On Sunday night, as Hurricane Gustav bore down on New Orleans and Republican Party elders scrambled to muffle all sounds of revelry from the Twin Cities, Sammy Hagar, the former Van Halen frontman, stood before a microphone at the legendary Minneapolis nightclub First Avenue. He was wearing plaid board shorts, sunglasses, and a logo T-shirt from Cabo Wabo Cantina, a bar he owns in Mexico. Hagar, who had just ripped through a set of his old standards, including “I Can’t Drive 55,” told his audience—several hundred Republican notables—that his band had just come from a gig in Houston.
“The hurricane is going to hit down there and that’s a big shame and all,” Hagar said. The tropical-themed stage set behind him featured a pair of waving plastic palm trees. “But at least y’all don’t have to work tomorrow, right?”
There were a few appreciative whoops. Mostly the crowd kept on doing what it was doing—drinking, flirting, celebrating. For a moment, at least, conventioneering as usual.
Of course, this was no normal convention. A twist of fate, a Category 3 storm, had turned it into something unprecedented. For John McCain, it could be argued that the hurricane presented an opportunity: both to dispense with sure-to-be awkward speeches by President Bush and Vice President Cheney, and to display a resolute, commanding style. But for the thousands of delegates, strategists and journalists languishing 1,200 miles up the Mississippi River from New Orleans, an odd mixture of drama, confusion and boredom defined Sunday, which was to be the gathering’s kickoff day. The convention sessions for Monday were all but canceled, and no one knew whether the customary parties would or even should go on. But for one night, at least, they did.
The Hagar concert, held in honor of the convention’s Southern delegations, was sponsored by Wal Mart, among many other corporations. The crowd included a smattering of Republican officeholders, along with a much larger contingent of lobbyists and convention volunteers. At the back, near the bar, Frank Luntz, the Republican Party strategist who helped to devise the 1994 Contract With America, was bobbing his head to Hagar’s set. He said he and all his counterparts were conscious of appearances. “It’s very tough all the way around,” Luntz said. “If they hold the convention as planned, they’ll be criticized for being insensitive. If they turn it into a fund-raiser for the victims, they’ll look like they’re playing politics. It’s unfair, but they’ll be criticized no matter what they do.”
Most of the partygoers said all the right things about the storm. “Hurricane relief first, convention second,” said a pair of young women, “professional volunteers” in from D.C.
“I think it could be very influential if we don’t respond,” said 23-year-old Minneapolis resident Eric Seebeck, between drags off a cigarette out in front of the hall. Seebeck, a representative of a local health care service group, described himself as a independent-minded Republican and said Bush deserved the blame he received for mishandling Hurricane Katrina. “You either respond or get hung, politically,” he said. “If you don’t respond, I don’t care what your political ilk is, go fuck yourself.”
As he bellied up to the bar, Mike Karbo, who said he worked for a Minnesota state senator, said that despite the storm, the convention thus far had “a great atmosphere.”
“The Democratic Party is about making sure everybody has a good time, has drinks, has cocktail parties,” said Karbo, who swayed slightly as he spoke. “The Republican Party is about making sure everybody had a place to live. A place to be safe.”
Republican officials, who must please delegates and donors while taking care not to exhibit too much enjoyment, have suggested that proceeds from RNC events could be redirected toward hurricane relief. This notion was tested at the Hagar show, where organizers were selling T-shirts to benefit the relief organization the Friends of New Orleans. A volunteer, who declined to give her name, said at the end of the night that she’d sold around 30 shirts, in contrast to thousands that had been sold at an event held in conjunction with last week’s Democratic convention in Denver. (There’s another Friends of New Orleans Party tomorrow night, she added, “so hopefully that will get people more motivated to open their pocketbooks.”)
After Hagar played his final encore, Van Halen’s 1986 hit “Dreams,” and walked off the stage in a hail of pink and orange confetti, Campbell Kaufman, a Republican lobbyist from Louisiana, came out on the stage. He held up a black guitar signed by the rock star, as well as several famous New Orleans musicians—an item that was being auctioned off to benefit hurricane victims. The bidding started at $3,000.
“I’d like everyone to pay attention for one second, please,” Kaufman said into the microphone. “We’ve got a hurricane coming up the Gulf Coast. I’d like everyone to pay attention.”
The partygoers went on drinking and talking. A few desultory bidders raised their hands.
“Folks, I have been getting text messages from my friends and family,” Kaufman went on. “The skies are already darkening.”
“HELLO!” he shouted. “I’m not talking just to talk. It will take five minutes.”
There was a brief lull in the din. The partygoers looked around, saw no one else was stopping to listen, and went on with their conversations.
“There are events going on all over the city for the Republican National Convention,” Kaufman said. “It’s not about celebrating. Those people in Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas have to deal with the possible loss of life, the possible loss of their homes.
Kaufman brought another man to the stage—a New Orleans blues guitarist named Tab Benoit. “We were hired to play tomorrow,” he said, referring to the Friends of New Orleans benefit. “Right now, we are evacuees. By tomorrow, we’re going to be refugees.”
The crowd still wasn’t listening. If anything, it was getting louder.
“Folks, listen! To us, this is very serious. We have 35,000 families living in FEMA trailers,” Benoit said. “We’ve still got thousands of people living in tents.”
Kaufman took over the bidding again.
“We’re at $3,300. Looking for $3,400—you get the guitar, signed,” he said. “That’s all we’ve got for a Southern tribute? All these people who make their money in Washington can’t spare more than $3,400 for the Southern tribute? I need a bid.”
A bid for $3,500 came in. Then $3,600. “Thank God!” Kaufman exclaimed. “$3,600 going once, $3,600 going twice …”
Someone raised his hand.
“Are you raising your hand for the bid?” Kaufman asked.
The man yelled that he hadn’t meant to.
“It’s $3,600,” Kaufman said, counting off the bid. “It’s going for a good cause and I appreciate anyone who actually paid attention.”
A young blond woman in a black dress turned to a friend.
“This one is over,” she said.
“Which one is next?” her friend asked in reply.
With reporting from Steve Kornacki