Rip Van Winkle woke after a long sleep, astonished to find his beard grown gray, his McGovern button so rusted that it crumbled at his touch.
Rip wandered back into the American political village that he once knew well. He stopped at the South Carolina primary. He recognized his old friend Van Loon.
The candidates were strangers, of course. But Rip was reassured to encounter familiar howls the dear spittle-spraying fustian, the red-faced caterwaul, the sleazy and transparent pander, the noisome bullroar. Faceless anonymities were buzzing at the phone banks, dispensing scurrilous rumors. Rip felt at home.
Rip and Van Loon strolled up the street to Harlem, where they paused to listen to a debate between Al Gore and Bill Bradley. The crowd at the Apollo Theater was into it. The Thrilla in Manila.
"Ah," said Rip, when it was over. "I think I understand now. Bradley works for the Gore campaign."
"My friend," said Van Loon, "Your acumen is rusty. Bradley is mounting an insurgency against Democratic front-runner Gore."
"Perhaps," rejoined Rip. "But I perceive that here in Harlem, Bradley is attacking Gore for being, in secret, a conservative weak on abortion rights, sometime friend of big tobacco and the National Rifle Association."
"True," said Van Loon.
"But surely," said Rip, "Bradley's real mission, for which I trust he is being paid handsomely, is to immunize Gore, in the most artful way, against right-wing attack in the general election. Think about it. What's the worst thing that the Republicans and the Limbaugh dittoheads might say about Gore? Big Government Lefty! And here is Big Government Lefty Bill Bradley fitting Gore with body armor, saying No, no Al only poses as a liberal, but down deep, he's a secret conservative. To which, of course, the majority American subconscious nods in relieved acquiescence. I tell you, Van Loon, it's a con, the old Murphy game, Br'er Rabbit and the briar patch."
"Everyone's a pundit," muttered Van Loon. But he began to play the game himself.
"Hmmm. Now that I think about it," he said, "maybe Bradley is performing other jobs for Gore as well. Before Bradley, Gore was a middle-aged beta male who seemed a little weird and boring and badly tuned. His suits looked as if he bought them from Robert Hall in 1969. He spoke as if he were addressing five-year-olds. Now he's buffed and strutty and focused. He's dressed up like a Brooks Brothers mannequin, he punches like a champ. Hell, Bill Bradley is the most valuable member of the vice president's entourage. Bill Bradley is Al Gore's personal trainer!"
"That's what I'm saying," said Rip, suddenly bewildered by his own locution.
The two old friends strolled through the Michigan primary. Rip eavesdropped upon the Rev. Pat Robertson's phone messages in behalf of George W. Bush nasty right-wing snarls about McCain's man Warren Rudman. Rip recalled the Bob Jones University business back in South Carolina George W. Bush playing amiable and incautious footsy with the bigoted right (the school's administration, formed in the early Pleistocene, allows no interracial dating, and regards the Catholic Church as a "Satanic cult.") "It seems," said conspiratorial Rip, "that George W. Bush is also working for Al Gore 2000."
Van Loon was startled.
"Well," explained Rip, "with idiot panderings like Robertson and Bob Jones University why not a couple of Klan endorsements as well? Or a David Duke testimonial? Bush steers the Republican party into the same old ditch on the right-hand side of the road, the Goldwater ditch, the Newt Gingrich ditch, the Clinton impeachment ditch. Besides, Bush is not very bright, a fact that grows more apparent as time passes. His eyes are too close together. He mangles the language. If the Republicans nominate Bush, it's Gore by a landslide or maybe 53-47, anyway in November. Barring a stock market crash, of course.
"In short, Bradley occupies the left margin. Bush occupies the right margin. Gore takes the big center highway home to the White House."
Van Loon bethought himself. "What about McCain?"
"McCain," said Rip, "is the only one who is NOT working for Gore. And McCain is the only one who can beat Gore."
Rip subsided into a sofa.
He said to Van Loon: "Wake me when it's over."