By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
Latif said he'd driven up from Houston "to tell the truth about Phil Gramm," and, an hour and a half before Gramm de-scended the steps of the administration building to the strains of the Fightin' Aggie Band, Latif had a captive media audience.
"Phil Gramm," he shouted, drawing even more reporters and cameras, "has no brain! Phil Gramm has no heart! All he can do is take orders from Wall Street bankers!" The attention being paid to the lone protester mobilized a phalanx of snarling Aggies from the campus Young Republicans chapter, who quickly encircled Latif and his media attendants.
"Don't let him talk!" hollered one particularly agitated Aggie, who in addition to his slim appreciation for the First Amendment possessed a walkie-talkie that indicated some low-level responsibility for crowd control. But the impromptu chant of "Gramm! Gramm! Gramm!" couldn't stop Latif from exercising his right of free speech. And besides, the media was a far less threatening target than the towering black man. "Look at that -- the media in action!" sneered one Aggie at the several reporters dutifully recording the opinions of Ahmad Abdul Latif.
He had a point. There was a bit of pathetic desperation about the scene, and it was still early in the morning. Then again, even the most nerve-deadened hack journalist can interview only so many smug, overprivileged 20-year-old college students with a vast knowledge of the way the world works (yeah, it's funny how the '90s are so much like the '60s) before turning to somebody, anybody, with a divergent point of view.
Gradually, though, the reporters drifted away from Latif as the green began filling up with several thousand Aggies, a scattering of older people from off-campus, elementary school classes there to witness history and at least one handful of skeptical faculty members who could be overheard reminiscing about the reputation as a loudmouth and a whiner that Gramm had acquired shortly after arriving at A&M in the late '60s (a couple had Gramm signs, though).
Aggieland, where Gramm taught economics for 11 years before being elected to Congress, was the perfect public launching pad for his candidacy. The school, as was noted more than once that morning, is a "bastion of conservatism" and boasts the largest Young Republicans chapter in the known universe, 1,600 strong. The campus has been roiled in recent years by an unsuccessful and much-criticized attempt to impose required courses in multiculturalism, and more recently by a black student's refusal to honor tradition by removing his hat in the Memorial Student Center, which is dedicated to Aggies who've died in battle.
Some of the war-hardened Young Republicans who mustered for Gramm's announcement sported "Kicking Liberal Ass" T-shirts, a statement of purpose that seemed to sum up the prevailing sentiment of the crowd. Nevertheless, five female Aggies -- their numbers were small enough to actually count -- had the nerve to show up with pro-choice signs. Karen Mauthe, a 22-year-old civil engineering major, wandered through the crowd with a homemade sign of a coat hanger with slash through it. "Down with dry cleaning?" cracked one Aggie, one of the least hostile remarks directed at Mauthe. Once Mauthe settled in within television camera range for Gramm's speech, the Young Republican with the walkie-talkie moved into action, frantically relaying to another Young Republican with a walkie-talkie the dire news that "NOW members" had infiltrated the GrammFest.
"Ya'll should be more considerate," he admonished Mauthe and a friend as he waved a maroon and white A&M banner in front of Mauthe's sign.
"Cover up her face!" urged a member of the Cadet Corps.
The Anti-Clinton's announcement was disciplined and flawless and took just 25 minutes. His speech was mostly a reprise of his greatest hits, but Gramm has a knack for making the same stale lines he's repeated literally thousands of times sound fresh and convincing. His anti-welfare and anti-affirmative action lines drew the loudest applause. The line he seemed to relish most was the one about how he had vowed that Clinton's health plan would pass "over my cold, dead political body."
You could tell he really enjoyed working out on "cold" and "dead."
When Gramm recounted for maybe the 10,000th time how he failed third, seventh and ninth grades, Ahmad Abdul Latif was ready.
"We know!" he shouted.
Rick Perry and Kay Bailey Hutchison, the wedding cake couple of the Texas Republican Party, were on hand, as was Dicky Flatt, the printer from Mexia who Gramm's been using as his throw-down Everyman for going on two decades and whose coming fame should at least guarantee him his own 900-DICKY number for recommended budget cuts. Arizona Senator John McCain, a former POW, was also present and accounted for to provide cover for the draft-deferred war hawk.
Despite the precision-drill execution, the whole affair seemed flat and anti-climactic. Maybe that's what happens when you "announce" something you've already been doing non-stop for 15 years. Gramm's speech ended abruptly, the band struck up the "Aggie War Hymn" and the candidate was off and running back to New Hampshire, where the first primary votes are next year. On the network news shows that evening, the head-on camera angles made Gramm look even angrier than usual, as if he were biting off every word.