Beyond the silos and off the Interstate, Sen. Phil Gramm kept to his rounds, bearing his presidential notions into town here like a humbled traveling salesman lugging an increasingly heavy sample case.
“Terrific, terrific,” he said as he was gifted by his local host with still another community T-shirt.
The shirt seemed a pathetic mark of Gramm’s exhausting, hubristic route of self-salesmanship. A politician usually full of himself, the senator has suddenly been cast as the Willy Loman of this year’s Iowa production. People seem to gather now to witness the death of a self-salesman.
After investing a year’s campaign effort and millions of dollars here, Gramm could be on the brink of failure with his grand ambition even before Iowans can rate his appeal in their Monday caucus voting.
“There is no substitute for looking someone in the face,” the senator said rather gently, shaking one more Iowan’s hand after emerging from his dusty campaign bus. Sincerity, so often elusive in any candidate’s art, suddenly seemed his to command. Gramm was plainly human as he searched for comfort in the handshake rituals of campaigning, needing mercy from the dirge of conventional wisdom that now dogs him.
Look, goes the dirge, here comes that booming, ebullient candidate who actually invented a new form of self-defeat, who finally became a dramatic presence for his intimations of Willy Loman. Here comes the talkative optimist who overreached from Iowa into Louisiana for a straw poll that most commentators had counted as a nonentity until Gramm himself failed to score the sweep he sought to engineer.
In terms of the wagon-pulling metaphor long favored by the senator in his prescriptions for other troubled humans (“Get out and help the rest of us pull.”), Gramm had designed a juggernaut that only managed to roll back over his toes.
“He’s a different guy this time, not nearly the level of confidence of his last visit,” said Ken Sullivan, a reporter at The Cedar Rapids Gazette.
Gramm smiles with resignation as the question is put to him at each of the hamlet stops of these final days: Has he been forced against all yearning to see the limit to his presidential ambition? Is he done?
Abraham Lincoln, as good a scrambling politician as he was heroic president, described it well: “No man knows, when that presidential grub gets to gnawing at him, just how deep it will get until he has tried it.”
Everyone watched for the gnawing as Gramm talked at the Cedar Rapids Police Department He seemed pained, but, yes, still suffering that gnawing gladly.
Willy Loman himself could not have sounded more battered by fate, yet resistant to it, than Gramm as he vowed resurrection.
“If straw polls made you president, I’d be president already,” the candidate growled.