Judgment in Burbank

I arrive for the protest tired and hungry, with only five minutes to spare. But there will be plenty of time for caffeine and calories, since the wrong address has been given out for the “Fire Tom DeLay” event, a national moment of MoveOn political theater to be staged locally at the state Republican headquarters in Burbank. Now, as cell-phone chatter and new MapQuest URLs redirect people to the right spot, a mile away, I find myself in the middle of that part of San Fernando Boulevard where places like Book City struggle to survive next to Urban Outfitters and Fuddruckers. For a moment I stand between two worlds — not old and new or left and right, though, but between Starbucks on one side of the street and Noah’s Bagels on the other. Torn, I choose Starbucks to willfully re-inflate that bogeyman of every conservative’s imagination — the “latte left.” “I see the Starbucks sign, but I can’t see you!” my friend Maria phones as I emerge with my coffee minutes later. We are separated by a few hundred feet, but blind to each other’s positions. She turns out to be a block away, handing printouts of the new directions to fellow MoveOns who are arriving, surprised, to find a massive SBC building where they’d been told Satan’s lair stood. “About 50 people said they’d come,” Maria says, packing up, “so hopefully 20 will show.” Sure enough, 10 minutes later we pull up to the correct address to find, so far, 16 MoveOns milling outside the GOP headquarters on Magnolia Boulevard — the Ronald Reagan California Republican Center, to be exact. Spirits are up as people take photos of each other while occasionally stealing glances at the windows of the party-owned building. There’s none of the Quaker sadness that hovers over many protest gestures today. The idea is to present the GOP with portions of MoveOn’s nearly half-million e-mail petition signatures calling on Republicans to remove DeLay as House whip. Suddenly there is a collective sense that the moment of truth has arrived, but now confusion reigns. “Are we all going in?” “What’s the script?” “Maybe we should choose a small group . . .” “. . . so they won’t freak out.” “I don’t think they’re really into engaging in a conversation.” “They’re just regular people.” At first a few alpha volunteers join my friend near the entrance, but then nearly all of the group lines up behind her. Maria motions everyone forward — only to find the door locked. “You guys,” she says, “this is going to be so anticlimactic!” But then, after she tries the doorbell, the door is buzzed open from above. The group steels itself and, cameras and camcorders at the ready, marches in and up the stairs. A framed, five-eighths-life-size photograph of Ronald Reagan stares down at the visitors, who find themselves entering a quiet, shrinelike environment. In fact, there’s no sign of life here: Year-old copies of the GOP magazine Rising Tide, with a cowboy-costumed Reagan beaming from the cover, are stacked on a table beneath a wall of plaques and name tags honoring party donors. (The benighted include Sunkist Growers, Britz Fertilizer and the California Commerce Club.) First one Republican appears, then another. The MoveOns try to be forceful yet not obnoxious, irate yet respectful. Don’t freak anyone out. A shock of sorts hits the petitioners, however — the three Republicans they encounter are half their ages, and none are white. However they had imagined their adversaries, the three kids do not fit the template. After a moment of polite Republican bafflement, a young Bushite named Ted warily steps forth to see what MoveOn wants. “Four hundred fifty thousand people have signed this petition calling Tom DeLay’s ethics abysmal,” a man says as he hands Ted the signatures and individual statements of concern. “Before you throw them in the trash, please read them.” “I know,” Ted says. “I’m on your mailing list.” Or is he? Ted looks at the group with a mixture of animal panic and loathing. What will he write in the blog of his mind tonight? the MoveOns wonder. I imagine that just possibly Ted sees in this earnest group of incensed citizenry a reminder that the leaders of his party must someday be called to account. This will be a brief but terrible period of retribution, a season of denunciation and impromptu tribunals, when the left will put down their lattes and reach for lengths of piano wire. I could just picture the formerly smug DeLay and his pals sitting in the dock, tieless and hollowed-eyed, guarded by MPs. Anyway, I was just guessing this or something similar was going through young Ted’s mind. Perhaps he figured there was still time for him to get out or, more likely, that he could be the GOP’s future, that after the denazification of his party it will turn to bright, ambitious young men like himself, who had shown the bipartisan grace to meet with MoveOn, even as its members smirked at the plaques for Britz Fertilizer and Sunkist. After the MoveOns leave, I linger at the Reagan shrine and ask Ted for his card. “No, I can’t,” he says, and gives me a Sacramento number to call instead. On the ride back, Maria assesses the action. “The best thing this can do is show the MoveOn people that Republicans are not slathering, horned demons.” “What was it he said about MoveOn?” I ask. “That he’s on our mailing list!” “Then why didn’t he know we were coming?” Maybe he did.