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I GOT TO Kansas City on a Monday, after driving 26 hours straight from Cambridge. It was a blazing prairie day; the streets baked, and the heat compounded my fatigue. The Republican National Convention had started that morning, and the town was swarming with conventioneers. My friend and I parked our car, and drifted uptown to the Radisson Muehlbach Hotel, where President Ford was due to arrive at any minute. We couldn't see anything for the milling Ford Youth and police lines, so my friend suggested we get a beer in the bar of the hotel across the street and watch the Ford motorcade from the bar window, which was above street level. I agreed; at least we would be cool.
Inside, the bar was done up Mafia-surreal: big horse-shoe-shaped counter, color t.v. competing with the jukebox in the corner, indoor-outdoor carpet on the floor. A beer cost $2.25. Men in lime-green leisure suits and white patent leather loafers whose porcine faces bulged behind drugstore sunglasses, nodded at us and cackled in a far booth. We took our beers to the cool, shaded back of the bar.
Just then a small girl, probably ten or less, darted into the bar. She composed herself, then marched up calmly to the first table and began in a flat monotone, How many delicious candy bars will you buy made so fine (they melt in your mouth) especially for the Mount Pleasant Baptist Church of Wichita Kansas girls' track team. She droned on for about a minute, looking expectant. She repeated the litany three or four times, but nobody was buying.
We were watching the madness, the contrived madness of the Ford Youth outside across the thin air-conditioned glass membrane. But it seemed the true madness was inside. Ford disappeared into the Muehlbach, Harry Truman's old hotel, and the onlookers began to disperse. My friend and I left the bar. The little girl was still delivering her spiel.
Outside in the lobby Rabbi Baruch Korff, head of the Nixon defense fund, was completing an interview. We got his autograph.
IN CONVENTION, Richard Reeves, one of American journalism's best political reproters, captures accurately the crazed freneticism, the Skinner-box-mouse-on-dexedrine atmosphere that prevails at political nominating conventions. Convention is a diary; a journal of the madness, as Reeves runs through Monday to Thursday of not the Republican Convention but the Democratic through Monday to Thursday of not the Republican Convention but the Democratic coronation in New York. Reeves, who recently quit the staff of New York magazine in the wake of the Murdoch coup and who is also a former New York Times reporter, did an astounding amount of legwork for the book. By his own account, he and his team of nine researchers interviewed over 500 people--and quit counting two months before the convention started.
Reeves also invited selected delegates and other conventioneers to keep diaries, and the material selected from these forms the thread of continuity through what is basically a stream of anecdotes. Thus the diarists are stuck with stupid appellatives--Clare Smith, a 17 year old high school student from Ohio, becomes The Youngest Delegate; Fritz Efaw, an ex-MIT student now living abroad, becomes The Draft Dodger Delegate; Dick Celeste, Ohio's lieutenant-governor on the way up, becomes The Young Pol. And friends, one may be assured that after over 200 pages and the deaths of a lot of trees, they lead as boring a life as even you and I.
The book is a tangle of anecdotes. Some are funny, some are interesting, but there's not nearly enough material here for even a magazine feature, let alone a full book. Reeves follows Clare Smith on her search for Hunter Thompson and recounts her ambiguous romantic entanglement with a young aide. But the insights a 17-year-old Ohioan brings to a national political convention are, well, the insights of a 17-year-old Ohioan. We follow her as she visits the Statue of Liberty; we follow her as she visits bars for the first time. Most banal of all, we read an imaginary conversation with her mother after she dances with a city councilman from Cleveland for a news program beamed back home:
"Clare, what were you doing in a bar in New York?"
"Why were you dancing?"
"Music was playing."
"Why were you dancing with a councilman?"
"He asked me to dance."
"Why was he black?"
"Probably because his parents were, Mom."
The imaginary incident is pointless and boring, but typical of what Reeves has decided is worth reporting.
Occasionally, a good story crops up, like that of Patrick Sweeney, assistant majority leader of the Ohio State Senate. Sweeney, an ex-Golden Gloves champ, catches a thief stealing his camera out of his car, chases him down and beats him up. When he decides to press charges, the arresting officer tells him that he wishes Sweeney had killed the poor thief--it's easier to make out a homicide report than an arrest record. Sweeney shows up in court promptly at 9 a.m. the next day. He gets heard five hours later, and walks out to find his car gone. It has been towed. Sweeney goes to the city pound to pick it up, but it's a rented car and the registration is back home in Cleveland. Sorry, Pat: no registration, no automobile. Another harrowing fairy tale of The Big Apple to freak out folks in the countryside.
Reeves describes this kind of thing with a New Yorker's kind of perverse delight, but after a few stories like that hinterlanders begin to feel both scared and bored. And the other parts of the book that deal with the machinations of Bob Strauss, Democratic National Chairman, or other political figures are pedestrian. One trouble with this book--the big trouble with it--is that most of this stuff has been reproted before. There's just not anything new that a faithful reader of The New York Times, or even Time or Newsweek, doesn't already know.
The few parts of the book that are valuable are those that Reeves researched by putting on his reporter's hat and coming up with fresh news. The most interesting section in Convention is that detailing the full story behind the rumors that Carter had at his disposal during the convention a communications system that not only could monitor other candidates' communication systems, but could also jam them if necessary. The system was devised with the aid and complicity of Jim Gammill '75, Carter convention co-ordinator, and killed at the last minute by more prudent advisers. But even this story partially was reported last November in the Times, and Reeves simply doesn't add much more. This means that some of the most interesting reading comes in the footnotes to Convention, where Reeves mentions the rumors that some New York congressmen voted not to override President Ford's veto of the strip-mining bill in exchange for a key Virginia congressman's vote for New York as the convention site.
There are very few heroes at Reeves convention, but one of the few is Fritz Efaw. Efaw, a Vietnam war resister, came back to America for the first time in seven years as an alternate delegate for Americans living abroad, only to be slapped with extradition papers from his Oklahoma draft board. He finally had his name placed into nomination for vice president, after refusals by Ramsey Clark and Milton Shapp, by paralyzed Vietnam vet Ron president, after refusals by Ramsey Clark and Milton Shapp, by paralyzed Vietnam vet Ron Kovic. At the end of the week, Efaw found that the charges against him had been dismissed because his draft board had failed to keep him properly informed on his status as a conscientious objector.
THE BOOK IS a pallid, shortened imitation of Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, 1972, but lacks that book's hard political reporting. That's probably because Jimmy Carter and his staff were pretty unwilling to share what was on their minds with reporters, or at least less willing than George McGovern was in 1972. That's the trouble with a news event--when there's no news, you go visit the leper colony to dig up some protagonist's great aunt. It's not that Reeves is not a good reporter--he is--but just that there was not that much to report, or if there was, nobody was talking. Reeves was in Kansas City, and one wonders why he didn't base the book on that convention, or at least include it. Kansas City was much more interesting. It had drama, tension, and crying Reagan supporters. New York had Jimmy Carter.
The sheer quantity of reporting in Convention reminds one of Henry Fairlie commenting on John Toland's voluminous biography of Hitler. Toland claimed to have talked with new sources, including Hitler's sister. Fairlie said he thought of the time he and friends went to taste what were billed as the lesser known wines of Burgundy. Fairlie said at the end of the evening that he could see why they were the lesser-known wines of Burgundy--implying that maybe the reason nobody had talked to Hitler's sister was that she had nothing to say. But the final word on this book was probably inadvertently delivered by Reeves himself, when he tells of Clare Smith's attempt to get Hunter Thompson's autograph. After many abortive attempts, she finally gets it, and asks Thompson why he isn't writing Fear and Loathing, 1976. "Because of shit like this," Dr. Thompson screams, adding, "Now get out of here!" Shit like this does seem a pretty poor reason to write a book.
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