Register Thursday | June 27 | 2019

The Last Republican Party

Or, How I learned to stop worrying and love the GOP

Artwork by Jenn McIntyre. Images from FirstLight.ca.

For these disguises did not disguise, but reveal.

- G. K. Chesterton, The Man Who Was Thursday

When the Republicans came to New York City last August, few residents were eager to greet them. Bleak images of flag-waving rednecks crowding Times Square and snapping pictures at Ground Zero caused most people I know to flee the city. Others, mustering the kind of activist resolve they hadn't felt since college, dug deep into their closets for old punk-rock T-shirts and hit the streets. It was said that thousands more from all over the country would be joining them-a party of protesters to counter a party of Republicans. Indeed, that Friday night before the convention started, countless dissenters gathered in the East Village. Helicopters with search lights and a police blimp with cameras hovered overhead, streets got cordoned off, and the night ended with nearly three hundred arrests. It felt like a sign of things to come.

I took to the streets as well, but not to join the protesters. My good friend, Todd, a Republican congressional staffer, was in town and eager to participate in the convention. "You have no idea," he told me, "how much fun you can have when lobbyists are picking up the tab." My conscience was divided, but I was also curious. What would Republicans be like behind closed doors, observed by someone they believed to be one of their own?

On Monday, the first official day of the Republican National Convention, we decided to meet at the USS Intrepid, the decommissioned aircraft carrier where the Mormon governor of Massachusetts was hosting a New England clambake. I wasn't sure how formally I should dress, so I chose that old standby of masked balls-a blue blazer. I walked from the subway at 42nd Street to the aircraft carrier docked off Twelfth Avenue and 46th Street, feeling conspicuous and fraudulent. After all, I wasn't a real Republican. I wasn't even an American, but a Canadian who-my American wife was fond of pointing out-couldn't vote. Still, in the eight years and three Presidential elections since my arrival, my hardened Canadian opinion that Democrat=good and Republican=evil had begun to
dissolve. I could even see merit in many Republican positions. Although I did not favour their candidate, I felt a curiosity about Republicans' beliefs, especially since so much was at stake in the 2004 contest.

Security at the clambake was tight. Getting me onto the guest list had been so difficult that we speculated a surprise visit from Dick Cheney must be in the works. Todd and his girlfriend, Melissa (another Capitol Hill Republican staffer), were late, so I waited for them on the street, watching the well-dressed and well-heeled make their way on board as if this were a red-carpet event. An older man, also dressed in a blazer but wearing a necktie, asked me, "Where do we pick up our VIP passes?" I pointed toward the registration desk, pleased, though also dismayed, that I'd so clearly fooled him. A younger man, dressed too casually to be in attendance, sidled up to me. "Are you a Republican?" he asked. Sensing danger, I changed my tune: "I'm with a Republican." The young man began to ramble. He wanted to walk right up to a real Republican, he said, and tell that person what he thought of Cheney. "Are you sure you're not a Republican?" he asked. I shrugged, a little less certain but apprehensive. Would the real Republicans see through me because I was talking to this guy?

At last, a cab pulled up to the curb, and Todd and Melissa popped out. We hugged, happy to see each other, ready to have fun. Todd gave us large laminated cards to wear on strings around our necks. Together, we boarded the aircraft carrier and joined the gathering.

Part of me expected to find some kind of plutocratic orgy in progress. Instead, we encountered a formal corporate-benefit crowd, typical of any theatre opening or fundraising gala. "This is pretty lame," Melissa said, and started thumb-ing through messages on her BlackBerry. Todd agreed: "A clambake with no clams." The previous night had been wild, he said. The hot ticket was the bash for GOP celebs hosted by the Bush twins-the Paris and Nikki Hilton of the First Family. By eleven o'clock, however, BlackBerries all over the city had begun to hum with news that the party was a total dud. "Why?" I asked, wondering if heavy security had put a damper on the fun. "Cash bar," Todd answered. The really happening event had been held at a bowling alley and was hosted by the chairman of the House Committee on Rules, a bachelor congressman in the midst of being outed by blogActive.com. Free-flowing martinis. Ribbon-thonged models dangling from a trapeze. A totally sexual vibe. "No shit," I said, impressed, mildly astonished and suddenly hopeful.

It didn't take long for us to give up on the clambake and head over to Penn Station, where we were to pick up Todd and Melissa's boss, the congressman, and escort him to a private fundraiser uptown. Protesters were so thickly massed around Madison Square Garden (which sits atop the station) that we had to abandon our cab and walk. Ordinary office workers, moms and dads, senior citizens in Birkenstock sandals, underdressed teenage girls with arm-band tattoos, skinhead punks wearing "Buck Fush!" T-shirts. The cops were on horseback or standing in lines, preventing any pedestrians from crossing. We had no desire to go inside the convention hall, but we still needed to get by security at the train station. "We need a red No. 2 pass," Melissa said, checking the schedule. Todd fished around inside his magic pouch for three red No. 2s.

The police waved us in. New York had turned into a private party, and we knew the secret password.

At the time, it was easy for me to believe that infiltrating the Repub-lican ranks was a calculated act, devoid of larger meaning. But that Monday evening, somewhere around my fourth or fifth martini, in a private club on the thirty-fifth floor of a midtown building, I realized that I was enjoying myself. It was our third event of the night-an intimate gathering of a few hundred friends, lobbyists and Republican supporters. We were surrounded by a panorama of city lights. As the party wore on and I met more people, I began to realize how much I liked them. Most were young, friendly and interesting without seeming fake, though they were all clearly ambitious. The Hill staffers were interchangeable with the Hill lobbyists. In fact, lobbyists were just staffers who made more money and sponsored the wonderful events for which our laminated passes were required. A few more martinis, and I would be unable to tell anyone apart. I might even blend in.

The political discussion was entirely professional. No passionate anger or drunken argument, just tactics, com-mentary, jokes and surprisingly candid career talk. A wide range of views was expressed, and never in hushed tones. The congressman was pro-choice; others, of course, were not. Melissa was for stem-cell research; the party platform was against it. Gay marriage was not a critical issue, in spite of the hype. Tax cuts were good, but the bud-get deficit was bad. No one thought Bush was out of his mind for invading Iraq, but there was disparaging talk about how the operation was unfolding.

It was, to my surprise, a very reason-able mosaic of conversations. There were disagreements, but no hatred, not even for the other side. This seemed in distinct contrast to the anger of the protesters and the convention delegates. In fact, we forgot about the convention completely until Senator John McCain and former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani gave their speeches. The volume on the big-screen TV got turned up. This was the moderates' night. Perhaps it was true, as Todd suggested, that moderates hold considerable sway in the GOP. It was certainly easy to think so, with a martini in one hand and a cigar in the other, as I watched Giuliani receive thunderous applause inside the room, at the convention hall and across the country.

Once the speeches were over, Melissa announced that Martina McBride (a country singer, apparently) was going onstage in half an hour and that there were enough passes for all of us. In order to obtain them, Melissa had spent the last twenty minutes plugging at her BlackBerry, getting in touch with her network of friendsters, at parties all over the city, who were thumbing their own
BlackBerries. "CrackBerries," Todd called them.

Time to split. We gathered at the elevators to leave, and when the door opened, to our astonishment, Rudy walked out with his entourage. He smiled, waved and shook many hands, looking cheerful and relaxed. I reached out and extended my hand, but the crowd ushered him deeper into the club. Even though I didn't touch him, I knew something within me had changed. In my sudden burst of enthusiasm, I had crossed a line and become one of them.

Second Avenue was empty, so the taxi driver floored it, barrelling through a string of green lights as he told us how much he hated Republicans. "How come you hate Republicans?" Todd asked cheerily. Because the convention had killed his business, the driver complained. "Would you rather pick up some of those guys?" Todd asked, pointing to a line of protesters. Forget about it, the driver laughed. By the time we reached West 11th, he was wishing us a great stay.

It was one o'clock in the morning and the night was just getting started. While we waited in the rope line at some warehouse nightclub, Melissa worked her BlackBerry magic to conjure up the guest passes. A young man approached us. "Melissa?" he asked. Melissa brightened. "Brad?" He handed her a bunch of laminated cards. "Thanks, nice to meet you," Melissa called out as we followed Brad into the club. "Tobacco," Todd whispered. I was beginning to understand something critical about the political system-when it comes to guest passes and free drinks, lobbyists are not the enemies of democracy, they are our dear friends.

Artwork by Jenn McIntyre. Images from FirstLight.ca.

Inside, the party was thumping. The band, dressed in purple suits and low-cut dresses, was doing soul covers, blasting on brass horns and knocking on tambourines. They jumped down from the stage to shimmy-shimmy with the crowd. Hot Republican girls climbed up on the stage to shake their booty in return. The lobbyist I was dancing with had admitted earlier that she shared my ambiguous political feelings; now, she leaned into me to whisper something very important in my ear.

"I was in Boston last month, working the Democrats." She shook her head. "It was so boring!" We separated as one of the singers in the low-cut dresses sidled up, starting off a reverberating lean-in, lean-out, twisty-twisty, ooh-yeah rhythm among the three of us. "I may not be a Republican," my new lobbyist friend called out drunkenly, "but I sure like the way they party!"

During that week, the pattern of meeting in the late afternoon and carousing until dawn continued. Despite indications that public opinion was shifting in favour of the Democrats, the Republican staffers partied like winners. No air of desperation clung to them, no fear of losing, no sense that the stakes were high-or that there were any stakes at all.

Instead, the staffers were more concerned with the victory of access. The whirligig of taxi rides and wire-
less messaging functioned as a free-flowing market where access to the best events was bought, sold and traded. In contrast, the convention-floor chanting and speeches were rigidly scripted and theatrical, the out-come preordained. No positions or viewpoints would ever be broadened or changed. I felt the same way about the protesters. If they were not as certain of victory as the Republicans, they were just as certain of their con-
victions. Perhaps it was this cer-tainty that made me uncomfortable. Like the convention delegates and Bush himself, the protesters saw the world in terms of good and evil. From the sidelines, I could sense their air of smug superiority-it was like being back in college, watching the cool kids. But was it really so alternative to all dress and think exactly the same way? How much more radical would it be to believe that the Republicans were wrong about some things and right about others, and vote accordingly?

As for me, it was becoming increas-ingly clear that I would rather be partying with the Republicans than hanging out with the protesters. Ironically, most of the people I partied with felt that way about the delegates at the convention. Todd and Melissa never set foot inside Madison Square Garden, and had no desire to do so. In fact, the protesters were more aware of the goings-on at the convention than we were. The true believers on both sides were all waiting for the convention's climax-Bush's speech on Thursday.

But my apex was reached on the Wednesday night. The party was held
at a converted church with giant stained-glass windows. The event was co-sponsored by the National Rifle Association in honour of the House Speaker, Dennis Hastert, who lum-bered up on the stage to welcome us all. We whooped and hollered and raised our drinks, the Bush twins whooping the loudest of all from the VIP balcony above. When Kid Rock finally came on stage, the crowd exploded in cheers and BlackBerries went into overdrive. Kid Rock loved America, President Bush and the troops, and he added that he'd always wanted to smoke a giant doobie onboard Air Force One. The crowd roared, gone primal over his bare-chested, doobie-smoking patriotism. In front of us, House Majority Whip Tom DeLay's daughter flashed her tits in appreciation.

When it was all over, we stumbled out into the early morning light. This was it for Todd and Melissa. They were heading back to Washington in a few hours, beating the traffic by skipping Bush's speech altogether. And me, what would I do now that my adventures in Republicanism were drawing to a close? A little bit of protester must have remained in me. How else to explain the radical thing I did next? I asked Todd for a laminated pass to see Bush's speech.

Alas, a pass could not be found. The lobbyists were fresh out. Maybe they'd never been asked to get someone inside the convention hall before.

Disappointed, I decided to walk into the city anyway and check out the street theatre, then find a bar somewhere to watch the speech. It was more difficult than I expected to get anywhere near Madison Square Garden on that last night of the convention. The police were blocking intersections. The protesters, funnelled into gated corridors, wore T-shirts and carried signs: "Bush Lied." "Quagmire Accomplished." "972 Soldiers Dead." "No Blood For Oil." "9/11 Has Been Hijacked." "Bring Home Our Troops." "Fuck the NYPD." They sang songs and chanted. They danced and blared political slogans from loud-speakers. They wore grotesque Bush and Cheney masks and outlandish costumes: Patriot-missile penises hung luridly from their groins. These phallic symbols, in particular, reminded me of the GOP elephant hats inside the convention hall, their long, wrinkly trunks dangling over the foreheads of delegates.

When Bush's speech was about to come on, I spotted a rough and ready bar just beyond the police line, and I asked if I could go inside to watch the speech. Wordlessly, the officers moved aside and let me pass. I found a rickety stool at the bar and ordered a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon. Bush spoke. The crowd inside the bar was young, and very anti-Bush. They jeered occasionally when they disliked what they heard, but
they listened closely. When the speech was over, people turned back to their conversations, a bit more sombre, and the music came back on. I finished my beer and walked outside.

Everything had changed. The police were no longer standing at attention. Some were sleeping in their buses, exhausted by the long week. The protesters had largely dispersed. I had expected that the demonstrations would grow more intense as the night went on-a revelry that would crest like a tall wave and crash onto the rocks. But the end of Bush's speech seemed to bring an end to the need for demonstration. The Republicans were going home. The protesters needed to get back to their day jobs.

I wasn't ready for it to end, so I walked through the empty, barricaded streets and pondered what I'd seen. One of the protesters' catchier chants stuck with me, a spirited call-and-response that went, "Show me what democracy looks like!/This is what democracy looks like!" But was there any democracy in the non-engagement between protesters and delegates? The true believers on both sides of the fence were intractable, their expressions of political opinion all for show. For them, moderation and common ground amounted to shameful surrender. In contrast, the Hill staffers and lobbyists had worked just as hard to have fun together. For them, convention week had been an exercise in relationship building; not in a group-hug way, but in
a Darwinian struggle-for-access way.
It was only through political mod-
eration that they could operate; as a result, they were instinctively sus-
picious of extremism.

Maybe that explains my reaction to the inauguration five months later. Todd invited me to go; I said I was busy. Post-election, the flame of curiosity had died out for me. Despite its polarities, the theatre of democracy exhibited in New York had briefly made the political game more exotic.

To my surprise, Todd wasn't excited about the swearing-in either. Unlike conventions, inaugural parties are for true believers. Who wanted to hang out with them? In the name of family values, they had even barred Kid Rock from performing.

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