The Howard Dean campaign has been so successful using the free Internet service MeetUp.com to connect the candidate's followers that fans of other candidates are imitating it. Partisans of John Kerry, Dennis Kucinich and Dick Gephardt are all using MeetUp to bring their supporters together, though one of Gephardt's events had to be canceled for lack of interest, much to the delight of the right.
Now the Bushies have started using MeetUp as well. Followers used the site, which organizes local gatherings on any topic users choose, to schedule Bush 2004 events across the country on Tuesday. Only 694 people signed up nationwide, compared to Dean's 59,500 and Kerry's 5,400, yet that was still enough for a lot of meetings.
One of them was in Manhattan. It was held at Freight, a cavernous bar in Chelsea, a largely gay, upscale neighborhood on the edge of the West Village that seems an unlikely location for a Republican confab. When I showed up right on schedule at 7 p.m., I didn't see anyone who looked like he was there to toast our president, so I went around the bar asking people if they were Republicans. Many seemed offended. All answered decisively that they were not.
I was there because I wanted to find out why savvy, cosmopolitan people support George W. Bush. Of all the slurs that conservatives hurl at coastal liberals like myself, there's only one that strikes me as true, at least of me and the people I know. I am out of touch with mainstream America. I don't know any Republicans except my mother, who finds Bush so terrifying that she seems to channel the Nation when she speaks of him. In my insular world it is self-evident that Bush's presidency is catastrophic. When people in other countries ask me what Americans could possibly be thinking, I have no good answer.
I understand why Wall Street financiers and Christian fundamentalists approve of the president, but Bush's support extends far beyond those groups. Some Bush-loving Americans are learned and sophisticated and live in the best city in the world. What do they see in him? I thought I'd go to their party and ask.
At 7:20 I was still sitting alone, trying to read a book about the CIA's 1953 coup in Iran over the din of Cyndi Lauper's "Girls Just Want To Have Fun," periodically scanning the faces of the happy-hour drinkers nursing pints at the bar. Just as I was getting ready to go, 40-year-old John Gozo walked in, and, asking around for other Republicans, was pointed in my direction.
Before I had a chance to ask my first question, a silver-haired Freight patron named Michael Levin, whom I had previously mistaken for a Bush fan, stepped in and asked Gozo what Republicans stand for.
"We're fiscally conservative," said Gozo, a hearty, good-natured dirty-blond in a blue, button-up shirt who works as an "Internet marketer." "And we're pro-war as opposed to being antiwar."
Levin asked what he meant by pro-war.
Gozo replied: "Do you think war is not a good thing?" Levin said that he doesn't think war is a particularly good thing. This was the answer Gozo wanted. He pointed his finger at Levin and said: "So, what was it that ended totalitarianism? Wasn't it war that ended communism? What would have happened to this country if the Indians weren't overrun? They were just as much savages as we were!"
Levin then asked what Gozo meant by fiscally conservative.
"We don't believe that the government should have all the money," Gozo explained. "Why did we have a surplus? Because we were overtaxed! Or do you want to have a more socialist state like Sweden?"
Just then, a second Republican arrived, 45-year-old Anne Frevola, a Manhattan administrative assistant. "Where's the host?" she asked, and Gozo told her he hadn't shown. (An hour later, he still wasn't there.)
For Frevola, the primary issue is defense. She believes no Democrat would have retaliated for Sept. 11. "Bush is a good leader," she said. "With this war, the world is seeing us in another way. Other countries are not going to attack us anymore. We had to get a dictator out and show the Muslims!"
Gozo feels similarly. After Sept. 11, he said, Bush was like "a father protecting his kid who got beat up by a bully."
Despite Bush's fatherly strength, though, Frevola said he wasn't her first choice for president. "I love Pat Buchanan," she said. As she launched into a Buchananite reverie, Gozo walked away from her. "She's moving too far to the right for me," he said, which seemed odd, since he called Ann Coulter one of his favorite writers.
A third Republican appeared, a 50-year-old Wall Street lawyer in wire-rimmed glasses and a blue suit named Bob Morgan. I asked him if it was hard to be a Republican in Manhattan. "It is," he said. "You can feel a little out of place. That's why I go to occasional political gatherings. It's almost like your own church." Morgan disagrees with Bush on the imposition of tariffs on imported steel and is "extremely skeptical" of the USA PATRIOT Act, but he says he respects Bush's strength and honesty. He seemed a bit embarrassed by the situation at Freight and suggested I go to an event at the private Princeton Club if I really want to learn about pro-Bush Manhattan.
There was a fourth Republican, though she never joined the conversation. A tall, lithe platinum blonde who came with Gozo, she sat at the end of the bar sipping a drink, where I joined her. Her lipstick looked bright coral in the bar's dim light. Her name was Judy, she was from West Virginia, and she said she worked in the fashion industry, where she encountered liberals "pushing their ways on people." What sort of ways were they pushing? She replied with one word: "Gay."
Of these gays, she said: "I think they're very nice people, but they try to push their agenda like it's normal."
Liberals confounded her as much as conservatives bewilder me. Liberals, she said, secretly believe conservatives are right, "but they try to be socially liberal. If it was their money, they wouldn't spend it so freely. They're do-gooders. I think it's false. Republicans believe you need to better yourself. We can't keep making excuses for everything. It gets to be tiring." And, she added, "They whine constantly."
Then she asked what Salon is. I told her it's an online publication that covers news, politics and culture. She asked whether Salon is liberal or conservative, and I told her the truth. Her face hardened, and she said: "Are you going to write what I said, or are you going to make something up?" A few minutes later, she told Gozo she wanted to leave.
Morgan, the Wall Street lawyer, and Frevola, the administrative assistant, were the only Bushies left, and they seemed to have as little in common with each other as either did with me. I felt a little guilty leaving them alone together, but I had wanted to find out why people who weren't ideologues or rich corporate types like Bush, and they weren't the ones to tell me.