A representative for John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign is on the line. I am looking for basics, like the address of campaign headquarters and information on upcoming canvassing events. The rep refers me to McCain’s mid-Atlantic communications director, the alliteratively named Gail Gitcho. I leave a message for Gitcho and wonder how quickly she will get back to an alt-weekly freelancer who’s not from a swing state or, in my case, not from a state at all.
Through johnmccain.com, I request an invitation to the only “McCain Nation” supporter-sponsored event scheduled within 25 miles of my home that evening. Within the hour, Dan Willard, the McCain campaign’s Maryland Capitol Region Director, calls to invite me to a volunteer orientation at his law office in downtown Rockville. Though he fights an uphill battle as a Republican in a state that’s voted Democratic in every presidential election since 1992, the attorney expresses confidence about his candidate’s prospects.
“There are 125,000 registered Republicans in Montgomery County,” Willard says. “That’s more than there are troops in Iraq.” The comparison is awkward, but Willard presses his point, referring to his volunteers’ McCain/Palin sign-waving efforts on Rockville Pike. “Maryland is ultimately red,” he says. “Look at the faces of the people in the cars—this is McCain country.” When I ask about the paucity of McCain events in Maryland, Willard refers to the state’s Republican Party as a “farm team” that soldiers on with little financial support from the Republican National Committee. “In Maryland, we’re pretty much left alone,” he says. I agree to attend his orientation later that evening.
Later, I leave another message for Gail Gitcho, then drive to Rockville to meet Willard. I find Willard’s small office on the penthouse floor of a Rockville building, where the McCain loyalist is holding forth to seven people on the subject of campaign sign-waving.
“When they are looking at you, there is no one else in the world but them and you,” Willard says. His audience —which includes two high school freshmen attending the meeting partly to get a community service credit at Melvin J. Berman Hebrew Academy and a journalist who is either Hungarian, writes for a Hungarian publication, or both—pays close attention. “Look at the faces of the people who drive past,” Willard says. “You can’t fake joy.”
When Willard is finished, the group asks questions about logistics—many will meet this coming Sunday to wave McCain signs on Rockville Pike from 2 to 4 p.m. (to which I will be invited), some may show up Saturday for the phone bank (which I will be prevented from attending). The maybe-Hungarian lines the small group against the wall outside Willard’s office. “I will take a picture of the few of you,” he says, snapping a photo. The group disperses. The maybe-Hungarian and I remain, questioning Willard about his support for his candidate.
“I got caught up in his story,” says Willard, who backed McCain in the primary and is apparently sold on “Country First.” “I favored John McCain against the odds…you’ll never, ever find this guy selling out his country for anything.”
After a while, the maybe-Hungarian departs—he is off to Ohio and, “if the polls are true, Chicago.” Willard and I talk Maryland politics for a few minutes, but, when I put my notebook away, we discuss his daughters’ soccer teams. He coaches, rotating his players through every position. This isn’t always a winning strategy, but ensures that every girl on the team learns the game. And suddenly, in this moment, I love Dan Willard —I love his love for John McCain, his intricate knowledge of Montgomery County, his fleshy hands, the heavy college ring he wears (it must be his college ring!), his self-proclaimed “NIMBY” decision to enter politics after the county tried to put a turning lane on a road near his house, and I hate the smug maybe-Hungarian journalist, his eagerness to document the small turnout for Willard’s meeting, and his oh-so- European hauteur.
The next day, Oct. 24, I wake up and leave another message for Gail Gitcho. I begin to worry about my failure to cover the McCain campaign in Virginia. Virginia is, after all, a battleground state. Obama has spent $18 million there. On Sunday, Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine will tell ABC’s “This Week” that McCain cannot win without it. I consider driving to McCain’s Crystal City headquarters and demanding access. I worry that this is untoward.
Then, a ray of hope: I read an e-mail from a McCain volunteer who can help me access McCain’s Crystal City office. My connection to this Republican is absurdly tenuous —I may have played poker with him a handful of times at another Republican’s house who hosted Texas Hold ’Em tournaments beneath framed newspaper clippings celebrating Arnold Schwarzenegger’s successful 2003 run against Gray Davis. Though I cannot even remember exactly if or when I have played poker with this man, he is, blessedly, willing to help me. If I meet him at McCain headquarters, he can get me in. As I am leaving the house, I get a call from Moshe Starkman, head of one of the many Montgomery County Republican clubs I called yesterday, desperate to talk to any Republican about anything.
“Certain demographics are born and raised Democrats with a deep-seated distrust of Republicans,” says Starkman, the 30-year-old president of the Montgomery County Young Republicans. “Unfortunately, the only Republican position that they hear comes from Democrats…it’s the equivalent of Google describing the Yahoo search engine.” I ask what brought Starkman to the Republican Party, and he name-drops Viennese social theorist Friedrich Hayek and Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom. Though born and raised a Democrat “like all good Jewish people,” Starkman came to see a “symbiotic relationship between people with a profound understanding of civil evolution and the conservative movement.” Persuaded to run a “no-win” campaign for Congress in 2006 against popular 4th District Democratic incumbent Al Wynn while still in his 20s, Starkman remains opposed to Barack Obama’s “wealth distribution and socialist policy.” “We work against people who operate through emotion,” he says. “Liberals are emotionally charged.” He invites me to a YR mixer at the Arundel Mills Mall Dave & Buster’s on Saturday. I accept his invitation and hurriedly get off the phone. This interview has made me late.
I run to my car. I speed to Crystal City. I find McCain’s headquarters tucked beside Route 1 in a no-man’s land next to Reagan National. I find that the mainstream media’s pet meme of a listless McCain campaign mired in negativity is a myth! The corner office bustles with activity. Phone-bank workers work the phone banks. Sign-makers make signs. I meet my poker acquaintance outside and we waltz into the HQ. I finger my notebook, prepared to ask penetrating questions of enthusiastic McCain supporters. But before I can sign in, I am confronted by a security guard and a woman with fair hair and pale skin that I will come to think of as “Maximum Blonde.”
Maximum Blonde asks me if I am a reporter. I say that, indeed, I am. She asks if I have gotten permission to cover the Crystal City office from Gail Gitcho. I say that I was unable to get in touch with Ms. Gitcho, but hope to observe the phone bank and accompany volunteers on canvassing trips. Maximum Blonde says that such requests must be approved by Gail Gitcho. I ask if Gail Gitcho is available. Maximum Blonde reports that Gail Gitcho is not available. I ask Maximum Blonde for Gail Gitcho’s e-mail. With a glee that I worry hides a seething rage, Maximum Blonde provides Gail Gitcho’s e-mail. Then I am led out of the building by a security guard. I watch through the glass as my poker acquaintance is dressed down by Maximum Blonde. After a few minutes, he meets me outside and apologizes for the inconvenience. I try to elicit off-the-record comments about the McCain campaign, but my acquaintance is not forthcoming. He texts the whole time we talk and stares at the ground. I feel for him. He has offered access to a reporter who is not supposed to have access and has been humiliated. I leave quickly.
Later that day, I visit johnmccain.com to search for any other campaign event to attend. Tomorrow’s McCain “Super Saturday” is less than two weeks before the election, but only five events are scheduledwithin 25 miles of my home. I request invitations to these through the Web site, but I am uneasy. Are there really so few McCain events, even in Virginia, a swing state? I visit barackobama.com to compare numbers. Within the same time frame, almost 50 Obama events are scheduled within 15 miles of my home.
I e-mail Gail Gitcho and ask permission to attend any Virginia canvassing events. Gail Gitcho’s seven-word reply comes less than a minute after my query. “Sorry,” her message reads. “[W]e don’t allow press to canvas.”
Naran Murthy, a McCain supporter from Sterling, Va., has agreed to let me attend his McCain Super Saturday event. It begins at 10:30 a.m., but Murthy says I can come any time after 9:30. I drive to Sterling, navigating Northern Virginia’s labyrinth of Interstates and toll roads under overcast skies. America stretches out infinitely in every direction, overwhelming in its sheer immensity. When I pull into Murthy’s development, the houses grow closer together. I knock on Murthy’s door at 9:45. He opens the door, and I shake the hand of a short, middle-aged Indian man and catch the heavy fried smell of Indian cooking. I remove my shoes and walk inside.
“We have a small house,” Murthy says with a heavy accent. “But it is good to have something.” Murthy lives in this town home with his mother, his sister, his youngest brother, and his wife, who offers me a cup of bitter tea. I sit in a chair and drink the tea. Murthy, 49, sits on the floor and stuffs campaign materials into bright orange folders. I ask Murthy about his involvement with the campaign—the recent recipient of a bachelor’s in business administration from Strayer University, he likes McCain’s position on taxes—but his mother sits down and dominates our conversation.
“Conservatism does not work in this century,” declares Shantha Murthy as she trims a gardenia in the window. “Hopefully this century will be more liberal than the last.” Murthy is jet-lagged—she has just returned from India to her job as a reference librarian at the Library of Congress. I ask her why, if she feels conservatives have failed, her household is hosting a McCain event. “I am doing it now because my children are all following him,” she says, but thinks those who surround the president wield more power than the president himself. “They call them presidents,” she says. “I call them kings…but it doesn’t matter who comes to the throne.” And suddenly, in this moment, I love Shantha Murthy—how she sets aside her own politics for her son’s, her dry dismissal of American exceptionalism, the way she enjoys her 70-minute commute by bus and Metro to and from the Library of Congress (“I sleep or read,” she says), the charming “That’s My Momma”–ish way she orders her daughter-in-law around in their native Kannada, and the torch she carries for her husband, who recently died of a stroke (“We were married only 53 years,” she says, blinking back tears).
By 11 a.m., a half-hour after the start of his event, no McCain supporters have shown up at Murthy’s house. No matter—John McCain himself is on the phone: All those who host Super Saturday events are privy to a nationwide conference call with their candidate and become eligible to ask a question by pressing *3. Murthy puts the call on the speakerphone so we both can listen. He presses *3 and wanders too close to the speakerphone with his handset, which issues brutal squalls of feedback. “Hello, Senator McCain?” Murthy says into his handset, and I begin to wonder—can John McCain actually hear us? And, if so, is Murthy’s feedback hammering his 72-year-old ears?
“It’s a beautiful day here in New Mexico,” John McCain says, insulated from Murthy’s speakerphone misadventures by two time zones and layers of obscure telephone technology. For 30 minutes, the candidate talks to lucky callers—supporters in Virginia Beach, and in Pleasantville, N.Y., and one woman named Tommi in Oregon. “There’s a lotta people in this room here,” says an enthusiastic caller from Steubenville, Ohio, waiting for deafening applause to die down before asking McCain when he will support a constitutional amendment that declares that life begins at conception.
I look around Murthy’s living room and see only Murthy and myself. Why haven’t a roomful of McCain supporters shown up in Naran Murthy’s living room? Even Murthy’s mother has gone upstairs. At 11:30, the conference call ends. A moderator invites anyone who was unable to talk to the candidate to leave a message. After a beep, Murthy steps to the speaker phone, which whistles with feedback.
“I am here with my friend Justin Moyer,” Murthy says, then asks if I want to ask John McCain a question. Though there is no chance McCain will ever hear any question Murthy or I ask, I am stumped. Anything I would ask John McCain would be totally impolitic. If you identify as a Goldwater Republican, why have you chosen a staunchly pro-life running mate? In your secret heart, are you scared by the prospect of so much power? If you can’t raise your arms above your head, how do you comb your hair?
At 8:30 p.m., I drive to Moshe Starkman’s Young Republican soiree at Dave & Buster’s. Starkman has corralled a private room with a pool table for the event.
Fifteen to 20 young Republicans show up. One of them is Kevin Bealer, a 33-year-old computer programmer from Columbia.
“How do you know what the right solution to a problem is?” Bealer wears a blue polo shirt with a McCain/Palin sticker stuck to the breast and speaks with a lisp reminiscent of Wallace Shawn’s. “One answer is logic…[but] any problem with people is so complex that you can’t use logic.” Bealer stresses the importance of developing a heuristic—defined by my dictionary as a method “serving as an aid to learning, discovery, or problem-solving by experiment and esp. trial-and-error methods.” With the cool confidence of a programmer, Bealer concludes that “young people want to understand the world through logic. Older people want to understand the world through experience…it’s a greedy approach.” Old people, after all, have hoarded experience—young people have none. But this doesn’t change the fact that “problems have to be solved by experience,” Bealer says. I quote from my interview notes at length:
“If you take any possibility too far, you get problems.…Conservatives aren’t right about everything. Republicans and Democrats are a hodgepodge—each party tries to position itself to harvest as many people as possible. We have two parties. We wander around the middle. It provides stability. Take socialism. It’s been tried over and over again…[But] socialism is like a toaster—you plug it in, and people start dying. But the idealists say: Can’t we still have toast?”
And suddenly, in this moment, I love Kevin Bealer—his polo shirt, his lisp, his social awkwardness (“I’m not built to talk to strangers,” he says when I first approach), his certainty, his ability to map the greatest problems of the human political experience to an objectivist philosophical schema, the cold abstraction of his worldview that does not reference abortion, immigration, the economy, the War on Terror, Bill Ayers, or Jesus Christ. John McCain is the eldest of the tribe, Bealer implies. He has been through the most. Of course he should be the leader. And, in this moment, I agree with Kevin Bealer! In a complicated world, who dares claim he knows best who has not lived through the most? In a universe where God laughs at the best-laid plans, who but he who has hatched the most plans dares claim his plan is best? Who is Barack Obama, and why does he demand toast?
I interview a number of Young Republicans that evening—the 26-year old African-American chairman of the Prince George’s County Young Republicans who was inspired by Ronald Reagan, a 20-year old Franco-American who regrets supporting Nicolas “SAR-CO-ZEE” in the French election and calls Palin “a nice gal”—but Bealer’s spiel haunts me. I think about it all the way back to Washington, even when I speed through an intersection on New York Avenue and am shocked by the bright flash of a red-light camera.
I drive to the corner of Rockville Pike’s Congressional Plaza to attend Dan Willard’s McCain sign-waving event. Willard—who coached his daughters’ soccer teams the day before to two wins and two ties—has positioned 20 to 25 supporters uncomfortably close to a Hooters. All wave McCain/Palin signs. I shake hands with Willard, who informs me that the two Melvin J. Berman Hebrew Academy students who attended Thursday’s orientation were attacked by Obama supporters while waving McCain signs in downtown Rockville. While I wait for the young girls to arrive, I talk to a sign-waver named, improbably, Jimmy Carter.
“I can’t help it,” Carter says when I point to his blue windbreaker, where his name is embroidered next to a Goodyear logo. “Blame my family.” Carter, a semi-retired Web designer from Rockville, is a racing enthusiast—he speaks fondly of Paul Newman, “the nicest guy you’d ever meet…though I didn’t agree with his politics.” A Vietnam-era veteran who served in Germany, Carter is pragmatic about his candidate’s chances. “There is no way McCain/Palin is going to win Maryland,” he says. I ask why he’s sign-waving for an underdog campaign. “Because I want my voice to be heard,” he says. “I put a McCain/Palin sign in my yard. Now, my yard’s set off from the road, but, after three days, it was gone…it’s like there’s no common courtesy any more.”
We talk racing; my cousin is a junior Nascar driver, and I can bullshit my way through the topic for a few minutes. When my bullshit runs out, I walk up and down the Pike, interviewing sign-wavers about the conservative movement, 9/11, and John McCain’s integrity until the students from Melvin J. Berman Hebrew Academy arrive. One is a wearing a rock the vote T-shirt.
“After Thursday’s meeting, we were really inspired,” says Eliora Katz, 14. She and friend Rachel Khaldar, also 14, were sign-waving in Rockville Town Center when set upon by slightly older Obama supporters. “They shouted ‘Palin’s a ho,’” Eliora says. “One was wearing an Obama T-shirt.” Eliora and Rachel took refuge in a Jerry’s Subs & Pizza, and, later, in a Verizon store where an employee interrogated them about their political views. “It’s a matter of free speech,” Eliora says, frustrated by the ubiquitous Obama support at her school and in her community, and eager that I report the harassment. “The story should get out,” she says.
I believe Eliora, but wonder how I could write about her trauma. It is impossible to verify—she was not assaulted, no police report was filed, the perpetrators were not apprehended, no impartial third-party observer is available. I suppose I could find a witness at the Jerry’s or the Verizon in which they took shelter, but to what end? In Rockville, some asshole teenagers hassle other teenagers with a different opinion. In Pennsylvania, someone tells an Obama volunteer that he’s not supporting a “fucking nigger.” Someone somewhere will not vote for John McCain because he is old. Someone else somewhere else will not vote for Barack Obama because she thinks he is an Arab.
At 4 p.m., the sign-wavers gather on a corner on the Pike across from Pier 1. As they have all afternoon, some passersby offer a thumbs-up, or shout “You suck!” or shout “Obama!” Others honk their horns, but I cannot tell if their honks are pro-McCain or anti-McCain—to me, horn-honking just sounds angry. Willard hands me a digital camera and asks me to photograph the assembled group. They hold their signs up triumphantly. I stare at this collection of McCain supporters and do something with Willard’s camera that no one will never be able to do with the written word: I fit them into the frame.
Searching for Authenticity: the Obama Campaign
Leesburg has been taken over by Obama supporters. They walk in the streets, spontaneously chanting “Yes We Can” and snickering at the occasional McCain/Palin yard sign. I’m headed with them to Ida Lee Park to see one of Barack Obama’s late-in-the-campaign appearances in this battleground state. Being apolitical, I’m curious to see if the candidate variously described as “the One,” “the second coming of JFK,” and a “rock star,” lives up to all the hype.
It’s a cold October day, colder still for the Republicans, who, short of a miracle, are about to be exiled to the political wilderness in two short weeks. There’s a group of GOP’ers huddled at the entrance to the park. Perhaps taking a cue from their candidate, they radiate malice as they wave mccain/palin signs and chant “Just Say No to Socialism!” I get the impression that they believe Obama is a socialist. A group of women wearing Obama Dr. Seuss hats and Obama Warhol-print scarves stands across the street trying to shout down the McCainiacs, but they can’t seem to settle on a retort.
“Is that all you got?” one of the women shouts. The McCain supporters don’t even look at them.