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ON CALIFORNIA

The World According to Huff

October 12, 1994|PETER H. KING

SAN FRANCISCO — They wanted to know what he thought about Proposition 187, the anti-illegal immigrant initiative that has dominated this political season in California. The man who would be California's next U.S. senator had no opinion.

"I have not yet made a public stand on 170, er, what was that?" and here Mike Huffington began to stammer.

"One. Eighty. Seven," the people gathered in a ballroom at the Sheraton Palace chanted, trying to be helpful.

They wanted to know whether Huffington might, as some reports have suggested, intend to use a Senate seat only as a steppingstone toward the Presidency Itself. "Let me make this perfectly clear," he declared. He would serve no more than two terms in the U.S. Senate. "I hope that makes it clear," he concluded blithely, having said absolutely nothing about his Presidential ambitions, or lack thereof.

They wanted his thoughts on foreign policy, on Haiti, Somalia, Iraq, the hot spots. He spoke proudly of his days as a Pentagon assistant, flying off to Brussels, Paris, Vienna, London. He added, though, that it was not the role of U.S. senators to "micro-manage" foreign policy, and that was that on the topic of international affairs.

*

And so it went Tuesday, as Roy Michael Huffington Jr. waded into the last month of his audacious campaign to become U.S. senator from Texas via California. His appearance before the well-heeled Commonwealth Club of San Francisco provided a rare opportunity to see Huffington perform in person, outside a television set.

It was a curious performance. More than anything, Huffington proved himself to be a slow, careful reader. He had a prepared text, and he stuck to it, word by plodding word. He deviated only once in any significant fashion, inserting a paragraph early on that was intended to address the ongoing flurry of reports about his wife, her associations with a controversial religious sect and her behind-the-scenes role in his campaign.

"I want to dispel any notion," he read, "that she is the driving force behind my campaign--a point I will make many times in this speech that she wrote for me."

The joke, not a bad one, registered but a few laughs. Similarly, his obvious applause lines were met most often with an embarrassing silence. It wasn't so much that this was a hostile crowd. The tepid response, frankly, seemed more a function of Huffington's delivery. When it comes to the entertainment of politics, he is no Ronald Reagan or even, for that matter, Bruce Herschensohn. They were conservatives who could make even the most hostile crowds come around with their wit, timing and obvious sense of passion.

By contrast, Huffington's performance seemed almost devoid of any animation, any passion. He could have been reading the encyclopedia. He read slowly, painstakingly and, yes, accurately, attempting an occasional awkward hand gesture. At times it almost was painful to watch, and underscored the brilliance of his campaign handlers--whoever they may be. They knew what they were doing when they kept Huffington under wraps for so long.

*

Of course, even sentences delivered in monotone can look clever when quoted in print. And Lord knows Washington has enough pretty talkers already. Certainly, there were passages in Huffington's text most voters will find appealing. As this speech--to borrow what seems to be the Huff's favorite phrase--made perfectly clear, he's all for God, free trade, less taxes, efficient government, charitable works and simple human kindness. He opposes high taxes, pork, fraud and "them."

Who is "them?" Them, to borrow from the speech, is the "Clinton-Feinstein-Boxer regime." Them is the "good ol' boy network, the pundits, the PACs, the lobbyists." Them is "big government" and "the Beltway Establishment," the "Capital Gang" and the "secular fundamentalists."

The text was loaded with such phrases, each meant to signal to a disgruntled populace that Huffington is the new Ross Perot, a protest candidate volunteering to serve as a blunt instrument with which the angry and dispossessed--"us," in his political construction--can bash "them." His message is: Send a message, vote Huffington, and who cares if he doesn't know diddly about the details of governance?

This is a powerful and increasingly popular approach. For good reason, bashing government has replaced baseball as the national pastime. It is the message--along with $10 million in media buys--that has lifted this unknown from the Texas oil patch into a dead heat with his opponent, Dianne Feinstein. Any serious government basher with enough money could have done the same. The question in Huffington's case is whether he, as a sitting congressman and former Pentagon bureaucrat himself, truly believes in the words--or only in their political power. His performance Tuesday provided no clear answer. But he sure can read.

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