I Did My Part for Al, Hill-I Think

Don’t blame me if Al Gore loses the recounts, the lawsuits,

the whole damn election. I worked an Al Gore phone bank the night before

Election Day. It happened by accident, but it happened nonetheless.

Let me explain. A few

days earlier, my wife told me she’d heard that Hillary Clinton’s campaign was

looking for volunteers to get out the vote. I tend to agree with my father who,

quoting a long-dead municipal judge who’d befriended him when he was a youth,

says: “Politics is a business for whores. And if I’m maligning anybody, it’s

the whores.”

But I signed up nonetheless. My interest in manning a phone

bank was primarily anthropological. The violence of the antipathy toward

Hillary, even among traditionally Democratic members of my own family, seems

almost primordial. I wanted to discover why people believe she constitutes a

threat to the social order.

Call me soft-minded, but

I’ve always been positively disposed toward the First Lady. I always

felt she was right on the issues. So when the opportunity arose to test my

telemarketing skills and do my patriotic duty to stop George Bush, Trent Lott,

Dick Armey and Tom DeLay from staging a coup d’état, I figured what the hell.

My call to Hillary headquarters was answered by a woman

whose young, lilting, idealistic voice made me wish I were 20 again. I placed

myself at her command. “You’re great,” she said, dispatching me to a phone bank

at the Tribeca Film Center on Greenwich and North Moore. “Some people don’t

want to travel that far.”

When they show file footage of political phone banks on the

nightly news, it’s union workers somewhere in the Midwest sitting cheek by jowl

at telephones that seem to recede to the horizon. That’s what I was expecting

here. The romance of electoral politics. A bonding experience with my fellow

volunteers.

No such luck. When I arrived at the Tribeca Film Center, I

was placed in a room all by myself. Two other volunteers sat in the next room.

Bobby De Niro wasn’t anywhere in sight.

Jason, our volunteer supervisor and a recent college

graduate, handed me a sheaf of phone numbers and a script. “Hello,” it read.

“My name is … and I’m calling for Victory 2000 to remind you to vote for Al

Gore, Joe Lieberman, Hillary Clinton and the whole Democratic ticket.”

I had reservations about the script. “Victory 2000” sounded

a bit too Leni Riefenstahl. I also couldn’t understand why Hillary would want

me to mention Al Gore’s race before her own. They’d never seemed particularly

close. Furthermore, I was pissed off at Al. As far as I’m concerned, he got

himself into this mess by running the most cautious, insipid, uninspired,

consultant-driven campaign in modern American history, and it wasn’t my

obligation to save his ass.

Frankly, I also don’t want Mr. Gore to make a dignified exit

if the vote goes against him. I want him to get alarmingly snippy and destroy

his chances for 2004, so that a more charismatic candidate, say his daughter

Karenna, has a shot at the job.

Jason invited me to “improvise” on the script, but he kept

hovering over me as if he suspected I might be some sort of suicide bomber sent

over by the Nader campaign to sabotage Hillary’s career among liberals with a

single phone call: “Hello, my name is … I don’t know if you were aware the

Clintons plan on buying an S.U.V. that gets eight miles to the gallon once they

leave the White House.”

My efforts on the First

Lady’s behalf didn’t start auspiciously. One of the first voters I called had

been dead for some time, at least according to the woman who answered the phone

at his Bleecker Street apartment, and whose somber tone suggested she might

have been his widow.

I didn’t ask for her vote-not out of sympathy, but because

Jason had instructed me to speak only with the registered voter on my list.

That was easier said than done. I spent much of the evening bantering with

answering machines and precocious 10-year-olds. Here’s a typical exchange:

“Hi, can I speak to your mom?”

“She’s not here.”

“Is this her daughter?”

“No, this is her son.”

“Sorry about that.”

On the rare occasions

when I managed to contact an actual grown-up, he or she tended to be of the

West Village variety, who almost invariably cut me off before I could wax

poetic about endless surpluses, free prescription drugs and public schools

where every kid got accepted to an Ivy League college without expensive outside

SAT tutoring.

“She’ll have my vote,” one woman interrupted me in

mid-sentence. “I’m on the other line.”

The fights I was spoiling for with Hillary-haters were few

and far between. “I just don’t trust her,” snapped a woman my call sheet told

me was 53 years old. “She’s very disingenuous. I think she lies.”

I certainly wasn’t going to argue with her. The evidence in

that regard seems fairly irrefutable. I merely suggested-though not in so many

words-that were she to withhold her vote, she would personally be responsible

for a Clarence Thomas Supreme Court whose most eloquent opinions appeared not

in the Supreme Court Reporter but in

the pages of the Penthouse Forum.

“I’ll think about it,” she grumbled.

When I got off the phone, one of the volunteers in the next

office shouted, “I think you were very brave to take that on.”

My colleagues, including

Jason, seemed motivated out of the goodness of their hearts. My three-plus

hours at Hillary Central made me realize how driven I am by the need for

recognition, of which there was little in this thankless job. As it was, the

primary satisfaction I received was knowing that I was doing my minuscule part

to keep Rick Lazio off the cover of the next issue of the Vassar alumni

magazine.

By around 8 p.m., I started to detect irritation creeping

into the voices of diehard Democrats as they took my calls. Turns out they were

being bombarded with messages-from Bill, from Hillary, from Senator Lieberman.

One person told me she even got a call from Rick Lazio’s mother-in-law.

That’s when I discovered I wasn’t manning a Hillary phone

bank but an Al Gore phone bank. I reported the flak I was taking, and my fellow

volunteers tried unsuccessfully to figure out what group could have been making

the competing calls. It turned out none of us knew for sure who we were working

for.

One volunteer said she’d

signed up online at the Al Gore Web site. Another got her assignment through

the Democratic National Committee. It finally dawned on me why we were lamely

called Victory 2000. It was just another indication of the Gore campaign’s

tone-deafness.

Jason gave us a phone number to call if we wanted to attend

Hillary’s victory bash the following night. Everybody else started calling to

get their name on the list. But I didn’t even write the number down. It wasn’t

just because I knew, from previous campaigns, that it would be a cash bar. I

didn’t feel I’d earned it.

I Did My Part for Al, Hill-I Think