It took a $12 cab ride from downtown Des Moines to get to Bauer 2000 campaign headquarters. But by the time you read this, Gary Bauer's Iowa offices will probably be deserted, its computers, staffers and fax machines broken up and possibly redistributed among more viable Republican candidates, like, oh, Alan Keyes. But when I arrived three days before the Iowa Caucuses, the offices of the former Reagan domestic policy advisor and future presidential-election footnote were humming. Softly.
I was the only new volunteer who walked through the door that day, and the campaign staffers didn't quite know what to do with me. They didn't seem all that accustomed to finding work for volunteers, and only after 10 or 15 minutes of asking around was Andy, the young Bauer staffer I was handed over to, able to find something for me to do.
If cleanliness is next to Godliness, then the Bauer campaign isn't exactly crowding the Lord. The place was a mess, with paper strewn all over the floor, posters and flyers falling off tables and empty cans of diet soft drinks on every surface. Andy, looking every inch the capable campaigner in blue suspenders and a tie, showed me a cubicle, handed me a list of phone numbers and gave me a script. I was supposed to call everyone on the list and ask if they were going to their caucus on Monday night. If they were, I was supposed to ask them if they were going to support Bauer. If they were not supporting Gary, I was supposed to talk them into supporting Gary.
Pretending you feel fine when you've got the flu is exhausting -- and I had the flu in a big way. On my flight to Minneapolis, I felt this itch in the back of my throat. Waiting for my flight to Des Moines, a headache kicked in. On the plane, I started to sneeze. In the cab to the hotel, I started to cough. By the time I got to my room, I had the flu. I got undressed, crawled under the covers and stayed in bed for the next two days. By all rights, I should be back in my hotel room laying in bed, where I spent the last 48 hours. I don't want the Bauer people to realize how sick I am, so I'm relieved that they've stuck me in an out-of-the-way cubicle, where unobserved I can allow myself to look as miserable as I feel.
On day three, still sick as a dog, I decided I had to get out of bed and do my job. I had planned on following one of the loopy conservative Christian candidates around -- Bauer or Keyes -- and writing something insightful and humanizing about the candidate, his campaign and his supporters. Then, from my deathbed, I caught Gary Bauer on MSNBC. "Our society will be destroyed if we say it's OK for a man to marry a man or a woman to marry a woman," Bauer said. Seeing Bauer go off about gay marriage reminded me of something he said back in December when the Vermont Supreme Court came out for same-sex marriage. "I think what the Vermont Supreme Court did last week was in some ways worse than terrorism," Bauer told the Associated Press.
In my Sudafed-induced delirium I decided that if it's terrorism Bauer wants, then it's terrorism Bauer is going get -- and I'm just the man to terrorize him. Naked, feverish and higher than a kite on codeine aspirin, I called the Bauer campaign and volunteered. My plan? Get close enough to Bauer to give him the flu, which, if I am successful, will lay him flat just before the New Hampshire primary. I would go to Bauer's campaign office and cough on everything -- phones and pens, staplers and staffers. I even hatched a plan to infect the candidate himself. I would keep the pen in my mouth until Bauer dropped by his offices to rally the troops. And when he did, I would approach him and ask for his autograph, handing him the pen from my flu-virus incubating mouth.
My plan was a little malicious -- even a little mean-spirited -- but those same words describe the tactics used by Bauer and the rest of the religious right against gays and lesbians. The amount of gay bashing that goes on during Republican campaigns is staggering, so pervasive that the mainstream media tunes it out like so much white noise.
On the Saturday before the caucuses, there was a Presidential Rally for Family, Faith and Freedom at a church in Des Moines. Half the program was devoted to gay bashing, but none of the TV shows mentioned it, focusing instead on the Roe vs. Wade bashing. The one reporter (outside Salon) who did cover the gay bashing, Melinda Henneberger in the New York Times, wrote what was essentially a humor piece. But while straight reporters can roll their eyes and write off the gay bashing as so many Republican candidates tossing a little red meat to the hard right, it's a little harder to ignore when it's carved out of your own ass.
When Bauer tells people that gays and lesbians are a threat to families, I take that personally. I feel I have a right to be angry. And one day I'd like to pick up a newspaper or turn on the TV and see someone point out that if anyone's threatening a family, it's Bauer -- he's threatening mine. Or at least ask a Republican who asserts that gays and lesbians are a threat to families this obvious, though never asked, follow up question: "Oh, really? How?"
I had expected to be one of many energized, new-to-politics, true-believers working the phones on Gary's behalf, but I appeared to be the only volunteer in the building. Once I was in my cubicle, I took a picture of my son out of my bag and set it on the computer in front of me. While I made calls, I overheard Bauer's press secretary calling reporters and letting them know Gary would be holding a press conference at a cemetery at 3:30 p.m., at the grave of a fetus found in a ditch. Gary would give his usual complaint about the coarsening of our culture -- standing on the grave for emphasis.
While I dialed, my eyes drifted over the pieces of paper pinned to the wall of my cubicle. A photocopied "thought for the day" caught my eye. "Remember, when someone annoys you," the thought went, "it takes 42 muscles in your face to frown. But it only takes 4 muscles to extend your arm and SMACK THE ASSHOLE UPSIDE THE HEAD." Hmm, that's a little coarse, I thought to myself, chewing my pen.
The list I'd been given was of voters who'd indicated that Gary was their second choice. Of the 50 or so people I managed to get on the phone, most were voting for Forbes, a few for Keyes and only one for Bush. Despite ample opportunity, I'm not engaging in dirty tricks. I'm doing as told, reading from my script. Andy gives me a list of caucus sites, so that I can tell people where to go on Monday night. The list has both the Republican and Democratic caucus sites in each precinct. I'm tempted to send the Bauer supporters to Democratic caucuses in their neighborhoods, delivering them to the living rooms of Bradley and Gore supporters. I could cost Bauer a few hundred votes -- and every vote counts, Andy tells me, every vote counts.
But I don't do it. I can't. My work ethic won't allow it. The folks on the phone are so pleasant, and Andy is so nice to me, that I don't have it in my heart to do a bad job. What if one of the nice church ladies I get on the phone -- and that's just what they sound like, Dana Carvey's mid-'80s "SNL" Church Lady -- walks into a room of pot-smoking Bradley supporters and dies of a heart attack? I couldn't sleep at night if that happened, so I tell everyone the truth about their caucus locations.
Well, almost everyone.
James in Des Moines is just itching to vote for Bauer, he tells me. "Gary's the only one who can stop the homos," he tells me. "The Democrats are a bunch of goddam homo lovers, you know?" Yes, I know it well. "You know what we need to do?" James asks. Yes, I tell him, we need to go to the caucus on Monday night, bring all our friends and vote for Gary. Andy leaned into my cubicle and gave me a thumbs up. "We need to enforce God's law when it comes to homosexuals, that's what we need to do. God said that homosexuals have to die. We can shoot 'em, stone 'em, gas 'em or whatever. It's God's word."
I sent James to a Democratic caucus site.
Toward the end of my shift, with my head splitting, I blow up at a Forbes supporter. She tells me she was for Forbes because he was so strongly pro-life, an impression she may have gotten from Forbes' up-with-fetuses campaign commercials. Exasperated, I pull the pen out of my mouth. I inform her that four years ago Forbes was a moderate on abortion, practically pro-choice! "But he's had a change of heart," she says. "No," I say, "he changed his position. He flip-flopped. What if he gets into office and has another 'change of heart'? Have you thought of that? Gary's been pro-life all his public life. He's never changed his position, you can trust him. He won't have a change of heart on abortion. Gary's pro-life now, he was pro-life four years ago, he was pro-life 20 years ago! And he'll be pro-life twenty years from now. If you're a pro-life voter, ma'am, then Gary is your candidate."
There was a long pause.
"You're right, you're right," she said. "You can put me down for Gary."
Wow. This was the kind of retail politics I've read about in the New York Times. Volunteers and candidates reaching out to voters, making their case, arguing, persuading. Andy gives me another thumbs up. I'd done it! I'd convinced someone to vote for... Gary Bauer. How was I going to sleep at night?
On my way out the door, one of the staffers told me there was going to be a volunteer appreciation pizza party at a church basement at 1 p.m. the next day.
"You should come and meet Gary," she said.
"Love to," I said, chewing on my killer pen.
"Gary is having a press conference today at the World War II memorial by the state capitol," Andy tells me when I arrive for my second shift at Bauer 2000 HQ. "We'd like to have a crowd of supporters there." Andy hands me a list of phone numbers and shows me to a phone. It's about 11 a.m. in the morning, and I've come thinking I could make calls for a couple of hours, cough on a some phones and then head over to the volunteer appreciation pizza party, where I'd give Gary Bauer my pen and, hopefully, the flu. But Andy wants me to call people until 15 minutes before the press conference, which means I'm going to miss the party.
I tell Andy I was really looking forward to meeting Gary and getting his autograph, and Andy tells me to come to the press conference at the World War II Memorial.
"Grab my arm at the press conference," he said, "and I'll make sure you get to meet Gary."
Crushed that I won't be going to the pizza party, I sit at the phone and make calls. An hour and half later, everyone else has left for the pizza party -- except for Bauer's press secretary, who is sitting in her cubicle rustling up media for Bauer's W.W. II press conference. All alone, just me and the phones, the phones and me. I was going to miss the party, and that depressed me, but my sinuses were running like an open tap, so I probably didn't need the pizza. And, anyway, I have work to do.
I went from doorknob to doorknob. They were filthy, no doubt, but there wasn't time to find a rag to spit on. My immune system wasn't all it should be -- I was in the grip of the worst flu I had ever had -- but I was on a mission. If for some reason I didn't manage to get a pen from my mouth to Gary's hands, I wanted to seed his office with germs, get as many of his people sick as I could, and hopefully one of them would infect the candidate.
So, much as it pains me to confirm a hateful stereotype of gay men -- we will put anything in our mouths -- I started licking doorknobs. The front door, office doors, even a bathroom door. When that was done, I started in on the staplers, phones and computer keyboards. Then I stood in the kitchen and licked the rims of all the clean coffee cups drying in the rack.
Feeling slightly sickened by what I had just done, I pulled a small bottle of Maker's Mark out of my bag. I packed it so I could have a little drink before bedtime, without having to pay hotel mini-bar prices. But since I'd been sick the whole time I've been in Iowa, I hadn't been drinking. I took a swig, swished it around my mouth, and spit the booze and germs into the toilet. Having licked all the doorknobs, telephones, keyboards and coffee cups, I returned to Andy's desk to get my coat. But I couldn't bring myself to lick Andy's keyboard or phone. He'd been so nice, and however far apart we were politically, I wouldn't wish this flu on him.
My phone calls to Bauer supporters didn't convince many folks to come to the war memorial in the freezing cold. I'd spoken with dozens of Bauer supporters that day, and left at least hundred messages, but the turn out at the war memorial was skimpy. There were about two-dozen people there, mostly campaign staffers, their husbands or wives, and children. I had failed, failed utterly, but Andy didn't seem to hold it against me. He clapped me on the back, handed me a Bauer sign, and told me to stand behind the podium with the rest of the crowd.
It was freezing cold and windy. Waiting for Gary, I took my pen out of my pocket and put it in my mouth. This was it, my one shot. I chewed the pen, cracking the plastic shaft. I turned the pen around and chewed on the tip, cracking that end, too. Gary arrived, toddled up to the podium and made some remarks about Red China. Gary's remarks were mercifully brief, and as he stepped away from the podium, I stepped toward him, holding my photograph.
"This is my son," I said. "Will you autograph it?" Bauer gave me an blank look. I needed to give him a little more. "I talked his mother out of aborting him. You're my hero, Mr. Bauer."
He looked at me with his little bug eyes, and broke into a wide smile, his strangely splayed teeth poking out from under his upper lip.
"Good for you," Gary said, "that's wonderful."
He took the picture, and then I pulled the pen out of my mouth and handed it to him. Score! My bodily fluids -- flu bugs and all -- were all over his hand! When he went to sign the photo, no ink came out. Gary looked up at the cameras and said, "Looks like everything is frozen." He grabbed a poster and scribbled on it to get the ink flowing, then signed the picture. He handed me my pen, and started to walk toward his van. He stopped to answer a reporter's question, and I saw him run a finger under his nose. Perfect. I didn't need to lick all those doorknobs after all.
The Republican caucus for the precinct my hotel was located in was at an old folks home in downtown Des Moines. If Gary Bauer was going to do well anywhere in Iowa, I figured he should do well in old folks homes, so I walked over to witness Gary's triumph. When I arrived, I was seized by the desire to take part in the caucus, but unfortunately you have to be a registered voter and a registered Republican to participate. I walked up to the old man sitting at the desk and explained that I'd only just arrived in Des Moines, but I wanted to vote anyway. Apparently this wasn't a problem: He handed me a form to fill out.
You must be a citizen of the United States. Check. At least 17 and a half years old. Check. Never been convicted of a felony. Check. Not currently judged "mentally incompetent" by a court. Check. Must be a resident of Iowa. Hmm ... That one was slightly problematic. I was, at the moment, residing in Iowa in a dump of a hotel. But you know what? In the five days I'd spent throwing up in my hotel room, and the two days I'd spent at the Bauer 2000 headquarters making phone calls and licking doorknobs, I'd fallen in love with Iowa. In fact, at the moment I was filling out that voter registration form, I could honestly say I would never want to leave Iowa. I'll send for the boyfriend and baby later in the week. I signed. I was an Iowan now.
Before we could vote, some "candidates' representatives" stood and addressed the 70 or so people now gathered in the dining room. Half the voters were actual old folks in various stages of decrepitude, the others were young, downtown-dwelling professionals. A young woman spoke first for Bush. She had originally been a Lamar Alexander supporter, but after he dropped out, she looked at the remaining candidates and, in her words,"settled for" George W. Wow, talk about passion. A little weasel in a bad suit spoke for Forbes, an old man spoke for Keyes and a young activist -- quite possibly a Democrat -- spoke for McCain.
Strangely, no one spoke for my man, Gary Bauer.
Then we voted. And as it turns out, I needn't have registered to vote, as the precinct captain just walked through the room passing out slips of paper with the candidates' names listed on them. He didn't even bother checking to see if any of us had registered. "We're on the honor system here," he said, "so no voting unless you've registered to vote and you're a Republican."
Whoa! Not that many people take part in the caucuses to begin with, so small shifts in numbers can mean Big Mo' for a candidate. Someone with a lot of money, like, oh, Steve Forbes, might be tempted hire a bunch of little weasels to go to caucuses and vote for him. This process, I realized, could easily be corrupted by people of bad will or dirty tricksters from out of state.
Staring at my slip of paper, I balked. I couldn't decide what to do. I had been a Bauer man all weekend, but last night I attended a Keyes rally -- just to see what all the fuss was about -- and I was really moved by the things he had to say. Keyes is so persuasive a speaker that I left the Val Air Ballroom in West Des Moines convinced that he was the hard-right candidate who could do the most harm to the Republican Party.
You see, when I vote in Republican primaries or caucuses -- and I almost always do -- I vote for the person who can most damage the Republican Party in the upcoming general election. I tend to vote hard right -- I was a Buchanan man in '96 -- because the better the hard right does in the primary campaign, the more pandering the mainstream Republican candidate has to do on the hard right's pet issues. Witness George W. Bush's increasingly hard-line statements on abortion this week in Iowa. The pandering may excite hard-right voters, but it alienates those precious middle-of-the-road voters you need to get your ass into the White House.
So, looking over my ballot, it wasn't hard deciding who would do the most harm to Ol' George W., and it wasn't Bauer or McCain or even Forbes. It was firebrand Alan Keyes, the man whose passion and ability to whip up a crowd was the only real story in Iowa this week.
Keyes was surging! And I wanted to be part of that surge, a surge that would be bad for the Republican Party, and bad for George W. in November. With apologies to Andy, I marked my ballot for Keyes and handed it to the precinct captain.
When the results of our caucus were finally read, I was shocked by the outcome. Bush came in first with 28 votes, and he was followed by Forbes with 22, McCain with 9, Keyes with 5 and Hatch with 3. And Bauer? How did Gary do?
He got one lousy vote. And it wasn't even mine.