I was amused by Jamie Weinstein’s report about speaking on behalf of Jim Gilmore at the Iowa caucuses. I have a similar story to recount, with a twist.
First, this caveat: I do not think Jim Gilmore is a joke. The reality that Gilmore has become a punch line says something really bad about our system. He’s a well-qualified guy who would make a fine president. He has all the right skills and experience and wisdom and steadiness of purpose. He also is a good neighbor: For seven months, I lived in the same eight-unit condo complex that served as his D.C.-area base when he wasn’t in Richmond. He’s a nice guy, and a good man.
Now, back to speaking at caucuses. I disagree with Jamie: I love the caucus set-up with its town-hall feel and the sense of community and the reminder that our roots are in communal participatory republicanism (small “r”). Also, I am absolutely certain that some of the speeches, even the ones by locals, actually do sway late-deciders. I’ve heard it from people I know in Iowa — and I experienced it myself in Louisiana in 1988, when I found a couple of recruits for Pete DuPont on caucus day itself.
I was just shy of 24. My dad and I and most of the eight-person 1980 Reagan steering committee in Louisiana (my dad was chairman for the Gipper in our congressional district) had worked out a friendly arrangement with the Kemp folks. We wanted a supply-sider to get the nomination, and Kemp and DuPont were the only two in the race. We knew that at most one of the two would survive past New Hampshire, and our friend, Representative Bob Livingston, said he and some key activists could easily put together a Kemp team without us. So we went about making sure DuPont had delegates qualified for every spot at the national convention in the off chance he, rather than Kemp, was still alive by the time Louisiana’s primary rolled around. If not, we would again join forces with the Kemp team if Kemp’s candidacy was still viable.
(Louisiana that year had a strange hybrid — not a caucus/convention system, but a complicated two-stage system with caucuses first, followed by a primary.)
Anyway, some caucuses were held earlier in the day than others, so I attended two of them as DuPont’s representative. The first was down in Cajun territory, near Thibodaux. I had a carefully crafted two-minute speech — and partly because none of the other squabbling candidates’ camps saw DuPont as a real threat, and partly because I was after all just 23 and people wanted to encourage youngsters, I was the only speaker greeted with, quite literally, a standing ovation from all camps once I was done.
Naturally, I thought I was hot stuff. On my drive back to New Orleans for the District Two caucuses (Thibodaux was District Three), I was full of vim and vigor. My dad actually was slated to speak for DuPont in New Orleans, but he said he would wing it — and when he saw how excited I was that my fully written speech had seemed to go so well earlier in the day, he told me to speak at the New Orleans event as well.
Again, every candidate was slated to have one speaker on his behalf, and all the scheduled speakers were no more than prominent locals.
So, there I was, full of the overconfidence of youth, as a Bush supporter spoke. Going by alphabetical order, the Dole team was next, and I was perfectly happy to see my good friend Greg Beuerman (then a 31-year-old former state GOP executive director) slated to make the Dole presentation just in front of me.
So Greg got to the podium and said: “Actually, I’m not giving Bob Dole’s speech today. Instead, we have a special guest.” And lo and behold, emerging literally from behind a curtain in a shock to everyone there, was Elizabeth Dole. Now people today forget, but even though her husband was seen by some as a “dry” speaker, Liddy Dole had a real “presence,” and her warmth filled any room she entered.
And, of course, by the time she was done (nobody held her to the two-minute limit), she had the whole audience enthralled.
And suddenly I found myself feeling, instead of like hot stuff, more like somebody on the hot seat. How could my pitiful little 23-year-old self compete with that?
After Mrs. Dole had swept from the room with as much flair as she had entered with, but even before all the attendant hubbub died down, I was being called to the podium for DuPont. I’m embarrassed to say that one of my hands was even trembling a little . . .
But all’s well that ends well. Somewhat shakily, the first words that came from my mouth were: “Well, that’s an almost impossible act to follow!”
The line was greeted with lots of sympathetic laughter and even a few cheers. And I realized nobody expected me to do better than Liddy Dole. So on I went, and all went fine, and we put forth a full slate of DuPont qualifiers for the primary ballot . . .
Yes, I love caucuses. At some level, politics should be participatory. And fun.