It was the heat everyone noticed first when they got off the plane. Then it was the smell of garbage.
Welcome to my hometown. America’s favorite party town.
Broke, full of garbage, half the city on strike, twenty-nine percent unemployment, the highest murder rate in the civilized world (if the adjective fits), a leader in kidney disease and strange tropical maladies normally found in the slums of Mumbai, a town so corrupt that even a casino went bankrupt before it opened because the politicians were so greedy they couldn’t wait to steal it all.
Welcome to New Orleans.
Mayor Simmons had promised that if the Republican National Convention came to New Orleans, he’d scrub the city like his mama’s kitchen. Even though he was a Democrat, he understood what the convention money would mean for a very broke city. Everybody on the Site Selection Committee had said they were very impressed, but of course they weren’t thinking about silly things like cleanliness and sanitation when they picked New Orleans. Hell no. At a time when half the country was convinced that the nation was in a depression and the other half was hoping it was only the worst recession in fifty years, with a president so shell-shocked he wasn’t running for reelection and a disgraced vice president forced to resign, the honorable men and women of the Republican Party Site Selection Committee knew they had to keep their focus on the important elements of a successful convention: a massive and ready supply of sex and alcohol and a local culture that made it damn near imperative that you take advantage of both at every opportunity.
New Orleans was a city still in crisis after Katrina and the Crash, and the Republicans on the selection committee could claim with a straight face that they were picking the city as a show of support in the “great city’s difficult days.” Never mind that was true of just about every city in America these days, but with New Orleans you could also pretend it was such a fascinating place—so quaint, so Old World, such a cultural jambalaya, wasn’t it? When the Site Selection Committee came to New Orleans and the mayor greeted them at Louis Armstrong Airport with the Second Line Jazz Band and took them straight to Antoine’s and a private room, where they marveled at the waiters who could remember every order and never write down a word, well, the deal was just about done. Everybody had “Huîtres en coquille à la Rockefeller”—Oysters Rockefeller, a dish the restaurant had created in 1899 and named not because John D. Rockefeller liked the dish but because he was rich and so was the sauce.
Then they wandered out on St. Louis Street and quickly found their way to Bourbon Street, and by sunrise there was little doubt that the Republicans were coming to New Orleans. To show solidarity with the great American city that had suffered so much. Of course.
The Site Selection Committee had visited in December when the city was just cool enough not to smell, but now it stunk like a big pot of gumbo that had been rotting in the heat for several weeks. It had been over a hundred degrees every day for more than a month with ninety percent humidity, the hottest summer in a century. Didn’t Democrats warn us about global warming? This was a climate invented to make garbage smell in a hurry, and the stench brought tears to your eyes. A fierce run on scented candles had driven prices up and more incense had been sold in the city since Ravi Shankar played a three-day concert in 1968 at the Warehouse.
As if to deliberately torture Republicans for their troubled history with labor unions, the whole city seemed to be on strike: the cabdrivers, the teachers, even the cops were threatening to walk out. Everybody saw the Republican convention as their big chance to cash in, to embarrass the city into coughing up more pay to avoid ruining a moment of glory.
But that only worked if you could embarrass the city, and so far, God bless him, Mayor Tom Simmons, the first white mayor of New Orleans in over two decades, gave a very good impression of not giving one good goddamn what anybody thought. What I loved about the guy was that he understood his market. He knew he didn’t get elected to bring the city together; he wasn’t the guy who was going to get everybody to join hands and sing “Kumbaya” out by Lake Pontchartrain at sunset. Hell no. He was elected to play the tough guy, the enforcer who was brought in to bring a little order to a place where cops were hiring themselves out as hit men in their off-hours. Nobody thought he was nice when they voted for him, and by God he hadn’t let anybody down yet.
Simmons had become my personal hero when he was a state legislator and introduced a bill requiring every woman in New Orleans to carry a gun. This truly was a different kind of Democrat. The proposed legislation had followed a spate of particularly brutal carjackings of women at red lights. The bill hadn’t passed, of course, but a compromise piece of legislation made it perfectly legal for any citizen to use deadly force against a carjacker. Within the first forty-eight hours, a twenty-one-year-old secretary blew the face off of one carjacker, and an eighty-one-year-old man shot another in the ass as the poor fellow tried to flee down Rampart Street after he saw Grandpa had a sawed-off shotgun under a huge muffulleta from Mandina’s on the passenger seat. The elderly man was considered a local hero until two weeks later, when he walked into his stockbroker’s office and put two twelve-gauge slugs into his young broker for not getting him out of Apple before the Crash. But then a lot of brokers were getting shot right after the Crash.
When it looked like the Site Selection Committee was leaning toward picking New Orleans, I’d done everything I could to squash the idea. Nobody could figure out why I was against it, and a lot of people thought I was just being modest. After all, I was a local hometown boy made good, the son of a famous civil rights journalist, which had double currency in the Republican Party, which was desperate for some credibility on that front. I’d be returning home in at least quasi-triumph, the guy who had saved Vice President Hilda Smith’s campaign, brought her back from near death in New Hampshire to a few delegates shy of winning the nomination. I was helping beat back Governor Armstrong George and the barbarians at the gate, and everybody agreed my Pulitzer-winning father, Powell Callahan, would have been so proud. If only he hadn’t drunk himself to death. No, they didn’t say that. But I did, that and a whole lot more. New Orleans was the last place on earth I wanted to come back to. Yes, it was my hometown. People knew me there, had known me all my life. And that, of course, is why it terrified me so much.
It was thirty-six hours before the convention opened. A real convention, like the one everybody had been dying for since Al Smith won it on the thirty-sixth ballot in 1928 and Ford snatched it from Reagan in 1976. That was what a convention was supposed to be—a deliberative body, by God, not a made-for-television spectacle.
I hated it.
Any campaign manager would. It was a horrifying idea to roll into a convention and not have the entire process rigged gavel to gavel. This was simply unheard of. Leaving a decision as important as selecting a party’s nominee to the collection of hungover party hacks, weirdo activists, political groupies, and small-timers who comprised the delegates at any convention was an affront to the very concept of modern politics, a process designed to ensure that a powerful few would manipulate a disinterested many. That’s how the system worked; everybody knew that. This was America, for heaven’s sake, where no one was particularly interested in parties—the political type, anyway—and everybody knew it didn’t really matter who won. That was the genius of the American political system.
But this time, it did matter. The country was in crisis. The Republican Party had watched a president, nominated just four years earlier in a hail of glory and promise, melt like an ice cream cone on a New Orleans sidewalk. Now the party faced what was being called the most fundamentally different choice in its history: Governor Armstrong George or Vice President Hilda Smith. In politics we always like to call each election the most important in generations. This time, it might actually be true.
Faced with this crisis, the delegates and alternates and assorted hangers-on of the Republican convention were handling their responsibility in the time-honored fashion of conventions past: they took to the bars and clubs and partied like death-row inmates paroled for one night.
But who was I to complain? It was thirty-six hours before the convention opened and I was up onstage with a bunch of Indians stoned out of their minds. Not Native Americans, but the Mardi Gras Indians, one of those New Orleans bands that never broke big nationally but were local gods. The Indians were singing “Voodoo Sex,” and Tyrone Robichoux, the lead, was leaning into me, sweating like a warm waterfall. He had a blank look in his eyes and I assumed that he was high on heroin. He usually was. Great headline: “j. d. callahan, campaign manager for vice president hilda smith, busted for drugs at convention.” Now that would be just splendid. “Following his much-publicized personal difficulties surrounding the breakup of his relationship with prominent television journalist Sandra Juarez, J. D. Callahan added to his woes by being caught with the Mardi Gras Indians in a drug bust.” Yes, that would be just perfect. I’d have to claim that I did it as part of a community-outreach campaign tactic, like “Building a bridge to the addicted community.” It might work. This was, after all, New Orleans, where the town’s resident cultural hero was a not-very-reformed heroin addict named Aaron Neville, who, when asked about his heroin addiction, remarked, “It works for me.” And God knows the Indians were a diverse bunch. They probably had French, Spanish, African American, even a little Asian bouncing around in their drug-addled veins. And, yes, some Native American blood as well, the Chickasaw tribe most predominantly.
Appearing with the Indians at Tip’s the night before the convention opened hadn’t been my idea. Blame it on Ginny Tran, press secretary extraordinaire at twenty-seven. “It’ll be so cool,” she’d insisted. “The vice president’s campaign manager onstage at Tipitina’s. You were almost a rock star once, it’ll be fabulous. Show that we’re confident right before the convention. And anyway, you should get out. You look like crap.” So I’d left our war room down at the Windsor Court Hotel and committed to doing something enjoyable for a couple of hours. It had been so long, I’d forgotten what it was like.
Ginny was lying, of course. At least that part about me being almost a rock star. I’m sure she wasn’t lying that I looked like crap. I’d grown up in New Orleans and been a journeyman guitar player in a not-so-bad blues/funk band, my major distinction being that I was the only white guy in the group. What was really embarrassing—at least it would have been if anybody had known it—was that I’d made it into the band with the help of my father, Powell Callahan, one of the last white civil rights heroes, or so everyone seemed to believe. Powell Callahan knew everybody in town. The lead singer in the band was the son of a lawyer, once a civil rights lawyer, now a corporate hotshot just off Canal Street, an old friend of my father’s from the “movement days.” J. D. Callahan, the only guitarist who networked his way into a black/funk band. It was silly. They dumped me after a year.
Of course, I knew that a photo op with the Indians onstage at Tip’s wasn’t going to get us a single delegate, but I had gone along with it. Why not? It wouldn’t hurt, and if it made me look a little hip and cool and confident, that was just great. God knows I sure didn’t feel like any of those things. I hadn’t slept worth a damn in months, I had a woman candidate who was on the verge of becoming unglued at any moment, a force of nature called Armstrong George about to devour us like a hungry wolf, and, to top it all off, they had to go and have the damn convention in my hometown. For Christ’s sake, was God spending all of His time trying to screw with me, or just most of it?
On the other hand, if a woman named Sandra Juarez just happened to see me with the Indians up onstage looking like I had my act together in a big-time way, that was just fine by me. It had been a little over eighteen months since my very public meltdown, which had coincided with Sandra Juarez and me breaking up. No, that wasn’t accurate: my very public meltdown that resulted from Sandra Juarez dumping me. I’d like to think I was over it, focused on the future, all those things you are supposed to do. But I still thought about her more than I liked to admit. Mostly I thought about how humiliated I had been after splitting in such a spectacularly public way, which had been my fault. But also I thought about—and this is what I really hated to admit—how much I had loved being with her, living together for that year and a half.
Sandra was one of the few really good print reporters who had made the transition from covering politics for The Wall Street Journal to working for television. She was first-generation Mexican-Cuban American, an unusual mix. Her Cuban mother was a doctor and her Mexican father was an auto dealer. It wasn’t exactly the hardscrabble immigrant story, but still, when she looked in the camera and said, “As a first-generation Mexican-Cuban American, I understand . . . ,” few people stopped to point out that she had gone to Groton and then Harvard. We had met when Sandra was covering the Florida governor’s race. She had already moved from the Orlando market to CNN but was back in her home state covering the race. We met in the spin room after the first debate; a less romantic, tawdrier place for a first encounter would be hard to imagine. My candidate was a Cuban American woman running against a wealthy North Florida businessman, and I made the mistake of trying to play the Cuban-and-female card with Sandra. It didn’t go well.
Copyright © 2016 by Stuart Stevens. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.