PRESIDENTIAL WEEKEND: Juggernaut Snits and Shoe Eaters

“What’s the name of your paper again? I don’t believe you’re from a legitimate news organization. Thanks for calling.” Click.

That was the White House Press Office, responding to a request to attend George Bush’s massive Friday-night fund-raiser in Century City. It was, admittedly, a last-minute call — the very morning of the event — but the credentialing had ended only the evening before, so I gave it a shot.

“Can’t hurt to ask, right?” I offered.

Wrong: It seems my third-grade teacher had inhabited the body of this guy in the Press Office, and was now chastising me for not doing my homework. Rather than just politely declining my request, he lectured me about timeliness and event planning. “Didn’t you read the media advisory?” he snarled. Duh.

At least the Bush event was accessible to the well-prepared. Howard Dean’s dinner the same evening was closed to the press altogether. Dean is apparently distrustful of reporters, a wariness that likely deepened after Tim Russert tried to ambush the former governor earlier in the week on a Meet the Press rematch (Dean had the audacity to perform well when they sparred in March). Dean’s campaign has been so cagey that the Vermont press corps recently sued just to get a copy of his itinerary.

Yet, even from outside, the dueling dinners in Los Angeles illustrate the looming challenge posed by Bush’s staggering fund-raising efficiency: a plate for Bush at the Century Plaza cost $2,000, while the average check at Dean’s fund-raiser was closer to $200. In just a few hours on Friday, Bush brought in nearly as much money as Dean raised all year. And dig the logistics: Is it just pure coincidence that Bush is barnstorming California, a solidly Blue state, when Dean is raising money in Los Angeles and half of the remaining Democratic primary hopefuls are also in town? Onward rolls the juggernaut.

Not to be outdone, another presidential force gathered momentum across town on Sunday. It was more of a reconnaissance mission, but surely a successful one for Senator Hillary Clinton, who managed to sign 800 copies of her new book, Living History, within 90 minutes at Vroman’s in Pasadena. This event was open to as much of the public willing to stand in line for up to 12 hours, and by the reckoning of the Vroman’s staff, that was more than 1,000 people. Many of those were turned away without getting vouchers for books — although there were some scalpers, I heard, as mayhem broke out by the door and a frantic Clinton fan stepped on my lemon scone.

It was the 14th store appearance for Senator Clinton since her book was released on June 9. Since then, somewhere near 800,000 copies have sold, 17,000 of which she signed personally.

“That’s a lot of writing, especially with the three names,” said a concerned admirer in line. To conserve time (and her wrists), however, Senator Clinton’s signature has evolved in past weeks, arriving at the current abridgment: Hillary R. Cl. As Clinton ‰ dutifully inscribed her new autograph and exchanged expert pleasantries several hundred times over, Living History was making its debut on The New York Times best-seller list at Number 1.

All of which means that Tucker Carlson will indeed be eating his own shoe within the next week or so. The dandified young conservative from Crossfire and The Weekly Standard seems to have made a really poor bet when he promised a footwear feast if the book sells a million copies or Simon & Schuster recoups the $8 million advance it paid for Hillary’s memoir. At $28 apiece, the nearly exhausted million-copy first run means the book is coming into black ink.

“Do you think he’s calling Werner Herzog for a good recipe?” I asked Senator Clinton’s press secretary, Phillipe Reines.

“I hear James Carville is going to make a nice shoe gumbo,” he replied. I, for one, would rather see Tucker eat his silly bow tie.

Unlike at some earlier signings, no protesters showed up. And despite the heat, everyone was loud and excited. There were raucous cheers from a gallery of onlookers, people who didn’t even have books: “We love you!” “Go, Hillary!” “We’re praying for you!” “Hillary for President!”

Everyone I talked to wanted to see Hillary run for her husband’s old job.

“I really hope we see her on the ballot in 2008,” said one woman, a Democratic Party activist from Orange County.

“Would I vote for Hillary? Hell, yes!” said another.

“Why wait for 2008?” added still another. “Let’s see her get in now!”

Polls do show Clinton as an instant Democratic front-runner were she to run in the 2004 race. And she’s the only Democrat these days who can make $8 million within three weeks. Republicans, of course, have taken notice: A recent letter from the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee warned its readers about Clinton’s “ambition and prolific fund-raising” abilities. “Is this the face of the next Senate majority leader?” it asked with alarm. Beneath the din of “Hillary!” fans and a million books flying off shelves, they can make out the distinct, uncomfortable rumble of another juggernaut. Clinton’s supporters sense it too: “I think she’d win,” said one. “With four more years of this crap, it’d be easy.”

—Joshuah Bearman

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