|Photo by Virginia Lee Hunter|
W. The name of the band is W. No one but me seems to appreciate this irony — either the Greens gathered at the Westwood Brewing Company to celebrate the strange rewards of this election night are too earnest or major-party candidates are so far from their orbit that they haven’t heard the Republican candidate’s media-given nickname. At any rate, W. takes the stage in varying configurations: two drummers, a guitar player, a singer; three singers, one drummer and a guitar. They sing, Free-dom! Freeee-dom! The room smells of burning sage, conversations are sprinkled with quotes from Jello Biafra and the recently departed environmental hero David Brower, and cheers come unpredictably as election results pop up on the TV sets. I hastily attributed one set of cheers to the news that Gore was leading in Wisconsin. I was wrong. Pundits and commentators around the country may have been blaming the Greens for Gore’s failure to nab an easy victory. In this room, the only subject was the news of Nader’s single-digit success. “I might breathe a sigh of relief if Gore wins,” grumbles John McDuffie, a 40-something jazz musician in wire-rimmed spectacles and a Nader T-shirt. “But that’s about it.”
In an unexpected way, that makes the Greens a comforting, if narrowly focused, crowd with whom to withstand the blows of an election night that became a colossal mindfuck for anyone who had pinned hopes on a major-party candidate. I shuddered to think of the mood at the Biltmore, where Los Angeles Democrats were gathered; a friend covering the election from Bushland in Austin called me threatening to vomit into a garbage can at her hotel. But among the Greens, victory has already come, in the form of the Democrats’ late-in-the-campaign panic. Far from considering themselves spoilers, they’re happy their guy got his message out. People are friendly and grateful for small victories: California’s overwhelming approval of a ballot measure diverting drug offenders from jail to treatment, for example, or the state’s voters’ wholesale rejection of school vouchers. Naturally, the very mention of Ralph Nader by any television reporter prompts a hearty roar, especially when the percentage of the vote to the right of his name is any integer greater than 3.
“I’ll admit there’s a primitive part of me buried deep in my lowest chakra that says, ‘Thank God Satan One is beating Satan Two,” says Glenn Billing, another musician for Nader (he plays in a band called the Otterpops). “But I’m not like the people closer to the center, who are freaking out over this. I can be lighthearted tonight. I’m happy either way.”
Did he ever consider voting for Gore? “No,” he says. “I would rather vote for my cat.”
Me, I’ve spent most of the evening rooting anxiously for Satan One, even though I cast my vote for the hero of this room. At just about 9 p.m., when the electoral-vote count was exactly 242 to 242, I cornered David Skaugerud, a Green from Topanga, for commiseration, only to find he was less concerned with the presidential race than with the delightful possibility of an Electoral College tie, which, he hopes, would bring about the demise of the institution. “It’s an 18th-century anachronism invented by guys who didn’t believe the unwashed rabble were smart enough to elect a leader,” he says. “Maybe this is the year we’ll re-evaluate it.” At 10 p.m., I looked up at the TV to catch CNN’s latest numbers for Florida: 2,479,004 for Bush, 2,402,860 for Gore, 81,807 for Nader. I asked two presumed Greens to react to the math, which showed that Nader had just about exactly the right number of votes required to put Gore in the lead.
“Getting 5 percent for Nader is more important than anything,” said one, Clayton Koenig, a stout man in his 30s with Brylcreemed hair who in another room would look uptight.
Faiyaz Reza, who was standing next to Koenig, agreed. “I persuaded 10 people to vote for Nader,” he said. And who did Reza vote for himself? “Oh, I can’t vote. I’m from Bangladesh. I just have a green card.”
And Koenig? “Me, neither,” he admitted. “I’m from Canada.”
Del Carol, a tall, thin, boyishly conservative-looking USC graduate student, is one of the few Naderites with doubts. He tells me that when he left his last class tonight, he was “wildly happy” about Gore’s lead in Florida. But now his spirits have fallen. Even if Gore pulls ahead again, this is not democracy at its best. “I teach classical mythology, and today we were talking about the Oresteia,” Aeschylus’ fifth-century B.C. trilogy about domestic warfare, split judicial decisions and shoddy justice. “And we got into a discussion about how unsatisfying democracy can be. I mean, any way you look at it, half of this country is going to be disappointed tomorrow. And that’s not good.”
But if democracy is faltering on a national level, it is working pretty well in smaller contests, according to Santa Monica City Council Member Mike Feinstein. “On the local level, we’re doing really well,” says Feinstein, who helped found the Green Party in California back in February of 1990. Looking smart in a white quilted vest and thick, black ponytail, Feinstein is busy tonight, fielding congratulations for his early lead (it held). “We have city councilpeople in Sebastopol and Point Arena,” he says, and Michigan voters, he tells me, have recently elected a Green to the post of drain commissioner.
When CNN gives Florida back to Bush and declares him president (a declaration that would later be withdrawn), hardly anyone so much as glances at the TV — except the man I’m talking to, Chris Gallagher. Gallagher looks pleased. “I voted for Bush,” he confides. “I think Ralph Nader’s a nut. I’m a Republican.”
“What,” I ask him, “are you doing at the Green Party’s party?”
“Well,” he says, “it’s my bar.”
“You own it?”
“No. I just come here all the time. I know all the bartenders. Also, my friend here voted for Nader.” He points to a young woman in coed clothes and straight, black, bobbed hair. She turns around with what I interpret as a half-conspiratorial, half-apologetic smile. Gallagher launches into a riff on the matter of the liberal media, and as I start to object, I am rescued by Stephanie Lallouz, a young woman in earth-toned clothing with long, straight blond hair, who seems to be always smiling. She wears a mermaid pendant around her neck, on a beaded necklace she made herself. Lallouz pulls me aside to share her solution to all the country’s problems: “Elect a musician for president,” she asserts excitedly. “Music is the universal language. It’s the most powerful way to communicate. I mean, look at history: The first kings were musicians since the beginning of time. You know, King David, King Solomon. And of course,” she adds, “there’s Elvis. The King!”
“Good idea,” I tell her. “Maybe you can teach George W. to play a musical instrument.”
“Maybe,” she allows. “But first I’m going to teach him to roll a joint.”
Lallouz walks off with a laugh, and W., the band, which has acquired two more singers since its last set, plays on: “Your side and their side, our side and my side, all will be all sides . . . There won’t be any more confusion.”
Not, at least, among the Greens, even though Nader has fallen short of the hoped-for 5 percent mark, and the 2 percent he got in Florida would have made all the difference for Gore had those votes gone to him. “You’ve got to start somewhere,” says Clifford Tasner, a bearded man in long hair and glasses, dressed in top hat and funny-money tie — a Billionaire for Bush and Gore moonlighting as his real self. “If the ship is going down, and you know it’s going down, it doesn’t absolve you of the responsibility to bail, even if it’s with a bucket. And if you can get someone to bail with you, and then someone else, and then a whole bunch of people — well, just imagine what could happen. You could save the whole ship.” Or go down trying.