In Deepest Ohio, I Was Embedded In Bush Bunker

With two weeks to go, I volunteered for Kerry in Wisconsin, so with nine days left, I’m volunteering for Bush in Ohio. I show up on Sunday at a suburban headquarters out side Cincinnati, and they put me to work on the phone bank, confirming volunteers who’ve signed up for the final weekend.

Everyone seems a little on edge. People keep coming in to get lawn signs, and the lady who runs the office, Crunch Reyna, tells them that if the signs get stolen, they are to call the police, report the crime. A farmer comes in and talks about the Bush office in Cincinnati being bombed.

“These are weird times we’re going through,” he says. “I thought the hate was over in 2000, but it keeps getting deeper and deeper.”

“They’ve got a grudge from 2000,” says Will, a young guy from Washington who’s working the phones with me.

“It’s a bogus grudge,” says Kevin. “They lost.”

Kevin’s older, from Tennessee. He’s former military with a strong voice and reminds me of a lean Dick Cheney, but excitable. “I absolutely struck gold,” he cries out when he signs up four volunteers, and he says he knows Kerry is lying when he says he never met Jane Fonda because he, Kevin, managed a hotel in Washington during the demonstrations in 1971 when Jane Fonda and a guy “with long scraggly hair in an Army jacket” showed up at the same time and went into a meeting room together. That was John Kerry.

Will has given all of us name tags, then he and Kevin get metal elephant pins off the front table to wear on their collars. The elephant feels a little military, but I feel naked without one and I graze the front table looking for a button. There’s one of George and Laura Bush on a painterly clouded landscape. “LEADING AMERICA,” it says. It looks somewhat American Gothic, like they’re my parents. I put that one on.

A red pickup truck pulls up and a guy with a beard comes in with two Bush-Cheney lawn signs, dirt still on the stakes. “These were on private property,” he says quietly, and leaves. He’s wearing a Kerry-Edwards T-shirt. Everyone is quiet. The enemy in our midst, and he didn’t have horns.

Then a kid comes in and asks if he can have a lawn sign. We tell him to take one.

“I think we just made that kid’s day,” Kevin says.

“I think we did,” Will says.

I drive down to see the office that got attacked in downtown Cincinnati. Someone smashed a glass window and looted some cash, but the window had been repaired since. I’m put to work on phones again. First I’m confirming volunteers for the final weekend. Then there’s a nervous stirring at 4, and I’m to help test a phone system the campaign has set up to monitor turnout and challenged ballots. A bunch of us are to dial as often as we can, to mimic the crush of calls on Election Day and see whether the system crashes.

Mollie gives us long, fresh sheets of P.I.N. numbers and vote totals. We’re to call the 800 G.O.P. number, then type in the P.I.N. number, then type in made-up vote totals that come from the sheet. The kids next to me are hired high-school kids. It’s numbing work. We move down the lists, one column of “Votes Cast,” the other of “Votes Challenged” or “Provisional.” The campaign is obviously anticipating huge numbers of challenged or provisional ballots; it’s getting ready for war. Mollie keeps handing out new sheets and announcing every 15-minute interval, when we move on to the next column of fake numbers.

I do it from 4 to 6. My neck aches.

A lady comes in for a lawn sign, and the woman who gives it to her makes a cross sign over it so it won’t get stolen. Then a guy with a yarmulke comes in and asks for a ticket to the Ari Fleischer event. Huh. Before I go, I ask for one too. It’s a fancy printed ticket for an event the next day.

As I leave, Mollie gathers up all the pages with P.I.N. numbers. “These have to go to the shredder,” she says. But I walk out with the one I’ve written Mollie’s phone number on the back of.

In my hotel that night, I read a piece being given out at Crunch’s headquarters in Butler County. It’s called “Don’t Close Your Blinds” and is an unsigned parable supposedly narrated by a war vet’s mother. (It has also been on the Internet.) A 9-year-old kid asks his parents why we’re at war, and the father brings him to the window and tells him to pretend that the neighbors’ houses are other countries and that “our house and our yard is the United States of America and you are President Bush.”

Then the father tells the boy to pretend that the man across the way is Saddam, who comes out with his wife, “he has her by the hair and he’s hitting her.” She is “bleeding and crying … then he starts to kick her to death.” The man’s kids come out but are afraid to stop him. “‘What do you do, son?’

‘I call the police, Dad.’”

But the police are the U.N. They say it’s not their place or the son’s to get involved. The woman dies.

“Now he is doing the same thing to his children,” says the father.

“He kills them?”

“Yes, son, he does.”

The son wants to call the neighbors for help, but the father says the neighbors refuse to help.

“‘WHAT DO YOU DO, SON?’ Our son starts to cry,” the mother says.

Next the man goes into a neighbor’s house and kills the old lady there. He sees the son through the window and puffs out his chest and smiles.

The son tells his father he wants to close the blinds and pretend he’s not there. O.K., but then the man is at his door.

Now the son tells his father that he’s going to fight.

“He balls up his tiny fists and looks his father square in the eyes,” the mother recounts. “Without hesitation he says, ‘I DEFEND MY FAMILY, DAD! I’M NOT GONNA LET HIM HURT MOMMY OR MY SISTER …. ’ I see a tear roll down my husband’s cheek, and he grabs our son to his chest. He hugs him tight and cries, ‘It’s too late to fight him. He’s too strong and he’s already at YOUR front door, son. You should have stopped him BEFORE he killed his wife. You have to do what’s right, even if you have to do it alone.”

When I get back to Butler County headquarters in the morning, Crunch doesn’t want me to work: “We have all the volunteers we need.” I can tell she’s on to me. Her voice is different. I go and sit in my car and read the paper and wonder what tipped her off. Then Kevin and Crunch come out across the parking lot. I lower the window. They’re standing there like stern parents.

“We don’t trust you,” Crunch says. “What are you doing here? Why did you just show up? Who sent you here?”

I give an evasive answer. “I came out from New York because I can’t make any difference there. I wanted to work in a battleground state.”

“Well, a lot of Kerry people are coming around,” Crunch says. “They’ve been taking pages and phone lists from offices. That’s a felony.”

Kevin asks for my ID and peers at it. “Are you from The New York Times?” I say no.

I drive away, and Rush Limbaugh is urging Republicans not to give way to panic and fear. He calls John Kerry a “phony baloney plastic banana.” I eat lunch and head for the Ari Fleischer event when I start freaking out that they will arrest me. I pull over and root around in the trunk for the pieces I took with me, then trash everything: the thing off the Internet about “Close the Blinds,” the page of P.I.N. numbers for vote challenges.

The Ari Fleischer event is at a factory called Standard Textiles, in a meeting hall on the second floor. There are maybe 100 people, and the tables are piled with a Bush piece that shows him visiting Auschwitz and talking about the dangers of anti-Semitism. Ari Fleischer is solid and appealing. He says his parents have never voted for a Republican, but that his mother just might this year because the Iraq war was good for Israel.

A guy asks him about Iran. Will Israel have to handle Iran alone if there’s a threat?

“Not so long as President Bush is President,” Ari Fleisher says. Then he says that nuclear material in the hands of countries like Iran could be the “spark of World War III.” An exchange of nuclear weapons between smaller countries could lead, he says again, to “World War III.” That’s why Churchill acted alone in World War II, to try and stop the Nazis. Ari Fleischer says that Eli Wiesel told him that if Churchill had gotten help, the Holocaust might have been averted.

I walk out into the strong sunlight and wonder how many times Ari Fleischer used the phrase “World War III” in the White House.

It takes me an hour to get to Wilmington. The Vice President is going to be speaking at a hall outside town, right off I-71. About 20 Kerry demonstrators are on the grass near the overpass. They’re jumping up and down and laughing, holding up signs. No one’s questioning anyone’s bona fides. They seem joyful compared to the other team.

At the Roberts Center, a thin line of people leads up to metal detectors. There are a crew of kids at tables checking out printed invitations like the one I had to the Fleisher event. They all wear khaki pants and white shirts, though a couple of the boys have long scraggly hair.

Lots of people don’t have a ticket; still they get in. I don’t have one either, but when I get to the table, they ask me for an ID, and when the guy sees I’m from New York, it creates a problem.

“What are you doing here?” I motion at my lapel button, George and Laura. “I came out to help in a battleground state,” I say.

A Secret Service guy talks to me, then a guy with the campaign. They confer in the parking lot, then confer again. The last people are going into the rally. Finally the Secret Service guy comes back and says, “It would be O.K. with me, but staff doesn’t want anyone who isn’t local.” He shrugs nicely.

I walk away and take the lapel pin off. My career as a plastic-banana Republican is over. In a way, I’m glad that I didn’t get to hear the speech. Seek darkness and you’ll find it.