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Word of mouth - Republican presidential hopeful Alan Keyes
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ALAN KEYES is on the campaign trail. Today he's hitting Denver, then Indianapolis -- both from the back seat of his hired Lincoln Town Car parked outside the Washington studios of National Empowerment Television. Keyes does the two talk shows from a portable phone; strewn beside him on the seat are a copy of Montaigne's complete works (in French), a book of blessings and devotions by Pope John Paul, and the Bible. The Harvard-educated Keyes has a radio talk show of his own out of Baltimore. He is America's first talk-radio presidential candidate, running a talk- radio campaign, doing what he does best: talk.

``You can engage in a high level of discussion,'' he says. ``People not only tolerate it, they seem to be hungry for it. On my show we've talked about the Constitution, we've talked about Locke's Second Treatise, we've talked about all kinds of stuff. I think the normal look-down-your-nose-at-'em pundits and politicians would think, 'Oh no, the American people can't talk about that; they're too stupid.' No. Truth is, I think that a lot of the politicians and pundits are too stupid to deal with these issues.'' Keyes, who calls himself a ``moral populist'' and has certainly earned the latter half of the label, is enjoying something of a presidential boomlet -- as much of a boomlet, anyway, as can attend a candidate with no money, no appreciable organization, no experience as an elected official, and no prospects. The grass-roots ferment over the Republican Party's first black presidential candidate stems, appropriately enough, from a speech. At a New Hampshire candidates forum in February, Keyes delivered a high-decibel jeremiad about the nation's moral crisis and the need for the GOP to remain rigorously pro-life.

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The New Hampshire state party immediately started getting calls: Who is this guy Keyes? When Focus on the Family's James Dobson played parts of Keyes's speech on his own radio show -- carried by about 1,500 stations -- the response was so overwhelming that Dobson played it again the next day. ``We got literally thousands and thousands of calls,'' says Focus on the Family's Paul Hetrick. Dobson told listeners he wept when he first heard Keyes's speech.

In a now infamous meeting with Dobson and the Family Research Council's Gary Bauer, Senator Phil Gramm reportedly rebuffed their pleas to give social issues more salience in his campaign, insisting he's a presidential candidate, not a preacher. Alan Keyes wouldn't be so quick to make the distinction. He stands at the crossroads where bombast meets conservative principle, a lone wolf who relishes the prospect of crying in the wilderness. Like his favorite medium, Keyes is unmodulated and raw but nonetheless carries a message the GOP had best not ignore.

KEYES grew up an Army brat, attended high school in Texas, and was elected president of Boys Nation. He spent two years at Cornell and then -- after campus militants threatened his life -- moved on with his mentor Allan Bloom to Harvard, where he earned a PhD in political science. Keyes had been in the Foreign Service for about five years when Jeane Kirkpatrick asked him to serve in her UN mission. He thrived in a diplomatic job that didn't always require diplomacy. ``At the UN a great deal of the business is flat-out debate,'' says Charles Lichenstein, a colleague at the mission. ``For that kind of purpose Alan was absolutely superb, because there's no one who's more articulate.'' Keyes eventually moved to the Reagan State Department, where he fought sanctions against South Africa. After that, he made two runs for the U.S. Senate in Maryland, the first a commendable effort against long odds, the second an unmitigated disaster.

Keyes turned out to be something of a political idiot-savant. His unmatched skill in impassioned oratory is accompanied by a deficit in more mundane political abilities, such as listening, glad-handing, and gauging his effect on those around him. One staffer on his second, 1992 campaign recalls an encounter with a pro-choice woman at Loyola College: ``He sat there and argued with this lady for half an hour. And then the lady finally walked away. Then Alan followed her, still yelling at the woman. You don't win voters that way.'' Keyes jumped from the 1992 meltdown to 1994 presidential campaign on the strength of his oratory. Last year he made a series of speeches on behalf of John Knox, a candidate in Georgia's Republican gubernatorial primary. Knox lost, but his backers -- staunchly pro-life -- were so taken with Keyes that they urged him to run for President. They financed an Atlanta headquarters where five new people recently had to be hired and the phone system upgraded to handle the deluge of incoming calls.

Keyes does have the most profound message of any GOP candidate. He focuses on abortion not just because it is wrong but because it exemplifies a basic philosophical error. Americans, Keyes says, misunderstand freedom as the license to do whatever you like, rather than the delicate product of ``public and personal moral discipline.'' For Keyes, his position on abortion and everything else stems from a proper understanding of the Declaration of Independence. ``People can stand with me and for the Declaration,'' he avers, ``or they can stand against me and declare that they are willing to throw it down the toilet of history.''

Few politicians have the wits to invoke the Declaration in more than a perfunctory way; fewer still have the chutzpah to claim it all for themselves. If Keyes owes some of his intellectual subtlety to Allan Bloom, the embodiment of nuance and refinement, his rhetorical style is all talk radio, where immoderation is a prized virtue. So in an announcement speech that includes some careful moral argument, Keyes also warns about the ``unelected foreigners in the World Trade Organization'' and thunders, ``Somebody has got to stand up and speak for us! Somebody has got to stand up and fight for us!'' His message is resonating with GOP activists partly because, so far, no other major Republican candidate has been willing to pick up the banner. Gary Bauer recounts a session Phil Gramm recently had with about 350 party activists in Washington. Gramm gave his standard stump speech. Then a couple asked if Gramm knew that a campaign letter outlining his agenda didn't mention any of the social issues. ``If I were Phil Gramm,'' Bauer says, ``I would have just said 'No, and I'll go back and do something.' Instead he used that as the occasion to say, 'Well, those aren't the issues I'm going to emphasize.' And after that the next ten questions were on these issues. And by the time he left he didn't have a vote in the room.''

Keyes would have had them all on their feet. He likes to say, ``You never win an argument you don't make.'' But the virtue argument, the one Bill Bennett might have been able to carry forward with such grace, can't be made solely on the political fringes. The sooner it falls into gentler hands, the better -- for the party and the nation. As consolation, somewhere on the AM band a prime piece of drive time surely awaits Alan Keyes.

COPYRIGHT 1995 National Review, Inc.
COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group




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