Last time I was in Florida for an election was four years ago. I covered the entire presidential campaign, starting with Dean’s scream in the snows of Iowa to the final stretch in the biggest swing state. Author Steve Elliott and I stayed at the house of Larry Davis, a well-known Democratic attorney in Florida’s Broward County. In 2000, Davis had seen things up close, when he worked with Al Gore’s legal team. But it was Ohio not Florida that sunk John Kerry in 2004. Kerry conceded at 3 a.m. When we woke up Wednesday, we didn’t bother to watch his speech. We drove to the beach and slipped into the water.
Floating beneath an azure sky, we could feel the specter of a second Bush term lurking behind the swaying palms. “It just doesn’t seem real,” Elliott said. Kerry had been down in the polls but gaining, and everyone thought he could scratch out a last-minute squeaker. The warm waves felt like a ritual bath but not enough to wash away the impurities of the entire nation. “I don’t know if I have the strength to get back to shore.”
The next four years were everything we feared.
Then came the fight for post-Bush America, launching the most intense political drama of our time. We all know what happened: John McCain, left for dead, survived his primary and then waited for the Democratic dust to settle, from which emerged a 44-year-old half-black man named Barack Hussein Obama. From the start, incredibly, Obama was winning. Let’s be clear as to why: Obama had better ideas, inspired millions of people and ran a better campaign. In response, McCain jettisoned his independent pedigree to run a cynical campaign, best embodied by his vice presidential pick, Sarah Palin. When the economy soured, Obama opened a big lead. The Republicans panicked. They uncorked their foulest potions. Fear spread among Democrats that the Republicans would destroy a chance for the country to redeem itself. By now, everyone was consuming news in multiple formats for six hours daily. It felt like you could stop someone on the street and ask, “What’s the latest on that Quinnipiac poll out of Ohio?” And they’d respond, “Well, it’s tighter, but the likely voter model is screwy, and there’s some really good news in the cross tabs.” In the back of everyone’s minds lurked the question: Can they win again? “It feels like the Apocalypse,” my friend Starlee said watching the spin room after one of the debates. “Gog and Magog are lining up on the battlefield.”
This is what brought me back to Florida, a week before the election. I’m with Steve Elliott again, along with several friends who were here last time. We’re back at Larry Davis’ house. Everything’s the same, except different. History repeats itself, Hegel observed, to which Karl Marx, in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, famously added “the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” It’s fitting that the renewed Republican bugaboo should offer the most succinct possible précis of Bush’s eight years. But that farce is almost done. And history will not be repeated. Elliott and I had been surprised by Obama’s electrifying speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston, and thought: If only that guy were running. Here we are.
“It’s like a do-over,” Elliott says. “You know that date with your high school crush, the one that went awry, and you always wished you could go back, say the right things, and live the life together that fate always intended? This is going to be like that. But better.”
Insane in the McCain
Broward County, which includes Hollywood and Fort Lauderdale, is Florida’s largest concentration of Democratic voters. It’s the state’s blue firewall. “We can make up for half the other counties combined,” Davis says. We happen to arrive in Florida the same day as Obama’s first big Broward event, the aptly titled Sunrise Rally. Tonight is Obama’s vaunted informercial, during which the cameras will switch live to the 20,000 supporters currently streaming into the BankAtlantic Center. People had been lining up since 6 a.m. As the cars roll past, a small but valiant detachment of McCain volunteers perches itself on the median, hoping to stem the tide.
“Do you see our plane?” the head volunteer asks, pointing.
Above, an orange open-cockpit stunt plane circles with a banner: DON’T SPREAD MY WEALTH VOTE McCAIN!
“No communism!” they yell at passersby.
It’s my first glimpse of real, live McCainiacs. They are all nice to me but vehement in their utter loathing of the press and anyone dumb enough not to realize that Obama represents some kind of creeping putsch. My notepad attracts a lot of attention, as everyone takes turns trying to convince me, a member of the liberal elite media, how deranged the liberal elite media are. “They have such a distorted view!” Then it’s on to a nuanced discussion of the issues, like: “MAN, I TELL YOU OBAMA IS SOCIALISM!”
One of the protestors, a self-described “Jewban” named Elaine, wears a red sweater with three buttons. One of them says: DEMOCRATS 4 McCAIN.
“So you’re a Democrat?”
“No. I’m just wearing this. The office gave it to me.”
The next button announces: MARTIN LUTHER KING WAS A REPUBLICAN.
“Are you sure about that?” I ask.
“No. They gave me that one, too.”
“I think that’s not correct,” I say.
“I don’t think so, either.”
Two of Elaine’s three pieces of flair are falsehoods pinned to her by the McCain campaign. Sound familiar? Then comes Al, the organizer of this outing, who likes to yell: “Use your brain, vote McCain!”
“You see how rude they are?” he asks me. “They flip you off, they don’t know nothing. These people are so stupid. And they’re voting!”
“So you think stupid people shouldn’t vote?”
Yes, that’s right, he affirms, especially not these stupid Obama people. Then he turns to a car and yells, “GO BACK TO RUSSIA!”
Behind me, a guy named Seth looks like a theme-park McCain: black suit, rubber mask, waving indiscriminately with a fixed smile. In homage to his candidate, Seth even mimics the stiff arms and double thumbs up. A nice touch. But every so often the mask has to come off.
“This thing gets really sweaty,” he says, holding the slightly disturbing rubber shell of McCain’s face in his hand. “I’m going use it for Halloween, too. My wife will be Sarah Palin. I can’t wait.”
The Stone Zone
Looking for potential leads on voter suppression and other election trouble, I track down Roger Stone, the legendary Republican dirty trickster who now lives in Miami. Stone, who meets me over martinis at a Fort Lauderdale restaurant, cuts an odd figure among Republican operatives. He learned hardball from Nixon — his self-professed political creed is WWND: What Would Nixon Do? — and has since worked for Bob Dole, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. He also has a dyed-blond buzzcut, lifts weights, wears a tattoo of Nixon on his back and is candid about his libertine ways, including a 1996 scandal in which he had to resign from Bob Dole’s presidential campaign for a magazine ad soliciting group sex.
Stone would be happy to tell me about this year’s Republican tricks, but it seem that there aren’t any. At several early voting stations AFSCME observers say there have been enthusiastic lines but no trouble. It’s as if the GOP ceded Broward County, a strategic blunder if true, since this is Florida’s largest concentration of Democrats. Florida Governor Charlie Crist even issued an emergency extension of early voting hours, a decision interpreted by angry Republicans as a public forfeiture of the state. Stone, however, says, “I’m with Charlie Crist. You can’t be afraid of democracy. You have to compete in the arena of ideas and let people vote.”
This is relatively surprising coming from the guy who, rather infamously, claims to have organized the so-called Brooks Brothers riot in 2000, wherein a mob of well-dressed Republican partisans stormed the Miami-Dade clerk’s office and shut down that county’s recount, thereby helping to precipitate the legal (rather than electoral) resolution of the Gore-Bush battle.
Stone is a charismatic figure, although it is unclear how much self-aggrandizement there is on his résumé. He clearly relishes his sinister reputation. Above us is Rothstein Rosenfeldt Adler, the law firm where Stone bases his operations. Stone tells us that Rothstein owns this restaurant. He’s at the next table, in fact, surrounded by colleagues and friends, all well-fed guys in $2,000 suits, smoking cigars, flirting with the unnaturally tan blondes in satin corsets, who staff the place. It’s an almost mythical portrait of fat cats, Florida-style. All they need are hundred-dollar bills to light their contraband Cubans. About his adopted state, Stone likes to quote Somerset Maugham: “a sunny place for shady people.” Stone fits right in.
Stone offers a scathing review of McCain’s campaign. His argument: Don’t have lobbyists run your campaign (not because of the political implications but because they don’t know how); don’t campaign by committee; start with one message and build on it. Like many conservatives, Stone is disappointed that the McCain of 2000 was usurped by the unrecognizably petty and fake McCain of 2008. “The whole reason for his candidacy was his centrist reformer image,” Stone says. “They systematically erased that advantage. No one cares about all these attacks.”
Even worse, according to Stone, is what the campaign means for the Republican Party. “McCain had an opportunity to redefine the GOP as a centrist party with conservative roots. Instead they went for the base and ceded the moderates.” The blame, he says, lies with Rove and Bush. Stone hates both, and not just because of their botched administration. “We’re supposed to be the party of freedom and liberty,” he says, “and they want to detain people illegally and torture them?” Stone’s libertarian leanings are why he’s voting against Florida’s Proposition 2, which, like California’s Proposition 8, would ban gay marriage in Florida. “Life is short,” he says. “If gay people want to marry and be happy, why shouldn’t they?”
As we talk, more dark-suited men appear at the restaurant. They all hug Stone, or give him a kiss on the cheek. They whisper in each others’ ears. One of them is said to be a local crime boss. The whole thing feels like a cut scene from Grand Theft Auto, Vice City, and I half expect Stone to give me a mission: Listen kid, Colonel Cortez is getting to be a real pain in my ass. Go to Starfish Island, get my boat, find the Cortez, and take care of ’em. Instead, he tells vivid stories of his own political missions over the years, including the ground war in Florida in 2000.
I ask Stone if he regrets the Brooks Brothers riot. He has never made such an admission, although his detractors might argue that he didn’t play a big enough role for any remorse. Whatever Stone’s contribution to the disaster of the past eight years, it clearly troubles him because he pauses for the first time in our conversation. Finally, Stone says, “Of course I do. I think about it every day.”
There may be some pride buried in that guilt, but I think Stone means it. Like a blond, Nixon tattoo–wearing Raskolnikov, Stone wants to confess. All those dead soldiers weigh on him, he says. It’s hard to live with that. There are dirty tricks and there are dirty tricks. If he could have a do-over, he’d take it. It’s not that he likes Obama — that has nothing to do with it. But this year, he says, will be different.
McCain’s Midnight Dance Party
It’s exactly a minute before midnight and there’s no sign of the big dog. We’re at the BankUnited Center at the University of Miami. It’s Sunday night, 30 or so hours until the first polls open, and this will be McCain’s last appearance in South Florida. He’s supposed to speak at 12:15 a.m., but he’s flying in from New Hampshire, the fourth of five campaign stops that started at 6 a.m. At this point, McCain’s arrival time doesn’t matter, since the auditorium has turned itself into a swinging Latin dance party over the past several hours. An enormous bandstand features a pack of horns, full percussion section and Grammy winner Albita, all of whom have been lost in a half-hour samba odyssey dedicated to their candidate: Don-de es-ta Se-ñor Mah-Cain!
On the floor, costumed dancers work a rhythmic swing while waving pompoms and McCain/Palin signs. Gorgeous women twirl in floor-length skirts. Lithe young men do fancy footwork. All for the love of the GOP. The Cubans are the last constituency under the Republican tent with any pizzazz. I run into a friend who’s on McCain’s plane and ask him if this is anything like other McCain events. He asks if I am joking. This is clearly the most fun you’ll ever have at a McCain event. It’s as if they collected all the life left in the GOP, put it in this room and lit the fuse for one last party. It is, in truth, a rocking party.
“It feels like it could descend into an orgy at any minute,” Steve Elliott says.
It’s true that if you squint in here, you might be fooled into thinking that that the GOP isn’t collapsing into a parochial, eschatological white dwarf. But the only reason this warm-blooded Caribbean crowd is rabid for McCain is the ever-fresh psychic wound of Fidel Castro. For them, the socialism charge has really taken hold. Half the T-shirts in sight read: BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU WISH FOR: CUBA GOT ‘CHANGE’ IN 1959.
“Come to think of it,” Elliott says, “I hope I was wrong about that orgy.”
Accessorizing the anti-socialism slogans are “Joe” (as in the Plumber) stickers, worn by nearly everyone in the room. The campaign’s concerted effort to create and distribute Joe’s paraphernalia is a reminder that the last of McCain’s eggs are riding in a very strange basket. So far, each new lurching indignity by the McCain camp seems to offer a digest of the cynical. For a while, it was “Drill, Baby, Drill,” chanted by people who believe they are patriots while driving their SUVs through the exurbs so as to help Sovereign Wealth Funds from the Persian Gulf buy American ports. Then came Joe the Plumber, the sudden new face of the campaign who — surprise! — was unvetted before he ascended to television and went rogue with his own political views. So what does McCain do once he realizes he’s turned a bona fide wing nut into his most visible official surrogate overnight? Expand the Joe brand! The campaign has now deputized all their supporters into an army of surrogate Joes, parroting the same baseless collection of slogans. “Don’t vote for Socialism,” the crowd around us says. “Obama will destroy the country.”
At quarter to one, McCain appears with his lineup of usual suspects: Cindy, Tom Ridge, Joe Lieberman. They smile as McCain lays into his speech, which is not a speech at all but a hit parade of kneecappers that have bubbled to the surface of his incoherent campaign: Biden’s “crisis” comment; drill here, drill now; Obama will (gasp) engage in diplomacy; Redistributionist-in-Chief; “spread the wealth,” replete with finger quotes; measuring the drapes; Mac is back; oh, and don’t forget our good friend Joe the Plumber!
McCain reminds me of the quarterback running for class president in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, who takes the stage and just yells: SAN DIMAS HIGH SCHOOL FOOTBALL RULES! Where Obama’s speeches apply themes to a well-crafted argument, McCain strings together a bunch of hopeful zingers, some of which fall flat even among friends. After all, no one gives a fuck about $18 billion in pork-barrel spending when the deficit this year will be a trillion dollars.
That may be why McCain keeps it fairly short, jumping to the battle cry that has marked the end of his speeches since he accepted the nomination in Minneapolis. “I’m not afraid of the fight,” he says. “I’m ready for it and you’re going to fight with me!” As always, he whips the crowd into a furious crescendo. “Stand up,” he yells as the roar drowns him out. “Fight! Stand up and fight!”
It is a rousing performance: the old soldier, mortally wounded, still rallying his troops. Despite McCain’s disastrous candidacy, I feel a little bad for him. “He was misled by his strategists,” says one supporter in the crowd nearby. “Obama was just better at it.”
“Don’t feel bad for the guy,” Elliott says. “He knew the stakes. He’s a dice shooter, and he put his chips on the line when he went Rovian in July.” After that, he adds, the odds collapsed around two outcomes: “President or asshole. And we all know the odds on that one.”
But here, in this room, the glory of the moment obscures that inevitable reality. Now I understand why McCain stepped up his campaign schedule in the last days. It must be exhilarating to be loved in failure. Who wants to hear bad news from your strategists and pollsters when you can have your spirits lifted for another few minutes by a crowd of thousands? Soon, however, those crowds will be gone, and McCain will have to face himself. As will the party. Until then, the rallies are their mutual escape. “When I’m elected President...” McCain bellows. I guess Republicans do believe in hope after all.
Poisoning the Wells
McCain’sPompano Beach field office, like almost everything else in Florida, is housed in a strip mall. A guy is waving a flag out front, but inside traffic is light. We’ve been hearing about empty McCain offices, sapped of enthusiasm, but this one has a few true believers left. “We’re still high on the rally down in Miami last week,” says one of the volunteer coordinators. “There were a lot of Hispanics there, and it was good to hear them sing the ‘Star-Spangled Banner.’?” Then she adds, “Oh, you know who else was there? The Jewish. They turned out in droves.”
Then we meet Tim McClellan, the Northeast Broward Regional field manager. McClellan is a nice guy, forthright and friendly, which you don’t usually find in any political office during a campaign. He’s also gone through the political Looking Glass. After we ask a few questions about bread-and-butter Republican issues like terrorism, McClellan quickly segues to crackpot conjecture that Obama is not a citizen.
“That’s a debunked Internet rumor,” I say. “Obama produced his birth certificate.”
“But there’s no seal on his birth certificate, and the font is wrong.”
This twist in the persistent rumor is being promoted, at this very moment, by lunatic fringe blogger Pam Geller at a rally in Palm Beach. Obama’s birth certificate has been verified by the state of Hawaii and multiple news organizations. But that’s not good enough for McClellan, who thinks the better source of fact is a lawsuit by Philip J. Berg, a longtime paranoiac gadfly who has also filed lawsuits demanding “the truth about 9/11.” Berg has filed so many lawsuits that the very lawsuit McClellan cites was thrown out as frivolous. Nevertheless, he says, “The U.S. Supreme Court will prove that Obama’s not a citizen.”
Context will help understand why this is shocking. McClellan is a paid McCain staffer questioning the citizenship of the Democratic presidential candidate. Such a thing would have never happened in 2004. Bush’s campaign, for all its faults, had discipline. First off, had you wandered into a Bush field office with a notebook, someone would have taken you down with a flying tackle. And you certainly wouldn’t have been able to quote the local honcho straying way off-message. But my encounter with McClellan drives home something even more troubling: He’s not off-message. With McCain swinging at shadows — ACORN, Rashid Khalidi and the liberal media that won’t tell the truth — the entire Republican apparatus has devolved into an insidious rumor mill. The sub rosa dirty work that once was the province of 527s is now official material. Some time around six weeks ago, the party held hands, took a deep breath and stepped off the cliff.
We visit several McCain visibilities nearby, and not one supporter is interested in the issues. They want to talk about “Obama’s shady associations”; how his money was raised by the PLO; and the minorities who took down the economy via Fanny and Freddy. Not a single Florida Republican seems to sense any irony when they complain that Obama, who is seven points ahead nationally, will probably “steal the election.”
Spending time among the rank and file makes you realize that the last two weeks have not been about winning this election but about making the country ungovernable. It was McCain himself who ominously warned that the “fabric of democracy” is threatened. If this true, it’s backward: Democracy has been at least moderately damaged by McCain, one of whose own advisers recently acknowledged, after being unable to point to any actual instances of voter fraud, that the whole charge is a “perception” meant to “plant seeds of doubt.” I guess it’s the lesson McCain learned from Vietnam: If we can’t have the country, no one can. Let’s burn it down — and poison the wells for good measure.
But the scorched earth isn’t working. Obama’s still ahead. It may even backfire: resurrecting the culture war and wrapping it in paranoid delusion have stripped the Republican Party to its radioactive core. Remember Rove’s “permanent Republican majority” of four years ago? That dream is long gone. It is almost tragic to watch the “intellectuals” on The Corner, who contort themselves into a rage in defense of Sarah Palin. If that’s who they choose as the standard-bearer for the cause of Edmund Burke, William F. Buckley and Leo Strauss, fine. The game is over. It’s that brand of politics that caused Colin Powell, the most popular Republican nationwide, to frame his earth-shattering endorsement of Obama inside a detailed un-endorsement of what his own party has become. “I have heard senior members of my own party drop the suggestion,” Powell said, that “[Obama] might be associated with terrorists. This is not the way we should be doing it in America.”
Heart of the Sun
In 2004, Barack Obama made his a pitch for national unity on behalf of John Kerry. “Now, even as we speak,” he worried, “there are those who are preparing to divide us — the spin masters, the negative-ad peddlers who embrace the politics of ‘anything goes.’?” Little did he know just how far “anything” would go. But even then, Obama had an answer. “I say to them tonight, there is not a liberal America and a conservative America — there is the United States of America. ... There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq, and there are patriots who supported the war in Iraq. We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America.”
Obama’s rhetoric is well-honed political theater, but it is political theater in the service of a grand idea, one enshrined in our national motto. Not “In God We Trust,” which came along in 1954, but the original: E pluribus unum. To hear these words invoked with real conviction is a new experience for people my age. Cloaked in protective irony, we never talk about “hope” and “service” and “country” and mean it. Believing in things usually makes us uncomfortable. That is not true any more.
By 7 p.m. on Tuesday, it’s becoming clear that Obama might deliver on his 2004 promise. Everyone has been anxious-giddy-excited-nervous-hopeful all day. This morning, Elliott had to tear himself away from the computer.
“I keep looking for the one blog that will tell me the future and calm my nerves,” my friend Starlee says. “But it just doesn’t exist.”
“I know he’s ahead in the polls,” Elliott says as we all gather with Davis and several friends. “But I can’t stop worrying.”
“Don’t worry,” Davis says, “we got ’em.”
“Those are the precise words you used last time,” Elliott says.
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We’re in the same place where we watched those returns. Recalling what happened with exit polls in 2004, we mostly ignore them, but sense good vibes. Soon enough, numbers arrive: McCain’s Pickett’s charge into Pennsylvania is a bust. Ohio goes decisively blue. Florida’s looking good. Then: Iowa, New Mexico, Colorado. The electoral math is a fait accompli, but we don’t expect the announcement to come so sharply at 11 p.m., EST., when the last continental polls close, the networks return from break, and the entire West Coast lights up blue. Obama is now the “American president Americans have been waiting for.” Our scene, I’m sure, is just like millions across the country. Cheers, tears and clinking of beers.
By the time John McCain makes his concession speech, we’ve already forgotten about him. Oh right — that guy! McCain, I now realize, was always irrelevant. The election was a referendum on the American experiment. In a time of peril, we faced a stark contrast: reason against superstition, tolerance against tribalism. The results are in, and they are positive. We made the right choice. And we did it in a fucking landslide.
Early the next morning, we go to the same beach from 2004. Floating beneath an azure sky, palms swaying gently, the enormity of an Obama presidency sinks in. Commentators have already reached back through time to define the significance of the moment. The Reagan chapter of history is closed. The civil rights movement reached its mountaintop. The culture war sat up in its coffin, said boo, and retreated to its final resting place. The North finally won the Civil War.
Hyperbole, all. But why not take it a step further? Floating out there in the Atlantic at dawn, I declare the election to be nothing less than the triumph of good over evil. Yeah, that’s what it was. An epic battle, like at Dunkirk, or in the fires of Mt. Doom. And just like then, the white hats won. So when you turn on the television tomorrow and they tell you that McCain lost because he changed messages, or couldn’t organize his team, or raised too little money, don’t listen. Because that’s not what happened. What happened was McCain chose evil. And good won. The waves make this thought go down easier. The spell is broken. The nightmare is over. And the sun is rising from the ocean over Obama’s America.