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RS: Bush Like Me - Ten weeks undercover in the grass roots of the Republican Party
Rolling Stone ^ | (Posted Oct 06, 2004) | By MATT TAIBBI

Posted on 10/13/2004 11:34:04 AM PDT by weegee

I never felt any longing to go to Orlando, Florida. What I felt, in traveling south to volunteer for the campaign of George W. Bush, was an obligation. Let me explain by first saying something about the critics of our president. A great many of them like to laugh at George Bush for not reading books and for being uninterested in visiting other countries. But a lot of those same people are guilty of the opposite offense. They prefer to read books and travel abroad rather than actually getting to know their own country face to face.

These critics do a terrific job of mocking his mental deficiencies and dismissing his supporters as hapless morons, but they do not do a very good job of explaining the nature of his support. The few dissident commentators who bother trying to explain the Bush phenomenon seldom do more than reach for the nearest Marx-inspired academic cliche. They will tell you, for instance, that Republicans are a vast intellectual underclass cynically manipulated by the rich through a mesmerizing cocktail of yahoo enthusiasms, xenophobic fears and ancient superstitions -- and those same people will insist, if forced to offer an opinion on the subject, that one should feel sorry for most of them.

This is the wrong approach. As a professional misanthrope, I believe that if you are going to hate a person, you ought to do it properly. You should go and live in his shoes for a while and see at the end of it how much you hate yourself.

This was what I was doing down in Florida. The real challenge wasn't just trying to understand these Republicans. It was to become the best Republican I could be.

Republicans are everywhere, but everywhere is not a good place to look for them. For my purposes I wanted to try to catch them in their ideal habitat. That was why I chose Orlando. For me, it is hell on earth, the worst city on the planet, a place that would make me long for Kinshasa or Volokolamsk. But for Republicans, it is ideal: a scorching-hot paved inland archipelago of garish shopping malls and stadium-size steel-and-glass Baptist churches, a place with no nonhuman life apart from the caged animals at the theme parks, and an entire economy organized around monstrous temples to fake experience.

I arrived in early June, moved into a cheap hotel, called the local Republican office and offered to volunteer. They told me to come on by. So I went, arriving early on a Tuesday morning at their small strip-mall office on the east side of town.

My cover story was a travesty, an idiotic tissue of halfhearted lies. I said I was a New York City schoolteacher named Tom Hamill, in Orlando to spend a summer with a girlfriend who was from the area. It was the best thing I could come up with to explain my Northern accent, my lack of local connections and all that free time.

The story's only saving grace was that the truth was so much more unbelievable. Republicans are paranoid enough to expect a mole from the Kerry campaign, but I was far worse than that -- a dissolute, drug-abusing anarchist who reads the battle diaries of Vietnamese generals on rainy days, roots for Russia at the Olympics and once published an article titled "God Can Suck My D**k." I was, in short, the most offensive individual who could conceivably be planted in the campaign of George W. Bush. I was tempted to feel guilty about this. But in the end I figured that it was only fair. Since John Ashcroft has made it easy for FBI agents to infiltrate anti-war groups, it seemed to make sense that an anti-war journalist should infiltrate Ashcroft's party.

Orlando is the crucial city along a stretch of interstate called the I-4 corridor, a swath of central Florida running from Daytona Beach to Tampa. Home to 3.7 million of Florida's 9.3 million registered voters, it has the bulk of the state's undecided voters and is therefore the key to winning Florida's twenty-seven electoral votes. When I got there, I expected a teeming, ultramodern NORAD-style campaign headquarters, where I would have to work my way up a giant totem pole. But in fact what I found was -- nothing at all. For all intents and purposes, there was no campaign for George Bush in Orlando in early June. There was only one paid staffer, a central-Florida field director named Vienna Avelares, and a corner of a table at the local Orange County Republican Executive Committee. If the Republicans were building an electoral Death Star somewhere, it sure as hell wasn't in Florida.

The situation was completely disarming. Vienna, a gregarious Puerto Rican single mother who insisted on introducing herself as "Vienna -- like the sausage," seemed desperate. I had planned on doing a good job anyway, but after meeting her I had a genuine desire to help get things going.

After just a week of coming in every day like this, I became -- along with a young blond Sean Hannity fan named Ben Adrian, who also volunteered at that time -- one of the most important Bush people in all of central Florida. Within a few weeks, we would both be given keys to the office and offered full-time jobs.

Here I want to make a general observation about the social aspect of working for Bush. It's very different than it is working for a Democratic candidate. Corny as this sounds, it is much more egalitarian and brotherly than most Democratic campaigns. Almost every Democratic campaign I've seen has let itself be seduced by the Primary Colors paradigm -- the hip clique full of mildly sexually adventurous twentysomethings who have been working on their memoirs since high school and dream of that chance to wear Versace sport coats and crack jokes on Jimmy Kimmel Live.

If you've ever hung out with the Tricia Enrights and Joe Trippis of the world, you know that the operative vibe of the Democratic insider is wisecracking cool. It is not a reach to say that the ideological vision that mainstream Democratic politics has offered America since Clinton has been the supercool high school, the party of the popular kids. For all the talk about the Democrats being the party of inclusion, it really doesn't feel that way from the inside.

That's not true of all Democrats, of course. I thought it was very different, for instance, in the campaign of Dennis Kucinich. For the most part, these people were motivated by something other than ambition, and just being part of that campaign meant you were in a besieged minority, with the whole world out there laughing at you. Kucinich supporters stuck up for one another, because they had to.

You get that same besieged fraternal feeling in a Republican campaign office. There is no M*A*S*H ensemble-cast repartee. Nobody wears T-shirts that mean something, and nobody looks cool. As I would later find out, most Republicans hate "cool" ("They all think they're so cool and artistic," griped one woman as she watched Fox coverage of Democratic delegates arriving in Boston). Many of the parent volunteers I met were especially bitter because they think that cool is what liberals use to lure their children away. Which they might very well be right about, of course.

In my first month on the campaign, I did not meet many people who came into the office with the serious intention of working hard for the president. I did, however, meet a great many very lonely people who came in because they knew the Bush offices were the one place where they could share certain deeply held ideas without being ridiculed.

Part of my job, I soon came to understand, was to be supportive when people like portly Tampa sheriff's deputy Ben Mills came in to share their very serious utopian ideas -- like the benefits of having a society guarded by a clone army. "We'd save a hell of a lot on benefits and medical expenses," he said. " 'Cause you know if they got wounded..."

"You could just shoot them," I said.

"Exactly -- pow! Just shoot 'em dead, right in the ground."

He went on.

"We'd just have a big breeding farm in Colorado," he said. "Course, it'd be a security problem if they got out, you know, if you had rogue clones running around. You'd have to have a special security force to maintain 'em."

"That's where folks like us would come in," I said.

"Exactly," he said.

Folks like us. I was getting the hang of it.

In my first six weeks on the campaign, I saw only one black person enter our offices. He was a recently released armed robber from Newark, New Jersey, who was the guest of a local female Republican politician. The ex-con was not particularly interested in Republican politics, although he did say something about wanting to hit Christine Todd Whitman in the face with a brick. I urged him to support the president, even though he couldn't vote. He didn't make any promises.

In mid-July a girlfriend came down from New York to visit me. I recruited her to help me with an idea I'd had to at least temporarily diversify my office environment. We decided that she would pose as a reporter for Vibe magazine, call our offices and ask whoever answered the phone if she could interview our "black volunteers."

"Penny" got my officemate Ben Adrian on the phone, and he instituted a frantic search that lasted several days. We thought at first that we might have a black professor from the University of Central Florida (sixteen miles away) on our volunteer list, but he turned out not to be available. Then Rhyan Metzler, the local Republican Party operative, gave us the number of an elderly man in Sarasota named Johnny Hunter.

As the chairman of the Federation of Black Republicans for the Republican Party of the State of Florida, Johnny was used to being called to this sort of duty. On the phone with "Penny," he explained that his job involved traveling around the state to meet people. "Wherever they need me," he said, "that's where I be rolling to." Finally, Ben came through with someone more local. He managed to persuade a thirty-seven-year-old Promise Keeper Christian named Lorin Jones, a phlegmatic fellow who was recovering from two brushes with congestive heart failure, to come in for an interview.

We scheduled it, but "Penny" never showed up. I wanted to be there for what I knew would be an excruciatingly awkward situation; the lone black volunteer, dragged into the office to show off to the media, surrounded by a bunch of nervously small-talking white Republicans waiting for the no-show journalist.

Exactly this situation materialized. The bespectacled Lorin sat surrounded by me, Ben and a few other folks from the campaign, and treated this anxious clock-watching crowd to a lesson in the vagaries of black urban existence: "My dad was a drinker," he said. "He cared about the bottle more than he loved us. But what my mom did was, she worked -- she was there in the afternoon; she wanted to see what we were doing in school.... "

"Gee," mumbled Ben. "I can't imagine the strength.... I'd like to meet her."

"I know what it's like to have a parent who'll put a belt on my butt," Lorin continued.

Nervous silence. Nods.

A few minutes later, "Penny" called to cancel, citing car trouble. Lorin hung in there for a few minutes. Our older volunteer coordinator, Don Madden, came over to chat; the two of them apparently went to neighboring schools in California. Don's school, Don said, was great at basketball, but, he said, winking at Lorin, "You were probably the only guys who could have beaten us."

Lorin laughed uncomfortably. "We were OK," he said. "We were pretty good. Our college was pretty good at basketball."

Then another staffer came over to say hi. He knew Lorin from past campaigns and asked if Lorin was planning on coming in to do phone banking. Lorin answered that he wasn't, that he was busy setting up a school-supplies giveaway charity event in his neighborhood. The staffer laughed.

"Oh, come on," he said jokingly. "I know how you people don't like to work." Lorin, who was halfway out the door, stopped at this. His smile disappeared. For a moment, he was genuinely pissed off. "We don't like to work?" he said. "That's all I do is work to make you white Republicans look good."

The staffer, a jovial guy who I normally liked quite a bit, said nothing and simply slapped Lorin on the back, laughed and helped him out the door.

"Good old Lorin," he said, going back to his office.

Vienna also chimed in after Lorin left. The two of them didn't like each other, having once disagreed at a community meeting.

"I don't like that guy," she said. Then she explained: "After that meeting, we really got into it. We were really shouting. He called me a spic. And so I said to him, 'Hey, I may be a spic, but at least I wasn't brought to this country as a slave. I was born here.' "

"Man," I thought, "We're just one big happy family."

I ended up getting to know Lorin Jones a little. He was an odd, sincere person who interested me largely because he was by far the most dedicated, effective and intellectually honest Republican volunteer the party had in the area, and yet the campaign more or less completely ignored him.

A devout Christian, Lorin supported Bush not only because of the social-religious issues, but because he sincerely believed that state financial aid had had a corrosive effect on the black community and that communities should support themselves through charity. He was the living incarnation of the "thousand points of light" idea. He ought to have been a poster child for Republican values.

"In my neighborhood, you can go up to anybody and ask where the black Republican lives," he said. "And they'll lead you right to my house. But they respect me because of what I've done."

And I saw this. At a function I would later attend in his neighborhood, I met several people who had been converted to Bush by Lorin. He was working round-the-clock for the president, but the campaign was just trying to turn him into another Johnny Hunter. "All they want me to do is start clubs," he said. "Tallahassee keeps calling and bugging me to start black clubs. And I hate that, because I think that puts us all in boxes. I think we should be going out into the community more."

Lorin believed that Republicans could win twenty percent of the black vote -- not the usual ten percent -- if they were smart about it. All they had to do, he said, was visit black churches and hand out fact sheets showing the Republican and Democratic stances on social and religious issues. "You wouldn't even have to campaign," he said. "You'd get an extra ten percent right there."

I must have heard him put forward that plan a half-dozen times, but no one did anything except smile and nod.

Some of the Republicans, however, were willing to help Lorin -- sort of. A smallish contingent of five YRs (Young Republicans) met Lorin in front of an Office Depot in a white suburban area one Saturday to man a booth for soliciting school-supply donations for kids in Lorin's neighborhood. They worked cheerfully throughout the afternoon, giving away hot dogs and helping Lorin get a good amount of stuff.

But when it came time a few days later to actually give away the stuff in Lorin's West Orlando neighborhood, none of the YRs showed up. I was the only white Republican who made it. It was a remarkable event. More than 200 people, mostly single mothers and their children, showed up at a funeral home called Gail and Wynn's to receive the book bags and notebooks Lorin had gathered to give away in one of the reception rooms.

I helped distribute bags to the children. "Vote for Bush," I managed to whisper a few times.

That day Lorin confided to me that this might be his last go-round with the Republicans. "I think this might be it," he said. "I think I might be done with these people."

During my time on the campaign, I noticed an unusual phenomenon. The more involved a person was with the campaign, the more likely he was to be politically moderate. Most of the core group of our office -- Vienna, Rhyan, Ben, Don -- were quietly pro-choice or socially liberal in some other respect. It was the casual volunteers and the people whose only involvement was a bumper sticker who were likely to rant about liberals being traitors and agents of Islamo-Fascism who should be exiled from the country or jailed, etc.

I saw this clearly one weekend at a local gun show, where we were manning a voter-registration booth. I rotated with Rhyan and Vienna that weekend, and all three of us were quietly freaking out at the sight of all these fat weirdos from the sticks buying huge assault rifles and Confederate bumper stickers with messages such as IF I'D KNOWN THIS WOULD HAPPEN, I'D HAVE PICKED MY OWN COTTON.

"Man, I'm glad I'm a socially liberal Republican," whispered Rhyan at one point, laughing.

It was late July, and a new recruit was talking in my ear -- let's call her Susie -- and she was an opinionated, middle-aged fundamentalist-Christian mother of five. Originally from West Virginia, she was working the phones for Bush and sounding off on humanity's declining morals and the agents of the international liberal conspiracy.

"Are you married, Tom?" she asked.

I squinted