This Is What a Contested Convention Could Look Like

Mitt Romney’s chief campaign strategist imagines an event that’s even crazier than the GOP’s get-together in Cleveland—but not by much.

When I started The Innocent Have Nothing To Fear, it was long before Donald Trump emerged as a powerful political force, but the idea that a populist, xenophobic Strong Man might find a following fascinated me. I’d been drawn to politics as a kid growing up in the South and have worked on the Republican side in scores of gubernatorial and Senate races and the last five presidential campaigns. In my political life, I could sense the growing discontent, the way they say you could put your ear to a railroad line on the Great Plains and hear buffalo far away.  It was a deep rumbling of anger, frustration, and fear.

In The Innocent Have Nothing To Fear, I set the events after a great economic crash to make the idea of this political earthquake more believable. I wanted to push events out to the edge both for comic effect and to make us think. As 2016 has shown, we didn’t need a crash to launch a Strong Man, but I’m glad I didn’t try to top the craziness of this year in fiction. That would have been too much, tilting from a dark comedy to absurdity.

Armstrong George, the handsome Strong Man from Colorado, when asked if his politics go too far, likes to respond with a smile that “the innocent have nothing to fear.” I’m not so sure he’s right, but that’s why I wrote the book.

It was 36 hours before the convention opened. A real convention, like the one everybody had been dying for since Al Smith won it on the 36th ballot in 1928 and Ford snatched it from Reagan in 1976. That was what a convention was supposed to be—a deliberative body, by God, not a made-for-television spectacle.

I hated it.

Any campaign manager would. It was a horrifying idea to roll into a convention and not have the entire process rigged gavel to gavel. This was simply unheard of. Leaving a decision as important as selecting a party’s nominee to the collection of hungover party hacks, weirdo activists, political groupies, and small-timers who comprised the delegates at any convention was an affront to the very concept of modern politics, a process designed to ensure that a powerful few would manipulate a disinterested many. That’s how the system worked; everybody knew that. This was America, for heaven’s sake, where no one was particularly interested in parties—the political type, anyway—and everybody knew it didn’t really matter who won. That was the genius of the American political system.

But this time, it did matter. The country was in crisis. The Republican Party had watched a president, nominated just four years earlier in a hail of glory and promise, melt like an ice-cream cone on a New Orleans sidewalk. Now the party faced what was being called the most fundamentally different choice in its history: Governor Armstrong George or Vice President Hilda Smith. In politics we always like to call each election the most important in generations. This time, it might actually be true.

Faced with this crisis, the delegates and alternates and assorted hangers-on of the Republican convention were handling their responsibility in the time-honored fashion of conventions past: They took to the bars and clubs and partied like death-row inmates paroled for one night.

But who was I to complain? It was 36 hours before the convention opened and I was up onstage with a bunch of Indians stoned out of their minds. Not Native Americans, but the Mardi Gras Indians, one of those New Orleans bands that never broke big nationally but were local gods. The Indians were singing “Voodoo Sex,” and Tyrone Robichoux, the lead, was leaning into me, sweating like a warm waterfall. He had a blank look in his eyes and I assumed that he was high on heroin. He usually was. Great headline: “J.D. CALLAHAN, CAMPAIGN MANAGER FOR VICE PRESIDENT HILDA SMITH, BUSTED FOR DRUGS AT CONVENTION.” Now that would be just splendid. “Following his much-publicized personal difficulties surrounding the breakup of his relationship with the prominent television journalist Sandra Juarez, J. D. Callahan added to his woes by being caught with the Mardi Gras Indians in a drug bust.” Yes, that would be just perfect.

Appearing with the Indians at Tip’s the night before the convention opened hadn’t been my idea. Blame it on Ginny Tran, press secretary extraordinaire at 27. “It’ll be so cool,” she’d insisted. “The vice president’s campaign manager onstage at Tipitina’s. You were almost a rock star once, it’ll be fabulous. Show that we’re confident right before the convention. And anyway, you should get out. You look like crap.” So I’d left our war room down at the Windsor Court Hotel and committed to doing something enjoyable for a couple of hours. It had been so long, I’d forgotten what it was like.

Ginny was lying, of course. At least that part about me being almost a rock star. I’m sure she wasn’t lying that I looked like crap. I’d grown up in New Orleans and been a journeyman guitar player in a not-so-bad blues/funk band, my major distinction being that I was the only white guy in the group. What was really embarrassing—at least it would have been if anybody had known it—was that I’d made it into the band with the help of my father, Powell Callahan, one of the last white civil-rights heroes, or so everyone seemed to believe. Powell Callahan knew everybody in town. The lead singer in the band was the son of a lawyer, once a civil-rights lawyer, now a corporate hotshot just off Canal Street, an old friend of my father’s from the “movement days.” J. D. Callahan, the only guitarist who networked his way into a black/funk band. It was silly. They dumped me after a year.

Of course, I knew that a photo op with the Indians onstage at Tip’s wasn’t going to get us a single delegate, but I had gone along with it. Why not? It wouldn’t hurt, and if it made me look a little hip and cool and confident, that was just great. God knows I sure didn’t feel like any of those things. I hadn’t slept worth a damn in months, I had a woman candidate who was on the verge of becoming unglued at any moment, a force of nature called Armstrong George about to devour us like a hungry wolf, and, to top it all off, they had to go and have the damn convention in my hometown. For Christ’s sake, was God spending all of His time trying to screw with me, or just most of it.

But the big moment, the magic one, would come if we could just get a half-dozen more delegates and pull Hilda Smith back from the dead. Then, at least for a few days, I’d be a genius. And on the side, I could finish cutting my deal to have my own political show. That was the plan: make this my last campaign and get famous as a pundit. After months of work, it was all lined up, if I could just pull off this come-from-behind miracle. All I had to do was beat back the forces of darkness and vanquish Armstrong George. Even if we lost to Democratic senator Tommy Aldrich in the general election, at least I would be hailed for doing what no one expected—saving Hilda Smith. The show was going on the new Amazon Channel, and since I’d gone to them with the idea, all neatly packaged, I’d been able to keep partial ownership of the show. That meant quasi-serious dollars if the show worked and we found an audience. The deal was already signed, but they had an out clause if Hilda lost the nomination.

But we wouldn’t lose. I wouldn’t let us lose.

The dance floor of Tip’s was a mass of soaking-wet humanity bouncing up and down to the irresistible funk of the Indians. Except for Lisa Henderson, who stood on the side with a cool, detached look, too attractive to be a wallflower but definitely not of this crowd. She was dressed in the same dark suit she had been wearing all day and she looked like a corporate lawyer, which was what she had been before she was chief of staff to Hilda Smith, first as governor of Vermont and now as vice president. She had been a law student of Professor Smith’s, and there when Hilda made her first run for the state house of representatives. And she had been by her side when she was sworn in as vice president, picked by the president after his first vice president became the first veep to resign since Spiro Agnew.

Lisa hated me, and I didn’t blame her a bit. She had been Smith’s campaign manager until they came in third in Iowa and I’d made my move, knocking on the candidate’s door in New Hampshire and convincing her she would lose if she didn’t throw over her best friend and campaign manager. She was just terrified enough to do it, and when we won New Hampshire, I was back.

It was probably a very bad thing I had done, knocking on Hilda Smith’s door. She was exhausted and beaten down in a way you only felt when your chance to become president of the United States was slipping away, but that was how I’d wanted her. Vulnerable. She said she’d give me a half hour, and that was all it took. Me and Eddie Basha—the best field operative in America, in my book—had laid out exactly what she should do to win the New Hampshire primary. We had a simple strategy; it was amazing that Smith hadn’t tried it before. For months Armstrong George had put her on the defensive and she’d responded by trying to prove she could match him in toughness without going down the crazy train of his wacky New Bill of Rights or the bundle of “anti-terror” legislation he was supporting called “Protect the Homeland.” It had been and always would be a losing game. Those who wanted what Armstrong George was selling would never be satisfied with Hilda Smith being a more polite version of George. For once I could tell a client what she wanted to hear and still give the right political advice: She needed to stand and fight Armstrong George.

There was one more debate in New Hampshire before the primary, at WMUR, the posh TV station built with the fortunes spent on presidential dreams. “No matter what the first question is,” I said to the vice president, while her husband looked quietly on, “you should say, ‘I’ll answer that in a minute. But first I have something to say to my opponent. Governor George, you are a disgrace. You have played to the worst instincts of our politics and tried to bully your way to the Oval Office. Tonight it stops. New Hampshire is better than Armstrong George. America is better than Armstrong George. Now I’ll answer that question.’”

Hilda Smith had looked at me like a dying patient wondering if she’d been promised a miracle cure. “You think it will really work?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” I said. “I think it will. But if it doesn’t, wouldn’t you rather die with dignity?”

That was it. She hired Eddie and me on the spot. By that evening, every news outlet in America was carrying the story that Lisa Henderson had been dumped and J. D. Callahan, the controversial campaign strategist, had been tapped to take over Hilda Smith’s campaign. And damned if it didn’t turn things around in New Hampshire and a bunch of states that followed. Eddie still gives me a hard time about that line: “Wouldn’t you rather die with dignity?” But hey, I thought it was pretty good.

It had been humiliating for Lisa, and I was a guy who had come to understand a thing or two about humiliation. That she had moved back into her position as chief of staff to Vice President Hilda Smith was hardly consoling. The paths to greater glory were rarely paved with chiefs of staff to vice presidents. Lisa Henderson had cried the night we won New Hampshire. Three hundred and twenty votes, but it was a win. I’ve often asked myself if she was crying because we had won, or crying because we hadn’t lost and she knew I’d been proved right. And now we were only a handful of delegates short. If we won and Hilda Smith went on to become president, I didn’t know if Lisa would forgive me or just hate me more.

* * *

In the last 12 hours I’d been to a convention and a political rally, and I’d be lying if I didn’t say the political rally terrified me more. A lot more.

It was the big pre-convention Armstrong George rally held in Tulane University’s football stadium. As college stadiums go, it wasn’t so big, with seating for about 30,000. Hell, Alabama’s Bryant-Denny Stadium held over 100,000. But for a political event—a Republican political event—30,000 was a massive crowd. And it wasn’t just 30,000 bodies. It was 30,000 screaming, maniacal Armstrong George fanatics.

Eddie Basha and I took the streetcar up St. Charles to Tulane and walked over, surrounded by the George faithful. It was dusk and we were both wearing baseball caps and George sweatshirts with cutoff sleeves and nobody gave us a second look. We passed through the high-tech bomb detectors set up outside the entrance and found a place on the ramp to the stadium. The big halogen lights lit the green field brighter than the hazy day that was fading, and in the middle of the field there was a small stage. That was it. No elaborate props or staging. Up on the Jumbotrons, videos played of Armstrong George bus tours, his slogan, “Take America Back,” emblazoned on the bus.

Hilda Smith had a natural Yankee aloofness that read cold. Which, in truth, was pretty accurate; she was cold by the standards of most “hug you until you can’t breathe, let me cry with you for a while” politicians of the new school. But since turning to Armstrong George and calling him out in that debate in New Hampshire, she had come to represent something that was still important to a lot of people in a beat-up country—call it dignity, or decency. At an ugly time, Armstrong George had marshaled the ugliness within us all. It was a deep, burning anger at the large forces that controlled our lives. It was probably close to the religious fervors that swept across the country in the late 1800s. Hilda Smith stood for a different kind of country, one that wasn’t seething with anger. Our bet was that something about Armstrong George made you feel worse about yourself and your country. That his calling for a New Bill of Rights and a new Constitutional Convention was radical, not conservative.

But it was a close thing, and that’s why we were down to fighting over a handful of delegates. As the sky darkened and the field grew brighter under the lights, the music swelled, and then suddenly there was Armstrong George, bursting from the locker room tunnel trailed by his son, Somerfield. The two looked eerily alike, both tall and sturdy, with big, square, Protestant faces that looked like they came from a WPA mural of the wheat farmers who had tamed the prairie. Which was what the Georges had done. They were not from the mountainside of Colorado but the flat plains that resembled the heartland in geography and belief. There were no fireworks or razzle-dazzle tricks as Armstrong and his son walked toward the simple stage. But the crowd went absolutely crazy, their yells and applause growing louder the closer the Georges got to the stage.

Armstrong George bounded up the steps, took the mike in one hand, and detached it from the stand—no fancy headset for him, he wanted to work the mike the old-fashioned way—and let rip. “Americans!” he cried. “This is our moment!” It was chilling. The crowd went from fever pitch to berserk. “Are you with me? Are we together? Are we ... Americans?”

Eddie leaned in to me and whispered, “He’s big on this American thing.” It was more a shout than a whisper, the stadium was so loud.

“These have been dark days in America. Our beacon has been dimmed, but not extinguished. Within each of you glows the fire to reignite the torch of American genius and greatness. You are our future!”

“God help us,” Eddie groaned, looking around at the crowd. “It’s 1930s Nuremberg.”

I waved him off. I was there to see Armstrong George. Every time I saw him, I got some different perspective. I’d snuck into a dozen of his rallies over the past six months.

“You are the Founding Fathers of Tomorrow,” he said in a suddenly low, intense voice, so the crowd leaned forward. “I say to you that, like the Founding Fathers before us, now is the time we must seize the day and control our own destiny. It is time for a New Bill of Rights. It is time for a new beginning.”

Then the shout went up from a woman in the crowd. I would have bet anything she was a plant, but it was picked up, and soon the whole stadium was chanting in unison: “America for Americans! America for Americans! America for Americans!” Armstrong George took a step back, put his arm around his son, and waved. “Jesus Christ.” Eddie sighed. “Jesus H. Christ. We’re doomed.”

This article has been adapted from Stuart Stevens’s book, The Innocent Have Nothing to Fear.