Calhoun: Wake-Up Call


Ordinarily, Governor Roy Romer takes a backseat to no man. But then there's Henry Alford.

Alford, a prankster and journalist, had already inflicted his own yummy snack food, Nubbins, on New York City (and written about it in the late, lamented Spy magazine); he would soon pass himself off as an earlobe model. So when the Democratic National Convention came to town in the summer of 1992, it was only natural that Alford, performance artist ordinaire, would want to make the scene. But as a VIP driver? As Alford confesses in his book, Municipal Bondage, not only does he not own a car, he has never owned a car, and his rare times behind the wheel "are marked by cautiousness and a sense of impending peril." But then, Alford didn't even have to take a driver's test to be accepted by the convention planners as a temporary chauffeur. His assignment: Governor Roy Romer.

"I did a little research," Alford writes. "I discovered that the highly popular, twice-elected, sixty-three-year-old governor had a reputation for being unbridled. After reporters and news crews were dismissed from a meeting between President Bush and the country's governors in February 1992, Romer broke protocol by insisting that the press be allowed to stay to hear Democratic rebuttal to the president's budget and domestic policy proposals. Afterward, White House press secretary Marlin Fitzwater told the Washington Post that `the easiest, cheapest trick in the world is to be rude to the President to try to get into the news'; the New York Times later referred to the governor as `brash' and `unvarnished.'

"This information suggested only one thing to me: I would not be spending the convention singing rounds of Frere Jacques."

Actually, Alford didn't sing at all until he finally revealed his hoax in the "Drive, He Said" chapter of the new Random House book. And Alford's former passengers were blissfully unaware of their driver's real profession--much less the existence of his published memoirs--until contacted Monday. Although political consultant Rick Reiter took in stride the news that his driver had been an imposter, he wouldn't stand for Alford estimating his age as "early forties." "I'll kill the son of a bitch," Reiter said. But he soon relented--after reading that he also exuded "warm informality and boyish excitability," no doubt. "He was the world's worst driver," Reiter remembers of Alford. "And I was the world's worst advance man."

In addition to Reiter, the Colorado contingent included Joan Coplan, Romer's assistant campaign manager; then-chief of staff B.J. Thornberry; Bea Romer; and the governor himself. During his crash course on Colorado, Alford had discovered that Romer belonged to the "Order of Coif."; after seeing him in the flesh, he could only assume that this referred to the governor's impressive coiffure, which "successfully toed the line between bounce and volume."

Little did Romer know that he was about to embark on the most hair-raising five days of his life. After a particularly narrow escape, Alford eavesdropped as Romer discussed the chauffeur's skills with Reiter: "What I've decided about his driving is either that he's too young and green to know he's doing it, or he's a pro who's got it all figured out. I suspect the former."

To Alford, Romer said: "Yes, some of your clearances are amaz...I'm a pilot, Henry. So I watch clearances."

He also watched out for Alford's well-being, urging him to eat dessert at a reception hosted by the Democratic National Committee. The rest of the Colorado entourage was equally gracious, Alford says, always including him in the festivities. At one such event, Alford spotted Ted Kennedy: "I was glad to have my own bad driving put into a historical context," he says. And Reiter wound up sharing not only his convention credentials ("I savored the irony that I, a driver, had gotten a floor pass when many of my journalist friends had been denied one," writes Alford), but also significant amounts of cash that the driver could use to bribe doormen. It's somewhat disheartening to learn just how little clout the governor of Colorado carries in New York City. To gain respect, at one point Alford told an angry transportation worker that "the guy I'm picking up is the governor of Colorado and of Arizona"; when that failed to impress, he said he was waiting for the governor of Colorado and Barbra Streisand--"in a leotard."

Romer himself stripped to his shirtsleeves for a Central Park softball game at which he made a major grab for both a line drive and some national publicity. "He caught it just like this," Reiter told Alford, miming the governor's catch. "TV got the whole thing. You couldn't have scripted it better."

Which, of course, Alford was in the process of doing. As he steered the triumphant group--"the backseat sending forth a waft of vinegary Romer-rama"--back to the hotel, the governor took an urgent (and still top-secret) call and asked Reiter for a piece of paper. Reiter grabbed Alford's clipboard--"and handed the governor the pad on which I had been keeping notes for this story," Alford writes with italicized hysteria.

"It is with some hesitation that I try to describe the ensuing two minutes, so inextricably linked in my mind are they with the phrase weltering abdominal cramps. I racked my brains trying to remember if I had torn off the last completed page of notes and put it in my jacket pocket, as I had been trying to do regularly; I could not remember. The specter of incarceration swept across my consciousness like cloud patterns on a weather map. My bowels went soft.

"Finally, the governor concluded his phone call, ripped off the page he was writing on and returned the pad, saying nothing."

The governor doesn't have much more to say today. He remembered the driver as a pleasant fellow, says press aide Cindy Parmenter. Romer himself was unavailable for a chat; he's on his bomber-jacketed, oatmeal-eating re-election swing through the state.

And who's in the driver's seat this time?
A moment of silence. "I don't know," Parmenter sighs.

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Patricia Calhoun co-founded Westword in 1977; she’s been the editor ever since. She’s a regular on the weekly CPT12 roundtable Colorado Inside Out, played a real journalist in John Sayles’s Silver City, once interviewed President Bill Clinton while wearing flip-flops, and has been honored with numerous national awards for her columns and feature-writing.
Contact: Patricia Calhoun