were a few who yelled about Ronald Reagan’s policy in Nicaragua (I guess nobody told them they were in the wrong city because they were preaching to the choir here). And then there was the skinhead who stood on the risers and thanked the media for its coverage. I looked around and could only see forty or so helmeted (and grinning) riot police. This was the place where all the sandwiches short of a picnic gathered. And there was one other thought that hit me that evening. I had been wandering throughout the convention trying to get a sense of the people and their feelings when I spied former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill sitting in the next-to-last row. You can’t miss that white mane of hair so I sat down with him for a moment or two. That’s when I noticed his ID badge which gives access to the convention floor. The credential writer had spelled his name wrong (one l instead of two). Just eight years earlier, Tip had been chairman of the Democratic convention in New York City where Jimmy Carter sought reelection against a California governor named Ronald Reagan. Today, he was retired as speaker but still a member of the Massachusetts delegation. “Larry, life goes on,” he said to me. Somehow, at that moment in the back row of this cavernous place life may indeed have been going on but it sure didn’t seem fair. Sitting in my hotel room with the world on mute, I knew there was something to be learned from all of this. Maybe it was humility and being able to acknowledge you’re not running the show anymore? Maybe it was the passing of time and understanding the names do change while the issues stay the same? Maybe it was just being able to say “enough of this” on your own terms rather than on someone else’s? And maybe it was all of the above? At one of the 1,437 parties that week I ran into Senator Albert Gore Jr., who was ecstatic about the selection of Bentsen for the number two job. “A terrific pick,” he said, “and the reason why I can say that is that there has been little complaining about the selection.” Four years later, Bentsen said that to me about the choice of Al Gore by Bill Clinton. Weird or prophetic or a part of the Great Plan? All of the above? I’m still not sure. And that’s just fine. I thought about a caller on the radio show that evening. He was from New York and sounded an awful lot like Joe Pesci, but then, everyone from New York sounds like Joe Pesci, so it comes down to a matter of degree and this guy had a high Pesci factor. We got into it about who George Bush was going to select as his vice president. He thought it would be Gerald Ford, which I said was one of the dumber ideas I had heard all day. And then he suggested Senator Mark Hatfield of Oregon, who I said was too far left of Bush. And then I said I really don’t know who Bush will pick and, quite frankly, we’re still in the middle of the Democratic convention and why would we worry about something a month away? Pesci responded saying, “Well all you guys talked about before Bentsen was who would get the nod rather than what it is Dukakis stands for and what planks are contained in his platform.” The guy was right. As soon as this convention was over late Thursday night, the first question to George Bush Friday morning would be how many names are on the list and when will the short list be made public and what are the qualifications you want in a vice president and would you consider a woman, a black, a Hispanic, a Northerner, or someone from electoral-rich California and blah blah blah ad nauseam. I knew Bush was going to be hounded and I knew when I interviewed him, if no announcement had yet been made, I’d ask the same damn question hoping he would give me the name on the air and I’d be in the headlines, maybe second paragraph below the nominee. In fact, I knew it was going to be the only thing George Bush would be asked and then the pundits and spinners would go to work saying, “Well, Larry, the fact we don’t have answers to these questions means he is indecisive, which goes along with what I’ve been saying all along about this guy,” or conversely, “Well, Larry, this is an important matter and Mr. Bush wants to pick a vice president he knows personally because that’s the way this guy operates and that goes along with what I’ve been saying all along, that he is a very careful man and that’s what we need in these turbulent times.” And who does all this? We do: the two thousand people in town to cover the other five thousand people in town. The next morning I had a conversation with New York governor Mario Cuomo. For much of 1987, there had been a lot of talk about his possibly making a run for the White House. His name was appearing in early polling and most of the country was aware Mario could bring down the house with his speaking ability; a point everyone agreed was needed if Democrats were ever going to build a consortium of essential support from a variety of bases. Cuomo told me he had received a call from John Sasso, who was working in the Dukakis campaign, to see if he’d be willing to have an off-the-record meeting with Dukakis in Albany. Cuomo readily agreed and when the two got together one Sunday morning the Massachusetts governor told the New York governor he was thinking of running for president but would back away if Cuomo was thinking of doing the same thing. Cuomo told Dukakis there couldn’t be two Mediterranean ethnic governors from the Northeast running for the same job. And Cuomo said he was only in his first term and Dukakis was completing his second term and was smart and capable and so that was enough for him to stay out of the race. “I was getting better publicity,” Cuomo told me, “but that has nothing to do with being president. I knew I could raise more money as a result of living in New York but that wasn’t a good enough reason either. This wasn’t any Boy Scout attitude about loyalty because I believe if I’m the best then I ought to do it. But if the other guy is as good or better, then it becomes a matter of ego. We all want people to say we are pretty but that becomes a dangerous reason to run for president. So I told Dukakis if he’s serious about this, I won’t give it a second thought.” He was serious. Dukakis later asked Cuomo if he wanted to give an introduction to one of the speakers at the convention. It had been a rough few weeks for the New York governor because he was in a major budget battle with the General Assembly and had delayed his travel to Atlanta in order to make sure the fiscal matters of the state were settled. As a result Cuomo declined the invitation. That morning I asked him who he would have introduced. “Bill Clinton,” he said. “The guy who talked so long?” I asked. I knew I’d heard the name but couldn’t remember the peg to which it was attached. As it turned out, I was right on the money. “Yeah,” Mario told me. “Just think, if I had been there the speeches would have gone on even longer. Maybe two hours!” “Well he sure went on forever,” I noted. “I guess that’s the last we’ll hear from the Arkansas governor, right?” This was the first of many times I would be wrong about Bill Clinton. “He was agonizingly long,” Cuomo said, “but don’t make the mistake thinking that is a fatal error. I’ve known him as a governor for a long time and I think he’s extremely talented. He has the strength of being able to focus. He has a single ambition, and he has always had this ambition, and it is to someday be president of the United States.” “Yeah, right,” I said, the sarcasm dripping. That was the second time I was wrong about Bill Clinton. “Larry, Clinton has a psychic karate. He can focus everything in him and can get all that power going on a single point, which is the same secret as is found in karate. For him it’s being president. He’s talked to people for years about it.” “I can’t see it,” I told him (what number we on now? 695?). “He’s a comeback kid. He ran for Congress in 1974 and got beat. He came back two years later and won the attorney general job in Arkansas. He had been burned in Arkansas [when he lost a second bid for governor in 1980] and he came back to be reelected in 1982 and served three more terms after that. He gave a lousy speech and he’ll come back. He has a resilience that one can develop when singularly focussed, and that has been the secret always. The things occasionally that I focus on and to which I devote my energy are the things I do best.” “Comeback kid?” “Absolutely.” I was dubious but this wasn’t an issue I was going to spend a lot of time worrying about. That night Michael Dukakis gave his acceptance speech and brought on stage all the candidates who had sought the Democratic nomination that year. Jesse Jackson was right there and grabbed hold of both Bentsen’s and Dukakis’s hands, which became the photo in every newspaper the next day. It was theater but the actors were sincere. It was good television with the needed clear message of unity. It was good politics but to do otherwise would have been of no benefit to anyone. It is the last act of every political convention and it is always the first activity written. It seems every campaign is designed to end this way. One person who wasn’t on the stage with Dukakis and Bentsen and Jackson and Jimmy Carter was George McGovern. He had been booked to appear on my radio show that evening and made the choice to honor his commitment. McGovern had been in Dukakis’s shoes sixteen years earlier when he was the Democratic nominee to run against Richard Nixon. He had praise for the Dukakis speech while saying the Massachusetts governor offered few specifics because that’s never a goal for an evening like this. Sixteen years earlier McGovern had to endure opposing views within the party and didn’t get to the podium to give his acceptance speech until 3:00 A.M. Eastern Time. “The only place I made prime time,” he told me, “was Guam.” It had been a rough time for the senator from South Dakota. His first choice for vice president, Missouri senator Thomas Eagleton, had been found to have undergone treatment for depression. The question spread throughout the country as to whether having a person in the number two position with a history like this was acceptable. It wasn’t and McGovern had to seek another candidate. That night he told me one name his staff considered very seriously was Lloyd Bentsen. The McGovern campaign decided against him because Bentsen had just come through a bruising primary with Ralph Yarborough and the wounds from that contest may not have yet healed. The Son of Greek Immigrants received the expected bump in the polls that Friday morning as everyone left Atlanta. Of course, the bump was based on the question, Who would you vote for if the election were today? And to my mind, this was ridiculous because George Bush hadn’t even been nominated yet and the two candidates hadn’t had one debate and the country had just gone through four days of nonstop Republican bashing. There were a lot of polls like this, each based on the inane idea about what the result would be if the election was held during a time other than election day. Anyone see a problem here? I didn’t. I never thought about it. I was too busy talking. We all were. I recall the great American philosopher Yogi Berra commenting about a White House reception he had attended: “It was hard to have a conversation,” he related, “because everyone was talking.” Once again, Yogi had nailed the issue. As has always been the case, all the talk had to stop on election day. And as is always the case, a lot of it was wrong. George Bush trounced Michael Dukakis, winning forty states. What happened? Well, I could never guess (correctly) the outcome of an Orioles game and for the same reason I could never predict (correctly) an election. Everyone is, to borrow from Jesse Jackson, in the same boat. The thing about it is this: we never learn to stop the predictions and prognostications. We will always bet the Super Bowl and the World Series and politics. I think it’s in our DNA. That’s why sports talk radio has a guaranteed life. It is talk based on the word “if,” and “if ” doesn’t exist in “now,” which is the whole reason it’s “if ” in the first place. Without that word and prognosticators to drive that word, be it political or athletic, there would be a lot of dead air. The result is, besides a lot of wrong answers, a lot of talking.

    NOVEMBER 8, 1988
    1988 Voting age population: 182,778,000 1988 Registration to vote: 126,379,628 19 1988 Turnout to vote: 91,594,693 Percentage of voting age who voted: 50.11 (64-year low) Popular vote for George Bush: 48,881,011 (426 electoral votes) Popular vote for Michael Dukakis: 41,828,350 (111 electoral votes)
    Source: Federal Election Commission
    Copyright (c) 2000 by Larry King