A pretty Republican girl festooned with buttons takes up a position by a picnic table. Another produces a stack of little pink slips filled with bullet-pointed factoids about Bill Clinton, prepared for distribution to the masses. The absence of the masses doesn't discourage them. The young Republicans simply hand out their pink slips to each other. About twenty of the College Republicans climb onto a bandstand; the remaining twenty form a crowd on the ground below. The stage group waves an enormous photograph of Dan Quayle and a sign that says, "It's a cool thing to vote for Bush-Quayle." There are a few short speeches, then a hand releases a single, small cluster of helium balloons: red, white, and blue. Up, up it drifts ... and gets stuck in a tree. The watchful crowd goes silent, and a single, startling voice explodes: "SHOOT IT!"
The voice that comes out of the crowd is louder and more dangerous than anything the slight, translucent young men seemed capable of. The crowd separates. There, standing inside the group like a watermelon inside of an acorn, is about 300 pounds of flesh, encased in several yards of hiking shorts and a t-shirt the size of a small parachute.
From there we can cut to a large rental van driven by this remarkable young Republican, named Fred. He is a junior at Morgan State College, the state party chairman for Maryland, and the spiritual leader of a convoy of ten cars filled with College Republicans and billing itself as the Caravan for Freedom. All the cars are papered over with Bush-Quayle signs. All the cars but one contain young white males wearing blue jeans, T-shirts, and docksiders. The only break in the pattern is the van carrying the seven black College Republicans. I can only imagine what the highway drivers of the South think when they glimpse what looks like a huge metal Bush bumper sticker filled with young black men flying past them at 90 mph.
Sweating in the back behind Fred are five other College Republicans, most of whom introduce themselves as chairmen of something or other in the intricate College Republican hierarchy. Fred spills out of the driver's seat in every direction, casting a shadow across them and the three dozen doughnuts on the floor by his seat. Beside him for most of the trip is a giant fast food soda cup that says BIG DOG ON DUTY.
As we rocket bumper to bumper through Louisiana's cypress swamps, Fred tells me that he lives in inner-city Baltimore. Apropos of this, and of his salvo in the park, I ask him what he thinks of handgun control. He pulls himself up and announces to every sentient creature within about six miles, "WHEN YOU OUTLAW GUNS ONLY OUTLAWS WILL HAVE GUNS!"
I'm so astounded by the volume that it takes a moment to realize this isn't original. Fred has a strange gift for delivering far-right-wing Republican doctrine in the rhythm of Jesse Jackson. When I ask him about George Bush's problems, Fred's decibel level, if anything, increases:
"It is not my place or anybody's place to second-guess the president. I offer my services to George Bush, and these good people in the back offer their services, and we do it without question or doubt. We're going to storm the voting booth in November. And we're going to win a second term. The politics of the past is not going to be the politics of the future." Then, over his shoulder, almost as an afterthought: "You guys feel the same way or what?"
After six hours of this we arrive at the Days Inn in the most dangerous section of North Houston, where about 400 College Republicans have already checked in, six to a room. Their soft white bodies fill the pool. They have transformed the plain-faced motel into a naval tenement house: white sheets spray-painted with campaign slogans hang from every balcony. The Caravan for Freedom is cheered as it arrives.
The next evening more than a thousand College Republicans collect at the H&H Ranch, which isn't a ranch at all. It's a piece of flat land beside a golf course with ponds, courts, fields, and a couple of tents; here the right-wing youth of America frolic and feed. Two pale, hairless boys from Arkansas spray paint a large sign detailing the ugly side of Clinton's record. KEEP BILL OUT OF THE FLOWERS, says one of the about 600 finished ones pinned to every available surface.
The men who run the College Republicans are friendly, intelligent, preternaturally efficient, and acute in handling the press. An especially nice fellow named George spies me standing alone and grabs me by the elbow. He points to two striking blond giantesses wearing short pants, tight shirts, and cowboy hats. They are noticeable in this crowd, which easily could be a party at an uncool fraternity.
"Would you like to meet them?" he asks.
Already the beauties are looking over at us with electoral expectancy. Fairly certain I am being thrust into that large, Machiavellian corner in which College Republican politics meets sex, I consent. It is a mistake. The two women from Virginia are clearly unused to any kind of ideological resistance. The conversation takes a fateful turn when the older of the two shouts at me, "It's going to be Bush in '92 and Kemp in '96!"
"Kemp? But what about Dan Quayle?" I ask.
"Dan ... Quayle ... is ... a ... great ... man."
"I never said he wasn't."
"The liberal media tries to make him look stupid. You probably don't even know that card had an `e' on it. THE TEACHER GAVE IT TO HIM. You never read about THAT in the media."
"Actually it was in The New York Times."
"No it wasn't."
"Yes it was. I read it."
"No it wasn't."
She turns to leave, but stops to deliver one last truth.
"Dan ... Quayle ... is ... a ... genius."
At the back of the ranch, the leaders of the College Republicans gather in a small tent to participate in the taping of a documentary on American politics. The event turns out to be an unwitting documentary on the implosion of Reagan-Bush Republicanism. Not that the producers of the show had anything so sophisticated in mind. The event is hosted by Robert Downey Jr., an actor famous for portraying alienated yuppie drug dealers. When he arrives at the ranch he is instantly surrounded by a peristaltic mass of adoring College Republicans. Now he sits on one side of a long picnic table facing the two sign painters from Arkansas, one of the Virginia beauties, and Charismatic Leader Bill Spadea. Looking over them on higher benches, like hundreds of Mannerist angels, are row upon row of perfectly worshipful young Republicans.
"We believe in the values of the family," Spadea is saying. "But Congress has continually fought these values ..." The crowd starts to chant: "Bill For President! Bill For President!." Bill is clearly enjoying this proximity to celebrity.
Downey asks if "the so-called cultural elite" are to blame for the decline in Spadea's family values. "Well," says Spadia, gamely, "a lot of what they say on TV has no value base.... And the American people are sick of it."
Another great cheer goes up, and Downey fidgets. If George Bush has so many values, he asks, how come he's been involved with drug peddlers in covert operations?
"That's just hearsay. You're talking basically a lot of media people ... a lot of hearsay."
The microphone swings to a pallid, thin woman. "I find there is a great hypocrisy within the cultural elite. In the '60s they were demonstrating for free speech. Now this very same cultural elite are the tenured radicals trying to curtail free speech. There's an extremely liberal bias in everything from TV to the professors."
The crowd bays for blood.
"To me PC and liberalism is worse than McCarthyism ever was."
The crowd stomps on the picnic benches. Veins bulge on the sides of necks. People in the crowd begin to taunt Downey directly.
"You see, the liberal press didn't like to hear that!"
"We don't trust your corporation!"
The crowd pushes toward the table. The director of the film jumps in. "There is no corporate involvement in our film ..." he begins.
"It's nice to think that!" shouts a young man looking much like a future partner in Sherman & Sterling.
"This isn't MTV sponsored," shouts the director.
A bench full of people collapses in the rear and bodies fall everywhere, but hardly anyone notices.
"All we see on MTV are liberals!" shouts the mob.
"We asked Bush ..." starts the director. But he's made a tactical error; he's now MTV again, and the crowd shouts him down. Downey is back. "Are there any pro-choice Republicans in the audience?" he asks.
But it's too late. A woman grabs the microphone, provoking a full-scale panic.
"The true conservative view is economic not religious ...," she begins.
"George, stop her!" a voice wails.
"Shit," says George, standing beside me.
"Who picked her?" someone whispers.
"She's someone from New York," comes the reply.
"What's her name?" asks another. "Get her name."
And then comes the most startling voice in a three-state area; it booms with the authority of Yahweh speaking to Charlton Heston:
USE YOUR HEAD, NOT YOUR PENIS!
I turn. Downey turns. Everyone turns. And there stands Fred. He's not happy. Downey may not like the point of view, but he knows good television when he sees it. Out he comes, seizes Fred by the arm, and pulls him center stage. He wants a sound bite; Fred, of course, gives him something more closely resembling a full meal.
I THINK THE PROBLEM HERE IN AMERICA IS THAT TOO MANY PEOPLE ARE TALKING ABOUT CHOICE. WOMEN'S CHOICE. WHAT ABOUT THE WOMEN WHO ARE STARTING OUT IN THE WOMB. WHAT ABOUT THE CHILDREN STARTING OUT IN THE WOMB. WHAT ABOUT THE BABY IN THE WOMB?
The crowd goes completely ape, and Fred wants to go on, but Downey, seeming ever so slightly possessive, has taken back his microphone. The crowd responds with another attack.
"He didn't like it!"
"Down with the corporation!"
It's delicious: they've forgotten, if only for a moment, that they are the ones who are supposed to be for the corporation.
In the end the noise was too much. The film crew just gave up. The lights went off and the camera people together with Robert Downey Jr. moved to find a more peaceful place to ply their trade. As I made my own way to the exit, I couldn't help but notice a young couple off near some bushes, working hard to undermine College Republican morality.
Subscribe to The New Republic for only $29.97 a year--75% off cover price!
By Michael Lewis