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                    MCCAIN ON A BOX TOO HIGH

 It was three in the morning, I was a bit drunk, and pretty weepy sitting on the floor with the last surviving Hard-on, who had won my trust and become what I was certain to be a lifelong friend. He was the Press Secretary on loan from a U. S. Senators office and the only other person left in the office that night.

 I looked over at him, “We can do this.  Forget the money, forget the commercials, let’s do it differently, we can change the way people campaign.  Let’s just get in the car, head out non-stop and start talking real to real people, every group, every church, every club that will listen about things that matter. Screw all this puffed-up manipulative nonsense. It will catch on; I know it will.”

 His response was conventional prudence, dead on accurate, safe, Hard-on realism, and ended the last flicker of hope that I could campaign honorably with my head held high. “If you do that, you will be a joke, I will quit and you will be alone,” he said.

 I simply did not have the confidence to watch all the paid staff pack up, move out and leave me to campaign with real supporters, real friends, and family. Even though I almost certainly would have fallen back to 16% by election day, I have deeply regretted that lack of courage for almost 40 years.

 The following day I was sandbagged in a meeting with major contributors, staff and some close friends who pleaded with me to change my mind. I relented and let the Hard-ons stay.

 The race was over for me, there was no passion, no interest, no desire to run or to serve.  I hated politics and could not wait for Election Day to come, get spanked, and be done with it.

 Appearances had to be maintained for the down ticket candidates, even if just a passionless façade. I owed that, if not to the Hard-ons, at least to the volunteers, my family and friends that had done so much to support me and really did feel that “We need you, Richard Kimball, in the U. S. Senate.”

 I would get a final last chance to be heard in one statewide prime-time televised debate. I had challenged John to debate me in each of the state’s 14 counties knowing McCain would say no and maybe take a hit in those he refused.  His public response was a more effective and amusing, “I want to debate him not live with him.”

 The two-campaigns met and argued over every little detail: Would the candidates stand or sit, would there be podiums, would there be chairs, would the candidates be allowed to walk, what subjects could be covered, how would the set be designed, who would sit on what side, would the questions be known in advance, who would ask the questions etc. etc.

  Each side saw advantage in one thing or another.  One was that they wanted to sit but we wanted to stand.  We wanted to stand because I was 6’ 4” while John, a jet pilot, was somewhat smaller enabling him to fit in that A-4 Skyhawk cockpit he got shot down in.

 My Hard-ons were pleased that they won the stand argument, but failed to see the simple remedy McCain would employ so as not to be seen looking up at me.

 My campaign tried to do as all campaigns do, that is to put me through a series of rehearsals where the Hard-ons and staff fired questions and I would practice giving responses.  Within 30 minutes or so when it became apparent that I would not tolerate my answers being tweaked, the first and only rehearsal ended.

 Discussion after that simply focused on what the Hard-ons considered a “Hail Mary” effort attacking McCain.   John had a temper, a pretty bad one, and we knew it. There were rumors about his behavior toward his staff, colleagues, and family some of which came in firsthand.  The guy had a fuse, and it could be ugly and easily lit. The plan was hatched, that at the end of the debate, when he was comfortable and having only his prepared closing remarks to make, I would hit him with a vicious attack exposing the previously unknown “truths” of his behavior, and in doing so hopefully, expose his inner self. The Hard-ons greatest hope was that he might take a swing at me.

 Adding nothing to my credit, I did not oppose the idea and prepared to deliver the slimy sodden mess.

 On the day of the debate and particularly in the car with my mother on the way to the debate hall, nightmarish thoughts swirled in my panicky brain as I struggled mightily not to show it.  I was certain that my ignorance and foolishness would be dramatically exposed for all to see and be aghast.  In my mind, my incompetence was real, the thought that I should desire to be a member of the most powerful governing body on earth was such a farce, that when all was said and done at the debate not one on my campaign, not a supporter, friend or even mother would be able to vote for me or even look me in the eye.

 Then an odd thing occurred.  We arrived at the hall, and I suddenly felt calm, resigned to my fate. It did not seem to matter much what I did, there was nothing I could do about it, what would happen, would happen.

  I spent a few minutes shaking hands with members of the audience, most particularly those in my opponent’s camp. I heard one of John’s Hard-ons jokingly ask him if he wanted to work the audience.  He didn’t.

 As I shook hands I came eye-to-eye with some of his family, I knew I couldn’t close with the slimy attack thought so crucial to my chances of shaking things up. There was something else I thought I might close with instead.

 During the debate, I only got hit by one or two questions that I had not expected. My answers were largely unpracticed ramblings but not out of line.  I even had a few moments of fun, or what I thought was fun, though much of it would again ensure that the media coverage would say little about anything of substance.  

  John had voted for full funding of the Bradley Fighting Vehicle, a new military transport that was supposed to be indestructible with substantial defensive and offensive capability.  The vehicle was grossly over budget (as was usual with military contracts) and had flunked its field tests.  When the vote failed, John had voted for a bill providing half funding for the vehicle which also failed.  Then finally, when legislation was proposed to strip all funding for the vehicle, John voted for that too. I had a bit of fun with his support for full, then half, and finally no funding for the Bradley suggesting that John wanted to be all things to all people.

 Most impactfully and perhaps stupidly I then added emphasized with a bit of information completely unknown to the television audience. “You are so insistent on being what you are not, that you even pretend for the audience to be taller than you are by standing on that box hidden behind your podium.”

 A spattering of cheers and boos came from the various partisan factions in the audience, while several photographers edged out of their front row seats to take side shots of John standing on his box.

  He was upset.  And the debate suddenly became far livelier off camera during the commercials than on.  During the breaks we would glare at each other, he would bark things suggesting I was naïve, and I would fire back that he was incapable of honesty.

 Finally, the debate, which the League of Women Voters ridiculously claimed was the most substantive ever, came to the final commercial break just prior to our closing arguments.  I looked over at John, who stood there stiff, and lock jawed staring out above the audience but at no one in particular.  I thought about the scummy attack I had prepared to make in my close. 

 I wouldn’t do it, as I have said, I did not really know the man, had no real reason to dislike him and I was not going to trash his personal behavior. I could not imagine the Hell he suffered as a prisoner, and I secretly admired that he had fared so much better than my imagination suggested I would have.

 Tossing out your all-important closing remarks just before you are about to make them in front of a large audience and thousands of viewers on state-wide television is an odd thing to do.  A kind of discomfort settled over me that I had not felt since before my State Senate filibuster. What was I going to say? My knees began an uncontrollable shuddering behind my podium.  Afraid that the audience might notice I jammed my knees together in an attempt to settle them.  An action that simply made it appear as if I badly needed to pee.  

  The camera came back on and the moderator said, “Mr. Kimball it is time for you to give your closing remarks, you have two minutes.”  What the Hell, I thought.  The election is over I might as well say what had been tormenting me since I took that first $50,000 check. I looked directly into the camera and said these words.  Now I have never gone back to look at what I actually said, but I am pretty confident these words if not spot verbatim, are damn close.

 “Understand what we do to you,” I started, nodding to John. “We spend all our time raising money from people we do not know, people who are going to want access to us if we win and we both spend it in the same identical three ways; First we measure you, we hire pollsters to find out what it is you want to purchase in the marketplace, just like Campbell’s soup or Kellogg’s.  Second, we then hire some consultants who know how to tailor our image to fit what we then know you want to buy. And finally, the most expense thing we do is bombard you with the meaningless, issueless, emotional nonsense that inevitably results. And which ever one of the two of us does this to you best, is going to win.”

 The audience sat in goo goo eyed disbelief without the tiniest peep.  Then John went and gave a standard patriotic close and the debate was over for everyone but the media. For them, or at least their coverage of the debate, it had not yet begun.  The media’s debate coverage would focus almost entirely on what happened next.

 As the announcer was thanking us and the television audience, I decided to have a last bit of fun. While the cameras were still on, I leaned over to John and reached out my hand to shake as he began to reach out his. Only I did not take the last step to be close enough for John to both reach my hand and stay on his box at the same time.

  He quickly retracted his hand.  I just smiled and kept my hand out. His anger was converting into silent fury.  Suddenly, recognizing my thoughtful gesture the moderator chimed in, “Yes it would be appropriate to shake hands now.”   I smiled again at John as my hand went to that same just out of reach spot.

 John crimped a smile to cover the pure venom underneath and stepped off his box to take my hand.  My God, I thought, I have him, he’s going to strike me.  When the camera lights snapped off the stage was instantly rushed by his Hard-ons.  Within seconds he was snared and maneuvered out the back door and into a waiting car before the media could get to him.

 The media coverage had its usual cow pie focus.  On television, when he stepped off the box to shake my hand it looked like he fell into a hole. The following day all the newspapers had stories and pictures of the soap box, little if anything was said about our differing opinions on any issue of significance.

 Years later when he was running for President, I would read a short memoir from a person that had been on his staff the evening of that debate. Writing about the debate’s ending he wrote, “John wanted to kill Kimball.”

 After the debate no one, not my family, not my staff, not the media — no one mentioned my closing remarks. It was as if I had only imagined saying them, and no one heard them but me.  Some weeks later I discovered one person did hear them and that would finally drive me toward a chance at making my life worth the living of it, after all.

(New chapters will be added roughly once a week)

Richard Kimball, Vote Smart Founder

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