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.