Capital Letters: Stand By Your Men

In which our man in Washington talks to raucous protesters, spies Al Sharpton's corpse, and seeks spiritual guidance from the Falun Dafa.


Subj: Evicting the Squatter
Date: 11/30/2000
From: mwlynch@reason.com

Caught a cab to the vice president's house this afternoon to check out a protest by Bushies who want Al Gore to vacate what they now consider to be Dick Cheney's pad. When I arrived at the Naval Observatory at 34th and Massachusetts, I figured I'd get the Gore side's story first. His supporters were huddled on the south side of the intersection.

"Every vote needs to be counted," said Sylvia Diss, a retiree from Maryland's Montgomery County, and one of six Gore backers on hand. "It's the basis of our democracy." Silly me—I've always thought our democracy rested on unregulated, soft-money corporate contributions to candidates.

The Bush protesters claimed that Gore's stealing the election, but according to Sylvia, they stole her corner on the north side of the street, for which she claimed to have a legitimate permit. "They do not have a permit and they put me out, which says something about the rule of law," she huffed. "The policeman said it would be better for me to leave for my safety. I thought he was there to protect my safety."

The north side of the street was a bit more raucous. Sixteen people held signs proclaiming such things as, "Get Out of Dick Cheney's House," "America's Tired of Lawyers, Liars, and Spin," and "Al Concede Now."

The afternoon protesters were mainly retirees who seemed upset that the phone lines on C-SPAN were always busy. Even the young protesters seemed a bit old. "I'm a dying breed of Republican, and I feel we need to tell Al Gore to get out of Dick Cheney's house," said 14-year-old Johnny Kester. Kester's already 6 foot 2 inches, a height we both felt made him eligible to be president one day. (He said I'm tall enough for the job. But I don't agree. Not in the age of television.) He's one of only two Republicans out of 65 ninth graders at his school, he confessed, and he'd been manning the corner all week. "The votes have been counted and counted and counted," he told me, as I looked up to him and struggled to keep my tape recorder under his chin. I asked him what was the strangest thing to occur at the protest so far. "Yesterday somebody stuck their butt out the window."

The full moon didn't surprise me, since the protesters engaged cars driving by with "Honk for Bush" signs. There was a sharp class distinction in automotive responses. A silver Lexus and a white Range Rover honked, while drivers of an old Honda Civic and a light pickup truck gave the Bushies big thumbs down.

The distance award went to Suzanne Stillers, from the infamous Palm Beach, Florida. She was surviving the cold—it was 33 degrees with the wind chill—in a Santa Claus hat, a green shawl, and black shades. "I live there, I voted there, it's very cold here," said Stillers, who claims to have had no problems with the butterfly ballot. So why did she make the trek north? "Because what's happening is wrong," she said. "The only dimples I like are on my face." She smiled adorably, and I caught a bus home.

Subj: Supreme Freak Show
Date: 12/4/2000
From: mwlynch@reason.com

If Friday's spectacle in front of the Supreme Court is any indication, the Republican Party has a bright future: Bush has toddler support by at least three to one. And the bigger kids seem to back the Texan too. "Sore Loserman" signs sat in empty strollers. "Even an 8-year-old knows how to be a good loser," read a sign jutting up from a group of kids sporting homemade shirts declaring them "GOP Thugs." Still, there was ample evidence of the deep divisions this electoral war is causing: Ensconced in a double stroller, one twin sported a Gore sign, while the other brandished a placard for Bush.

Inside, the lawyers did the fighting. Outside, partisans were battling with signs, chants, and screaming fits. The Capitol police had created a safe space, a demilitarized zone of sorts, over which Gore supporters and Bush supporters engaged in a chant-off. "Count all votes!" yelled Gore enthusiasts waving NOW signs. "No more chads!" retorted the Bushies as they threw extra-sized chads in the air for effect. "We've been Bushwhacked!" "Democrats can't count!" And on, and on, and on.

Occasionally people tried to settle disagreements on a mano a mano basis. On a trip past the DMZ, I ran smack into a conversation between a Texan and a New Yorker, with the latter trying to convince the former that the Lone Star State was an awful place. New Yorkers routinely forget that denizens of flyover country often like where they live and that most, if not all, Americans simply don't share a longing to live on Manhattan's Upper West Side.

The New Yorker, decked out in the uniform of an urban sophisticate (black-rimmed glasses, well-cut hair, a black three-quarter-length coat), had never even been to Texas, but that didn't stop him from claiming Bush has screwed the place up. The Texan, who had at least 6 inches and 100 pounds on his foe, responded that it was New York that really sucked. After all, he argued, they'd elected Hillary Clinton to the Senate.

Sometimes the clashes were less sophisticated. Later in the morning I came across a moderately disheveled guy yelling at a person nearby about how we can't have globalization with an 18th-century history education (the ranter was a Gore supporter, obviously). The object of his attack responded calmly in a nice Eastern European accent, by simply saying, "Bush won."

It was a tremendous freak show, with just about every nut within a 50-mile radius (including me) present. Some flew in for the occasion. On one corner, a white-bearded man in a dark gray suit, cowboy boots, and white cowboy hat held a makeshift gallows from which a doll of a black girl in an American flag skirt was hanging by her neck. A sign around his neck inscrutably declared, "Discrimination of Black Farmers."

For the three hours I was within earshot, he never stopped proclaiming, "Wake up America!" and going on about communism. Those on the more extreme end of the pro-life movement didn't miss the protest opportunity either. On a particularly memorable poster, "Does my vote count?" was written under a detached baby's head in the grasp of an abortionist's forceps. "Every third baby dies from a choice," proclaimed the poster.

A fellow in a Darth Vader costume and his partner offered a new ballot. It had no less than six Al Gores to vote for, including "Al Gore, Democrat," "Al Gore, Inventor of the Internet," "Al Gore, Alpha Male," and "Al Gore, Former Tobacco Grower." On this ballot a vote for Pat Buchanan counted for Gore as well.

The crazies were not entirely amateurs. While campaign finance maven Granny D was nowhere to be seen, Rev. Al Sharpton made the trek down from the Big Apple, carrying a banner that said, "This is more about Selma than Gore or Bush." I suspect Sharpton might have passed away and it's just his preserved corpse carrying on the struggle. The stiff and stone-faced man of God looked as if he were pulling a weekend at Bernie's. As his escorts carried him around, no more than 20 hangers-on followed close by, singing "This little vote of mine, I'm going to let it shine." Al's procession made laps around the Supreme Court building, with no one seeming to care much.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson did a bit better with his parade, if only because the Service Employees International Union gave some folks the morning off to follow him around. Still, it was pathetically small by Jacksonian standards. Perhaps NOW's Patricia Ireland, who was at Jackson's side, scared folks off. At any rate, it ended with a rally. I lost interest and wandered off after hearing a Florida preacher call the Palm Beach ballot a "tricky ballot we have never seen anywhere before," with the crowd chanting, "tricky, tricky."

There were sane and articulate people on both sides. "Al Gore is using lawyers to generate new votes and I think that is a dangerous step," said Doug Graham, who took the morning off from his government job to dress up in a gray ballot box made from Styrofoam and duct tape. "If you mess up, sorry, but in four years you get to do it better. Voting is not hard. You don't have to be a genius, and if you didn't do it right you disenfranchised yourself."

Dan Katz, a 32-year-old Senate staffer, takes a different view. He took time out from yelling at members of the pro-Bush brigades to tell me why all votes need to be hand counted. "I talked to my grandmother, poor thing," said Katz. "She didn't vote in Palm Beach, she voted in Broward, but she doesn't know if she pushed hard enough."

Ah, but does one ever know if one pushed hard enough? Still, such thinking doesn't convince Graham. "Who's too weak to push a hole out and look at it?" he asked.

I sought out spiritual leaders, hoping to nail down how all this may end. "We've got to unite. Politics can be so divisive," said Bill Adams, a professional Republican fundraiser who nevertheless traveled from his home in Atlanta to Tallahassee and then to D.C. to preach unity. "It's not in my hands," he humbly admitted, after disclosing that he voted for Bush. "It's in God's hands."

Members of the meditation-based spiritual movement Falun Dafa had staked out some real estate on a grass strip next to the court building. They claim to be a spiritual movement based on truthfulness, compassion, and tolerance, which didn't stop them from assaulting passersby with a plethora of pamphlets, flyers, and newspapers.

"It's controlled by destiny, fate," Wattana Baunthong told me. "There's no word for it in English. It's like war. I don't know if individual efforts can help."