America loves a mean winner. Katherine Harris in her tight red bodice screwing Palm Beach County is the sexiest woman in the country. George Bush floating up to the TV screen impaled waxily on a tele-prompter is the most potent man. Monday, the day after their spiteful victory speeches, I went to the corner of 34th and Massachusetts in Washington, across from Vice President Al Gore’s house, and a mother had brought her two tykes and their three cousins in from suburban Virginia to wave signs at the loser’s windows.
Little nothings, 5 to 9, waving mean, hateful signs they did themselves on construction paper.
“Al Gore Is a Baby,” said the 7-year-old’s sign. “Cry Baby Gore Cry,” said the 9-year-old blond boy’s. The 9-year-old girl’s said, “Hey Gore I Have One Word For You, Waaaa!” Taped to branches blown down by the wind.
I talked to Mom. “I brought them here so they can learn, and be part of history.” She was made-up and pretty. Had her hair done to make it with history.
“Who is Al Gore?” I asked the kids.
The 5-year-old with a Bowie knife twisted up his square little blue-eyed face, not knowing. “A liar,” said the 7-year-old. But the 9-year-old boy in a fit of mildness said, “The Vice President.”
Then a chant started-“Get out of Cheney’s house!”-and the kids cut me off.
History lessons. Al Gore has never looked so good as he does bloodied, holding on to a principle, fairness. The other night, he finally seemed to get down off his emotional stilts and speak with a hint of plainness. The same thing happened to the other side during the Clinton scandals, when the martyrs started piling up, from Waco on. Robert Livingston and Newt Gingrich resigned over a principle, honorable losers. But Bill Clinton won in meanness-won and rubbed it in, keeps rubbing it in. And now that George Bush seems to have won, the Impeachment cup of bitterness is coming round to the other side of the table. The Gore people are humbled with the taste of bile in their mouths.
On Sunday, the two crowds across 34th Street chanted at one another, spontaneous street theater conducted by two alien cultures.
We Won! You Didn’t! the big Bush crowd said with mirth and lust from the southeast corner.
On the northeast corner the Gore people countered, D.U.I.! D.U.I.! D.U.I.! D.U.I.!
This made the Bush people laugh, with mean slice grins on their faces.
“Nah Nah Nah Nah-Nah Nah Nah Nah-Hey Heyyyy, Good Bye!” they sang. They banged pots with wooden spoons, blew noisemakers at the Vice President’s windows, trying to unnerve him. A man drove up and down Massachusetts Avenue in a red van with Bush-Cheney stickers, its back doors open, giant speakers almost falling out the back, blaring disco music.
Disco? The music was so wrong, but the energy you couldn’t argue with. It was insurgent angry American energy.
“Al Gore Pack Your Trash!”
“Get Out of Cheney’s House!”
I went around talking to the demonstration virgins, Republican men in their 40’s, standing on the curb with lopsided grins.
“I didn’t agree with what the hippies did when they went out and protested and carried on like this,” said a 48-year-old history teacher. “But they were entitled to do it, and it turned out they were right.”
“Didn’t wear Levi’s till I got to high school. Always wore penny loafers and button-down collars. Always clean-shaven,” said Greg Foley, holding a 36-ounce gocup with a shaft-like straw.
“What’s in the cup?”
“Coke on ice. Not a drop of liquor.”
“The Democrats got to hope we don’t end up liking this,” Barry Wood, in a hooded sweatshirt, told me. “We used to just watch it on TV and get angry. Now if that changes, it’s going to be a cruel world for them.”
“I’m enjoying myself,” said another man. “No, I’m not embarrassed. I’m too old to be embarrassed.”
When I asked the Gore people who was on the Bush side of the street, they said, “Gun-lovers and Christian right.” O.K., it’s true, they sure were there, the gunnies and abortion people with their horrible fetus pictures and stack-’em-up offspring in megastrollers, the people talking about sodomy. But something else was there, too, the winds of change, that weird American unsettling wind, glorious and violent-remember how the Panthers and acidheads scared you at demonstrations in the 70’s? I met a vegan on the Bush side, and two men who conducted a respectful interview till one yelled at me, We’re gay!
When you asked the Bush people who was on the other side of the street, they said, “The elite. The government class.”
Good populist answers, and they were right, too. The Gore people had a privileged, sleek air about them. A little too comfortable to be demonstrating on a chilly afternoon. If you walked around among them, you couldn’t help looking at their clothes. You said to yourself, “I want boots like that. Where did that guy get his peacoat? Would I look good in that? That chick has braided her hair beautifully. That black woman has nice wire-rims; where can I get them?” They were all people you might know being upper middle class, winners eight years. They had good hair cuts.
But they didn’t have the phone tree of the rough crowd across the street, didn’t have their stamina. They were a counter-demonstration, summoned by fairness, decency, fealty, sentiment and not passion.
“The Republicans were out here all day yesterday basically harassing the Vice President,” said a pretty woman in her 30’s, wearing red wool gloves with the fingertips worn away. “We have to respond-this noise would get to anyone, wouldn’t it get to you?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “It’s hard to relate to any politician, their temperaments are so different from ours-”
She didn’t take the point, she felt kinship to Al Gore and his daughters. The woman’s sign said, “We (heart) You Al.”
“Their messages tend to be personal attacks on the Vice President,” she said. “I think ours are positive messages.”
“But you guys were just yelling, Sober up! Sober up! Drunks for Bush. Rednecks for Bush!”
She smiled. “We told those people to stop-”
I felt so comfortable with her, with her red woolen gloves, the fingertips worn away. She was about love and understanding and comfort, and that night I had an erotic dream about her. But it wasn’t demonstration energy. Across the street, the energy was ragtag and ferocious, something wild and ungovernable in the rib cage, something hating government and big media, something romantic and fearful, born in Impeachment or born in 1890.
One Bush person held up the USA Today map of the Presidential vote county by county, showing Bush with his sea of red through the middle of the country, Gore with his blue cities. Everyone on that side knew the map; that map had inflamed their populist understanding. Bush was for the heartland, the real America that was betrayed during Impeachment.
When Al Gore’s people chanted ” Gore Got More ,” or waved signs showing Al Gore’s margin in the popular vote, Bush people dismissed that stuff with a moral indifference. “We’re a republic, not a democracy. Athens tried direct democracy-it failed because they were inundated with demagoguery and sophistry,” one man told me. The man holding up the map said, “Nowadays with the big media, a candidate would just have to go to Boston, New York, Philly, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles-and win the election. Well, it’s not mob rule; you have to empower the states.”
Or as Connie Hair said, the robust blonde who was Alan Keyes’ press person, “That’s like having a vote among three foxes and a chicken about what’s for dinner.”
Good populist metaphor. That map scares people in the cities. The privileged do not understand the power of that image. Andrew Sullivan writing in The New York Times Magazine that it means nothing because there is such unity on important issues (abortion, free markets). Has Andrew Sullivan spent any time in red culture? Don’t think so. The self-styled heartlanders despise the city people for being government-loving dependents. They read the big media like Marxist critics. “When I want to know what the White House wants me to think, I read The Washington Post and CNN,” one man said. “When I want to know what the right wing wants me to think, I read The Washington Times .”
When Jeff Greenfield warned vaguely on CNN that the red and blue map could be exploited by politicians-with a dark sound in his voice-I felt I knew what he was saying; he was talking about anti-Semitism.
We’re in the sixth or seventh year of some kind of 30-year war. The last war was about civil rights, about inclusion and discrimination. “We’re diverse,” they bragged on the Gore side, and they were right. Blacks, Asians, women, gays-more obviously mixed than the Bush army. But civil rights is played, the new war is about values and media and information. The man who wrote in The Washington Post that the red and blue could be correlated exactly with pornography consumption and nonconsumption. The people who conduct their politics on the Internet versus the people who trade stocks on the Internet.
Who feels more Other? There is always this thirst fed by the Bill of Rights, to be the Other, the oppressed. The Bush people have momentum on this now, they feel so disempowered by big media. And the Gore people clinging to their sense of Otherness, on gay rights, race, and abortion.
It was kind of wonderful the other night to hear both Senator Lieberman and Vice President Gore talking about intimidation in Miami-Dade. It wasn’t very convincing-the Bush mob was apparently angered, and justifiably, by a decision to move the counting out of sight. White men also have the right to demonstrate angrily.
But it reminded me of the Clinton opposition pointing out the thuggery on the Clinton side a couple years ago. The alleged rape of Juanita Broaddrick. The reports of intimidation by Clinton women.
The Clintonites flipped us off when we talked about that. They trashed principles of human decency. Jerrold Nadler, who now scents “fascism.” And they could. They were going to win, they did win.
This time around, it is funny in a heartless way to observe the cold political people on TV ignoring the losers’ righteous anger. George Stephanopoulos, Chris Matthews, Tim Russert-these windblown men who love the political game, who know where the power is. George Stephanopoulos was positively reverent toward George Bush, right after the mean and pathetic speech. Because George Bush is going to win.
Mark Racicot is another of those political types. The Montana governor has become George Bush’s most articulate and attractive spokesman (and is mentioned as a future Attorney General). I remember him during Impeachment. He stood outside the Capitol, a small unpretentious man, warning the Republicans inside not to vote for Impeachment. It was a political disaster, the people were against it, he said. Now he’s out front of the crowd. This is the Impeachment they will win.