Stuck in a Room with Mitt Romney
What It’s Like to Be Trapped with 50,000 Republicans at the RNC
The Tampa Bay Times Forum is basically one gigantic roach motel. You can get in, but you can’t get out. And once you’re inside, there is nothing intuitive about where you should go. One narrow escalator provides service to the whole sixth floor. The elevator banks are small and make strange connections between floors—you can go from the third level to the fifth level on one set of elevators, but you have to walk in circles to find an elevator that will take you the extra flight up to the sixth level, where the print journalists have been stashed, far away from the view of cameras and delegates. Some stairwells end in flat concrete expanses with no doors at all.
So I’m wandering around this place, in the first days of the Republican National Convention, where Mitt Romney will soon accept his party’s nomination to run for president.
Along the walls of the convention center, you’ll find the usual concession stands (a hot dog and fries costs $11, and if I told all the Republicans who grumbled about the high price of food that this was pure capitalism at work, I’d probably have my eye blackened a dozen times over) and bunkerlike bathrooms and gift shops you’d expect in an environment like this. But for the Republican National Convention, management has added a feature to the stadium: prayer rooms. Big signs out front trumpet the PRAYER ROOM, which is protected from the echo of the hall outside by a flimsy curtain. Inside, it’s just a boring room, with a card table and some seats, some depressing fluorescent lighting, slatted walls that were probably meant to hold sports team merchandise, and bright blue carpet adorned with the White Power–looking logo of the Tampa Bay Lightning hockey team.
One man inside the prayer room looks at me expectantly when I poke my head in. He’s a bit deflated when he sees that I’m not the leader of a parade of believers. “I thought there’d be a bigger group in here,” he says, shaking his head. “There was a whole prayer group here yesterday, all day long.” Now it’s just he and I. He’s a slight little guy, and I can feel his disappointment. Even his mustache looks dejected. His name is J.B., and he’s from right here in Florida. “Well,” he says, “I was hoping for a larger group, but we can do this together.” He gestures to a chair. I sit down. Every prayer room comes equipped with a Bible. “I know just the passage,” he says, flipping through the book. His eyebrows raise. “James 4?” He looks to me for approval.
I nod as if I have the entire New Testament in my memory, waiting for retrieval at a second’s notice. He locates his passage, and then I find myself holding hands with a fiftysomething man in the 2012 Republican National Convention. I’m about as atheist as they come, but something about this man’s dejected nature, and his air of mousiness that reminds me of my favorite high-school English teacher, makes me want to indulge him. I don’t lie, I just don’t admit that I haven’t prayed since I was 4. He reads the passage:
What is the source of quarrels and conflicts among you? Is not the source your pleasures that wage war in your members? You lust and do not have; so you commit murder. You are envious and cannot obtain; so you fight and quarrel. You do not have because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it on your pleasures. You adulteresses, do you not know that friendship with the world is hostility toward God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. Or do you think that the Scripture speaks to no purpose: “He jealously desires the Spirit which He has made to dwell in us”? But He gives a greater grace. Therefore it says, “God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” Submit therefore to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you. Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be miserable and mourn and weep; let your laughter be turned into mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves in the presence of the Lord, and He will exalt you.
J.B. asks the Lord to save us from pride and help us be humble in all our works. He says amen. I remember my Catholic upbringing and manage to blurt out an amen. J.B. frowns. He lets go of my hand. “What is this translation?” He looks at the front of the Bible and his brow furrows. “Oh. New American.” He blandly pushes the book away from him and then his mood suddenly lightens. “I was thinking about James 4 because of that part about being proud. I think we all need to hear that right now,” he chuckles. I agree. Then we go our separate ways, trying to find our way in the labyrinth of concrete and humanity.
Thanks to the RNC, the streets of Tampa now resemble the interior of the Tampa Bay Times Forum.
If you’re downtown, it’s virtually impossible to get around. The National Guard is marching the streets with matte black machine guns and glossy black wraparound sunglasses. Police officers have been recruited from departments around the country to go on patrols in modified golf carts. Cement barricades block off major arterials. Dump trucks and Hummers are parked sideways across streets, and entire swaths of Tampa’s downtown have effectively been declared a no-man’s-land, an empty brown terrain with nothing but grass, some palmetto bugs, and a few lizards. There’s no barbed wire, but it’s so aggressive that once you finally get where you’re going, you remember all the walls as being topped with barbed wire anyway.
There are only a few avenues into and out of the RNC area, and those avenues are flooded with people. Almost entirely white. Mostly older. Mostly male. These delegates to the convention carry pockets full of pins exalting their home state, and a little magpie trading economy has broken out where people trade potato-shaped Idaho buttons for a pin in the shape of North Carolina. Some delegates make it their duty to try to collect every single state button by the end of the convention. Which is good, because it gives them something to do when they’re standing in line. Republicans really, really hate standing in line, and conventions provide nothing more than opportunity after opportunity to come together by standing in line.
Lines are tough when they’re full of self-entitled people who believe they and they alone should have the right to get ahead. I overhear several graying men grumble to their soothing wives that walking to their car has been a nightmare, they’ve had to walk a dozen blocks, and they’re going to make DAMN sure, they’re going to do EVERYTHING in their POWER, to ensure that Tampa never hosts another convention again. One Southern man on my left makes it a point to look every National Guardsman in the eyes and thank them for their service to the country. Impatient people grunt and sigh and cut around him; he’s between them and their after-party. A young man is telling his wife that he thought the speakers should have mentioned Hurricane Isaac more, to defuse the media’s inevitable comments. “Only like one person was killed” by Isaac, she whispered back. “Big deal.” His eyes search the crowd guiltily, trying to see if anyone heard her say that. Then he chuckles.
Of course, self-entitlement is only half of the Republican mindset in 2012; the other half is fear. A couple in the crowd behind me discusses the pluses and minuses of taking a shortcut diagonally through the park to our right. “If you think I’m walking through a park in the middle of the night, you’re fucking kidding me,” she hisses at him. This park is less than a city block square, and brightly lit by streetlights and Christmas lights. You can see clearly from one side to another. It’s empty. It has maybe a dozen tall, skinny trees, and it’s ringed on all sides by squadrons of policemen, Secret Service, and the National Guard, not to mention the swarms of people leaving the convention, a couple thousand, easy, in my line of sight. And this woman is deathly afraid she’s going to get mugged, because muggings happen in city parks after dark—she’s probably seen it on TV a hundred times before—and she’d rather not get mugged.
I try to picture the mugger this woman imagines. He’s either black or Latino, he’s carrying a knife or a gun, he’s got gold teeth, and he’s stretching his body to something thinner than five inches around to hide behind one of those trees. It’s not crime this woman is afraid of, it’s vampires. It’s superstitious thought. It’s the kind of thinking that overrides logic in place of something you’ve seen on TV.
Which I guess means they’re in the right place. The central argument at the 2012 Republican National Convention is “We Built It,” which is a refutation of a comment that President Obama didn’t really make. You’ve already heard this, but it’s important to point it out every time a Republican runs with it: When Obama said, “You didn’t build that,” he wasn’t telling business owners that they didn’t create the business they created. He was saying, in inelegant language, that they profit from the roads and bridges that government builds. But the biggest applause line in most of the dozens of speeches I’ve heard comes when the speaker is talking about a small business and then they pause, point at the camera, and say, “And yes, Mr. President, they DID build that.” The audience eats it up every time. Every fucking time, they cheer and swoon and bellow, like Pavlov’s dog, only dumber.
Rand Paul, bless his heart, was the only politician in the entire three-day convention to put President Obama’s argument in proper context. And even then, he was doing that so he could argue against public roads. Paul claimed that roads don’t make business great, business makes roads great, which is a truly baffling chicken-and-the-egg statement that the audience adored. Paul turned out to be a standout speaker. Compared with everyone else, he was charismatic and full of energy, an Ayn Rand–drunk, dollar-store version of Bill Clinton. This is all a matter of perspective, of course, which only identified the weakness of the Republican all-star bench.
Nights one and two both featured headline speakers who were upstaged by the speakers immediately preceding them. Chris Christie’s speech was widely thought to be a flop, and Ann Romney’s was considered a hit. The delegates leaving the convention on Wednesday weren’t talking about Paul Ryan; instead, they could not stop chattering about Condoleezza Rice, who gave the kind of biographical, party-shaping speech you give when you know you’ve got a big political race in the very near future. (“She didn’t even use a teleprompter,” one man said, with wonder in his voice, even as he noted with disdain that every other speaker, including Ryan, did use one.) Rick Santorum, who has again become a pariah in his own party since his campaign fizzled in the spring, talked about hands with the enthusiasm and thoroughness of a very determined manicurist. Mike Huckabee, Tim Pawlenty, Rob Portman, Newt Gingrich and five or six other white men with marquee names struck out with speeches that couldn’t capture the audience’s attention for more than a few moments at a time.
And then Mitt Romney was upstaged by a Hollywood actor having a conversation with a foul-mouthed imaginary president sitting in a chair. You could tell from his coveted “mystery speaker” prime-time speaking slot that Clint Eastwood was intended to be the kind of thing annoying marketers call a “water-cooler moment,” something that would redefine the campaign, a friendly face to come into America’s living room and give all of us permission to vote against Obama.
Instead, Eastwood had a senior moment in front of all of America.
(Well, rather, he had a senior moment in front of the America that chooses to watch the conventions, which is getting smaller and smaller as the years go on. The night of Paul Ryan’s speech paled in comparison with Sarah Palin’s debut, dropping about 41 percent in the ratings from 2008, according to the Wall Street Journal. One has to doubt that they’re making up 41 percent of the audience on internet viewers.)
It turns out, Eastwood speaking to an invisible Obama sitting in a chair onstage was an unwittingly perfect metaphor for this convention; the organizers spent millions of dollars arguing against an imaginary statement by a cartoon-villain president who at least one of these delegates described in the streets outside as “in the Muslims.”
Sandwiched as he was between Eastwood and Romney, Marco Rubio was almost too good, too human, as he introduced Romney. When he’s talking about policy, Rubio gets scary, but when he’s talking about himself, he seems expansive, friendly, happy. Luckily, he let a little peevishness shine through when he glared at delegates who dared interrupt his soaring rhetoric with their cries of “Mitt! Mitt! Mitt!” And then Mitt Romney interrupted Rubio’s soaring rhetoric with his speech.
History will not remember Mitt Romney’s speech, except possibly for the back-to-back interruptions by protesters on opposite ends of the hall shouting “people over profits” and the out-of-thin-air promise that Romney would create 12 million jobs in his first presidential term. His five-point plan to save small business—“small business” is code for “big business” in Republican speeches—involved school vouchers, balancing the budget, lowering taxes and regulations, killing Obamacare, and drilling for oil in America, which he promised would create energy independence by 2020.
What a farce. What a crock. This is the businessman who is going to save America from the ruination caused by the last businessman? Where are the nerdy PowerPoints, the Ross Perot–style lectures about what makes business run, the numbers, the facts, the figures? Nowhere to be found. Instead, we were spoon-fed two and a half hours of soppy biography about what a great guy he is, how his religion is good and decent, how he created Staples and saved the Olympics from 9/11 somehow. (His health care plan, the legislation he considered to be the center of his single term as governor of Massachusetts, was likewise nowhere to be found in the 12 hours of speeches that made up the bulk of the convention. In fact, his time as an elected official was glossed over, an uncomfortable bump in the otherwise airy biography.) The Romney presented at the convention was a feel-good businessman, the kind of self-help-seminar shyster who claims that self-confidence can create big profits.
But you can see that Romney is uncomfortable with this positioning. You can see this isn’t how he wanted it. Every once in a while—when he’s momentarily startled by the raucous Republican response to one of his coded Obama-is-foreign lines, say, or when he gets heckled—you can see real fear in Romney’s eyes. It’s the fear of someone who suddenly realized he let himself get too drunk, or nearly got into a car accident because he was dopily roaming his hand around the floor of the car, looking for the sandwich he dropped. Someone who spent his whole life chasing something, only to find that he really didn’t want it. Not like this. Never like this. Romney wanted Republicans to volunteer their respect for him with wild abandon and recognize him as a champion for his party, not to pander or be told what he’s supposed to be—that’s the opposite of leading. And then he sets his jaw for a second, and his eyes go back into half-vacant campaigning mode and the smile pops on and he gets back into it, because it’s what he’s been trained to do.
As the exiting crowds are corralled by fleets of bike cops, the television news personalities stand around looking bored in the klieg lights, waiting to say their 30-second piece before throwing it back to the anchors. None of them look pleased. The convention simply wasn’t as exciting as many in the media had hoped. Republicans didn’t go full-on teabagger at the convention (even if they did in private, and in events around the convention), instead couching their language in disappointment for the president. They didn’t mention social issues much at all, because they know that voters side with liberals (and social libertarians) on issues like abortion, gay marriage, and easy access to birth control. Instead, they talk about small business and hope that nobody notices that when they talk about deregulation, they’re really talking about deregulation for multinational corporations, and they talk about fixing Medicare while hoping that nobody notices they’re really talking about undoing one of the most popular government programs in the nation. Altogether, it’s a finely edited document that falls apart on close examination, but Republicans are hoping that their message won’t be examined.
So the messaging sounded inoffensive, but when you really think about what is being said at this convention, you realize that all the red, white, and blue bunting and clothing and video imagery is a put-on. All the talk about patriotism, about supporting the troops, is just lip service. This is the most unpatriotic crowd I have ever been a part of. What they are against is community. Every sentence is devoid of empathy. Every finger-wag is aimed directly at an American who can’t afford health insurance, who hasn’t had a raise on their minimum-wage job in four years. Even as they rail against a statement that the president never really made, they are talking about tearing America down and leaving something meaner and greedier in its place. They’re radicals—radicals who’ve gone over the edge and are trying to make their radicalism mainstream.
But is that really true? Are they the monsters I think they are when the lights are down and the demagogues are predictably spreading their demagoguery? They roar like monsters in the darkened halls of the Forum, but I look at the people around me, milling forward in the embrace of waist-high concrete barriers to their left and right, trying to get back to their cars, or their buses, or their hotels. They’re grumbling about the blisters caused by their good pair of shoes. They’re hungry. They’re tired. But they are unmistakably human beings. That bald man whose wattle hangs down over his shirt like a meaty necktie, that woman whose perm looks as arid and dry as a tumbleweed. These are peoples’ grandparents. Real human beings will weep when they die (and for most of this ancient crowd, the day that they die will probably be sometime soon). They’re scared of the imaginary world of the 1950s in their heads dying forever, and the problem is that scared people make dumb choices.
It always comes back to fear. Fear is the single greatest enemy of survival. When you’re afraid, you can’t think ahead, you can’t plan. You try to get out of immediate danger. You climb a tree when a bear is chasing you. You dive to the ground when a snow-blind 18-wheeler is skidding right at you. You open your mouth and scream when your foot gets caught under a rock at the bottom of a river. You get mauled and eaten. You get crushed into toothpaste. You drown, and they never find your body. There is nothing left of you that resembles you anymore, and it’s all because of fear. And fear is understandable. Fear happens to all of us, there’s no shame in succumbing to a momentary burst of fear.
But when you choose to live your life in fear, you lose that most essential thing that makes you human. When you support George W. Bush’s Patriot Act, as the woman to my left with the cowboy hat full of Bush/Cheney buttons probably did, you’re supporting fear. When you try to take food away from starving people, or deny good students access to higher education, or steal choices away from the next generation of women, you may not be a monster, but you are making monstrous choices.
I look at this crowd of people hobbling forward to parties and sleep and breakfast and smiles and tears, and I think about the fact that just hours before, I was sitting in the antiseptic, airport-style Prayer Room high above this street, holding hands with J.B. I think about what he said about pride, and I wish that he’d kept reading chapter 4 of James. In the next verses, 13 and 14, there are words that I think are much more appropriate to this group of people who have traveled from all around the country to lie to everyone about what they believe so that their fear can take root and fester and spread. I wish we could all hold hands with J.B. in a huge circle, all around the militarized downtown of Tampa, with the swarm of buzzing, crazy-making helicopters humming in the gelatinous Tampa air overhead, and listen to him read those next lines in his friendly, quavering voice:
Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, and spend a year there and engage in business and make a profit.” Yet you do not know what your life will be like tomorrow. You are just a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away.”