ATLANTA — I caught Mary Matalin and Charles Black smoking.
There they were, in the press area, shortly after the vice-presidential debate, two of the leading peddlers of the Republican mythos, puffing away like school kids with a minute between history and chemistry. I guess I found it worth noting because I’d have thought that family values meant not smoking; but then again, nobody cares much about Black, and Matalin is quite literally sleeping with the enemy (that is, dating Clinton strategist James Carville). Black, the Bush-Quayle senior adviser, was talking to NPR’s Nina Totenberg near the overhang that looks down on the second floor of the Georgia Tech student center, sucking on what looked like a long, skinny menthol, and holding it in that awkward way that people who aren’t comfortable smoking do. Matalin, the deputy campaign manager, was tugging hard on a light something-or-other in the Philip Morris-sponsored press hospitality room (where members of the press were offered: pre-debate dinner of turkey and stuffing, post-debate snacks, sodas, tea, coffee, beer; baseball gimme caps that said “Marlboro,” those big plastic drink things with the long serrated straw of the sort they offer in convenience stores or fast-food shops, this also advertising a PM product; a Virginia Slims compact; a calculator shaped like a matchbook that said “Philip Morris” on it; a Georgia Tech lapel pin; a Yellow Jacket stick-up thingie; a canvas book bag commemorating both the debate and Tech’s existence; and just about all the free Marlboros, Marlboro Mediums and Lights, Virginia Slims, etc., you could pocket).
Matalin and Black had just left the spin room, where business was winding down as most of us had got the quotes we needed and attention was slowly turning to the baseball playoffs, Braves-Pirates Game Six, even though with what must’ve been 50 Sonys positioned in the spin room, not one was turned to the game (this was the beef of Jack Germond, whom I peed next to). The scene here is beyond belief, and every citizen should be treated to a viewing of what goes on in the spin room after a debate, because in those 50 or so minutes are concentrated all the ills and superficialities of postmodern politics. All minds are concentrated on the manufacture of the phony consensus that will guide the next day’s coverage. Everything is positioned for the convenience and ease of the pressies, so that we may get the quotes and call it a night with a minimum of effort, thought, reflection, or generally any pursuit more meaningful than collecting zingy quotes and stringing them one after the other. You walk in, and your eyes move straight to the placards held high in the air that say: “Stephanopolous,” “Black,” “Sullivan,” “Gingrich,” “John Lewis,” “Gov. Miller,” “Babbitt” (Babbitt?), and the like. Under these scribbled signs, held aloft by aides, stand the people so named, and every interested reporter can get a few moments with his/her favorite spin doctor. And woe to you if you make the mistake of standing still and talking to another journalist, as I briefly did. Then you’re assaulted (politely, of course) by spin doctors and staffers: Have you spoken with Secretary Sullivan? Have you talked to George? Has Congressman Lewis chatted with you? Sir, did you get the governor? Do you have what you need from Mr. Gingrich?
In those quick minutes, through the muck of Democratic soundbites and Republican counterbites, the consensus rapidly percolates to the top and is agreed upon by all involved — Quayle, a little shrill, but laid the groundwork for his boss to come out swinging next time; Gore, cool and diplomatic, but allowed himself to be dragged down to Quayle’s level; Stockdale, bomb. Quayle heads over to what looks like a large assembly hall for a standing-room-only, on-campus, post-debate rally, Stockdale goes who-knows-or-really-cares-where, Gore is back to his downtown hotel for a party, the Braves get pounded 13-4, putting a slight damper on things, but hell, they’ll have another shot tomorrow night, and after all is said and done, it’s just another exciting, delighting, forward-looking, onward-moving, Olympic-scale, newish, happyish, Ted Turner and Andy Young-ish, too-busy-to-hate kind of night in the place they like to call Hotlanta.
Bill Clinton will carry Atlanta without question, and he will probably be the first Democrat, excepting the favorite son of ’76 and ’80, to carry the state since his beloved Jack Kennedy did it in ’60 — a universe ago, demographically speaking. Republican opposition to civil rights has killed the Democrats every year in the South since Goldwater. But recent polls had Clinton up over George Bush by anywhere from 6 to 12 or so points, and by the time Thursday’s Richmond debate was over, Clinton would have soared even higher. He will come close in — and may even carry — Cobb County, the rich, white county to Atlanta’s north that is Newt Grngrich’s territory and that was George Bush’s best county, even more than Orange in California, in the United States in 1988 (he won more than 70 per cent here). Statewide in ’88, the white vote went about three to one for Bush, and so lugubrious was the state Democratic establishment in its enthusiasms for Dukakis that I was told that Tom Murphy, the Democratic speaker of the state house and New Deal type of the old school, quietly instructed employees to tear down the Dukakis posters they had displayed in his legislative office in the heat of the ’88 campaign.
What gives? Well, lots of things. First of all, Clinton is winning Georgia for some of the same reasons he’s winning just about everywhere: his small campaign, Bush’s dumb one, the bad economy, choice, to name a few. But still, Georgia? This is a state Bush should’ve nailed shut with two post-convention day trips.
Clinton had the early and hyper-enthusiastic backing of the state’s Democrats; Clinton and Governor Zell Miller are old friends, and it was Miller, supposedly, who convinced strategy chief Carville to eschew the candidate he’d been eyeing, Bob Kerrey, and go with Clinton. The Democratic Party in Georgia, as is still the case in most Southern states, is strong at the local level. Clinton has courted it for a year, at least, and local pols have gone out of their way to make sure people get behind their candidate. For obvious reasons, Georgians are more at home with the centrist homeboy Clinton than with the Yankee Dukakis. The state Republican Party, on the other hand, is in disarray, caught between the traditionalists and the Christians. In several congressional districts, there were Republican primaries between a standard-issue, country-club type and a Pat Robertson sort. Such cat fighting doesn’t make for uniting easily behind the ticket, and Bush’s mating dance with the Christian right, some people told me, has only highlighted the split, and made it harder for the country clubbers to vote for him, let alone lick and stuff envelopes.
There you have a few reasons, and I’m sure there’re others. But putting aside the polls and the get-out-the-vote maps and simply sniffing around town for a few days, one comes to understand that the Clinton-Gore ticket and the city itself are perfect metaphors for each other: Atlanta, cradle of the New South; Clinton, avatar of same. Today’s Atlanta, you probably know, is a product or the postindustrial Sunbelt boom and of Reagan’s ’80s. During those frightful years, when the war-footing economy and the drying up of all but low-wage jobs were killing most of the rest of us, Atlanta blossomed and became the cynosure of all who dreamed of a New South so explosive with the white heat of growth, industry, vibrancy, opportunity, and urbanity that it truly would become, as former mayor William Hartsfield’s hopeful motto had it, “the city too busy to hate.” It’s an attractive place, where quite unlike our gasping dinosaur cities up North, everything seems to work. The buildings are new, and anything old deemed worth keeping has been redone in a way that makes life pleasurable for consumers (not people, but consumers) but that eviscerates all notions of history and civic complexity, so that the Underground, the shopping complex that I recall having a gritty charm in the early ’70s, when Lester Maddox kept a store there, is now so polished up after its reopening in 1989 that you won’t see even a loosely tossed chewing gum wrapper on the sidewalk.
It’s also a city wrapped in severe conflict about itself and its history. The Olympics, which will arrive here in the summer of 1996, have precipitated a soul-searching that exposes the raw nerves of the legacy of Confederate racism and the resultant bleak conditions today for many, many black residents of this actually quite impoverished city. Most of the hand-wringing right now seems to center around the struggle to produce a motto for the summer games. This has the elders in a fit, and the subject consumes the op ed pages as if the torch were being lit in four weeks, not four years. How to show the world an Atlanta that takes pride in its heritage without necessarily taking note of the fact that that heritage includes prominently the sweat and blood of the people sold as chattel-a tradition that the city itself was quite ready to die for in the summer of 1864, when Sherman marched in? In editorials on the subject, the Constitution and the Journal carried a tone of panic and stealth — in much the same way the mother of an ax murderer would struggle over what to tell the police, so the civic leaders of Atlanta worry about how to make sure 1996 can come and pass without the world finding out their dirty little secrets.
What’s it got to do with Bill Clinton? We should know, as we prepare to forgive any number of shortcomings and offenses in his record and not only vote for him but push all our friends to do the same. Being the face of the New South (and the new Democratic Party) means forgetting certain things about the past. And just as Atlanta’s reputation as a thriving international city depends to at least some extent on diminishing the reputation of places like New York, so does Clinton’s success depend somewhat on knocking down the Humphreys and McGoverns. But most of all, the answer, like the answer to many of this country’s toughest questions, is race. I heard from black politicians here, and I’ve heard it elsewhere, that Clinton does not campaign anymore in black neighborhoods. Period. There’s no political payoff to doing it, and you’re sure not going to win or run close in Cobb County if you do. The only part of Georgia he hasn’t visited is the eastern area around Augusta — the most heavily black of all the state’s rural portions, and either he, or Hillary, or Al, or Tipper, or some combination, has been through the state more than a dozen times since the convention. And here in Atlanta, just on the western edge of downtown, the city built the Georgia Dome, the Falcons’ new home and site of future Olympic venues, leveling an entire poor black neighborhood, churches, groceries, and all, in the process.
The state Clinton-Gore headquarters is not far from the Tech campus, on Spring Street, and if it weren’t for the crest of the hill two blocks south, you could stand on the ersatz plaza of this office building and catch a nice view of the skyscrapers. In a ground-floor office with about 15 all-white volunteers humming around, state director Nancy Parrish remarks on how different things are this time around. “People who have been avoiding the national ticket for years are clamoring for him to come to their towns this time around,” she says. Clinton did one of his bus trips in the state not long ago, making a sort of crescent-shaped swing from Columbus, slightly southwest of the capital and near the Alabama border, down to Valdosta, in the southern corner of the state, above Florida. “We got to Valdosta at about 10 o’clock at night, and we figured we’d have a little rally and go to bed,” Parrish says. “There were 10,000 people there. And George Bush carried Valdosta with about 73 per cent of the vote in 1988.”
Bush, Parrish says, cooked himself up a little trouble during the Republican convention when, during one of the perfunctory reprobations of Jimmy Carter, he referred to Georgia as a “small Southern state.” I have no memory of this whatsoever, but Georgians sure do, and Parrish says that Bush’s use of that adjective as a matter of scorn had a ripple effect: The president used to stress Clinton’s lack of preparedness by mocking him as the governor of a small Southern state. “But he’s dropped that ‘Southern,'” Parrish says. The Bush gaffe evidently struck the heart of a place so consumed by how others see it. Parrish says that after that comment, “We had people calling up and saying, ‘What, are we part of “them” again?'”
When I ask her the secrets of Bill’s success, Parrish says that Clinton’s campaign has made people feel like there is no “them.” “You hear the common person saying that we’re all in this together,” she puts it.
Fred Cooper runs the state Bush-Quayle effort, and though he argued as a good soldier should that Clinton’s lead was far from insurmountable and things were looking up, he did concede what Parrish calls the intelligence, and what he calls the craftiness, of the Clinton campaign. “I do admit that they have run a very, very clever campaign,” Cooper says, “and Clinton has successfully to this point been able to be all things to everybody.” Bush and Quayle, too, have been all over this state — it’s one that Bush should have had in the bag, that every Republican has for years (Parrish said correctly that the so-called Reagan Democrats are really “Nixon Democrats”).
Cooper says he doesn’t think the rifts and cross-currents within his party have had much effect on weakening Bush’s campaign. He says. “We had a pretty strong battle with the Pat Robertson crowd four years ago,” and the religious right was left debilitated. In this light, Bush and the party’s decision to play to the hard right nationally, especially during that horrifying convention, probably actually hurt the president in Georgia, where the GOP is still, more or less, a country club party. When the topic of the convention is broached, Cooper is diplomatic enough not to criticize his boss but frank enough not to lie: “Well, if I tell you I’d as soon not comment [on the convention], I guess that’s your answer, isn’t it?”
The fight is for the Democrats and independents who live in the suburbs. Parrish says this campaign has spent more time in the suburbs and less time in Atlanta than the Mondale or Dukakis campaigns, and she talks about an economic strategy of “targeting mid managers.” So out to Cobb we go.
You turn right onto Roswell Road from Johnson Ferry Road, one of those cacophonous suburban intersections with eight lanes of highway and multipump filling stations on every corner, and about a quarter mile up on the right is a large strip mall anchored by the Drug Emporium. One of the smaller storefronts along the side is marked by a one-word identification atop the doorway, and only the one word is needed, here in Cobb, in Manhattan, or anywhere else: “Newt.”
Gingrich has a race, and there’s a chance, though slim, that he’ll be beaten. He already faced a tough primary, against a man named Herman Clark, who came within less than 1000 votes and now is being challenged by a Democratic lawyer named Tony Center. Center probably doesn’t have enough money to run the whole distance, and he faces what you could call a serious ideological deficit, in that the 6th Congressional District is strongly conservative, but he’s keeping it close for now. “Newt will always have close races,” someone told me, “just because he’s such a contentious sonuvabitch and he has opinions on every goddamn thing.”
This presidential race, for example. As we sit down in the back office, I remind Gingrich that he said some months ago that people should think of this “as a Reader’s Digest versus Village Voice kind of campaign.” Well, I say, it looks like The Village Voice is going to win this one. “Yeah, well,” says Gingrich, “it never occurred to me that the Reader’s Digest side would decide not to have a circulation department.”
Gingrich didn’t exactly want to presume a Republican loss, but he was remarkably candid about his side’s failures. “What we face now,” he says. “is a combination of the Bush administration’s inarticulateness and the best Democratic effort since 1960. Almost all the core values of the Reagan Revolution are still dominant among most of the people in this country, and are still growing — the belief in strong patriotism, belief in the principles of less spending and lower taxes, support for measures like the death penalty. And the GOP alternative on health care beats Bill Clinton’s plan in every poll I’ve ever seen, once you break it down for people and explain to them exactly what each means.” But, he says, “The White House understood who Saddam Hussein was, but they never knew who George Mitchell was.” Gingrich’s take, which is interesting even if it is Beltway-centric, is that the Senate majority leader— “the greatest divorce lawyer I’ve ever seen” — set out to destroy Bush in 1989. He killed the capital gains tax cut that year, and forced Bush into a corner where he had to break his no-tax pledge the next year. And the White House didn’t fight back. Enter Clinton, who has everything Bush doesn’t: “The Democratic Nixon. Sheer intelligence, sheer will, sheer capacity to get beat up and come back again.”
Gingrich may disgust you, but I have to say this: He’s extremely smart, and the places he says he wants to take the Republican Party are worth watching, especially in light of the Clinton abandonment mentioned above.
He wants the Republican Party to be a populist party — in other words, he wants it to start talking to poor whites and especially blacks. In this vein, Jack Kemp is clearly Gingrich’s horse, and the people he mentions as frontline soldiers in where he wants the GOP to go — people like Minnesota’s Vin Weber, Michigan’s John Engler, Massachusetts’s William Weld, for example — all fit the mold. He speaks of the Republican Party as the potential majority party, and he invokes Teddy Roosevelt, and you’d have to be an idiot to miss what he’s saying between the lines, that when T.R. was president, blacks, working-class whites, and poor people voted Republican. “All I’m suggesting is that the major issue for the Republican Party beyond this election is whether it’ll be the vehicle for regular Americans to get ahead economically by virtue of values like private ownership, private property, and economic opportunity, or whether it’ll collapse again into the country club enclave of cheap tacticians and technicians.” You could almost feel a part of him hoping Bush would lose, so he and his caudillos could get started taking the party over.
If it ever happens at all, it’ll be generations before a majority of black voters switches back to the Republicans. But today’s Atlanta, run by Democrats, provides plenty of evidence that that party hasn’t done much to make allies of black people in the city.
City Councilman Jabari Simama, a leading critic of the Olympic plans, represents the old neighborhood called Lightning, which was torn down to build the Georgia Dome. It was one of the poorest in the city, but only the first in a line of communities that will be directly disrupted by Olympic construction: Summerhill, Mechanicsville, Peoplestown, Techwood/Clark Howell, and Vine City/Ashby, where Martin Luther King Jr. made his adult home, across town from the Ebenezer Baptist Church, and where Coretta still lives. Simama has been arguing, without much success, that the Olympics represent the best and probably only chance, with so much corporate and government money coming into the city, to do something about the poor neighborhoods. “There won’t be an economic opportunity like this in this decade, and probably for years to come,” Simama says.
But needless to say, as the early deals on the Olympics were cut, establishing construction authorities and municipal committees to route the bonding and spending, the poor neighborhoods were hardly discussed. He says that part of the Georgia Dome deal included the construction of 50 new housing units; but “we need 300 or 400 new homes over there.” In any event, the new homes weren’t done until well after the Dome, so the people who used to live in Lightning scattered to God knows where, and no one really kept track.
Simama points out the games’ central contradiction: Economically, they present the best chance ever to help the affected poor neighborhoods and deal in a genuine way with Atlanta’s segregation and disparities of wealth and opportunity. But, as far as the city fathers are concerned, the time of the Olympics is the last moment on earth that they want to deal with things like disparities of wealth, because the eyes of the world are upon them. “The people promoting the city are promoting what we are not,” Simama says. “Unless we really look at things as they exist, we’ll never know who we are and what needs to be done.”
And Clinton? Simama hasn’t endorsed him, was never terribly impressed with him, but “as the ball gets rolling, it’s clear that he is the best man of the three and is the only one who maybe might do something.” He noted that in the Richmond debate, when the candidates were asked that question about when a woman or African American might be on their party’s ticket, “Clinton spent a lot more time talking about women than he did on the possibility of having a black person on the ticket.” And, though an elected official for five years, Simama wasn’t invited to the vice-presidential debate. ■
Research: Lisa Friedman
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on November 3, 2020