Potential spoiler Ralph Nader met with potential spoilee John Kerry yesterday afternoon at Kerry's campaign headquarters at 901 15th St. NW.
This promised to be a revealing and momentous political moment, unless it turned out to be just a waste of everyone's time. But certain realities infused the occasion with drama: The meeting would convene the third-party candidate who many Democrats believe cost Al Gore the election in 2000 and the Democrats' nominee-to-be, whom many believe Nader could similarly victimize in 2004.
Would Kerry use the meeting to explicitly ask, or beg, Nader to quit the race? Or would Nader offer to get out in exchange for certain assurances (e.g., that Kerry agree to let him participate in debates, or promise a role in the Kerry administration)? It was a long shot, to be sure, but there at least was a chance that the discussion could end Nader's candidacy and thus tweak the calculus of the presidential election race.
So a media throng converged for a stakeout in the drizzle on McPherson Square. By 2:15 -- Nader's scheduled arrival time -- the crowd comprised 15 print reporters and 10 cameramen. They attracted, as crowds tend to do, an even bigger crowd.
Nader arrived and entered the building, unseen, through a back door. By the time anyone realized this -- by way of a pool reporter who had been inside -- Nader was already on the seventh floor, meeting with Kerry. The two men have known each other for years, Kerry and his aides often remind people. They agree on many things, have fought on the same side for many things and have a common foe in George W. Bush.
Kerry (per pool report) hailed Nader in the lobby with a hearty "Hey, Ralph!" They shook hands and shared a warm greeting, just like any other old friends, except that in this case, one could wind up costing the other the White House.
The candidates repaired to a conference room off the lobby, joined by Kerry aides Mary Beth Cahill and Steve Elmendorf and Nader aides Kevin Zeese and Theresa Amato. The meeting lasted longer than the scheduled hour. Reporters waited on the sidewalk with a bank of microphones and cameras. Nader had said he would address them after the meeting. Kerry would not.
Nader exited a ground-floor elevator at 3:30. The media throng -- which had grown to three dozen -- clustered outside the door. Zeese, Nader's spokesman, approached the microphone. Sorry, he said. Mr. Nader is not "comfortable" meeting the media outside. He cited security concerns.
Several reporters and cameramen bull-rushed the lobby, where Nader had just stood, but he'd left through an auxiliary exit.
"What kind of [expletive] operation are you running here?" one cameraman, who said he'd been waiting four hours, yelled after Zeese.
Kerry spokesman David Wade emphasized to another reporter that the operation the cameraman was referring to had nothing to do with the Kerry for President campaign.
A Kerry campaign official with knowledge of the meeting -- who spoke on the condition that he be identified as a "Kerry aide" -- briefed a small group of reporters afterward. He said it was "a friendly discussion." Nothing contentious about it. Nader made the same argument he had made many times, that he could provide a sharper counterpoint to Bush. Kerry said he intended to be elected president and was working hard at it and he wished Nader could help him.
At no point did Kerry ask Nader to get out of the race. Nor did Nader suggest that he would quit under any conditions. They did not discuss the war in Iraq, which Kerry voted for in the Senate and Nader fervently opposes.
"The substantive conversation was about issues they primarily agreed upon," the Kerry aide said, citing the importance of corporate responsibility and the scourge of corporate welfare.
One reporter asked if either candidate said anything in the meeting that he hadn't stated before. "No," the aide said. "Not that I heard."
But the friends did agree to meet again.