The carpenter Miles Archibald Romney converted to Mormonism in Lower Penwortham in 1837. Four years later he and his wife Elizabeth left England for Nauvoo, Illinois. There he built Joseph Smith a temple that was not quite completed when the prophet was shot dead by a mob. Another mob burned down Miles’s temple, and he fled Nauvoo with his family. Hounded by animals, Indians and more mobs, they made their way to Salt Lake City, where he helped Brigham Young build a temple that still stands. Young sent Miles and his son, Miles P., to St George, Utah, where they built a tabernacle and a temple. Young commanded Miles P. to take more than one wife; he took five. He led the Mormon campaign against anti-polygamy laws, was harassed by marshals, and from time to time sent one or two of his wives into cornfields or mountain hideouts to escape arrest. In Arizona the editor of the Apache Chief called him ‘a mass of putrid pus and rotten goose pimples; a skunk, with the face of a baboon, the character of a louse, the breath of a buzzard and the record of a perjurer and common drunkard’. Miles P. crossed the border and set up a polygamous colony in Mexico. There his son Gaskell built a cattle farm and a door factory, but lost it all when revolutionaries besieged the colony. The family fled to El Paso. ‘I was kicked out of Mexico when I was five years old because the Mexicans were envious of the fact that my people … became prosperous,’ Gaskell’s son George said. George chased a Mormon girl called Lenore to Hollywood, rescued her from a Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer contract, took her to Detroit, ran a car company, became governor of Michigan, then squandered his lead over Nixon in the race for the Republican nomination in 1968 by saying he’d been ‘brainwashed’ by generals who told him the Vietnam War could be won. Last month his son Mitt arrived in Tampa persecuted for being a millionaire 250 times over, accused of sacrificing American workers on the altar of his own wealth, his status as a human the subject of national doubt.
I went to Tampa that week. The day I showed up the skies were protected by helicopters. ‘Here comes a mob,’ somebody said. At the corner of Kennedy Boulevard and Tampa Street, policemen in riot gear formed a line to meet the Poor People’s March of socialists and anarchists. The cops far outnumbered the protesters. A man with a megaphone and a black plastic boot on his head addressed the police: ‘They’ve got you dressed up like turtles.’ The turtles kettled the marchers to the east. I heard a libertarian carrying a Ron Paul sign discuss capitalism with a socialist. Could a pizza oven be owned by everyone who cooked and served the pizzas? Then it started to rain. One group of stalwarts danced up Tampa Street. The turtles marched away, singing ‘Do Wah Diddy Diddy’. Somebody ran out into the street and did a back flip.
The hypothetical pizza parlour was the first of many small businesses I would hear about that week. Republican politicians talked about the bar their families owned, the forklift-truck dealership, the security-guard agency, the hardware store, the snow-ploughing service, the petrol company, the upholsterer, the dress shop, the fruit stand. Those who had no relations who owned small businesses mentioned Cuban refugees who built boats or Cambodian refugees who operated doughnut shops. Owners of firms that make signs, fabricate metal, prepare convention displays, and construct pipelines came forward to describe the way Obama was strangling them with regulations and penalties for not providing employee healthcare. In July, Obama had said: ‘If you’ve got a business – you didn’t build that; somebody else made that happen.’ No, the Republicans said, we built it. They said it again and again. Like the story of the Romney family, the appeal mixed aspiration and grievance. Small business politics is a cover for big business policies, and occasionally this would come to the surface in the form of wild applause for union-busting governors like Scott Walker of Wisconsin or Chris Christie of New Jersey. Imagine Nikki Haley’s joy when she saw the first Boeing built in South Carolina roll down the tarmac ‘surrounded by six thousand non-union employees’.
That Monday night, after the protest, I met two local union members on a bridge. The Republicans had assigned me to a hotel across the bay in Clearwater, I had no access to cash because of a UK bank holiday, so I took personal responsibility and set out to walk. Just west of downtown, Kennedy Boulevard gives way to sprawl: storefront cheque-cashing services, law firms specialising in personal bankruptcy, fast-food chains, pawn shops, hair-loss clinics, bridal shops, a disproportionate number of luxury bathroom tile outlets, a 24-hour fitness centre, and a gentleman’s club called Envy (cash only). Life here was getting married, renovating your bathroom, going broke, declaring bankruptcy and trying to save what you could of your hair. I headed south on Westshore Boulevard past big wooden houses shaded by palm trees and artificial ponds carved out of the swamp: these are called Yankee towns. On Gandy Bridge I was stopped by a pair of police cars. ‘Where’s your vehicle?’ a cop with a shaved head asked me. I didn’t have one. ‘Could we see some ID?’ I gave them a passport. ‘You’re American, don’t you have a driver’s licence?’ He took my passport to his car to see if I was subject to any pending warrants. ‘You know,’ his partner said, ‘you’re walking a long way.’ I was aware. ‘What are you down here for?’ I told him. ‘Me, I’d be protesting. I’d be raising hell.’ The protests so far were ‘piddly stuff’. He was quite wistful. In the back of the patrol car I learned that the doors can’t be opened from the inside even when they’re unlocked. I was dropped four miles over the bridge in St Petersburg, and walked north towards Clearwater. Beneath the overpass for I-275 I saw the corpse and cracked shell of an unlucky turtle. I didn’t see any ‘Beware of Alligator’ signs until just before I got to the hotel. The walk had taken nine hours. On CNN Piers Morgan was interviewing the five sons of Mitt Romney, who all have the strange quality of laughing at things that have no potential to be funny. I suppose otherwise they’d never laugh at all.
In their biography The Real Romney, Michael Kranish and Scott Helman write that ‘within the family, Romney’s zany side was well known.’[*] They give two examples: Romney assuming ‘the voices of cartoon characters’ in letters home from Bordeaux, where he was a missionary in the late 1960s; and Romney doing the moonwalk while discussing church affairs with members of his congregation. But he won the Republican nomination by being the best funded and least zany of the field. At the convention, his rivals were diminished. Rick Santorum, the only one allowed a prime speaking slot, told of his immigrant grandfather who came to Pennsylvania from Italy when ‘there were no government benefits for immigrants except one: freedom!’ Then behind him a heckler in a purple dress shouted: ‘This is corporate bullshit!’ By the time the guards had dragged her out, Santorum was on to the ‘assault on marriage and the family’. She had also yelled out ‘Afghanistan’, a word hardly anyone else would say, not Condoleezza Rice, not Paul Ryan, not Romney himself.
On Tuesday night I stood with five Occupiers on Ashley Drive. They were holding ‘Mr 1%’ signs and shouting at the delegates: ‘Don’t look at me, you might catch poverty.’ David Brooks of the New York Times walked by. He always seemed to be walking by. A man pointed at the ‘Mr 1%’ sign and said: ‘That should be “Mr 0.001%”, thank you.’ They were considering a trip to a strip club to confront delegates about ‘issues beyond tits and ass’. ‘Time to de-cock us,’ a woman said. I tried and failed to crash a party in a tent and a party in the theatre on Franklin Street. At a dive across the way, I asked a woman in a zebra-stripe dress what she was doing at the RNC. ‘I’m a hardcore libertarian,’ she said, ‘but the economy’s more important to me than social issues, so I have to be at this.’
In other bars, sitting in the company of jolly Republicans, I heard that the president’s problem is that he’s a ‘pansy-ass’, that he wouldn’t come to Israel’s aid against Iran because he’s ‘too Muslim himself’, that he’s trying to hide his family from the country because he’s ‘not a real American’, that it would be easy for him to prove everything with some ‘microfiche’ from the hospital where he was born, that the best thing about America is ‘our defence’, and that Obamacare is ‘full of terrible, terrible things’ called ‘entitlements’. I heard that the country’s best years were the ones between 1983 and 1987, that no one ever did as much for American women as Ronald Reagan and the personal computer, that the parties at the RNC have never been as good as they were for Goldwater in San Francisco in 1964, that New York is a bad place to live because of rapists, that the hottest guys at the convention were the officers of the Secret Service, and that anyone looking to get lucky would have better luck among the Democrats. I saw a woman swoon as she said the words ‘tax cut’. I tried to buy the Fox News presenter Megyn Kelly a drink, but she was drinking on Murdoch’s tab. She told me that she was enjoying the convention, her second, it was good to get out of the studio and out among ‘real people’, there was ‘a lot of energy in the room’ when Paul Ryan spoke, but generally people in Minneapolis four years ago had been ‘more fired up for Palin’. Kelly was still in makeup and her eyelashes looked long enough to sweep broken glass off the bar. She asked me where I worked, and I told her. ‘So you review books?’ That reply always ends a conversation.
On the way into the hall on the last night I saw Martin Amis, on assignment for Newsweek, being scanned with a metal detector. I collected my floor pass and headed for stage right, by the West Virginia delegation, who were wearing ‘War on Coal’ pins and mining helmets to remind the nation which state lights their light bulbs. Jane Edmonds, an African American who worked for Romney, took the stage. ‘Minority speaker! Turn your camera off, MSNBC,’ I heard a young delegate say. There were many minority speakers and many female speakers, but the crowd was overwhelmingly white and male, and they loved Clint Eastwood, no matter how the media mocked him. They had loved Paul Ryan too, even if the fact-checking press caught him lying four times. If they didn’t love Mitt Romney, it was by now too late. The donors loved him, and he loved himself. You could tell by the way he tilted his head downward and to the left when he accepted the party’s nomination. The down-left tilt was combined with an up-right finish when he admitted that he wanted Obama to succeed when he was first elected. Another down-up tilt when he talked about how women make good governors. He raises his eyebrows when he says something he thinks is going to surprise you, as when he spoke of his plan to create 12 million new jobs as soon as he takes office. While he was talking about what it’s like to lose your job, two people in the upper deck to my left stood up holding a pink sign and yelling: ‘People over profits!’ The crowd around me chanted ‘USA! USA! USA!’ to drown them out. Security guards showed up and ripped the sign from the hecklers’ hands in a way that did not look gentle. When the chanting stopped, Romney was still talking about what it’s like to be unemployed.
Outside the gates, mounted police were kettling a protest of what looked to me to be a few hundred people. The protesters were angry and lots of them were holding both middle fingers to the TV cameras. They were all chanting: ‘Shame! Shame! Shame!’ One guy looked at me, mistaking me for a delegate, and said: ‘You people are freaks.’ On my way home I stopped at a strip club I’d passed on my long walk. ‘We were told this week was going to be better than the Super Bowl,’ a dancer said to me. ‘I made $3000 a night when the Super Bowl was here. This week I barely cleared $300. A lot of the Republicans have been cheap fucking assholes.’ She checked me for a wire, going so far as to touch my glasses. Then she asked me if I wanted to go into the back room, where we might catch ‘somebody big’ behaving badly, but the price wasn’t within my budget. I had a last drink with a delegate from Wichita who told me Clinton had deserved a second term but Obama didn’t because his policies had failed.
I flew from Tampa to New York City. On the radio were reports of two public shootings; on television relentless ads for diabetes management systems. There were stop-and-frisk searches on the subway. My left ankle had been swollen since the long walk, and I spent two days icing it, then flew to Charlotte. On the drive downtown from the airport you ride the Billy Graham Parkway and are greeted by a billboard that says: ‘Don’t Believe the Liberal Media.’ At a Chinese restaurant, I saw Aaron Black on CNN walking his bike down the street in that day’s March on Wall Street South. He was explaining that some of the protesters from Tampa hadn’t come north for the Democrats: ‘A lot of our people are not interested in protesting Obama.’ The first day of the convention I walked to the tent encampment in Marshall Park. There were fifty tents around an artificial creek. A concrete bridge led to the kitchen. There was a wall posted with poems and a protest schedule, a pile of cough drops, vitamins, shampoo, plasters and deodorant, and a power station for recharging batteries and a wifi router. I saw signs spread out across the ground: ‘Obama Is a Fucking Traitor!’ Somebody said: ‘Obama’s not a traitor because he worked for the banks all along.’ Up the hill an ice sculpture that spelled out ‘Middle Class’ was symbolically melting. The word ‘middle’ toppled over. ‘The middle class has fallen,’ a man in a yellow Obama T-shirt said.
My way to the Planned Parenthood rally at the Nascar Hall of Fame was blocked by a kettled march. Subjects not mentioned in Tampa were aired: drone strikes and Bradley Manning. A man I’d met in Tampa was speaking over an amp: ‘The United States is scared of South-East Asia,’ he said. ‘The United States is scared of Africa. The United States is scared of Bradley Manning.’ He gave the microphone to a woman who launched into ‘Twelve Steps to Overcome Addiction to Voting for the Lesser of Two Evils’: ‘Make a list of war crimes committed by Bush, cross out the word Bush and write Obama.’
I left the demonstration, found another checkpoint, and through the barricades I entered the zone of earnest and unabashed American liberal feeling. By the Nascar building, the crowd were wearing pink ‘Yes We Plan’ shirts. Cory Booker, the mayor of Newark, was telling them that Roe v. Wade ‘didn’t come on the wheels of inevitability’. Sandra Fluke, the woman Rush Limbaugh called a ‘slut’ and a ‘prostitute’ for advocating contraception, reminded the crowd that Romney had vetoed a bill allowing rape victims access to Plan-B contraceptives in emergency rooms, and Ryan had sponsored a bill allowing hospitals to decline to give women abortions when their lives are endangered. One edge the Democrats have is their ability to speak literally when Republicans rely on euphemisms. But this breaks down when they move from opposition to promoting their own policies, and every measure is qualified by a hiccup of the halfway. They talk of protecting the citizenry from the ‘recklessness of some on Wall Street’, and they boast of ‘providing access to healthcare’ rather than ‘providing healthcare’.
I went to the Truman Project’s national security training session for progressive candidates. The session was dull. Experts, many of them war veterans, were available to advise candidates on foreign policy issues, and to prepare them to talk on television. The leader of the session showed slides of himself marching through the Hindu Kush, but he didn’t have much to say about Syria, so I went to the flacks at the door. They told me they advise that the US should ‘put our thumb on the scales by providing anti-tank weapons good enough to pierce Syrian armour but not US or Israeli armour’. It would be repeated many times that week that Obama had killed bin Laden, had ended the Iraq war, that unlike Romney he cared about the troops in Afghanistan and had written letters to their parents when they died, that he stood with Israel, that Netanyahu had called their co-operation ‘unprecedented’. (Though it was Obama who said to Sarkozy of Netanyahu, ‘You’re fed up with him? I have to deal with him every day,’ and it was Romney who worked at Bain Consulting with Netanyahu in the 1970s and told the New York Times: ‘We can almost speak in shorthand.’) The non-scandal of Charlotte was the omission of recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel in the party’s platform. Obama had it restored. The platforms are these days fantasy documents for zealots. The Republicans’ calls for banning abortion and, under certain conditions, a constitutional amendment to abolish the federal income tax.
In terms of personnel, the Democrats have a few advantages over the Republicans: more presentable living members of political dynasties; more genuinely enthusiastic and script-reading Hollywood celebrities; and more leading politicians whose humanness isn’t subject to doubt. Joseph Kennedy III, Bobby Kennedy’s 31-year-old grandson and a candidate for Congress in Massachusetts, has a weaker Boston accent than my own. He introduced a video of his uncle Teddy slinging zingers at Romney during their 1994 Senate campaign: ‘I’m pro-choice. My opponent is multiple choice.’ ‘Now he supports the minimum wage. If we give him two more weeks he may even vote for me.’ Michelle Obama is currently the most popular political figure in America, with an approval rating of 66 per cent. Her politics consist of showing obese children how to exercise, coming to the aid of veterans’ families, and loving her husband ‘more than I did four years ago’. She says her most important job is ‘mom-in-chief’, just as, according to Romney’s biographers, Ann Romney is known as the ‘CFO’, or ‘chief family officer’. Michelle elided her career as a corporate lawyer to talk about her family’s rise from poverty; Ann had no career to omit (her husband said: ‘Ann would have succeeded at anything she wanted to’) and no poverty to overcome. One woman who did mention a career beyond helping out with her children’s homework was Lilly Ledbetter, the Alabama tyre-plant manager and namesake of the law that guarantees women equal pay for equal work. It was an achievement of Obama’s that had eluded Bill Clinton, whose instrumental role in overturning Depression-era legislation and converting Wall Street into a casino did nothing to dampen the crowd’s adulation. He’s more convincing than Joe Biden when he says the words ‘poor folks’.
On the last night I entered the fortress of Charlotte, concerns about the weather had moved Thursday night’s speeches from the Bank of America Stadium back to the Time Warner Cable Arena. It relieved somebody of the task of papering over the bank logos, which were symbolically inconvenient, but there remained a shortfall of 50,000 seats. After I made it through the perimeter gates, an event staffer told me that the secret service had just shut the perimeter down: ‘You can’t get in now if you’re not a senator, a congressman or a pretty actress.’ Scarlett Johansson was on one of the arena’s exterior screens urging the younger generation to register to vote. A line of about fifty people had formed outside the arena, and word was the venue’s capacity had been reached, and only delegates would now be allowed to enter. I wandered the dead zone around the arena. I watched Caroline Kennedy talk about what her father and her uncle believed in. I considered going into the Hyatt, which had a metal detector outside, possibly indicating the presence of the president. I noticed an unguarded entrance to the east. It turned out to be for caterers, and I walked right in. David Miliband, I was told, was not so lucky, though he didn’t miss much. Obama’s most memorable lines were the self-regarding ones: ‘I’m no longer just a candidate. I’m the president.’ And then came an oddly aggrandising comparison of his own humility to Lincoln’s. It was treacle from there: the student who won the science fair while she was living in a homeless shelter, the autoworker who won the lottery and bought his wife a car his factory built. Obama’s mocking of Republican tax-cutting led straight into boasting of his own tax-cutting bona fides. His ode to citizenship was a sly move probably too subtle to land with the 60 per cent of Republican voters who harbour doubts about his birthplace. So too his rewrite of ‘you didn’t build that’ from Roanoke to ‘you did that,’ where ‘you’ is, if not the state, the Obama voter. You and Obama will continue the mission of mutual self-perfection, I hope.
On College Street when the show was over, I fell into conversation with an energy consultant from Washington, who gave me a pass to a ‘Miami Nights’-themed after-party on Stonewall Street. ‘There’ll be a lot of energy folks there,’ she said. I’d heard a lot about energy in the past few days, mostly about natural gas and fracking. ‘The water’s on fire, let the corporation burn’ had been a frequent protest chant. I asked her if the public was aware of all this. ‘Well, that’s my job. Hardly anybody knows there’s an energy revolution going on. You live in Europe. I’m a big fan of nuclear. Obama’s been good on that. He hasn’t been scared off by Fukushima.’ Her real passion, though, was for foreign policy, even though it was a ‘third-tier issue’, and she was glad the president had ‘dropped Samantha Power’ and ‘listened to Hillary’. At the party I lost track of her when she went to the Sponsors’ Lounge to find some of her clients. I didn’t meet any energy folks, but I had several conversations with some nice folks from Charlotte who work in clothing retail. ‘Do you like Charlotte?’ I do, thank you. My father owned a small business. My mother always helped me with my homework. And God bless America.
[*] HarperCollins, 423 pp., £17.99, February, 978 0 06 212327 5.