Northern Exposures:

Clinton Does the Democratic Primaries

In Harkin headquarters on Pleasant Street, a buxom volunteer in a harlequin sweater set tells a middle-aged man sitting against the wall: "You know he's gotten over 50 awards from different disabled groups? Including Veterans with Disabilities? Because he wrote the Americans with Disabilities Act, you know. Which we're all gonna need some day. With arthritis and so on."

The man regards her coolly. He's my age, he resents this. "Well, I hope not."

By and large, an early middle age, late-ish thirtysomething, hyperthyroidal gathering. Working people, lots of beards, lots of mustaches, a number of Alan Alda types, turquoise down jackets, no pretensions in this place, everything ready-to-wear, maybe a certain Cambridge influence, the snack table covered with potato chips, ginger ale, pretzels, Ritz crackers, a jar of Cheez Whiz. Ratty green carpet. Looks like a furniture showroom.

Waiting and waiting and waiting for Harkin. I stand against the wall behind the chairs reserved for seniors and the disabled, with a clear view of the speaking area. It occurs to me not for the first time, that I could easily have assassinated any of the major candidates. But they seem to be doing a good job of it themselves. A camera crew glides through the place, interviewing people just out of work and people who are "just hanging on by a shoestring." Times are tough. The James River Corporation hasn't hired anyone in two years. Harkin's almost here. Some aides are holding open the door. No, not yet, they're still parking the car. Suddenly...something in the air...quite unpleasant...one of these senior citizens has farted...I move away from the chairs...the smell follows me...it's even over here in the middle of the room...a thick, rich, bean supper fart...wait though, it's everywhere...my god, it's the James River Plant!

Yes, folks, just leave a door open on Pleasant Street and these factories that everybody wants to ram back into high gear have practically stunk out Harkin headquarters. Once the candidate's inside, the door closes and the fart smell gradually dissipates, like a minor motif in a symphony of hot air. A distinguished-looking man, like your favorite high school civics teacher, carefully raked gray hair, a cracker-barrel face that belongs on a dollar bill, light blue shirt, burgundy V-necked sweater, olive gray slacks, a navy blazer—remember Jean Arthur playing a congresswoman in A Foreign Affair, swinging from the ceiling pipe in a Berlin (Germany) speakeasy, singing "Ioway, Ioway"? Harkin has that same wholesome, rolled-up-shirtsleeves quality, and his rap has the plainspoken, blocky style of Harry S. Truman, on whom Harkin's modeled himself. Trailing just about everybody in the polls? Big Deal:

"I love history. 'Course you know my favorite president was Truman. One night Truman was speaking to the young Democrats. And he was way down in the polls. Strom Thurmond had walked out with the Dixiecrats, Henry Wallace had walked out with the Progressives, Life magazine in that summer had run a picture of Dewey calling his President Dewey. One young Democrat yelled out, 'Who's gonna be the next president?' Truman looked at him, he said 'Young man, next January, there's gonna be a Democrat in the White House, and you're lookin' at him.' And that's what I say to you. You're lookin' at him. 'Cause we're gonna win."

"I sense a hunger to turn away from the legacy of the Reagan-Bush Administration. Those policies that have made the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, made the middle class pay the freight both ways. Those policies that have cost your jobs, exporting them out of this country...young people can't get a college education, don't know where they're gonna get the money...

"If you're a junk bond dealer, a corporate trader, best of times. If you're a corporate CEO with a golden parachute, best of times. But if you're a working class person, lost your job, no job training, don't know what to do? Worst of times. If you're a family, unemployed, you don't know how you're gonna pay your health care bill? An elderly person? Worst of times.

There is nothing to argue with in Harkin's broad-bush portrait of America today, though his vignettes about what is wrong are more than a little stale by this time. Free trade is a two-way street. Jobs. Tell Japan to open its doors. Level playing field. Reciprocity. If I ever go to Japan, I won't be taking the three top auto executives. They can't even figure out to put the steering wheel on the right-hand side. Bring the money home, invest it here. Rebuild our infrastructure.

Tell you the truth, this guy is a little too calculatedly down-home for my taste. Okay, they've got an answer for everything, but the tone...this picture of America as a land of happy workers, raring to go to pitch in...the way everything is us versus them...and the way everybody's complaints feed directly into his argument about minority issues, racial divisions...of course, none of the others have, either, except in code. You go to White America, you talk the White America talk.

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