Ed, the lawyer, was prone one second, ramrod straight the next. It was a hazy hour between November 7 and 8. His face was slack with drink, with bloodshot eyes and sallow skin that made his cheekbones jut out like volcanic rocks from the surf.
"What the hell?" he asked, pointing at the TV. The throngs of cheering Bushies assembled outside the state Capitol were now silent, disquietingly so.
"Gore withdrew his concession," I said.
"He withdrew his concession," I said, slowly and succinctly.
Ed blinked, twitched, and lay back down, muttering about civil war. I knew he was ready for any hostilities; a month earlier I watched him bull's-eye headshot after headshot through the scope of his Mini-14 at a firing range in Austin. Ed voted Republican this year, just as I had, but we were very different people.
A choked gurgle from across the room drew my attention. There was Chris, age 30, working a glass bong like some horrible wind instrument. He looked scared, like U.N. blue-helmets were already gathering to storm his Austin apartment and make us swear allegiance to the new Fuehrer, Al Gore.
"My God, it's really falling apart," he said, each word formed around exhaled smoke. "We have to go back down there!"
"No way," I said. "It's your fault we missed it. Now we're dry, safe, and warm. You're not dragging me away."
We left the rally before witnessing networks blunder and give the presidency to George W. Bush and the subsequent crushing reaction when Gore called Austin for the second time to take back his concession while telling Bush not to get "snippy." Chris' ex-girlfriend had rematerialized in Austin, popping up like a horrible succubus after years of isolation. Earlier in the evening the pair had sought refuge from the torrents of freezing rain under a picnic table and immediately started groping. That made it harder on Chris when the woman, a hypochondriac traveling nurse, stalked away from the bitter cold and left him for the night as he called her name like some fool out of Nabokov.
I'm sorry we missed the high and low points of the Austin street party. It must have been something, to have victory snatched away from a crowd of thousands. We were in the crowd when Florida was put back in play after the networks called it for Gore; it was like winning a playoff game. Hearing Bernard Shaw call the Presidency for the Texas Governor must have been like winning the Cotton Bowl. And then losing it on an offsides, a bum call.
The TV images of the crowd--moon-faced, silent--were eerie compared with the festive group we were part of earlier, the one that sang "America the Beautiful" with Wayne Newton and Bo Derek. It was a party mood when we got there; beer was flowing, and the cold did little to dampen the Republicans' thirst. One unfortunate woman, doubled over with hysterical hallucinogenic-fueled laughter, was escorted out of the throng. Then something bad happened, something scary. Election night was ending with a power vacuum. Now anything was possible, and even the addled half-conscious remains of Ed the attorney knew it.
We knew that whatever was happening was happening to us. We felt it, even safely ensconced in Chris' Austin apartment with a shotgun. Everyone we'd seen that day voted for Bush in 2000. We knew degenerates across the country, a mixed bag of middle-class drones in our mid-20s, holding a similar concept of personal independence, who voted Republican for the first time out of disgust for Gore, which really is an extension of our hatred for the man who got away.
Ed and Chris are a new breed of young Republican that may actually thrive in the new millennium, the Degenerate Right. We're the furthest thing from most Republican stereotypes, the Archie Bunker/Alex P. Keaton/Ralph Reed monsters that liberals trot out to literally scare up votes from moderates. We are sorely misrepresented in the GOP, and we know it.
A guy like Chris, who publicly gropes women under tables in the rain, would seemingly be attracted to the party and person of Bill Clinton. Maybe he saw too much of his own weakness in that president's misdeeds, or maybe he knows from experience that one can gain a simple dignity by getting caught and fessing up rather than dragging your friends and supporters into your complicated lies. Also, he points out, he never perjured himself in court to cover up a blowjob.
Chris and Ed are educated. They are NRA donors. They jettisoned religion and abortion as core issues and concentrated on the right to be left alone, to own guns and make money without having more than half go to taxes. They don't take part in any organized religion; they are humanists to the core. They loathe hate-crime legislation and affirmative action because they think it's awful for the government to make official distinctions of race in law. "It's something the Nazis would do," says Chris. They laugh at shirts with guns on them that say, "This tool kills fascists!"
Bill Clinton is busy patting himself on the back in magazine articles for getting the federal government involved in the day-to-day affairs of Americans. This intrusion sets our hair on end, kindling fears that we have grown up and gained our own strange form of independence only to find a nanny government watching all our crude moves.
So we struck back. We voted Bush. Some of us held our noses, but we did it. And now the trouble was just starting...
I've never met George W. Bush, the next president of these supposedly United States, while sober.
I'd be lying if I said I was ashamed of this fact, but I'm not really proud of it either. I can say the same about voting for the man; as a 27-year-old journalist I seem to draw a lot of fire in the Dallas Observer newsroom for voting Bush in 2000. Me, a New Yorker by birth and a reporter by trade! What the hell am I thinking?
It's only fair to say that I had a rare chance to check out W. Bush at close range, under strange circumstances, and he came off well. I don't buy the charge that he's dumb, or that he's at heart out to screw the little guy. Most voters haven't had the one-on-one exposure to George W. Bush and his family that I had. He won a vote that day without even trying.
In 1997 I worked for the Corpus Christi Caller-Times. I was a 22-year-old junior reporter with a year's experience, already burning out on the constraints and requirements of the newspaper-of-record business. Word came down from my editor--the governor is coming on a junket to tout Texas tourism. Of course, his family had to come along. And, of course, I had to go out and listen to him prattle on about bird watching at some exotic game ranch near Falfurrias.
On the way I quietly fumed. Journalism school did not teach most of the soul-sucking work that accompanies reporting for a daily, the work that trained apes would handle if they could read. That day I smoked some grass on the way to the Rio Paisano Ranch and thought of ways to goof on the governor.
As I pulled up the driveway I noticed several fed sleds and a single television crew. Everything seemed quiet, too quiet. Was the governor even here? Buzzed and nervous, I approached the ranch slowly and let myself in. Bush was in back, making a statement for the television crew. He was wearing a shirtsleeve top with a collar and a baseball cap. Binoculars dangled from his neck. He was here to bird watch. "People are constantly trying to enhance land values. I'm looking for a firsthand experience so I can sell people on different neat things to do here," Bush said. I rolled my red eyes. What a boob--it's a free vacation on the taxpayer dime!
"Ranchers have found that hunting is a big business. They have to maintain habitats to maintain land values," he said. OK, score one for the gun guys. Even before there were NRA bumper stickers reading "Sportsmen for Bush," there were actual sportsmen for Bush. The ranch doubled as an exotic game-hunting ranch, where for a fee you can hunt turkey, quail, and bobcats, along with exotic animals like wildebeest and antelope. I didn't ask how importing animals from Africa and shooting them was maintaining native habitats, but I was a lot younger then.
It was time to bird watch. The TV crew had no desire and drove back to Corpus for a quick edit. It was me and the governor, Laura Bush, and Victor Emanuel, whom I described in the next day's paper as a "world-renowned birding expert." Birding, I thought. How lame.
I was wrong. Birding is excellent, if you do it with the right guy. Victor Emanuel had those birds flocking. Some were lured in by playing recordings of other horny birds. Two green jays skirmished with a roadrunner while Emanuel narrated like Lorne Green. I rode in the back of a safari-converted jeep chatting happily with Laura Bush about what it's like to be the governor's wife. She charmed me. I remember how pretty I thought she was, and I still think she is. The governor had a good time, in a way that's hard to fake. He was clapping his hands, hooting at the antics of the birds like a kid. I'd been exposed to stodgy politicians before, lifeless and soulless creatures who look at you in the same way a buzzard eyes fresh roadkill. Bush was alive, relaxed even after an hour of forced birding with an unknown reporter.
The tour ended and the governor gave me a friendly look. I think he was grateful I hadn't pestered him while we were birding. "You want an interview?" he asked. "Sure," I said, and we sat on a porch and had lemonade. I asked him a couple of questions concerning a story I was working on about illegal immigration and drug smuggling. We started talking about Mexico, where I had spent a year reporting for an English-language daily. I told him the cops in Mexico mugged me more than street thugs. He told me Mexico was a vital trade partner. We talked politics. He said that if the tax burden weren't lowered, there would be a Texas "tax revolt."
I asked whether he wanted to be president like his dad. He gave me the line that he used until he announced his candidacy--he was going to concentrate on being governor and just see what happens. His main focus as governor? Child literacy. He added that it was hard to stay in shape because he had to eat a lot of barbecue at fund-raisers, and not to eat heartily would be offensive.
On the way out Bush noticed that the plates on my car were from New York.
"Better get that taken care of," he said. "That's against the law."
A Texas Ranger laughed at me. Good thing he didn't see the roach in the ashtray.
I saw Bush several times after that, but never as intimately. When I did, it seemed I was always drinking. There he was in Kingsville at a fund-raiser in the form of a barbecue, there I was drinking beer. There he was, running for president during the primaries and duking it out with John McCain, there I am gathering rumors and eavesdropping in the back for my political column, drinking wine.
And there I was on election night in Austin, standing in the rain waiting to hear if the man I bird watched with, the man whose wife I had a crush on, would win the presidency. And as we waited in the cold for results that never came, I got drunk then too.
There were plenty of people drinking on the night of Election Day on the streets of Austin. Many were journalists.
The world's press corps was there, stacked together on a mammoth lighted platform facing the stage. Television reporters huddled in lighted cubes like bees; I saw CNN's Candy Crowley make a face and take off her parka, ready to go on the air to say that nothing happened. When her broadcasts were shown on JumboTron screens, everyone would cheer insanely. On the stage a single lectern stood expectantly, waiting for the Big Speech. (There was nothing expectant about it later; in my notes I compared the lectern to a headstone when the talking heads gave Florida to Gore.) The press was placed in a pen at the back of the crowd but conveniently close to the beer vendors. The masses waited in thick lines, but media could approach from an exclusive side. It was a strategic edge over the masses that the press exploited until the kegs went dry. Four dollars got you a beer, sold to you by nondescript women wearing Bush-Cheney pins.
Four square blocks full of Republicans were waving signs and hooting. Many were young, some high-school age. There were freaks there too, wearing Uncle Sam costumes or dressed as sequined American flags. I saw maybe six black people there, all middle-aged. That doesn't surprise me; anyone who thought Bush's reach-out to minorities would attract anyone other than white swing voters is nuts.
I didn't feel out of place in that crowd, except for the press ID hanging around my neck. It's conventional wisdom that the mainstream press is busy trying to stamp right-wing thought out of existence, and judging by the Clinton years it's true. Television is such a stupid medium that even 24-hour news channels manage to tell only one-quarter of the news, and newspapers dutifully tell both sides of every story even if one side is clearly lying.
Chris and Ed felt right at home. Chris had never voted Republican before, but the convulsions of the Clinton years pushed him toward it. He never forgave himself for voting for Clinton in 1992 and has turned on the man and everything associated with him. At the top of the list is Al Gore, cursed by association and unable to charm his way out of the doghouse that Bill built. Chris turned Republican while being fed on a steady diet of talk radio and Time-Life history books about World War II. His crappy job pays well, and his salary was increasing. Suddenly he had more to lose. He was an instant Republican: Just add paranoia and stir.
He's got a lot to be paranoid about these days. For people like us, the Clinton legacy includes bending and breaking laws with impunity, executive orders of dubious merit, bombings of a medicine factory in the Sudan, military intervention without clear goals or exit strategies, an ineffective expansion of the drug war, forcing the Middle East peace process and ruining it, domestic anti-energy policies, and lots of legislation by litigation. (On the plus side, most street Republicans like his free-trade initiatives, as well as portions of his blowjob policy, if not the cover-up that followed.) Clinton's our Nixon, a despised man.
Gore was his enabler. So was Hillary, who received a deep chorus of boos from Austin when she won the New York Senate seat. One clearly drunken man snuck into the restricted press area and berated reporters. "How could anyone in New York vote for that fucking bitch?" He was escorted back into the crowd by police.
I don't know what my fellow New Yorkers were thinking. That seat belonged to lifelong New Yorker Nita Lowey, the congresswoman who stepped aside to let Hillary run. I'm no Lowey fan, but at least the woman earned her right to run. I bet against Hillary and lost $20. I underestimated the star factor. I never will again.
Neither Bush nor Gore is a star in any media sense of the word. Bill Clinton was and always will be. That's a curse he revels in. Clinton had the brain, but luckily it was wired for self-destruction, or else he'd be emperor. Compared with Clinton, Gore is a troubled schemer incapable of generating enough political energy to power a 40-watt bulb. And Bush can't even articulate a damned sentence, making it hard to sell the American people on anything he'll try to do.
Bush's best moment for me came when he told reporters that he wouldn't use federal laws to trump a state's right to allow marijuana to be used for medicinal purposes. The issue, Bush said, belonged at the state level. If California voters voted for it, there it was. But even this fine, rational statement was delivered in stuttering English that I don't recognize from the 1997 porch conversation.
Seeing the crowds in Austin on election night, gathered around to root for Bush, made me feel proud of him, as if he were an old friend or my nephew. He seemed so full of life that day, so happy to be watching those damned birds, clapping his hands and hooting. Now he's all grown up and the leader of the free world. I worry about Bush being in the Oval Office, about what the position will do to the laid-back and charming man I met on the porch that day. I see what happened to Bill Clinton; after eight years the man looks like a sock left out in the rain. It will be awful to see that happen to Dubya, who like us all will transform, step by step, into his father, but on national television.
I like Bush, but like many people I voted for his team: Cheney's smart and experienced, Condoleezza Rice is a veteran of the previous Bush administration and an expert in Russian affairs, and Colin Powell adds just enough flair and eloquence to give the whole Cabinet gravitas. Even the creepy old-school specter of Henry Kissinger (who was seen in meetings with future Bush Cabinet members) gives me an oddly comforted feeling. Makes me feel like the adults are back on the job after eight years of amateur rule, a welcome return of those who can act like the Grinch if our nation's self-interest requires it. Still...
"This isn't going to be a very effective defense of George Bush," I told Chris over the phone, informing him I was writing about the election for the Observer. "That's OK," he said. "He doesn't really deserve an effective defense."
Two days after the election, I attended the bachelor party of Mark, a 22-year-old independent lawn-care specialist. He never voted before, but now he is a Republican.
Hours before we went to the party, Mark, Chris, and I burned off some excess wedding jitters by shooting skeet with his 12-gauge in the bitter cold. He wore a blue ski hat with a Bush-Cheney sticker plastered across the forehead. I told him his impassioned plea as an independent businessman to vote for Bush helped Chris and me reconcile our emotions and punch the ticket for Bush and his tax cuts. "I'm glad I helped convince you guys," he said, reloading. "Look how close the vote was. Pull!"
I stared in wonder. This was the kid who got me into Rage Against the Machine and Peter Tosh in 1997, the guy who started a successful lawn business and maintains it, the man who was to be married over the weekend. He was a new Republican, and the genteel presentation and inclusive marketing of Bush-Cheney made him an easy sell. But how did a kid with counterculture written all over him become a Bush supporter?
Ambition. Mark has chosen to be the boss, an independent businessman. He doesn't want regulations that make his job any harder or taxes that make his house harder to pay off. He has people who work for him, and depend on him, at age 22. He grew to hate Gore, who was trying to take it away from him. Not Democrats, not really, but Al Gore himself. Mark is a blue-collar Texan who's been on his own since he was a teenager; Gore's whining, sighing, effete character repelled him like oil to water.
I've heard many reasons people voted against Gore. Friends from across the political spectrum have called him "shifty," "untrustworthy," a "jackass," and a "pussy." As far as I'm concerned, they are all right, and the post-election blizzard of litigation validates the accusations. Such hysterics should be reserved for real voter fraud. Mistakes by voters in the box should not trigger a constitutional crisis.
Mark fell for Republicanism hard, for all the right reasons. He's not a Klansman or a seal-clubber; not an oil baron, a defense contractor, or a hick. He's a young man with ambition, a work ethic, and expensive habits, like skeet shooting and a Harley. He's good in a pinch; once I dislocated my shoulder surfing, and he helped get me into a car and to a hospital, never really losing his composure.
Here's the ugly truth, as I see it: There are gangs of us out there, a sub-nation of drunken Republicans with guns and just enough sense to know that the GOP isn't made up of fanged demons who meet at secret KKK meetings and plot ways to loot the system and oppress people. Corruption looks the same pea-green color in both parties, and even Ralph Nader isn't immune. Most of the issues that get us riled up--insane drug war, Congressional pork, moralistic government intrusion--are sins shared by both parties.
The Republicans at least have the decency to speak to us like adults, which is what we've become after our young lives, proving our self-worth through the yardsticks of our bank accounts, our jobs, the ferocity of our binges. A little laissez-faire goes a long way with white males edging up on 30. Recall the adage that if a man is not liberal at 20, he has no heart; if he is not conservative at 40, he has no head. We love sayings like that: They make us feel as if our vote is a testament to a growing intellect, not just to a growing bank account.
Now it looks as though we'll be Republicans for a while. This is the first time I've voted for someone who won the presidency, and I feel irrationally responsible for whatever happens during the next four years. This ugly election and its aftermath will make things harder for swing voters who threw their weight behind Bush, driving us further into the meaty arms of the GOP. "The next four years is going to be an assault on everything that we are, " Chris said after the U.S. Supreme Court disemboweled the Florida Supreme Court for the second time in as many weeks and gave the presidency to Bush. "It's going to be horrible."
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At the bachelor party we saw the young Republicans get rowdy, indulging like hippies. We were the furthest thing from the religious right you'll find. We still thought Bush would be certified the president-elect within hours, maybe even that night while we were at the strip club.
The party climaxed with two naked women spanking Mark with his own belt. I remember the tortured howl from Mark as they applied alligator nipple clamps and the look of curious shock on his face as the entertainers made a hot-wax mold of their private parts. One of our party ate the mold and washed it down with beer. Minutes later he was sitting still and looking green.
We had bottles of champagne and whiskey, which we drank from the neck. I remember toasting Bush with one at one point; a forest of beer bottles came forward to touch the whiskey bottle. That's when I saw that even the most degenerate of Mark's Austin friends were Bushies too. I had a surge of confidence. We were everywhere.
I thought, Remember when Bush's DUI still mattered?