Still Holding Out for the Hero?

Friday  February 29, 2008

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Still Holding Out for the Hero?

by RAHA NADDAF and BRYAN THOMAS

You won’t be able to resist the most addictive video game on earth after reading our foolproof (and Slash-endorsed!) guide to rocking Guitar Hero III

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Activision’s Guitar Hero III has finally reached the cultural-saturation point where if you haven’t played it, don’t know someone who’s played it, or don’t want to play it, you are either dead or Mitt Romney. Here is our essential, expert-laden, foolproof, possibly belated guide to total Guitar Hero domination. 

10. Rock harder.
It’s tough using your pinkie on the frets, so start playing the harder levels—even if you suck—to get accustomed to using your littlest digit. Says Alan Flores, Guitar Hero III’s lead designer, “You also don’t have to have your index finger on the first fret. Take your three fingers and shift up the neck. That way you can extend your index finger back instead of making your pinkie stretch.”

9. Jazz hands!
Practice finger flourishes—it’s the only way to stay afloat on the harder levels, and they look impressive to anyone watching. Techniques to live by: Strum up and down on fast-paced passages, hammer on and pull off (fancy talk for holding down the lower notes), and tap frets with both hands (double tap). Very Eddie Van Halen.

8. Save that star.
Using Star Power—a bonus you get for playing well—as soon as you get it is an amateur move. You can score up to eight times as many points if you save it for when you’re hitting every note. “Then use the whammy bar. It’s the best way to get even more points when you have Star Power,” says Guitar Hero III champion Kelly Law-Yone.

7. Cheat to win.
We never said this, but… If you go onto Google, you can find a series of game cheats to liven up GH3. A favorite is the “unlock all” code, which offers access to all the songs available in the game—great when you’re entertaining friends.

6. Under no condition should you make the John Mayer guitar face.
Alternatively, “The vacant I’m-in-a-movie-theater-watching-a-movie stare seems to work better for a lot of people. Keeps you focused,” says John Bannon, who’s hosted weekly GH3 competitions at Orleans Bar & Restaurant in the Boston area.

5. Challenge a real rocker.
Turns out that actual musicians take a while to adjust to the frets and strumming style. “I have the hardest time going down to the orange button with the pinkie,” says Slash. Legend Joe Satriani calls GH3 “very demanding on the hands.” And Bret Michaels claims his 7-year-old daughter kicks his ass during “Slow Ride” by Foghat. “It’s embarrassing,” he says.

4. A Wii piece of advice.
If you’re playing on your Wii, return the disc. The packaging says Dolby Pro Logic II, but the sound is actually mono (and there’s a class-action lawsuit pending because of it!). Activision will send you a new one that supports actual stereo sound, so you can turn it up to 11.

3. Hail to the Chiefs.
When you earn enough “cash” playing the game, buy Kaiser Chiefs’ “Ruby,” a solid addition to your set. “The most important things are the bonus tracks. A lot of people overlook them if they don’t know the songs, but they teach you how to approach a song cold and sight-read, which gives you a leg up,” says Kevin Pereira, host of Attack of the Show! on G4.

2. Bass sucks.
Never get stuck playing the bass line in Co-op mode. You might as well be on tambourine in a real band. Sorry, Flea.

1. Blink.
Seriously. You will start to cry.

Illustrations by Jason Lee

Root for the Boys of March

Wednesday  February 27, 2008

Root for the Boys of March

by Dan Fierman

Spring training is big business now. Here's our argument for why it's even better than the regular season.

1. They ain’t screwing around down there. From the new Legends Field in Tampa to Phoenix’s Municipal Stadium, almost all the spring-training parks are new and nice. They have tiki bars and ocean views. They have fish tacos and sweet lawn seats. And you’ll still never get better baseball for the dough—about twenty bucks a ticket.

2. Florida isn’t your only option anymore. Hell, it’s not even your best option. The humidity, the rain delays, the octogenarian ticket takers doddering behind the turnstiles? No thanks. We’ll take Arizona, where it’s always eighty degrees and always sunny and there are golf courses as far as the eye can see.

3. Tampa finally has more than just world-class strip clubs. It has world-class gambling facilities, too! The Seminole Hard Rock—which used to be a sad bastion of simple slot machines—now has everything short of a sports book, craps, and roulette. Spring baseball and casinos: They go together like a late-career resurgence and a cycle of B12 shots.

4. You’ll never sound smarter at your fantasy draft. It’s the ninth round. You’re sitting on Francisco Liriano. Your buddy five picks ahead is toying with the idea of drafting your guy…and his surgically reconstructed elbow. Now memorize and repeat: “You know, I saw him down in Fort Myers against the Sox. Velocity was down. No tilt on the slider. I’m just sayin’.…”

5. It’s still the ultimate excuse for late-winter debauchery, ’cause somehow “Honey, me and the guys are going down to Florida to go on a five-day bender while you stay home and shovel snow” doesn’t quite have the same ring as “We’re going to spring training.”

Springtime For Hitters
5 Top Spring-Training Destinations

Dodgertown
Vero Beach, Florida

Dodgertown
Photograph courtesy of Dodgertown

You have one more chance to catch the Dodgers in the most history-rich park in Florida—hell, the Brooklyn squad played there—before they relocate to Arizona next year.

Hohokam Stadium
Mesa, Arizona

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Photograph courtesy of Hohokam Stadium

The stadium is picturesque; the town is more so. Plus, you get to enjoy it all with batshit Cubs fans. The only drawback: Replacement kidneys are easier to come by than tickets.

Legends Field
Tampa
Sure, it’s the Yankees. But the facilities are new and nifty—right down to a mini Monument Park—and it’s impossible to really appreciate the effects of steroids unless you see them up close.

Scottsdale Stadium
Scottsdale

Scottsdalenightstadiumaerial
Photograph courtesy of Scottsdale Stadium

Not only is the Giants’ spring-training home now Barry Bonds–free, it’s also a short drive from golf meccas, including the legendary TPC Scottsdale Champions Course.

Tigertown
Lakeland, Florida

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Photograph courtesy of Tigertown

The Tigers have played in Lakeland since 1934—and despite some renovations, their park is still the best dump in spring training. Hmmm. Still smells like Hank Greenberg.

How I Learned to (Sorta) Love the Kindle

Monday  February 25, 2008


How I Learned to (Sorta) Love the Kindle

Amazon’s new reading device offers more than 90,000 books—as well as newspapers and magazines—at your fingertips. But can you actually read a Kindle without getting laser surgery? Our resident tech geek, Kevin Sintumuang, boots up and sounds off

Kindle

I wanted to hate the Kindle. The whole idea of electronic books in general annoyed me—just another gadget that solves a problem that doesn’t really exist. I don’t think anyone has ever sat with a book and said, “If only this thing had batteries…”

So when it arrived at the office, I released my preconceived gadget rage upon the angular slab of white plastic: “This thing looks like a Tandy computer from 1982!” “It’s like reading a book on an Etch A Sketch!” “How many whacks with a hammer will it take to destroy it?”

However, I put my hammer aside and decided to spend a few weeks with the Kindle. On the subway. In bed. In the bathroom. Everywhere humans read. And I’m surprised to say it: The Kindle isn’t half bad.

Although its screen is crisper than that of the Sony Reader, the Kindle’s main competitor, its real saving grace is its wireless store. Through a high-speed data network, you have access to more than 90,000 books that you can download for anywhere from $3 to $10. In the airport and want to read The Secret? Bam! Seconds later, you’ve got it. The first chapters are free—which we hope will keep you from buying The Secret.

But my favorite thing about the Kindle? Newspapers you subscribe to are automatically downloaded overnight. I can now get through two papers on my morning commute. In the past, I’d be lucky to get through two sections before retreating in defeat to my iPod, having given up on origami-folding my paper without elbowing people.

Not that there aren’t times when I want to condemn the Kindle to the technology hall of shame. Like before I got used to the black-and-white flash between page turns, or when I accidentally hit the awkwardly placed buttons, or when I tell people it’s $400 and they laugh at me. (Rightly so. I’d pay $150 for it—tops.)

The Kindle excels when you’re traveling—my carry-on is much lighter these days—but the rest of the time I crave the finer, overlooked nuances of good ol’ printed matter. When I get to the office, I still scan the paper. The boldness of headlines and pictures has always been a good indication of what’s important to read; everything on the Kindle has a sameness to it. And while the ADD in me likes being able to carry several half-read books at once on my Kindle, I miss the sense of accomplishment I get as the pages in my right hand grow thinner and thinner as I near the end. That’s a feeling that’s hard to replicate, and even harder to give up.

Kindle is available now from Amazon.com

Illustration by McKibillo

The Godfather, Part II

Tuesday  February 19, 2008

The Godfather, Part II

In his first major interview in twenty years, the elusive Hal Steinbrenner talks to GQ about Roger Clemens and steroids, life with his "overbearing" father, and who's really calling the shots at Yankee Stadium

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In February 2007, George Steinbrenner’s younger son, Hal, quietly took over the New York Yankees from Steve Swindal, whose marriage to Hal’s sister had come apart. A few weeks later, Hal’s brother Hank joined him. The ascent of the Steinbrenner sons, unrevealed for many months, was the surest possible indication that George—who spoke frequently of “letting the young elephants in the tent” but could never actually bring himself to surrender power—was unwell. “He wouldn’t have given anybody this opportunity,” says Darrell Gwynn, a former business partner.

But who were his sons? Little was known about them. Reportedly, both had done well in business, Hal managing the family’s hotels, Hank its thoroughbred farm. Neither had ever shown much interest in the Yankees, for reasons that were the cause of much speculation. “The father is not an easy man to work for, as we know,” says former baseball commissioner Fay Vincent. “I can’t imagine being George Steinbrenner’s son,” says Gwynn. “Shit, if you didn’t take the trash out, what would happen to you?”

During their first, busy off-season, Hank, 50, emerged as a sort of Sonny Corleone figure, impetuous and impudent, throwing down gauntlets left and right. “He wasn’t that way growing up,” says Yankee ex-COO Leonard Kleinman in surprise. (I’ll be told that at one point in his youth, rather than emulate his father, Hank had sought to distance himself from him, changing the name on his mailbox to read “Hank Stein.”) His outspokenness—on subjects ranging from A-Rod to Joe Torre to a possible trade for ace Johan Santana—led many to assume he was running the team, but behind the scenes the chain of command was a work in progress. “They indicated that now Hank is the baseball person,” a baffled Scott Boras tells me during the first, ill-fated round of A-Rod negotiations, “yet they had me talk with Hal.” The brothers handled major decisions tentatively, offering a controversial contract to Yankee manager Joe Torre only after days of deliberations (Torre would reject it) and angering superstar closer Mariano Rivera by delaying his inevitable re-signing. The absence of an enormous personality to blot out these mistakes made them appear more significant than they perhaps were. Throughout, Hal, 38, remained, like Michael Corleone, in the shadows—subtle, wary of media, a private family man.

So I’m shocked when it’s Hal and not his brother who consents to an exclusive interview with GQ. We meet in Tampa, at the team’s Legends Field spring-training complex, soon after archrival Boston’s second World Series victory in four years. (We’ll speak again in February.) He greets me at the reception desk on the executive floor of the complex, wearing khakis and an open-collared button-down. He’s surprisingly boyish looking. Though we’re nearly the same age, I call him “Mr. Steinbrenner,” and he doesn’t ask me to use his first name. As we sit down in a generically furnished conference room, I wonder why we’re not meeting in his office; turns out it’s adjacent to his father’s.

Hal proves to be cagey and prickly but also affable, modest, and disarming. (“If you’re going to use a photo in this article, let me know, will you?” he says. “As opposed to making me look like a dork. I’m hoping to get a date out of this, man.”) And so we begin what he informs me is his first major interview since his student days at Williams College some twenty years ago.

In the press, adjectives like reclusive, shy, and press-averse are often attached to your name. It’s your brother who’s been the face of the team.
I’m more introverted than extroverted, for sure, but I’m definitely not a recluse. Maybe we should have been a little more talkative at the beginning. I can’t speak for Hank, but for me, I had my hands full. I didn’t have time to sit down like I am with you. I’m glad I’m doing it now. But I’m a pretty private person. I don’t need to be seen; I definitely don’t ever want to be recognized or noticed. My dad is a wonderful promoter: He speaks his mind no matter who’s around. I tend to see myself as a little more political. That’s probably a word I shouldn’t use, ’cause there’s nobody more political than him. He’s good. But I’m a little more subtle, a little more calm. Hank has been talking to the press, and he’s taken a little heat off me.

Was there a distinct moment at which you and Hank took control of the Yankees?
No. I obviously became considerably more involved at a somewhat dramatic pace when Steve, my sister’s ex-husband, left [in February of 2007]. A couple months after that, I think Hank realized I could use some help.

Along with the adjectives I mentioned above, certain verbs have been associated with your name in the press.
Any of them good?

Not so much. Various sources say you “hate” and “avidly disdain” the media.
No truth to that. That was Bill Madden [of the New York Daily News]. Look, first of all, I don’t hate anybody. It’s a useless emotion. It accomplishes nothing. He even said I hate the players, which is certainly not true. We’ve all had issues with the media, okay, but at the same time, I understand, Hank understands, they’re in business just like we’re in business.

Am I comfortable dealing with the media? Probably not as comfortable as Hank is. Definitely not as comfortable as my dad was. Have I had disagreements with them in the past, disagreed with things they’ve written and the reasons they wrote them? Yes, of course. But again, I understand what the deal is.

If you really don’t feel any enmity toward the media, I would actually be surprised. Your family has been tabloid fodder almost since the day your dad bought the team.
Maybe I’m numb to it. Maybe I’m just used to it. Look, I care very much what my family thinks of me, my close friends, but I try not to pay attention to what strangers think of me. You could drive yourself crazy doing that, particularly if you’re reading the New York papers every day, which I tend not to do.

Was it always assumed during your childhood that you or Hank would one day take over the Yankees from your dad?
My dad would say, “Someday this is going to be yours.” “We’re counting on you, we’re counting on Hank.” “I’m not going to want to do this forever.” I don’t know [laughs] if that was true. George was very involved, and he loved it. He wanted us around, he wanted us here, but there was nothing that specific about duties. My background in grad school [Hal earned an MBA in 1994] led me to do certain things, like finance, that weren’t his strong points. Hank always loved the baseball operations and knew the statistics for every player. We each had our strengths. I know he saw that.

You call your father George?
That’s purely an office thing. I guess when you’re right out of college and working in the office, you don’t want to go around saying, [puts on little-boy voice] “Well, Daddy said this. Daddy—” Throughout the course of fifteen years, I think it took on a life of its own here, but certainly not at home.

You don’t call him George to his face?
No, of course not. That would be completely disrespectful.

In 1990, it came out that your dad had hired a gambler to try to smear a Yankee player, Dave Winfield, whom he was feuding with. The commissioner eventually banned your dad from baseball for two and half years. Were you angry at him for his behavior? Did you feel it was defensible?
I don’t remember the specifics, but I can certainly tell you I wasn’t upset with him, no. I make it a real good point not to judge people, and I don’t like judging situations that I haven’t been involved with and don’t know all the specifics about. Quite frankly, I had enough on my plate right then trying to get through college. I certainly felt bad for him. Baseball is his love, and to be out of it for a couple of years was really hard on him.

Just before serving his ban, your father tried to enlist your brother to succeed him. Why didn’t Hank want to take over?
My God, that was seventeen years ago. I’m afraid my long-term memory is not quite that good. We had some good people in place; I know Hank knew that. Maybe he felt he wasn’t completely needed, but I can’t really answer those questions for him. Down the line, somebody will ask him and you can get his take. George is a wonderful leader, and there was no need for me to be involved. I was focusing on my major, psychology, and geology and astronomy.

A decade or so ago, press accounts indicated that you and Hank had no interest in taking over the team. As recently as ’05, your PR guy issued a statement saying that your and your brother’s “interests lie in other areas.” Were you interested in assuming control of the team?
Well, yes and no. My kids are first for me, and I was very concerned about having to be out of town and miss a lot of their life. That was one of the things I took into consideration when I didn’t step up the way people thought I should. There’s no doubt that everybody, including George, felt that Steve [Swindal] would be the one to take over. I can’t speak for George, but that’s my take on it. There’s a lot of talk about everything. We had always had a hotel here in Tampa, and I started getting involved with that. But my office has always been here, and I’m here four or five days a week or more.

Ten years ago, George still was very involved. There were certainly times, because he was a very hands-on guy and very overbearing, that my services may not have been needed. I’m sure Hank felt the same way from time to time. But I think my dad has certainly settled down, and I think he’s willing to let other people make decisions more than he used to. He’s still here every day, and we run everything by him.

You observe that your dad was quite hands-on, could be overbearing—
Is that a big surprise?

I think it’s been reported elsewhere.
Phew! No breaking news here.

Is it true that after the 2003 season, your father, in a fit of pique, wanted to get rid of employee dental benefits? Is it true that you persuaded him not to?
Yes, that’s true. That was a disagreement. Look, there have been plenty of those. I don’t really believe he was ever going to do that, but I can’t get in his head.

Did you minimize your Yankee responsibilities because your dad was difficult to work with?
Like I said, at times I felt like my abilities just weren’t needed. No hard feelings, just weren’t needed. Like I said, he’s a hands-on guy, and he made all the decisions himself. He listened to our input, but he still had the final say. I never got the impression that he was trying to exert control over me, beat me down.

When you learned that a reporter had surprised your father in his own house and interviewed him there, what was your reaction? Did you find it invasive?
Evasive or invasive? It was invasive. I think the way it was done was evasive. I’m not going to get too much into it, but was I upset? Of course I was upset. I mean, so would you be if someone did that to your father. It wasn’t done well. It was just an evasive operation that was uncalled-for. Leave it at that.

Do you find the media’s ongoing attempts to interview your dad as he’s leaving his car to enter the stadium similarly inappropriate?
I don’t find that as inappropriate. That’s just a fact of life.

Why is it that the family has chosen not to make a definitive statement on your dad’s health?
Because it’s a private matter. This is a private corporation. I’m not going to comment about my health, ever. It’s the concern of my family and close friends, and as far as I’m concerned, it ends there.

Wouldn’t it put an end to the media’s intrusions into your family’s affairs if you just said, “Look, this is what’s going on, now leave us alone?”
I could probably flip a coin on that one. No, I’m not convinced. Family matters are family matters. That’s the way I view it, and you bet I’m gonna stick to it. There is no doubt our fans have a right to know what’s going on with our baseball operations’ decision-making, because without them we would not be in business. Do people have a right to know about anything having to do with family, my personal family, my extended family? No. No. And if that creates controversy, well, so be it. You cannot beat me into submission on that. Nobody can.

To what degree was your father involved with the A-Rod and Torre negotiations? To what degree was he involved in the selection of Joe Girardi as the new Yankee manager?
He met with all three [managerial] candidates. He was there for all the Torre things, including the meeting with Joe. He was involved with the initial meetings about A-Rod; he was not there for the meeting with A-Rod and [A-Rod’s wife] Cynthia. But he was involved with every aspect of that meeting and what happened before and what happened after. He’s here every day, and we run things by him all the time. And there’s no doubt in the organization of who still is in charge.

Are the young elephants finally in the tent?
I think we are finally in the tent. I think he’s listening to our wisdom, our intuition, and going with recommendations we have, but it’s not like we’re going to make those decisions without him. It’s not like we feel we could. He is the general managing partner.

So he’s still calling the shots.
Of course he’s calling the shots. You don’t think I’m crazy enough to make a decision without him, do you?

I have to ask this next question.
I’m sure.

On your dad’s rare appearances in public, some people, most famously Reggie Jackson, have said that he doesn’t seem like himself, that he doesn’t recognize them. Is he really able to participate constructively in baseball and business decisions?
I’m not getting into the health of my dad, my mom, anybody else. I’m just not going there.

Your dad had a council of advisers, all of whom were coequal, but he unilaterally set the team’s course. Do you think the team is going to be more hierarchical going forward?
I’m going to sound like a military-school guy, but I’m a big believer in chain of command. Under George, I think a lot of people felt like George was going to make the decision, no matter what, and they just didn’t make many decisions. The direction that we’re moving toward is more along the lines of how I think an efficient corporation should run. It doesn’t mean I’m right, but that’s my take. I don’t want to have to be here twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, analyzing every single piece of information that comes across the desk and feeling like I need to make decisions that other people are perfectly capable of making.

We understand this is New York. We understand winning is expected. We want to win. Even if that wasn’t the case, we would want to win; that’s just the way we are. But I think we’re both more introverted and more analytical. We tend to want to take time to come up with a solution to a problem, as opposed to making a seat-of-the-pants–type decision. And I think that showed in some of these off-season signings. Some people didn’t understand why we took so long to decide this or to decide that, but we want to get it right.

Who’s at the top of the chain of command?
What’s been determined is that this is a family business, and if we’re both gonna be involved, it has to be an equal thing, and we both need to be involved with all major decisions, whether it’s the stadium, big expenditures, or [the unconsummated trade for Johan] Santana, for instance. It’s well publicized in New York that we didn’t agree on that deal. My concerns were economical and financial, and I’m not gonna get into those, but I also had baseball concerns. I didn’t want to get rid of these kids! Boy, the last time we had three young pitchers like Philip Hughes, Joba Chamberlain, and Ian Kennedy, I couldn’t even tell you.

The Super Bowl this year was unbelievable, and the one thought I took away really has a lot to do with us this year, with these three young pitchers. Eli struggled a bit his first couple years. I think New York fans might realize now that if you give a young kid time, great things can happen.

Is it true, as the media has suggested, that Brian Cashman’s job is on the line because the Yankees didn’t do the Santana deal?
No, it’s not. I don’t know where the media gets this stuff sometimes. They gotta sell papers, I understand that. You gotta sell magazines, right? The bottom line is Cashman is with us this year. In any given year for the past thirty years, you could probably say, “This year the general manager’s job’s on the line.” That’s par for the course for that job, but certainly not because of one trade, no.

The perception in the media is that Gene Michael, the architect of the great Yankee teams of the late ’90s, hasn’t wielded a great deal of influence in the organization for some years. Is that true? What will his role be going forward?
As far as I’m concerned, it’s absolutely not true. Cashman and Gene talk all the time. Gene was down here interviewing the potential manager candidates, and he’s always been close to George. The two of them sometimes are kind of like Billy Martin and George, but there was always a level of respect there, and that hasn’t changed. I mean, his take on things is as good as anybody’s. We value his input, which is why he was part of all those interviews.

The Yankees signed Roger Clemens twice to record-setting contracts. Did you ever have any questions about the source of his ability, in his forties, to throw ninety-plus miles an hour?
Not on my end, no. Look at Brett Favre in football. I mean, it’s unbelievable what he’s been able to accomplish. Certain guys work extremely hard in the off-season—and Roger always did that—and are able to play longer than other players. No, none of us—at least I never thought, nor was it even discussed, that steroids was the reason why. You’ll see these guys in different sports throughout the decades, and they’re just a step above the rest, being able to compete at an older age. It’s amazing. That’s just what I accepted it to be.

Do you and your brother feel that the organization needs to address the fact that three players from the ’99 and 2000 World Championship teams were named in the Mitchell Report?
I’m not really gonna comment on that. It’s up to them to comment for themselves. There were a lot of names in the Mitchell Report. You saw it. I didn’t read the report page to page, so I just don’t know what the evidence was or wasn’t, how strong the evidence was or wasn’t, or any of that.

It’s been suggested that you and your brother would sell the team after your dad passed away. Given your uneasiness with public life, are you exploring this option?
No, we’re absolutely not planning on selling the team.

Are you willing to concede that Boston, my favorite team, is the superior organization right now?
No, I will never concede. They’ve got a lot of talent, and you’ve done very well the past few years, but let me put it this way: I don’t think you guys wanted to play us in the ALCS. So I will concede nothing. I think we’re better than you.

nate penn is a gq staff writer.

Photographs: AP; Newscom/Splash.

Come to L.A. for... the Food?

Tuesday  February 19, 2008

Come to L.A. for... the Food?

Absolutely. Real restaurants have finally taken root in the town of make-believe. One skeptical—some might say uppity—New York food writer heads west and gets served

by Brett Martin

Until recently, when you thought of Los Angeles restaurants, one sound came to mind: buzz. Never mind that L.A. boasts the same agricultural bounty as foodie San Francisco. Or that two of the most influential chefs of the past thirty years—Wolfgang Puck and Nobu Matsuhisa—had Hollywood starts. In the public mind, L.A.’s eateries were about preening and flirting, seeing and being seen. But there is another sound restaurants can have, and it’s the one I heard recently at Osteria Mozza, one of two restaurants opened in the past year and a half on the corner of Melrose and North Highland by New York’s Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich and local legend Nancy Silverton. It’s the deeper thrum of diners talking with their mouths full, passing dishes back and forth, sighing contentedly. Increasingly, this is the sound of what it means to eat in L.A. In ways large and small, formal and casual, serious eating has finally come to the City of Angels.

Laosteriamozza
The mozzarella bar at Osteria Mozza

At both Mozzas—Osteria and Pizzeria Mozza next door—you find the Batali-Bastianich blend of equally robust flavors and noise levels. Silverton, meanwhile, brings flair and craftsmanship. Most nights she’s behind the long, cool marble mozzarella bar, turning out small plates like gnocco fritto—piping-hot squares of fried dough draped with ribbons of prosciutto and lardo—and fiore di latte (a fresh cheese in the mozzarella family) on a bed of iceberg lettuce, salami, olives, and peperoncini, kind of like a great Italian sub without the roll. Along with the meat-and-cheese bar at Suzanne Goin’s A.O.C.—one of the progenitors of L.A.’s food movement—a stool at the mozzarella bar is among the finest restaurant seats in America. It helps that both offer views of attractive, serious women operating meat slicers that gleam like Corvettes.

Lapizzeriamozza
Egg, guanciale, radicchio, escarole, and bagna cauda pizza at Pizzeria Mozza

Meanwhile (and as I’m a Brooklynite, this pains me to say), Silverton’s crust at the pizzeria is unbeatable—thin, chewy, pocked with bubbles of char. Anything tastes good on it, but I think the spirit of the place is best matched by the most traditional toppings, like soppressata and smoky Fresno chilies. It makes you wonder why the pizza at Batali’s joint back east, Otto, is so bad.

One sure sign of a food renaissance is when serious eats pop up where they are not strictly necessary. Like Bar Marmont on the Sunset Strip, which recently hired chef Carolynn Spence away from the Spotted Pig in Manhattan. Fancy-pants entrées and bar snacks like hot, fluffy gougères are never going to outdraw the trysting celebs, the barely clothed waitresses, and the Tales from the Hipster Crypt decor. But they will almost certainly leave you more satisfied.

Lacraft
Applying the final touches to a dish of roasted Scottish salmon and cucumber at Craft.

Across town another New York transplant, Craft, has dramatically upped the culinary standards of the power lunch. Located in the chilly corporate park known as Century City and, more important, across from the headquarters of Creative Artists Agency, the latest outpost in Tom Colicchio’s empire is most fun at lunch. That’s when sunlight streams through the huge windows and suits sit in the three-sided banquettes, making deals, wining and dining stars, or just sharing romantic meals with their BlackBerrys. Hopefully, they all appreciate Colicchio’s pristine but unfussy celebrations of excellent ingredients: diver scallops served with vermouth butter, roasted quail cut with tart huckleberries, a cloudlike banana-cream pie.

Lacommeca
Man at work at Comme Ça’s cheese counter.

Of course, not all new L.A. restaurants have New York roots. Chef David Myers has long been celebrated for the fastidious dishes at his first restaurant, Sona. Last fall he opened a bright, pleasant faux-Parisian bistro named Comme Ça. At lunch the place seemed dull; if you’re going to turn out T.G.I. Vendredi staples like frisée salad with lardons and onion-soup gratin, you’d better nail them. But returning late night, I was greeted by the funky, ripe smell of the cheese counter—a risky aroma but always a good sign. The cocktail menu was serious and creative. And the place hummed in a way that was downright, well, Parisian.

Lafathersoffice
Father's Office, home to L.A.'s most fetishized burger.

Taking his fine-dining pedigree even further downscale is Sang Yoon, who quit his job as chef de cuisine at Michael’s to open Father’s Office, a “redefined” pub in Santa Monica. There are always long lines of eaters waiting to order Yoon’s meat-heavy creations, especially the Office Burger. The strict house policy of no modifications or deletions seems to represent the most obnoxious impulses of food love (especially if you consider the caramelized onions piled on the burger to be cloyingly sweet); on the other hand, the burger itself—and its other toppings—represents the best. It’s a pillow of aged beef covered in Gruyère, Maytag Blue cheese, bacon compote, and arugula. A second location, in Culver City, will open this spring.

It would be criminal to talk about an L.A. food movement based on high-quality, lovingly treated ingredients without mentioning the one culinary area in which the city has long led the rest of the country: sushi. Urasawa is about as far from anything resembling a buzz establishment as you can get. Instead, you’ll hear the other sound that denotes the presence of serious food: the Reverent Hush. Urasawa’s walk-in-closet-sized space on the second floor of a Rodeo Drive mall was once Ginza Sushi-ko, the domain of Masayoshi Takayama. Five years ago, Takayama went to New York to open Masa, and his apprentice Hiroyuki Urasawa took over, keeping the master’s formula intact: only ten diners per night, no menu, lunatic prices, and a monastic devotion to the precise art of traditional sushi-making. Starting at $275 per person, the prices are indefensible by any standard, but it is a once-in-a-lifetime experience to sit at the raw-cypress counter (sanded daily), chat with Urasawa himself, and have him serve you some of the most beautiful fish you’ll ever set eyes on. It’s even more once-in-a-lifetime if catfish sperm sac is in season; as with Father’s Office, there are no substitutions.

Laprovidence
Providence Chef Michael Cimarusti (left), sous-chef Sam Baxter, and a really big striped bass.

Urasawa doesn’t have much to say about Western chefs. One exception is Michael Cimarusti at Providence. It’s easy to understand the affinity, not just because Cimarusti is a wizard with fish, but because he ardently seeks perfection. The Hush is much in effect at Providence’s oversize, somewhat frosty set of dining rooms. The quiet makes it easier to concentrate on extensive tasting menus (up to twenty-two courses) on which every item is perfectly composed, from an appetizer of cold Dungeness crab brightened with piquillo peppers to a mind-blowing homemade salt-caramel petit four.

And then there’s CUT, the new steak house from Wolfgang Puck at the Beverly Wilshire hotel. Like most of the new generation of steak houses, CUT finds its macho spirit in cool, clean modern rooms—this one a multitiered design by Richard Meier—and a menu that goes both high and low with its reverence for all things beef: Kobe sliders give way to roasted marrowbones, then Indian-spiced Kobe short ribs, and finally, the steak, brought raw to the table, the better to compare different grades and price points. At the top is a white-marbled $160 Japanese Wagyu rib-eye steak, more pleasure and fat than any man should consume in one sitting. Meanwhile, an improbable soundtrack of stoner rock plays loudly: Pink Floyd, Allman Brothers, Neil Young. It’s a little-known fact that the combination of beef fat, excellent West Coast wines, and Frampton Comes Alive! exactly mimics the feeling of having just smoked a giant bowl.

The thrilling parade of waiters bearing platters of meat; the anxious head-swivels every time someone new makes an entrance; Puck himself bouncing from table to table; the full, satisfied glow of being in exactly the right place at exactly the right time—there’s only one word for this: buzz. And it is damned tasty.


The Best Cocktails

LacocktailcommecaForget Swingers. Actually, thank that movie and its portrayal of L.A. cocktail culture. It probably helped pave the way for a new generation of serious-minded mixologists who have made themselves indispensable at so many of the city’s new restaurants. “Cocktails are becoming the next gourmet movement,” says Eric Alperin, a veteran of New York’s Milk & Honey who came west to intoxicate customers at Osteria Mozza. Not far away, Brian Summers of Comme Ça serves up a take on the classic South Side called the East Side: gin, mint, cucumber, and lime. He’ll also decide for you, if you order the Dealer’s Choice. Trust the man; he knows what he’s doing.


The Best Breakfast

LabldThe L and D in BLD stand for “lunch” and “dinner,” but it’s the B that turns us on. Breakfast at this comfortable Hollywood spot ranges from light (grapefruit brûlée) to heavy (the Ode to Butterfields, a flatiron steak and two poached eggs sitting on an English muffin and smothered in Cabernet Sauvignon hollandaise). Or like the two stylish, sunglasses-wearing, clearly hungover young ladies dining there one recent morning, you can opt for two Bloody Marys and two sides of bacon.


Osteria Mozza
6602 Melrose Ave., 323-297-0100
Pizzeria Mozza
641 North Highland Ave., 323-297-0101
A.O.C.
8022 West 3rd St., 323-653-6359
Bar Marmont
8171 West Sunset Blvd., 323-650-0575
Craft
10100 Constellation Blvd., 310-279-4180
Sona
401 North La Cienega Blvd., 310-659-7708
Comme Ça
8479 Melrose Ave., 323-782-1178
Father's Office
1018 Montana Ave., 310-393-2337
Urasawa
218 North Rodeo Dr., 310-247-8939
Providence
5955 Melrose Ave., 323-460-4170
BLD
7450 Beverly Blvd., 323-930-9744
CUT
9500 Wilshire Blvd., 310-276-8500

From the March 2008 issue of GQ.
Photographs by Cedric Angeles

Trail of Tears

Friday  February 01, 2008

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Trail of Tears

Iowa: Ouch. That four-letter word must send shivers down Hillary’s spine. How did things go so wrong for a campaign that had come to expect a coronation? On that infamous day, Lisa DePaulo rode shotgun with Tom Vilsack—Mr. Iowa himself, the man who was supposed to deliver the state for Team Clinton—and found a heartbreaking story

Hillaryblog

I’M SITTING in Tom Vilsack’s kitchen while the former governor of Iowa is upstairs napping. That would be Mr. Iowa—the guy who left office one year ago with a 69 percent approval rating, was a presidential candidate himself (for about three minutes), and is now charged with delivering Iowa for Team Clinton. (Ouch.)

It wasn’t supposed to be this painful.

After he dropped out of the race and signed on with Hillary last March—bringing much of his organization with him—she started to gain traction. The inevitability thing seemed plausible. That was then. But now it’s forty-five minutes before caucus time, and things “have gotten hairy,” as Vilsack put it, climbing the stairs to his bedroom and rubbing his eyes. This nap is the first chance he’s had to catch a few z’s in what seems like forever, seeing as he’s spent most of the past year in the all-out service of Hillary Clinton. He’s been to every corner of Iowa, every little town, every church and bingo hall. Usually, he travels with Hillary, and his wife, Christie, flies with Bill. (Hillary’s plane, he reports, has much better food.) It is said that the Vilsacks—who are not hired guns; they are doing this out of loyalty and, yes, love—would do anything for Hil. And we mean anything. Need proof? Just check out her Web site to see the poor guy dancing (badly) with his wife in an instructional video on how to caucus. (It’s easier than dancing! Get it?)

Sitting in the kitchen, waiting for him to wake up, I can’t help but wonder why they never replaced this hideous linoleum floor. (Governors don’t get paid much, but Jesus.) This is so Vilsack. Tom and Christie spent eight years in one of the most glorious governor’s mansions in the country—18,000 square feet of splendor in Des Moines—but were happy (relieved, actually) to come back to the place they call home: This big old house filled with mismatched “antiques” that Christie inherited from her family, who generations ago picked up pieces on the sidewalk and restored them to make a living. The only relics from their time in the mansion are on a silver tray in the dining room: teacups commemorating each year that Tom was governor. (Christie’s idea.)

At the moment, Christie is out, picking up her “caucus buddy”—some woman she met in line at the bank the other day and became determined to deliver to the caucuses, even if it meant schlepping her through the snow and ice from her housing project in Mount Pleasant. On the way out the door, she told me to make myself at home, Go ahead, honey, reach into the fridge, even though there’s not much in there except for a jar of pickles. Doing this nonstop Hillary thing takes its toll in ways great and small.

Tom’s wingtips are neatly placed by the kitchen door. It was impossible not to notice how, the moment he walked into the house, he removed his shoes, Boy Scout–style. Or how everything in the house—the sturdy kitchen table that Tom’s mother gave them the money for decades ago; the floral-print couch that is their newest acquisition (purchased twenty years ago); the homemade pie shell on the kitchen counter; the child-sized rocking chair and baby rattle, the only things left from Tom’s Dickensian childhood—seems to state the obvious: These are good people. Good people who are about to get their wholesome asses handed to them.

We’ve spent the past seventy-two hours together, traversing Iowa in Tom’s wheezing hybrid. Tom behind the wheel, driving as fast as an ex-governor can without causing a scandal in Iowa. Tom fumbling through the channels on his Sirius satellite radio to reel in CNN while Howard Wolfson from the Hillary campaign is in his ear giving him the up-to-the-nanosecond talking points: She is ready from Day One. Translation: She is not going to lose Iowa, right?

Back at the kitchen table, the governor appears, groggy from his nap.

“Guess this is it,” he says, lacing up his shoes.

*****

the gymnasium in Vilsack’s hometown of Mount Pleasant (population 8,255) is hopping. Not good. Vilsack had just told the umpteenth reporter who called to ask for his prediction, “Tell me what the turnout is going to be, then I’ll tell you.” If the turnout is just okay, it’s Hillary. If it’s more than okay, it’s…yikes. You get the feeling that this is not the kind of guy who, under normal circumstances, would be rooting for the citizens of Mount Pleasant to stay home on election night and not exercise their right to caucus. At the door of the gym, a woman is explaining to all who arrive that there is pizza in the other room—if you’re for Hillary. And if you’re not? asks one. A look that says: Starve, bitch. (Mount Pleasant is doing its part.) Finally, the doors are bolted and a head count is taken. Last time around, in 2004, seventy-six people showed up. Tonight: 169. Tom and Christie are up in the bleachers, looking nervous. He’s BlackBerrying like a madman; she’s smiling through clenched teeth.

“It’s tight, it’s tight,” he keeps saying.

The first vote is taken, and it’s a dead heat between Hillary, Barack, and John Edwards. The way a caucus works (don’t ask), this means each candidate will get three delegates. But down at the end of the bleachers, there’s a stubborn little cabal determined to make Bill Richardson “viable.” Vilsack does the math: If he can woo them over to the Hillary section, she’ll get four delegates, winning Mount Pleasant. (Hey, it’s a start.) He makes his move. His first target is a young man and his 70-year-old mother. They’re here for Richardson, but if they must, they’re thinking of bolting to Edwards. Vilsack extends a paw. “I know these people,” he says. He means the Clintons. He knows Edwards, too, he tells them. (Crikes, he was on the short list with the guy to be John Kerry’s vice president.) “But Edwards’s message is not going to be convincing in the swing states. It’s just not.” The son raises an eyebrow. “I can’t tell you how passionate I am about this,” says Vilsack. “I’m telling you, they’ve got the people, they’ve got the message, they’ve got the ability to attract people who’ve never voted before.” Now the mother is skeptical. So Vilsack tells her his Eisenhower story—he’s been peddling this one all afternoon—about an 88-year-old woman he met who was coming out for Hillary tonight, a woman whose last vote was cast for…Eisenhower. Eisenhower! The son looks at his mother: “Should we listen to him?” The mother eyeballs her son, then eyeballs Vilsack. “You did all right for us as governor,” she tells him, with a little pinch to his arm, “so all right.” Two down.

He moves on to a young dude who just turned 18 and another old lady. Unrelated. The young dude says he was told by the Richardson folks that whatever happens, make sure the vote comes out even for the front-runners because that might keep Richardson in the race. Do not cave. “Well, that’s just wrong,” says Vilsack. Then the silk glove. Trust him, the Clintons are good people. But never mind that. Hillary can win. The old lady ain’t buyin’. She’s thinking of defecting to Obama, who, in her opinion, can’t screw up, “because the white people will be watching him.” Vilsack lets that slide. Plus “he’s the most honest one of all.” Vilsack shakes his head. “I can’t agree with you on that,” he says. The old lady snorts. “You think we’ve forgotten what happened with her and Bill in the White House?” Vilsack lets that one slide, too. “Here’s what you need to know about Hillary Clinton,” he says. “You already know her. Senator Obama is a great guy, but what do you know about him?” (He’s clearly gotten the Wolfson talking points.) Then: “I’m telling you, she’s the best I’ve ever seen.” (He’s gotten the Bill Clinton talking points, too.) Then: “I wouldn’t be asking you to do this if I didn’t feel passionate about this. I know them.”

The old lady smiles. She loves Vilsack. But guess what? “I’m voting for Obama for the same reason I voted for you,” she says, and moves to the Obama part of the bleachers.

The Mount Pleasant caucus ends up a draw.

It is a gloomy, silent ride to the airfield afterward. The notion that he failed to deliver his home state to Hillary—the worst-case scenario come true—is beginning to sink in. Vilsack moans as he checks his BlackBerry. His loyalty thing prevents him from revealing what the messages say, but he doesn’t have to. The moans are enough.

Tom and Christie have to catch a small private plane in god-awful weather to get back to Des Moines in time for Hillary’s (they hoped) acceptance speech. But they know better already. Christie breaks the silence by admitting that she is afraid of small planes. Then more silence in the car. Christie grabs his hand. Not another word is said.

In the pitch-black freezing night, on a lonely airstrip, their plane takes off just as CNN calls Barack Obama the winner. By an eight-point margin. In frickin’ Iowa. A state that is “whiter than the North Pole,” as one  CNN analyst would put it. Tom Vilsack’s state.

For the entire flight to Des Moines, the Vilsacks say absolutely nothing.

*****

it’s easy to forget—and there are times it seems he’d like to forget—that it was this man, Tom Vilsack, who was the first Democrat (well, unless you count Mike Gravel) to declare that he was running for the presidency in ’08. Remember that? The then governor of Iowa, with the boyish looks and unblemished past, was so sure of his potential as a candidate that he walked away from a chance at a third term despite popularity among Iowa voters, and, well…

Three months later, he was toast.

He was done in by money. Or by the lack of it: All the money people were already aligning themselves with “the superstars,” as he puts it—Obama and Hillary, to be more precise, though he is not. Vilsack is not the type to focus on the irony of this, of how the woman he is knocking himself out for now knocked him out of the race a year ago. “I have not had the least bit of regret about not doing what Huckabee was able to do, which was to hang in there long enough. I’ve never regretted the decision I made.” But, he says, “I learned something about myself in this process,” this process of running for president.

What?

“That I have a great affinity for Hillary Clinton. I think she’d be a great president.”

This is so Vilsack. It’s never about him.

“I learned that I’m, uh, how do I put this?” He’s doing seventy now, staring into the blinding-white expanse of Iowa, on the way back from an HRC event in Cedar Rapids. “I learned that I enjoy being part of a team. As a candidate, you aren’t really part of a team. You’re the product that’s being sold by the team. And I just, I just like advocating for someone else or some other set of issues. So far I’m very comfortable doing what I’m doing.”

Is he saying that he’s more comfortable campaigning for Hillary Clinton than he was campaigning for himself?

“I think that’s accurate,” he says. “I mean, there are many personal reasons why I have that feeling about her.”

Loyalty—especially in politics—can be overrated. But Tom Vilsack doesn’t see it that way. His loyalty to Hillary stems from very personal reasons. Their history goes back to his brother-in-law, Christie’s brother, a lawyer by the name of Tom Bell, who shared office space with Hillary Rodham during the Nixon-impeachment process, when both were young crusader types. (Bell admired her so much that he tried to name his daughter after her, but his wife nixed that.)

Fast-forward to 1996. Vilsack was 45—a former mayor of Mount Pleasant currently in the state legislature—and having a life crisis: He didn’t want to be in politics anymore. Felt it was tearing him away from his wife and sons, keeping him from being a real father. This wasn’t your typical spend-time-with-my-family politician drivel. The legacy of Vilsack’s childhood—abandoned as an infant, adopted by a well-meaning but troubled couple, his mother an abusive alcoholic who repeatedly tried to kill herself, his father hopeless and frustrated—is never far from the surface. It has propelled him in many ways, to greatness mostly, and kept him needy in many ways: for family, friends, home. And so it was that he had an unusually close relationship with his brother-in-law, who had an unusually high esteem for the then First Lady of the United States. On the weekend of Vilsack’s eldest son’s high school graduation, he broke it to the family—which is to say Christie’s family—that he was quitting politics. Bell tried to talk him out of it. He was too good to quit; in fact, he should run for governor. You can do this, Bell said. The next morning, Christie and her brother went out for a bike ride, and Bell—50, “one of the most charismatic, energetic, wonderful people I had ever known”—died of a heart attack.

Hillary was one of the first people to reach out to the Vilsacks with her condolences and her own grief.

It affected Vilsack more than his parents’ deaths—neither lived past 57, the age he is now—and his sister’s death, in her forties (after a heart transplant). Because those he saw coming. He started to think there “had to be a reason” for the last talk he’d had with his brother-in-law. (His Catholic roots are never far from the surface, either.) He decided to run for governor.

Fast-forward two more years, to summer 1998. Candidate Vilsack had eked his way through a tough primary, was out of money, and was twenty-one points behind his Republican opponent in a state that hadn’t elected a Democratic governor in thirty years. It was Christie who walked into his office one day with the bright idea: “Let’s call Hillary.” Vilsack remembers whining, “Honey, Hillary’s not gonna throw a fund-raiser for us.” Forget that he was a long shot; this was in the middle of Monicagate. He couldn’t do it, couldn’t ask her for a favor. But Christie could. (In many ways, Christie Vilsack, despite coming off like Miss Mary Sunshine, is the one with a set of brass ones.) A call was made. And Hillary “didn’t hesitate,” says Vilsack. “She said, ‘Absolutely.’ ”

Within weeks the Vilsacks were in Washington, where Hillary raised him enough money to keep the campaign “on life support.” Vilsack kept plugging away, but by mid-October, he was still twenty points behind. He would sit in his rented campaign office in downtown Des Moines—a comical affair with red walls and ceiling and a big picture window, through which passersby could watch him “dialing for dollars, with nobody answering my calls.” But there were polls that showed him inching ahead. “Nobody paid attention to them.” Well, not nobody. “The only person who paid any attention was Hillary.” Back at the White House, the First Lady was following tracking polls in Iowa! Vilsack figures “because of Tom Bell, and because she heard me speak once, she kept an eye on my race.” He’s still amazed by this. She also saw a potential Democratic winner in Iowa—like, duh—but Tom doesn’t see anything crudely calculated in it. All he knows is, when she saw those polls, “she said to her husband and their financial operation, ‘We need to put some money in this, ’cause this guy can win.’ All of a sudden, money came in from everywhere. I mean, Robert Rubin gave us $17,000. All of a sudden, we had dough!”

In the final days of the campaign, with the polls dead even, Vilsack decided he needed a headliner, someone to swoop into Iowa and rally the troops…and there she was again, appearing on the eve of the election. “With thirty-six governor races and thirty-four Senate races and all these congressional races, I figured, you know, she’s got plenty of other things to do than come out to Iowa. But out she came.” She held a rally that attracted almost 2,000 people. A couple of days later, Tom Vilsack was elected governor.

“So you see, she was extraordinarily kind to me and Christie,” he is saying, squinting through the windshield. “That’s a remarkable thing about Hillary Clinton: She has long-standing friendships, and she remembers people. And I think it speaks volumes about her character. So it’s out of friendship, it’s out of loyalty.” He means why he does this. “She’s just a remarkable person.” He ticks off the talking points of why she should be president. Then he gets personal again.

“I was touched by the fact that both she and the president got me birthday presents this year,” he says. Really, what’d you get? He chuckles. “Well, she got me a DVD set of The Godfather, which is my favorite, and a couple of political books. Paul Krugman’s and Ron Brownstein’s. And he got me this wonderful print of a paper from back in 1887 highlighting Grover Cleveland’s visit to Sioux City to visit the Corn Palace.” Neat. “It was.

Back to that fifty-seventh birthday, in December. It must have been rather poignant for him. “That’s why I celebrated it,” he says. “One of my first goals in life was to live longer than my parents, so I could see my kids grow up.” He’s not a birthday-party kind of a guy, he says, but this was different.

So how did he celebrate it?

“On the airplane with Hillary Clinton.” A beat. “She had a little cake.” What goes left unsaid is the painfully obvious. She came through for him. More than came through for him. She saved his political bacon. And now there is the very likely possibility that he won’t be able to come through for her.

You have to know Tom Vilsack to know how devastating this is.

*****

when you spend a lot of time with a man whose mission in life is to see Hillary Clinton elected president, the Woman Thing inevitably comes to the forefront. The deal is: Vilsack gets it. He has an extraordinary understanding of women. Particularly extraordinary given his own history.

Here’s the short version:

It wasn’t until he ran for president that he knew much of anything about where he came from. Last winter, during a campaign stop, he gave an interview and mentioned that he was adopted and grew up in Pittsburgh. Soon after, he got a letter from a nun: She worked at the orphanage where he’d been born and enclosed pictures of the place and of the kids who’d lived there with him. Did he want to know more? He did. She told him that his birth mother had been 23 (not the desperate teenager he’d imagined), that she’d called herself Gloria (an alias), and that his birth name was Kenneth. When he was fifteen months old, a couple from Pittsburgh came to the orphanage and picked him out of the litter. “My mother used to make fun about this,” he says, “and I always thought she was kidding. She made it sound like she was shopping for a Thanksgiving turkey. She said, ‘We looked for the plumpest kid we could find,’ on the theory that I’d be the healthiest kid.”

His father was a real estate agent, “a truly great human being, a people person. But not a good business guy. When he died, he was virtually penniless.” Both parents drank, but his mother was an especially ugly alcoholic. His childhood memories are these: being afraid to come home from school because he never knew how drunk his mother would be and whether she would beat him. Waking up in the middle of the night and peeking out his bedroom door to see his father walking his mother up and down the hall, trying to keep her awake and alive till the ambulance came, because she had drunk too much or taken pills to try to kill herself. Hearing the clunk clunk of liquor bottles crashing. “She’d go up in the attic and lock herself up there for weeks, and all you’d hear would be the dropping of liquor bottles on the floor.”

By the time he was an adolescent, his mother had been in and out of hospitals, mental and otherwise, and was living on her own. On his thirteenth birthday, his father took him and his sister to Mom’s apartment—she wanted to make him a steak dinner for his birthday. When they arrived, she was blotto (as usual), staggering around, too drunk to cook. The birthday boy got up and walked out. “That’s it, I’m done,” he told himself. Two weeks later, on Christmas Day, his mother was on a train somewhere, drunk, when she decided she’d had enough. “She had a religious experience, a revelation, whatever you want to call it.” She never drank another drop.

In the years she had left (she died at 57 of cancer), they grew very close. He learned to love her in ways he never dreamed possible. “She taught me to never give up,” he says. “She taught me the capacity of the human spirit to overcome anything.” She also left him with the legacy of a son of an alcoholic, something his pal Bill Clinton shares: You always try to fix things, always try to please, and always, at some level, feel that whatever happens, it is probably your fault.

*****

it’s the morning after, and Tom Vilsack is sitting at his desk in his law firm, looking like he just got smacked by a truck. For the first twenty minutes of our conversation, he tries to peddle the new talking points: How well do we really know Obama? Is he really prepared to be president? But his heart’s not in it, you can tell.

By the time his plane touched down in Des Moines at nine fifteen last night, it was over. (Third place. Third!) The only thing left was the concession speech. “The Clintons were kind enough to wait for us to arrive,” he says. “I guess they didn’t want to do it without us being onstage. Which was—” he actually gets a little choked up—“very, very kind.”

He saw Bill first. “I’m sorry we didn’t get the job done,” he told him. Bill—whom Vilsack always calls “the president”—hugged him, said, “We love you guys,” assured him that he hadn’t failed and that, in fact, they had “exceeded their goals.” Exceeded their goals? Now he really felt like crap.

After the speech, he and Christie headed for the door. But someone stopped them and suggested they go up to Hillary’s suite to say good-bye. “I said, ‘The last thing they wanna do is see us.’ But they said, ‘No, no,’ so we waited outside their door for a while until someone said, ‘They’re ready for you.’ ”

Hillary and Bill were sitting around with “the brain trust,” planning their next move. The focus was already on New Hampshire. “They engaged us in the conversation,” he says. “They’re like, ‘We want you to look at this, we want your attitude about this,’ and I’m thinking, Jeez, you know? We didn’t get the job done for you guys and you’re asking our opinions?” He stares into his coffee cup. They ended up spending two hours discussing strategy, until the Clintons hopped on a midnight plane to New Hampshire. Vilsack says the last image he has of that night was of Hillary’s mother: “The door was open to Mrs. Rodham’s room, and I saw her sitting alone on the bed, just staring straight ahead, looking so sad. She was hurting, like a mother who cared deeply about her daughter.” He hesitated, then poked his head in, then sat down beside her. “I kind of said, you know, ‘On to New Hampshire!’ She looked at me and smiled.”

Tom’s BlackBerry is sitting quietly on his desk. Guess there’ll be no more frantic calls from Howard Wolfson, eh? He thinks about this. (Is this the bright side?)

What will happen next will be something as unanticipated as Hillary’s defeat in Iowa. The Obama lovefest, the doom and gloom of the final hours leading up to New Hampshire, then the stunning resurrection of HRC, who would find “her voice,” find her tears, find…well, she’d find precisely what Tom Vilsack had seen in her all along. He may not have been able to deliver Iowa, but as Vilsack knows too well, rejection can do great things for a person. Iowa made Hillary Hillary, and for that, she should be thankful.

lisa depaulo is a gq correspondent.

Photograph courtesy of Getty Images

Almost Human

Friday  February 01, 2008

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Almost Human

That hair! Those teeth! Those jokes that sound...for a minute…almost...natural! (Until they’re told again with mechanical precision at the next stop down the road.) Robert Draper followed Mitt Romney’s campaign for a month, in search of the man behind the robot. He thinks he found him. But will America ever do the same?

Blogmitt

mitt romney spent January 15—the day he won the Michigan primary and finally emerged as a credible threat to secure the GOP nomination—suspended in his customary state of gee-whizzery. The morning’s campaign load had been very light, just a single undersized rally in an office-furniture warehouse on the outskirts of Grand Rapids. With his fate firmly in the hands of his birth state, Romney now had the rest of the day to kill. Executive decision: Let’s go tour the ol’ alma mater!

And so, after a quick bite of pizza at Hungry Howie's, the Romney clan—61-year-old Mitt and his wife, Ann, three of the five fabled Romney boys and their wives—squeezed into the chauffeur-driven SUV and motored over to Cranbrook Kingswood Upper School in the ultra-affluent Bloomfield Hills suburb outside Detroit. Once they arrived, word quickly spread that Romney was in the building, and the students poured out of their classrooms. Sure, I’ll pose for a few. Did your mom and dad vote this morning? Nice work! Get that boy an internship, heh heh heh!

Romney couldn’t help but be boggled by memories. Why, he’d met his sweetheart, Ann, while here. That was back when the girls were at Kingswood, the boys were at Cranbrook, and he’d seen that pretty little girl on horseback—and Mitt did what boys tend to do in such situations, which was throw a rock at her horse. What a place! Romney ambled into the campus’s weaving workshop and stood over the loom next to the textile instructor. Now show me how these darn things work—isn’t that something? After which: back to the Radisson for a ninety-minute strategy meeting. There wasn’t much downtime for Mitt. He had to be active, had to know the data. He loved that stuff!

A wave of exit polls came in shortly after 6 p.m. The former Massachusetts governor’s old chief of staff and now campaign manager, Beth Myers, said to Romney over the phone, “I’m on my way up to tell you.” Well, that didn’t sound good. Sitting in his hotel room, Romney told Ann, “We’ve lost.” He was telling other people the same thing when Beth and the eldest Romney boy, Tagg, knocked on his door to say: “34–29, we’re up!” Hey, that’s more like it!—though no one started popping the noncaffeinated cola yet, since the data had also been encouraging seven days ago in New Hampshire.

This time, though, the numbers held. And shortly after nine, Romney stood in a Southfield, Michigan, hotel ballroom, declaring over the din of 400 supporters: “Tonight marks the beginning of a comeback for America!” He looked, for Mitt, if not actually disheveled, then at least somewhat impacted by life: white shirtsleeves half-assedly rolled up, eyes glazed with emotion, indomitable haircut distinctly mussed. (Family backstage: What happened to your hair??? Mitt: Sometimes it just breaks, I dunno.…) They were out of there by nine thirty, back to the hotel room, where there was much hugging among Romneys, a little basking—then: Okay, enough celebrating. Let’s look down the road. Ann, tomorrow you head to Nevada. Tagg, you get back to Boston. Craig, you’re with me in South Carolina. And we all meet up in Florida—what do you say, team?

*****

Even as the Romneys were calling it a night, his lieutenants were loading up at the bar adjacent to the victory ballroom. (“Mitt’s not the kind of guy you’d want to spend New Year’s Eve with,” says one of his top advisers.) Relief was in the air. Thanks to tonight’s result, one long-argued matter—namely how to sell this wholesome, airtight package of a man—had been laid, at least for the moment, to rest.

“What they were concerned about from day one,” one adviser would say, “was that he’d come across as this bloodless technocrat— this Michael Dukakis. And there was a feeling that we were going to eventually lose the ‘managerial’ vote to Giuliani.”

That belief had sent the campaign in pursuit of socially conservative voters for most of 2007, despite the view held by several advisers that, as one put it, “the so-co stuff just isn’t who he is.” In any event, the strategy hadn’t worked: Romney had lost in Iowa and New Hampshire while coming off as a panderer in the process. The failed tactic only fed the ongoing narrative of Romney, once a pro-choice governor, as shape-shifting slickster. “The national press calling him disingenuous—that is so not him,” one of his close advisers said that night at the bar after Romney’s victory speech. But then she confessed, “Going to Iowa and presenting yourself as the ultimate family man—not his strongest suit. He’s a problem solver, a genius with numbers. That’s his strong suit.”

Grinding the data, then fixing the problem—that’s who Mitt Romney was, and that’s precisely what he had been doing in his meticulously calculated but frequently turbulent rookie campaign for national office. His calculations had been painfully transparent. He’d moved to Mike Huckabee’s right in Iowa. He’d attempted to channel Barack “Change Agent” Obama in New Hampshire. And now, in Michigan, the Bain Capital cofounder, savior of the 2002 Winter Olympics, and deficit-busting governor had discovered a more authentic self—Turnaround Artist of Broken Institutions, Healer of Sick Economies—just in time to save his candidacy. Over and over that evening, his gurus were saying it: “He’s found his voice.” Yet even that was a borrowed sentiment; Hillary Clinton had said the same thing a week before, following her comeback victory in New Hampshire.

The Romney curse was this: His strength lay in his adaptability. In governance, this was a virtue; in a political race, it was an invitation to be called a phony. In both Iowa and New Hampshire, the campaign had tacked this way and that, field-testing losing formulas. But that night in Michigan, Romney’s team could bask in a fleeting moment of satisfaction in what was shaping up to be one of the most episodic presidential-campaign seasons in American history.

Meanwhile, the candidate himself slept, resting his new voice.

*****

So smart, so handsome, so brisk and efficient, so mercilessly goddamned golden —and yet on the trail with Romney in Iowa in late December, you could see in his lacquered grin and hear in his distracted rope-line patter (“What a crowd! So good to see you.… Isn’t that something!”) that this was a man far from home. “He’s in his element when he’s doing these,” an aide whispered to me one morning, during an event that featured Romney delivering a PowerPoint presentation to a hundred or so mildly fascinated Iowans. “Let’s turn to the next problem area,” the candidate was saying. “Taxes—next slide. Immigration. Boy, that’s another difficult slide to look at. I’ll try to explain.…” The audience clapped mightily at the end—neat show!—but none of them appeared to have been, in any lasting way, smitten.

Still, you could not say that Romney was getting by with the minimum in Iowa. He had poured $7 million into saturating the airwaves with sharp-elbowed “contrast ads,” had thrown down an unrivaled get-out-the-vote organization, and had visited more than seventy of Iowa’s (as Romney put it) “ninety-nine bloomin’ counties!” At regularly hosted audience Q&A’s, his campaign urged audiences to “Ask Mitt Anything.” Most were Wiffle balls: “What’s your position on homeschooling?”

“I like homeschooling!”

And the result of all that money and effort? Well, Romney liked to say he’d withstood a John McCain surge and a Rudy Giuliani surge and a Fred Thompson surge and would beat back the current Mike Huckabee surge with similar dispatch. Unmentioned was that Romney himself had never surged—not even after his December speech on religion, which was intended to address voter disquiet over his Mormon faith. (Romney had initially been skeptical about the idea but had been won over by Huckabee’s rising poll numbers and had decided to write his own speech; after his advisers declared Romney’s first draft “too pedestrian,” the candidate had redrafted a final, loftier version.) The speech pleased conservative pundits but had no effect on the numbers. In the days leading up to the caucus, what mostly greeted Romney in Iowa was a rising tide of politeness. The tide of voters was flowing to Huckabee—the strumming, wisecracking televangelist of the field.

Romney, too, could be hilarious, his advisers assured me: During a debate prep session, one aide apparently asked him a sharp question about Mormon quirks, to which, feigning indignation, Romney replied, “Well! See if you get your own planet when you die and go to heaven!” But on the trail, his humor was usually of the painfully hokey kind (describing one mishap, Romney would tell audiences that his wife Ann “fell on de butt in Dubuque”). Overall, Romney’s humanity remained a perplexing thing. He zipped through the photo ops, the media avails, the meet and greets, and other such campaign exercises as if they were boxes to be checked, all part of the greater problem to be solved. It was possible to stand within a few feet of the candidate for several minutes at a time and of course to Ask Mitt Anything—and yet the most palpable sensation was that you were in the presence of a man who had no desire to give himself away.

Occasionally, he revealed himself anyway. During one Ask Mitt Anything session in Indianola, Iowa, a young woman in a parka stood up to ask the candidate a question. “What concerns me,” she began as she stood before a man with an estimated net worth of $250 million, “is that so many people in office cannot even relate to what the average American is going through. I look at the gas prices and health care skyrocketing. How are you going to be any different?”

“Well, I’ve made a difference,” Romney replied, and then ticked off his accomplishments as governor—health care reform, raising educational standards—before perhaps recognizing that the woman was not really asking what Romney had done but what he felt. Passing on a chance to show some empathy, he instead reminisced fondly about how he and his family spend Christmas skiing at their condo in Utah.

The moment reminded me of something he had said the previous week during the Des Moines Register debate: “I don’t lose sleep thinking about the upper-class tax burden.”

A reporter sitting next to me in the debate spin room muttered, “Yeah, he has people on his payroll to do that for him.”

*****

“He was very friendly,” recalls one GOP operative who first met Romney in June 2006 at a D.C. event intended to introduce the Massachusetts governor to the Beltway Republican establishment. “But it was one of those slightly condescending out-of-the-playbook-of-a-politician things. It’s not like I thought, This guy’s a prick. I just didn’t get a warm feeling about him.”

When I asked a Romney adviser and former Bush campaign aide how the candidate compared with the president, he replied, “He’s more like Blair than Bush,” referring to Romney’s more cerebral, data-driven manner. On the other hand, Romney is noticeably deficient in Bush’s people skills. A former White House staffer who has consulted for Romney recalls, “From the moment I first stepped into the Oval Office, Bush was sizing me up, looking me up and down, wanting to know who the hell I was. He got a good read of me, and we connected and worked well together as a result. Romney’s very hail-fellow-well-met friendly in a CEO kind of way, but there’s a fog that separates you from him. You feel like you’re his three-fifteen appointment and the three-forty-five is going to get the very same treatment.”

The conventional method for humanizing a mechanical politician like Romney is to surround him with his family. And certainly Ann Romney provided a welcome soft touch on the campaign trail. One evening at an event outside Cedar Rapids, the former first lady of Massachusetts described to an audience of 900 Iowans how Mitt had responded when she told him she had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. “He told me, ‘Sweetheart, I don’t care if you ever cook another meal,’ ” Ann said as her husband stood by her side. “He told me, ‘I’ll eat cereal the rest of my life.’ ” The crowd gasped in awe.

But it was more often the case that the flawlessness of the Romney clan—that unmarred dental architecture, those lush coifs and godly physiques—had an off-putting effect. “Perfect family, perfect teeth and hair—the reaction is ‘He doesn’t understand people like me,’ ” the former White House staffer acknowledges. Says another adviser: “Romney looks like he’s never had a bad day in his life.”

“My dad, he’s not a natural politician. He’s a businessman,” said Tagg Romney, 37, one afternoon as we sat in his office at Romney headquarters in Boston. “Very buttoned-down.… But you have to see this guy in a crisis. I mean, nobody’s better.”

Tagg then recounted a moment in which his grandmother had fallen through the floorboards of their former house in Michigan—and while the whole family was freaking out, Mitt was down in the hole with his mom, dialing 911 with his free hand. “In a crisis, he relies on instinct, but otherwise he’s very, very deliberate. Look at what he did on health care in Massachusetts. He brought in everyone, listened to everyone.…”

Tagg agreed that his dad’s humanness could be better communicated. “You should see the new video we’re posting on the Web site,” he said, describing a five-minute clip of the Romneys vacationing at their New Hampshire retreat on Lake Winnipesaukee. “My dad, he’s got all these whiskers on his face—I mean, I think that’s good. And he’s watching my brother light a firecracker—standing over him and yelling, ‘You moron!’ ” Grinning, he added in a low voice, “The campaign’s a little nervous about it—it’s risky.”

*****

ONE MORNING in mid-December, Romney welcomed me to the front of his campaign plane for an interview. He had spent the early part of the flight to Iowa scribbling campaign ads. Now he sat across the aisle from me, genial and impersonal as a meteorologist, taking care to maintain eye contact at all times.

“There’s always an ‘except’ with every candidate,” he said when I asked him about his seeming inability to close the deal with the voting public. “I like John McCain except. I like Rudy Giuliani except. I like Mitt Romney except. We all have some area of concern.”

And what was his?

“Y’know, that’s something you’re going to have to assess,” he demurred. “McCain, I think, did a very nice job planting in voters and the media that I change my mind on the issues. He’s hammered that effectively—in my view, unfairly and incorrectly. But if you changed your mind on abortion, that allows you to tag everything else in the same way. That’s something which I have to consistently battle.”

For the next half hour, Romney discussed his scant criticisms of President George W. Bush (“Yes, I would’ve done things differently along the way, but I don’t know that it’s particularly productive—I think that smacks of Monday-morning quarterbacking”), the lessons he took from his failed attempt to unseat Senator Ted Kennedy in 1994 (“We just sat there and took punches—you’ve gotta be able to attack back”), and the music on his iPod (“Lots of ’60s, the Beatles, Roy Orbison, the Eagles, Springsteen, and country as well: Clint Black, Toby Keith, Chesney, and oh, what’s her name, I can’t think…”). Even close up, Romney’s handsomeness remained ridiculous: six feet tall, with enviable dabs of gravitas-gray in his sideburns, and ever alert brown eyes. At the same time, I could see actual suggestions of fatigue beneath those eyes. A lock of hair out of place. Pores. Though somewhat stiff, Romney came off as polite, unbullying, and anything but pompous. It became possible to conclude that, yes, there was a certain authenticity to this bright, somewhat boring multimillionaire.

During our conversation, only two subjects seemed to animate him. One was when I asked him to explain what his advisers meant when they invoked “the Bain Way”—referring to the consulting firm where Romney earned his fortune.

“It’s not as mystical as it sounds,” he replied. “Almost anybody in the consulting world faces a setting where you’re being hired by a corporation to help them solve a major strategic problem. Our approach was to have”—and he said this lovingly—“a very data-rich, data-intensive analytical process of the widest array of options, of gathering data to evaluate those options.… I like people to have pretty off-the-wall, extremely variant viewpoints on what to do. I have people arguing a different side. You learn something through the argument.”

Consciously or not, Romney was describing himself as the anti-Bush. And there seemed to be at least some truth to it. Once, before adopting the position that Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad should be denied entrance into the United States, he argued the matter with foreign-policy aide Dan Senor—and then had them switch sides, so that Senor was arguing Romney’s position. Another time, Romney led a conference call with economic advisers that rambled for over five hours. (“I thought, This must be what it’s like with Clinton,” recalls one participant.) This was the pre-presidential-campaign Romney: a steady-handed pragmatist who'd only lately been packaged as a true believer of the right.

The second question that drew Romney out was one about a particular line from his stump speech—I’ve spent my life in the private sector. I haven’t been in politics long enough to be badly infected—that had always struck me as disingenuous. Far more than the average office seeker, it seemed, Romney relished campaign-strategy sessions, studied poll numbers, and insisted on personally rewriting his major addresses. He was even the son of a governor and presidential candidate!

“You know, every fourth grader talks about how maybe they’ll someday be president,” he allowed before assuring me that he had given no serious thought to running until Utah senator Bob Bennett urged him to consider it in 2004. Nor, he insisted, had his dad ever discussed with him the possibility—though he then added warily, “There may be someone in my family who thinks so. But not at a time when there was a realistic setting.”

A few minutes after the interview, Romney ventured back to the rear of the plane. “I’ve been thinking about that question,” he said. “Y’know, I can’t think of a single time my dad ever talked to me about me running for president. And to get into politics—if I’d wanted to do that, I should’ve stayed in Michigan. Massachusetts wasn’t the ideal place for me to begin a political career.”

“But Governor, surely it had to be on your mind throughout your childhood. I mean, as George Romney’s son, there must have been a lifelong stream of adults urging you—”

“Me and a million other guys,” he said with a wave of his hand. And then again: “Me and a million other guys.”

*****

At seven thirty on January 8—a fittingly ambiguous morning of snow and bright sunshine for the New Hampshire primary—traffic outside the Bedford polling station was at a standstill. A record turnout—but was that a good thing for Romney? Five days after losing in Iowa, the ever calculating candidate had spent the entire previous day shamelessly wooing independents with new campaign signs (washington is broken) and a new message, extrapolated from data of the Iowa results. (“Senators Biden, Dodd, and Clinton were defeated by a person describing the need for change in Washington—there’s no way our party will be successful in the fall if we put forward a long-standing senator,” with obvious reference to John McCain.) Gone were the edgy condemnations of gay marriage and the nostalgic tributes to Reagan. Making fresh appearances were a reverence for honest government (“I want high ethical standards!”), a flash of populism (“The politicians in Washington just don’t listen to the people of America!”), and an insistence on “change”—a word he used at least seventeen times during a single Nashua campaign event. Now, as he put it, what mattered most was who could “post up against” Obama, whom Romney was all of a sudden refusing to criticize, instead predicting with admiration: “I think he’s going to blow them away again.”

The traffic still wasn’t moving outside Bedford. It was so backed up, in fact, that what the heck, Mitt Romney emerged from his black SUV and proceeded to stride through the gridlock, walking a third of a mile to the doorway of the elementary school, trailed by dozens of reporters and a few advance men hollering, “Watch your step! Black ice! BLACK ICE!”

“Good morning! Nice to see you! Good morning!” The candidate lunged toward bustling voters—some recoiled from the smiling man and his looming press coterie, but many accepted his handshake and even murmured a few encouraging words. “The hands I shake here—” said Romney, “time and again I hear people say, ‘I was undecided, but now I’m gonna vote for you.’

“I’d like to get the gold here,” Romney added, wringing his Olympics experience for analogies. “I’m happy I got the silver in Iowa. I got the gold in Wyoming. By the end of the night, I’ll almost certainly have received more votes than anyone on the Republican side.”

The tangle of bodies and cameras had become oppressive. Voters were running for daylight. “This is ridiculous,” said Ann Romney as she pushed her way through the pack. An advance man hollered something, and Romney said to everyone and no one in particular, “Okay, we gotta move. The electioneer here wants us to move. Guys, we gotta run.” Breaking through the pack, Romney reached for the door handle of the black SUV, pulled at it, and—locked? What the heck?

“Governor!” called out an advance man. “This way! That’s not our car!”

Five hours later, at four forty-five in the afternoon, Tagg Romney arrived at the hotel room of his father, who greeted him by saying, “We lost.” To McCain.

Ann Romney did not bother to conceal her shell shock as her husband sighed, “Well, another silver” in his concession speech. “That’s the first time,” Tagg Romney would admit later, “that I saw my mom not being absolutely convinced that we were going to win the whole thing.” For the next two days, her dismay began to rub off on her husband. Tagg tried a Rocky analogy on his dad: Look, Apollo Creed just landed a good punch to your head. Now you gotta get up.

Romney needed only so much bucking up. After all, hadn’t he, during college, spent two and a half years in Catholic France as a Mormon missionary, knocking on door after door and being rejected again and again? (And feeling good about it, because eventually he helped win more converts than any other missionary!) On the campaign trail, Romney’s optimism could be indigestible at times, which, however, made it no less appropriate: The day after he lost in New Hampshire, a Romney-campaign call drive brought in $5 million.

*****

romney loved to tell audiences about how his sons, on the occasion of his sixtieth birthday last year, bought him a 1962 Rambler, the kind his father, George Romney, used to make while chairman of American Motors. It’s got one of those great big steering wheels.… Had one just like it as a kid. They used to call it Mrs. Romney’s Grocery Getter.

Audiences in Des Moines or Nashua would indulge this cornball nostalgia with halfhearted chuckles. But not in the Motor City! Here, at the very mention of Rambler, they roared in appreciation. As a senior adviser had said of Michiganders, “They know who he is.” Yes, they did!

And needing their votes in the worst way, Romney chucked his beloved campaign data points and told the economically beleaguered crowds exactly what they wanted to hear. “Oh, some candidates will tell you, ‘Jobs are gonna be lost, and they’re not coming back,’ ” he said to 400 whooping Republicans in Taylor, Michigan, mocking a recent straight-talk remark by McCain. “Well, I am gonna fight for every job, and I’m not gonna rest until Michigan is back!

At the annual Detroit Auto Show, Romney’s traveling reporters collared Detroit Auto Dealers Association president Doug Fox and asked him if McCain’s assertion was off base. No, Fox said, that was unfortunately the case. A lot of those jobs would never return. “So just to be clear,” I followed up, “you find McCain’s assessment of the jobs situation in the Michigan auto industry more realistic than Romney’s.”

The industry spokesman nodded.

But the facts weren’t about to deter Romney as he played up his roots—“I’ve got Michigan in my DNA, I’ve got it in my heart, and I’ve got cars in my bloodstream!”—at all local stops. Romney now only used the word change with derision, as in: “You hear Barack Obama talking about change. Well, like I heard someone say: That’s all you’ll have left in your pocket if Obama becomes president—change!” He again deified Reagan, reminding a Detroit audience that Dutch “brought us optimism again. He told us what we could be, and then he delivered, and that’s what we need in the White House!”

The morning before the January 15 primary, Romney stood in a high school gymnasium before 2,000 students and gave a meandering, embarrassingly unfunny performance that the traveling media generally agreed was his worst of the campaign. But when I asked a few of the students afterward what they thought, they were impressed.

“What did you hear that you liked?”

“The part where he said he was going to help Michigan,” chirped a sophomore with glasses. The others around her agreed.

No more sucking up to social conservatives, or wooing indie voters, or pining for change. It was the economy, stupid—Romney’s world, at long last. And it would mean victory.

“On MSNBC this morning, all the talk was about how we’re going into a recession,” one of Romney’s top aides told me in Michigan—hastily adding, “We all hate that. But, well, it certainly plays into his wheelhouse.”

*****

“Who wants a doughnut? Vote for me, you’ll get one of these!”

On the morning of January 19, while voters in South Carolina were settling the McCain-Huckabee fight in the Palmetto State, Romney stood in the parking lot of a Las Vegas high school with an armload of Krispy Kremes. The Nevada caucuses would soon begin at venues like this one, and though Romney pretty much had them in the bag—“Who except the Mormons are gonna wake up at 9 a.m. in Vegas on a Saturday morning and not be too hungover to caucus?” guffawed an aide—it seemed prudent to nab a photo op before jetting off to Florida.

“Two golds and two silvers—we’re feeling pretty good,” Romney said while shaking hands, posing for photographs and scribbling his name across campaign posters. “Anybody see Jay Leno last night? What a thrill—I never thought I’d ever be on Jay Leno! Didja see that skateboarder on the show? Had his skateboard attached to his feet? Well, I’m hoping Nevada will be attached to my feet!”

And finally, “Thanks, you guys are terrific—what friends I’ve got, I’ll tell ya!” before dashing off to the airport, leaving the natives to fulfill their civic duties. Twenty-four thousand Clark County Republicans filed into twenty-nine caucus sites, assisted by local GOP volunteers—many of whom were wearing Mitt Romney stickers or shirts. What friends he had!

At nine or thereabouts, the doors closed and the caucuses began. Inside precinct 3373, the chairwoman, Lois Westover, stood before forty-one fellow Republicans. She asked who would like to speak on behalf of their candidate for two minutes. In alphabetical order, advocates of Giuliani, McCain, Paul, Romney, and Thompson stood up. (There were no takers for Huckabee or Duncan Hunter.) They spoke, with varying degrees of fluency and passion, off the cuff—except for Romney’s advocate, who happened to be chairwoman Westover. She read from a prepared 358-word text: “One man is uniquely equipped to meet this new generation of American challenges.… Please join me in voting for Mitt Romney, the man that will lead a coalition of strength for us, for our families and for America.”

After the ballots were tallied—Huckabee got one vote, Thompson two, Paul four, Giuliani six, McCain eight, and Romney twenty-one, a dead-accurate reflection of Romney’s victory margin in Nevada that day—I stayed behind to ask Westover about her speech. “It was canned,” she admitted. The Romney state office had sent the text to her and to other precinct leaders three days ago.

“No other candidate had sent out prepared statements,” I observed. Everyone else talked from the heart about their candidate—what they saw in their guy, what they believed he stood for—except for the advocates of Romney.

Westover smiled proudly.

“Well,” said the voice of Mitt Romney for Clark County precinct 3373, “we’re very well organized.”

POSTSCRIPT:

By the time the Florida vote totals were in, Mitt Romney had stopped bringing up gold and silver medals—or, for that matter, the delegate count. In the wake of a pivotal McCain victory, followed by Giuliani's abrupt withdrawal from the race and Huckabee's equally poor showing, the Romney campaign had to satisfy itself with a new mantra: "It's a two-man race."

The problem: Republicans knew who the other man was. And they seemed to like that man. Going into Super Tuesday, could the same thing be said about Mitt Romney?

It was a heck of a problem.

gq correspondent robert drapers book Dead Certain: The Presidency of George W. Bush is in paperback this month.

Photograph by Lisa Kereszi