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Politics As Unusual

Snoozing with the Democrats, partying with the Young Republicans

By Harmon Leon

THE CULT of politics is indeed a cult. Political parties all require a group of rabid supporters trying to be persuasive, talking way too close with intense eye contact, insisting on you becoming a follower of their leader. That's why I decided to become a cult initiate for both of the big teams--yes, I will attend each party's big state convention in order to see who will push harder for me to drink from their political fanatics' tub of Kool-Aid. And to keep it fair and balanced, I'll try hard to equally bash both parties.

Democratic Melee

Walking toward the San Jose Convention Center (ironically, in San Jose), I pass several grown adults who are covered with dozens of politician-supporting buttons endorsing candidates whom, I assume, they must like. These are political-convention junkies. It's going to be interesting to see how the political cheerleading and positive rhetoric will play out. For, as you might have read, it's kind of a building year for Democrats.

"Hey, Dad! Dad! C-SPAN is here," exclaims a geeky, delighted 13-year-old kid to his similar-looking father, as I make my way toward the concourse filled with numerous booths trumpeting each of this year's democratic candidates. People, rabid as 'NSync fans, frantically wave signs touting their favorite (Kerry is the cutest!). Some immediately get in my face and try to sway me to their viewpoint. More fliers than I'd like to be holding are shoved into my hand. This is already turning into something not unlike annoying.

"Can I give you a sticker for John Edwards?" asks a woman with stickers for John Edwards, slapping one on my clothing.

"Yes," I reply, deadpan. "Your sticker has completely swayed my opinion on whom I should support for president."

The afternoon general sessions have already commenced in the main hall, filled with a majority of old people wearing mostly blue and gray. The seating is split into regions, each indicated on signs atop large poles, while the projected word "Democrats" blazes behind the large stage where a man conducting the proceedings repeats, "They broke the mold. They broke the mold," referring to the speaker who just departed (apparently stressing that, somehow, a mold was broken to create them).

"We have some wonderful speakers," continues the man onstage to the crowd. "But first, someone lost a black pearl bracelet."

How do you fire up the losing side? Each speaker--from the mayor of Los Angeles to various members of Congress--spouts a sea of empty rhetoric, clichés and cheerleading for the Democrat troops. It's like a football pep rally for a team that's had several consecutive losing seasons, acknowledging the fact that Democrats are basically big political losers, especially in the wake of the whole Arrrrnold coup d'état.

As a political speaker, one combats this by pimping for applause with catchy crowd-pleasing sound bites, creating a virtual clapping-fest. Yes, it's all about cheerleading and a little GO TEAM GO!

"This is the best time to be a Democrat!"

(Clap-clap-clap)

"These may be difficult times for our party right now. But during difficult times, we need to hold true to our values."

(Clap-clap-clap)

"We need to be in this together to make California a state we can be proud of!"

(Clap-clap-clap)

"As Democrats we're going to fight! We're ready for the fight. Let's get to work!"

(Clap-clap-clap)

Things come to a head with the introduction of the biggest Democratic loser in recent history, a man who, during his term, was pulled out of office by the Republicans and replaced by a movie star with an affinity for portraying cyborgs. Yes--ousted Gov. Gray Davis. Along with his wife, Sharon, he comes onstage with all the charisma of Al Gore, receiving a Democratic standing ovation. Davis starts out by going for laughs.

"Last year, as you know, I had a few ups and downs. How was your year?"

Huge laughs. Ah, political humor. He follows this up with more things that make people clap, topping off his speech with the insightful "I'm confident the Democratic Party will have better days!"

Huge applause! Another standing ovation! There's nothing more inspiring than a rousing speech to a downtrodden party by their leader who was kicked out of office.

I feel really bad for the next political speaker, BOE chairwoman Carole Migden. She has to follow Gray Davis. As soon as he leaves the stage, many people start filing out. It's a tough act to follow. I imagine Gray Davis passing Carole Migden backstage and hissing, "Follow that, asshole!" It's like being an open-mic comedian and having to follow Gallagher. She starts by attempting a joke to win over the departing crowd.

"Me and Sharon Davis were just comparing hairdos," Carole Migden says. "Hers is better."

Dead silence. She's eating it.

Following the crowd's lead, I go back out into the concourse. I decide to go around to each presidential candidate's booth in order to have them "sell me" on the idea of voting for their man. I clarify to each that they have a two-minute time limit to do so, as I'm thrown empty shells of sound bite rhetoric.

"Why John Kerry? Sell me on him!" I say to a man in khaki pants standing by a poster showing how "cool" Kerry is with him windsurfing, playing guitar, riding a motorcycle and of course, standing next to John Lennon (apparently going after the cool vote). "Sell me on him. Go!"

"Kerry's the total package. He's very JFK-esque. He took a bullet in Vietnam. He has a self-effacing sense of humor."

"Can you share a quip of his?" I ask, interested in this sense of humor.

The khaki-pants man thinks. He has trouble coming up with a quip but mentions he thinks Kerry did something funny at a debate.

"Do you think Kerry has a chance of winning the presidency?"

"Absolutely!"

"Great. Then I'm going to vote for him, too."

I move on.

"OK, sell me on Kucinich!" I state to an old woman, after admiring the "funny" Got Kucinich? T-shirts.

"Where do I begin?" she says.

"I don't know, but make it quick, because you only have two minutes."

"Dennis is so honest. For everything he's proposed, he has a plan."

The old woman starts babbling on and on, eventually segueing into a song about Kucinich.

"Time!" I yell when she exceeds the two-minute mark. "Do you think Kucinich has a chance of winning the presidency?"

"Yes, I really do!" (Come on, Kucinich?)

"Great. Then I'm going to vote for him, too."

I hit up all the other candidates and pose the exact same "sell-me" proposition on each, getting almost interchangeable sales pitches ("It's his humor and honesty," "He has a vision," "He has a lot of integrity--more than all the other candidates").

These people looooove to talk about their candidate with the same intensity as if he were L. Ron Hubbard. They also loooooove to invade your personal space by talking way too close. I tell each they have convinced me to vote for their candidate.

"So off the record, who are you voting for?" asks a man at the Edwards booth. I provide an answer, in order to make his facial expression change.

"Off the record? Why, George W. Bush, of course!" The facial expression changes. I move on.

Maybe if the Democrats for once had a winning season their convention would wind down with some great open-bar parties with booze flowing freer than a Washington intern's morals; the kind of party that would make Bill Clinton blush. Instead of this fantasy, and since I'm more broke than the state of California, I'm home in bed by 11pm. Bah!


Show Your Colors: Harmon Leon stocks up on political tie-ins.

Republicans A-Go-Go

I decide to adopt a cunning conservative disguise and join up with the Young Republican's for the GOP Spring Convention held at the Hyatt in Burlingame. What could be more nauseating than to be young, pumped-up and Republican?

Putting on a blue suit jacket and tan Dockers, I shave my sideburns, take out my earrings and stuff my shoulder-length dreadlocks under a Kangol hat. Going by the conservative name Chet, I am now fit for Young Republican consumption.

Inside the hotel's concourse, Orange County has come right to the Bay Area with a massive array of Bush/Cheney signs, numerous pictures of the beloved leader, scattered among others trumpeting "Join Arnold." The crowd is white and very white, milked with big hair and fat cats resembling Gilligan's Island's Thurston Howell.

I follow at the heel of the Young Republican president, who takes me under his wing and introduces me to a multitude of Republican candidates. I hope he doesn't smell the hidden liberal on me.

"Hi, Daryl," my new club president says as we pass Daryl Issa in the hall.

"He's a congressman from San Diego, who lent $1 million to the recall election!" enthuses my host.

"This floor's for all the governor's workers," I'm told as we slide past security. Three large men with earpieces stand guard by one door in particular: Arnold's. He's here to speak at this evening's dinner ($150 extra for a photo-op).

"Have you ever seen him before?" I'm later asked.

"Yeah, at a Planet Hollywood opening," I reply. "It was wicked!"

The YR Crew

"Do you want to buy a raffle ticket?" asks a tiny woman as we make our way to the upstairs bar.

"What do you win?" I ask with Republican curiosity.

"You win a chance for a dinner with George W. Bush," she answers with a sales smile like that's just the greatest thing ever. At 20 bucks a pop, I tell her to reserve a few for me and I'll pay her later.

I meet two of my fellow clean-cut Young Republican brethren. I hit it off big time by mocking the contingent in front of the hotel here to protest our beloved Gov. Terminator's appearance. We take turns mocking the protesters.

"Waa! Waa! I want health care," mocks one of the Young Republicans.

"Waa! Waa! I want human dignity," I also mock, waving my hands in the air.

"Are you coming to the big protest tomorrow?" asks another Young Republican, whose shirt is adorned with various "funny" political buttons (such as "Village Idiot," showing a picture of Hillary Clinton).

"You bet I am," I respond. Then a few seconds later. "What are we protesting again?"

"We're protesting illegal aliens getting drivers' licenses," he explains. "I've already got my sign ready."

"Stupid illegal aliens!" I then add. The event is put on by honorable U.S. Senate candidate Howard Kaloogian, yet another orchestrator of the recall election. In theory, if drivers' licenses were given to illegal aliens, that would mean more Democrat voters.

"Why don't we just say, hey, if you want your licenses, here they are, you just have to go across the border to get them!" quipped a rotund man with a red tie I overheard earlier.

"Stupid illegal aliens," I once again share. "What's your sign going to say?" I ask.

"I got a large driver's license with the word 'illegal' written over it," he explains with a smile.

I share, "I'm going to have a sign that says, 'If you want to drive, then go back to Mexico!'" The rotund guy lets out a hearty laugh.

Damn You Protestors

The gathered contingent in front of the hotel seems to be getting louder.

"Arnold says close the schools. We say shame on you!" blares through a bullhorn.

News cameras arrive. From my new conservative vantage point, I note that protesting actually does very little; it's much better to screw with the machine from the inside. I quickly grab a Bush/Cheney poster. A group of eight adults in suits are taunting the protestors. Two Orange County ladies in sparkly dresses do snide dance moves, rubbing the protesters' noses in their decadence. I stand close to my new conservative peers, waving the Bush/Cheney sign, making a stern face as the TV cameras roll. Suddenly, from out of the hotel comes rushing a group of pumped-up high school kids with protruding foreheads, wearing blue suit jackets. They're smirking.

"We're the high school conservative club," the leader explains. The teenagers get confrontational, waving Join Arnold T-shirts in the protesters' faces. An adult in a blue suit rounds up the testosteroned group. With an air of authority, he presents the leader with his business card.

"I'm an attorney. I'm an election law specialist. If anyone gives you shit, call me!"

Two of the conservative high school kids high-five as one of them pulls out a bullhorn to further taunt the lower classes who have come here to protest the need for basic human rights.

"Shame on you! Shame on you!" chant the protesters, several of whom have brought small children.

"You don't deserve education," sneers a man who looks like a corporate leader. He then immediately turns to his conservative compatriots next to him and discusses where they should go for a good crab dinner later in the evening.

"Shame on you! Shame on you!"

I realize now, with my cunning disguise, they are pointing at me--me! For I now look like a stereotypical Republican. I have no other choice but to chant back.

"I LOVE ARNOLD MORE THAN SCHOOLS! I LOVE ARNOLD MORE THAN YOU!"

"We appreciate your efforts but come inside," requests a large suited man to the high school big-forehead youth.

"We're all for free speech as long as it's not us," cries the leader, who feels his civil rights have been violated. Someone should tell these lads to save their rhetoric for the beer halls. Before they go in, the large suited man takes a picture of the high school clan.

"Say GOP!" he requests, and our future CEOs smile confidently.

"Shame on you! Shame on you!"

A protester wearing a tutu tries to get inside the hotel to use the bathroom. The security guard stops her.

"She tried to get in here to use the bathroom, then started snooping around. You know they're very sneaky," confides the security guard.

"Yes, they are very, very sneaky," I add. "Very sneaky!"

Sizzler

Kicking back, we Young Republicans kill some time by sitting in a hotel suite, listening to a large man go on about what's wrong with the whole gay marriage issue.

"What's to say pedophiles can't now get married?" he argues, with Rush Limbaugh logic.

"Yeah," I interject. "God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve."

"You know, I don't know why Nixon is so hated?" the large man rambles on, at which point I somehow bring everyone around to a discussion on how Bill Clinton caused 9/11.

"OK, we're going to dinner," announces the YR president. He points to people who will be among the inner circle at Sizzler. A finger is directed at me. I am in the inner circle. We jaywalk across the street to the restaurant. "Apparently in California, you don't have to follow the law," someone quips, tying it all back to the gay marriage thing.

Gathering at a table in the back of Sizzler, I then proceed to have one of the most uncomfortable dinners I've ever had, cutting into my undercooked steak, all red and meaty, as I'm shaky from drinking the night before to get the taste of Republicans out of my mouth. Yes, I'm severely hung-over. After my full day at the Republican convention, I showed up at my friend Jerry's house party in San Francisco roughly around 2:30am. Still in my Republican costume, I freaked the hell out of a club DJ who noticed that I had a Bush/Cheney sticker on my blue suit jacket.

"You know who has a good website? Gene Autry," shares a large man at our Sizzler table, who earlier remarked that he once ran a gun shop. "They probably had some of my guns at Waco," he confided in us. "Or Wacko," he added.

Party Time!

The evening is devoted to Republican party time! Yes, unlike the downtrodden Democrats, the Republicans have deep pockets (due to all their tax benefits).

Imagine the worst party you've ever attended. Now imagine several of them going on at the same time, all in the same building. They're like minifrat parties but with patriotic themes. There's an abundance of free booze in all the hospitality suites. And man, do these Republicans love to drink (you have to remember their beloved leader is the biggest party boy of them all--and just look at his daughters). There's no concern about getting a DWI; I'm sure everyone's father here could easily bail them out.

As I walk with my YR crew, I'm almost outed for the stinky liberal that I am. A female security guard comes up to me.

"Hey, you look familiar. Don't you do standup comedy?" she asks (most likely having seen one of my numerous "brilliant" comedy performances). The other YRs overhear what she's saying and come over. "Isn't your name something like, Harmon?" she blurts.

"No! No!" I correct. "My name is Chet! Chet! And I've never ever done any standup comedy."

"What did she say?" asks one of the YRs, who would surely kick my ass if he found out I was actually an undercover liberal.

"She's crazy," I explain. "She thinks I do standup comedy! Yeah, right!"

"Rent-a-cop," he scoffs, a minor dis to the working class.

One hospitality suite lavishly brandishes Republican love. Mounted at the door are life-size cardboard cutouts of Bush and Arnold. Inside, it's a pure Bush-America wet dream. On one wall of the brightly lit room are American flags and a large banner that says, "God Bless America!" The sound system blares patriotic country music. The few scattered people, one in a red-white-and-blue cowboy outfit, are the kind of folks who'd kick the Dixie Chicks' asses at a second's notice.

"I go to UCLA," shares a Young Republican to an elder. "It's a pretty liberal campus, and I was one of seven people protesting for the war," he shares, recounting that his clever sign read, "Give War a Chance."

I'm already climbing the Young Republican club ladder. The president passes off a potential recruit to tag along with me so I can share all the glorious benefits of being a Young Republican. With the new clean-cut recruit under my wing, we venture to a hospitality suite for Bill Jones for Senator. Republicans are taking turns singing patriotic karaoke while downing massive amounts of gin and tonics. We Republicans drink as, outside, Rome burns. A politician onstage sings "California Girls" to cries of "Woo! Woo!" Rigid dancing is attempted by the very white crowd with no rhythm whatsoever. Things take a turn for the surreal as the next karaoke performer chooses to sing "Proud to Be an American" to the delighted crowd of revelers.

I take time to make small talk with the prospective Young Republican I'm looking after.

"You've got to join the Young Republicans," I say. "It's really a lot of fun."

"Yeah, it sounds great," he replies.

I move in closer.

"I'm also the president of another club if you're interested in joining." The new recruit expresses interest. He asks the nature of the club. I explain further. "Our club's purpose is to promote the advancement of white people." The new recruit's face turns whiter than a Klansman's sheet. "So what do you say?"

He declines. He walks away. As our beloved President Bush would say, "Mission accomplished!"


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From the March 31-April 6, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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