It’s November 3, and Harper Simon doesn’t feel so good. He’s just spent election night with high-level Republican movers and shakers in D.C. as sort of a joke — a Hunter S. Thompson kind of opportunity he couldn’t pass up — but awoke the morning after with an emotional hangover.
“When I went to bed I was still tipsy, but when I woke up this morning I felt a little dirty and seriously gloomy,” says Simon, who is the son of singer-songwriter Paul Simon and spent the past three years living in London after growing up in Manhattan. He’s in the States to record a couple of albums, one with his band Menlo Park and another with his dad’s wife, Edie Brickell. “I thought dipping in and out of both the Bush and Kerry camps would be fascinating. To be in the center of things on that historic night seemed like a rare opportunity.”
Simon’s D.C. weirdness started on the afternoon of Election Day, while hanging out at a pal’s consulting firm “drinking margaritas and eating Mexican food.”
He says there was palpable tension in the office as pro-Kerry exit-poll results were coming in, but his friend, a high-powered Republican campaign consultant whom Simon describes as “hilarious” and “the best person to debate with,” remained confident things would turn to favor Bush.
“Everyone was listening to Led Zeppelin and Michael Jackson,” says Simon via cell phone, on a train back to Penn Station. “At one point, it was sort of amusing; my friend left his office and I put in ‘War’ by Edwin Starr.”
As his Republican hosts grooved around to the famous protest song, Simon tried to understand their political point of view, to no avail.
“I was smoking a cigarette on the terrace, and one of the Southern belles who works there is going, ‘It’s just so important we win this election. You can’t change presidents in the middle of a war. It’s like changing coaches in midseason; we’ve got more games to play.’”
To which Simon replied, “Why can’t you? The Marlins switched coaches two years ago in midseason and went on to win the World Series.”
When things were still going Kerry’s way in the exit polls, Simon and another friend, a Kerry-supporting independent who works at The New York Times, headed to the Kerry party at the Hilton.
“By the time we got there, the Democrats were starting to look deflated. Everyone was sitting on the floor watching the returns. There wasn’t really anyone there. The big one was in Massachusetts.”
Things at the Bush party over at the Ronald Reagan building were another story.
“It was packed — there were like a thousand people there. And the moment we arrived was essentially the moment Florida went to Bush. People were wildly elated. I think Alan Jackson was singing; it could have been someone else. Basically it was all country-western covers of ‘America the Beautiful.’”
Simon and his New York Times friend tried to blend in, but in this seriously Bush-positive crowd, he could tell he stood out.
“I just looked too weird, too Democratic,” he says. “Clearly, velvet is not a Republican fabric.”
Simon says that the right-wing partygoers were dressed instead in “business suits, weird Republican plaid pants, pink Brooks Brothery shirts, penny loafers and a lot of cowboy hats.”
At one point, his Republican consultant friend tried to explain: “Washington is an industry town — it’s Hollywood with ugly people.”
“There was a socially awkward partisan moment as it came down to a Bush victory,” says Simon, who had made a last-minute financial contribution to the Kerry campaign earlier that day.
“Our emotions were totally incongruous with the celebration,” he adds, still reeling from the experience.
“It was a very strange feeling. We peeled off from my other friends and walked around on our own.”
After a while, his Bush-supporting friend invited them back to his office to hang out. But at that point partisanship had taken full effect. The Republicans felt weird celebrating around the girl from The New York Times, and she in turn was getting snippy.
The two decided to leave. When Simon woke up the next morning in his room at the Four Seasons, all he wanted to do was get home.
“My [Republican] friend called this morning and wanted me to stick around. He was like, ‘Hey man, let’s go over to the Bush victory speech.’ I said, ‘You know, thanks for all the weirdness, but I gotta get out of here. I gotta get back to New York.’”