Richard Reeves

The Politics of Narrative

WASHINGTON -- One of the many chiefs of Vice President Gore's campaign for president was patiently explaining why his man could not lose the Democratic nomination at lunch the other day. "We have the ace in the hole," he said.

What's that?

"The superdelegates!"

What? As James Caan tried to teach Hugh Grant to say it in "Mickey Blue Eyes": "Fageddaboutid!"

The superdelegates, in case you've forgotten, are 700 public officials who are given votes at the Democratic National Convention without the inconvenience of running or of endorsing a candidate. They count for about 20 percent of the delegates to the convention.

Almost all of them are for Gore. Now.

And now we know what's wrong with Gore's campaign. Superdelegates, schmooperdelegates -- doesn't matter. The nomination is not going to be decided at the convention. The nomination is going to be decided in primary elections -- and not by delegate counts, but by the story the press attaches to each candidate. Best story wins.

This is not the old politics of state chairmen and endorsements and convention ballots. The more Gore believes in that politics, the worse things will go for him. That's what Edmund Muskie believed back in 1972, and he went from overwhelming front-runner to ex-candidate in a couple of months, even though he had all the supposed heavy hitters on his side. Come to think of it, the same people, a lot older now, are in the Gore campaign operation.

The 2000 campaign is the politics of narrative. There are two things to think about now. 1) Best story wins. 2) The most important thing to the press, which interprets the stories, is a contest above all. Without contention we have nothing to do but stenography.

So far, the guys with the best political stories are underdog Bill Bradley chasing the supposedly uncatchable Gore on the Democratic side, and underdog John McCain chasing the unchaseable George W. Bush on the Republican side.

It is, of course, no accident that Bradley and McCain, American heroes before they were American politicians, have the most compelling personal stories, too. For better or worse, both Gore and Bush have the same story: easy passage into daddy's business.

It's possible that Bradley, particularly, may have peaked too soon. I'm sure that even he has been surprised by his own campaign acceleration. It might turn out that he would have been better off slogging along for three or four months more before exposing the boredom and predictability of Gore's campaign and life.

We shall see. No one I know has ever outguessed Bradley about Bradley. Early in this campaign, a Gore friend, Mickey Kantor, said that the former New York forward and New Jersey senator seemed to have no chance -- except for one unpredictable factor. "His personal life timing has been uncanny, spectacular," said Kantor. He then recited Bradley's story, the decision to go to Princeton instead of to Duke or Kentucky, his decision to postpone professional basketball stardom to be a Rhodes Scholar, his decision to run for the Senate rather than work his way up the ladder, then his decisions not to run for president in 1988 or 1992. Bradley has a touch, and not just from 15 feet out on a basketball court.

In other words, Bradley's got a hell of a story.

And so does McCain. And he tells it pretty well in his new book: son of sailors and commanders, hotshot jet jock, prisoner of war, miracle recovery, innocent in politics -- maybe -- and all around straight shooter. As he said when he was called a carpetbagger after he moved to Arizona to run for Congress: As a military son and man, he had moved around so much that the address he had longest was in Hanoi. The press wants him to catch George W. so we can go around and write about that, rather than stay home and fix the roof.

But don't count anyone out just yet. Comebacks are great stories, too. It may not work, but Gore did give us a story last week by saying he was going to run his campaign from Tennessee. Could be a couple of more stories in that one.

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