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GOP CONVENTION '96 | FROM THE FLOOR

Political and Other Animals Roam the Zoo

August 14, 1996|BILL BOYARSKY and AMY WALLACE

It was the hottest ticket in town, an after-hours gathering of the glitterati at the San Diego Zoo. We walked down a darkened path, past the gorilla exhibit, flashing our hard-to-get credentials at a series of security checkpoints. Suddenly, straight ahead, was a grouping of one of the rarest, most regal, and--at this convention--most despised American breeds: Kennedys!

We had arrived at a party put on by the political magazine George. We approached the editor, John F. Kennedy Jr., who was friendly but seemed a little bored. He looked great, with that square jaw and all that thick, wavy hair. He wasn't here as a celebrity, he insisted, but as a journalist attending his first Republican convention.

"I'm a member of the working press, just like you," he told us as a bright-eyed young man stepped in to ask for his autograph. Kennedy demurred: "If I start now, I'll never get out of here."

*

Our pursuit of the inside story had landed us at one of the convention's biggest parties. Paparazzi and television crews were corralled behind ropes (though for some reason they put down their cameras when we appeared). The party was so glitzy they even made the animals work late, with zoo employees parading several small captives around on leashes. They urged guests to play with the beasts, which included two baby tigers. We fed a hibiscus flower to a tree kangaroo named Bentley.

The evening lured other creatures of the night: a pack of literary celebrities usually found prowling in New York, Washington and occasionally Beverly Hills. They review each others' books. They go to each others' dinner parties. They gossip about each other. Far from their natural habitat, they seemed grateful for a place to roost.

*

Arianna and Mike Huffington were there, hand-in-hand, not far from Al Franken, author of the bestseller "Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot." Nearby was Bill Maher, the host of the TV talk show "Politically Incorrect," Chris Rock of "Saturday Night Live" and radio satirist Harry Shearer. Over in the shadows, a few feet away from tabloid TV personality Deborah Norville, was Norman Mailer.

He was chatting with a young woman in a sexy apricot dress. His white hair and tanned face contrasted nicely with his blue blazer and white shirt. He looked grandfatherly, a far cry from the rumpled, angry warrior-journalist of a quarter-century ago.

Mailer's accounts of the tumultuous political conventions of the 1960s and early 1970s were classics and we wondered how he'd find drama in this bland political meeting. We elbowed through the crowd around his table and sat down.

"I don't give interviews, not while I'm working," he said politely, explaining that he was covering the convention for George. "If I give you an interview, I have to give one to everybody."

*

Another Kennedy showed up: Maria Shriver, sans Arnold, was accompanied by two young female assistants who stuck to her side so closely that it was difficult to get near her. So we turned our attention back to John-John, who was chatting with Newsweek's chief political correspondent, Howard Fineman.

We tried not to stare but we were distracted by something stuck jauntily behind Kennedy's ear. We hoped it was a journalist's pencil but it was an unfiltered cigarette. We asked him what brand. Camel, he said. We told him that was a nasty habit. He smiled. "Dole says it's healthy," he said.

*

Dee Dee Myers, President Clinton's former press secretary and now co-host of a CNBC network interview show and Washington editor of Vanity Fair, was there too. We'd known her since her days at Los Angeles City Hall and she looked happy, healthy and confident--totally different from the embattled woman who was paid to make excuses for the incompetence of her White House bosses.

This was Myers' first Republican convention and we wondered what she thought. She admitted that in many ways, it was no different than a Democratic version--people in funny outfits, screaming at the top of their lungs whenever a speaker mentioned their home state.

But there were subtle differences. "Never saw so much hair spray," she said. Compared to Democrats, she concluded, Republicans "are whiter, older and a little better dressed."

*

We met our third Kennedy before we left: 29-year-old Douglas, son of Robert and Ethel. He's a soft-spoken man who, like his cousin John, is in journalism--a general assignment reporter for Fox News. Unlike John, Douglas didn't start at the top with his own magazine but on the streets as a crime reporter for the New York Post. And, we hear, a great one. A reporter for the rival New York Daily News told us Douglas was so relentless that he once found a corpse that police had overlooked at the scene of a multiple murder.

Our kind of Kennedy.

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