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Chapter Thirty-two: Primary Day

 

Tuesday, March 9th, was primary day in Louisiana and in three other states. My name would appear on the Louisiana ballot. My day began at 5:00 a.m. with Tom Bodett’s facetious recording about winning $10 million. Seeking the Presidency was, perhaps, equally preposterous. Yet, here I was. Much of what I had done during the past eight months led up to this day. By night fall, I would know if the effort had been worthwhile.

I had arranged with Andrew Griffin to have dinner together at a sports bar in Alexandria and, on a television screen, watch the election results come in to CNN or another election-night desk. In a way, I was relieved that this day had come. Except for one or two scheduled activities, the outcome was now out of my hands. I could sit back as a spectator and learn what the voters thought about me and my campaign.

All this time, I was telling myself that I could be reasonably proud of what I had done if it gave it my best effort. I had led a spartan existence during much of the campaign. Toward the end, however, my motivation began to wane. I no longer kept myself in a state of mental tension but was interested in enjoying myself with restaurant meals and sightseeing. This moment was a perfect example.

As I lay in bed after Bodett’s wake-up call, I thought about whether I really wanted to drive to Baton Rouge. It would mean a 275-mile trip from Shreveport. And for what? The trip would be made on speculation that the same television and radio stations that had ignored my campaign activities on Sunday would now be interested in my passing out campaign literature during Tuesday’s noon hour. I had been campaigning at such a frenzied pace that those bleak prospects seemed realistic. No, the smart thing to do was just to forget about further campaign activities beyond what had already been arranged. I lay in bed agonizing over such decisions while intermittently gaining snatches of sleep.

I left the motel around 7 a.m. having a firm commitment to dine with Andrew Griffin and spend primary night in Alexandria. That destination was only 125 miles from Shreveport, south on I-49. it would take me two hours to get there. I purchased copies of the morning papers.

In The Times, a front-page story quoted the Louisiana Secretary of State, the state’s top election official, to the effect that the primary election was a complete waste of money. Perhaps it should be abolished in future years. The money would be better spent on education or, perhaps, preserving the Louisiana coast line. If it weren’t for appearances’ sake, he himself wouldn’t vote. I listened to a news report on the car radio in which people were saying the same thing. This year’s presidential primary was a huge waste of time and money. Why go to the polls? For me, however, the same primary election was my everything.

I drove south on I-49 at a leisurely pace. In the back of my mind, I had the idea that I first ought to check with Jim Engster, the Baton Rouge radio host, who had agreed to have me on his show on station WRKF-AM at 10:15 a.m. I was worried that I might incur roaming charges or become disconnected if I placed a call while driving between Shreveport and Alexandria. Realistically, that is not such a problem on major highways.

As I approached Alexandria, I stopped at a Tourist Information office north of town to obtain an extra highway map and a free cup of coffee. Again, I was enjoying myself. I did not hurry but savored the coffee. I then entered Alexandria and drove straight to the Motel 6. Here I could place my phone call. Some workmen were making noise with a machine to clean the parking lot. I drove to a quieter side of the building and placed my call. It was a few minutes after 10:00 o’clock.

When Engster came to the phone, he informed me that I was supposed to have called him at 9:50 a.m. There was nothing that he could do for me now. The show was off the air. He wished me good luck.

This had, indeed, been my fault. When we made the original appointment, Engster had asked me to call him back at 10:15 a.m. (because he was hosting a show until 10) to see if he would have me on his show. In my notebook, I had written: “Jim Engster 10:15”. But then I had called Engster at 10:15 a.m. He had told me that I should call him at 9:50 a.m. on Tuesday, March 9th, at a certain telephone number. I wrote in my notebook: “March 9 Tuesday call 9:50 a.m.” and then an 800-number. Looking at this notation afterwards, I could not remember the reference. I vaguely intended to call the 800-number to find out what it meant but had not done so. I thought that, with Engster’s name written next to 10:15 a.m., I was supposed to call him then. Now I was paying dearly for the misunderstanding.

Baton Rouge newspapers were sold at the Super One food store next to the motel. I bought Tuesday’s paper. Marsha Shuler’s article on the primary election began on page one and continued to page 4A. The headline was “Democrats, GOP pick leaders today”; and the subtitle, “Primaries drawing scant attention.” The article noted that both President Bush and John Kerry “have presidential nominations all but locked up” though party officials still encouraged people to vote. Secretary of State Fox McKeithen was predicting a 10 percent voter turnout. That was it. The rest of the article was about elections to the parties’ executive committees, especially on the Republican side.

Less than a week earlier, Shuler had told me that, while nothing yet had appeared in the paper about my campaign, she expected something in Tuesday’s paper. This was Tuesday’s paper and nothing had been done. I was totally skunked in Baton Rouge. My only hope at this point was that Keith O’Brien would write something about me in his article for the Times-Picayune.

One more campaign activity remained: the interview with Christopher Tidmore on WVOG-AM at 4:45 p.m. In the intervening time, I might have passed out leaflets on the streets of Alexandria. I might have sought last-minute radio interviews. But I was drained of ambition. I wanted to enjoy myself in the remaining time I had to spend in Louisiana. Also, I clung to the idea that gentlemen do not campaign on election day; they work hard right through the preceding day but then, as Mardi Gras ends abruptly at midnight on Tuesday, so campaigning stops at the threshold of election day. Now, of course, if Engster would have me on his radio show this morning, that rule must be outdated. But it was time to enjoy myself having worked so hard during the five preceding weeks. I would go to the zoo. Alexandria reportedly had a fine one.

So it was that I spent much of the afternoon at the Alexandria zoo on the day of the Louisiana primary. I like animals. In the zoo at Alexandria, there were nice-looking peacocks, alligators, apes, fish, and many other kinds of animals. Mothers with small children, boyfriends and girlfriends, grandmothers with their grandchildren, and others were walking along the paths of this zoo. As a solitary person, I was the exception but I did enjoy myself. The only thing that prevented me from becoming totally relaxed was the idea that I would have to do an interview with a New Orleans radio station at 4:45 p.m. My mind had to remain somewhat focused on what I might say.

Back in my motel room at 4:45 p.m., I placed my call to Christopher Tidmore. A switchboard operator took the call. I identified myself as a candidate in today’s Democratic presidential primary. Soon I was put on the air - as a caller rather than a guest. “Hi, Bill,” Tidmore said, after I had identified myself. “You were supposed to be on yesterday at this time.” Then the discussion was on my candidacy for President; today it was about gay marriage.

Improvising, Tidmore said, if I wished, he would give me a few minutes to state my views on gay marriage. Now I had to improvise. I said that I favored civil unions or some other legal arrangement to give gays and lesbians the same rights to medical insurance and property inheritance which straight people had, but I did not favor gay marriage. Marriage was a religious institution and the courts had no right to make decisions in this area. Did I favor a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, Tidmore asked? No, I thought this was a sledgehammer approach to a problem which could be resolved by other means. Thus, my presidential campaign ended with a pronouncement on an issue to which I had not previously given much thought.

Everything I attempted that day had turned to ashes. Would the election also turn out the same way? Would my streak of failure continue or would fate bring some balance to the day’s affairs? The answer would be known in several hours. I placed a call to Marsha Shuler from my motel room and otherwise killed time.

Andrew Griffin and I had agreed to meet at 8:30 p.m. at Logan’s Roadhouse restaurant a mile or two south of the motel on MacArthur Drive. He was not there to do a story but share with me the experience of learning the election results after five weeks of campaigning. It could be a total bust or a great victory, or something in between. Like a sporting contest, we would not know the result until the event happened. In this case, the event meant watching the election returns come in on live television. At some point, CNN would flash the names of candidates in the Louisiana presidential primary and indicate percentages of the vote which each candidate had received. When my name appeared, I would know whether I had lost or won.

Andrew Griffin greeted me in the parking lot outside Logan’s Roadhouse restaurant. We sat in a booth near a large television screen and ordered dinners. Griffin asked the waiter if we could turn the channel to CNN. He had no objection. Griffin had opinions on many different subjects. Now a columnist on culture and entertainment, he had, as I said, a keen interest in politics. He greatly admired the late Paul Wellstone. Griffin had lived in many different cities, mostly in the south, both as a student and journalist. He had grown up in Arkansas. His parents now lived in St. Louis. When I told him about spending the night in what I thought was Mena, he mentioned suspicions of a CIA connection. This was, indeed, a mysterious place.

Griffin thought that the Louisiana press should have given my campaign more coverage. Maybe he would call Marsha Shuler to ask what had happened. He expressed disappointment that Moon Griffon, the highly popular talk-show host in Monroe, had never returned my phone calls or put me on his program. But Griffon was, in his view, much overrated. This last name “Griffon” was probably the same as his, but with a French affectation.

We discussed the state of Louisiana and the city of Alexandria. In many ways, Griffin said, Louisiana needs to catch up to the rest of the country. There was its legacy of political corruption. Louisiana would lose out if it did not do more to retain its more talented young people. The same was true of Alexandria. This was a good place to live but it lacked economic opportunity. State government and the gas utility were Alexandria’s biggest employers. Griffin asked the waiter about his career plans. A student at LSU-Alexandria, this young man thought he would leave Alexandria after graduation.

I proposed that Louisiana had an asset in its regional culture - the Cajun food and music, Mardi Gras, jazz, even the legacy of Bonnie and Clyde. Yes, Griffin agreed, those were important. He had enjoyed doing stories on some of Louisiana’s local treasures - like the old Carmel church which he had discovered on an off-beaten road near Mansfield. We discussed the pattern in Louisiana cities in which an older and larger decaying city was paired with a smaller and more vibrant one, often across a river. Shreveport had its Bossier City; Monroe; its West Monroe; and even Alexandria, its Pineville.

Meanwhile, we kept one eye glued to the television screen. Unlike previous election-night programs, this one did not report returns from the day’s primary states. Instead, it showed John Kerry giving a speech in Illinois where a presidential primary would be held next week. Kerry was saying that he expected to cinch the Democratic nomination in Illinois. Bush had already done it this evening. Briefly, the CNN report focused on Florida which also reported primary-election results this evening. It might also have mentioned Texas. But, there was nothing about Louisiana. Some of the conversation suggested that Kerry was sweeping every contest.

This was not the type of evening that I had expected. We had a ringside seat to nothing at all. Last week’s “Super Tuesday” victory for John Kerry, which had brought John Edwards’ withdrawal from the contest as an active candidate, had changed everything. The national media had decided that the race for the Democratic nomination was over and was focusing on Kerry exclusively. If I needed to learn the results of my own campaign, it would not be from a television news report.

Andrew Griffin had an idea. On his cell phone, he called the office of the Alexandria Daily Town Talk and spoke with one of his colleagues. After a moment, this colleague reported that she thought I was receiving around 4 percent of the vote. My heart fell. I had expected to do better than that. In fact, as I learned the following day, I did worse. My final statewide percentage of the Democratic primary vote was around 2 percent. Actually, it was even less: 1.955%. But I did not finish last.

And so, with a general idea of how well I had done in the primary, Andrew Griffin and I finished our meal together and bade farewell, promising to stay in contact. I went back to the Motel 6 and prepared for my long trip back home to Minnesota.

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