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I always feel right at home when a large number of people at a political rally are carrying guns and assault weapons. Id been planning on bringing my rocket launcher but in my hurry to get here Id forgotten it.
And what the weapons hadnt said as yet the placards certainly made clear:
BALLOTS OR BULLETS
BLACK MAKES ME BLUE
JUST TRY AND TAKE MY GUN. JUST TRY.
On a chilly but colorful fall afternoon in the small city of Atherton, Illinois, somewhere around a thousand people had gathered to hear Rusty Burkhart tell them how he was going to burn and pillage Washington, D.C. when they elected him their congressman.
He was going to start by making every sitting member of Congress sign a loyalty oath and then he was going to subpoena the private e-mails of a target list of House and Senate members he suspected of being anti-American. During all this time he was going to permanently shut down the Department of Education and the Environmental Protection Agency and he was going to prove once and for all that the president was a Muslim Manchurian Candidate.
The fact that a congressman couldnt do any of these things well, he could, I suppose, burn and pillage, but then hed be arrested for arson and at a minimum criminal trespassing did not keep his admirers from shouting encouragement and screaming nasty remarks about the president, who had the unmitigated gall to have been born half black. I was no longer much enamored of our president as a leader but I sure as hell felt sorry for him as a man.
Rusty Burkhart was a sixty-three-year-old multimillionaire. He was CEO and chairman of the Board of Burkhart, Inc., which owned everything from chains of supermarkets to coal mines. A man just like you and me, as he liked to say, never mentioning that hed gone to Yale and owned a yacht big enough to launch an invasion.
He was also a fixture at local city council meetings. What should have been one-hour meetings frequently stretched to three and even four because of his rants. And he always brought at least a couple dozen people along to help him. They loved to hiss and boo. His main issues were taxes and money allotted for helping people at any time and in any way. He had been quoted as saying that God has a plan for poor people and its not right to interfere with that.
He was six-four and burly with a comic red toupee that needed to be drowned. He was given to Western shirts and jeans with a giant belt buckle of gold that bore a Christian cross. His most famous piece of attire was his red, white, and blue cowboy boots. Another Yale cowpoke who later in life began channeling John Wayne.
This is really scary, Lucy Cummings said to me as we stood on the edge of the crowd sipping coffee from paper cups with George Washingtons face printed on them. I really hate guns.
The coffee was surprisingly good and Lucy, whom Id met an hour ago, managed to forget the firearms long enough to pick up a donut. She was in the thirty range, a slightly overweight woman in a gray pantsuit. She had a youthful and attractive face and smoked a lot, something far too many political operatives on both sides do. She was one of Congressman Jeff Wards staffers. Against my better judgment I was working on Wards campaign for a couple of days. Lucy and I were checking out the competition, Mr Burkhart.
Id tuned Burkharts barking out and was instead trying to make some sociological sense of all the cars parked to my right. A number of the trucks looked as if theyd done service in the Dust Bowl while the two Jags and large number of beemers appeared to have been driven straight from their country clubs to here.
This is the end of civilization, Dev, I swear to God.
Close. But probably not quite the end.
How can these people believe all this crap?
They will themselves to believe it. Theyre angry about the economy and they gravitate to people who let them express all their prejudices as well as vent their anger. It just about always works.
Hey, Conrad, wheres your gun?
And then she was there. Sylvia Fordham. The Boss-Bitch of Political Consultants, according to Newsweek in a piece theyd done on her the year she brought down a congressman whod served four terms. Hed lost both his legs in Nam but shed found the rumor was shed paid them close to two hundred grand to split four men who claimed theyd been in over there the same time he was. They not only claimed that he was a coward whod deserted his unit, but also hinted that he was into pot and even heavier drugs the whole time he served. Add to that the fact that he was black and she was able to exploit an impoverished Southern towns racism into a landslide.
She was a small, slight woman cast in the Audrey Hepburn fashion. If she wasnt quite as luminous as Hepburn had been, she was skilled at playing the public role of the bright, quick, upper-class woman who issued her lies with quiet charm and big-eyed innocence. Off-camera her thirty-something prettiness contrasted sharply with her bitchiness. But in twelve years of battling each others candidates Id learned she was as ruthless as she was appealing.
Im surprised youd risk your life by coming here, Dev. If I told some of these patriots who you are, theyd probably open fire.
Any of them able to count to ten?
Always the snob. She looked at Lucy. Ive told you before youd be pretty if youd dress better. After Novembers election, honey, youre going to be looking for a job so youll have to spruce up your act.
I smiled at Lucy and nodded in Sylvias direction. She used to room with Mother Teresa.
Lucy laughed nervously. Ill bet she did.
But I have to say, Dev, that Im glad to see you here. That means the Ward people are getting desperate. Calling in a hired gun like you means theyve been reading the same internal polls we have. Were running five ahead right now.
Three according to our internals, Lucy said. She was still intimidated by Fordhams nastiness. Mostly I was bored with it. Her shtick had grown old long ago.
A huge response of applause and shouts rang out from around the bandstand.
The people love him, Sylvia said. They know hes one of them.
Yeah, Ill bet half the people in this crowd inherited ten million when they turned twenty-five. And I bet they went to Yale, too. Just a regular guy. Who, by the way, should stop wearing that shitty rug. With his money cant he find a better toupee than that?
Im sure when he gets to Washington hell find one that meets with your approval. A guy in a suit holding a walkie-talkie waved to her.
Ive got an election to win. I hope I see you later, Dev. Dinner would be fun. Then she gave us one of those princess waves that movie stars affect these days. Toodles.
How much time would I get for second degree? Lucy said as Sylvia walked away.
My smile matched hers. Theyd probably let you off with a parking fine.
Three Iraq veterans in wheelchairs were being escorted on to the stage. Sylvia was good, paying broke soldiers to praise Burkhart. I didnt blame them. Id have taken the money, too. The people at large and Congress had screwed these soldiers every way possible since theyd come back from that war. I just wondered if any of them had heard that Burkhart, whod never served in the military, had said he was tired of pampering veterans with government money.
There were so many large flags on stage people were getting lost in them. Burkhart led the crowd in the national anthem. I guess being off-key meant you were being sincere.
For a few minutes I allowed myself to enjoy the afternoon. I watched hawks ride the air currents and smelled the smoky scent of the breeze and saw the surrounding hills melancholy with leaves that were beautiful in their dying. This was the season of Halloween and football Saturdays and long walks to watch the shadows stretch as dusk came early now. To hell