Linc, We Hardly Knew Ye

My brief stint on the Free Beacon’s Lincoln Chafee beat

Lincoln Chafee / AP
October 23, 2015

"Get in touch, see if you can follow him around."

It was, in my mind, worthy of that famous scene in Citizen Kane where Thompson is put on the trail of Rosebud. I was sitting at my desk waxing poetic about Lincoln Chafee, the former senator and governor of Rhode Island who had shown up Hillary Clinton at the first Democratic presidential debate by coyly announcing that he had never had a scandal in his political career. Why, I asked my colleagues, was this squeaky-clean public servant, a classicist, an equestrian who spent seven years in the '80s trimming hooves at racetracks before running for city council in Warwick, Rhode Island, a cheerful, self-effacing oldy-timey WASP with an agreeable taste in scarves and jackets not an—ahem—shoe-in for the Democratic nomination? At the very least, he shouldn’t be condescended to or bullied by the likes of Wolf Blitzer, who asked him after the debate whether he was "embarrassing himself" by running. Might be worth keeping up with, a write-up here or there, maybe even a feature piece, especially if he keeps up the kittenish anti-Hillary stuff.

My editor agreed and gave me carte blanche to report on all things Chafee.

Well, I didn’t need to be told twice, did I? Immediately I sent an email to the campaign asking for a sit-down. I re-read the press release in which he announced his pursuit of the nomination and figured out who his spokesperson was—the former communications director, it turned out, for the Rhode Island Department of Motor Vehicles. I started poking around I took it all in: the idiosyncratic background and "Priorities" pages ("I authored the Brownfields Act, which has made it possible to clean up, redevelop, and reuse thousands of once lightly contaminated buildings and sites throughout the United States"), the testimonials from Robert Byrd and the New England Institute of Technology, the unfortunate lack of merchandise. Looking at the calendar for events I could attend, I saw that the next thing on the list, apart from a delightful-sounding "Farmer’s [sic] Harvest Dinner" with the Mt. Chocorua Area Democrats, was the Democratic Women’s Leadership Forum in Washington, where he was slated to speak alongside his fellow Democratic presidential hopefuls (sans, of course, Jim Webb). I signed up and crossed my fingers. It sounded so cozy and decent. Surely, I thought, this was a setting in which Linc’s particular charms could shine through.

That was nearly two weeks ago. The next week brought some bad news. According to the latest round of filings with the Federal Election Commission, Chafee had only raised $30,000, less than Hillary was routinely raking in at individual house parties. Only one person had given him the maximum $2,700.

And then Thursday I saw a piece in the New York Times with the headline "Lincoln Chafee Plans Update to His Campaign." It followed up a tweet from the Chafee account announcing that at the event to which I had been looking forward he would "address my future in the campaign." Things were looking grim.

On the way to the D.C. Hyatt this morning my mind was filled with foreboding. After a tedious convocation from Debbie Wasserman Schultz, he was to be the day’s first speaker, slated for 8:15 a.m. I slumped in my chair in the ballroom with my coffee and oatmeal streusel croustade and waited. And then he appeared, beaming, to the strains of the Rascals’ immortally dorky 1968 number-one hit "People Got to Be Free." He was wearing a dark suit and one of his trademark non-boring ties—a delicious gold and green tessellating pattern that reminded me of the tripod walkers in Steven Spielberg’s version of The War of the Worlds. Never one for bland presidential blue and red, Linc.

"Good morning," he said. "Good morning." Even if I had somehow missed the Times piece I would have known something was wrong here. The buoyant boyish optimism was still there, but it was muted somehow. "As you know, I have been campaigning on a platform of prosperity through peace, but after much thought I have decided to end my campaign for the presidency today." It was spoken just like that, the quick turn around the coordinating conjunction not preparing the listener syntactically for the big news in the next clause. There was almost no reaction. A few low sounds. He didn’t wait for more. "Thank you," he said, looking down sheepishly, and pressed on.

He touched on Democratic talking points (immigration reform, climate change, "the rights of our LGBT friends") and a few of his own humane concerns ("we need to do more for Native Americans"). He also drew upon his classical background. "Since today is all about women’s leadership," he said, "it reminds me of one of my favorite Greek plays, Lysistrata, a comedy from about 400 B.C.E. by Aristophanes. In that play, a group of women, fed up with the war-mongering of their husbands, agree to—and how do I say this appropriately?—withhold their favors until peace returns. And it worked!"

This diffident flourish didn’t do much for the women sitting next to me, whose expressions shifted briefly from bored to baffled, but I was seized with a powerful sense of regret that I was listening to a concession speech of sorts. Ancient Greek literature as a template for human flourishing in 21st-century America? Chafee is the most reactionary candidate to have pursued the presidential nomination of a major party in living memory, maybe even since the Founding.

When he finished speaking, there was brief applause but no real enthusiasm in the room. Almost immediately Debbie Wasserman Schultz reappeared on stage, dripping with condescension. Chafee, she said, was "a class act," a public servant who put his conscience first, whose "former party had left him."

This, I think, is probably true—it happened in 1964, when Chafee was eight years old, with the nomination of Barry Goldwater and the ascendancy of liberal economics and was cemented in the ’80s when what we now think of as social conservatism came into its own. Nelson Rockefeller and a few other East Coast moderates stayed on as tokens, just as a few deficit hawks and budget busters in the South were to remain nominal Democrats. By the time Chafee came to the Senate in 1999, filling the vacancy left by the death of his father, John, he and his old man were both relics.

But who knows? Donald Trump’s candidacy has altered the GOP landscape considerably. The noisy Tea Party brand of radical classical liberalism is giving way to the pragmatic reform conservatism of Paul Ryan. People are talking about poverty and tax increases for the wealthy. Dope legalization is imminent nationwide. Rob Portman has given up on gay marriage. Rand Paul doesn’t like wars or drones or the police. Louie Gohmert’s speakership is looking less and less likely every day. Meanwhile the Republicans are nowhere near settling on their man—or woman—for 2016.

The water’s warm, Linc.