1. Archive

THE MISSING ISSUES // Campaigns weren't always so scripted

It was one of those moments possessed of multilayered meanings _ the alienation of youth, confusion of the elders, irrelevance of politics and, looking from the recess of 28 years, how much better politics used to be.

Here's what happened: Edmund Muskie, the Democratic candidate for vice president in 1968, tried to speak in Washington, Pa. A coven of scruffy students heckled him. Muskie reached for compromise. Send up one of those students, Muskie said. Let him speak, then Muskie would reply. Up rose a shaggy young man, puffing a cigarette. The cameras rolled. The world was about to meet Rick Brody.

Brody collected himself and pronounced the election bogus, a meaningless fraud, none of its candidates worthy of high office. Don't vote for anybody for president, he told them.

Muskie replied. Yes, this young man was alienated, but the system needs people who care, not people who give up. Look at the Muskies _ immigrants who arrived powerless and whose son now sits in the Senate. Don't sit the election out.

Brody and Muskie's ghost reappear occasionally when documentarians want to show how candidates and the networks that feed on them once allowed long passages of spontaneous political dialogue to flow unimpeded onto the TV before they invented sound bites and scripted photo-ops.

Imagine it: An utter stranger called to the stage to debate the man he heckled. The senator and the anti-war radical. Center versus left. Short hair versus long, suit versus denim.

"It was like central casting. I think that's why people were drawn to it," Brody remembers. Long gone are the surplus army shirt, the sandals and too-long hair. Rick Brody, campus radical and unwilling symbol of his generation's anger, is 49 and a lawyer.

"I only went to this rally because I didn't want to go to Spanish class," Brody says. When he got there, he and friends chanted "Dump the Hump." The "Hump" was Hubert Humphrey, the Democratic nominee, vice president to Lyndon Johnson and an abiding liberal in an age when liberals were baited and jeered not by the right but by the left, which saw them as namby-pamby people of good intent but too weak-willed to surrender fully to the radical impulse.

Brody had surrendered to that impulse some years earlier. He had just returned from Chicago, where he worked for the Eugene McCarthy anti-war campaign. He was running, at the time, for president of the student government at nearby Washington and Jefferson College. He promised to prove students had no real say in the way the college was run by dissolving the student government as a protest. Hey, it was the '60s.

When Muskie called on the hecklers to throw one of their own onstage for debate, Brody wanted none of it. The leader of another campus faction, a young Democrat who believed in changing the system, was running for student government president with no plans to dissolve the body. Students shoved both Brody and his rival to the platform, but by pure chance it was Brody the Muskie people grabbed and hoisted up.

"As soon as I got up there, people were heckling me," Brody remembers. "I wish I had said something more meaningful."

Indeed, Brody's speech was broken and rambling. Still, the moment surpasses most of what we will see in the coming weeks as Bill Clinton and Bob Dole cautiously poke around the fringes of political dialogue. Clinton's image and actions are crafted by the readers of polls. Dole meets with a panel of "real Americans," provided they are real in the sense that they already plan to vote for him.

"Everything's packaged. There's very little spontaneity now," Brody says. "No one knew what I was going to say. Including me. No one knew what Muskie was going to say. That in itself was worth the price of admission."

The price of admission in political campaigns today has become so high that few are admitted to the podium, and, when they arrive, the geniuses of marketing have carefully laid out what may safely be said for political gain.

People thought Brody's elevation to share the podium with Muskie was a big deal at the time. But it is clear that even Brody can't decide whether the more remarkable thing is that he was brought up to speak or that if it were to happen today, he would have been vetted and scripted hours earlier.

"There's less and less substance and more and more visual," he says. "The debate goes on, and immediately after there's somebody telling you what the debate meant. We end up listening to people who have an agenda telling us what they think happened."

Today, Brody lives in suburban Boston. He has never told his children of the day he debated Muskie. He tends to vote Democratic, but could not answer a question about whether his politics were still left-of-center because no one could answer his own question:

"If you can tell me where the center is, I'll tell you where I am," he says.

That, of course, would require a debate to which no one has an advance script. Don't look for it on television.

Dennis Roddy writes for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.