When I made it back into the First Union Center on Wednesday night, I was confronted with hordes of youngsters. Not toddler-like youngsters, but political toddlers–teenagers. They were convention pages, the folks who run out on the floor and deliver messages, funny hats, breath mints, or whatever is needed, to the delegates.
These kids, as Colin Powell warned us earlier in the week, are the future. So I decided to talk to the future, to discover what made them turn Republican (not the most obvious choice for the future), what's the best thing about being a young Republican, and how they feel about Dubya and his attempt to remake the party to resemble the Main Street of a really hip, multi-ethnic town rather than the counter at an auto parts store in Green Acres' Hooterville. And to see just how comfortable they are with Dick Cheney–or more specifically, Dick Cheney's lesbian daughter.
The new GOP claims it's inclusive, not exclusive, but they've long had trouble with anything that departs from what they conceive of as standard-issue sexuality (listen to Pat Robertson or Phyllis Schlafly and you know that they put the mission back into the missionary position). Indeed, judging from Lynne Cheney's press responses, even she's got issues with sexuality that don't fit all that comfortably in the Republican big tent.
Aaron Hakenson, a 19 year old from Assumption College, was the first youngster I got to. He's tall, slender, and was dressed as a sort of Christmas Tree decorated with Bush/Cheney regalia. I asked him why he's a Republican. "I believe in the Republican platform, I believe in lower taxes, I believe in morals, I believe in reforming social security, I believe in a strong national defense," said Hakenson, demonstrating that he might have actually read the platform. I asked him about Dubya and why he liked him. Said Hakenson, who's been a Republican as long as he can remember, "He'll bring back integrity, bring back honor, he believes in everything I stand for, strong morals and individual initiative."
He's from Massachusetts, so he must be surrounded by liberals. Still he was a bit shaken when I popped the lesbian question re: Dick Cheney's daughter. "I haven't really looked into it," he said. "I don't know everything about the situation." There are plenty of videos and websites that can help him with that, although few are authentic, I advised.
I next ran into a pair of young blondes who simply oozed middle-American wholesomeness. They weren't pages, but they are plenty familiar with conventions, this being their third. Jill Harper, 15, hails from Idaho. Katheryn Ruzicka, 14, from Utah. Katheryn is Jill's aunt. Jill is Katheryn's niece, a product of the fact that Jill's mom is Katheryn's sister–all of which speaks to another form of alternative sexuality that appears to be part and parcel of the Mountain States landscape. These sort of age-inversion may recall the pre-Dubya party, but they are comfortable in his new multicultural party.
They are both proud to be Republicans, although they are not sure why. It's kind of fun, they say. The most fun thing they've ever done at a convention is ride an elephant, which I believe they did in Houston while Pat Buchanan was turning the younger generation into New Democrats. Jill thinks George W. Bush "is really cool, better than Clinton."
They got serious when I asked them to address the sensitive lesbian issue. "I really don't have a problem with that if she wants to do that" said Jill, as Katheryn nodded in agreement.
Brett Johnson was the next agent of our future to enlighten me. He's 20 and attending the University of Colorado, where I think he's gotten a little New Agey. Said Brett, when I asked him what's the best thing about being a young Republican: "The energy I'm feeling from all the people here, 40,000 all being in one place at the same time, is probably right now the most invigorating part for me."
The energized Johnson doesn't come from a political family. His dad even cautioned him against politics as a career, telling him it's not that much fun. Brett's here because he mowed the lawn of a person who's wired into the party. He refused to tell me how much he charged to cut the grass, or even if he paid taxes on the income, but indicated that he works for free. "I'm not bartering ," Brett told me when I pressed him for details. "Every minute I come to this convention I feel grateful and if mowing a lawn is what I need to do for the gratitude [that's fine.]"
Brett's definitely a politician in training. When asked what he wants to be as an old Republican, he said, "Whatever I do I want to know that when I'm finished here on earth I've made a difference." His response to the Cheney lesbian connection was also indicative of a future in public life. "That's a random question," he said, when confronted with the issue. "I don't necessarily think I'm the right person to ask about that."
Armand Cortellesso, a short, gaunt fellow who's chosen to wear macramé and a beaded choker necklace as a sign of his individuality and belief in personal freedom, to quote Nicolas Cage from Wild at Heart, couldn't wait to get his words into my micro-cassette recorder, although they sounded a lot like Brett's. He too likes the energy of being a young Republican. He also likes all the young Republican girls. At 18, he comes from a long line of Rhode Island Republicans. His great-grandfather was a state attorney general, and his grandfather once ran in a primary, he told me. I think the family is devolving a bit, since he's simply a page in the Rhode Island legislature.
He's all for Bush's diversity drive. "I feel it's a good thing to try to attract as many people as possible," he said, but then lined up squarely against Colin Powell when it came to racial preferences. "I do feel that instead of showing special favors to special groups, everybody should enjoy the same rights and freedoms and everybody should get along with the same rights not special privileges."
The page boss pulled the youngsters away. I ran along for one last interview, thrusting my recorder under the chin of 16-year-old Shannon Friday. I know not where she's from, only that her favorite subject in school is debate. I also know that she marks a momentous shift in the Republican Party. "How do you feel about the fact that Cheney's daughter is a lesbian?" I asked as we hurried down First Union Center corridor. "I say go for it," she replied, as a chaperone hustled her away from me and onto the floor to pass notes.