Many people at the Democratic National Committee meeting were fit to be tied -- and probably should have been.
It was ground glass and hemlock at the Shoreham Hotel last week when they gathered for the first time since the November debacle. They went at each other with a display of venom, malice and spite worthy of "Falcon Crest," the television serial about a wine-making family much given to back-stabbing.
The only winner on the scene was Paul G. Kirk Jr., a reasonable man from Massachusetts who was elected party chairman after a ferocious struggle. All that comes with the job is a patch of scorched earth with no hint of greening any time soon. But Kirk seemed sincerely pleased, which was not the case with others.
Nobody said anything irretrievable about Kirk, who is considered a straight and steady man, capable of impartiality and fairness despite his history as a Kennedy campaign manager.
But for the losers, his election was, as Bob Slagle, the sharp Texas state chairman, put it, "just another negative for us to overcome." Slagle, like most of the southerners, was backing Terry Sanford of North Carolina, a late entry.
Nancy Pelosi, a slim, fine-featured Californian who dropped out of the contest in the early morning of the day of the vote, held an impromptu news conference to explain her defeat and trampled the gender gap, one of the mistaken premises of the fall campaign, into the ground. Many delegates, she told reporters, had said to her: "How can you expect me to support a woman? I really think it isn't the message the party needs right now."
Pelosi had the support of New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo, who was not on hand but whose presence was much felt.
After Pelosi withdrew, Cuomo instructed the New York delegation to switch to Sanford, an action that baffled and angered northeasterners, who think the governor is closer regionally and philosophically to the liberal Kirk. The day before, Cuomo had sent word to his people to vote against the seating of at-large delegates, who included many members of organized labor sympathetic to Kirk. Those in the general public who managed to interest themselves in the proceedings might thus have seen the Democrats' most powerful governor -- and big hope for 1988 -- backing two losers.
Insiders, however, called it "a brilliant move" -- even if it put Cuomo at odds with organized labor and meant that he missed a chance to become a healer and unifier in the party. A follower of Robert J. Keefe, another also-ran candidate for chairman, said Cuomo had done well by ingratiating himself with the southern governors -- only one of whom was for Kirk -- and with big givers from California and Texas.
Veteran national committeeman Joe Crangle, the Erie County chairman and sole New York dissenter on the at-large and Kirk votes, had a bitter explanation for his governor's course. Crangle and Cuomo have been feuding since 1980 when Crangle endorsed Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) for president and Cuomo led the Carter-Mondale forces.
Crangle said: "There's more to this business than making a keynote speech at last summer's convention . People should see the mean, petty and vengeful side of him before they make up their minds for president."
The Democratic governors came out of the miserable, expensive struggle with nothing to show. In the fall, after trumpeting their intention to take on the management of party affairs, they embarked on a search for the ideal chairman. But they could not find a foot to fit the glass slipper, and they ended up going their separate ways.
Choosing the vice chairman was equally eviscerating and showed that the special interests of the Democratic Party have special interests. Mayor Richard G. Hatcher of Gary, Ind., was the candidate of the Congressional Black Caucus, though not by a large margin, and was challenged by Illinois comptroller Roland Burris. Both men are black.
Rep. Mickey Leland (D-Tex.), chairman of the black caucus, was standing when Burris' victory was announced. He clutched his stomach as if he had been punched. When he got his voice, he called Burris' selection "terrible" and "obscene" and railed against Kirk for "violating the tradition" of the DNC "by not honoring the caucus endorsement" of Hatcher. Later Leland called Burris an "Uncle Tom."
Kirk made a sensible speech in which he suggested that Democrats stop making unreasonable demands on each other. Maybe the best thing he could do is to forbid them to meet again until they sign a no-blood-on-the-floor pledge.