Waiting for Kerry, Wisconsin Man in Cap Recites Abe Lincoln

It’s a union hall on the west side of Milwaukee, but the people pushing through the glass doors don’t look union. They wear old hiking boots and North Face jackets. The kid with the earring has come in from South Carolina; the tall austere Asian-American in designer glasses has come from Los Angeles. They’re what the Kerry campaign calls “Kerry travelers,” pouring into the swing state to do anything they can in the last 18 days of the campaign. I’ve flown out here because of a couple of issues that are as important to me as citizenship, Iraq and the spirit of tolerance. The shock of recognition is all the other people I run into like myself.

A lot of people have driven up from Chicago, including a lawyer and his caffeineish buddy I end up working the phone bank with. Our job is to identify voters on a 1-7 scale, but the caffeinish guy keeps getting into intense conversations, bent over with his head under the table. “This woman said, ‘I don’t approve of killing babies, but Kerry seems to like that.’” A guy with long blond hair starts shouting, “You tell her about the children they’re killing in Iraq.”

Juan, the one professional, waits for the conversation to end before calmly stepping in. “If you want to know the party line—the Senator is personally opposed to abortion, but he is determined to protect …. “

Juan gives me a phone number and tells me I can stay at a house in Whitefish Bay that night. Two other Kerry travelers moved on that morning. There’s a bedroom free. It feels like a middle-aged, upscale version of the underground railroad.

The next morning, it’s Sunday. I get to the Teutonia Street office at 9, and a woman drops a stack of leaflets in my hands that picture John Kerry crayoning with black children. I’m being sent to a battleground church, the Holy Redeemer Institutional Church of God in Christ, a major black institution. Lately, a piece has appeared on the streets of the north side showing the church’s fat, smooth-skinned patriarch, Bishop Sedgwick Daniels, wearing his robes and endorsing George Bush, chiefly because of the school-vouchers question.

Bishop Daniels gives a sermon about his mother’s chicken-wings recipe, then tells his congregation that a “giant” and a “prophet” is in their midst. Jesse Jackson comes to the pulpit. He lavishes praise on Bishop Daniels before lighting the bishop’s robes on fire, giving a torrid sermon about the election.

“Fifty-four percent of the black men in Milwaukee are unemployed! To some of them, jail is a step up. How are girls and women going to find husbands? We building new hospitals and schools in Eee-ROCK! We rebuilding Baghdad, but not Milwaukee! When we wake up on Nov. 3, we can sing one of two songs: ‘How We Got Over,’ or ‘I Woulda, Coulda, Shouda.’ I want to sing ‘How We Got Over.’”

Amen. I go outside to pass out my leaflets, and an older man takes one, then turns to me. “You got plans to come back here?”

“I don’t know,” I say. “Why?”

“This is the only time we see you in the black community—when you need something from us …. “

I’m speechless, and I don’t have a comeback. He’s right: I’m enraged about Iraq, so I’ll talk inner-city issues. This is one of the first revelations of activism. You pile up debts in a hurry.

I take on more obligations to the old Democratic coalition when a union guy sends me to a little mill town called Kaukauna 100 miles away on the Fox River. I walk into Local 20 of the paperworkers’ union, and a thin, purposeful woman sizes me up. “Do you want to go to Neenah?” “Where’s Neenah?” “That’s O.K.—we’ll keep you in town.” She hands me several sheets listing the addresses of undecided union households and a stack of leaflets that show an old guy working in what looks like a Wendy’s. “Is working in fast food after retirement exciting to you?” the piece says.

I say, “Am I getting an easy job? Do you want me to go further down the road?”

“Honey, we’re union,” says Gina, the redheaded Kerry traveler who’s come here from Alabama. “We don’t give good jobs away.”

The thin lady photocopies a map of Kaukauna from the phone book and I’m on my way. But Kaukauna is waiting. The third or fourth place I hit has a note taped to the storm door: “If you’re coming here to talk to me about the upcoming election, go away. I’m a felon and can’t vote.” Another guy slams the door on me. “We’re decided.” A woman informs me that she wouldn’t trust John Kerry if her life depended on it.

The people who are nice all care about pocketbook issues. “I was undecided till a few months ago,” an older woman says. “But I run the program to re-educate workers that have been laid off. We’ve been swamped.” She takes my Kerry pieces gratefully. A younger woman says, “Jobs,” and when I say I came out from New York because of Iraq, she just shrugs. “He bit off more than he could chew,” she says. “But it’s just not high on my list of concerns.”

The next day, the swing state goes a little crazy. John Kerry is holding a rally in Appleton and George W. Bush is speaking just 20 miles away in Oshkosh. Rush Limbaugh is doing black voice to make fun of inner-city get-out-the-vote efforts, and a pastor is telling local Christian radio that you shouldn’t vote for anyone who won’t talk about his relationship with Jesus Christ.

The Kerry rally is at a field outside the Lawrence University gym. I get there five hours ahead of time, and Chris, a scruffy, badgerish operative from Maryland with a black stocking cap low on his eyebrows, opens an aluminum barricade for me and puts me on the Jump Team. We’re the guys that have to jump in on stuff. “Jump” seems to have a wide meaning. Like if Bush people sneak into the crowd with signs—”then we quell the problem,” says Dan, a lean, ponytailed union guy with a Packers hat, giving me a wink.

Chris is the professional. “Listen, guys, we’re all representing the Senator tonight. Remember that. We’re the nicest guys in the world.”

He sends me to a remote parking area to load buses. As each bus fills, I clamber on with a clipboard to sign up volunteers and stir the faithful. “I’m from New York. I came out here because I heard you all were swingers,” I say. One woman gives me a sharp look. “That depends on your definition.”

My other line is, “You know, if Bush people want to get on to go to the rally to protest, we’ve got to let them.”

“We’ll take ’em,” people say. “They’ll get on, but they won’t get off.” “We got some duct tape here!” “We’ll drag them there …. “

At 7:30, I ride the last bus to the rally. Chris is there with the rest of the Jump Team; he says we did an awesome job, but John Kerry’s running an hour late. We start speculating about who’s going to fill in for him when Chris whips off his stocking cap, revealing an intelligent forehead, and begins declaiming the Gettysburg Address straight through:

“It is for us, the living, to be dedicated to the unfinished work that those who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced …. “

In the cold air, it’s stirring. “When did you learn that?” I say. Chris shuts his eyes and shakes his head. “Hey, man, I’m political.”

Then, brandishing some killer credentials, he leads the Jump Team through 10,000 people to the very edge of the stage. “Look—any bad shit happens, we’re ready, man,” Dan says, turning to me with a wink. It doesn’t seem likely. I’m jammed up behind a rich-looking couple. Turns out they’re from Oregon, a retired Congressman and his wife, who’ve gotten an apartment here for the last month. More Kerry travelers.

Senator Kerry gets there at 8:37. It’s the end of the day and he’s dressed down. He wears rumpled, well-worn khakis and a preppie barn coat, New Balance suede sneakers. We hold up brooms and signs that say “343.” It’s too late for the nightly news, and John Kerry appears loose and confident, jokey.

“I love coming to Wisconsin. Brats. Cheese. Beer. And I’m going to talk to you about health care!”

I can’t say a bad word about John Kerry. When you’ve worked three days in the cold for someone, you don’t want to. John Kerry takes a long while to warm up to, but when you’ve warmed up to him, you see that he has leadership in him. He is what he is. He doesn’t pretend not to be a rich preppie. He’s balanced and solid and thoughtful. His legs pump restlessly as he talks, his feet shuffle. His temperament is athletic and laid-back—unlike George W. Bush, who, in the footage they show from Oshkosh later, looks overweight and nervous, angry.

And if you’re as close as we are, John Kerry finally seems a little passionate.

“I just want to talk to you. I don’t want to shout at you or scream,” he says.

“Talking” means a coded populism. “Twenty years ago, C.E.O.’s salaries were 40 times the average worker’s; now, they’re 500 times and growing … 77,000 of those lost manufacturing jobs have been in Wisconsin. But I don’t have to tell you—you know that because you’re living it.”

The crowd loves the pocketbook lines. The misty line for me is when John Kerry says, “These are the most important days of our lives. This is the most important election of our lives. You know, everything is on the line. Our character as a country. The world is waiting for the United States that they know and love. We are strongest when we have friends and allies at our side …. “

That’s why I’m in Wisconsin. George W. Bush’s mindless adventurism in the Arab world has caused a crisis of the American spirit that I am not going to sit through wearing a journalist’s hat, asking other people what they think and taking notes. A couple of things got me going. Last spring, an earnest friend of 50 was telling me how upset he was about the direction President Bush was taking the country, and I said, “Why don’t you move to New Zealand?” He shouted, “I’m going to fight for my country!” Lately he’s organized a big fund-raiser for John Kerry, the first time he’s done anything like that. The other thing was sitting in the press section during George W. Bush’s speech to the Republican convention when a statuesque redhead from Code Pink, standing 10 feet in front of me, quietly pulled off her jacket, then yanked down a pink slip saying “End the Occupation of Iraq.” A lunk on the Secret Service team then knocked Jodie Evans down like a piece of timber. She went rigor mortis and was carried out past all the dukes of the periodical press with her shoes flying and head stiffly bouncing. Later, Ms. Evans told me that she does her actions to inspire others.

Wisconsin gave me one political epiphany and a personal one, too. As I stopped in on undecided union households in Kaukauna, a woman in blue eyeliner confided that she had fallen off the fence lately because of stem-cell research. She’s a Christian, she said, but she’s on John Kerry’s side. I think this is a sleeper issue that crystallizes the difference between party appeals. The Republican base is decadent; the social conservatives are out of step with mainstream America. They’re talking about Senator Kerry’s lesbian gaffe when people are trying to move forward on health-care issues. If John Kerry can edge past George W. Bush, Christopher Reeve’s most valiant act will prove to be not hanging onto life, but dying before the election.

The personal lesson is that our democracy really is open. I walked cold into five places and was immediately up to my neck in the political process. I had responsibilities and obligations. Yes, America is subject to all sorts of extremisms and fundamentalisms and paranoias, but the currents of progressivism and the civil-rights movement are also right there, to be joined and advanced. I proudly worked for Russ Feingold, a courageous Senator who voted against the Patriot Act. The biggest obstacle to idealism is entitlement.

John Kerry’s winding up when Chris gives a sign and the Jump Team moves out. We hurtle back through the crowd to a church lot where the buses are lined up. We load people well into the night.

It’s pushing 11 when a lonely abortion protester drags a giant poster of a fetus along a grassy bank across from us and, making a megaphone of an abandoned Kerry poster, chants at us: “What does it profit a man if he shall gain the whole world and lose his soul???”

“What about the pictures from Iraq? Why don’t you show them?” ralliers scream at him.

But Chris pulls off his black stocking cap to marvel. “God bless him. He is working hard.”