Joshuah Bearman

2000 Still Rings in Florida

This state has long been the new California. Once upon a time, it was our sunny coast that was known as the source of America's oddities, but that distinction has since decamped, along with the bulk of the country's crazies, for Florida. If something strange happens, Florida's the likely location. Elian, Shark Summer, Mohammed Atta's suburban suicide preparation, the Raelian cult's announcement (never proved) that they'd birthed a human clone named Eve – today's theater of the bizarre tends to take the stage in the Sunshine State. There's even a family down there that decided to be the first nuclear unit subdurally chipped with radio-frequency GPS transmitters. The 2000 election, then, was no surprise: When Florida played host to the country's first constitutional crisis to leave the country without a president-elect, the fiasco just added a crowning feather in the state's wildly plumed cap.

And it may be adding another one soon. Eerily, the 2004 election is shaping up as a potential repeat of 2000. With the wounds of the recount fresh in many minds, and the country even more polarized by Bush's aggressively partisan presidency, both parties have mounted massive efforts to capture Florida. The Republicans want to keep the state red, maybe even deepen the shade with an actual margin. Democrats are eager for payback. Polls shows a tight race nationally, and an even tighter one in Florida – dead even, in fact, at 46 percent in the most recent St. Petersburg Times survey.

That divide hides the deeper complexity of Florida politics. Unlike some of the heartland swing states, Florida is a diverse patchwork of demographics, each with its own pet voting issues. Older Cuban immigrants still haven't forgiven Kennedy for the Bay of Pigs, while their younger relatives and offspring are steadily moderating. The 150-mile Atlantic coast megalopolis stretching northward from Miami is an archipelago of independent suburbanites and Jewish retirees, traditional Democrats emotionally responsive to terror as an issue because of Israel. On the Gulf side are retirees from the Midwest, making Naples solid Bush country. The far north is south, culturally, with the panhandle being more like Mississippi than Miami. And the center is, well, the center, with a rough split between Bush and Gore in 2000.

In this environment, the key to Florida's electoral outcome will be turnout – mobilization for Kerry, and suppression for Bush. Democrats have poured resources into the peninsula, lured by those surprisingly competitive polling figures and a party of swollen ranks and renewed vigor that is, in the words of one local canvasser, "ready to roll." Republicans are also on the move, but not only to get voters to the polls; their main focus, rather, has been to head off the Democratic base at the pass. They've fought tooth and nail against the Democrats' surge of new registrations. Glenda Hood, Florida's current secretary of state and Jeb Bush's appointed successor to Katherine Harris, played along, helping to make it as hard as possible for the rising tide of new voters to cast their ballot.

What cannot be swayed can perhaps be stolen. The RNC, as we have seen in Oregon and Nevada, doesn't mind hiring subcontractors who throw away voter registrations filled out by Democrats. In Florida, it has tried to invoke various regulations – some quite arcane, like the requirement in Broward county for the form to be on 80-pound paper – to have thousands of registrations officially discarded. For Democrats who do make the rolls, there awaits a host of tactics to suppress turnout on Election Day. And that's before one even considers the specter of the new touch-screen voting machines installed since the last election. With none of these machines generating a paper record, and widespread concern about the security of the votes as computer scientists continually show the ease of putting an electronic thumb on the scales, the next hurricane to hit Florida could be called Diebold, or Sequoia, or Electronic Systems and Software. They're gonna steal Florida again! is the fretful refrain from Democrats. "They may try," said Marty Markowitz, an organizer with America Coming Together, adding with great oomph, "But we're going to win anyway."

Larry Davis is with the Kerry-Edwards legal team preparing for the Republican offensive. "They do have a lot of tricks up their sleeve," worried Davis, who's heading up the 600-attorney contingent for Broward County – the largest repository of Democratic voters in the state and the epicenter of the recount. We were at Le Tub, a rustic local eatery in Hollywood, Florida, that sits on the intercoastal waterway. It was moist out, and at 10 p.m. still near 80 degrees. The place, made of logs and lit by lanterns, looks like Tom Sawyer's Island. While we ate, a huge pleasure boat with a dining room, dance hall and living palm trees planted on the roof motored slowly past.

Davis, who was caught up in the 36-day-long tempest of the recount, laid out the prongs of this year's Republican suppression strategy. "First was the felon list," he said, referring to the list of 47,000 people to be disqualified for voter registration that was compiled by Secretary of State Hood's office. Kept secret at first, the list was made public by a court order, and was quickly discovered to be rife with errors. Moreover, almost none of the names were Latino, who trend more Republican in Florida, while half the list was African-American. This helped make it lopsidedly Democratic by a 3-to-1 margin. "Luckily, that was caught early. Now there's the provisional ballots."

A new Florida law allows for voters to receive provisional ballots if they arrive at a polling place and there's no record of their registration. Those ballots are held, and election officials later verify the voters' eligibility. This right, which was guaranteed by the Federal Help America Vote Act of 2002, was meant to remedy some of the problems of the 2000 election, when many properly registered voters, particularly in minority areas, were turned away because they didn't appear on the rolls.

"But Florida," Davis explained, "unlike many other states, throws out provisional ballots cast in the wrong precinct." It's a somewhat arbitrary regulation. Precincts move, as do people, especially in poor and minority areas, and if the voter turns out to be registered, there's no real reason to invalidate the ballot.

"But it's not just these big legal problems," said Greg Sanders, a volunteer for the Kerry-Edwards office in Broward. We were shielding ourselves from a sudden rain beneath a royal palm outside the African-American Research Library and Cultural Center where Hillary Clinton had just rallied the faithful to "go vote early, and we'll make sure it's counted." A few feet away, on a Saturday afternoon, a line of people waited to cast their ballots at early-voting stations. "There are all kinds of little tactics here and there," Sanders said, "and they're carefully planned."

"Some are supposedly 'mistakes' like the felon list," added his partner Don Martin, a full-time staffer for the campaign, "but when you add it up you can see the pattern of massive voter suppression." Martin mentioned the incident in Orlando, where the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, teamed up with state troopers, stormed the houses of elderly African-Americans who were collecting absentee ballots in their community. There's also the voter-registration forms, which some supervisors of elections were throwing out for missing a check in the citizenship box, despite the fact that the form's required signature also attests to the registrant's citizenship. "And," he added, trying to fit a Kerry sign the size of a sheet of plywood into his truck, "what about Jacksonville?"

Jacksonville is its own special anomaly in an already anomalous state. By geography, it is the largest city in the country, but the population is only half a million people. Although it's in the conservative reaches of northern Florida, Jacksonville's Duval County has the largest number of registered African-American voters. Jacksonville is where one in five black votes was thrown out in 2000, which makes Jacksonville another one of the places in Florida where you could say 2000 was lost – or stolen.

This year, as the Democrats have launched their colossal early-voting drive, Duval's supervisor of elections, a Republican, decided to open only a single polling location in Jacksonville. "And it's downtown," Martin said, "with scarce parking and construction nearby – miles away from black neighborhoods. Here in Broward County we have 14 polling locations, and there are huge lines. It's ridiculous to open one poll. It was just meant to slow down black votes."

Martin has seen this kind of soft disenfranchisement before. He was a registered election observer in 2000 at a precinct in inner-city Tampa. The Tampa-St. Petersburg area is the Gulf Coast anchor of the critical I-4 Corridor, the politically "purple" swath of territory that crosses the center of the state through Orlando and ends in Daytona. Tampa was highly contested in 2000 – it was Gore's last campaign stop that Tuesday morning – and it's where Martin witnessed up close the problem of registered voters discovering once they got to the polls that their names were not on the county's rolls. Martin explained how they were directed to a second line, where a poll worker would call the Supervisor of Elections Office to confirm their registration. That line, with one phone and an inadequate staff, quickly got so long – "many, many hours long" – that people left. Martin counted 130 people who were turned away – a quarter of what became Bush's margin, and, as Martin noted, "That was just in one precinct!" It's how they operate, he explained, using implicit vote suppression that stays mostly under the radar. But this year, Martin was also worrying about the new potential for explicit vote suppression: the touch-screen voting machines.

Everyone in Florida seems terrified of these machines as the electronic Trojan Horse that will surreptitiously end American Democracy. I voted on one – a Diebold, even – in Pasadena at an early polling station, and although I wasn't thrilled, I was willing to give it the benefit of the doubt – until, that is, I casually asked the poll worker about the paper record and he dismissed the question defensively: "The machines are fine, okay – ballots don't have a paper record either."

"Except the goddamn ballot," I said with great alarm.

It was the same attitude I discovered down here: Election officials tend to ignore, rather than assuage, voters' concerns about the machines. One guy I talked to said not to worry; that the votes were stored on a hard drive. No shit – like I thought the thing was just a Fisher-Price plastic box full of marbles. The officials like to explain how the components of the system work, but the problem isn't the system; it's the lack of an independent record for verification.

"That was really the basis of our case," explained Ellen McLaren, a legislative aide for local Congressman Robert Wexler, who unsuccessfully brought a federal case against the counties employing the machines. "There's no paper trail." She explained how Florida's election law requires a manual recount if the result is within a certain margin. "But with these machines," she said, "a manual recount is not possible." She also noted, very reasonably, that as with any new technology, it seems like a good idea to make sure it's foolproof – especially before installing it at the core of our democratic process.

And at the moment, they're not foolproof. Avi Rubin is the computer-science professor at Johns Hopkins who first publicized security flaws in Diebold's code, and he has since looked at other models and only become less confident in the machines' reliability. "A big concern," he explained, "is that they could be rigged. Manufacturers could set the outcome. Or election workers. Any time there's physical access to the machine, there's the potential to change it." With Diebold's machines, Rubin noted as an example, he and his students discovered that a quick, one-byte alteration in a particular file could switch votes from one candidate to another. "Ironically," he said, "in trying to get rid of the hanging chads, they've gotten rid of ballots altogether."

Theresa LePore regretfully acknowledged this irony as well. LePore is the Palm Beach County supervisor of elections who designed the infamous butterfly ballot that confused my grandparents' bridge partners into voting for Pat Buchanan, and she has since attracted another round of controversy for installing 4,500 Sequoia machines into her 692 voting precincts. LePore has become a local villain, perhaps unfairly. Whenever I mention the name around Florida Democrats, they start hissing like vampires around garlic.

She's been accused of treason for putting the wrong man in the White House, despite the fact that both parties approved her butterfly ballot. And the Sequoia machines were partly an overcompensation for that experience. "We were trying to fix the problems of 2000," she said ruefully. But like other election officials, she refuses to accept that there are valid concerns with touch-screen voting. That kind of obstinacy is what's contributing to the looming uncertainty of the upcoming election. "The one thing we're going to learn in Florida," professor Rubin observed, "is that this technology will leave doubt. It's as simple as that."

Lawanda Joesephs has no doubts. "If we get out the vote," she said as I caught up with her leaving the Clinton rally, "Kerry will win Florida." Joseph is one small part of the monumental effort to provide a margin for Kerry that no amount of chicanery could close. "And we are," she said. "I mean, Hillary came down to the hood to get the people to the polls!" Joseph has been to many other rallies, already voted, told her friends to follow suit, and canvassed on her own in the poorest black neighborhoods off of Sistrunk Avenue, looking for single women to motivate. Democrats may be worried but they're not daunted. "We remember what happened," Joseph said, "and we're ready this time."

It was the same message – don't get mad; get even – delivered by Al Gore two days later at Broward Community College. He'd already been up in Jacksonville and Tallahassee, encouraging enthusiastic crowds to vote, creating a crush of people at each city's single polling station. "The time to vote is today," he said. "That way there will be plenty of time for them to count it." Not far from the stage were the doors leading to one of Broward's early-voting stations. The wait inside was an hour and a half.

This has been the experience in Democratic counties all over Florida. The campaign, as well as independent progressive groups like America Coming Together (ACT), have been extremely successful at generating a swell of early voters and absentee-ballot requests. In Broward County alone, 147,000 absentee ballots were mailed out, and 65,000 people showed up at the polls within the first week of early voting.

"The response is overwhelming," Marty Markowitz, the organizer with ACT, said. "It's like my dream came true to be part of this groundswell." Markowitz is spending his days lathered in Kerry loyalists, but the energy he talks about does seem palpable on the streets. The very first person I saw upon leaving the Fort Lauderdale airport was holding a Kerry sign, and it's been Kerry on the streets ever since. It's impossible not to run into people with Kerry pins, or even a whole Kerry event. In the entire time I've been here, however, I've seen only a single Bush-Cheney supporter, and she looked pretty lonely. On Sunday, I counted 14 Kerry bumper stickers on the Florida Turnpike between Lauderhill and Green Acres, and not a one for Bush.

 

But who needs anecdotes, when you have data? Over at ACT's massive Broward offices, I saw how the group has been systematically identifying and assessing Kerry support for months, and its efforts have been more successful than anticipated. ACT may be living up to its billing as the largest voter mobilization in history; by November 2, the group will have spent $125 million, which dwarfs, by a factor of 10, the DNC's get-out-the-vote funding in 2000.

"Ninety-nine percent of that has gone toward person-to-person canvassing," said Joy Reid, who showed me around. We saw the Palm Pilots the groups used over the spring and summer to visit voters and record their interest in issues and voting preference. "Now we have a relationship with those people," Reid explained, "and we're going back, targeting specifically people who support Kerry but are unlikely to vote without a little encouragement." We were standing in a giant room with 300 chairs to accommodate the people who disperse daily with detailed walk lists to reach those people. On the wall was a figure: 158,000 door knocks to date. That's one county. "This kind of thing has never been done before," she said. As innovative data managers, ACT has also developed a system to keep track of who's voted already, and although I promised not to divulge details, the outlook is promising.

ACT's disciplined organization, too, is just one of many ground operations. MoveOn's well-funded political-action committee is making a parallel effort. As are the NAACP Voter Fund, the unions, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, and a host of even more specifically targeted get-out-the-vote groups looking to draw out the Caribbean, liberal Latino and youth votes. "The trends are looking good across the board," Reid said. "Hispanics are polling at 40 percent for Kerry in Florida. Remember, Bush got 80 percent in 2000. And it's looking like more younger voters are going to come out than last time. Bush's positives are capping out under 50 percent. I think it's going to be a very surprising result."

There's no arguing with that. Florida's become such a nail-biter any result would be a surprise. There are so many absentee ballots out, in fact, that it may not be possible to count them all by Tuesday night. And if the Republicans have their way, there's sure to be enough mayhem on Election Day to leave room for lasting dispute. In fact, the latest Republican tactic to emerge is the use of its poll observers to challenge individuals' right to vote at the precinct level. "They'll do it in Democratic precincts," Davis said, "to slow down the voting there." It was to have a similar effect as the indirect disenfranchisement Markowitz and others saw last time, although this year it will be more organized. "I'm worried about things like that," Markowitz said when I brought it up, "but I'm not distracted." We were sitting at a union rally in downtown Fort Lauderdale. The PA was loudly looping the SEIU 1199's theme song, "Ain't No Stopping Us Now." Near us were the cones demarcating yet another early-polling booth filled with people on a weekend. "Because what's going to happen here," Markowitz continued, "is the Democratic kind of democracy – we're going to get more votes in the ballot boxes than they can possible steal."

Authors Descend on Ohio

There was one week left before Ohio�s voter registration deadline and lots of work to do. Stephen Elliott was at the wheel of a rented van, shuttling around the Ohio State campus in Columbus, coordinating the movements of a dozen people. It was the first day of Operation Ohio, Stephen�s personal campaign to help tip the scales in the election he�d been covering since last year for his new book, �Looking Forward to It.� After writing so much about politics, he said, he wanted to make some politics happen. So he organized a series of literary events in the state, hoping that a visit from some of the country�s best-known literary authors to college campuses would help register and energize student-age voters.

�With the book done,� Stephen said, �I had September free, and I wanted to get involved. I have a little bit of guilt because I worked for Nader in 2000, and so I figured I better put in for Kerry. And who can just sit around anyway at a time like this? Everyone should be doing something.�

As the election runs hotter than ever, it seems everyone is doing something. The national party committees, more flush than ever, are churning wakes through the swing states like ocean liners. A bit more nimbly, MoveOn�s digital democracy is changing the political landscape with its innovatively funded and clever ad campaigns. Grassroots organizations of all kinds are springing up to fill in with letter writing, phone banking and walking precincts. In Ohio alone, Bush backers claim to have more than 60,000 volunteers spreading the word through their Amway-style multilevel-marketing operation. America Coming Together has fielded an army of professional canvassers to lay the groundwork for what will be the biggest Election Day Get Out the Vote operation in the history of Earth. To that end, they�ve raised $125 million � 10 times what the DNC spent on GOTV in 2000. A lot of that coin is spilling into Ohio, but the war chest keeps replenishing itself: The week we arrived, the Vote for Change tour, a set of fund-raising concert dates featuring musicians ranging from Bruce Springsteen to Death Cab for Cutie, was under way across the state, on its way to raising another $44 million.

It was into this storm of activism that Stephen�s literary assembly made a landing in late September � a bumpy one, as it happens, since everyone flying in that day sensed the planes getting tossed roughly on the final approach into the Columbus airport. Having traveled with Stephen for much of the campaign season, I came along as an observer. Plus, I too felt compelled to take action. With a month left, why not get started? Now in Columbus, four hours before curtain time, as Stephen was finishing last-minute preparations, we were talking about the question that must plague all small-scale organizers: Does any of this matter?

�Goddamn right it matters,� he said emphatically as we parked and found our way to a class where we were supposed to speak to students and convince them to come. �If there�s anything we learned last time, it�s that all effort counts. If we can get 1,000 people signed up, we�ll be that much better off. It won�t deliver the state, but it will help. Even if we don�t get that many, it will help. But we�ll see what happens. I�ve got my fingers crossed.�

�Why Ohio?� Stephen asked rhetorically in his introduction later that night. The audience was assembled in the Wexner Center, and the writers were in the green room, waiting to come onstage. �At first, Ohio seems like an arbitrary place. But then again � why not Ohio? Everybody should get their chance to decide the presidential election. And this is your chance. In fact, I think the swing state committee � the one that decides where the critical states in the next elections would be, like the Olympics � has picked Oklahoma for 2008. And Alaska after that. So you should take this opportunity.�

It was a good opener. But in reality, of course, neither of those states will ever get the kind of political attention as does Ohio. And the Buckeye State�s leverage has been amplified by an overpowering mythology of electoral importance, grounded in the twin axioms: 1) No Republican has ever won without Ohio�s 21 electoral votes; and 2) Ohio has voted with the winner since 1964. Ohio, the theory goes, is a natural barometer for national politics because it�s like nowhere else, and that�s because it is in fact like everywhere else � a place of representative regions, with an industrial heart around Cleveland, the farm belt in the northwest, classic exurban geography in the center, and strong regional representation with all the Southern drawl around Cincinnati and a rather sizable slice of Appalachia in the southeast.

All of this is apparent at Ohio State, where 90 percent of the students are local. And despite the fact that Columbus, the state�s capital, is a Democratic stronghold, it is ringed by a vast, archetypal, red �donut� of Republican counties. These are the reaches of exurbia, where the Bush minions going on �mission� are expected to bring a 6-to-1 margin for the president in those areas come November. And these are the people who fill the stands at Ohio Stadium, the campus� most imposing edifice, a fascist-looking arena of masonry where the Buckeyes play football.

So it maybe wasn�t all that surprising that on a campus of 50,000, only about 300 showed up for the opening salvo of Operation Ohio. The event should have been bigger. There was plenty of local press, and it was co-sponsored by 40 campus departments and clubs. Entry was free and offered a killer lineup � the kind of literary pantheon that would pack Royce Hall at $50 a head. Readers the first night included Rick Moody, Dave Eggers, Anthony Swofford, Vendela Vida, Julie Orringer and Jim Shepard. It was hard to know if the weak turnout had to do with political apathy or that other old campus bugaboo, the Decline of Literature � especially since, when Steve and I spoke earlier to an English class and asked about the students� favorite writers, we were at first greeted with a long silence, and that was broken only by a timid offer of �John Grisham?�

I noticed that many of those students did find their way into the audience that night, where they got to hear Eggers bring down the house with a new piece where a father, making nachos with his daughter, tells her stories about the days when he and her mother solved the worlds� problems, literally solved them, as in changing the entire world to renewable energy sources and sending all the lobbyists to Greenland, and how such global altruism made her mother horny. Orringer shared some surprisingly lucid letters that her sister�s eighth-grade students in East L.A. had written to the president: �Your leadership was a mistake�; �You use the same words over and over again�; �seriously � get out of that business.� Shepard sampled several stories told by different narrators including � and perhaps these were chosen for an inferred relation � the Creature From the Black Lagoon and John Ashcroft. Vendela Vida and Rick Moody both read from the �Future Dictionary of America,� a satirical anthology that was a fund-raising collaboration between MoveOn, McSweeney�s and Jonathan Safran Foer.

It was all political, and swung hard left, perhaps further than some in the audience were accustomed to. Among the less liberally inclined, Swofford�s essay, written for the occasion, seemed the most effective. It touched on his career as a veteran of the first Gulf War with the Marines, how his first vote went for George H. W. Bush, and his eventual transformation to a Democrat. As persuasive as he was, Swofford didn�t keep some people from walking out.

That surprised me at first, until I spent the intermission with some of the students I�d met earlier and discovered that all of them were backing Bush. Kristen Meiers and her roommate Amber Lipscolmb, both leaning toward Bush but �keeping an open mind,� expressed surprise at the event�s �partisanship.� Lipscolmb said there should have been more Republicans speaking. I pointed out that this was a literary program, and, unfortunately, there are virtually no contemporary authors who would support Bush. Or, as Stephen had phrased it earlier, �Thinking people are not Republicans.� Which I did not repeat, instead listening to them long enough to realize that, like many Bush supporters, they knew very little about either candidate. �It�s hard to keep up,� Meiers said. �But I want to be educated before I do vote.� She asked me where she could find out more about the candidates, good information beyond the television ads. I made some suggestions, and she thanked me, adding, �I guess I�m glad I�m here to listen to other perspectives.� Lipscolmb nodded along, but I saw her sneak out just after the lights dimmed for the second half.

There were no dissenters at Oberlin, the second stop on the tour, probably because Oberlin is not so much a part of Ohio as it is a tiny East Coast liberal-arts enclave carved out of the woods east of Cleveland. To get there from Columbus, you drive through Amish country and the kind of rural outposts dominated by monstrous hunting outfitters like Fur, Feather and Fin, where there were only American trucks with Bush-Cheney stickers in the parking lot, and where, for $10.99, one could buy a Premium Predator Wildlife Call tape entitled �Distressed Chickens,� and with the right series of turns you�ll eventually happen across a charming little college town with vegan cafés and a political fault line that runs between Kerry and Nader and where Bush is nowhere to be found.

Although most Oberlin students come from elsewhere, they all have an Ohio address and can vote in the state, which was all that mattered to Stephen. One hundred fifty students arrived at the second event, less than the night before but a much larger percentage of the 3,000-member student body. The lineup had changed, with Ryan Harty, Dan Chaon and Jonathan Ames substituting for Swofford, Eggers and Moody. Ames headlined with his tale of hubris and humility, �I Shit My Pants in the South of France.� It was a lively close, inspiring others to share their scatological stories the rest of the night at Feve, a bar where the Operation Ohio crew and the students mingled until closing time. I told a story about a friend who, by an extraordinary series of circumstances, accidentally crapped on his iPod. Stephen ordered two grasshoppers, and we shared them with interlocking arms. Spirits were good. �I�m glad you guys came,� one of the students said. �If we register twice, can we get you to come back?�

That would have helped, because in the end Operation Ohio did not meet its original goals. The third date at Cleveland State was sparsely attended, probably because of poor timing (it was at 3 in the afternoon) and the fact that it�s a commuter school. But even at Oberlin and Ohio State, very few registration forms got filled out because everyone passing the gauntlet of volunteers was already registered. �If you live here,� one volunteer at Ohio State said, �and you leave the house, you�re already getting asked to register 10 times a day� � which may not have been an exaggeration, since county clerks across the state had been having trouble keeping up with the unprecedented surge in voter registrations.

�But registration is only halfway,� Stephen kept saying. �You also have to get those people to the polls. That�s why, like, the phone call is the more important part.�

The phone represents the second stage of Operation Ohio � the all-important mobilization scheme that would take effect once we were all gone from the state. Stephen created a list that would allow students to sign up to receive a call on Election Day from a well-known writer, reminding them to vote. With more participating writers than those who made it to Ohio, including Tobias Wolff, ZZ Packer, Michael Chabon and Jonathan Lethem, there was plenty of call capacity. Before any of us arrived in Ohio, 300 people had signed up through Operation Ohio�s Web site. Now there were a couple hundred more names to add to the list. And the press from the tour, Stephen guessed, would attract another wave.

�The question I tried to address here is, �How do you get college students to vote?�� Stephen said. He�d thought about this a lot, having spent some of the campaign season hunting for the mythical Youth Vote. It has never materialized in powerful numbers; even when 18-year-olds first got the chance to vote in 1972 and there was a war with a draft on, they didn�t show. Howard Dean�s candidacy held some promise for energizing young voters, and the numbers for the 18-to-24-year-olds were up in many primaries. Stephen wanted to keep that momentum.

�That�s why the calls on Election Day are really the focus,� he said. �Elections are won on Election Day. Look at what happened here in 2000.� That�s when Gore�s campaign, thinking they were down by 10 points, redeployed manpower and pulled ads from the state, only to see the gap close on Election Day to 3.5 points. �Today, the polls are much closer,� Stephen added, �so the calls will help.�

Sure, Stephen admits, it would have been nice to get more. �But anything is a success. These are people no one else would have reached. They say they�re going to go, and they don�t. Unless they get a phone call from Tobias Wolff.�

I thought about Meiers and Lipscolmb and reminded Stephen that a few of those voters might get a call from Tobias Wolff and go pull the lever for Bush.

�Well,� he said, pausing for a moment, �that�s a whole different problem.�

A Party for Some

The big tents have been well guarded at the Republican convention in New York. It took some doing to penetrate the several layers of security at the Log Cabin Republicans' Big Tent party Sunday to hear them complain about their own difficulty getting inside the symbolic big tent pitched over Madison Square Garden this week. "There are two Republican parties," Patrick Guerriero, Log Cabin's executive director, said to the crowd assembled at the Bryant Park Grill. "The party has to make a choice: Is it an inclusive Republican Party, or one hijacked by the radical right?"

He was highlighting the tension between a conservative base drifting so far into the outer reaches of ideological space that they're red-shifting from the Doppler effect, and the increasingly anomalous social moderates in the prime-time speaker lineup.

Everyone else on the itinerary at the Bryant Park Grill tried to celebrate the party's deep cleavage as "diversity," but the right-leaning imbalance was in evidence at the platform committee meetings held earlier in the cavernous and strangely vacant Javits Center, where the grip of the social conservatives tightened. They successfully dodged an attempt by the Log Cabin Republicans, along with fellow moderates from the Republicans for Choice, to soften language on constitutional amendments to ban gay marriage and abortion.

The conservative forces also prevented the moderates from including a "Party Unity Plank" that would have put forward the sensible proposition that Republicans can agree to disagree on sensitive topics like family planning and gay rights. Adding insult to injury, the subcommittee on "Protecting Our Families" included a few new barbs in the anti-gay language with an amendment that specifically opposed any kind of benefits accruing to any kind of legal partnership between gay couples.

Anne Stone, the national chair of Republicans for Choice, was pissed. As was Christopher Barron, the policy director for the Log Cabin Republicans. "The American public has progressed on these issues a lot in the past four years," Barron said. "Unfortunately, this is a turn-back-the-clock platform." Janet McElligott, who is an active member of the Republicans for Choice, said, "If the party stays in the hands of the dinosaurs, it will become extinct." And everyone grumbled how the platform process was designed to specifically exclude them with what McElligott described as "Nazi-like precision."

All of which leaves one wondering: Why are these people Republicans?

"You know," I said to McElligott, as the gremlin-looking gray eminence Gary Bauer crept past and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist gave an interview nearby full of hollow praise for diversity-loving Republicans, "there was this other convention, up in Boston. I'm not sure if you heard about this whole Democrat deal. But they'd love to have you and your unity plank."

McElligott smiled appreciatively, but said she was more interested in reclaiming her own party. Similarly, Anne Stone, as disappointed as she was by her treatment at the platform committee, quickly began talking about "getting them next time in 2008."

Later, I shared some indignation with Barron about how the conservatives' claim that marriage is the bedrock of civilization is untrue, since what we think of as marriage today is in fact only a few centuries old; and how the right wing should theoretically be happy that gays want to marry, since it is an essentially conservative social institution. But when I tried to turn the conversation to Kerry, his eyes flashed Republican fire, and he started in on "the senator who makes Ted Kennedy look conservative." He wouldn't even entertain the idea of leaving the GOP. The Log Cabin Republicans will probably not endorse Bush, but that means no endorsement at all. And endorsing for the flip-flopper is out of the question.

What Barron wants is for the Republicans to shake off the conservative yoke and return to the social center. "What if," I asked, "the party leaders move further right?" "Then they'll be further out of touch," he responded. "And we'll take the fight to them again."

McElligott has a similar outlook. A few days after the platform meetings, I had dim sum in Chinatown with McElligott, and she was still angry. "They totally screwed us," she said while ordering dozens of plates for us in decent Mandarin, "and the anti-gay language was downright malicious."

Over the course of lunch, I discovered that McElligott, who worked for George H. W. Bush, opposes virtually all of the current administration's policies. Her one point of agreement was his policy in Sudan – "a welcome change from Clinton," she said. But although she's not voting for Bush, she still won't go for Kerry.

McElligott is a lifetime Republican, and the psychological inertia that keeps people from switching sides is strong. It was hard enough as a young woman, she explained, to tell her multigenerational Democratic family that she was a Republican, beginning with her grandfather, who, when he heard, pretended to have a heart attack and then kicked her out of the house. Leaving the party at this point would be like excommunication. Better to keep the faith than to lose it altogether.

As with all the moderate GOPers I talked to, McElligott harbors a sparkling vision of Republican potential, and it is apparently very powerful. Despite her resentments, she believes the pendulum will swing back. Like Barron and Stone, McElligott sees the current disconnect between the platform and the podium as a cynical ploy to fool the electorate. She even likened it to Goebbels' theory, improved upon by Mao, of "the Big Lie." But, also like Barron and Stone, she simultaneously saw the convention speakers as a silver lining – a glimpse into the future of the party, a return to the Lincolnian roots of individual responsibility, fiscal responsibility and prudent stewardship.

It's the same fable Mayor Bloomberg evoked at the Big Tent party by quoting from the man in the stovepipe hat about how "a house divided cannot stand" and citing the importance of the "politics of inclusion" and "a Republican Party true to its origins" – all themes further sounded by fellow speakers Arlen Specter, George Pataki and former Massachusetts governor William F. Weld.

When I suggested to McElligott that in the party's current climate, Bloomberg and Schwarzenegger are anomalies, she agreed. "But you have to remember," she replied, "that at one time Barry Goldwater was an anomaly too, a total pariah. And his ideas weren't in the platform. But he was persistent, and eventually his wing took over. That's what we have to do, and to do that we have to get a seat at the table."

Jennifer Stockman, from the Republican Majority for Choice, thinks that the moderates already have that seat at the table. Her group is more accommodating than the Republicans for Choice, despite having mounted a petition to bring their grievances against the pro-life people to the floor in 2000. We were standing at the entrance to the floor of the current convention when I asked why they didn't do the same this time. "We're more pragmatic," Stockman said. She was eager to talk to me, and was nicely turned out in a white skirt suit adorned with a herringbone pattern of black stripes. "And we want to stick to our focus of supporting pro-choice candidates around the country. We were instrumental in helping Arlen Specter succeed in Pennsylvania."

"Yes," I said, "but you had to defend him against your own party, because they're systematically culling the ranks of socially moderate candidates."

"But if we weren't there, who would have fought on our behalf? We're the critical voting bloc in a lot of these races," she replied.

"That certainly is true, which is all the more reason why you could wield way more influence," I said. "Don't you think that if you held your vote ransom, this one critical time, you'd have way more leverage?" – and it was at this point that I realized I was trying to convince Stockman that her organization should try my strategy for the GOP – "and if you actually helped defeat Bush, you'd wash away the extremists that much faster, and get a chance for the new leadership everyone talks about to come in." I almost said "we" when concluding, "You could really reshape the party then."

"An interesting theory," she said. No matter how interesting it was, however, the very idea of completely breaking ranks conflicted with the fact that she's been to every Republican convention since 1980. It's one thing to not endorse Bush, as her organization won't; it's another to take up electoral arms against your party's incumbent presidential nominee.

Like the others, she looked toward the future. "On November 3," Stackman said, "the real battle for the heart and soul of the Republican Party begins."

But why wait? If moderate Republicans have no influence today despite their presence on the podium this week, there's no reason to expect they'll gain strength after the election, when their votes are no longer needed.

Meanwhile, they are losing ground. Stockman thought that the timid compromise the platform committee threw as a bone to the Unity Plank people – that the Republicans are the "open door" party and that they "respect and accept" different opinions – represented progress. The language was weak, however, well short of what they asked for, and even those four words were hotly disputed. Saying that the Republican Party has an open door, moreover, doesn't make it so – especially when some of its platform delegates couldn't even bear to say the words "family planning" and "gay rights."

So when Christopher Barron talks about the Log Cabin Republicans remaining committed to fighting for gay and lesbian civil rights from inside the party, I can't help but wonder at the cognitive dissonance. These guys are like the Kuciniches of the right: well-intentioned idealists, but completely powerless. It's tempting to dismiss them altogether as pushovers, but I also sympathize with their outsider pathos. They want to belong where they're not wanted – and we all know that story, right? The RNC has walked a fine line to keep its disparate constituencies together this week, but it's an even finer line that the party's determined moderates must walk to convince themselves that they belong in the party at all. As McElligott herself said, "They're doing everything they can to make us feel unwanted."

Even the Media Hates the Media

It took no more than thirty seconds inside the Time Warner Official Media Welcome party Saturday night to be reminded why our country�s voters are the worst-informed and least participatory in the industrialized world.

Out on the streets around Madison Square Garden you can pick the press from the delegates without seeing their credentials just by the way they walk. The press always try to look important. They hurry. Or manage to look hurried even while standing still. The print people are mostly schleps, and the television world loves to get all dressed up for no good reason. Everyone wants to feel like they�re going somewhere, spatially and professionally. And when they get where they think they ought to be going, they want to know everyone in the room. Which is why the multiple levels and bridges of the shopping complex where the party was held were brimming with people dropping their salmon tartar cones and wiping flan-covered fingers on their pants to shake Larry King�s hand and you couldn�t take one sip from the Margaritas that looked like they were poured the day before without hearing someone say, �Ohhhh... Mr. Blitzer... I�m [insert name here] from [insert network here].�

This doesn�t mean there aren�t many journalists I admire and whose abilities I can never hope to match; but as a whole, the media seem far more interested in careers than truth. And for a group that�s supposed to be relating a whole lot of complex ideas about the world, they sure do seem parochial.

I know, I know – the poor journalists are easy targets. Don�t they suffer enough humiliation at the hands of a ruthless right-wing libel machine that�s pushed on a slow defensive slide towards irrelevance? Yes, they have in fact suffered at the hands of a ruthless right-wing libel machine – only adding to my annoyance. Because they don�t fight back. They get beaten up for supposed bias, but the real problem is the worn shield of false objectivity they feebly raise as their sole resistance. Wandering with the crowds past the strategically scattered hors d�oeuvres tables and the strange display of a woman in what seemed to be an immobile dress conically shaped out of magazines, I kept wanting to run into Michael Dobbs and demand to know why the nut graf in his Washington Post investigation into Kerry�s military record would include the line �both sides have withheld information from the public record and provided an incomplete, and sometimes inaccurate, picture of what took place.�

Such a statement may be technically accurate, but that statement alone fails to represent the accompanying context and scale and intent. One set of claims, on the Swift Boat side, are vicious fabrications made by people with a vendetta and are being exploited by the cruelest knee cappers to rule politics since the days of hand-bills and the pamphleteering assassins of the nineteenth century.

Whatever paperwork discrepancies exist between Kerry�s paperwork and diaries and so on are not commensurate with the Swift Vets� flat-out intentional and politically motivated falsehoods. Contrary to the dogma of J-schools across the country, there are not always two sides to a story. Balance is often necessary and indispensable, but there are times when the media might have to, um, mediate a bunch of information and make a judgment. And in those instances, presenting contrasting information as if it�s equally important is, in fact, the false representation – more false than saying, �I�ve gathered a lot of material and vetted it all, and here�s my assessment.�

Just because you can always find a counter quote, or an �expert� who will say that evolution is a disputed science, or some guy who will tell you that Kerry didn�t go to Cambodia doesn�t mean you should repeat it. Here�s a new principle they might add to the J-School dogma: don�t quote people who are lying just to have �both sides� represented. And here�s a tip: don�t source with fringe nuts. That�s not objectivity; it�s retarded. If you want to saunter around the Time Warner Center looking so satisfied with yourselves as the guardians of information, then the least you could do is live up to your role. Don�t be afraid of judgment. It�s all you have left.

All this torment over the state of our news is probably why the scene wasn�t fun. It certainly wasn't as much fun as the DNC media party, and that was a pretty lame party, even with the chocolate fountain and the ferris wheel. I did run into some Air America folks, and had a nice conversation with an editor at the foreign desk of NBC, who shared my grievances about the people swirling past us. But in general, the feeling in the place was weird, so I left for the Sleeping With The Enemy Party at the Tank. That's where young progressives and Republicans were purposely invited to the same place and asked to co-mingle to see if any of them could find some common ground, if you catch my meaning.

On the way out I missed a surprise photo op with Bloomberg, and, sadly, never got to see Don King, leaving me wondering, as I always have: Is that guy even real?

A Splintered Unity Platform

While the base is conservative and the administration is drifting so far into the outer reaches of ideological space that they're red-shifting from the Doppler effect, the prime-time speaker lineup is anomalously moderate – so the RNC must run a delicate tight-wire act to make it seem like the principles in play aren't mutually exclusive. But as the Republicans get ready to take their turn at presenting party unity in New York, the GOP's moderate malcontents made themselves known – and were all but ignored by the leadership – at the Republican Platform Committee meetings that got under way this morning in the cavernously empty Javits Center. The Log Cabin Republicans, the gay organization that the RNC tries to ward off like the evil eye, along with the Republicans for Choice, hatched a plan to either strike or soften language in the platform that endorses constitutional amendments to ban gay marriage and abortion. They also wanted to offer a "Party Unity Plank" that says republicans can agree to disagree on such sensitive topics.

A Unity Plank would seem like a no-brainer for a party that, at every turn, is claiming to be unified. Here's what it said:

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Badge Envy

Editors note: This is just one in a series of dispatches from the DNC. To read all dispatches – large and small – as they're posted, go here.

If, as John Edwards put it, there are two Americas, during DNC week the dividing line runs between these two Americas: 1) those on The List; and 2) those not on The List. With the rainbow of credentials, gilded invitations, velvet-ropes, VIP zones, and avalanche of parties, the most important commodity in Boston is access, and access defines station.

Badge envy is the basics. At 9:00 a.m., when the daily credentialing ritual begins, the third floor of the Westin Copley Place becomes like a bazaar in Karachi, a darkened place of bartering frenzy fueled by jealousy and resentment. Everyone tries to upgrade credentials, or trade them, or prevent someone else from doing the same. I met a staff writer at the Christian Science Monitor at the media party Saturday night, and when I ran into her again Sunday with a hall pass around my neck, the first thing she said, after the flash of personal recognition, was: �where the hell did you get that?�

�I have my ways,� I said, knowing that, somewhere out there, the guy running the mojo meter, just pushed my rating up a notch.

Stephen Elliott, a novelist who is writing a forthcoming non-fiction book about the campaign, said the same when we met at the Fleet Center. �That�s better than mine!� he complained. �Just when you think you�ve made it, they bite you in the ass.�

�There�s seven rooms in this world,� I said to Stephen. �You�re in the first room. You should be in the second room, but it looks like you�re still in the first.�

�Where are you?� he asked.

�I don�t know,� I replied. �I guess I�m in the second.�

�Dude, you�re not in the second room!�

�Well, who has the right credential?�

Credential power is governed by the document�s color. Forget purple; �it�s toilet paper,� as Stephen said. Light green isn�t much better, gaining access only to nosebleed seats at level seven and above. Dark green is moving in the right direction, unless it says Honored Guest, because that means you�re honored only enough to get to sit in the same place as the light greens. The dark green credential marked PRESS is the one that enables entry into the media bleachers on either side of the stage, and from there, down to the convention hall floor. But that�s a temporary visit – unless you have the permanent red FLOOR credential, a solid footing that is yet eclipsed by the all powerful, bold blue PODIUM tag, which is like having a letter from the King, rolled and sealed in wax, guaranteeing safe passage in all the lands of Ye Knowne Worlde.

Then there�s the branching tree of add-on access echelons, articulated by the hospitality tags for free food and the whole panoply of glowing VIP amulets available only to machers, famous people, or fundraisers for the DNC. And those with the full juice can be identified from afar by their multitude of superfluous badges, dangling like breastplates from handsome Jacobs lanyards � white canvass and leather with the signature top-stitching.

To step outside the convention hall, is to enter a realm even more Hobbesian. Notions about the very locations of the best parties are traded like rumors in a prison. And once you get there, it�s wise to have initiated two, or preferably three different avenues of communication with the organizers or their friends or their PR firm, because chances are one of those RSVPs, mentions, requests, or favors never made it onto the clipboard in the hands of the doorkeepers.

Such had been the case at the Rock the Vote party, but I happened to be in the company of a well-connected television executive who, you know, made a few calls. But the executive, who prefers to remain anonymous and so shall be called Herman, pointed out that, as successful as he�s been, even he still doesn�t always get on The List. I asked him if he�s in the seventh room. �The thing is,� he said, �When you think you�ve opened that last door, and you might get to the seventh sanctum, they�ve always built one more door to go through.�

On Tuesday night, the most important list to have your name on was at the door of the GQ party at the Federalist restaurant. The buildup for this event gathered incredible momentum during the day. Everyone would be there, including, we heard, San Francisco�s mayor Gavin Newsom. Why that was so exciting I�m not sure, other than it was clear that it would be a triumph to get in. And so everyone spent Tuesday putting significant energy into having their name added to that list. Herman was on it by default. Stephen made his way on at the last minute. My friend Kay was on the �original list,� and by a circuitous chain of relationships and events, she spent much of the day trying to get Stephen Colbert from the Daily Show in. That he was having trouble, only made it more strange that I had been set for the GQ party for days.

Success or failure with the list, it seems, sometimes turns out to be arbitrary. Maybe a glitch opens, a temporary failure, and you get warped up to the next room, or sent back to the beginning. Outside the Federalist, I breezed in; but Stephen had to work the door for half an hour to convince them he should be inside. ZZ Packer, who had done no prep work at all, just started saying The New Yorker, and they waved her along. By the time Kay arrived there were so many people, the fire marshals were not letting anyone in. And I�m still not sure if Stephen Colbert ever made it.

But then you have to figure out what to do in such a party. Chatting with Anderson Cooper would be boring, and striking up a conversation with John McLaughlin would intimidating, because you might start saying something and he�ll just yell, �WRONG!� I knew enough people to have a good time, but there was still the feeling of being at the bottom end of the totem pole. I was in, but not quite. There�s always one more door.

Arriving at the DNC

Unlike Washington, Boston is not a converted malarial swamp. Yet tonight it feels similar. Clothes stick; the heat is damp; the riverbanks are green and lush; and the evening emits a faint buzz. Even the breeze over the Charles River has the slight chill of an oncoming fever. Because soon they'll be here: 5,000 delegates and three times as many journalists, and at their flanks an army of DNC volunteers, party hacks, party flacks, celebrities, strategists, logistics teams, and heavy security details – together turning the city into a frenzy of political celebration and speculation.

On Thursday, the visitors were still arriving in a trickle. Only a few Kerry buttons were on display at the bar at the Sheraton, where even a couple rooms were still open. "By Saturday afternoon I expect bedlam," said a porter at the Back Bay Hilton just up the way when I ducked in there looking for a bar. This weekend, the airports and train stations will fill with incoming conventioneers. The galas will start. The satellite trucks will multiply. As will the number of notable persons on the streets. It will be impossible to find a place to stay, unless you don't mind paying $1,800 a night for the Omni Park Hotel or lodging for cheap in southern New Hampshire.

A shortage of rooms, it turns out, is one of the reasons Boston has never hosted a national party convention. Whereas New York and Chicago are both financial centers with the infrastructure to house plenty of visitors, Boston only caught up enough during the commercial boom of the last decade and a half to bid for the DNC. Until the middle of last century, Boston also would have been a poor geographic choice. Chicago has seen more conventions than any other city because it's in the center of the country, and it was convenient for all the delegations to meet there by rail. That traveling was part of the tradition; New York's three trains would all come steaming into the station together, flags-a-waving. So in addition to summoning entire party leadership annually, the time en route helped people get to know each other.

In 2004, California's delegation to the DNC will make a much easier trip on many more than three planes, but they'll stay together at the Westin Copley Place. Not surprisingly, the hotels' quality tends to confirm the pecking order of their patrons. New York will be at a nearby tony address in the Prudential Center complex. Montana's delegation will be put up at Northeastern University's dorms, alongside many convention volunteers, while Kerry's campaign people are at the Sheraton, the nicest Sheraton, I might note, that I have ever seen. But there are exceptions. Little tiny Hawaii is at the quite respectable Marriott. And Kucinich, yet again, managed to buck the system; he will stay alongside Kerry's crew at the Sheraton when he arrives Saturday.

My situation is not one of these exceptions. Best Western is where the alternative presses and literary journals and other "special media" wind up. The Village Voice, I understand, has a house somewhere, which sounded pretty good, until a friend staying there said he had to be sure to track down an air mattress for himself. I have a room at a place called the Chandler Inn, but the reservation begins on Sunday. The Chandler Inn is no prize – the management, in a feat of euphemism, refers to its two-star converted flop-house establishment as a place of "European style" charm – but it sure beats the place I stayed my first night.

After an arrangement to crash at a friend's fell through, I had to resort, at the last minute, to the temporary/sublet section of Craig's List. It was there that I saw this posting:

"1 B/R, Hot Tub on Roof, overlooking Back Bay, for DNC, cheap!"

Seemed reasonable. Enticing even. As a lover of hot tubs, I had packed swim trunks and was sold on that point alone. Except that I didn't realize until I had walked all my stuff across Harvard bridge that it was a frat house. Nestled between the stately and quaint historic riverfront buildings of MIT was the squat, ugly, brick habitat of the university's Alpha Tau Epsilon chapter. I almost turned around, but Steve Elliott, who I've traveled with on the campaign and who is also in Boston, convinced me to give it a try.

"How bad could it be?" he said. "It's probably not, like, a typical fraternity. I bet it's more like Real Genius." He painted a picture of early Bill Gates types, misunderstood visionaries, soldering motherboards and ham radio components together and listening to Thin Lizzie. "It's probably a technical fraternity or something. You know, like they're all into electrical engineering."

I didn't think it was possible to sink lower than the EconoLodge in Manchester, but I had not yet experienced the reality inside the ATE house. The place was a nightmare of dereliction that exists only in shooting galleries, crack dens, and modern fraternity dwellings. There were no lovable nerds customizing computers – just jocks wallowing in filth. In addition to the usual underwear tacked to doors and lame stickers, the squalid rooms stank like mold. There was trash everywhere, and rotting food in piles. No one had bothered to scrape the years of hardened snot off the walls. Walking into the bathroom I saw, in this order:

1. Used Q-Tips on the floor
2. A note in the sink that said: DON'T USE SINK!
3. One grimy gym shoe
4. A stopped up shower full of brown water
5. Medicated dandruff shampoo

Almost more surprising than the scene itself was the realization that there is a contingent of full-force knuckleheads at MIT, just like in the rest of the world. Bernie, the guy showing us around, was nice enough, if somewhat delusional about his talents as a concierge. But he wasn't someone I'd ever imagined belonging to the MIT student body. He was beefy. He clearly lifted weights. He was not only acting as if the rat's nest he lived in was normal; he expected me to pay to stay there.

Steve's theory about all this, developed when Bernie left us alone for a minute, was that in any given slice of the population, the composition of people is identical. There will always be a certain percentage of smart people, a certain percentage of beautiful people, a certain percentage of soiled jocks, and so on; and the percentages for each category don't change with the geography. They're same everywhere, even at a place like MIT. I noted to Steve that MIT must be rubbing off him already, because he had just articulated a sociological version of the principle of self-similarity. That's the mathematical concept from fractals and complexity theory that Benoit Mandelbrot liked to illustrate on TV by breaking off a small shoot from a large piece of cauliflower and demonstrating that if you zoom in on that little piece of cauliflower, it looks indistinguishable from the big piece from which it came.

"Hmmm," was his response.

The tour continued to other floors. Each was more post-apocalyptic than the last. As we stepped into the dimly lit, top-most hall, I half expected to see a huddle of wild-eyed people in rags fighting over a chicken bone. I leaned over to Steve and said, "It looks like they're getting ready to film 29 Days Later in here."

There was in fact a hot tub on the roof, but it was padlocked, and no one knew the combination. Back down stairs, the room designated to be mine was one of many that go empty during the summer. The ATE leadership had hoped to exploit them for a little cash during the convention. I appeared to be the only person retarded enough to respond to their ad. I stayed that night, so as to not have to pick my bag up and take it somewhere else.

I couldn't sleep, though, mostly because bad music has been reverberating through the cinder block from the adjacent Kappa Delta house until 3:30 am. I went to the window for a while, at first to track down which jackass was the one who couldn't get enough P.O.D. at this hour. Across the street is the river, and across that, Boston. Nice view at least. From here, the entire city is in sight, starting with the distant silhouette of downtown, where someone soon will have to fill a contraption in the ceiling of the Fleet Center with two million balloons. A little closer is the John Hancock tower, and then the lights of the Prudential complex, where the cluster of hotels stand waiting for their guests.

To read all dispatches – large and small – as they're posted, go here.

For French Fries or Fuel

A sticker on the blue Dodge read, "Ask me about veggie power." The truck belonged to Joel Wolf, a rancher, surfer and longtime diesel mechanic, who had agreed to meet me at Summit Restaurant up above the Ojai Valley, so that I could do just what the sticker requested. Recently, Joel formed a company to propagate the usage of discarded vegetable oil as an alternative fuel. And no matter how many times the question is put to him � �Okay, so what gives with veggie power?� � Joel can�t contain his enthusiasm when answering. He loves it. It�s liberating. It�s the future. It makes freaking sense. Veggie power, as he put it over a chocolate malted outside the Summit, �is totally bitchen.�

Joel is part of a growing movement that is realizing the latent environmental and economic potential of diesel engines by converting them to run on the oil thrown away daily by thousands of restaurants. Making a relatively small investment, these folks install parallel fuel systems in their cars and trucks, into which they can pour grease collected from the back of Wendy�s, Wienerschnitzel or any eatery that serves fried food. They adapt all kinds of vehicles, share technical information, traverse the country, stopping at diners every 500 miles or so, proselytizing along the way. Greasel, it�s called � or at least that�s one coinage catching on because it�s the name of the company selling the most popular conversion kit. The Department of Energy prefers the more technical designation of waste vegetable oil (WVO), but among devotees the term that generates the most enthusiasm is a passionately pronounced �straight veg.�

�Where�s your rig?� Joel asked as we prepared to see the straight-veg operation back at his ranch. I pointed to my car, parked by the Summit�s storage shed. Joel was headed in that direction already, because just inside the shed were two 5-gallon containers, heavy with grease from the Summit�s fryers. �I have an arrangement with them,� he said, handing me a container. Then he turned his attention to my car.

�Diesel?�

�Nope.� Volkswagen does make a factory model diesel Jetta, but mine is a garden-variety gasoline engine.

�Too bad,� Joel said, cracking a smile. �We could convert you right now.�

Using vegetable oil as fuel began with the earliest of Dr. Rudolf Diesel�s engines a century ago. Diesel�s remarkable innovation was that his machine required no spark. Its method of �compression ignition� uses the pistons to squeeze and heat a volume of air, into which fuel is injected. When the hot, pressurized air ignites the fuel, the released energy shoots the piston back out and exerts force for the vehicle. Vegetable oil shares enough chemical properties with diesel fuel that it will function similarly inside the engine. In fact, the first exhibition diesel at the 1900 World�s Fair in Paris ran on pure peanut oil, and it was only later that diesels were modified to accept the cheaper and far dirtier fossil fuels that would power the 20th century.

Vegetable oil, which is thicker and solidifies at a higher temperature than petroleum diesel, requires a reduced viscosity to function in today�s diesels. There are two methods to achieve this. One involves a chemical reaction: Mix the oil with methanol and lye, and you get a stable, vegetable-based fuel called biodiesel. Biodiesel know-how has been around since the 1970s, and it has caught on in the past five years as the country�s fastest-growing alternative fuel. Many government fleets � military vehicles, buses, garbage and postal trucks � now use biodiesel. The Channel Islands National Park, for example, uses biodiesel for all its vehicles, heating and ships. In addition to professional production, some people brew biodiesel in their back yards.

�But that�s some pretty serious chemicals to be playing with on your own,� said Charlie Anderson, co-founder of Greasel Conversions, Inc. �I know guys who are missing their eyebrows from that stuff. And commercial biodiesel is expensive � almost four bucks a gallon some places.� So while biodiesel was becoming an established industrial alternative fuel, Charlie looked for a way to let people �run their cars on veg the other way.�

That other way is to simply heat up the vegetable oil. Charlie and his partner, Perry Pillard, built an apparatus for cars and trucks that stores raw vegetable oil in a separate tank and warms it to 160 degrees, at which point the oil, without any chemical processing, can course easily through the engine. Charlie�s kit wasn�t the earliest � before he started three years ago, there were people selling similar gear and many following DIY manuals on their own � but Greasel was the first company in the United States to offer a fairly reliable product and technical support in the form of Charlie answering questions over the phone. And the Greasel kits are moderately priced, ranging from $300 up to a couple thousand, depending on the kit, the customization and installation requirements.

That made the Missouri-based Greasel, which has sold around 3,000 units so far, the informal center of the straight-veg community. Charlie and Perry were even in Puerto Rico recently setting up the first commercial client for straight veg � a Windham resort that will convert its 40 tourism buses to make use of the island�s plentiful surplus cooking oil.

�A veggie system is not that complicated,� Joel explained as we stood among the various garages and sheds in the work area behind his house. Joel is about 6-foot-2. His red and rugged skin, sandy blond hair and freckled hands suggest a lot of time spent in the sun. In addition to starting his small oil-distribution network, Joel is the closest thing to an official Greasel installer on the West Coast. You order the parts, and for an extra fee he�ll install them, along with some of his own custom additions, and do maintenance if necessary.

Around the yard were all manner of veggie-power engineering: filtering socks dripping oil into buckets; 52-gallon drums storing the finished product; a 1992 Power Ram 250 Cummins Turbo that became Joel�s first veggie vehicle; and a down-and-out Suzuki Samurai that, when repainted and outfitted with a Volkswagen 1.9-liter �vegged out� diesel, will surely be the sharpest biomass-burning teen-market leisure jeep in history.

But the real mechanical monument to Joel�s faith in straight veg is his recently acquired 2003 Dodge Ram Crew Cab short-bed 4X4 with a 24-valve Cummins diesel fuel-rail system. He voided the warranty on the $38,000 powerhouse to install his Greasel components, which he proudly exhibited after opening the hood. There were two fuel lines coming into the engine, one connected to the standard diesel tank, and the other to a steel box that he�d welded in back behind the cab. He�d also added his own transparent filter, which indicates the status of the tank filter further up the line and detects whether there�s vegetable oil or diesel in the system. �You have to start the engine on diesel, and that heats the oil,� he explained. �And you have to cycle the vegetable oil out when you turn it off, so there�s none in there when it�s cold.� Switching back and forth is easier than it sounds, Joel said. �Here, I�ll show you.�

We took the ��03� for a spin. Five minutes out, Joel flipped a tiny switch hanging from the dash. �Now, we�re veg.� The engine�s clang and grind smoothed out slightly, and the aromatic bite of the diesel fuel was replaced by a sweeter, balmier perfume of chilaquiles. Or maybe it was al pastor. �If you get your grease from a donut shop, she smells like donuts,� Joel exclaimed. �If it�s a Thai place, the whiff is pad Thai. Today, as you can tell, I�m running Mexican.�

Joel claims that the Greasel gets better performance than diesel; that veggie power amps the low-end torque, which he can feel when ascending the Dennison Grade coming back from the coast, and the gas pedal still has a little left, even when towing. And according to Charlie, dyno tests, a widely used automotive-performance measuring system, have confirmed that oil has more horsepower than diesel. Some oils, he says, provide a bigger kick than others, with the best coming from Japanese restaurants: �A good tempura place will make your Greasel run smooth, and it burns real clean.�

How clean? No one has tested the tempura thesis specifically, but both biodiesel and straight-veg fuels have been shown to significantly diminish the particulate matter and extremely toxic emissions that are a known problem with petroleum diesel. They also cut down on greenhouse gases. Robert McCormick, a scientist at the Department of Energy�s National Renewal Energy Lab (NREL), explained how the life cycle of carbon dioxide released by vegetable-based fuel is closed. Carbon dioxide is metabolized by plants through photosynthesis, so the �carbon released by burning this year�s soybeans can be reabsorbed into next year�s soybeans.� But fossil carbon, locked away for millions of years, becomes a net surplus when it�s burned; once free, it cannot be re-circulated.�

Among most straight-veg enthusiasts, however, the main appeal is the price of fuel, which is zero. Take J.P. Jenkins, an 82-year-old RV trekker who answered the phone one day at the Greasel headquarters while Charlie and Perry were still in Puerto Rico. Jenkins pulls his 35-foot Mountaineer � �top of the line, including three slide-outs� � with a three-quarter-ton Dodge that he converted to veg last spring. Since then, J.P. has been an oil-collecting blur on the interstate, in constant transit between his home in Port Orchard, Washington, and family destinations in Illinois and Las Vegas, heating his found grease to the right temperature using a turkey thermometer, filtering it and pouring it into his 200-gallon tank.

I asked if that wasn�t a pain in the ass, especially for a retiree.

�Not unless you call �free,� as in F-R-E-E, a pain in the ass.�

Besides, he was there to get Greasel�s new NOMAD tank, which will do all the heating and filtering automatically.

Is that worth the thousand bucks it�ll cost?

�Abso-tittle pot-a-loo-loo! Worth every penny. I�ll make that back in a few months.�

This is the same sentiment (if worded differently) that John Lin expresses about his Greasel works, which he takes a step further through vertical integration. John owns his own Jack in the Box, making him both user and supplier, with a personal reserve of 10 gallons of waste vegetable oil a day. A couple of years ago he bought a 20-year-old Mercedes 300SD, called Charlie Anderson, and started filling up out back. His family thought he was crazy, he explained as we stood at the work site of his second Jack in the Box, in Irvine, across the street from the University of California campus. His wife, Pranee, smiled and nodded in agreement. She still thinks he�s a little crazy. They were grilling a special lunch for the 20 or so workers who were building John�s �American dream,� which was still a frame of posts and chipboard and dust and hardhats. The Mercedes ran well, and ran cheap, and so John decided to upgrade.

�I needed hauling capability,� John explained while working the grill. �So I looked for the largest diesel on the road, and got this guy.� He pointed toward a white Ford Excursion parked by the construction office, and asked me to slide underneath. Welded to the chassis just inside the frame rail was a 3-foot, coffin-shaped secondary veg tank that, John described when I resurfaced, was not quite finished but would have a temperature sensor, a vacuum gauge and a fancy pod where their displays would mount up front. It will be ready when the second Jack in the Box is operational, and that�s when he�ll be able to make use of the special valve in his new storage tanks and pump oil straight from fryer to fuel tank.

As a businessman, this makes perfect sense to John. He�s a hamburger guy through and through, he�ll insist, but �Simple economics brought me around to environmentalism.� He likes to say that his Excursion will get better mileage than a Prius, if you�re counting petroleum usage. And he�s even thinking of putting solar panels on the roof to catch all that free sun and help power the place.

When he looks at his Excursion, he marvels at the economy of the loop: �It uses waste heat to heat waste oil and drive me and my stuff around Los Angeles for free.� I asked him how much money he�d save in a year, and his mind snapped into a mode of quick accounting. He turned from the grill and, with a pronged fork still digging into a foot-wide sirloin, began calculating: �From home to here and back is a hundred miles per day, six times a week, at 22 miles per gallon, times $2.39 a gallon, and that�s somewhere above $3,000, minus the initial investment of $1,500, and that means in six months I�ve saved three grand a year � and will never have to pay at the pump again.�

This is not what the biodiesel industry likes to hear. Despite the chemical kinship connecting biodiesel and straight veg, there is bad blood between the camps. Biodiesel has green roots, but it is becoming a big business, with lobbyists and backers like the American Soybean Association and petroleum distributors who have the infrastructure in place to cash in on the booming demand. To them, every J.P. Jenkins or John Lin is a lost customer, or worse, an attack on their business model. The industry�s trade association, the National Biodiesel Board (NBB), has successfully sought regulation and standards, including a rating from the American Society for Testing and Materials that paved the way for EPA approval. And they don�t like the free agents out there tinkering on the side.

Whereas biodiesel is like a nascent Microsoft, expanding rapidly into a new market through a forced consensus of standardization, the straight-veg culture is closer to the Linux of alternative fuels. There are no rules or patents. Information and techniques are swapped freely. It is, dare I say, open source � a grassroots, exploitable energy, which is one of the reasons its users feel so empowered: Anyone can join in, and the raw material is waiting to be hauled out of parking lots nationwide.

�They hate us because we won�t join the club,� complains Joel. In straight-veg circles there is an almost conspiratorial mindset about the industry�s sinister intent. �The industry sees big dollar signs in centralized distribution of biodiesel, so it really frosts their cookie that they can�t control what we�re doing,� says Charlie Anderson, who also charges that the NBB has gone so far as to spread false information about his product.

When I spoke with Jenna Higgins, spokeswoman for the NBB, she did offer a quick denunciation of straight-veg users, who she claims are damaging their engines, breaking the law (by not paying fuel taxes), and reducing consumer confidence in true biodiesel. This last part is why the NBB is equally unhappy with the biodiesel homebrewers; any deviation from the new ASTM specifications, they argue, will tarnish the industry�s reputation.

Each side has its points. Standards are necessary for a new alternative fuel to find acceptance � already an uphill battle. The Greasel is still messy and mainly for people with mechanical inclinations. And using oil may in fact have some long-term consequences for an engine, especially if handled carelessly. At the same time, the price of official biodiesel makes it too expensive for commercial fleets. Biodiesel is also usually sold in mixtures, in a 1:2 or 1:5 ratio with regular petroleum-based diesel, so it doesn�t have the same emissions reduction or petroleum displacement as straight veg. And running 100 percent biodiesel can cause a whole different set of engine problems.

The one note of universal agreement is that the country�s 3 billion annual gallons of waste vegetable oil and 60,000,000 acres of fallow fields that could grow soybeans or rapeseed or other vegetable-oil crops represent a wide open opportunity for renewable energy use. The NBB wants more sellable oil. Straight-veg users want more free oil. Environmentalists want less pollution. And the Department of Energy wants to see vegetable oil help reduce the country�s dependence on oil imports. �There�s not enough vegetable oil to replace all diesel,� said McCormick from the National Renewal Energy Lab, �but you could have a noticeable impact.�

As we drove through the hilly acreage behind Joel Wolf�s ranch, his cattle shading themselves beneath stately old oaks, he gushed about the scale of the potential. �Cars are just the start! Tractors, generators, stationary pumps � agricultural equipment runs on diesel. As do ships. All that could run on vegetable oil.� We passed a wide patch of black crude seeping out of the ground, then an oil well, then a grove of dark walnut trees whose fruit, if pressed, could go in the tank of the truck we were driving. I asked Joel if he thought of harvesting his walnuts for that purpose. �Not yet,� he answered. �But they�d probably burn real nice.�

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