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Unconventional Wisdom: Will Voters Fear the Unknown or Will They Embrace It?

Aired October 31, 2000 - 8:30 p.m. ET


JEFF GREENFIELD, HOST: Tonight we pay homage to Halloween by asking: Will the voters fear the unknown or will they embrace it?

ANNOUNCER: UNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM, with CNN senior analyst Jeff Greenfield. Tonight's guests, author Anne Rice, musician, writer, Ben Sidran, and "New York Daily News" managing editor, Michael Kramer. Now, here's Jeff Greenfield in New York.

GREENFIELD: This is a night for strange apparitions to frighten the bravest of hearts with sights and sounds that chill the blood. Now if I were Leno or Letterman, that would be a set-up for a joke about Al Gore and George Bush, but we are above that sort of thing, of course, so what I'm talking about is the fear and the appeal of the unknown: the tension between the urge to try something new and the urge to stay with the familiar.

We see this tension often in our campaigns, but what makes this year's contest so intriguing is that the challenger cannot point to a poor economy or a divisive war or racial unrest to make the case for a fresh start. And yet, either because of the challenger's appeal or the insider's weakness or maybe, maybe, because of an enduring American hunger for the new, this contest remains tight as a tick in Grandma's corset. I have no idea what that means, but it works for Dan Rather,

We will talk about this with Michael Kramer, managing editor of the "New York Daily News," with an old friend and emerging not-quite- elder statesman jazz musician and writer Ben Sidran and, this being Halloween, with a master tour guide into the nether world of the unknown, author Anne Rice. We will also explain how in politics little things can mean a whole lot. And we will start it up in a moment.


ANNOUNCER: UNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM, here again, CNN's Jeff Greenfield in New York.

GREENFIELD: And welcome back to UNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM. Joining me here in New York for our special Halloween look at election 2000, author Anne Rice, her latest novel is "Merrick." That's a continuation of the vampire chronicles. Also here in New York, not associated with vampires the last time I checked, "Daily News" managing editor, Michael Kramer. Madison, Wisconsin, brings us jazz musician and author Ben Sidran.

Now, I promised you this is about politics, but we are going to take a somewhat leisurely detour in this sense, Anne, because we are talking about the unknown and the new versus the old. You're introducing a new character in "Merrick."

ANNE RICE, AUTHOR: That's right, yes.

GREENFIELD: And it brings to mind Stephen King's novel, "Misery," where one crazed reader is so upset by his changing her reality that she literally ties him to a bed and forces him to bring this character back to life.

RICE: That's a really wonderful movie.

GREENFIELD: With Kathy Bates. And then in real life, Arthur Conan Doyle once killed off Sherlock Holmes and was forced by outraged readers to bring Holmes back.

So, the question is: Do readers have a problem with this kind of change? Do they -- when they find a character they love, whether it's Lestat or Holmes, do they say no, you have to give me as much of him as you can?

RICE: Absolutely, my readers just -- there's a storm of protest after every book. You didn't bring back my favorite vampire. You know, where is Armand? Where is Louis? Where is Lestat? I never get 100 percent of the audience anymore. I think I've just written too many books. This is the eighth vampire chronicle and I'm sure there will be complaints that Lestat came in too late or there wasn't enough of Louis or we didn't really get enough of Merrick in spite of the fact that Merrick is the primary character in this book.

GREENFIELD: So, there's some sense in which once they find a character that you have given them, they want that character again and again.

RICE: Definitely, I mean I've written 21 novels. I never thought I would say those words. I've written 21 novels. I can't believe it. And when people bring them to the signing, I mean, this is a huge stack and they want them all signed and they say well this is the first chance I've had to meet you, I look at that and I think, was this the right thing to do?

GREENFIELD: Seems to have worked out OK, though.

RICE: It does but it scares me a little. No jokes intended, it truly scares me.

GREENFIELD: I want to turn the musical world because I've noticed when I go rock concerts, particularly with long established groups like, you know, the Stones or if Dire Straits, heaven bring us back again, reunites, whenever a group like that plays a new song, a whole bunch of the audience goes out for soda or a bathroom break. If you go to the Rolling Stones you want to hear "Satisfaction" and the 10 other songs that you have known for 30 years. Is it a problem the for a creator to actually try to give an audience new stuff?

BEN SIDRAN, JAZZ MUSICIAN/WRITER: Oh, absolutely, especially if they're fighting with their own hits. I remember distinctly about 10 years ago, I was on tour with the Steve Miller Band. Steve has, essentially, 10 or 11 hits. And we had some nice new music worked up, you know, and they didn't want to hear them. We could have played those same 10 hits three times in the same concert. That would have been fine. That would have done it just fine for the audience. It's a problem.

GREENFIELD: So what do you do about it? I mean, how do you get an audience to listen to something new?

SIDRAN: It's a big problem. You know, it's like it's not real unless it's a hit. It's not real unless they see it on television first. You know, the media reality, the technology reality has to precede real life these days. This is the problem.

GREENFIELD: Now -- I'm sorry.

RICE: I said that was a good point.

GREENFIELD: He makes some good points. He's not just an old friend. Now, here comes the slow slide back into politics because it occurs to me, Michael, no matter how many new faces we see, sooner or later it's a good bet that the Democrats are going to start charging that the Republicans are going to take away Social Security and Medicare and sooner or later the Republican is going to say that the Democrats are the party of big government.

MICHAEL KRAMER, MANAGING EDITOR, "N.Y. DAILY NEWS": The oldies but goodies of politics.

GREENFIELD: Exactly, it's sort of, I can't get no satisfaction of these guys.

KRAMER: And nobody can.

GREENFIELD: But why do they do it? I mean, is it simply that that's what works?

KRAMER: Yes, I think it's really that. And especially in a campaign like this one, which is essentially devoid of major differences between the candidates, you go back to the old standbys and you are going to keep on doing it in the next few days. That's all they know and they believe that that's what will work.

GREENFIELD: An yet in 1992, Bill Clinton did teach the Democratic Party to dance to a somewhat new tune.

KRAMER: Just to keep the analogy going, I guess he just did a new riff on the Reagan tune. That's what happened. I mean, he basically had the Democrats buy into a lot of the less objectionable conservatism that Ronald Reagan had brought so successfully, at least in electoral terms, for eight years. So, I think everybody was moving over into the same arrangement, so to speak, if the improvisation was slightly different.


KRAMER: That's enough of the jazz metaphor.

GREENFIELD: I know, well, we can hit this metaphor until it just dies of, you know, (INAUDIBLE) but there is also an argument that in American politics a fresh face is also welcome. I mean, a Ross Perot, a John McCain, I think you could argue that Clinton was a new face. Bush is not a very well known guy.

I'm asking you to sort of draw a link here and between readers and voters in the sense of that you can apparently, if they trust you, if they have embraced you, you can bring them along to something new, yes?

RICE: Definitely, I have to, in order to keep writing, and writing what excites me, I have to keep making variations on the old theme, and doing something completely new, and joining those two things together in a novel, yes. I definitely have to do that, and I like doing that. That is what my mind naturally tends to do is make new stories and new plots.

GREENFIELD: But as a citizen who is interested in politics, do you find yourself responding -- here comes the metaphor again -- to the oldies, but goodies? I mean, do you find...

RICE: You know how I feel, Jeff. I'm squarely behind Vice President Gore and Lieberman. I am totally behind them, and I think that they are much better qualified for the White House. I can't sit here and pretend that I don't feel that. I feel that's totally the case.

And I don't understand the resistance to Gore. I don't get it. I'm a bit horrified at this point that Bush is leading in the polls. I really don't get it.

GREENFIELD: Look, let me turn to Ben Sidran and see if, as a creative force, you might respond, I don't mean politically, but maybe even aesthetically to the idea that George W. Bush seems to have been succeeding, despite the fact that he's not a familiar experienced fellow, precisely because he may be striking some other kind of note with the voters.

SIDRAN: I would say just the opposite, Jeff. I would say that George Bush is such a throwback to the politics of 10 or 15 years ago, he really is singing an old song. It's his version of "I Can't Get No Satisfaction." If you're looking for the new candidate out here, it's Ralph Nader frankly. Because, you know, here in Wisconsin, we are at ground zero these days of the Nader-Gore-Bush troika, where have got pro-Nader ads being run by Bush, and pro-Gore ads being run by NARAL. It's like Baghdad, you know, when the Air Force came to town and the tracers.

And really the issue is Nader, and bore -- Bush is...

GREENFIELD: We'll chalk this up to a Freudian slip on your part Sidran.

SIDRAN: I am going to stop on that, but just say that I think Nader is appealing to the youth and not W.

GREENFIELD: And yet, Michael, in some sense, Nader is the oldest theme of all; right?

KRAMER: Exactly. He was around when we were kids, were starting out in this business.

RICE: He is a folk hero.

KRAMER: He's been pushing the same tune I think longer than anyone else. But I agree with Ben, I mean, I think George W. Bush is a throwback to his father, and that paradigm has been set up very nicely and people know exactly what they are voting for if they vote for him.

GREENFIELD: And is Al Gore a fresh new voice on the scene then?

KRAMER: No, he isn't, because he is basically Clinton III. Now that worked for George Bush the elder because people wanted Reagan III. We'll see whether they want Clinton III.

GREENFIELD: Right. It's an interesting question which I intend to pursue in a minute, among others, as to whether or not part of the problem with Gore, as the more experienced guy, is what that experience reminds them of, as well as striking a far more fundamental theme about America's lust for the new. Intriguing, I hope. Intriguing enough for you to stay with us? We will find out. Please stay with us.


GREENFIELD: And welcome back on this Halloween night to our unconventional and I hope not-too-frightening look at election 2000. My guest tonight, author Anne Rice, author of a new novel "Merrick"; "New York Daily News" managing editor Michael Kramer; and, in Madison, Wisconsin, jazz musician and author Ben Sidran.

I promised I was going to broaden this out, and I want to suggest something about America, not hardly not an original notion that may make it more possible for relatively inexperienced politicians to succeed here. I mean, this is a country that prides itself on new, this is the new world, this is where you can come from another country, or trek across the country, change your name, drop your pass, certainly New Orleans is a city where there are a lot of people whose past they may not even want to talk about. But my point is, is there not something in the American -- basic American mind set that welcomes the new and unfamiliar?

RICE: I think that's definitely true, and I think they see in George W.'s face, they see something new. They see this guy who knocks Washington, and talks about Washington in such dire terms that you wouldn't even know he's running to go to Washington, you know, and it looks fresh and it looks new. But I think they're making a terrible mistake there.

GREENFIELD: Well, I understand how you feel about that. But I am thinking, Michael, the truth is that in recent American politics, I mean the newcomer has usually beaten the experienced hand. I mean, Carter beat Ford, Reagan beat Carter, Clinton beat Bush. Except for Dukakis...

KRAMER: That was a special case.

GREENFIELD: Who was a special case because very vulnerable and all. So how come that happens. How come the new guy who doesn't know Washington can make an asset out of that?

KRAMER: I think basically because the underlying condition of the country is essentially good enough for people to feel that taking a risk is OK. But I disagree a little bit with what Anne is saying. I think that one of the reasons there is such apathy about this particular campaign is because Bush, while he may have the patina of being new, really isn't even in the consciousness of most of the voters because they are looking back, I think, at his dad, and because the moral dimension, which is really I think the pivot of this election -- to go back to what you were saying before the break -- is central.

I think reason he's doing well is not because he's as unthreatening as he really is, but because people really feel that it's time to have somebody in the White House again who represents a greater moral dimension than President Clinton does, and that they think Vice President Gore does also.

GREENFIELD: Now I also should point out however that Bush has been at pains to surround himself with the familiar, in terms of Colin Powell, in terms of George Schulz, in terms of Dick Cheney, as a way of saying: Yeah, I'm new, but don't worry about this.

KRAMER: Right, it softens the edges, and makes the whole enterprise seem less threatening.

GREENFIELD: See, Ben this is -- the point that Michael was alluding too that, I think somewhat clumsily tried to get to just before the break, is that, and here's where our old friend Bill Clinton keeps looming, like, you know, the elephant in the room, or the little man that was on the stairs and wasn't there again today, it's that the experience that Al Gore has is, in part, the experience of being yoked to a guy who may not be in all that, you know, admiral a picture on the part of a lot of folks.

SIDRAN: Not that endeared, you know, but I want to go back to what you said about the newness, and the fact that America is in love this. I absolutely agree with that. In America what that means is technology. You know, technology favors the youth. The old people can't even work their VCRs, and the kids are programming everything. Technology, and this disposability. And you would assume that let's throw the bums out is the tenor of the times. But I would say that it's not the new, but it's what this new technology does to the people who walk through it.

I have to tell you, Al Gore came to Madison recently, and I went. And I usually don't go to big events like this. It's like a Kiss concert I wouldn't go to, but I went.

GREENFIELD: It's the first time Al Gore has been compared to a Kiss concert, by the way.

SIDRAN: Well, his make up was good, he looked good. He seemed very comfortable with himself, that is my point. He was introduced by one of the guys from "The West Wing," this guy Brad Whitford (ph), who had some Madison roots, and seen in context with a television star made Gore seem and feel more real to the crowd. It was a very interesting inversion of the situation, where the media reality, the technology reality brought a kind of visceral reality to the event and to the candidate.

And it was a way for Gore to come across -- unlike the debates, where he seemed very ill at ease in his skin, he seemed very comfortable in his skin.

So I think that there is a very interesting combination of technology and staging of events and circus and rock 'n' roll that's going on here. This is like the 21st century of politics. I think this really is the first election of the 21st century.

GREENFIELD: But a few tens of thousand people saw Al Gore in Madison, which is not a city he has to worry about carrying, whereas millions of people see him every day on television, in a forum where he doesn't seem all that new.

SIDRAN: That is exactly right. He does not understand what he's doing wrong on television. He is like an old guy in a young person's body.

GREENFIELD: As a partisan don't you have that feeling sometimes?

RICE: Oh, yeah, I am sure that it's very frustrating to watch people turn off to Al Gore. It's very frustrating to see that, and to see him in the debates.

KRAMER: But you understand why they do.

RICE: Well, intellectually I understand it, but I don't in my heart understand it because I like the guy. I really do. I don't see anything wrong with him. He seems to have all of the appropriate virtues to be president. I agree with the "New York Times."

GREENFIELD: But this is a little bit like -- you should pardon an old sexist reminder -- you are being set-up for a blind date and you are told: She has a great personality. That -- talk about chilling the blood. You don't want to hear that. If you really got to know her. RICE: That's one thing he doesn't have. I mean, ironically, he doesn't have a great personality, but he has a great mind and heart.

GREENFIELD: I want to turn to one more part of the unknown because we don't have that much time, and this unknown could be the real unknown. It's possible this time that Americans will wake up Wednesday morning and find out that the guy who got the most votes isn't the president because of the Electoral College, right?

KRAMER: Right.


GREENFIELD: Now, we've been talking about this, some of us, forever.

KRAMER: And some of us have written books about it.

GREENFIELD: Some of us have even written a fine novel about it, thank you.


GREENFIELD: But the point is, the campaigns, themselves, with a week to go, are they actually starting to look at this as a possibility, as far as you know?

KRAMER: I know that the Bush campaign is, and I assume that the Gore campaign will be, too. And it's a very interesting argument. The last time this happened, as you know, was in 1888, pre-television, pre-everything.

GREENFIELD: Pre-women's vote, pre-popular election of senators.

KRAMER: Exactly. What happens if this happens? Well, what happens, at least in the view of some of people at the Bush campaign who are thinking about it is that they try to foment basically a popular insurrection to try to overturn this result, which means appealing basically to a universe of 535 people, called electors, to cause them, or a few of them at least, to change their votes on December 18th in favor of the guy who won the popular vote.

GREENFIELD: Now, here's the question, though. I know who you're for.

RICE: Yes, I understand.

GREENFIELD: But would your position on this be the same if Bush got more popular votes and Gore got the Electoral vote, or the other way; or does your determination of how this should come out depend on who actually wins the presidency?

In other words, if Gore loses the popular vote...

RICE: I'm totally for Gore.

GREENFIELD: So there's no principle here?

RICE: No, in this particular election, I really absolutely...

GREENFIELD: That's not what I'm asking. Is the principle of whoever gets the most votes should win -- which some people would argue -- true whether or not it is Bush or Gore who gets the most popular votes?

RICE: I see what you mean, should I stick with that verdict?

GREENFIELD: Should you stick with principle, or just say whatever gets Gore elected you're for.

RICE: Well, I'm afraid I would have to say whatever gets Gore elected I'm for.

GREENFIELD: That's very honest.

RICE: Because so much is at stake.

KRAMER: Now that is a supporter.

GREENFIELD: Ben, what about you?

SIDRAN: You know, it's been very interesting here. Again, we are at ground zero, and there's this whole Nader trader thing in the air here, you know, where they are using the Internet to circumvent the Electoral College theoretically. You know how it works, if you're in favor of Nader and you're in Wisconsin, you need a Gore vote here, you trade with somebody say in Texas, where it's not an issue, and they vote the way you would have voted. That's fantastic to think that they're scheming out there on the Internet is being used to circumvent this. I mean, technology, again, to the fore.

Personally, I have to say I'm with Anne.

GREENFIELD: What I'm suggesting is that it's very important in the next week that we get both these candidates on the record about what they would do if one guy wins the popular and the other gets the Electoral vote so they can't adjust their principles to the reality of November 7.

KRAMER: That is right. And both Ben and Anne would be at home with the framers of the Constitution, who were basically anti- majoritarian when it came right down to it.

RICE: Cool, I like that, anti-majoritarian.

GREENFIELD: Well, on that constitutional not, we are going to wrap things up for this part of the program. I want to thank author Anne Rice, who on tour for her new novel "Merrick"; to "New York Daily News" managing editor Michael Kramer; and to jazz musician and author Ben Sidran in Madison, Wisconsin.

Next, a look at past elections, with the tricks and the treats handed out by fate. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GREENFIELD: If life, in fact, turns on a dime, then political life often turns on a penny. Look back at past presidential races you will see what I mean. In a close race, the smallest of matters can matter a whole lot.

It is 1916. President Woodrow Wilson is locked in a tight race with New York Governor Charles Evans Hughes. Late in the campaign, Hughes journeys to California. He is scheduled to meet with the state's warring Republicans. Through a scheduling glitch, Hughes misses his meeting with Progressive leader Sen. Hiram Johnson. Miffed Johnson's progressives sit on their hands. Hughes loses California by 3420 votes, and California's Electoral votes put Wilson back in the White House.

It is 1948. New York Governor Tom Dewey is considered a shoe-in over President Harry Truman. On a whistle-stop through the Midwest, the engineer on Dewey's train mistakenly starts to leave the station. Dewey snapped something about that idiot engineer. For railroad workers and other blue-collar laborers, it sounds like a Wall Street blue blood insulting one of their own. In November, labor votes carried Truman to razor-thin victories in Ohio and Illinois, giving him his historic upset victory.

It is 1960. Senator John Kennedy and Vice President Nixon are in a very tight race. In late October, civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. is arrested and jailed in Georgia state prison. Allies fear for his life. Kennedy calls King's wife, and later Robert Kennedy calls a Georgia judge to broker King's release.

King's father, a powerful religious leader who had shunned Kennedy because of his Catholicism, announces he has a suitcase full of votes to deliver to Kennedy. And in November, black votes helped Kennedy win very narrow victories in Illinois and Michigan; and with them, the White House.

So political life doesn't turn on a dime, it sometimes turns on a plug nickel, which is what I wouldn't give on what might determine this election.

That is all for tonight. Join me tomorrow at 8:30 Eastern, 5:30 Pacific, when my guests will include actor Richard Dreyfus and former baseball great Keith Hernandez.

I'm Jeff Greenfield in New York. CNN's countdown to the election continues right now with "LARRY KING LIVE."



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