My politics are pretty simple. I look at the American system and its intricate balance of handouts and thievery the way a rat looks at a trap. They can keep their free cheese, I'll find my dinner somewhere else.
I voted once in my life, for Bill Clinton over George Bush in 1992, because Desert Storm made me sick to be an American. When Bill Clinton bombed Iraq eight years later to cover the fact that he was about to become the second president to get impeached, I vowed never to vote for the lesser of two evils again. Since then I'm registered independent, and as of Monday, July 31, the first day of the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia, I have not decided who I will vote for in November.
The idea for the week was for myself and DC-based artist Steve Lewis to become agent provocateurs, to get as close to the heart of the Grand Old Party as two young reprobates can, and when no one's looking, stick it with a knife. As we take a GOP-provided shuttle bus from our hotel to pick up our credentials, I scan the party lists in the day's newspapers looking for something to crash and scam free food. There's an article about the Trent Lott Sock Hop, hosted by America's oldest teenager, Dick Clark himself. I think about Trent jumping around in his nylon stockings, and suddenly I'm not so hungry anymore.
George W. Bush is doing what he can to portray the Republicans as racially inclusive. Ubiquitous throughout the papers is the face of George P. Bush, W.'s "babe-magnet" nephew who conveniently happens to be part Mexican. They're trotting him out like he's the Sammy Davis Jr. of the Bush family Rat Pack. With a New York Times poll finding that 95% of the delegates are white, and most are middle-aged men who make over $75,000 a year, their ethnic face-painting is not fooling anyone aside from maybe George P. himself, whose grandfather, ex-Prez George Bush, used to refer to him as "one of my little brown ones."
Then of course there's Dick Cheney's voting record to live down. As a congressman, he voted against sanctions for apartheid South Africa, and against a resolution calling for Nelson Mandela's release from prison. He also cast votes against bans on cop-killer bullets and plastic guns that can pass through metal detectors. Cheney might not be the type to burn a cross on your lawn, but he'd probably stop and roast a marshmallow if there was one already there.
On the bus I strike up a conversation with Hans and John, two older Arizona alternate delegates covered in campaign buttons and dressed to the hilt in cowboy hats, suspenders and red, white and blue ties. We talk about education, which we all believe needs to be rebuilt from the ground up. I ask them if they believe creationism should be taught in school, and they both answer "yes" emphatically. "It isn't a religion, it's a scientific theory," John says.
"I believe in what they call proportional prayer in school," Hans tells me. "You poll your school at the beginning of the year. If there's ten percent Muslim, ten percent of the time you pray Muslim prayer. If fifty percent is Christian, fifty percent of the time you pray Christian prayer. When you don't pray in the schools you're actually teaching atheism." We start talking about religion, spirits and the possibility of life on other planets. "Do you think we should be preparing militarily for an alien invasion?" I ask Hans. "In the very distant future," he concedes. As we get off the bus, the circus atmosphere of conventions has got us all giddy.
"Well, we're going to be in HIGH TIMES," Hans laughs. "Being in the Republican Party, we permit diversity," John tells me. "We were at that Log Cabin thing last night," Hans says, "We're going to be in the homosexual paper, too. We got nothing against people."
The lady giving away the press credentials gives me that I-get-the-joke smile and says, "HIGH TIMES, you actually showed up!" I grab Steve, and a block away the two of us run right into a 6,700-foot-long hoagie donated to the convention by Wawa, a Philly convenience-store chain. Tourists are crowding the thing like shepherds around the baby Jesus. In perfect contrast, the Kensington Welfare Rights Union's march for "economic human rights" is starting right next to the sacred sandwich. In an attempt to draw attention to the fact that, in this age of unprecedented prosperity, the poor of this country still go without the basic human rights of food, clothing, housing, health care and education, the protesters intend to march all the way to the First Union Center (known affectionately by the locals as the FU Center) where George Bush's Compassionate Conservative Medicine Show is just getting started.
We follow the thousands of sunburned activists. Someone tells me the protesters just cornered Newt Gingrich in the parking lot of a White Castle, and that the Secret Service is holding back an angry mob. For a moment I'm hopeful that this thing might actually explode in the GOP's face like a Christmas card from the Unabomber.
It's a long march, surrounded the whole way by police, and when we get to the FU Center there's a few thousand more cops. When we realize there will be no storming of the gates, Steve and I board the Bush bus back to our hotel, saving our energy for later.
Back at the hotel, Steve pulls out the Jim Beam, and sweat forms on my forehead. The last time I drank whiskey I ended up in jail, with the judge at my arraignment revoking my driver's license and handing me a sheet of statements I'd made to my arresting officers. The first one was, "I'm driving around trying to sober up." So I'm a little wary, but I'm not the kind to say no to a plastic cup filled with bourbon and ice. I mention I have a cold coming on, and Steve reaches into his bag and hands me a fistful of pseudoephedrine. I gobble the little red tablets like they were Tic Tacs, blow a joint and get ready for the evening.
Tonight we're going Republican. I'm wearing a suit I bought at a Salvation Army for $5. There are a few moth bites on the sleeve and the waist is about two inches too large, but with a "Republican Inner Circle" pin--stolen from a temp job by Steve's brother--stuck in my lapel, I think I can play it off. The pin signifies that I am a $50,000 donor to George W.'s 2000 campaign. If anyone asks where we're from, we plan to tell them we're Internet entrepreneurs from godspeed.com, a Website that provides mass, baptism, communion and confession online for good Christians with better things to do on their Sundays than go to church.
We've chosen to crash a benefit for the Congressional Awards Foundation hosted by "Fifteen Southern Reps" and featuring Lynyrd Skynyrd for entertainment. The promoter stops us at the door and says there's no way we're getting in without a special pass that, since this is a benefit, costs something like $1,000. I'm as pissed off as any man who donated $50,000 to George W. would be.
"Look, we've turned down NBC tonight!" the guy informs me. "CNN!"
"Man, you see this?"--I stab my donor pin in his direction--"Fifty fucking thousand dollars I've given to the party. Fifty thousand."
"Look I don't give a fuck about the party," he says. "‘I don't give a fuck about the party,'" I write in my note pad. "What did you say your name was again?"
"OK, OK," he says regretfully as he pulls the velvet rope aside. "It's nothing personal," I say as we walk into the deafening climax of "Sweet Home Alabama," "but this party's about trust and unity...."
Up at the bar I hear a woman shout, "I'm from Alabama, and this is the most fun I've ever had anywhere." The surviving members of Skynyrd kick into "Freebird" and I look to the stage to find Johnny Van Zant draping a Confederate flag over the microphone stand.
I'm starting to realize why they didn't want the media at this thing. It's halfway to a lynching party. Now I don't have a problem with Skynyrd flying their colors, but I do have a problem with 15 Southern Congressmen standing in the audience cheering them on. One day into the convention and I've already stumbled upon the dark underbelly of Compassionate Conservatism. Basically the message I'm getting from the thing is, "Vote for George W., then kindly step to the rear of the bus, darky."
The guy from the door walks up and apologizes again, asks me if I need anything. Skynyrd finish their set and an announcer grabs the mike and says, "We want to thank Philip Morris for bringing us this great Miller beer!" So there I am, in my suit and tie, sweating from the Sudafed, tanked on Kentucky bourbon. I'm down with big tobacco; I wish I had a gun. More so than I ever intended, I feel like a Republican.
The next morning I wake up sick and ashamed. My suit stinks like a losing team's locker room. I've seen too much in too short a time. Too ill to attend the Shadow Convention's drug-policy day or the Mumia Abu-Jamal march, I turn on the TV and watch coverage of the protests. I flip between local broadcasts, CNN Headline News and C-Span, and before long I realize the revolution is already over.
Coming into this thing, the Philadelphia police had just about the worst rep in the country, thanks to the recent videotaped beating of carjacking suspect Thomas Jones. Now I'm watching newscasters portray almost saint-like police restraint, as protesters kick and insult Police Commissioner John F. Timoney's soldiers.
The protesters have a right to be pissed after police raided the Puppetistas' headquarters with a bullshit warrant, confiscating their props and arresting 70 participants. They have a right to be pissed that police arrested John Sellers, leader of the Ruckus Society--a group that trains activists in nonviolent civil disobedience--as he was just standing on the street, and held him on $1 million bail. But the police are playing the media like a saxophone, acting reserved in front of the cameras and violating people's civil rights off-set.
We spend the rest of the afternoon there, drinking Jim Beam and watching newscasters ignore the protesters' issues as they debate whether the folks blocking off the Vine Street Expressway ramp have their arms wrapped in metal or PVC plastic. We eat dinner, burn a few joints and then head into the heart of the beast.
At the X-ray machine they find the half-empty bottle of Jim Beam in my bag, and suddenly I'm surrounded by about eight Secret Service agents, discussing the plastic bottle of brown liquid like it was 100 pounds of ammonium nitrate. Finally they come to the conclusion that it is indeed whiskey and throw it in the garbage.
In the hall, Stormin' Norman Schwarzkopf is giving a speech delivered via satellite from the USS New Jersey. As you remember, the general helped "free" Kuwait a few years back--a country where to this day, women are not even allowed to drive. He looks trustworthy and confident, like Santa Claus if he shaved off the beard and traded the sleigh in for a B-52.
There's an extended tribute to Presidents Reagan and Bush, accompanied by a self-congratulating infomercial. I remember the days when ketchup was a vegetable, and let me tell you, the '80s were not a prosperous era for me. With very few exceptions, music completely sucked. Women all had the same haircut--that frizz-permed bee's nest that looked no better on Victoria Principal than it did on my crazy Aunt Rona. There were a few years when weed was so hard to come by I was forced to buy dog-brown bags of dirt from crackheads in Lefrak City. And finally, when I graduated college in 1990, I didn't get a job for three years.
I get only a slight giggle out of the fact that Ronald Reagan wears diapers now. The thought that George Bush's son is probably going to be my president for at least four years makes me wonder what kind of animal this Bush monster is that you can cut its head off and eight years later it grows back.
John McCain is greeted by the delegates like he's John Wayne at the wrap party for The Flying Leathernecks. McCain is a guy who's most famous for either fucking up or standing next to someone who's fucking up. Early on in his military career he almost died on the USS Forrestal, in the worst non-combat-related accident in US naval history. Later, he got his ass kicked by the Commies. When he got home, he cheated on his wife, dumped her and married a rich Vicodin addict whose daddy owned a lucrative Anheuser-Busch distributorship. Then he took a lot of money from Charles Keating right before Keating was convicted on racketeering charges in the savings and loan scandal. Finally, he lost the primaries to a dunce who he absolutely despised, a man whose ass he is now being forced to kiss because that's good party politics. It looks like the GOP did what the Vietnamese couldn't--broke John McCain.
McCain ends his speech with the cryptic words: "I have such faith in you, my fellow Americans. And I am haunted by the vision of what will be." Then the theme from Star Wars beams through the stadium over the deafening shrieks and wails of the Silent Majority.
As the night draws to a close there's one final word from the Rev. Vince Bommarito of St. Louis. Packed shoulder-to-shoulder, I file out with the delegates. I haven't been this close to this many people in suits since the subway ride I took to jury duty. If they want a Star Wars reference, they should be playing the theme from the cantina scene, because that's what this scene reminds me of, a room full of drunken aliens looking for the Big Score.
Somewhere in the night a capillary is bursting in Gerald Ford's brain. It makes you wonder what the Great Men of history think about when they're confronted with eternity. Was there a name tumbling out of Citizen Ford's palsied mouth, one single word he might have thought would be his last? Who did he call out to? Betty? Squeaky? Somewhere in the bowels of Corcoran State Prison, Charles Manson is telling one of the hacks that he's responsible for the whole thing, and you know what? He just might be telling the truth.
After four days I am so disgusted with the Philadelphia heat, I wonder if we shouldn't take the $60 billion we're spending on this mythical missile-defense system and just build a giant air-conditioner over America. I'm an Irishman by blood, which means basically I like weather cold enough for me to be able to drink and fuck to my heart's content in relative comfort.
Steve and I head down to Race Street, where the protesters are holding an impromptu press conference outside police headquarters. With over 400 people in jail, it looks like the police have successfully neutralized any plans the protesters might have had. In the world of presidential politics, Goliath squashes David like a beetle.
Turning to leave, we're distracted by a growing argument next to the protest. Some woman from Topeka, Kansas, is holding up a sign that reads "God Hates Fags." She's brought along her niece, who holds a sign with an upside-down American flag that reads "Fag USA." The girl hasn't reached puberty yet.
"How do you know God hates fags?" I ask her.
"Because God says so."
"Did you speak to him?"
"It says so in the Bible."
"‘God hates fags?' Which verse is that?"
"I thought God was love."
"God has a lot of attributes. One of them is His hate, and you have to understand His hate in order to understand His love. His hate is not a human hate, but a perfect hate."
"‘A perfect hate.' Are you on any medication right now?"
"No, are you?"
It's one of those moments that simply confound you. What kind of person drags a child this far into their own psychosis? A couple of lesbians start making out in front of the woman and singing, "I'm proud to be a sinner!" Steve and me head over to the City Center Marriott to see how the other half lives.
The Marriott is the place where lobbyists with unchecked expense accounts go when they're looking for a chance encounter with Marlin Fitzwater or a blow job from a high-priced Filipina hooker. In the center of the room is a fountain, an amorphous pink sculpture that looks like a distended uterus. The bar is teaming with third-rung politicos who want to load up on write-off drinks before heading to the convention for the official coronation of George W. Bush.
We're doing shots of Bushmill's with a guy from US Steel when I see Georgia Rep. Bob Barr across the room and decide to attack. Roy Innis and his son Niger from the Congress of Racial Equality are cornering him and before I know it, Steve's got Barr's attention and I'm talking with Roy. Now, any man who can punch Al Sharpton on network television can't be all bad. We talk a bit about the Drug War, which Roy concedes "needs a fundamental re-examination... What you have now is the moral condemnation, I'm out of that moral shit. That's not my thing. I am concerned with public safety. And I'm concerned with people getting the real facts. There was time back in the '60s and '70s where I was hearing intelligent people saying such things as, ‘cocaine is good. Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Freud used it.' I didn't buy into the romantic bullshit, but I know people who did."
I talk to him about harm reduction, which he agrees with to a certain extent, but he also believes that black drug dealers are victimizing black people and belong in prison. I ask him what he thinks about the Republican Party's attempt to portray themselves as multiethnic.
"They are doing what I have been telling them to for three decades."
"Do you think it's legitimate, or do you think this is the political equivalent of a minstrel show?"
"It's no minstrel show."
"But the Republican Party is 95% white."
"It is because blacks have done a stupid thing and let it stay that way. They don't understand the essence of the party, and that's love and light. What's pragmatic is for us to be in both parties and exert our influence on both parties."
"Twenty-seven percent of the black vote, forty-six percent of the Latino vote in the state of Texas is no minstrel show," Niger adds. "If Governor Bush can do that nationally, then politics will be revolutionized. The real minstrel show is Al Gore going to the NAACP and trying to sound like a black preacher and cursing out immigrants."
The Innises shake our hands cordially and continue on their way. Steve and I are about to make a 50-yard dash to catch up with Barr, when a mild-mannered Secret Service agent blocks our way and asks, "You two wouldn't happen to have a hidden agenda, now do you?" Steve tells him that there's more hidden agendas in this room than there are tie clips, but he has nothing to worry about from us. With that said, we head over the FU Center to catch the Bush coronation.
Outside the stadium there is a mariachi band playing. Inside is a freak show of epic proportions, complete with Tammy Faye Bakker lookalikes roaming the halls drunk on martinis, and media superstars like Tom Brokaw, Carl Bernstein and Chris Matthews running around in search of their next soundbite. Steve and I have enough time before George W.'s speech to hit the Victory pavilion, load up on Jack Daniel's, then catch the dropping of the balloons.
We're crowded into one of the elevators when one last person decides to shove his ass on. It's James Carville, Clinton's premier apologist, the assuagin' Cajun himself. He wedges between me and Steve. I turn on my tape recorder and go to work. "Mr. Carville. I'm with HIGH TIMES magazine, can I ask you a few questions about the Drug War?"
The crowd in the elevator suddenly goes dead quiet, and he says, "You can ask me anything you want," in his patented Southern twang.
"Do you think the Drug War under Bill Clinton has been effective?"
"I just don't know much about it... I'll think about it... send me something to read about it."
I'm not letting him go that easy. "There's 500,000 people in jail for drug-related offenses--"
"I'll tell you what," he interrupts. "There's a time in my life they would have put me in jail."
Steve and I both laugh at his tacit admission as Carville ducks out of the elevator into a hail of flashbulbs. We head into the auditorium just in time for George W.'s benediction.
It's a long, uncontroversial speech that manages to drag on for 50 minutes without saying anything. Despite the cries of the protesters, the media and Arianna Huffington for the man to address campaign-finance reform, the poverty gap, gun control and the Drug War, we're treated to a saccharine rehash of his desires to strengthen the military, "save" Social Security, improve education, and ensure that Bill Clinton's final legacy will be that he replaced Linda Lovelace as the first name that pops into mind when you hear the words "blow job." There's nothing quite like getting a lecture on compassion from a man who's presided over more executions than Caligula. "God bless America!" he cries, and the balloons and confetti rain down on the delegates like a red, white and blue locust plague. Steve and I stand transfixed by the fireworks and the smoke machines for a moment, then shove our way back out to the hall.
There's a commotion outside and Steve yells, "Holy shit!" and spills my whiskey all over my shirt. "Sorry man, but look--" Suddenly Arnold Schwarzenegger sweeps into the hallway, surrounded by delegates like puppies around a bitch's tit. "ARNOLD!" I scream and his head turns to me. "What's your stand on medical marijuana?" He stares for a second, and I half expect a red pupil to break through his eye as he crushes my larynx in a cybernetic fist. But he turns down the hall, leaving us in a cloud of stardust (or was that the wrong end of a Philly cheese steak?).
Drunk and starving, Steve and I decide to crash a catered party thrown by US Airways. As the pundits argue the necessity of a week-long convention that loses out to Urkel reruns in the Nielsen ratings, they fail to mention the true purpose of the event. It's where politicians go to get sucked, fucked and tattooed by the multinational corporations that brought them to power in the first place. In this country money talks and bullshit walks, and the two working in harmony together is called "politics."
A quick glance at the conglomerates donating big money to the GOP reads like the Justice Department's recent defendants list. Microsoft gave a cool million as it appeals the ruling that recently split the company in half. AT&T gave a million as it waits for approval on its merger with MediaOne. And US Airways gave $500,000 as it stands to merge with UAL Corp., United Airlines' parent company--which, if successful, would create the world's largest airline, with combined annual revenues in the neighborhood of $26.6 billion.
So we figure the least they can do is buy us a drink. We enter the lavishly decorated room, which smells of rotting floral displays, seafood gumbo and cigar smoke. We fill up on filet mignon and then head to the bar for drinks. There's Vegas showgirl in a cowboy hat standing next to a short man who's a dead ringer for Joe Pesci in Goodfellas. She tells us she got a kiss from Roger Daltrey that evening, then starts fingering Steve's shell necklace admiringly. He tells her he'd gladly trade it for her hat.
"Fuck that," the Pesci character spits. "Don't give him your hat." Steve is insistent that it's the lady's decision, not his, to which the guy says, "You don't know who I am, do you?"
"Fuck no," Steve says.
"Don't say that to him!" the woman pleads.
"You want to get killed tonight?" the man asks Steve. "Because I could have you whacked in thirty seconds and they'd never find your body. I got two guys outside in a black limo." He starts snapping his fingers in the air like he's calling somebody over. I look around, there's some guy talking to him in sign language. I leave Steve to argue with the don when I see New Hampshire Senator Bob Smith stuffing his face at the buffet. I ask him whether he thinks the current $40 billion-a-year Drug War is effective. As the senator is telling me, "I don't know what you're talking about," through a mouth full of masticated meat, Steve suddenly grabs my arm and says, "We gotta get out of here right now," and starts dragging me out of the room.
"What the fuck?" I ask.
"That guy's for real, man. The Mafia."
"When you're having a conversation with someone and the main topic is, ‘I will have you snuffed,' it becomes a real problem for me." Being told by the Cosa Nostra that there's a pair of cement shoes waiting for us in the parking lot of the Republican National Convention seems as fitting an end to the week as any. Drained and depressed, Steve and I leave the FU Center and board the Bush bus, only to be accosted by the driver.
"Just wait one goddamn second," the little old man says as we climb the stairs.
"What?" I ask.
"I don't want you puking on my bus. I know your kind, and there's no way I'm cleaning any puke off the floor of my bus tonight."
"We're not going to puke on your bus, man," Steve says, but there is no appeasing the driver.
"I know your kind, and I tell you, you're not getting on my bus!"
"My kind?" I ask. "And what is that?"
"Drunks," he spits out caustically. I take a last look at the king of this little diesel castle, and wish him luck as he backs the bus away from the curb and begins a journey that I hope will take him as far away from me as humanly possible.
We stand around waiting for the next bus, watching the disheveled delegates say good-bye to each other before crawling back to their SUVs and their suburban homes. "This is their idea of inclusion?" I ask Steve. "I demand a drunk state!"
"It's going to be a long four years," Steve laments, and I can only agree.
Not until the Metroliner reaches Newark the next evening do I make up my mind what I'm going to do on Election Day. The sun is going down along the New Jersey Turnpike in orange and brown, and fire blazes at the tops of crude-oil burn-off towers like candles on a desolate birthday cake. This land's capacity to get stolen over and over again never ceases to amaze me. I can't think of any man who could pull America out of its desperation. What we need now is not a President, but an exorcist. The past century has seen our leaders peter out like the emperors of Rome--each one more venal and syphilitic than the last.
Bush or Gore is just what the protesters say it is--a choice you can count on your one middle finger. I'm convinced only God can save us now, and to that end I think, rather than vote in November, I'm going to stay home and pray. As far as I'm concerned, these bastards can continue to shoot their mouths off at each other for the rest of eternity. I'd rather listen to the songs of birds. If my ambivalence means that someday one of their missiles will veer off and slam me in the head, then so be it. I'll be too dead to hear you say, "I told you so."