Stealing from the Best
Finding his comfort zone halfway between holy roller and Hollywood hack on the campaign trail, Jack suddenly realizes it’s not about who you really are, but who people want you to be.
By John Armstrong
It was a good thing I made my move when I did. The next morning we left for California.
We took off in more of the drizzling rain and grey skies that mean spring in Washington and arrived in the hard glare and 70 degrees-plus heat of early May in Los Angeles. The waiting limos took us down palm-lined streets to the hotel and I got right to work pacing the floor and chain-smoking, waiting for Vanessa to arrive.
Bobby and Sydney were in meetings all day in a room reserved for just that purpose and again I was largely unneeded, except when I was briefly trotted out for inspection by men whose names I forgot immediately after Bobby introduced us. I had given up on trying to keep such information in my head. It had become a blur of faces and names and even cities. Except for major geographical moves like this one, I had to check the speech each night to remember what city and state I was in, and if I stayed the course I still had many weeks of it to go.
I stubbed out the last of my pack and looked at my watch. Her flight wasn’t due until this evening; about the time I was due in front of another crowd. Finally, I sent for William and told him to get a car and we went out to see Hollywood.
It doesn’t exist.
Oh, there’s a neighborhood called Hollywood and there are movie studios behind high gates which I’m sure we could have toured if I’d invoked the Kennedy name; we probably owned some of them. The Lucianos had an interest in at least one of them through Meyer and Rothstein; Frank said the Jews had never had an empire of their own so they created Hollywood. Now, of course, they also had Florida and Cuba.
That made me wish Meyer were here. I missed that old man and realized how fond of him I’d become. In fact, I missed New York and the office and my work, and the food. Right now I wanted a slice of New York pizza to fold up and bite into, the grease running down my wrist. I settled for a pair of tacos and a cold Mexican beer at a drive-in.
When I say Hollywood isn’t there, what I mean is that I grew up at the movies and all my childhood heroes were up there on the screen, George Raft as The Kingpin, Sydney Greenstreet in Mr. Big, Jimmy Stewart and John Wayne, sometimes cowboys but most often fighting the Feds. Frank still had a big theatrical poster on the wall behind his desk of Wayne as Alvin Karpis in Alone Against the The FBI.
So after seeing the movies and reading the screen magazines, when you get to Hollywood you sort of expect to see them walking down the street. They aren’t – it’s all souvenir shops and corner bars and stands selling guides to the stars’ homes. Why you’d want to go stand on someone’s front lawn on the off chance you’ll see them putting the cat out or fetching the paper from the front steps, eludes me. My advice is, you want to see stars, stick to the moviehouse.
We did manage to kill some time. We drove down to Santa Monica and watched the weightlifters showing off on Muscle Beach, surrounded by beautiful women in very small bathing suits, though not as small as the musclemen’s. I wondered if they realized that their over-inflated muscles made other parts of their body look very tiny in comparison. The women didn’t seem to care.
We walked out to the end of the pier and bought hot dogs to throw to the seagulls and then it was time to get back to the hotel. There was still a show to put on.
We drove down to Santa Monica and watched the weightlifters showing off on Muscle Beach, surrounded by beautiful women in very small bathing suits, though not as small as the musclemen’s. I wondered if they realized that their over-inflated muscles made other parts of their body look very tiny in comparison. The women didn’t seem to care.
A continent away from where we started it was the same as it was in Philly, Rochester, Davenport or Detroit, barring minor changes to the historical flummery I dished out. The introductory speech was always the same though the man delivering it in each city was different. Most times we never even met; they were busy conniving with Bobby and Sydney before and after.
I did my act, and I have to say that by now I was getting pretty good at it. I was finding cheers in places the writers hadn’t even expected them. I’d discovered over the course of the campaign that you really couldn’t overdo it. The more you hammed it up the more they loved it. After the first couple of speeches Sydney had pulled me aside to give me some pointers, and one of them was, “You have to play to the back row.”
“Imagine you’re in a big auditorium,” he said, “five times the size of the room you’re in. In the back row there’s an old man and the battery in his hearing aid is giving out. I want you to be forceful enough so he can hear every word.”
My view was that not only would I hurt the eardrums of the people in front, since I always had a mike at the podium, but I was also apt to look pretty foolish.
Sydney shook his head. “The first rule of politics is, the louder you are, the more people believe you. You can’t be too loud – it’s not possible, and you can’t be too theatrical, either. Don’t just stand there, reading – get excited, get angry, wave your arms.
“Look at the preachers – they slam the Bible down on the pulpit, they smack it with their hand, they cry and scream and yell blue murder. If you can get to somewhere midway between a carnival barker’s spiel and a tent-show sermon, we’ll have to order bigger trucks to carry the money.”
When I said it was odd he always seemed to reference the Church and its priests in these mentoring sessions, he gave me a funny look and said, “Why wouldn’t I? They’ve been doing it a lot longer than we have.
“Remember this, kid, always steal from the best.”
So California was just another night in another town in most respects, except that I had taken Sydney’s advice and by now usually finished the speech covered in sweat with my hair hanging in my eyes. Honestly, while I didn’t believe much of what I was saying, it became easier and easier to forget that and just get into the spirit of it and give myself over to the performance. It entertained the audience, and me too, and made me wonder several times if maybe I’d missed a bet by not going into the priesthood. I mean, really – they work one day a week and there’s no heavy lifting. Not the worst way to make a dollar, if you can live with yourself. Then I thought about Vanessa and tossed the idea aside like a used match.
There was one odd moment during the meet and greet. Sydney pointed me towards a 50-ish man in a bad suit: Dick somebody. He was a Quaker minister, a twitchy, nervous type with chipmunk jowls and a heavy five o’clock shadow. In his case it looked to be closer to midnight.
I’d shaken hands with plenty of clergymen on the trip; there was a concerted effort by the campaign to get the Protestants to forget their doctrinal squabbles and climb aboard in the greater cause of fighting rampant Catholicism. The fact I was one myself had troubled Sydney – “Christ, he might as well be a Jew” was his assessment of the problem. Finally, he told me that when it came up I should tell people I considered myself more a simple Christian than a practicing Catholic, and hope for the best.
“Welcome to California, Mr. Kennedy,” the Quaker said. I could see beads of sweat on his upper lip. “That was an impressive speech. Very… animated.
“I always thought that if things were different I might have gone into public service but …” He shrugged, giving a sense of great disappointment on his part and worse luck on ours. Then he brightened again and said, “In fact, truth be told, I would have to describe myself as a Republican, but I think this time I can hold my nose and support a Democrat.” He laughed at that and it was about the most unconvincing thing I’d ever heard. I couldn’t get away fast enough. I don’t think I’ve ever so immediately disliked a man as much as I did him.
As I was making my excuses I saw Vanessa across the room and abandoned Dick in mid-sentence, his. I pushed my way through the crowd and likely spilled a few drinks. Then she was in my arms and I realized how much I’d missed her, the smell of her, the feel of her against my body.
“Never again,” I said when I came up for air.
“I know,” she said. “I couldn’t study, couldn’t eat, couldn’t sleep. It was awful. All I wanted to do was finish the damn tests and get on the plane.”
I took her arm and pulled her towards the door. Bobby was in a group of three or four men, in deep discussion about who knows what. Actually, I did know: money and power. I could think of more important things. I caught his eye and pointed to Vanessa, then the door. He nodded and turned back to his auctioneering and we ran for it like kids let out of school.
Mob Rule is a work of fiction, serialized exclusively in The Ex-Press. To read past instalments, click here.