Camp Wannabeheard

Three Days in the Life of a Talking Head

I spent a sunny week- end trailing my big sister, Cindy, at the National Issues Convention. She was one of 459 delegates from across the United States who gathered at the University of Texas January 18-21 for this "experiment in democracy."

When reporters asked her what she thought of the event, she answered, "It's like camp. You've got your little groups, like the Woodchucks and the Magpies. You go places on a bus. You all eat the same food. You have projects and events scheduled for you. You've got counselors and you make camp friends."

As an interloper, I viewed the conference more like a play within a play. Imagine the characters of a human drama full of earthy details -- I'm thinking Arthur Miller -- suddenly deciding to stage an existential French farce.

Within the small discussion groups, the atmosphere was earnest and sincere. Delegates keenly tried to understand why they'd been flown in, put up in nice hotels, and paid $350 to discuss their opinions. I watched the members of Cindy's group struggle to formulate questions for the presidential candidates that "would make them squirm." Ann, one of the moderators, urged the group to ask questions which politicians couldn't answer simply by "pulling a 3x5 note card out of their head." At the end of each of the three sessions covering three preordained topics -- "Reassessing America's Global Role," "Pocketbook Pressures," and "The Troubled American Family" -- the 13 members in Group 15, Cindy's group, were mentally exhausted from working out a consensus on their questions and carefully wording them to avoid pat answers. It was incredibly sad to me and frustrating to them that not one of their questions was selected when the delegates faced the candidates.

Then again, "faced the candidates" is a bit of a euphemism, since only one Republican candidate, Senator Richard Lugar, showed up in person, with three others -- Phil Gramm, Steve Forbes, and Lamar Alexander -- gracing the conference via satellite.

Consequently, the first half of the three-hour live broadcast on Saturday night was turned over to a warm-up act, a half dozen "experts" rounded up at the last minute as filler. These were not the people the delegates wanted or expected to question. They got long-winded, egghead replies from Lester Thurow, a professor at MIT, and William Niskanen, chairman of the Cato Institute, on heartfelt economic concerns; conflicting reports from Charles Lichenstein of the Heritage Foundation and Donald McHenry from Georgetown University on global policy; and the personal beliefs of Tom Andrews, president of People for the American Way, and Kenda Bartlett, with Concerned Women for America, on family issues.

If the televised portion of the convention wasn't exactly enlightening, it was entertaining, at least in the aforementioned farcical way. Observers were cautioned to be quiet during the broadcast, but when host Jim Lehrer slipped on "middle-class" and blurted out "the problems of the middle-ass," we all howled like school kids. When Alexander said, "I've been driving around the country spending the night with people I don't know," the giggling continued. The mere appearance of Gramm's face peering out at us from the giant TV screen caused a flurry of tittering. And Forbes' perfected impersonation of an alien replicant kept everyone in stitches. It was not an elevated political moment.

On Sunday morning, Vice President Al Gore presented a polished yet folksy persona, despite the fact he was asked some incredibly stupid questions, mostly off-camera, like "If you have to have a license to drive a car, why don't you have to have a license to get married?" These questions gave me hope that, yes, this was in fact a representational cross section of the American population. The stupid ones made themselves known in other ways as well, god love 'em. One fellow in Cindy's group threw a temper tantrum when he was told his wife couldn't accompany him to the delegates' dinner Saturday night, tossing his badge to the ground and threatening to sue the convention. It was even rumored that one participant was so stupid that he told Gore at the end of the telecast, as he shook his hand, "I have a gun." I don't guess he made his flight home that afternoon.

For the most part, however, I was impressed by the poise and purposefulness of the group of Americans that gathered in our town. Elderly homemakers, auto mechanics, and school teachers faced down professional smooth talkers -- on live television, no less -- with persistence and facts. One woman, after receiving the stock answer as to why our troops are in Bosnia, hammered away for a deeper response, noting there are more than 40 civil wars currently being fought across the world: "So, why Bosnia?"

She was rewarded with a silly analogy about not being able to catch everyone that speeds on the highway.

The feeling I got from the participants (and I'm not about to poll them) was that they weren't very impressed with any of the candidates, so maybe Bob Dole and Bill Clinton were wise to decline. In the hotel elevator after Saturday's broadcast, one delegate posed the question, "Okay, if you had to vote for one of those four guys right now, which one would it be?" "You mean if you held a gun to my head?" asked Cindy. "Yeah, if that was the choice," said the man.

The people in the elevator were silent. When Cindy stepped out on her floor, she held the doors open a moment, thinking. Then as they closed, she turned to the people and said, "Shoot me."

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