"Yo, Alan Keyes?Christian right representin'." "Word. Muthafuckas comin' out for that muthafucka." "Meetin' America's moral challenge an' shit." "He talkin' 'bout moral revival in America. An' he talkin' about GATT, son." "Everything he say is on point." "Shit."
Handshakes all around, and then they dispersed into the Upper East Side night to return to Park Ave. duplexes and bid bon soir to Mumsy...
Actually I have no idea what they were talking about, but it probably wasn't Keyes, who around that time last Tuesday evening was addressing a small crowd?no more than 200 people?in the pustular Soviet basement bowels of P.S. 169 on 88th St.
Keyes is an amazing speaker. It's impossible to imagine one of the other entitled morons running for president delivering?as Keyes did that night?an unscripted speech that addressed Macbeth, Roman republicanism, evolution, the mechanisms of ideology, subjection, slavery, the 14th Amendment, Bill Clinton, the church/state dichotomy, Rousseau, the Declaration of Independence, God, the principle of constraint at the heart of democratic government, the income tax as a stealthy manifestation of secret totalizing power...
It was too much. I wouldn't vote for Keyes in a million years, not at knifepoint, but there was no cant to his speech. About 10 minutes into his 45-minute speech I realized that my tape recorder wasn't doing much good?it was like trying to take a snapshot of the Grand Canyon?and turned it off.
It's not that Keyes is a particularly charismatic orator. He's no Bill Clinton or Jesse Jackson. He lacks not only the intellectual simplicity to be so, but also the body language. He stands with his feet splayed and his arms flopping, his manic limbs divorced from his rigid body. Physically he's like Mussolini in that way, mildly comedic. He has not a demagogue's, but a good professor's, presence. His voice is reedy, only occasionally bloviating its way up into the sorts of heroic cadences that can motivate sizable rabbles. But despite his limitations, Keyes is fascinating because he's obviously incapable of platitude or facility.
"At the heart of government lies this principle of constraint," he'll say, issuing what amounts to an intellectual challenge?gesturing toward the difficulty of human relations, which is a brave thing to do in a culture in which politicians are expected to flatter the pampered citizens of The Luckiest Nation on Earth. Government as constraint? Not in Bill Clinton's smarmy America.
"We live under a slave tax system," Keyes will insist. "We're not a free people...the people have no will independent of manipulation." Keyes shoves your face in it, forces you to come to terms with his words and what they actually mean. "Free," "slave" and "independent" are platitudes, but Keyes forces his listeners back to their challenges. He isn't the sort to wing out meaningless phrases like "compassionate conservatism" and "a reformer with results." When he equates the income tax with slavery, you suspect he's given the comparison some thought, and he's willing to inflict upon you that ugly comparison.
"Government schools," is the phrase Keyes invariably uses for public schools, and there's no way around what he means, around his radicalism. In his usage, the phrase resonates with meanings: coercion, bureaucracy, arrogance, latent violence, propaganda. It's almost unbelievable, but Keyes respects language. And, contrary to all of a typical politician's instincts, he's giving neither himself nor his listeners an easy way out. He's not telling anybody politics or life is easy. In other words, he's got principles.
So you wonder how he manages to stay sane as he deals with the shills and dolts with whom politics force him into contact. Tuesday afternoon, for example, before the P.S. 169 appearance, and Keyes is on bleacher-bum conservative Sean Hannity's afternoon WABC talk-radio show. No more than a quarter hour in, and Hannity's already on the defensive, even though he agrees with Keyes on almost everything. "But don't you think??" Hannity whines at the beginning of his questions, and it's obvious that he's lost, that he's trying to force from Keyes some familiar shard to which he can cling for life in the disorienting waters of Keyes' intellect. What's it like for Keyes to have to share a movement with a brain-dead cultist like Hannity?
Hannity, on Bush's Bob Jones U. speech: "This is blind ambition."
Keyes, pouncing on lazy Hannity's cliche: "It's not blind. He knows exactly what he's doing."
It also made you cringe to hear Hannity refer to his guest as "Ambassador Keyes." (Keyes is ambassador to the UN Social and Economic Council?in other words, he's an ambassador like the ed-school guy with the combover who ran your public high school is a "Dr.") The problem isn't only that calling Keyes "Ambassador" sounds like faint praise, given that he's a lot more than that. It's also that that word brings with itself a whole racial problematic: envy and admiration; condescension and contempt; it evokes phony Reconstruction-era honorifics and white gloves and livery and sashes on preening bandleaders. Hannity, who only talks for a living, is too arrogant and ignorant to pay attention to what his words are saying.
Keyes doesn't draw the pink, bland crowd typical of Republican events. There's at PS 169 tonight an overrepresentation of serious-looking and slightly shabby middle-aged people?folks you could imagine populating Hannah and Her Sisters?interspersed with the occasional Asian and no more than a dozen blacks, the men among them wearing those I-Am-A-Credit-To-My-Race suits that conservatism seems to require of them. The crowd resembles those that used to half-fill downtown public-school auditoriums at the loony-left events I attended for research purposes a decade ago. That fact hammered home the weirdness of Keyes' position. Here was the country's most intelligent black politician?most intelligent politician, period?talking in a gym to a crowd that consisted of middle-aged whites wearing rumpled clothes. Keyes was addressing the (overwhelmingly white) politically disaffected and marginal.
Meanwhile, Al Gore?vice president to America's first black chief executive?had several weeks before been a great hit at the Apollo Theater, and is a good bet to win stewardship of the imperium. Keyes would get booed at the Apollo.
Does Keyes ever want to throttle somebody? Later, during the question-and-answer period that followed his speech, as a black woman grabbed the audience microphone, I thumbed through his campaign brochure, which is partially a well-written expression of Keyes' brains and part ghastly embarrassment. "Keyes earned his PhD in Government Affairs in 1979 from Harvard," one section reads, while another section bears this testimonial from Paul Harvey: "Would you vote for a candidate whose credentials include a Harvard doctorate, experience in government and a university presidency? Well, you can if you want to. He is running. His name is Alan Keyes."
But white presidential candidates?Bill Clinton, and the elder Bush?tend to try to distance themselves from their million-dollar whiteboy educational credentials. What human being should have to deal with nonsense like this? Why should things have to be so difficult? A New York Post op-ed article by Robert A. George last Friday described how Keyes doesn't let his 17-year-old son wear baggy clothing, and that his 14-year-old daughter already opposes abortion, just as he does. Why should anyone have to live like that? Who should have to worry about the political implications of the clothes his son wears, or publicize his adolescent daughter's sexual politics? Especially as the world watches Keyes' party's nomination go, in likelihood, to an empty trustfund Yale legacy dandy who's probably given abortion no more thought than has the typical 14-year-old American girl who's not Alan Keyes' daughter. George W. Bush, you suspect, never worked a full day in his life before he was elected Texas' governor. Keyes, on the other hand, has to be all effort. His is a campaign that, in its principles and ideological consistency and severity, involves making life hard for himself. Keyes is even Catholic. He is?with all the racial implications that this phrase carries?the hardest-working man in right-wing show business.
"Why is it that none of the black radio stations ever mention your name?" the woman at the mic was asking.
The crowd was slowly filing out by then, but you could still feel the barometric pressure in the room change in the aftermath of her question. The embarrassing specter of race had revealed itself. Did you notice? The guy's black!
A shuffle of voices as people filed from the room?including the blonde-maned Ann Coulter. People congregated in the hallway outside, picking up campaign literature as Keyes wrapped it up.
"I'm not surprised that you don't hear my name on black radio stations," Keyes responded to the woman, a little too confidently. "Because most black people have no idea of my existence."