White floodlights on the hill, the old Hollywood type, limelight cylinders and a jumbotron screen behind the makeshift stage, playing some warm-up act, stumbling through the pledge of allegiance, Still the Same blasting over the fields. You can’t see the jumbotron supports in the dark, so it looks like this moon-faced Romneybot is floating in space, in the Virginia night. Folks are streaming into the park, down the road leading from this pretty Virginia town, all neat stucco houses and birch trees, a place where even the bail bondsman’s office has a shingle roof and a hand-carved wooden sign (“serving all Va. Prisons!”).
Most of the townspeople don’t live here of course — the historic downtown is part tourist bauble, part old well-born Virginny types, but the old town is now ringed by fauxlonial-style apartment blocks and minimalls, with an express commuter bus to DC. I rode in with those folks, DC types, rumpled office workers in cheap suits, women swapping heels for flats, and diving into Fifty Shades Freed on their Kindle. They’re urban-types, priced out of the DC market as the city booms. A decade ago, few of them would have disturbed the peace of the Virginia countryside, reliably Republican state for nearly half a century until Obama took it in 2008.
That was partly the result of the Obama landslide, but it’s also because of the place’s changing demographics, the influx of city-folk from all over to the dormitory towns across the north of the state. Many people on the bus look like they’d be more comfortable getting a knish in Brooklyn while waiting for the “F” train. Doesn’t sound like many will be turning up to the Romney rally, most of them grousing about the traffic rerouting: “Why don’t they hold it at noon?” “Then no one would go.” “Damn good.” Like fisherman talking of the weather, they check motorcade and security updates, giving the driver free advice on detours, wanting to be home by nine, before it all starts again.
Down at the park, there’s more enthusiasm; families and couples streaming in from the improvised car parks around. They’re chunkier, lower slung and quite a few of them have come a long way, from the late 1950s to judge by some of the clothes. There ain’t many waverers here, and for many Leesburg is the big city. They’re from west of here, out across the plains to where the Appalachians begin from the rural part of a state that contains multitudes. Here was where the Civil War drew a line between north and south, and while the Old Dominion state doesn’t go in for waving Confederate flags the back blocks have firm opinions about how things should be done. Like Florida, that other swing state, Virginia is a microcosm of America, urbane north and rural south, and guess who turned up to see Mitt Romney tonight?
In the park, the audience is arranged in a circle around a divet, a standard rally arrangement that never ceases to have a certain biblical air — for Romney, most unlikely of messiahs. The floods burn across the crowd, which is all ages and backgrounds, save for the fact they are so utterly, dazzlingly, exclusively white. It’s unrelieved, from one side of the field to the other, disorienting, like flying over an Antarctic ice sheet. Oh, there’s an Indian or two about — real one, not native American; either cab drivers or software developers on seven figures — and there’s a group of black people near the entrance; actually, they’re the minimum wage security staff waving the wands over people coming in.
Music’s pumping, the usual Republican hit parade: Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man (“if you need some lovin’ and you need it right away …”); Bob Seger’s Still the Same for goddsake; of course Santana Smooth (“give me your heart …”), and don’t they love that one. It’s like a business student’s mix-tape from 1985. The crowd all has thundersticks — short cylinder balloons, the staple of football games. Banged together they create a cracking sound, which is quite fearsome, or would be in a different crowd. Here, it is a miracle — 5000 people, 10,000, and no one can stay on the beat. At the end of the songs they wave them at the stage, red, white and blue, some frightening phallic worship, and then: “Ladies and gentlemen … Dennis Miller!” Oh god no.
“Doubtless he’s been luvved up and stuffed with empathy like a vodka suppository, and it’s started to wear out.”
Miller struts out, a broad-shouldered pinstripe man and, unusually for a comedian and ex-TV comedy writer, both Republican and handsome. The former writing partner of Al Franken, who’s now a senator, Miller went rightwards after 9/11, a trajectory which had everything to do with the sudden threat to America and nothing at all with the sudden celebrity of Franken, with whom he broke acrimoniously, as the latter became a liberal culture-hero. The death-dance of a bad marriage is nothing compared to the life-or-death struggle of a comedy duo falling apart, and by the mid 2000s Miller had drained down to that gully trap of contumely and resentment, Fox News, where he had a regular segment with Bill O’Reilly.
Miller’s funny, but his freewheeling style relied on Franken’s acuity to give it bite. Absent that, he’s a braying, jeering cheerleader, playing to a dittohead crowd, and so his transition to Romney warm-up guy — something beyond the skills of even the redoubtable Ann — is entirely expected. “Hey, I’m sorry I’m late but the coffee in the waiting area was terrible, just terrible, and I said to the assistant ‘can’t you do anything about this?’ and she said ‘well, y’know, joe will be joe’. Y’know, I don’t think Biden ever shuts up, I think they just occasionally hood him like a falcon.” A few more riffs, then he gets to the meat: “Y’know, we’ve had the hipster President, we’ve tried that, and Romney’s good, he’s a good cat, it’s time for the ‘gosh’ president.” Cat? 1985 yields to 1959.
Anyway, after a brief burst from local congressman Frank Wolf, there’s a big engineered roar, a burst of white people noise, and Mitt bounds out, smiling like he had an extra layer of teeth installed during his Bain days, and folksy in a tie and zip up jacket, though the latter looked like a soft Italian leather job, straight outta Venice. “Thank you, thank you Virginia, thank you.” Then, inevitably “gosh”.
Romney’s looking happy, as well he might. Whoever won the second debate, few here think it was Obama, and there’s been no bounce in the numbers for the latter. Indeed, that morning a Gallup likely voters poll came out giving Romney a 6% margin across the board, and though no other poll is in that range the result has sent fear through blue-state nation. Having struggled through endless rallies where hope had departed, the prospect of actually winning is turning this sort of thing into a piece of piss.
But geeee, Romney — it doesn’t take a lot for him to lose his thread, to stumble and begin to sound like the Bob Newhart impersonation of, well, Mitt Romney. “Y’know. the President’s got no second-term agenda. We’ve got an agenda, and his agenda is to attack my agenda, ah ha ha ha.” He’s leading out a new variation on his stump, responding to Obama’s small-target strategy of announcing not much by way of future specifics. He went to the questions asked by the audience at the town hall meeting, talking like he knew them personally: “Jeremy asked …”; “Catherine asked …”; “Loraine asked …”; actually, it was Loraina, and she’d asked a question about immigration, but Latinate endings just evaporate in the Virginia air. Then he rolled out what people really wanted to hear — the insane promises: 12 million new jobs … energy independence in eight years … no tax rises … no cuts to Medicare expansion … no lift in the defence … biggest army ever …
By the end of it, and it’s a short stump, a little too short for some, who seem vaguely disgruntled as he starts to wrap up, he’s starting to fray. Doubtless he’s been luvved up and stuffed with empathy like a vodka suppository, and it’s started to wear out. He wasn’t great in the second debate, he isn’t good here, and his only commanding performance was the first debate — which, of course, may be enough.
It’s when he’s up before a crowd like this, and lights, and in full bluster, that one tries to work out what is really going on in Romney’s head. When he was losing, his increasingly unreal list of promises sounded like the evil rich guy bargaining for his life at the end of a bad movie: “wait, we can discuss this, I can make you rich, noooooo!” For months he appeared caught between a deep desire to throw the whole thing and a disbelief he would actually lose. Heavily prepped for a debate that involved no human contact, he could do what he had always intended: a boardroom business pitch we could all eavesdrop on.
But even the most vestigial contact with the real starts to peel away the paint job. Romney made clear his dislike of Obama in the second debate, but there is no guarantee he likes these thousands of folks much more, despite their trek out to a field on a cold weeknight, for a 12-minute speech, and Dennis frikkin Miller. It would be a category error to describe Romney as Aspergery in the nerd manner — he can fire people to do that, after all. But he is, for all his attempts to slide into the Right populist slot the Republican Party demands, an awkward and odd man — the sort of guy who can talk of “binders full of women”, a phrase which may, in a narrow run result, give Obama the last 5000 votes to get across the line. He is a public and exposed man from a private and inward religion, the diffident and variable son of a passionate and furiously convicted father, a would-be New England aristocrat in the sprawling mall-world of the state, about as remote from the suburban commute as could be imagined.
He’s done now, and the crowd is moving out, swaying to the same music as they leave. It’s like watching someone move sacks of chicken giblets around in a walk-in freezer. Friendly folks, who talk like they were briefed: “Well it’s the economy … Mitt’s from the world of business … he got his state back on track.” But what’s he really like? “Well … uh, I don’t know, I mean, I don’t know him, but I trust him.”
There’s now eight biographies of Obama, his mother, his marriage, his dad and his mentors — but he’s still under the lights, being interrogated as to who he really is. Romney, the white guy, has nothing to explain. Still the same, baby, you’re still the same.