It was a hot day, rumored to be 81 degrees, when the University of Denver opened its campus to the masses for Debate Fest 2012, the celebration of all things political at the lead up to the first presidential debate. Impassioned citizens, with megaphones and posters full of sound bite slogans and bumper-sticker statements that pass as wisdom in “low information America,” were out in force.
The madness began at the corner of Evans Avenue and High Street. Two young Republican girls in blue-starred mini skirts sat in the grass on lounge chairs and waved signs, one encouraging passers to, “Defend America, Defeat Obama!” and the other, a question: “What War On Women?” This is where the mash-up of opposing ideals first crashed together. Just up the street, a middle-aged woman was making her own statement in the form of a pink t-shirt that read, “Stop the War on Women!” As I walked by, a driver blared his horn as he passed. This was no friendly honk of support. She turned to a friend wide-eyed, said, “Oh my Gosh! That guy just flipped me off!”
This was just the beginning.
Three polar bears – people dressed up in suits – were wandering around un-caged, asking anyone who would listen, “Does anyone care if the Arctic melts in the next ten years?” No one offered an answer. No one seemed to care at all. Damn the Arctic. Let it rot. And let you and your kind perish, some thought.
Across the street from the polar bears and the festival’s entrance was a man holding a “Fire Obama” placard. His name was Ken Clark, Field Director of Colorado’s Freedom Works, and he told me that “if [Obama] remains in office we’ll go off a ‘fiscal cliff’ that we’ll never be able to recover from. Mitt Romney will hopefully slow it down.” When asked to name a specific Romney policy he was encouraged by, he appeared confused, and stammered, “I’m not here to support Mitt Romney; I’m here to get rid of Barack Obama.” Fair enough.
After witnessing the majority of political opinions represented, it dawned on me that an event such as this would not be complete without its preacher, the one that stands on a makeshift pulpit and shouts accusations about abortion, sin, our tarnished souls and damnation. Your damnation.
I found my preacher. Rives Miller Grogan, 47, was in the middle of a long-winded scream about the horrors of abortion – displayed in gory detail with posters of aborted fetuses – when I approached. After winning his attention, I asked, “What is your message here today?’ Which was a ridiculous question; his message was abusively clear.
He said, “Obama is a baby killer. Romney is the only choice a pro-life Christian can vote for.”
At the end of his sentence, a young mother walked by with a stroller containing what appeared to be a very new baby looking like a human cherry blossom in a little pink sun hat, and their presence triggered in him a new bout of madness, froth foaming up around his lips (seriously), “Obama’s a baby killer! Obama’s a baby killer! Obama’s a baby killer!” He appeared incapable of stopping.
Grogan was clearly a man of conviction. Absolute belief. He was taking a stand for something. Have to respect that, at least.
It turns out that Grogan would later go on to be arrested the next week for running across the field of a baseball playoff game between the Cincinnati Reds and the San Francisco Giants. Then, at Centre College’s vice presidential debate festival on October 11, he would cause a mad commotion by shouting anti-abortion slogans from a tree branch perch overlooking the event.
The young mother didn’t respond to his verbal assault, save for a widening of the eyes that suggested terror. She hurried on, and then to me, Grogan turned and said, “God bless you, brother.”
And I was off to find more of his ilk. The borderline lunatics. The impoverished who still believe in trickle down economics. The girls whose obsession with Sarah Palin causes them to dress up in her image as if it were Halloween. I’d seen them earlier, but where had they gone? An interview with them could have been as entertaining as one with Palin herself with all her “cross-hair” hunting references, ruminations on muskoxen and the Alaskan tundra – the mindless blather that makes for a viable political candidate these days.
To enter Debate Fest itself was to experience a sudden, almost shocking change of mood. The atmosphere was celebratory. Undergrad gals in summer dresses took pictures with life-size poster boards of either President Obama or his arch nemesis, Mitt Romney. People were merry. Maybe they were drunk. Or high. It was a college campus, after all.
But here’s the thing: what everyone was celebrating was actually the destruction they hoped would befall the “other” candidate, the one they were against, the one that would ruin this country, if elected. It was a celebration of desired wreckage.
The wreckage first came in the form of talking heads carrying out heated debates. MSNBC was hosting live recordings of Chris Mathew’s Hardball. Between guests, the make-up techs powdered and fluffed Mathew’s face and hair for what seemed like hours, priming him aesthetically for the slaughter he’d deliver to his next challenger. Mathews has to look good when he takes a verbal axe to someone of opposing views.
At approximately 5:45 in the afternoon, shortly after the band The Lumineers turned this political event into a bona fide concert at the main stage, a storm rolled in. The temperature plummeted 17 degrees within an hour. The summer dresses were replaced by sweatpants and down jackets and for everyone aside from those dancing and singing along to the band, the mood darkened.
Two important events were in progress at the same time: one) the concert, and two) a discussion at the POTUS Radio tent (Politics of the United States) between comedian and radio personality Pete Dominick, two DU professors and two student representatives – one from Young Republicans and the other a DU College Democrat.
They first debated the validity of incorporating a third party into American politics. Everyone was in favor except for the Young Republican, who didn’t buy Dominick’s arguments regarding the importance of “ruffling the feathers” of the established parties, that a third party might actually represent a larger portion of American voters, and that at the very least, it could encourage wider debate and honesty among political candidates.
They moved on to other topics. Noting that the values of most Americans overlap in many areas, they questioned how it’s come to be that we’re so divided as a nation. This isn’t a new condition, but a pervasive, enduring one.
With only two parties to choose from, won’t we always be exactly divided? They wondered: is it politicians or the media that divides us – or both? Is it the sound bite, bumper-sticker-politics culture we live in? Or that we’re asked to buy one liners and simple stories – the ones that have become so inescapable that we actually make their purchase?
Back at the stage with The Lumineers, people were dancing. And waving signs: “Fire Obama.” “Women 4 Obama.” “Romney/Ryan.” “Forward.” “Change.” It was a hobo stew of political culture, a little of everything thrown in the pot, mixed up, and hoped that whatever turns out wouldn’t be too poisonous.
The dancing highlighted the earlier points of the POTUS discussion. Despite attack ads, anti-abortion protestors, unbending ideals, lines-in-the-sand-that-we-do-not-cross, maybe Americans really can come together. Maybe there’s hope.
Then reality struck. The music would end. The dancing would stop. The two presidential candidates would step into the ring and another bitter, vile battle would begin.