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It was between Vivaldi and “Moon River” that Joe Wilson strode into the ballroom of the La Cañada–Flintridge Country Club Clubhouse. That’s former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, whose 2003 New York Times op-ed piece exposed the administration’s manipulation of bogus data from Niger to help justify the invasion of Iraq. Applause drowned out the Riviera String Quartet as Wilson sat, on a recent Sunday afternoon, at a table with the director and producer of Bush’s Brain, Joseph Mealey, and journalist Patt Morrison.
Two-hundred-twenty-five people paid $100 apiece to attend this Democratic Party fund-raiser luncheon, whose choice of chicken or “vegetarian plate” suggests the party has a long way to go to match the GOP’s taste for red-meat politics. Perhaps that was why Wilson was here and not Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid or a similarly polite Democrat who’d get sucker-punched by Ann Coulter as he held the door for her. No. Wilson is a New Deal brawler sent to fire up the troops — think Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glen Ross.
Shortly before his talk, Wilson took off his coat in a meeting room downstairs, poured himself some coffee and told me how he’d graduated from UC Santa Barbara and grown up in San Marino and Pasadena, where his father went to high school with Jackie Robinson.
“I’m from the West,” he said. “I grew up surfing. I grew up in the ’50s.”
Wilson, who turns 58 next month, now lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, with his wife, Valerie Plame. Except for the chalk-stripe suit he wore on this hot day, his appearance has shed its Foggy Bottom orthodoxy: His graying locks curl well past the collar, and a frontier beard covers his face. An ornate silver watch band set with turquoise stones circles a thick wrist. Wilson’s been on the war path, stumping across national congressional districts for Democrats, ever since his CIA-agent wife was outed by Robert Novak with a little help from the payback-minded vice president’s office. Wilson himself was vilified and claims that after he retired from the State Department, his Washington, D.C., consulting firm’s clients were pressured by conservative operatives into leaving, forcing him out of business.
Was the comfortable crowd waiting for him proof, as Matt Bai says in his most recent book, that the Democratic Party is led by activist bloggers and millionaires?
“I don’t know where Matt’s doing his research,” Wilson said. “I've been involved in campaigns across this country for the past six years. I guarantee you it’s not millionaires or bloggers who show up at town meetings. It’s postal workers, it’s teachers, librarians, citizens, union members.”
These town meetings haven’t always been love fests. Wilson says his toughest audience was at the since-closed Cody’s Books in solidly Democratic Berkeley. “?‘What about you?’?” asked one listener, hostile over Wilson’s government service. “?‘Your wife works for the CIA!’?” “?‘I’m not asking you to care about me,’?” Wilson answered the critic. “?‘I’m asking you to care about the Constitution of the United States.’?”
Wilson comes from a long bloodline of Republicans (his great-uncle was California Governor James Rolph) and claims that neglected mainstream Republicans, if they are to survive politically, need to have a conversation among themselves about their party. One wonders if Wilson regards the beleaguered Republican center as more crucial to the republic’s future than Demo bloggers and pundits.
“Republicans,” he said, “hate the idea that this administration is hemorrhaging money and has to borrow $2 billion a day from the Chinese and Arab world. That [they]’ve seen the growth of federal government in a way that’s increasingly invasive and oppressive.”
Perhaps what disturbs him the most is a lack of common decency and warmth among the neocons and their proxy in the Oval Office. “This is a president,” marveled Wilson, almost to himself, “who won’t pick up the phone to call the prime minister when it’s flooding in the U.K.”
Later upstairs, after Mealey and Morrison’s introductions, Wilson spoke for more than an hour without referring to notes. He called Vista Congressman Darrell Issa an asshole, described Novak’s tearing of Valerie Plame’s cover as treason and warned Republicans that their party is being stolen by neoconservatives hellbent on turning the republic into an empire, as well as “theo-conservatives” who wish to replace constitutional rule with their interpretation of the Book of Revelations.
The crowd ate it up — even the vegetarians. Here was a man who would not take it, nor apologize for being angry. Wilson seemed to relish being a target for the ever-powerful Bavarian right, as Andrew Kopkind once described it. He could’ve been running for office — if he weren’t so blunt.
“I’m one of the 25,000 Americans whose phones are tapped without warrant,” Wilson said. “To which my response is always: What a waste of money. Whatever I have to say to my government I will say openly, loudly and often profanely.”
After the question-answer period, duffers and Democrats alike drifted to the Clubhouse parking lot packed with golf carts, Priuses and BMWs, some united by bumper stickers calling for impeachment and peace. Others proclaimed allegiance to Hillary Clinton or John Edwards. On this warm, breezy day the crowd looked to these candidates, as they had Joe Wilson, to lead them on an exodus out of the Bush wilderness. Like the voice in “Moon River,” they were ready to hear promises: