The digital version of this story has been lost. This is a text-only reproduction. The original was published March 6 2008


FEAR & LOATHING AT BENAROYA HALL
  Stale glitz & macaroni when Hillary stumps Seattle     By Terrence Knight

The Last time I was at Benaroya Hall, we had gone up to hear the Beethoven Triple Concerto, and there she was, Alicia Weilerstein, gliding strands of hair across a narrow band of trembling wires and filling the air with the most marvelous music imaginable.

At half-time we strolled over to the Brooklyn, which is a half block down on the way the bay, to feast on an array of fresh bivalves plucked from Pacific waters. Stravinsky fleshed out the rest of the bill, but so intoxiated was I by Ms Weilerstein's passionate playing, and the fungal Talisker with which I washed down the hama-hamas, that I was afraid that anything more would disappoint, and so did not revisit the hall.

It was with this sweet memory that I returned to Seattle to cover the appearance of Hillary Clinton. We were coming off a week of dysphoric days that had announced the death of summer. But this afternoon was bright and warm, and there was plenty of hopeful sunlight crackling from the Tacoma Dome as I sped along I-5. I had that bright excitement I get whenever I travel, but my mood was a mix of anticipation and the kind of dread that is unavoidable when you're living in a time of national despair. Sen Clinton's DC campaign staffers had talked like they might be up for an interview. The prospect of scoring a sit-down with the wife of Monica Lewinsky's boyfriend was appealing, and I didn't really expect it, but at least they had not exactly said no. Hillary's handlers regarded her as heir apparent, and the important thing now was to make no mistakes, epecially not around the press. The Senator had become aloof and suspicious – best I could tell, Hillary didnt talk to anyone.

University Street was crowded with an assortment of persons who had doted for so long on the American political process they had become demented. A squadron of Ron Paul supporters was strutting around with signs and shouting things like, "Say no to Hillary's socialized health care!" I didnt know much about Ron Paul, except that he had run for President a few years back as a Libertarian; but he exuded the same creepy air as Barry Goldwater, who propounded the insipid supposition that the truth was simple, so long as you shared his demented insights. (The libertarian wing of the Republican Party thought of itself as intellectual, but it was usually adolescent Ayn Randish bullshit. Ron Paul's eyes seemed to roll around a lot. It was if he was afraid that at any moment Elvis, dressed up in clown pajamas, might spring from a side curtain and throw a pie in his face.

Benaroya Hall is supposed to have been designed from a Danish architectural model, though it seems very Seattle to me. But yes, it has a certain Scandinavian style: chaste but serviceable. There's a lot of Chihuly on display. Stale glitz, that stuff. You look at it and mumble, hmm, how nice, and move on. Several bars had been set up around the main floor, and up on the mezzanine, guarded by a sigmoid banister, there was a file of vendors hawking an assortment of pamphlets, buttons, pins, bumper stickers and other political flotsam.

I said hello to the state party chair, Dwight Pelz, who was scurrying here and there like a neurotic sous chef worried that the Hollandaise might congeal. Well, it was a big deal: after all, most people expected Hillary to be the next president. I sat down on a little padded bench whence I could look outside and watch the late summer sun burnish Seneca Street. Trawlers bobbed on the silver sea. A trio was playing Bad Bad Leroy Brown, a song that makes no sense and I have never liked. Waiters in tidy black aprons waltzed around bearing serving platters laden with tiny globs of macaroni and cheese. Now that was a surprise: having covered maybe a thousand political events, I knew that while Republicans are adept at mixing a palatable vodka martini, Democrats are expected to serve superior hors d'oeuvres. I took this to be a symptom of our disconsolate times. Maybe it was the Chihuly, or the music or the macaroni, but for some reason I was having a hard time getting into it all. The trio swung into My Girl and Benaroya began to fill up: files of upper crust Dees, party hacks and hangers on, queued up at a long buffet festooned with saltines and dips; they spooned it onto napkin-covered paper plates before meandering over to one of the bars to collect a dram of zin in a polyethlyene glass.

So I was happy when Olympia's senior rep, Sam Hunt, saw me and came over. I've never known anyone who enjoys being in politics more than Sam. He was dressed in a spiffy, vested hound's-tooth suit and was his usual happy, animated self. He talked like Hillary Clinton was a done deal: sure to be nominated, sure to win. Sam is a rational kind of guy. He can't bring himself to believe that the public would allow itself to be further debased by the same pack of villains that has screwed them raw for eight years. I wasn't so sure. The Democrats had repeatedly demonstrated their ability to lose elections they deserved to win, and even when they did, they didnt seem to know what to do next. Also, many people didn't like Ms Clinton. And i mean, really didn't like her.It was hard to say exactly why that was, and that made it even worse: how do you respond to a sentiment you can't describe? For example, though she had become a first-name candidate (like RembrandtorNapoleon, people used the familiar address with contempt as often as they used it with affection. Hillary. It was like when Mexicans say gringo – with a sneer. I didn't know what to make of this. Ordinarily you had to have actually been president for awhile and really screwed things up before so many people came to detest you so completely.

I went into the auditorium and sat in the press section towards the rear. Reporters were pecking away at their laptops. The AP's David Ammons plopped down in a seat behind me. TV cameramen adjusted and readjusted their lenses. David Rose, a reporter with KCPQ-TV (Fox) was in the row just ahead; he turned around and asked if there would be any interview time. I replied that I hadn't heard anything about that. The press corps sniffed. A correspondent for a European journal was on my right, fingering some kind of Star Trekkian hpertchnology, a little box about the size of a pack of cigarettes that was a radio, TV, computer, voice recorder, CD, telephone, atomic clock, camcorder, DVD, and several other things I can't operate. I think he was streaming video to his bureau in Estonia or some such place. For all I knew, he could launch missiles with it.

Dwight Pelz mounted the stage to introduce the candidate. Like a front man doing warm up for the strippers, he got right to it. Pelz called Bush a draft dodger. He and Cheney, he said (to uproarious applause) were "truly evil people." This was the sort of bumptious rhetoric the faithful expected to hear, and Pelz had the audience suitably aroused by the time Hillary, dressed in a soft duvetyn suit, strutted out to the podium. Still, it seemed to me that the applause was more like polite recognition. Yes, she has a certain star quality, but it's seems more like the effect of long familiarity and that, as everyone knows, breeds contempt. Look, there she is, in the flesh. She's real. She wasn't very real to me, though. I was sitting so far in the back she was not much more than an astigmatic blur. It was like trying to make out the rings of Saturn with a pair of cheap opera glasses.

"It's time to change," she proclaimed. "We must "rebuild, reform, and reclaim" – a trifling alliteration. Ms Clinton is a competent orator, but that is all; I couldn't recall ever hearing such a tepid response from what you expected to be a congenial room. I waited for a muse to descend. When she promised to "end the war", people coughed and shifted in their seats. They all knew better. She had supported the attack on Iraq, and any attempt to mitigate that awkward fact made her look shifty, if not downright deceitful.

She finished up, shook hands along the stage, and that was it. New York's junior senator hadn't really said much of anything, except that she'd like to succeed to the presidency. And she had spoken as if it were certain. On my way out, the trio was playing, Did you Ever Have to Make Up Your Mind?

But since her Seattle appearance, Ms Clinton's candidacy has contracted. In fact, as the new year came round, just about everything had turned upside down. For awhile, Republicans debated who among themselves was the most stupid: a guitar-strumming, hillbilly preacher named Mike Huckabee had enjoyed a moment in the sun, but it was impossible to imagine him as president, conferring with the heads of state of mature nations – he was certain to do something terrible, something even more embarrassing that that time Daddy Bush puked sushi all over the president of Japan. Fred Thompson, an actor who resembled that giant chicken, Foghorn Leghorn, had crashed and burned. Mitt Romney, a Mormon billionaire and caricature of a politician in a bad movie, had been kicked into a roadside ditch and left to die. Stick a fork in Rudy. So now only McCain was left. He had sprung from the gate, stumbled on the first turn then found his legs. John McCain was an old warrior who liked to portray himself as an independent thinker – just the kind of guy to make neocons tremble. The polls showed he could trounce Hillary. On the other side, John Edwards – the man who stood the best chance against any Republican – had been marginalized by the press; after Iowa, AP repeatedly insisted that Edwards had placed third, and many people believed it, though in reality he had beaten Hillary.

It was the strangest political time I could remember. the Democrats were, as usual, sunk in an identity crisis. They knew they were an opposition party and that they hated Bush, but that was about it. Nowadays it seemed they didn't know who they were; they had come to reside in some uncanny Maurice Sendakish pscyhological terrain – soft pastels and fantastic monsters. When I spoke with party insiders, it was like listening to combat vets who have returned with head wounds or PTSD. They couldn't figure out why they couldn't figure it out.

Well, I didn't know if Hillary could win the nomination, but I was doubtful that she could defeat McCain, and that would mean that the war would drag on. McCain was, as you might expect from someone who has been tortured, a very angry man. You couldn't be sure what he would do. He might nuke Iran, or invade Norway. And you could no longer count on the Democrats to resist: shortly after her Seattle appearance, Hillary had gone along with Bush and voted to classify the Iraniam army as a terrorist organizatioN – a belligerent and dangerous act that demonstrated her willingness to expand the war. Either way, Americans would continue to wander the wasteland, mumbling to themselves as the horizon receded toward a vanishing point.

Hillary had also seemed to recede and fade that day at Benaroya. When she was done she waved to the crowd. It was almost as if she was saying goodbye.

A hundred days later, Barack Obama won the Washington primary.


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