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
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
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
“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
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
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
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.