LOS ANGELES -- My flight from Dallas to Los Angeles last Sunday afternoon was delayed for about an hour. Finally the plane came in from wherever, and passengers burst through the gate door to catch connecting flights. In the middle of the first wave was a white-haired guy, followed by his blond wife, pounding his sweaty way through the immensity of DFW airport.
Only a couple of weeks ago, that fellow practically had his own air force. Retainers hovered about him then; reporters took down his every word. But Wesley Clark isn't running for president anymore -- no one recognized him as far as I could tell -- and now he has to run for planes and carry his own bags.
Four nights later, at the University of Southern California, the four remaining Democratic candidates sat down for a debate sponsored by the Los Angeles Times and CNN and moderated by Larry King. The national talkmeister asked one survivor, the Rev. Al Sharpton, whether he would support the Democratic nominee against President George Bush.
After getting a laugh, one of many, by saying he expected to be the nominee, Sharpton said: "And work for him. I will travel ..."
"And stay in the best hotels?" asked King. The word is around that Sharpton's campaign hotel bills average more than a $1,000 a night -- a good reason to keep running.
"Even better hotels," said Sharpton, a witty man with nothing to lose but his Visa card.
Then the New York preacher added something about "John and John" -- John Kerry and John Edwards -- as they were called that night:
"I disagree with Kerry's vote on Iraq. I disagree with Edwards on the Patriot Act. But I think, on their worst day, they are better than George Bush. I think they have integrity. I think they have vision. And I think they can be talked to."
He was just warming up. When asked about President Bush's proposal to amend the Constitution of the United States to prohibit gay marriages, he said: "Let's make a constitutional amendment against presidents that lie."
It was a friendly and lively debate among four men who have gotten used to one another over this overscheduled primary season. There's actually not too much to say now. CNN illustrated the political reality of the moment by sitting Edwards next to Kerry, and Sharpton next to Dennis Kucinich. That way cameramen could routinely show two-shots of the two Johns -- "Serious!" -- and of Al and Dennis -- "Just having fun."
The two "serious" contenders in these final primary days sounded like best men at each other's weddings:
Edwards on Kerry: "He's a good man. He's a good candidate. He'd make a good president. ... He's a very, very good friend."
Kerry on Edwards: "I think John has run a terrific campaign. He and I are friends ..."
Janet Clayton, editorial page editor of the LA Times, in the mood of the night, asked Kerry: "What quality -- and his hair and smile don't count -- what quality does Senator Edwards possess that you wish you had?"
"I think he's a great communicator. He's a charming guy. I like him very much. He's a good friend of mine."
Kerry has obviously been studying his last standing opponent and has begun to sound like him, talking about blue-collar workers, the American divide between wealth and desperation. And he is smiling more. Kerry is an impressive package who always seems to know everything. I mean that as a compliment. He also could explain what he knows at great length. I mean that as a plea to tell us just once.
Now all Kerry needs is humor lessons. He should hire Sharpton as a wit and humor coach -- if only he could afford him.
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