On the day that he took the oath of office as a freshman congressman in January 1979, Phil Gramm found himself standing next to former state senator Kent Hance of Lubbock, another freshman. Already friends, they had attended the Super Bowl together the previous year, and when the Dallas Cowboys had scored a touchdown, Gramm had shouted to Hance above the cheers, “If we cut spending and balance the budget, they’ll be yelling this way for us.” It was the first indication for Hance, himself a person of considerable ambition, that Gramm’s absorption with politics was even more intense than his own. Now, as the swearing-in ceremonies droned on, came another revelation. Looking around the crowded House floor, Hance leaned over to Gramm and whispered, “How many of these people do you think want to be Speaker?” Gramm gave him a look of disbelief: “You mean president.”
Of all the qualities required of a president of the United States – vision, character, charisma, credentials, leadership, political skill, and so on – the one indispensable trait is a relentless hunger for the job. Phil Gramm has it. Although naked ambition is usually regarded as repellent in American politics, Gramm has never tried to clothe his. No sooner had the Texas A&M economics professor won his party’s nomination to Congress (he was a Democrat then) than he said, “I didn’t give up my career to write articles and give speeches. I want to be a worker.” As a freshman U.S. senator in 1985, following his switch to the Republican party, he announced, “I’m ambitious, but I’m ambitious to have an impact.” By 1990, he was so open about his intention to run for president in 1996 that when he sought the chairmanship of the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC), opponents claimed – unsuccessfully, but accurately – that Gramm would use it to position himself for his White House bid. This is not the textbook way to win the presidency, but Phil Gramm has never been a textbook politician. Uncompromising in his free-market philosophy, disdainful of genteel legislative tradition, so abrasive it has been said that “even his friends don’t like him,” Gramm has nonetheless achieved enormous success as a senator – and, so far, as a presidential candidate.
How far can Phil Gramm’s ambition carry him? Until he won a straw poll of Louisiana Republican activists in January with an overwhelming 72 percent of the vote, hardly anyone gave him much chance to be the GOP nominee in 1996. The problem was not his record: In just his second term in Congress, Gramm had led the fight for Ronald Reagan’s budget cuts; in his first year in the Senate, he had produced the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings deficit-reduction plan. His main obstacle was a lack of the attributes that typically win presidential nominations: the appealing personality and ideological base of a Ronald Reagan or the long resume and loyal friendships of a George Bush. He has an untempered negative attitude toward government and a dark vision of what America’s future will be if his ideas do not prevail.
What Gramm does have is motivation, money, and a knack for strategy. While other prospective Republican candidates were waiting for 1995 to make their move, he accelerated the timetable of the campaign. He crisscrossed the country as chairman of the NRSC, built a database containing 164,000 names of contributors and activists, and forced potential opponents to decide whether to start the grueling process of traveling and raising money. They had the credentials to make the race, but did they have the will? Without the incessant drive, a potential candidate sooner or later will ask the fatal question: Is the quest worth the terrible price it extracts – the sacrifice of my time, my self-respect, my privacy, my physical strength, my reputation? One by one, Gramm’s rivals considered what would be required – a year and a half on the road, four hours a day asking for money in order to match his goal of $20 million – and they began to drop out: Jack Kemp, Dick Cheney, Dan Quayle, William Weld.
Phil Gramm never wavered. To him the endless rounds of airplane flights, handshakes, speeches, and fundraising calls are the oxygen of presidential politics: Either it’s in your blood or you die. Most presidential aspirants hate asking for money, but not Gramm. When he’s in a car going from one event to another or between airport and town, he’s always working a cellular phone. A Gramm consultant recalls that during the 1984 race to succeed retiring U.S. senator John Tower, Gramm asked Tower to join him on a quick campaign swing. Tower took one glance at the long itinerary, packed with appearances from early breakfasts to late dinners, and recoiled. “Is this a week’s schedule?” Tower wanted to know. It was for two days.
Gramm has won phase one of the race for the Republican nomination. By the time he became the first announced candidate on February 24 – one day after holding the most lucrative political fundraiser in history – the only big name still in the running was Senate majority leader Bob Dole. Suddenly Gramm was the center of attention, the subject of profiles by 60 Minutes and the New York Times Magazine on the same weekend. Although he lags behind the better-known Dole in public opinion polls, Gramm has the stronger conservative message and has raised more money.
Now phase two has begun – the building of organizations, the jockeying for endorsements, the wooing of activists, the honing of messages, the media scrutiny. Will money and motivation be enough to propel Phil Gramm those last steps to the prize he has so long sought? Or will the hard edge of his personality relegate him to a historical footnote alongside the names of other ambitious Texans – Lloyd Bentsen and John Connally – who had the desire, the ability, and the money to be president but never managed to captivate voters?
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