Dan Savage Goes Undercover to the Iowa Caucuses and Gives Gary Bauer the Flu Bug
BAUER 2000 HEADQUARTERS is a $12 cab ride from downtown Des Moines -- or was a $12 cab ride from downtown Des Moines. By the time you read this, Gary Bauer's campaign headquarters in Iowa will probably be deserted, its computers, staffers, and fax machines broken up and redistributed among more viable Republican candidates, like, oh, Alan Keyes. But when I arrive three days before the Iowa Caucuses, the offices of former Reagan domestic policy adviser and future presidential-election footnote Gary Bauer are humming. I'm the only new volunteer to walk through the door in quite some time, apparently, so campaign staffers don't quite know what to do with me. Only after 10 or 15 minutes of asking around does Andy, a young Bauer staffer, direct me to the phones.
The headquarters are 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, shows me a cubicle, hands me a list of phone numbers, and gives me a script. I'm supposed to call everyone on the list, and ask if they're going to their caucus on Monday night. If they are, I'm supposed to ask them if they're going to support Gary Bauer. If they're not supporting Gary, I'm supposed to talk them into supporting Gary.
Pretending you feel fine when you've got the flu is exhausting -- and I have the flu in a big way. On my flight to Minneapolis, I felt this itch in the back of my throat. By the time I got to my hotel in Des Moines, all I could do was get undressed, crawl under the covers, and stay in bed for two days. On day three, still sick as a dog, I decide to get up and do my job. I'm relieved when the Bauer folks stick me in an out-of-the-way cubicle, where unobserved I can allow myself to look as miserable as I feel.
Like the rest of the media elite, I am in Des Moines to cover the caucuses. My original plan was to follow one of the loopy conservative Christian candidates around -- Bauer or Alan Keyes -- and write something insightful and humanizing about him, his campaign, and his supporters. But then, from my deathbed, I catch Gary Bauer on MSNBC. "Our society will be destroyed if we say it's okay for a man to marry a man or a woman to marry a woman," he says. Seeing Bauer go off about gay marriage reminds 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."
In my Sudafed-induced delirium, I decide that if it's terrorism Bauer wants, it's terrorism Bauer is going to get. Naked, feverish, and higher than a kite on codeine aspirin, I call the Bauer campaign and volunteer. 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'll go to Bauer's campaign office and cough on everything. Phones and pens. Staplers and staffers. I even hatch a plan to infect the candidate himself; I'll keep a pen in my mouth until Bauer drops by his offices to rally the troops. And when he does, I'll approach him and ask for his autograph, handing him the pen from my flu-virus-incubating mouth.
While I make calls, I overhear Bauer's press secretary calling reporters and letting them know that Gary will be having a press conference at a cemetery at 3:30 p.m., at the grave of a fetus found in a ditch. Gary will give his usual complaint about the coarsening of our culture -- standing on a child's grave for emphasis. While I dial, my eyes drift over the pieces of paper pinned to the wall of my cubicle. A photocopied "thought for the day" catches my attention. "Remember, when someone annoys you," the thought reads, "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." Hmmm. A little coarse, I think to myself, chewing my pen.
The list I've been given is of voters who've indicated that Gary is their second choice. Of the 50 or so people I manage to get on the phone, most are 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 Republican and Democratic caucus sites, so I can tell people where to go on Monday night. It's tempting 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, as Andy tells me.
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 fuck with them. I tell everyone the truth about their caucus locations. Well, almost everyone.
James in Des Moines is just itching to vote for Bauer. "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 leans into my cubicle and gives me a thumbs up. James continues: "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 send 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's for Forbes because he's so strongly pro-life. Exasperated, 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 flip-flopped. What if he gets into office and has another 'change of heart'? Gary's been pro-life all his public life. He's never changed his position; you can trust him. If you're a pro-life voter, ma'am, then Gary is your candidate."
There is a long pause. "You're right; you're right," she says. "You can put me down for Gary."
Wow. This is 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. Oh my God. How was I going to sleep at night?
"Gary is having a press conference today at the World War II memorial by the state capitol," Andy tells me when I arrive the next day for my second shift at Bauer 2000 headquarters. "We'd like to have a crowd of supporters there." Andy hands me a list of phone numbers and shows me to a phone; he also tells me to stop by the conference. "Grab my arm," he says, "and I'll make sure you get to meet Gary."
An hour and a half later, most everyone has left the offices for a pizza party. I am alone, like Cinderella after her sisters trotted off to the ball. My nose is running like a faucet, so I'm not too upset at missing the pizza. Besides, I've got work to do.
I go around the room licking doorknobs. They are filthy, no doubt, but there isn't time to find a rag to spit on. If for some reason I don't manage to get a pen from my mouth to Gary's hands at the conference, I want to seed his office with germs, get as many of his people sick as I can, and hopefully one of them will infect the candidate. I lick office doorknobs, bathroom doorknobs. When that's done, I start on the staplers, phones, and computer keyboards. Then I stand in the kitchen and lick the rims of all the clean coffee cups drying in the rack. I grab my coat and head out.
I show up at the war memorial press conference, but the turnout is skimpy. There are about two dozen people here, mostly campaign staffers and their families. My phone efforts have failed, but Andy claps me on the back anyway, hands me a Bauer sign, and tells me to stand behind the podium with the rest of the crowd. It's freezing cold and windy. Waiting for Gary, I take my pen out of my pocket and put it in my mouth. This is it, my one shot at the candidate. I chew the pen, cracking the plastic shaft. Gary arrives, toddles up to the podium, and makes some brief remarks about Red China. As he steps away, I step toward him.
"This is my son," I say, handing him a photograph. "Can I have your autograph?" Bauer gives me an odd look; I need to give him a little more. "I talked his mother out of aborting him. You're my hero, Mr. Bauer."
He looks at me with his little bug eyes, and breaks into a wide smile. "Good for you," Gary says. "That's wonderful."
He takes the picture, and I pull the pen out of my mouth and hand it to him. Score! My bodily fluids -- flu bugs and all -- are all over his hand! When he tries to sign, no ink comes out. Gary looks up at the cameras and says, "Looks like everything is frozen." He grabs a poster and scribbles on it to get the ink flowing, then signs the picture. He hands me my pen, and starts to walk toward his van. He stops to answer a reporter's question, and I see him run a finger under his nose. Perfect.
I didn't need to lick all those doorknobs after all.