Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Dispatches, Volume 5

The Mac is Back…Fear and Loathing at the Citadel…Barack Obama Shines and the People Swoon…Elephants on Parade
From a 12-hour drive on Route 95...1/22/08

South Carolina crazies come in all shapes and colors. Our crew spent the day phone banking and canvassing the neighborhoods of North Charleston black voters whose biggest reservation about Obama was that white people wouldn’t vote for him, or, in the case of one generous fellow (Gerald) who fed me cinnamon rolls and Pepsi, that they would, you know…pop him off. I convinced Gerald that Secret Service protection is top notch these days, and that white people seemed to like Obama just fine in Iowa and New Hampshire. He was convinced, and it felt good to actually dispel propaganda on the canvassing trail over breakfast in an undecided voter’s living room, rather than grasping for a voter ID before getting a door slammed in my face. At one point Gerald’s batty mother came in and started yammering about something till he gently shooed her out of the room. “I apologize,” he sighed. “My mother supports Hillary…you have to understand- she’s very, very old…”
But while our work this weekend was for Obama, Saturday the 19th really belonged to the Republicans, who were battling furiously for the South Carolina rabid righters that have delivered the nomination to each of their candidates since 1980. When polls showed McCain with the lead, we jumped in a car and headed to the McCain Victory Party at the Citadel, a private military university. For someone selling himself as the national security candidate, there was virtually no security at the Citadel Alumni House, where I slapped a sticker onto my cowboy hat, grabbed a whiskey and coke, and marched into the staging room where Mac was scheduled to speak in a few minutes.
I had pictured such an adventure as a return to the Lion’s Den. “The Lion’s Den” was a phrase that entered my life when I inadvertently crashed the 2002 New Year’s Eve party of Robbie Sheehan, a prep-schooler who I had mocked incessantly in my high school column, “Two Minutes to Roll.” He had grinned when he saw me, and as a bunch of his football frat brothers made threatening gestures towards me, one whispered, “Welcome to the Lion’s Den.” I spent the ball-drop in the laundry room. Since then, the Lion’s Den has been the steady pursuit of thrusting yourself into situations where you are not welcome and watching the sparks fly.
Sadly, the McCain rally never felt that way. The crowd was tepid and lame. Few had the energy to wave signs, or make any noise besides the occasional “Mac is back” chant. At one point the crowd burst into a wild cry of, “USA! USA! USA!” I found out afterwards the chant had been started by friend Pat, who was bored, and noticed that, “The crowd was practically begging for someone to start a USA chant.” I tried to mingle with Young Republican dandies and backslap the other fellas in cowboy hats, but they seemed more afraid of me than I was of them, violating the rule of the spider. Pat and I were briefly interviewed by a Canadian journalist. I introduced myself as Jack Marton, and explained why McCain was so appealing to young people.
McCain had spent the day watching “There Will Be Blood.” He was introduced by South Carolina House Speaker Thrasher, and came out to “Rocky” theme music. The stage was set for war, but something was off. Maybe it’s because Mike Huckabee is a poor stand in for Ivan Drago. Maybe it’s because McCain doesn’t look a day under 70. Or maybe because the candidate this candidate resembles most is not the John McCain of Straight Talk Express fame, but Bob Dole circa-1996, the tired old silver platter nominee. His voice was meek, his tone soporific. Even his most inspiring punch line wasn’t quite right: “I am not running for president to be somebody, but to do something.” ‘Doing something’ these days probably means bombing Iran, appointing Scalia judges, and dying in office three years into his first term, elevating Lindsay Graham to the presidency. If the media can get off their ass and stop calling him a maverick, this is a platform that will worry the average moderate voter, just as his acknowledgement of global warming and sponsorship of campaign finance laws he doesn’t follow himself (what a rebel!) will alienate him from conservatives, if they’re not mauled to death by the hordes of Mexican immigrants they’re accusing him of giving amnesty to. No, folks, the Straight Talk Express ran out of steam a long time ago, stalling somewhere between Bob Jones University and a shopping expedition in Baghdad.
In this South Carolina primary, McCain actually polled worse among self-proclaimed conservatives and veterans than he did in 2000. He beat a badly outspent Mike Huckabee by 3 points (The Huckster retreated to Chuck Norris’ ranch for a big time fundraiser in response). The Huckster, perhaps the only good man in the Republican Party, graciously accepted his loss, saying he’d rather “lose honorably than win with dirty tricks.” It’s a nice slap against Rove and W, but it also means he could never be the nominee. So long, Huck, it was good knowing you.
The man who really bit the dust was sad old man Fred Thomspon. His farewell speech as forceful as I’ve ever seen him, which is to say, mildly interesting. “The Reagan Revolution wasn’t about one man,” he thundered. He argued it was about patriotism, free trade, low taxes, defending from threats abroad. Of all the candidates in both parties, Fred Thompson tried hardest to connect his principles to Reagan, and in turn, connecting Reagan to the Founding Fathers. But at the end of the day, his farewell speech reminded me much of Dick Gephardt’s goodbye, after he lost Iowa in 2004: ‘Here are the bedrock principles our party stands for. If only there were someone more charismatic than me to represent them…’
Now the Republicans head down to Florida, where Rudy has steadily morphed into the crazy old New Yorker that usually winds up in the retirement homes he’s been stumping at. A rather frightening CNN clip showed him prancing around stage waving a single sheet of paper that represents his new tax plan. “It’s one piece of paper, Wolf! One piece of paper!” CNN correspondent John King politely noted that Rudy’s ‘Let them come to Ft. Lauderdale’ strategy was either genius or ridiculous, though it seemed clear what side King came down on. John King often seems to be the only person on CNN’s fabled ‘Best Political Team on Television’ with any idea of what’s going on. He’ll be doing an analysis of county by county voting trends while Blitzer interrupts him to blurt out, “But John, it’s snowing!” “Yes, Wolf,” he’ll calmly reply. “And snow is harder to navigate than rain.” Meanwhile, Carl Bernstein, who for some reason is relegated to a different table than the rest of the analysts, will be yelling at Anderson Cooper to call on him, but he won’t be able to, because of some argument between Bill Bennett, whose basically a fatter version of Pat Buchanan, and Donna Brazile, whose most impressive accomplishment is managing Al Gore to a loss in the 2000 presidential election. Talk about a ‘we wouldn’t fucking be here if you had done your job correctly’ situation.
Yes, CNN, the best circus on television, though not the best circus in Columbia, South Carolina, which Sunday night was either Barack Obama coming to the Convention Center, or Barnum and Bailey, performing next door.
Obama was magnificent as ever. He inspired and enthralled a raucous bi-racial audience, with men, women and children all swooning over the chance to touch him (I swooned, and I did touch him). I’ll discuss why he gets people more excited than a rock star some other time, but suffice to say he was at his best Sunday night, finally taking the gloves off and going after Bill and Hillary full throttle, with charm and wit, while supporters yelled, “You tell ‘em, Senator!” He went after Hillary’s ludicrous suggestion that he was a Ronald Reagan supporter, clarifying that while he did not agree with Reagan’s policies, Reagan had been a transformative political figure that created a majority coalition. “They called the folks who crossed over to support him ‘Reagan Democrats,’ Obama declared. ‘Well I think this election, it’s time we put together a coalition that has some Obama Republicans!’ And they are out there. Everyone’s conservative dad seems to be thinking about voting for Obama, and even some people at the McCain victory party expressed indecision between McCain and Obama. Trade that for every Democrat who hates Hillary, and all of a sudden you’ve got a no-brainer.
After the Obama rally I was interviewed by another Canadian journalist. This time I gave my real name, and told her why young people are supporting Obama. Hopefully, if Obama and McCain win their nominations, we can push a storyline in the Canadian media about the twin brothers, Janos and Jack, fighting in opposing camps to win the 2008 election. Stranger things have happened. Like this:
It was freezing cold when we left the Convention Center, but a cop held us at an intersection. “Why can’t we cross?” I demanded. The cop shrugged. “Look for yourself.” Approaching the intersection was a pack of elephants, marching in single file. There they were, tired and elegant in the cold night, on their way somewhere new, like the fated Obama Republicans, marching on through, the elephants on parade.