I'm not sure what was my highlight of the last night of the RNC: crashing the Republican pool party and being the only one to jump in — full dress — or giving Newt Gingrich a sopping hug afterward.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
For the preceding week of the Republican National Convention, I'd covered the activity surrounding the Tampa Bay Times Forum, embedding myself in the radical and not-so-radical movement that was protesting, among other things, the lack of food in their makeshift camp off Florida Avenue. I reported on their many protests so much that they eventually kicked me out of a super-secret activist meeting. I apparently didn’t know the secret handshake, and my knowledge of animal-friendly, organic, gluten-free, soy-based, non-fat, no-foam, sugar-free Venti political opinions is, admittedly, very limited.
So, on the last day of this media-saturated, money-drenched circus, I decided to go inside the belly of the beast and meet the Republicans I had heard so many bad things about. Did they really kill and eat babies born out of "legitimate rape?" Did their leader actually strap a dog to the roof of a station wagon on a family vacation? (The latter, as it turns out, is true.)
After navigating through what seemed like a close facsimile of the North Korean border, I stepped into the Ice Palace. I barely recognized it. The RNC planners had done such a good job decorating, I could have been in any taxpayer-funded stadium in the country. I promptly got lost, wandering into the stands reserved for bigger media outlets and even bigger politicians. The only giveaway that I was still in Tampa was the line of large Americans at the concession stand, stuffing their faces with hot dogs and drippy nachos.
I squeezed through rows of very unhappy press people, shoulders hunched, fingers furiously typing out resignation letters, eviscerating their bosses for sending them to Tampa. I found my seat, wedged between a young blogger on my left and the CL news editor on my right. I got there just in time to hear Jeb Bush tell conventioneers “I love my brother” and introduce Sean Duffy, a scruffy youngster who teaches your children somewhere here in Florida. Slap an Occupy sticker on his back and tie a bandanna around his neck and he’d easily slip through the protesters outside.
But as I sat there, hearing thousands of lemming-like Americans cheering over suggestions that Barack Obama hates working people, and that teachers care more about their jobs than children, and that parents should be able to choose a school the way they choose from the many available varieties of milk, I had two eerie, uncomfortable feelings. One, I was upset Bush didn’t mention the new lime-flavored milk available at some stores in the Southwest. Two, I winced at the unwavering, almost rabid support of politicians who obviously scripted their comments for an audience without access to smart phones.
Here were thousands of people who spend time and money to prevent my friends from embarking on the joy of marriage; a crowd intent on taking away my sister’s right to choose; a mob that wants to take away the social programs that allowed me to eat when I was a kid. A Republican focus group that erupted into cheers after the 362nd time somebody on stage said, “We built this.” And they weren’t even being ironic.
Furthermore, I felt naked without 18 buttons chronicling my party affiliation for the last 80 years, or some garish hat bought at 99% off during a Wal-Mart 4th of July sale.
I couldn’t take it. I began to sweat and felt the pale white bodies closing in on me. I needed some air.
I took a walk around the convention center and wondered why I felt so awkward. I’d estimate half of my friends identify as Republican or conservative. I have reasonable conversations with them and actually enjoy myself. Hell, I share many of the same views. What was missing here?
Then, I realized it.
I needed a drink.
Only problem, I was lost. I couldn’t pinpoint Channelside and as I stood, pacing and loitering between the convention center and TBT Forum, I worried some sniper would mistake my indecision for decisive terrorism. So I did what every other small-business-rhetoric-spouting Republican did this week: I drank at a hotel bar.
I strolled into Trolley’s at the Embassy Suites and ordered a Maker’s Mark on the rocks. Next to me sat Mike, a limo driver grabbing a quick meal at the bar. The native New Yorker said he had a good week, even if it had meant sleeping in his car and grabbing quick meals on the go.
“Good work, though, right?” I asked. “I heard you get lots of tips.”
“Not really,” he said, looking left and right. “Man, the reporters were great. A group of 20 of them gave me $3 and $4 each. The politicians, they’re the problem. But the reporters tip great.”
(Media: 1 / Politicians: 0)
By my next drink, I was up and about, schmoozing with aides to Mitch McConnell (they insist he’s a good boss who gives them health insurance), writers from Forbes (“Tampa is so peaceful and has no traffic.” Me: “?!?!”) and a Texan delegate who did not want me to take his cowboy hat (understandably). A National Review guy joined us after I convinced him to try Cigar City Brewing’s Jai Alai IPA. We commented on Mitt Romney’s presidential hair. We danced around the issue of national security without uttering a word that would attract the drones surrounding the convention. We talked about jobs — current, past, future.
“He’s going to get you a better job,” one blonde-haired beauty said to me. (I’m still not sure how to feel about that comment.)
I wandered back inside the Forum. Clint Eastwood was talking to a chair, which, really, made about as much sense as the rest of the speeches. I turned around and left again.
I ran into a few musicians playing at the RNC with former Eagles guitarist and current Romney pal Don Felder.
“I am so far left of these people,” said Wade Biery, bass player for the band, “but it’s a gig.”
This sentiment — easily revealed in the crow’s feet and puffy eyes of men and women who worked 14-hour days during the RNC— could be seen on every janitor, every bartender, every bus driver this week.
After a few more trips inside to see Mitt Romney’s speech — and I still can’t tell you one thing that he said that stuck with me — I stumbled through security one last time. I thought I’d head by Trolley’s again to see if any of my new friends were still there. They weren’t. But I did meet Cheryl, a delegate from Michigan. I asked her what made her a Republican.
“We’re trillions of dollars in debt,” she said, sucking on a Virginia Slim. “Something has to be done.”
“Is that all Obama’s fault?” I asked.
“Of course,” she said.
“But what about the debt under Bush?”
“Bush didn’t leave any debt.”
I didn’t know how to respond to such complete ignorance. So, I asked if she'd seen Kid Rock's concert.
“No,” she said. “But we’re having a pool party on the third floor.”
Angels blew their trumpets.
Getting into a Republican pool party is as easy as any other pool party, Secret Service notwithstanding. Unfortunately, there were no heavy-hitters at this function. No Romneys in Speedos or Bachmann in a bikini. No Karl Rove doing a cannonball in the middle of the pool. In fact, nobody was doing cannonballs. Or in the pool. They didn’t even get their puritan feet wet.
But there were chicken sandwiches, a thought-out choice I’m sure, and quesadillas. And, most importantly, a free bar. (Manny the bartender kept his politics close to the vest, but he made a mean G&T.) I went up to as many tables as I could, whether they liked it or not (and most did not). I overheard two older gentlemen showing off for their ladies.
“America is great,” one said to the other. “You can do anything here.”
The other cleared his throat. “My father was in Poland during WWII. He got shot and a Polish nurse took care of him. She came to America, worked very hard and she loved this country.”
“I’m sure your father impregnating her had nothing to do with it,” I said.
I have yet to experience icier stares.
I moved on.
National security, debt and jobs. That’s all the pool partiers talked about to other people who repeated about the same. I'd been to rowdier parties in Sunday school. And still nobody was in the pool.
So, in the interest of “stepping this party up a notch,” I cannonballed into the cool waters of the pool — in all my clothes — in much the same way G.W. Bush dived into an unpopular war.
It went over just as well.
Feeling sheepish, I stuffed my credit card back in my pocket and returned the press pass to my neck. I dripped over to a table near the water and met Andrew, his girlfriend and a fellow delegate named Brian, who resembled Gandhi, if he were white. We hit it off right away.
“Did you hear them talking about a war with Iran?” Andrew asked me, incredulous. “Do we really need another war?”
Agreement. Then, he talked about the inconsistencies in the Republican Party and how they spend just as much as Democrats. I suggested backing a third party. That’s when Andrew mentioned he supported Ron Paul.
“Oh no,” Andrew said, eyes narrowing. “See, you get inside like I am and you change it from the inside.”
I immediately thought of another Andrew — one wearing all black, with a bandanna, holding court in an old green tent in West Tampa’s Voice of Freedom Park. This Andrew also wanted to end the Federal Reserve and get government out of our lives. But he was also the media’s favorite boogeyman — an anarchist — who loved bowling and the TV show Archer.
The two disparate characters melded before my eyes. As I talked to Republican Andrew more, I wished Anarchist Andrew would catapult in and bring this convention around a full 360. Another round with Manny the bartender and we’d have ourselves a coalition!
After Andrew and I were finished with the political debating, we talked about family and Tampa and getting some much needed time off work. We talked relationships and friendships and how we never have enough time for life. We wished each other “good luck,” even if luck for one might mean failure for the other.
I grabbed my bag and started out, making some time to shake a few bewildered hands and pat some very tense backs.
I stepped into the elevator, hit the first floor button and got ready for my long walk to Ybor City. The elevator doors opened, I looked to my right and saw him: Newt Gingrich. The 69-year-old presidential candidate who wouldn’t back down from the Romney campaign until the bitter end. The architect of the Republican Revolution. The man who once said, after a Capitol police officer shot a homeless man, “Give the park police more ammo.”
What to do? Questions flashed in my reporter mind. But seeing him there, without makeup and hair a little astray, Newt looked sad. He stood there, shaking hands, like an old uncle nobody wanted to invite, but who was too egotistical to stay home. A once-respected Speaker of the House whose own party relegated him to a small hotel meeting space during the convention. A man whose career is essentially over. His jowls hung looser than ever.
“Newt!” I exclaimed. “Let me get a hug!”
He extended his hand, a little hesitant toward this wide-eyed, dripping reporter. I wrapped my arms around his doughy body. I gave him a good squeeze as a very tense Newt patted my wet back.
Because sometimes, everyone, even Newt Gingrich, needs a hug.