Wednesday, January 16, 2008

I wish someone would phone

Left: Ronald Reagan accepts the nomination of his party, Detroit, 1980. Photo from HowStuffWorks.

Once upon a time, in a galaxy far, far away, I sat with a bunch of scruffy anarchists in a bleak motel room waiting for a phone call, any phone call. No cell phones then. This was the summer of 1980 in Detroit, Michigan, during the Republican convention that nominated Ronald Reagan. I don't remember the name or location of the motel, but it was cheap and seedy, one of those that rented by the hour.

I peeped out the door, and there was an unmarked car with some sort of unmarked law enforcement inside. They looked bored and always seemed to be eating sandwiches. Whenever we opened the door, they looked up and started talking about us. Sometimes, they'd even wave.

Local? Federal? Oh, Jesus Christ. They scared me to death.

"It's an intimidation tactic," announced Froggy, one of my co-activists. Is it my imagination he went out to talk to them, Abbie Hoffman style? "What are you guys doing? Having a good day?"

At this apocalyptic juncture, numerous counter-demonstrators whose full, legal names we realized we didn't even know (and thus, couldn't bail out) had been arrested in front of the Renaissance Center for demonstrating overnight. The rest of us had the good fortune to be asleep in cars or on the Yippie bus that had traveled from New York City. Our fearless leaders were gone and we were in a panic. We had no money and no dope, as in the infamous Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers comic. How were we going to pay for the motel? Did those unmarked cops know about all of this? Should we ask them if they know? They might know more than we do. Go ask them! No, you go ask! I'm not talking to cops! Many rounds of rock, paper, scissors ensued, to determine who should talk to the cops. In the end, no one did.

We felt like ants after you pour hot water on the anthill, scurrying about, not knowing what to do. Law enforcement had effectively poured hot water on us. We joked that it was just like the David Bowie song, Panic in Detroit:

The only survivor of the National People's Gang
Panic in Detroit
I asked for an autograph
He wanted to stay home
I wish someone would phone

After many rounds of arguing, fussing with the ancient TV that contained no news, smoking the last of the reefer and eating the last of the Cheetos, we all slept. About a dozen people, total, and significant overflow onto the floor, even someone sleeping in the bathtub.

About 4am, a knock. Several of us jolted awake immediately. Staring at each other wide-eyed in the dark, it was decided that *I* should answer the door. Daisy will answer it. It was decided I looked "the most innocent"--one of the other activists proclaimed I looked like Samantha on Bewitched and consequently, they would never arrest me, just because. (And you know, they never did.)

Channeling Samantha (who I remembered was always covering up for some wild shit when she answered the door, too), I opened the door. A Republican with a short buzzcut was standing there, wearing a shirt with one of those trademark GOP Elephants on it. The shirt bore the Detroit Chamber of Commerce slogan for the convention: Detroit loves a Good Party!

I stiffened; who is this asshole?

He grinned at me.

It was STEVE CONLIFF! FEARLESS LEADER! He was passing for a Republican! I screamed.

He shushed me and ducked inside. I was thrilled he was not in jail, but shocked at the transformation and his short hair; it was as extreme and as shocking as if Jerry Garcia had suddenly shaved his head. (Simultaneously, I thought, what a great disguise, even I didn't recognize him.)

He pulled up a chair and began rolling a joint as two other people woke up, clambering off the floor. One glared at him. Someone whined, as if on cue, "Where the hell is Conliff? I thought it would be CONLIFF!" They sneered at the Republican, "Who is THAT???!!!"

"Yeah!" he said, lighting the joint, "Where IS Conliff, anyway?" It was his sweet grin that gave him away. Someone turned on the lights. "Oh my God!" said one woman, "What have you DONE?!" and started to cry.

"Screaming, crying, Jesus Christ!" he puffed, satisfied. "As long as you didn't recognize me!" He grinned again.

A very young yippie marveled at the transformation, "That is fucking amazing, man!"

It was. Why had he done it? Because he wanted to go onto the convention floor, hang out with delegates at Hotel Pontchartrain, drink at the local discos; he wanted to infiltrate. And he had done that.

Left: The Yippie flag.

And for the next few hours, Steve Conliff regaled us with his stories of the day. He had eaten lunch and dinner with hip Republicans, the kind who wore T-shirts instead of suits, snorted ultra-pricey coke and partied. He had shared scotch-and-water with them in local bars, and listened carefully. And he told us: They are tired of Jimmy Carter, tired of global "appeasement." They hate minorities. They hate women getting abortions and deciding they can leave husbands any time they want to. They think we are a bunch of queers. (Back then, "queer" was still fightin words, and he paused to apologize to the gay male hippie-couple in the room, then still sprawled on the floor. They both shrugged simultaneously, one still gaping at Conliff's hair, or lack of it.)

They are taking over, he announced. Ronald Reagan is the next president.

Somebody grunted from the corner, but Carter is an INCUMBENT!

Gerald Ford was an incumbent too, Conliff reminded them.

Gerald Ford wasn't ELECTED! argued the voice from the corner.

Gerald Ford didn't have to deal with Iranian hostages! Conliff snapped. "These Republicans intend to take over the fucking world. They don't care how long it takes them. Carter is just a blip, a detour, a pause in their program. They are in it for the long goddamned haul!"

At the time, this all sounded incredible, like believing Dr Strangelove was real.

"They want control of the whole Middle East," he said. "They don't care how long it takes them to get it. They are determined, more determined than we are. They WILL get it."

And the room was quiet. President Ronald Reagan?! Is that really going to happen? THIS BAD ACTOR IS GOING TO BE PRESIDENT?!?! Conliff's Republican infiltration had left him unshaken in his convictions and utterly certain: Yes, Reagan.

And then he added: Two terms.

"He'll die first, he's old," snorted the skeptic in the corner, the eternal optimist.

"Then they will prop his ass up like on that old Star Trek episode, and make it look like he is still talking!" Everyone laughed, but it was that uneasy, weird, scared, nervous laughter. Conliff's certainty was frightening, as well as depressing. Was he right? If so, what were we doing here? We were making no difference at all.


He laughed at accidental sirens
that broke the evening gloom
The police had warned of repercussions
They followed none too soon
A trickle of strangers were all that were left alive
Panic in Detroit
I asked for an autograph
He wanted to stay home
I wish someone would phone

My political mentor, Steve Conliff, was virtually always right in his political prognostications. And so, when he first explained to me what strategic voting was, I followed his advice.

Always vote for the most liberal Republican in the primary, to draw the GOP to the left, he said. In the general election, vote your conscience. I have taken his advice ever since. The man who told us the future, sitting in a bleak motel room, deserved to be listened to, his philosophy followed. He was right, after all.

And I never forgot that he was right.

And so, right-wing fruitcake or not, I will vote for the libertarian antiwar candidate, Ron Paul, in the South Carolina GOP primary on Saturday. I won't cut my hair or buy elephant shirts; I'm sure I'll be relatively easy to spot at the polls. They will look at me and know.

But if there is any other way we can stop them from taking over the Middle East, I am listening. I'm open to suggestions, as I was that night in Detroit, so long ago.


People in the Sun said...

That was a great story. It's not easy to pull a man away from his Google Reader and into an actual blog, but that was enlightening.

Bryce said...

yeah great story D. & u know what? u rly DO look like samantha!

love, B

CrackerLilo said...

What an amazing story!

Definitely answers the question, too.

I keep hoping the polls are wrong about Huckabee. *shudder*

James Stanhope said...

That is a fascinating post about Steve Conliff's infiltration and his advice about voting for a "liberal Republican." I want to respond to previous comments.

First, to Crackerlilo: Huckabee, even if he wins the South Carolina primary, will never be elected President in November 2008. I hope South Carolina Republicans understand that before they vote. Huckabee is George W. Bush redux, and no sane voter in this country wants that, not even Republicans. If Huckabee wins the SC primary, chalk it up to religious fanatics and shrug it off.

Second, regarding Steve Conliff's observation about "hip Republicans" criticizing Jimmy Carter's "global appeasement." If those Republicans in 1980 actually thought that Carter was an appeaser, they were wrong. Carter was a former naval officer and at all times a national security hawk and actually an energy hawk as well, at least in the sense that he believed that the U.S. had to prevent the Soviet Union from gaining a military presence near oil resources around the Persian Gulf (now the Arabian Gulf), which, Carter believed, is why the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, Carter very seriously considered reinstituting the U.S. military draft and did in fact, with China, supply the mujahadeen in Afghanistan with Stinger missles (I think) or at least with some kind of substantial support at the same time that Benazir Bhutto and the Pakistani ISI created the Taliban. Carter was never an appeaser. But I think that he underestimated the willingness of the Soviet government, at that time, to take military advantage of the fact that Jimmy Carter had a "reactive" foreign policy in regards to the Soviets -- he would wait for the Soviets to act, and then Carter would respond. The Soviets took advantage of that and sent Soviet troops to Afghanistan and Cuban troops to Angola. The Soviet and Chinese governments at that time even explained to their populations that Carter was in fact an ethical and idealistic man but that he was naive about foreign policy (I was in college and grad school while Carter was President). But Carter was never an appeaser, and he viewed the Middle East in roughly the same way that every U.S. President has since FDR, namely, as a vital energy source. Carter simply used different means to achieve what George W. Bush thinks himself to be doing now.

Regarding the strategy of voting for a "liberal Republican" to draw the GOP to the left: I can understand the strategy, but keep in mind that ultimately either McCain or Romney will probably get the national GOP nomination (most likely McCain). Ron Paul's candidacy is almost entirely symbolic, and except for his stand on U.S. policy in the Middle East (with which I agree), Ron Paul is a social reactionary. His "libertarianism," I think, is a mask for extreme social conservatism. In the GOP, some extreme social conservatives mask themselves as "libertarians" in order to undo Roe v. Wade (as excessive "federalization" of social issues) and possibly even civil rights legislation (in 1964, Goldwater defended segregation on the grounds of states' rights). When Ron Paul presents himself as an anti-authoritarian, it's actually in reaction to the center-left social policy of the Federal government since 1964. He is a genuine Constitutionalist in opposing the Patriot Act, and that's to his credit. But otherwise he scares me.

I hope this long post hasn't been too intolerable.

Daisy said...

James, other than the fact that you seem to get your politics spoon-fed to you from the New York Times, I don't mind. However, if you start getting as obnoxious here as you often are at Natalia's blog, I will delete your comments, so please don't show your ass, okay? :)

"If those Republicans in 1980 actually thought that Carter was an appeaser, they were wrong."

Most hawks did not like Jimmy Carter's peace efforts in the Middle East. Have you forgotten the intense right/left controversies over the Camp David Accords?

Ron Paul is more uncompromisingly antiwar than several of the Democrats in the race, and that is what I refer to.

Anonymous said...

no question that voting for RP will hurt the mainstream repubs. if you're in a red state that actually sounds like a good idea for primary voting.

pieman said...

we met in 1980 at reagans's convention....i am aron kay the mad do look familiar!!! do you remember the bust they pulled that afternoon on the main drag resulting in dana beal getting belted by a cop? i still remember sneaking away w/chris from columbus and mario...we walked 5 miles to the rainbow house where we took sanctuary,,please respond via if you remember me

Jon said...

Ha, good story. We met up then. I was with the punk rock contingent that ended up in the middle of a fist fight during DOA's set at the Rock Against Racism/Reagan show. I went to visit the Yippies in NY shortly afterwards.

So, we are old comrades in arms

However, I still couldn't bring myself to vote for Ron Paul. Libertarians, as far as I've been able to find out, are Republicans without money. Give them anything resembling power and they make their peace with the Bush wing of the party in seconds. And then there's that thing about the magnificent irresistible beauty of capitalism as the highest expression of nature and the only true means for human beings to relate to each other. Dude! I'm gonna hurl!
Peace, love and stop going on about being old! I have friends who've been at this thing for fifty or more years. We might be running out of energy but we might just be coming into wisdom.

chaos said...

Awsome post, you've got a new follower.


~Macarena~ said...

This is beautiful.

John Steinbach said...

I ran the first aid tent at the Rock Against Racism/Reagan concert. The Outlaws motorcycle gang attacked the RCP during the DOA set. Very ugly stuff.

DaisyDeadhead said...

John, I witnessed that. You're so right.