Dole Train: Riding The Rails With The Young Republicans
"Welcome to Chicago!" a woman is shouting into a microphone. "This is where the party begins! And I mean the Republican Party!"The woman on the makeshift platform broadcasts hackneyed soundbites into the acoustical cavern of Chicago's Union Station like a machine gun, barely letting the cheers die down before she begins another. The man who hands me a "Dole for President" placard doesn't notice when I let it drop onto the bench beside me. A short guy in cowboy boots does. He frowns, shaking his head and holding his own sign higher. I furiously wave my 4-by-6-inch plastic American flag, taking care to obscure the prominent "Made in China" sticker adorning its pole. Another speaker takes the podium."We are on the point of changing the perception in this country that the youth of America only support the Democratic Party!"A loud "Wooooooo!" tells the man on the stage, Kevin McCarthy, that he is right on with this crowd. The assembled Gen Xers -- Republicans, all of them -- are here for Kevin's brainchild."This is the Freedom Train!" booms McCarthy, chairman of the California Young Republicans and an ancient X-er at 31. The GOP Freedom Train, six cars hooked onto the end of the Amtrak Southwest Chief, will begin its trip across country, en route to the Republican Convention in San Diego, in just a few hours. This pep rally, sponsored by a group of khaki-clad Illinois Young Republicans, is supposed to hype the troops for the 44-hour ride through Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona. The last leg of the trip will bring the Freedom Train to Barstow, San Bernardino, Los Angeles and, finally, San Diego."What does the Freedom in Freedom Train mean?" McCarthy asks rhetorically. "It means Freedom from an oppressive big government. It means Freedom to invest our own Social Security! It means Freedom from the debts of past generations!""Wooooo!" from the crowd"Young people in America believe that Bob Dole is the only choice for president!""Wooooo!""It was here in Chicago that Bob Dole started, last week, with his economic message!""Wooooo!""We need good, strong leadership! And Bob Dole is the leadership that we need!"Clearly they have not come for stimulating oratory: they have come to "wooooo.""Wooooo! We want Bob! We want Bob! We want Bob! We want Bob! Dole '96! Dole '96! Dole '96! Dole '96!"The speeches end, last-minute purchases of Bob Dole T-shirts and buttons are made, and 130 eager Young Repubs move to watch the cutting of a red, white and blue ribbon on the stage. Then, amid cries of "All aboard!," they surge onto the platform. The Freedom Train is off.FIRST COACH CAR, THURSDAY, 9:54 P.M.For me, the journey is anthropology. I intend to study the Young Republicans in their natural habitat. But before heading to the bar car, where I assume the real business at hand is transpiring, I make my way to the first coach, where the official agenda is just getting under way.The leaders of the Young Republican Freedom Train have organized a sequence of issues forums to get people thinking about what might come up during next week's convention. Tonight's will focus on What the Youth Want, What Makes a Leader, and Education Reform.Leading the discussion is Larry Kidwell, the 37-year-old chairman of the Young Republican National Federation. Larry, outfitted in the requisite blue polo and khaki shorts, is a well-built, athletic type. The rolled-up itinerary he squeezes in front of him, held by both hands, is waved in a firm up-and-down motion to drive home his points."You know, for many people of our generation, I've noticed as I've traveled across the country, for them -- and these aren't individuals who are rich. These aren't individuals who are born with a silver spoon in their mouth -- although I'm not saying there's anything wrong with that. Some of them are born to the most modest economic conditions you can imagine. Some of them have had to fight and work as hard as they could to go to college. And, you know, for many of these people, their vision of America is an opportunity to take advantage. To have a little piece of an American dream."Larry turns to address the group, who obviously aren't the "they" he's talking about. He points his wand at the 20 or so sitting in the chairs around him. "How do you feel? What is your vision of America?"A dark-haired man with glasses, a GOP baseball cap on his head, is the first to speak up. "I'd have to say it's an America where the individual is able to succeed and prosper without the constant interference of government. That's what seems to be slowing a lot of people down now: affirmative action and business regulation.""Thank you, Jeff," Larry says.A woman in white shorts and an official Freedom Train T-shirt is the next to be recognized. Her heavy makeup is still perfect five hours out of Chicago. "I'd like to see an America were our hearts are given back to charity. And the government gets out of the role of giving to and supporting our communities and the people within our communities."Larry provides the translation. "Thank you very much. Volunteerism.""Yeah," the woman echoes, "volunteerism.""Young people standing up," Larry goes on, "to help their neighbors and the people in their community. Yes, sir." He points to another crouched in the aisle."I'd like to see an America in which the idea that income should be redistributed no longer exists in practice. And where a person's ability to succeed is limited only by their personal ambition."Another: "I'd like to see a return to the constitutional values that this country was founded on, and also return to the country's traditional Christian values. So, for example, it was about hard work. It was about dedication. It was about moral character. Those things were important; I don't think they are today.""I'd like to see an America where people have faith, where the government is working with them and for them. Not against them.""I think that, kind of what everyone is saying. Bring the power back to the people. Give the government back to the people, back to the states. Where they can make the decisions on charity. Where they can make the decisions on what they want to do. Instead of being taxed and letting the government decide. My vision for America is to bring power back to the people."The next to take the stand is Melanie Grace, a woman whose curly blond hair and heavy makeup have yet to show the wear and tear of life on a train. As she heads into Why All Youth Support the Republican Party -- Even Those Who Don't Yet Know It, I head for wetter pastures. The real action must be in the bar.SMOKING SECTION, FORWARD LOUNGE CAR, THURSDAY, 11:04 P.M.Bob O'Keefe from Massachusetts is talking to Bradford Campbell, a legislative analyst for Orange County Representative Christopher Cox. They're discussing Bob's upcoming bid for Massachusetts lieutenant governor in 1998."So you're sayin' he's gone and you're in," Bradford declares, sucking on a filtered Camel, taking care not to drop the half-inch of ash hanging off its tip into his half-empty gin and tonic."No. I got the chairman of the state Republican Party running against me. I got the leader of the Senate running against me, and I got another Republican senator running against me.""But my question is, can you raise more money than they can? And can you talk better?""I can't talk better than them all. I can't raise more money than them all. But I'll beat them all. I got three pro-choicers-anti-gunners running against me.""Hey, man," Bradford interrupts, "you got my vote."Seemingly expecting that last response, Bob continues without a pause, "I got a convention of 75 percent pro-lifers. Awww, c'mon. They're dead! Dead!""There you go."Bob's flowing in and out of his zone as only an all-American man sucking down imported beer all night can do. He lights up another smoke and takes a heavy drag. He announces, prophetically, "All I know is that in the year 2000, Jack Kemp is going to be president of the United States of America."A contrary Bradford: "God help us all."Bob, flabbergasted: "What?""I'm just saying. Let me just say, I've heard a lot of rumors about Jack Kemp. I can't confirm them.""Just say the rumor!" Bob demands.Bradford explains: "But from every single source I've ever talked to, they've all said Jack Kemp has homosexual skeletons in his closet."It's all a plot! Bob retorts. "You like listening to the liberals? What a wonderful thing! They took a guy who's a traditional bleeding-heart conservative -- a guy the left can like, the right can like, that the middle loves -- and they decide to disgrace the guy by saying the guy is gay."An eavesdropping boy-scout type breaks his silence: "But aren't you guys totally against homosexuals?"The conversation moves, rapid-fire, through gay rights, states' rights, and finally rests on political integrity. The boy scout breaks in again to ask about Bob's upcoming race."Are you worried about them looking into every little past thing you've done and shit?"Bob, confidently: "I don't worry about that at all. I don't worry about anyone ever saying I had a marijuana cigarette in my mouth. First of all, I've never inhaled.a Second of all, I've never had one in my mouth. Let 'em try to tear me apart! They won't.""Let me just say," adds Bradford, nursing another in a long line of mixed drinks, "the last 10 years -- I'm 23 -- so like ever since I was like interested in politics, I've made sure that I've had nothing bad.""Yeah," says the boy scout, knowingly, "you gotta really watch that shit.""You do have to watch that shit," Bradford agrees. "If you've done marijuana, you've got a problem.""Unless you want to go to work for the Clinton White House," Bob corrects."Look," says Bradford, "if you want to run as a Republican, you've got to be crystal clean."Bob disagrees: "The biggest thing isn't being crystal clean, it's just being straightforward. Always be straightforward. The whole issue on pot, in Clinton's case -- if Clinton, when they asked him, 'Have you ever smoked pot?' and if he said, 'Yeah, you know when I was at Oxford, I smoked a few joints,' that would've been it! Do you remember the original line? 'I never violated U.S. drug laws.' Oh! So which country's drug laws did you violate?"Bob moves on to the real golden rule: "Always tell the truth."And guess what? You can tell the public that you smoked pot. You can tell the public you shot heroin. You can tell the public you raped three girls and two of them aborted. If you tell them the truth, they'll trust you."Bradford amends, "As long as you cop to a minor plea."TOPEKA, KANSAS, FRIDAY, 2:57 A.M.The two-minute rally goes something like this:"Everybody yell 'Dole '96!' as soon as we get off the train!" The battle plan is barely audible over the piercing wails of Alanis Morissette's "Jagged Little Pill" and the clanging of ice in glasses of mixed drinks."Okay, the train's stopping! Everybody get off!""Dole '96! Dole '96! Dole '96! Dole '96!"Then it's "All aboard!" and a mad dash back to the chartered lounge car.While re-embarking, a woman with a Southern accent and a bright-red polo shirt approaches me nervously. "Hey, you're not going to cover those protesters for your article, are you?""Protesters? There were protesters?""Oh no. There were no protesters.""Oh, c'mon. What were they out there protesting?""Hey, if you're not an observant reporter, I'm not going to tell you. Especially if you're going to put it in your article.""Well, you know, I'm just here to cover the Republican Freedom Train, and that's it. You can tell me, what were they protesting?""Oh, it was about fags. It said something about fags. Gross."SMOKING SECTION, FORWARD LOUNGE CAR, FRIDAY, 12:53 P.M."I got a really good joke," says Jeff Miller, a 22-year-old legislative aide for California Assemblyman Bruce Thompson. Miller's here with the Sacramento County YRs. "I'm not racist, first of all.""I'm not racist either," says Lori Morgan, 18, from Warren, Ohio (she's not the popular country singer, she says)."But this is the funniest joke I ever heard," Jeff continues."Fire away," says Dave Lapham from Chicago (who claims to be the nephew of Harper's editor Louis Lapham)."Okay. This black guy walks into a bar with a parrot on his shoulder."Lori interrupts: "This is the one I was going to tell!""Bartender goes, 'Hey, that's neat! Where'd you get him?' Parrot goes, 'Africa!'"Dave chuckles: "That's bad."Jeff's got a million of them: "Do you guys have Caltrans workers? Guys that work on the highways?""No," reply Lori and Dave in unison."People who work on the highways? They do jack shit and they make a ton of money.""Do they really?" asks Dave."Yeah. So we have a joke: What do you call 50 Caltrans workers and 50 lesbians? A hundred people that don't do dick!""Ha! Ha!""You can put that joke in your paper," says Jeff.REAR LOUNGE CAR, FRIDAY, 2:27P.M.The party atmosphere that gripped the Freedom Train less than 12 hours ago has now given way to hangovers, crashed-out couples in the coach car and a decidedly light crowd in the bar.Something is nagging at me. In my long hours of studying Young Republicans, I have observed none of their mating rituals. I run into Dave, who is nursing one "bitch of a headache." He explains, "Dude, it's all happening down below, in the compartment with the English guys."I rush down, hoping to catch a glimpse of the action. I'm met by a closed and locked door. I put my face to the window, but can only see the luggage stacked up in the center aisle. Disappointed, I head back to my quarters for a shower.REAR LOUNGE CAR, FRIDAY, 7:36 P.M.The idea of policy roundtables has improved over the last 24 hours. Instead of a small crowd in the coach car, the Freedom Riders have split into groups, with different YR "policy experts" rotating among them. In a lounge car, a crowd of 25 is listening intently to Ron Christie -- one of three African-Americans on the train -- explaining Republican economic policy.A public-speaking natural, Ron's big hands gesticulate wildly as he enthuses about the $500-a-child tax credit, which, according to Ron, works quite nicely with GOP deficit-reduction plans. I realize I didn't see him around last night. His face shows no evidence of the beating doled out by cheap beer and cheaper scotch to those around him. Later, in an interview, I ask him about his life with the Republicans."Being black," he says, "I think people assume all the time that you're automatically a Democrat. That really irks me. I just look at my family, most of them are very fiscally conservative. They want fewer taxes, smaller government -- basic Republican positions. Yet, for some reason they all vote Democratic. I think that as people really take notice and start to learn about the issues, they realize the Republican Party is the one with vision."But what about those social issues? I ask.He replies, ignoring the racists in the party and only touching on the obvious. "I think the Republicans are screwed up a bit on our politics when it comes to affirmative action," he tells me, lowering his voice. "On the one hand, the government should not be saying that if you're a certain sex or a certain race, then you get special privileges. But personally, I think that we need to do something for the people who have been left behind."Not resolving the contradiction, he moves on to other issues, where he toes the line lock step with Henry Hyde's platform committee: family values, illegal immigration and welfare reform.MEDIA LOUNGE, SATURDAY, 1:30 A.M."So what do you think about the train ride?" I ask a very sleepy Mark Drecker, a Young Republican from Central Illinois who's explaining the group dynamic aboard the Freedom Train."I think it's good. It really helps. It's like this male-bonding mystique."That's when it clicks for me. The Freedom Train is about 40 percent female. Yet in all the discussions, in all the debates, the women on the train have taken a secondary role, if any. Besides the few -- two or three -- in leadership positions, women have been absent from the omnipresent political debates. My few conversations with women on the train have ended when a man walked up.Mark keeps on talking, oblivious to my epiphany: "I mean it gives us a chance to say, 'There are people from Ohio, Texas and Illinois, New York, New Jersey and California.' And we may differ on certain issues like abortion or do we need a $500 tax credit for children. But all in all, we want a government that's smaller, that's more efficient. You know, we want more money in our pockets so we can buy shoes, or save for a car, save for a home, or if you want to get married, save for a family. So basically, that's where we come together."But it's a very diverse group." This gives me pause. "I mean it's not like a quota system. We don't have like six blacks, six Hispanics, six whites. It's not that kind of thing."Ding. I got to hand it to ol' Mark. He's hitting the nail on the head: no quota system on this train. There aren't six blacks, six Hispanics, six whites. There are three, two and 173, respectively.UNION STATION, LOS ANGELES, SATURDAY, 9:33 A.M.The Freedom Train arrives in Los Angeles late. Breakfast wasn't served onboard, so what was supposed to be a quick rally ends up a 45-minute wait at Union Bagel. The respite, though, proves therapeutic. With thirsta quenched and bellies full, the Young Republicans begin gathering the steam that was missing all Friday.It begins with Kevin McCarthy trying to rally the troops: "Okay, folks, we need everyone to get together. We've got to get back to the train."Then, out comes The Boom Box.The Boom Box has been around the whole trip. It fueled the party Thursday night, belting out early-'80s and classic rock. But since then, it's kept a lower profile.I don't notice it until I hear the muffled, strained sounds of Lee Greenwood's piano. By this time in the trip, "God Bless the USA," a rocked-out country song straight outta North Carolina, has become the unofficial party anthem. At the first notes, the tone of the group becomes somber. Young Republicans start standing a little bit closer, a few holding hands: all this in the center of Union Station's overwhelmingly huge, art-nouveau-style waiting room."If tomorrow all the things were gone," the group starts singing in unison, mimicking Greenwood's drawl."I'd worked for all my life/And I had to start again/With just my children and my wife."I start to feel sorry for the hundred or so passengers merely waiting for trains -- other trains -- in Union Station. They have no idea what's about to happen."I'd thank my lucky stars/To be living here today..."The music swells."'cause the flag still stands for freedom/And they can't take that away..."The group cheers on "flag" and "freedom." How they manage to simultaneously scream and sing - not missing a word or a beat - is a mystery."And I'm proud to be an American/Where at least I know I'm free/And I won't forget the men who died/Who gave that right to me/And I'll gladly stand up..."On "stand up" the singers -- again in unison -- bend their knees and then jump up, reaching for the stars."Next to you/And defend her still today/'Cause there ain't no doubt I love this land...""Land" here is a high note, not quite as high as "free" in "The Star-Spangled Banner," but high enough to cause actual discomfort. Unbelievably, they all hit it."God Bless the USA!"SAN DIEGO, SATURDAY, 1:07 P.M.The Freedom Train has run its course.Arriving in San Diego just after 1 p.m., the Young Republicans rush out to a waiting rally next to the platform. Red, white and blue balloons arch over a sound stage where a young, African-American newspaper columnist - another of the official Freedom Train Negroes - booms more of the same rhetoric I know now by heart."Bill Clinton is going to regret the day he ever heard the words 'Bob Dole and Jack Kemp'!""Wooooo!" shouts the crowd back.A few more platitudes, a few more "Wooooos," a final rousing chorus of "God Bless the USA," and it's over. But for my traveling companions, another saga is beginning.As I head back to the train to collect my luggage, I run into Al Williams, one of the YRs' more enthusiastic members, and ask him what's next on his agenda.He stares forward, eyes transfixed on the horizon, and laughs. "More parties, dude!"