Politics 2004Week of August 9

From The Fleet Center Notebook

Boston, Mass. — The last time there was any substantive debate at a Democratic National Convention held was in 1980. That was when there was still uncertainty among delegates to the New York conclave and the press as to whether challenger Ted Kennedy’s supporters had the votes to change the rules to free delegates from their commitments and permit them to vote in a genuinely open convention. It was not to be: Kennedy’s proposed rules change fell short, and the Massachusetts senator made his now-celebrated withdrawal speech, refused to shake Jimmy Carter’s hand, and well, the rest is history.

The last time there was major debate over the platform at a Democratic convention was in 1972, when the arguing went on so long that George McGovern’s presidential nomination acceptance speech was on prime-time in Hawaii. In fact, the last convention at which a nominee for President named his running mate was in ’72. Since then, the vice presidential candidate has been tapped before the convention convenes.

So it was in Boston two weeks ago. The convention’s evening proceedings were orchestrated like a symphony, with speakers brought out like clockwork and lustily cheered (but not for too long as to push “clean up” speakers such as Bill Clinton or Teresa Heinz Kerry out of prime time on television). The platform was adopted on a voice vote on the opening night and John Edwards had been named to the vice presidential slot weeks ago, and, well, that’s about it.

No wonder why the TV audience for these proceedings is lower every four years.

Nevertheless, there was some provocative political news to come out of Boston, including. . .

Hoffa’s “ATM Machine” Working Again

When he finally won his legendary father’s old job as president of the Teamsters Union in 1997, succeeding disgraced Clinton pal Ron Carey, James P. Hoffa vowed that his union would no longer be “an ATM machine for the Democratic Party.” He proudly announced that his union would back Republicans–notably Michigan Rep. Pete Hoekstra, whose spearheading of a congressional probe into Carey’s much-disputed re-election as president over Hoffa led to his ouster as Teamsters president and subsequent indictment and trial and a fresh union election in which the easy winner was Hoffa.

In Boston, it was obvious that the “ATM Machine” was back and running again. In terms of politics, Hoffa was less like Teamsters President Dave Beck (who supported Dwight Eisenhower at a time when union backing for any Republican was rare) or his own father (who backed Richard Nixon and numerous Republicans) than he was like old nemesis Carey. The Teamsters prexy denounced the Bush Administration as “anti-worker” and, despite working closely with the President on getting needed oil and gas from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and being invited to sit in the presidential box at the ’02 State of the Union address, told reporters in Boston, “We deal in substance, not photo-ops.”

Hoffa & Co. now strongly back the Kerry-Edwards ticket, although the Teamsters chieftain still tells reporters he wishes Kerry would have tapped his old law school classmate Dick Gephardt for the second spot.

Is “PLN” A New Way to Spell “LBJ?”

Second and third generations of famous political families abounded at the Fleet Center in Boston during the convention. Among those on hand were Hubert “Buck” Humphrey, IV (grandson of the late Vice President and losing candidate for secretary of state of Minnesota two years ago), Rep. Charles Gonzalez (who succeeded legendary father Henry B. as congressman from Texas), and more than 90 youngsters named Kennedy, Shriver, and Smith. Former Kentucky Gov. John Y. Brown Jr. introduced me to his children: sons John III (who has already been Kentucky’s secretary of state), Lincoln, and daughter Pamela, now interning with Sen. Hillary Clinton (D.-N.Y.) and not averse to a political career herself.

(As always, the most stimulating of all Democratic political “heirs” was former California Gov. and three-time presidential candidate Edmund G. “Jerry” Brown Jr. Catching up with Brown as he dashed to another interview, I asked the onetime “Gov. Moonbeam” the same question I posed to numerous other conventioneers–whether they agreed with Kerry that only the tax cuts for those with annual incomes of $200,000-plus should be lifted or whether all of the Bush tax cuts should be permitted to expire next year. “I have no comment on John Kerry’s tax plan,” Brown told me, “Analyzing a tax plan and offering an opinion takes a lot of study first.”)

The latest in this high-powered lineage is to come, or so former Texas Lt. Gov. (1968-72) Ben Barnes told me on the convention floor. At a time when Lone Star State Democrats hold no statewide offices nor a majority in either house of the state legislature and took it on the chin in U.S. House reapportionment this year, the Democrat with the most political potential, Barnes insists, is the oldest grandchild of Lyndon B. Johnson, Patrick Lyndon Nugent–37, a veteran and a helicopter pilot, and now a San Antonio lawyer–is, according to Johnson family friend Barnes, “one of the young men we have to watch in state politics. He’s very charismatic, more conservative than his grandfather, and he’s got that middle name of Lyndon.” Barnes (whom LBJ himself once tagged as a future President) told me that Nugent would “probably make his move in the next election cycle, for the state legislature or Congress.”

Footnote for the Books: Although Bill Clinton, the elder George Bush, and Nelson Rockefeller all insisted they started thinking about running for President when they were teenagers, young Patrick Nugent may have them all beat–he was boomed for a political career before he was two years old. When his grandfather left the Presidency on Jan. 20, 1969, outgoing Secretary of Defense and longtime Johnson friend Clark Clifford hosted a farewell party for LBJ at his Maryland house. (The large overflow crowd even ruined the Cliffords’ lawn.) When LBJ arrived, with his grandson in his arms, he was surrounded by well-wishers carrying a sign touting: “PATRICK LYNDON IN 2008.”

Convention Quickies

No Fox Fans Here: On the opening night of the convention, delegates on the packed floor of the Fleet Center were admonished by an announcer that the official convention picture was about to be taken. “Everyone, face the Fox news booth,” urged the announcer–whereupon the conventioneers broke into loud booing. They finally calmed down as the announcer said that the camera was ready and everyone should smile and “Say Kerry.”. . . .

Down on Ron: When Ron Reagan addressed the convention about stem cell research Tuesday night, I was in the press section, where most of the attention was on Barack Obama, the Democratic Senate nominee from Illinois who was then basking in the limelight following his just-delivered keynote speech. One media colleague, however, was paying attention to Reagan and had a different take on his remarks. “Ron is now proving that he’s a closet Republican,” observed columnist Kathleen Parker of the Orlando (Fla.) Sentinel, “He’s lulling a Democratic audience to sleep”. . . .

Heinz-Kerry Fan Club: Although most Democrats had little to say two weeks ago about Teresa Heinz Kerry’s now-celebrated “shove it” remark, one who showed no restraint in defending her was sharp-tongued former Texas Gov. (1990-94) Ann Richards. A decade after her defeat for re-election by George W. Bush, with her beehive hairdo and what Jurek Martin of the London Financial Times dubbed her “Texas chainsaw accent” intact, the 70-year-old Richards said of Mrs. Heinz-Kerry’s remark: “I thought it was terrific, and I know just how she feels. . . .

Oh, Brother: Arriving at Boston’s Logan Airport to leave the convention, on line with me waiting to check in was former Secretary of Education (and former Democrat) William Bennett, who had been there to do convention commentary. Bennett suddenly stopped in mid-sentence, pointed to the U.S. Airways desk, and exclaimed in an Irish whisper: “Look who’s here!” He was referring to Washington “super-lawyer” Robert Bennett, his older brother, who is still a Democrat and best-known as President Clinton’s lawyer during the 1998-99 impeachment. “I think the “Style” section of the [Washington] Post arranged this,” quipped Bill Bennett, after laughing about the coincidence of their winding up at the airport at the same time to take back-to-back flights to Washington. The Bennett brothers embraced and went off to lunch together.