HOW TO MEET THE PRESIDENT
It’s not easy to meet the president, but it can be done. The important thing is to sleep in your friend’s house in Dupont Circle. She’s a lawyer who also paints and she has a small dog. The night before you meet the president you’ll watch The Sopranos with her, the episode where Tony Soprano’s daughter gets engaged and his cousin is promoted to managing the casino. It’s also the episode where Vito gets caught giving a blowjob to a security guard outside the construction site. The Sopranos has nothing to do with meeting the president except that it’s during The Sopranos that you’ll find out your flight has been cancelled and you need to change airlines. Here is the connection between organized crime and the president of the United States you have been searching for all your life.
Go to sleep early. The small clock your friend leaves on the coffee table will not go off at 5 a.m. like it’s supposed to but your internal alarm will jolt you awake at 5:22 a.m. and you will look around wild-eyed until the shapes around you make sense in the dark. The difference between someone who meets the president is the difference between someone who rolls over, pulls on his pants, shoulders his backpack, and walks out the door—and someone who gives up and goes back to sleep. If you go back to sleep you’ll remember this failure for the rest of your life and will never again question why things didn’t work out for you quite the way they should have.
If it’s raining heavily there’ll be a cab downstairs waiting for the neighbor and that neighbor will be going to the same airport you’re going to so you’re in luck. Cross the mall and pass the tiny lights of the Treasury Building, drive over the Potomac swinging sharply to the right away from Pentagon City. Ignore the short blocky buildings with barricaded windows that house the nation’s machinery. Don’t question what you’re doing; it’s not that kind of a thing. Meeting the president is about finding purpose and being open to the unexpected, like the first time you caught yourself dancing to Justin Timberlake. The streets are so dark and wet they glow.
Part of meeting the president is forgetting the book you were reading on the origins of fascism. It will still be there when your friend wakes up two hours later, rubbing her eyes, confronted with the mess you left behind. She’s going back to California, and she’ll comfort herself with that thought, the percolator whistling, while her dog wraps himself around her ankle and your first plane begins its descent into Detroit.
But you can’t fly into Detroit unless you find out about the bus trip several days earlier when it’s mentioned in the Note, the daily brief rounding up all of the political stories published by the major papers every day. If you don’t read the Note your chances of meeting the president are zero. Because it won’t be mentioned anywhere else. It won’t be listed on the president’s calendar, ever. For security purposes the president’s schedule is not published. For political purposes only Republicans are invited to media events.
To find out where and when the first event will be you need the phone number for the Bush-Cheney ’04 press office. If you’re traveling with John Kerry at the time you can get that number from Michael Roselli, the senior producer for CNN. He always has a book open, something literary, and is a calming presence in what can be a very stressful environment. Michael has all the phone numbers you could ever need.
When you call you’ll get a recording that says the bus-tour information is not available yet. But it’s just a test—think about it. You have to prove you are serious to these people. You have to know not to trust anybody. People who trust never meet the president.
If you call over and over again and you’re never away from your phone and you say things like “Salon.com is a major news source!” and act surprised when they say they’ve never heard of it, then at 3p.m. on Saturday, two hours before the deadline, they will fax you one page with a paragraph’s worth of information to your hotel near the interstate in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. The fax will say Sensitive Information across the top and it won’t be addressed to anyone.
You’ll need an editor in New York willing to fax your social security number on company letterhead on short notice. If you have an editor who works on Saturday, and you call often enough, they’ll put you on a press list for the first event. If you want they will reserve a spot for you at the airport and you can see the president depart Air Force One. But they won’t let you in the motorcade so it’s one or the other, the airport or the event. It’s a bus tour so you ask if you can get on the bus and Sarah Thilman tells you there isn’t enough room, which you know is a lie. She says not to worry, they will give you great support.They will write your story for you.
This is how news is made. They write it, shoot it, and deliver it to the media. Some journalists refuse their handouts. But more often than not what you read in the paper is written by the campaign.1 They will take pictures for you. They will have helicopters shooting video, providing coverage of the buses between events.They will email you everything that happens and you can publish their photos and their words of the events for free. You don’t even have to give them credit. People will say it’s evil to print news spoon-fed from partisan sources without acknowledgement. But you know the difference between evil and lazy better than anyone.You’re an expert in the evil-versus-lazy argument.
“That’s not really interesting to me,” you’ll tell Sarah. That’s what you have to say if you want to meet the president. After a couple of minutes Sarah will ask if she can call you back shortly. But Sarah will never call you back and she will never answer the phone when you call again.
It doesn’t matter, you’re on a list, and you can parlay that list to be on more lists.When you get to the airport, watch the cab door—if you bang your elbow it will bruise and for a moment that pain will distract you from everything that has ever happened in the world. And don’t forget to thank your friend’s neighbor for letting you share the ride. Keep moving because when you stop moving you’ll have to answer the question that every runaway has to answer at some point: Hey kid, what are you running from? Go to the front of the line because your plane is about to leave. If the man in the pinstripe suit with only a thin beard along his jaw outlining his face will not let you in front of him, the man behind him with the thick T-shirt and unwashed hair will tell you to go ahead.Take fifteen milligrams of speed inside the terminal because it’s important to be awake for your country, especially in times like these. Remember, your original flight was cancelled because of weather conditions. Buy a copy of the Economist before boarding the plane and flying into the storm.
THE BURNING McDONALD’S
There’s a McDonald’s burning in Niles, Michigan.
I see the plume of gray smoke just as I cross the border from Indiana and the time zone changes. Traffic is diverted from Thirteenth Street onto Fifteenth and then back to Thirteenth and then Eagle Drive. A plumber was soldering a pipe near the roof and the insulation caught on fire. At first I thought it was a terrorist attack: the president’s motorcade was scheduled to cross in front of that McDonald’s at noon after the president gave a speech endorsing an Indiana congressman on the steps of Air Force One at the South Bend airport. But the time change threw everything off.The airport is only thirteen miles away but Niles Senior High School is an hour later.The burning McDonald’s will haunt me for two days as I try to decipher the message beneath the message underlying the president’s visit to this state that has lost a disproportionate number of jobs during the Bush presidency.
I arrive at the high school an hour early and they give me a local press pass, and a Young Republican from the University of Notre Dame escorts me to the gym where high-school students, boys in tuxedos and girls in red glitter dresses, are performing a dance around the stage.The boys face forward and the girls back, then they switch, singing the whole time and waving their hands. Bush will stand on that stage shortly to address the crowd. I’m excited and wired and before the president arrives I call Chrissy in Chicago.
“Guess who’s going to meet the president,” I say.
“Me,” I tell her.Then I hang up and turn off my phone.2
The crowd at the school gym is all local Republicans and they got their tickets through a connection with the mayor or some other official. It’s a stacked crowd and the fashion statement of the day is American-flag clothing. Girls wear American-flag skirts cut above the knees and men wear ties painted with the stars and stripes. The gym is strung with awards the local teams have won over the years. These are the people who are going to ask the president questions and when he arrives they go nuts.
The president lets the crowd clap for a while, then waves his hands signaling them to sit down and if the Secret Service wasn’t always hovering around, ready to put me in a half-nelson if I even look like I’m thinking about bolting past the velvet rope and lunging toward the leader of the free world, then I would certainly “meet” the president many times. and they do. Laura Bush introduces the president. She’s wearing a fuchsia jacket and dark pants. Her husband is wearing a charcoal suit. She’s slim and has a kind smile. She tells the story of George’s run for congress and how she spent a lot of time in the car with George and by the end of it “he convinced me to vote for him.” It’s a hit, the crowd loves it. Laura Bush is a sweetheart. She will sit by the stage and motion to her husband when it is time to go.
“Think it’s alright if I take off my jacket?” the president asks.
“We’re not in Washington anymore.” I’m fifteen feet away from him. There is a black velvet rope and then seven rows of seats and then a square stage three feet high where the president stands. Next to me is a riser built from plywood, filled with dirt, and covered with a sheet of plastic. I tell myself that my goal for the day is to find a Republican to like.
“I told the people back here they have the best view,” Bush says, referring to the rows of people behind him looking at his ass. It’s a funny joke, and there’s more to come. When Bush laughs his head shakes. It’s a quiet laugh that comes from a place deep inside.
There’s something strong in the way he speaks, something muscular about the way he holds his body with his head forward over his collarbone and his nose and lips sharp like an eagle’s. “I’d like to have a dialogue with you,” Bush says. “I came here to ask for your help.”
“Oh, brother,” the lady next to me whispers. She’s from the local newspaper. Next to her is Adele Straub from 92.1 FM radio. Adele won’t stop clapping at everything the president says. She’s ecstatic. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen a member of the press actively and openly endorsing a candidate from inside the press area. Adele is small and wrinkled and reminds me ever so slightly of the old ladies that arrive to see the Pope give mass at St. Peter’s.They will claw you to death and step over your dead body in their heels in an effort to get closer to the pontiff.
It’s a short speech and Bush spends much of it speaking about the war in Iraq. “The best way to protect the homeland is to stay on the offensive and bring the killers to justice,” he says.“I looked at intelligence on Iraq and saw a threat… Saddam… ties to terrorist organizations… See, not only did we make America more secure by getting rid of Saddam, we are changing the world by insisting freedom and democracy prevail… Freedom is the almighty God’s gift to each man and woman in this world.”
Every time he makes a point the crowd erupts in applause. But I don’t feel more secure. I wonder if I can return God’s gift and exchange it for a new Sony Playstation. Each time the crowd claps I imagine another McDonald’s bursting into flames.
There are major differences between Bush’s approach and John Kerry’s. Bush is short and to the point and he says things that may or may not be true but he is incredibly succinct and easy to understand. There’s no room for second-guessing.You either accept the facts of what he is saying or you resolve yourself to calling the president a liar. It’s totally different from Kerry, who leaves ample room for splitting hairs as he straddles the issues while forging an unlikely coalition of miners and environmentalists.
Bush continues about how the attacks of September 11th hurt our economy. A baby starts crying and the mother rushes the baby out of the room. She must have known the baby would cry. Bush says the best way to generate economic growth is to let people keep more of their own money, and then says, “The tax cuts we passed came at the absolute right time.” He speaks of inheriting an economy in decline and turning it around.The further he goes the stranger I feel.
“We can’t have a vibrant economy unless you become less dependent on foreign sources of energy.” He says we will move toward things like reusable energy but it will take fifteen (fifty?) years to get there. I’m pretty sure he said fifty years but I decide to give him the benefit of the doubt. “We got to use the resources we have to get there… We need to be exploring for energy.”
Everything the president says is easy to digest and makes sense on some basic level. Outlining a problem and providing a solution never takes more than three sentences, which I find reassuring. America is more secure as a result of invading Iraq. We’re going to create clean energy, but first we’re going to dig up some oil and mine the hell out of Pennsylvania. People get tax refunds, then they go out and spend their money, and every time someone spends money it creates a job. Except of course that the country has lost jobs.The genius is undeniable and beautiful—you accept it or you don’t, there’s nothing to argue.
I’m stunned by the president’s charisma and humor. He cracks me up several times and at one point I find myself on the verge of clapping. But his real appeal is animalistic. The strength he radiates is the strength of a man who does not waver. I decide that if there was no government, if the waters had risen to swallow most of the continent and anarchy reigned across much of the world and people were living in caves, then I would want George Bush to defend my cave. He would be my first choice to stand in front of the entrance wearing an animal carcass, ready to club to death any mammal that crossed within fifty feet, while I stayed inside with the women trying to stay warm, cooking scraps over our tiny fire. But we’re not there yet.
After the president’s speech, five speakers are called upon to say how tax relief has made their lives better. The president prods them along, like a game-show host, periodically stopping them to explain what they are saying to the rest of us.“Let me stop you there. You hear what he said,‘Partnered with businesses’… Now two or three jobs, that might not sound like a lot…It’s a market-based approach… And you used that money to hire people didn’t you?”
“Yes I did, Mr. President.”
“Let me tell you something about Dan. He got laid off right after September 11.Why don’t you pick it up from there?”3
After the five speakers, Bush takes questions from the crowd and the questions are so soft that I have to wonder if the people asking them weren’t planted ahead of time. The first questioner is Hispanic and wants to know how he can help convince his fellow Hispanic voters to vote for Bush in the fall. The president responds with a sentence in Spanish and finishes with,“This team understands if you own something in America you have a vital stake in the future of our country.” Another questioner is African-American and asks essentially the same question. “I repeat exactly what I said before to my Latino friend here.”
Two children are called upon, a little girl with curly hair and a young boy with his blonde hair cut close to the scalp. The boy wants to know why the president came to Niles, to which Bush responds, “Because I want to get out of Washington. Because there’s good people here.” The girl wants to know Bush’s highest priority in his second term and he tells her his highest priority is to keep America safe.
Nobody asks how he intends to cut taxes, pay $200 billion for war in Iraq, and trim the deficit simultaneously. Or why, if his environmental record is so good, groups like the Sierra Club are not supporting him. It’s not that kind of crowd. The only difficult question comes from a woman who complains about the funding being cut for the volunteer program she works at.
“National funding?” the president asks.
“That’s what you get for trying to cut the deficit,” he says, and he laughs from inside, his body moving slightly up and down like an accordion, his head moving forward and back on his neck. But nobody laughs, so he makes another joke.When that doesn’t work he promises to have his people to look into it and then calls on someone else.The next person asks how the president’s faith in God affects his daily routine.
When Bush leaves he leaves quickly. His press pool is whisked away to the buses at the back of the motorcade. The cameras are taken down and I’m left standing behind the rope next to a square filled with cement. I’ve got a lot of questions but no answers. I’ve been up since five this morning and I’m four hours away from the suburbs of Detroit, where Bush will have his last rally of the day, near the GM technology center. The event itself starts in five hours so there’s little time. The door closes behind the president and the national media as they speed off to their next stop in Kalamazoo. I’m left behind.
I corner the little boy with the crew cut on his way to the door. “When did you know you were going to ask the president a question?” I ask. He’s with his mother and his mother is smiling. I want to get this small boy to confess. He’s ten years old, but he lives inside the pipe. There’s a blueprint inside his head that contains a detailed map of the end of the world. I need to know what he knows.
“I decided earlier today.” He grins like a liar but he’s too young to understand that so I don’t read too much into it.
“Were you surprised when they called on you?” I ask, tightening the noose.
“I guess so.”
“Did you know in advance you would be called on?” I say, going in for the kill.
He pauses. And it’s really a dramatic pause. And maybe I’m the only one that notices he turns his head in a style that could be called defiant. By this time the local camera crew has arrived and is filming the boy. “No,” he says, and I know I’ve lost another small battle in this war of attrition.
The president stops in Kalamazoo before heading to Detroit. I skirt along the bottom of the state on Michigan 60, a small two-lane road that crosses a hundred miles worth of farms and lakes. There’s no cellphone reception and great distances separate the houses.The dirt is turned in row after row, the fields bump against and are surrounded by trees. It’s a flat, quiet horizon punctuated only by the occasional gas station. These are core Bush voters, from the emptiest place in America.
I cut up on the 69 to the 94. The highways are still open but the police cars sit on top of every overpass ready to shut the roads. Here’s a trick: I’m the only person on the interstate that knows the president is coming this way except for the Administration and the law enforcement. Every officer in the state has been called on to help protect the president. I’m two hours away from a rally that starts in two hours. I give the car some gas. It’s a Dodge Neon, the cheapest thing in the Hertz lot. It’s not a car with a lot of acceleration and there’s no scan feature on the radio. I push the car to eighty and it shivers. As it goes past ninety it begins to quake and the side panels release a plaintive metallic whine. The police watch me pass but they don’t go after me. They can’t. They’re waiting for the president. They stare from the overpasses and the meridians and the turnabouts in the center of the highway. I burn past them all, just ahead of the motorcade. Twenty miles outside of Sterling Heights, Cheap Trick comes on the radio. Didn’t I didn’t I didn’t I see you crying. Cheap Trick knows: when the president’s coming, it’s all right to speed.
I’m the last to arrive, and park my car a mile away on the muddy edge of the stadium grounds. My name is not on the list at the media table but I show them my pass from earlier in the day so they give me another pass and let me in. Passes beget passes.
The speech he gives is similar to the speech he gave earlier, except more aggressive toward Kerry. This is either because of newspaper filing times or the larger crowd or because they didn’t want to see headlines that read “GEORGE BUSH STARTS OFF BUS TOUR BY CRUSHING BEER CAN ON KERRY’S HEAD.” But here, speaking to an immense and adoring crowd, he goes on the offensive.
“I’m running against an experienced United States senator,” he says, leaning over the podium, speaking into a mic, the corners of his mouth pointed down with pleasurable disgust.
“We love you!” some girls scream from the upper area of the stadium on the lawn.
“He’s been in congress long enough to take both sides on just about every issue,” he continues. “He’s been on both sides of big issues. And if he could find a third side…” Head front and back, body up and down. He goes on to talk about the SUV controversy. How Kerry spoke of his SUV while in Michigan, then denied having an SUV on Earth Day, and then cleared it up by saying the SUV belongs to his family.“Now there’s a fella who’s getting a lot of mileage out of his Suburban.” In my notes I write, very funny SUV story, with an arrow pointing to the quote.
Then things get scary. He talks about the “terror regime in Iraq.”4 He finishes the thought with, “Either take the word of a madman [Saddam] or defend America. Given that choice I will defend America every time.”
“I’m not sure those were the choices,” I say to the cameraman next to me but he refuses to look away from the lens. People are always ignoring me. The giant crowd is chanting,“USA! USA!”
I turn to Amber Hunt Martin from the Detroit Free Press and I say,“Every person in this stadium thinks there’s been a decrease in terrorism since we invaded Iraq.” She nods her head and kind of laughs/smiles.There’s no mistaking the fear.This is a crowd that could turn on us and she doesn’t want to be seen as a partner in dissent.The local media area is in the very center of the amphitheater—the best seats in the house.The national press area is far off to the side, ready to beat a hasty exit. We’re surrounded by a violent jubilee and if she agrees with me and the crowd turns on us there will not be enough security to stop them from tearing off our arms.
Then Bush says, “America will never turn over national security decisions to leaders of other countries… It is not enough to serve our enemies with legal papers…We will not stand for judges… who try to remake the values of democracy by court order.”
The crowd loves him. He’s a rock star. He has everything going for him except his record. And for a moment I think Kerry doesn’t have a chance. These people love this man deeply. And the only thing that snaps me out of it is when someone in the local media says to me, “He’s going to have a hard time carrying Michigan.”
When Bush leaves the speakers blare soul music. I don’t see any black people in the crowd.There is a family with a sign that reads, “Assyrians for George Bush.” Of course, white people like soul music just as much as black people do. Still, there’s this girl in pinstriped pants. She’s with another girl and two boys and they’re both incredibly satisfied with this experience of seeing the president and she’s dancing toward the exit and it strikes me as wrong. But maybe it’s the pants. How much more interesting would it be if instead of “Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours” they were playing “I Don’t Know Why (I Love You)” by the Rolling Stones?
I move with the herd, toward the exit, immersed in pieces of conversation: “Whenever somebody mentions Hillary’s name, I just want to smack them… How Stupid Do They Think We Are…They make me so mad…” There’s a different quality to the talk, a quality missing from liberals when they talk about Bush with an equal and yet somehow less violent hatred. “This is how I talk to liberals,” a large man in front of me wearing a cowboy hat says, pounding his fist into his palm. It’s cool and the sun has gone down; I wonder what he needs the hat for.
I’m staying the night in the Fairfield Inn in the middle of a cluster of midlevel hotels on Van Dyke just over the border in Warren. The room rate is $49 a night for two twin beds and a small TV. I realize that I’m very tired. More tired than a person should ever be. I feel tense and weird. There’s a pool in the hotel but it’s way too cold outside to go for a swim and will be for a while still. Sticks and leaves float along the surface. My white sweatshirt is covered in ketchup. McDonald’s restaurants are spontaneously combusting across the state as the Bush campaign prepares to bed down at the Somerset Inn in Troy. Was it really a plumber that started that fire with a soldering iron at nearly the exact same time the president arrived for the first stop of his first bus tour of the electoral season? Or was it part of something bigger, that giant cloud of thick gray smoke? A consequence following an act.
I wake, staring from my window to the courtyard and the giant streetlight like an antenna and the sign on its base—No Parking Fire Lane. Continental breakfast is served from 6 to 9. There are free Frosted Mini-Wheats in the lobby. I love Frosted Mini-Wheats, one of life’s great pleasures. Today Bush flies into Ohio and the buses will meet him there. But I have to take a different route, west to Chicago where I’ll pick up Chrissy and continue to Iowa in the third person.There I’ll meet Bush amidst the corn-soaked fields. I’ve got to drive, drive, drive, back across this state and stay within the speed limits and hope that none of the troopers recognize my car from the day before. I have to make sure the McDonald’s are still standing, before I venture forward to the next logical step.
THE NEXT LOGICAL STEP
Chrissy Bell and Steve Elliott drive west from Chicago to Dubuque starting on Highway 90 and staying west across the two-lane toward Iowa as the interstate twists north. Chrissy wants to buy a house on the Illinois border out here one day, somewhere to go on weekends with friends and for family gatherings,but that’s not why they’re here. They pass through Galena’s quiet hills and the valley.They pass towns with red brick buildings and artisan communities where chain stores aren’t allowed and they argue about the future of towns like these.
Chrissy and Steve get a room at the Julien Inn in Dubuque, a hotel formerly owned by Al Capone and used as a hideout during the 1920s. That night they watch as an old couple dances across the floor, a white-haired lady playing piano accompanied by a man rattling a pair of spoons. The dancers two-step slowly around the linoleum. Steve sits at his table, his beer in front of him on a napkin, wondering if he will be that happy and in love late in life. Chrissy sits at the bar talking to a lighting technician who was a DJ in East Dubuque twenty years ago, “when things were really happening.”
The dance floor is eight feet square. On his third beer, still nodding his head and watching the senior citizens, Steve thinks those old folks can really swing. He taps Chrissy’s shoulder on the way out and she says,“OK, hon, I’ll see you later.” The technician says, “You should have seen it. In December you couldn’t tell the snow from the cocaine.”
When Chrissy wakes at 8 a.m. Steve is in the other bed with a wet towel across his eyes and his computer open next to him playing ocean sounds.
“What’s wrong with you?” she asks.
“That’s impossible. You only had three beers.”
“Impossible things happen all the time,” he says. “You’ll have to go without me.”
Chrissy leaves Steve in the hotel room with the wet towel over his face and marches to the giant glass convention center on the edge of the shore. She’s met by a Secret Service officer with short hair made into hard, tiny spikes by a tablespoon of super-hold gel. His head resembles a baby porcupine.
He points her toward a table where a volunteer leads her behind the building and hands her off to another volunteer who checks her name against a list and then hands her a White House press pass and escorts her to a waiting area where men in rumpled shirts are standing around having cigarettes. She’s amazed that the press pass Steve said would be waiting for her is actually there. He told her the other day, “Come meet the president. I’ll get you a press pass, it’s easy.They’ll give one to anybody.” She’s led inside and given a place in the center of the room on a three-tiered riser where she sets up her camera and attaches her new 200 millimeter zoom lens. Steve leaves for the river half an hour later, green-faced and covered in a thin layer of sweat. He drops his coffee on the sidewalk outside while adjusting his backpack, which he likes to wear strapped across his stomach and his chest. The cup lands upside down, the lid shooting off into the grass, the brown liquid puddling in the cracks in the walk.
“Oh, no,” he says, staring back across the bridge.There is nowhere to get another cup between where he is and the convention center. If he wants coffee he’ll have to go back, but then it would be too late. They’ll close the bridge; he’ll miss the event. To his right the casino sits on the water, open twenty-four hours a day. He tells himself a couple hands of poker will wake him up, but then confesses his own lie and trudges toward the back entrance where he asks the press liaison if there is any coffee to be had to which she responds, “No.” He sits on one of the chairs reserved for national press and promptly falls asleep.
It happens like this: There’s three thousand people in the room. There was an article in the Daily Telegraph about a seventy-seven- year-old veteran who wanted to attend the event and waited an hour for a ticket. Before giving him a ticket they asked if he was voting for George Bush. He said he didn’t know who he was voting for yet.That’s why he wanted to meet the president, so he could make up his mind. “I’m sorry,” they said. “We’re only giving tickets to people who sign a pledge to vote for the president.” When he refused they called security. In the newspaper he was quoted as saying, “I don’t like to lie.”
So everybody in the room is Republican but they don’t all look the way Steve and Chrissy expect them to look, though most of them do. Pixeled among the suits and ties and blue skirts and white tights are girls in red T-shirts with multi-colored hair and boys with surfer haircuts. There’s a punk-rock element to supporting George Bush. Perhaps even a backlash against parents that were too understanding, a youthful search for structure in a world that seems unmanageable. The beginnings of this idea swim upstream across the muddy swamp of Steve’s malarial mind.
At one point Steve opens one eye to see Chrissy staring down at him smiling, her hands on her hips. Her long black hair tied in a ponytail, her round face a cross between a mother and a young girl. “You look like shit,” she says.
Behind Chrissy everything appears infused with a dark green, like those awful night-vision photos out of Iraq. “Aren’t you supposed to be taking pictures?” he responds.
“No, seriously,” Chrissy says, pulling a napkin from her pocket and wiping Steve’s forehead with it.“In all the time I’ve known you you’ve never looked worse than you do right now.”
As the music starts the bay doors compress twenty feet into the ceiling. The light pierces the hall and the George W. Bush bus pokes its nose into the light. The crowd roars. Chrissy thinks it’s the most phallic thing she’s ever seen, the bus swollen with blue and red stripes, rented from Canada, driving through a lit opening greeted with the screaming orgasm of Iowa’s conservative base. The bus windows are tinted, the front grill seems to be grinning. The crowd breaks into a chant, “Four More Years! Four More Years!”
Occasionally Steve wakes to the president speaking, “Serious challenges… Serious answers.” But as soon as it’s over he walks back to the hotel for one more hour of sleep so that he’s ready for the big event in five hours at a baseball field in Wisconsin. On the way back to the hotel he passes a group of protesters with a sign, “Tony Danza Supports ACT. Hey George, Who’s the Boss Now!”
It’s 120 miles north on a slow road into LaCrosse, Wisconsin, with helicopters hovering all the while overhead. Just across the border, around the bend near a Fleet and Farm, Chrissy pulls the car over to take a picture of a marine chopper that has come to rest in a field. It sits there like a giant bug, its dark chin angled into the grass. Two Marines in white helmets stand in the dirt waiting for the propellers to spin and then, in an instant, they disappear inside the machine, which lifts several feet from the earth and is gone.
“I could see how you could get addicted to this,” Chrissy says. She’s enjoying herself; she loves doing new things and meeting new people.While Steve slept earlier she went to the local grill for a sandwich and a bloody mary and the people there gave her the entire history of the town. She met a woman who wrote an advice column in the local paper and confessed to never once having received a request for help. She wrote the questions and answers herself.
Chrissy and Steve have known each other seventeen years. They were in their early twenties when they started referring to each other as sister and brother, mostly so people wouldn’t read a sexual element into their relationship. They’ve slept with each other’s friends and the only time Chrissy ever gets mad at him is when she breaks up with someone and he takes her boyfriend’s side. She often dates strong men, bikers and truckers, men with large fists. She’s three years older than Steve so her boyfriends are often older as well. Sometimes Steve looks up to them, especially Opie, who lived above a bar on the ragged outskirts of Milwaukee and taught Steve how to play dice in Steve’s final year of high school. Just outside of LaCrosse Chrissy reaches over and rubs Steve’s arm.
Sitting on the crowded second riser that has been built on the pitcher’s mound and reserved for local press, Steve says, pointing at Chrissy, “If you lost some weight there’d be more room for the rest of us.” Some of the journalists laugh uncomfortably. They know that joking about a woman’s weight is a dangerous thing to do.
“Aren’t you taking your author photo on Sunday?” Chrissy says. “Because I’m worried about that zit between your eyes.” Steve rubs his finger across the zit between his eyes.“Don’t touch it,” Chrissy says. “You’ll make it worse.”
There are seven thousand people in the stadium. A giant red “W” sits on a large iron pole. The gestures are iconic, the bus, the W. It’s all branding. They play the music from The Natural. The same sign hangs behind the podium everywhere George Bush speaks:“Safer, Stronger, Better.”
Laura Bush introduces the president and tells the joke she always tells, about driving through Texas with him when he was running for congress and how by the end of it he had won her vote.And the president laughs like he’s hearing it for the first time, like she caught him off-guard with that one. She says, “My husband treats the men and women he meets with dignity and respect.” Behind her on the scoreboard is an advertisement that reads, “Rely on Your Home Team, Grand Slam Service.” Behind the billboard are rows of yellow-and-white striped tents.
“I like her,” Chrissy says of the president’s wife. “She seems like someone I could hang out with.”
“Yeah,” Steve responds. “She’s nice.”
George Bush follows his wife. Tells the crowd about all the jobs he’s created.“We’ve added 1.1 million jobs since August… I’m running to make sure America is the greatest economy on the face of the earth.” Steve is tired of disagreeing with him. He wants what the president says to be true. But he’s not a PhD in economics. He does know that under Bush the country has lost more jobs than it’s gained. “Al Qaeda is wounded but not broken,” the president continues.“Regimes in North Korea and Iran are challenging the peace…Today no one doubts the word of the United States of America.”
“I do,” Steve thinks to himself. The baseball stadium is at capacity but it doesn’t begin to compare with Wrigley Field. If the stadium were in Chicago, little league would play here. The president loves baseball.
“Because our coalition acted, Saddam’s torture chambers are closed.”
“Did he just say what I think he said?” Steve asks, but nobody answers. Nobody ever answers Steve, or at least he feels that way. He looks around quickly, more alert than he’s been since they crossed out of Illinois.The crowd is cheering, their applause like thunder. An entire set of bleachers is filled with military personnel jumping up and down, threatening the structure’s foundation. The event started forty-five minutes early because of a storm warning. The sky is gray.
For several days pictures have been all over the news detailing brutal torture of Iraqis by American soldiers in Saddam’s old torture chambers. The Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and the New Yorker have all run extensive articles affirming that the pictures are only the tip of the iceberg. There are more pictures. The torture was widespread and endemic and occurring for a year and not just in Iraq. Some editorialists referred to “isolated incidents” involving a handful of soldiers, but in the months to come those editorials would be drowned beneath a torrent of evidence proving widespread abuse spawned by an administration that had publicly stated the rules of the Geneva Convention did not apply. 5 According to Karl Rove it will take a generation to get over those pictures. So Steve’s surprised that the president is referring to Saddam’s closed torture chambers. Chrissy stands on the riser above him, rapidly shooting the president’s determined face.
Steve’s been traveling with Bush all week and it fits right in with everything the president says. The worse the economy is, the more the president insists the economy is doing great.The more people are killed, the more the president insists we are winning the war on terror. When pictures of prisoners stacked naked in giant piles or being pulled along on a leash by a female prison guard are played on every news channel in America, the president takes credit in front of seven thousand loyal Republicans for closing Saddam’s torture chambers. A month later, in response to a report from the 9-11 Commission that there is no “collaborative relationship” between Iraq and Al Qaeda, the vice president will say “Iraq had long established ties with Al Qaeda.” In that moment, beneath a darkening Wisconsin sky, Steve stares into the Bush Administration’s vortex and realizes it’s not just another way to arrive at a conclusion as he had previously thought; it’s an entirely different style of communicating.
A strong wind blows down from the hills surrounding the town, kicking up dirt and biting at the crowd, many of whom are only wearing T-shirts. Chrissy brought a jacket with her because Steve told her sometimes these events get cold. Just past six o’clock, the president closes as the wind reaches beneath his collar, “We know that for our great country, the best days lay ahead.”
Outside the field Chrissy photographs the protesters and Steve contemplates the police boats motoring up and down the Mississippi, then falls in with the crowd toward the entrance. He listens for the conversations of the Republicans as they pass the protesters lined on the other side of the Secret Service tables. Many of the protesters are dressed like clowns in baggy American-flag pants, and look like Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters from forty years ago. The loose flags they wear are the opposite of the well-tailored flag clothing worn by the Republicans. They bang drums and wave signs that read, Bush Lied, People Died.
“So what if he lied,” one woman says.“Everybody lies.”
“Do we have to walk right in the middle of these morons,” someone else says.
“Get a job.”
“Take a bath you dirty hippies! Yeah, I said take a fucking bath.”
An old lady with curly white hair and a red leather jacket pushed past in a wheelchair says to the protesters in her quiet, sick voice,“Go home you weirdos.”
The protesters scream back, “Open your eyes!”
One of the soldiers waves his arms in front of the protesters. “What is wrong with you?” he yells. He’s so upset he can’t believe it. He jumps up and down landing with his knees bent and his arms spread and smacks his forehead with his palm. How could these people possibly not think America is safer, richer, and better? They’d probably prefer it if Saddam were our president. But thanks to George W. Bush, Saddam Hussein sits in a prison cell. Idiots! Before things get worse a policeman slips a firm hand below the soldier’s elbow and escorts him away.
As Chrissy and Steve drive back on the toll road toward Chicago the clouds break open and sheets of rain pour from the sky. Steve holds the car steady at seventy miles per hour. In the near distance forked lightning cracks the horizon.
“I wonder if a car has ever been hit by lightning,” Chrissy wonders. She’s a pipe fitter with the Chicago local and she’s already reminding herself to call in for work in the morning. Once she clocks enough hours she’ll be eligible for health insurance for the rest of her life.
“Of course,” Steve says.“Everything’s happened.”
She says she’s not worried because the car is grounded and Steve asks if she’s sure and she admits she isn’t. He jokes that she’s a fountain of bad advice, reminding her how she told him if he was going to gamble while drunk the game to play was roulette, and then another time when she cautioned him to drink whiskey instead of beer because beer wasn’t healthy. And how when they first met he had a thousand dollars saved from cutting french fries at Freedy’s Fine Dining on a Bun and she convinced him to blow it all on a road trip. She told him people that save money are cheap and he didn’t want Chrissy to think he was cheap. He’s never saved money since.
“You know what’s scary?” she says, as they pass Madison and the lightning draws closer. Somewhere out in the black lie the Wisconsin Dells and a giant water park and Devil’s Lake where the water is so clear that on a sunny day you can see to the bottom even where it’s twenty feet deep. Earlier they’d seen a pickup with a sticker that said Union Republican. Chrissy was distraught. As a union member going on ten years her dislike of Republicans runs deep and has a rich history to support it.“All that stuff about the economy. About how the tax cuts are fueling job creation. He’s so obviously making that up and all those people believed it. Also, all that nationalism stuff, about how tough we are and how we’re not going to let other nations tell us what to do.Those people in there were like white hairless gorillas. You know what else, it was all scary, everything that man says is scary.You told me he was charismatic but he didn’t seem charismatic to me.”
“He was probably under stress because of the prison-abuse scandal and all the people calling on Rumsfeld to resign. You should have seen him in Michigan.”
“You don’t need to make excuses for the president of the United States. He’s old enough to take responsibility for himself,” Chrissy says, as they pull into the lot at the Motel 6.“Listen. I know you’re going to write mean things about me and I don’t care.”
“Shut up. I’m not going to write mean things about you. I’ll tell everybody you’re pretty, and you have good skin, both of which are true.You also have a great sense of humor.”
“Write that I’m looking for a doctor to marry but I don’t want children,” she reminds him, laughing, jerking the handle and running from the car.
“OK,” he says, following her, gripping a backpack in each hand. “I’ll write that.”