No, Tom Brokaw is not running for President in 2004. Last month, despite the urging of his powerful friends, the 61-year-old NBC anchorman categorically ruled out any sort of candidacy. And that should have been that.
But his friends won’t let the idea drop. Claiming to see no one with the stature to challenge President Bush among the declared Presidential candidates, they persist.
“He simply is the greatest draft choice you could ever possibly imagine,” said media executive Barry Diller. “He’s such a natural on so many levels that I can’t imagine how you could create it otherwise. Of course it’s absurd, but there it is.”
Alas, through a spokesperson, Mr. Brokaw reaffirmed his utter lack of interest: “I’m not running for anything, anywhere.”
So … what about former General Wesley Clark? Is he running for President in 2004? He has himself been the target of a somewhat more serious draft movement, and he too is a well-recognized public figure. But unlike Mr. Brokaw, the general is not taking his suitors lightly. “You know, in any election there’s always a casting about for alternatives,” said Mr. Clark. “But this is something that’s beyond that. This is a genuine effort by people to create an alternative, not because it’s good for the Democratic Party, but good for the country.”
Many anti-Bush voters, unimpressed with their conventional options, are searching for a savior candidate. While it’s difficult to quantify these restless types, it’s clear that there is a substantial chunk of the electorate seeking someone who instantly has the stature–or the celebrity–to compete with President Bush for the attention of the electorate. They’re apparently ready to consider anyone–except, of course, for the nine Democrats who actually are running for the nomination.
“There’s no question that at this point in the Presidential campaign, people are looking for a perfect candidate, and everyone who’s out there seems like a midget,” said Dan Carol, a former opposition researcher for the Democratic National Committee who recently abandoned an effort to draft actor John Cusack to run for President. “I think there are a lot of different lab experiments going on right now.”
Some of this mad science has taken the form of fanciful draft movements, such as the Brokaw 2004 movement, encouraged by the likes of Mr. Diller, media executive Sir Howard Stringer and writer Nora Ephron. Or the Internet campaign by a left-wing Italian film director named Aldo Vidali–who claims to have worked with Fellini–to promote former Vice President Al Gore as a write-in candidate. Or Mr. Carol’s own unauthorized attempt to drum up support for Mr. Cusack in 2004.
The one draft movement with a realistic chance of success, it seems, is the one to draft Mr. Clark, who has encouraged speculation by making extensive rounds of the major media outlets and Democratic audiences.
And one other prospective addition to the field doesn’t have a draft movement at all, but is being closely watched by Democrats nonetheless: Senator Joseph Biden, who ran in 1988, is said by associates to be considering a late entry into the current contest.
Mr. Clark, who has said that he will reach a decision about whether or not to run within the next few weeks, told The Observer that he thought his draft movement was thriving, in part because of the building pressure on the White House over the economy and Iraq. “I think that the heat that the Bush administration has been taking is, in general, a reflection of the country’s unease at the direction in which it’s being taken,” he said. “It’s hand in glove with the people who are supporting me, in that they really want an alternative to the current administration.
“I think there’s a real hunger for leadership in this country, and I think that’s what’s manifesting itself right now,” Mr. Clark continued. “I think people are looking for someone who can provide that leadership.”
Mr. Clark also said that DraftWesleyClark.com was central to the possibility of making the race. “It has a very significant influence,” he said. “When you are looking at moving into a field where you’ve never been before, when you see things like this forming, it makes you seriously consider your options.”
It’s tempting to read into these draft movements some inherent weakness in the current field of candidates. But it is often the case in the early stage of an election that candidates have difficulty distinguishing themselves in the public eye. That doesn’t usually happen until primary season, when the field thins out.
In addition, the widespread assumption of President Bush’s invulnerability is looking somewhat shakier recently, with continuing problems with the economy and Iraq beginning to erode his lofty wartime approval ratings.
It must also be said that the search for political saviors is not a new concept. Recent elections provide ample precedent: In 1976, the Democrats tried to talk Hubert Humphrey into the race when it seemed that sure-loser Jimmy Carter would win the nomination. And, of course, Democrats pined for Mario Cuomo in 1984 (after they had gone ahead and nominated Walter Mondale), in 1988 and in 1992. Some of them are still waiting for that plane to take him to New Hampshire.
“It’s predictable,” said Congressman Anthony Weiner, a Democrat from Brooklyn. “The Democratic field hasn’t evolved yet, and Bush’s numbers have stayed high. So activist types who are desperate to draw blood and don’t see anyone right now who can do that are panicking. But they’re always anxious at this stage. True cognoscenti know how early it really is.”
Still, the ground in this election cycle has been particularly fertile for outsider political movements. For one thing, the fact that this year’s election has drawn such a crowded field has only added to the sense that no one is capable of breaking through. “Because there’s no dominant front-runner that anyone’s excited about, you have a lot of people out there trying to argue for someone else,” said Rodolfo de la Garza, a political-science professor at Columbia University.
And the President’s popularity–still holding at nearly a 60 percent approval rating in recent polls–and outsized war chest have added to the speculation.
“My sense is that there were always going to be two or three draft names that would pop up,” added Robert Shapiro, another Columbia professor. “Enough people are looking at Bush and thinking that none of the current candidates can beat him.”
Another factor is the Internet, whose power as an organizational and fund-raising tool was already demonstrated by former Vermont Governor Howard Dean. The benefits he exploited–in particular, the ability to reach large numbers of latent supporters without a traditional political organization–can accrue to the draft movements as well. “I would say that there probably have been a huge number of draft movements in last 300 years, but no one ever heard of them because they couldn’t congregate,” said John Hlinko, an organizer of DraftWesleyClark.com. “The Internet doesn’t allow you to make any converts, but if supporters are out there, it makes it much, much cheaper to organize them into something that amounts to more than a hill of beans.”
Mr. Clark himself said he was amazed by the impact that the Internet has had. “They have really used the power of the Internet in a way that I don’t think it’s been used before,” he said. “I’ve never seen or heard of anything like it.”
Mr. Clark’s support group isn’t the only one to have found a home online. The Internet has also helped to produce groups like the Gore Majority Movement, the organization run by Mr. Vidali, who refers to the President as “Busholini” and rejects the “little dwarves” who comprise the current field of candidates.
And it helped facilitate the Cusack for President movement, which, when Mr. Cusack pulled the plug in June, was transformed into the BushWhack P.A.C., a catch-all political-action committee dedicated to finding “new ways” to bring about the end of the Bush Presidency.
Until such time as the nomination picture becomes a little clearer, it seems, a good many liberals, centrists and all-around malcontents will continue their search for a silver bullet. Team Brokaw for example, seems to be holding firm to the idea that their man might still, like Dwight Eisenhower, answer America’s call and run. Ms. Ephron predicted that if Mr. Brokaw ran, “$20 million would come pouring in in about a week.” Mr. Stringer, a loyal Democrat who has donated tens of thousands of dollars to Senate candidates in the past, told The Observer that he is still actively trying to convince Mr. Brokaw to run.
Kurt Andersen, an author and would-be supporter of Mr. Brokaw, had this to say: “I feel as though he’d have an excellent chance of being elected, if people were given the chance to vote for him. My hunch is he’d make a pretty good candidate, and I can’t say that about anyone running for President.”