Gathered in the basement of an office building in a tough section of St. Paul, less than two weeks before the gavel drops downtown at the Republican National Convention, roughly 30 recruits hired by a private security company sit through 12 hours of lectures. I am one of these officers-in-training.
The group is a mix of moonlighting prison guards and cops, infantrymen and Marines between tours of duty in Iraq, immigrants, assorted freelance goons and young career seekers. There is also a crisp-looking airman and an outspoken right-wing ideologue, who never fails to demonstrate his remarkable talent for transforming any conversation, even one about the weather, into a discussion about the Mossad.
The RNC, I am told, is a training ground for these recruits. Those who perform well during the grueling 12-hour shifts before, during and after the convention will be considered for permanent jobs at the security firm.
The instructor is Charles T. Thibodeau, or Chuck, a rotund and self-effacing 65-year-old security consultant bedecked in gold jewelry. Thibodeau leans back, cracks open a can of Rockstar Energy Drink and extols the virtues of non-heroism. He has taken painkillers all week to cope with a recent operation to remove varicose veins and is in something of a confessional mood; having been raised by a town drunk (one of his confessions) he isn't much of a romantic to begin with.
"I'll be the first to admit it," he says, crossing his arms. "I don't fight fair. I fight to win. If you got to take someone out -- sorry, I mean, 'reposition them to the ground' -- you go in with help. Under no circumstances do you go toe-to-toe. You gotta get some beefcake in there. I myself prefer to go in with four to five people. Last thing I want is a level playing field."
"What if you're alone and the guy is coming for you?" asks one of the recruits.
Thibodeau doesn't miss a beat.
"I know what some of you tough guys are thinking," says Thibodeau, draining his Rockstar. "But trust me, unless you've got no escape route and are being seriously threatened, and can prove that in court by crying on the stand, you had better retreat. You either run or you cry. Your choice."
A recruit sitting in the back of the room begins to fidget and sink into his chair. He wears a T-shirt in the ubiquitous purple and yellow of Minnesota Vikings football. The shirt reads "What Would Leif Erikson Do?"
Soon enough the recruit answers his own question: Leif Erikson, it turns out, would stand up, wipe his hands on his jeans, mutter "Fuck this" under his breath, slip out the back and not return.
I, however, stay until the bitter end and await my assignment. The following is a log of a night in my life as an RNC security officer. The night shift is 7 p.m. to 7 a.m.
I am assigned to guard the Hyatt Regency in Downtown Minneapolis, the official headquarters of the 2008 Republican National Convention. My uniform is cop classic: a jet black flying-cross patrolman's shirt with epaulets; black slacks (along with black belt and shoes that I had to provide myself); and a shiny golden badge that features a bald eagle, the Liberty Bell and the words "security enforcement officer" on it. I'm also sporting two shoulder patches: an American flag on the left and, on the right, the Doric-columned logo of my employers, surrounded by the words "courage, fortitude, protection."
Enthralled by this dizzyingly patriotic get-up I have neglected to try on the cop slacks ahead of time. This turns out to be a tragic mistake. The pants are tight -- obscenely tight -- at the waist. But duty calls. I squeeze into the pants, wince and look at myself in the mirror. My fears are confirmed: I look like the cop from the Village People. I walk gingerly toward the RNC headquarters downtown, trying, like everyone at the convention, to stick to the script.
I walk downtown on Hennepin Avenue and notice a small crowd taking shape. As a "security enforcement officer," naturally I stop to investigate. The crowd is chanting "Ru-dy! Ru-dy! Ru-dy!" and there, indeed, is Mr. Giuliani, waving and baring his teeth to the delight of all assembled. I ask one among the crowd if he's as big a Giuliani booster as his enthusiastic chanting would seem to indicate.
"Naw, can't stand the guy. Way too liberal."
He returns to chanting. I'm running late, but I have to ask.
"So why are you chanting his name?"
"Have you ever chanted his name?"
I confess that I have not.
"Try it, buddy, it's fun. You'll like it."
So I do, to myself, as I trot toward the RNC headquarters. The guy is right; it does put me in a good mood.
A group of college hipsters are loitering on Nicollett Avenue, near the Hyatt. They are clad typically -- scruff, tight jeans, chucks, ironic T-shirts and bandannas. One of them calls out, "Fuckin' fascist!" I look around for this fascist bastard and realize that he's talking to me. I'm partly relieved -- at least he didn't say, "Hey, look! It's the guy from the Village People."
It's been a tense week in the Twin Cities. A series of rough pre-convention raids on the homes of anti-RNC protesters has left even mild-mannered Minnesotans feeling sour.
At the moment, however, I'm in too much of a rush to point out that my pants are just as tight as any hipster's and my shirt possibly even more ironic. I have time only for some quick role-playing and so I shout back, "Get a job, you brat."
The RNC headquarters at the Hyatt is a gilded fortress -- this week it's service with a smile and a concealed weapon. I am part of a team of 12 security officers (unarmed) who will patrol every entrance and exit to the hotel, front, back and side, for 24 hours a day during the RNC. Guards are also placed in the emergency stairways. We are told not to let anyone up past the sixth floor. Why? Because that's the order. There is no further discussion.
In addition to my team of black-clad officers, there are hotel security personnel, Minneapolis police, an odd guardsman, state trooper or sheriff's officer, another squad of hired officers (from a different private firm), and members of the FBI, Capitol Police (in suits) and Secret Service (in nicer suits). If you include the Evangelicals, nearly every person at the RNC headquarters has a voice whispering in his ear.
The voice whispering in my ear belongs to my operations supervisor, Charlie, a good-humored young private detective, who looks like the approachable guy in a boy band, walks like a determined penguin and has a tendency to giggle. He posts me to the front of the building, where I soon witness a heartbreaking exchange. A stocky man in a Hawaiian shirt walks up to a strapping young TV news producer who's milling around with his camera crew. The stocky man says, "Hi, I'm a delegate from Kentucky. Which station you guys from?"
"We're from New York," replies the producer, turning his back on the man.
The Capitol policemen order pizza; the Secret Service, on the other hand, splurges. A Secret Service agent -- a linebacker with glasses -- walks past me with two big bags of takeout, en route to his undisclosed location upstairs. As he passes, he winks at me and says, "A little sushi action for the fellas."
My partner, who just finished police academy, says, "Man, those guys got style, don't they?"
I ask an older gentleman -- a delegate from Idaho who seems to go by the name "Doc" -- to open his bag for a security search.
"If you want to be a real cop," he says, "you got to be more forceful. Try again."
I've been standing for four hours in pants that are two sizes too small; I'm developing welts in strange places and rapidly losing patience for what seems to be an endless train of preppy wiseguys.
"Sir, open your bag for me," I say. "Please."
"Good," he says. "Much better."
The first wave of delegates, staffers, lobbyists and hangers-on are returning from their parties. I'm still guarding the front door. My first drunk: a guy whose dress shirt is recklessly untucked, his "McCain for America" pin dangling precariously from his lapel. Looking for his credentials, he fumbles around for almost five full minutes.
A car stops in front of the entrance. A man and a woman emerge and exchange a long meaningful hug. They whisper for a bit. Then the woman goes into the hotel and the man steps back into the car and drives away.
"Cheaters," says my new partner, Scott Mendes. "They both got wedding rings."
Two discussions about the war in Iraq suddenly take place.
The first discussion is among a group of young Republicans standing in front of the Hyatt smoking cigars -- party favors from the Giuliani party. The men are all similarly clad in J. Press; some in houndstooth, some in navy blue blazers. The girlfriends, however, wear designer cocktail dresses.
"I'm sick of this chickenshit," says one guy, a sturdy Stanford 2L. "I hear too much apologizing for the war. We should all get behind McCain and stand up proudly and use the 'W' word. We have to tell the voters, 'No, we're not just making gains, we are winning this war.'"
The second conversation takes place between me and Scott, a baby-faced Marine who has served two tours in Iraq (and is expecting to be called up again any day). We're standing 2 feet away from the Republicans. As Scott tells it, his platoon spent almost two years roving around western Iraq doing the bidding of various local tribal bosses, fighting fierce and undefined battles against enemies who had been allies a week earlier.
His take on the war?
"It's bullshit," he says with a shrug. "We got no business there. We get played by all the locals. Guys are dying for nothing. Everyone's losing their minds. It's a disaster."
A new group of Republicans approaches.
"Here come some happy drunks," Scott says to me, smiling.
Three girls in the new group pose for a photo, beaming for the camera. Instead of saying, "Cheese," they surprise us and say, "Facebook!" The image is captured.
Scott opens the door for them, smiles and says, "Good evening," as they stumble in.
At the RNC, the truth-telling starts somewhere around 3 a.m. Delegates who were on-message when they left for their parties at 10 p.m., return too hammered to walk a straight party line.
"How you doing, dude?" one of the drunk delegates says to me as he pulls out a cigarette, almost emptying an entire pocket in the process.
"To tell you the truth," I reply, "my pants are way too tight on the waist. They're killing me."
He gives my pants a glance.
"There's a lot of hot chicks here," he tells me in a failed attempt at a whisper. He reeks of chardonnay. "You cannot spring a woody here, dude. Your pants got no give, know what I mean? It'd be totally obvious. Gov. Palin is staying here -- you gotta be careful. You get what I'm saying? You can't get wood on the job."
"Thanks. I got it," I say.
One of his pals chimes in.
"Gov. Palin is hot, dude," he says, collapsing onto a bench in front of the hotel entrance.
Even in their lusty, alcohol-fueled swoons, these young politicos still call Palin "governor." In a way, this reverential horniness is sort of endearing. But mostly it's just creepy. Sitting on the bench, the young man leans his head back and squeezes his eyes shut, trying, and failing, to stave off vertigo. "Total MILF."
"All right, gentlemen," I say, wielding the word "gentlemen" like a prison guard. "Get out of here. Time to go to sleep."
The right-wing youth resurgence is taking shape here before my eyes and it has a strong erotic undercurrent. For the first time in American politics there is a strong alpha woman with whom mothers identify, and after whom sons lust. The GOP is playing the Oedipal card. And it could mean bloody war, fought house to house.
I'm developing a purely anecdotal theory about Republican drunkenness: that it's related to ideology. The less ideological arrive back at the headquarters earlier in the evening, between midnight and 1 a.m. These are, in chronological order, the Romney and the Giuliani supporters. Both are East Coast, urban college grad, corporate types. They like to drink and reminisce about the Harvard-Yale game, but they also like to wake up early, shave and not smell like booze at committee meetings. The Giuliani people are secular and more openly lecherous. So they tend to drink a bit harder and stay out closer to 1 a.m. The Ron Paul people party past 1 a.m., but not much. And they shave but they don't showboat.
The ones who stay out the latest and come back the drunkest, I notice, are the Huckabee folks, the party's rural conservatives. They believe in Jesus, in the hard-bitten way of the true alcoholic. If they ever sober up, it'll be by the grace of the Lord; and if they intend to stay on the sauce and continue living, then they'll really need His loving kindness. If you intend to be drinking heavily until closing time -- 4 a.m. in the Twin Cities during the RNC -- you had better walk home with Jesus.
I can't place true McCainites on the alcohol-ideology matrix. I think they were all asleep by 9:30 p.m.
The only people around the RNC headquarters now are security personnel. Cops of all stripes circulate around the hotel, nodding to one another as they pass, keeping watch mostly on their fellow watchmen. Every once in a while, Charlie's voice crackles over the radio, "Wake up!" and my fellow officers oblige by telling lewd jokes over the line to stay awake. The agony of my ill-fitting cop slacks has given way to a mellow numbness.
I am now posted behind the RNC headquarters, at the back exit, which is an outdoor ledge overlooking a park. It's a lonely perch and the night has turned chilly. Fall is definitely in the air. A man in his mid-60s -- who, to my exhausted eyes, looks a bit like John McCain -- suddenly materializes nearby. Given that I'm dead bored and my eyes have begun playing tricks on me, and that I'm manning a post in the dead of night, I can't help thinking of the ghost of King Hamlet, disturbing the night watch just like this gentleman, with "a countenance more in sorrow than in anger."
All the hotels in the area are dark. Thousands of Republicans stir in their beds, dreaming thousands of dreams about Sarah Palin. But Charles Hunter, an environmentalist delegate from New Hampshire and a veteran of Republican conventions going back to the 1980 coronation of Ronald Reagan at Detroit's Joe Louis Arena, can't sleep at all.
"This is my last convention," he tells me, lighting a cigarette.
"I'm a real McCain guy. I served. But I liked the old McCain -- when he was a true hero, before he signed on with the yahoos. I actually believe in 'country first.'"
"Not a fan of Palin?"
"If I were McCain I'd probably bring her onto my ticket, too. That's exactly the problem. I guess I tricked myself into thinking that McCain, even after he watered himself down for the election, could somehow restore sanity. The Democrats tried to paint him as a twin of Bush. Not true. But Palin ... she does remind me of Bush. McCain has made a devil's pact and sealed this party's fate."
Even though he's older, he smokes his cigarette like a young man, with earnest haste, before he flicks it off into the dark.
"That's it," he said, "we're through. Even if we win, we've lost."