No shortage of young folks at the Republican Youth Convention. Of course, some of them weren’t Republicans.
By Michael Scherer and Barry Yeoman.
Originally published in the online edition of MotherJones.com.
THE SOUVENIR STAND AT MADISON SQUARE GARDEN was doing a brisk business Wednesday morning as 2,000 adolescents and young adults convened for the 2004 Republican Youth Convention. “Jeff, is it OK if I buy a button, even if I bought three yesterday?” a bleach-blond teen with diamond earrings and pink heels asked her slightly older chaperone. Another junior delegate, Shane Filger of Canton, Ohio, had turned his dusty-rose suit jacket into a veritable billboard of off-color political messages. “I only sleep with Republicans,” said one of his buttons. Another showed an elephant and a donkey engaging in a sexual act that most GOP politicians would just as soon outlaw. “Keep Bush on top,” it said.
The two-hour Youth Convention—designed to engage new and future voters in President Bush’s reelection effort–drew a curious mix of true believers and uncommitted explorers. “I’m bipartisan. I’m not really sure [of my leanings],” said Jason Paul of North Potomac, Maryland, who came to New York with the student group LeadAmerica. A polite 17-year-old sporting a yarmulke atop his curly dark mane, he comes from a conservative family but is still grappling with his own views on issues like the Iraqi invasion and same-sex marriage. “I’m really not for war, but now that we’re in Iraq, we need to stay there,” he says. As for the gay issue, he doesn’t understand why the state should sanction any marriages, hetero- or homosexual.
Paul was sitting with a new friend, Sean Ashby of Upper Marlboro, Maryland. Ashby, also 17, is firmer in his Republican affiliation, but has a word or two for the president about the regulation of marriage. “It has no business with the federal government,” he says. “The amendment Bush is proposing is ridiculous. It’s like Prohibition: You can’t stop people from drinking alcohol and you can’t stop them from having sex.”
Paul and Ashby’s ruminations were interrupted by the beginning of the convention—a soulful Star-Spangled Banner sung by 24-year-old contemporary Christian musician Dennis McDaniel, an African-American man with wild hair that he refuses to cut until he gets engaged. (When asked who he voted for in the 2000 presidential race, McDaniel laughs nervously. “I won’t say,” he responds.) The youngsters pledged allegiance to a video of a flag, then listened to a handful of preliminary speakers before the real stars took the stage: the president’s twin daughters, Jenna and Barbara Bush. Jenna talked about how hard the sisters have worked this week—maintaining a punishing schedule of parties, lunches, and introductions—and then launched into a story about sitting through an entire Texas Rangers game with her father in 108-degree heat. “Dad always supports his team to the very last pitch,” she said, polishing off a well-scripted anecdote.
The twins introduced White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card, who described Bush as “disciplined about every aspect of his life. He’s disciplined about his faith. He’s disciplined about doing his homework. He’s disciplined about his diet…”
As Card was trying to finish his thought, whistles started blowing—siren-like squeals that sounded at first like the building was under attack. From the middle of the floor, a group of young men and women tore off their blue dress shirts and blazers to reveal anti-Bush T-shirts, then quickly unfurled a banner saying, “Stop AIDS. Bush: Global AIDS liar.” Members of ACT UP, a direct-action group focused on the AIDS epidemic, they had circumvented Madison Square Garden’s security system, which had loosened up considerably for the Youth Convention. (No formal credentials were required to attend.) ACT UP timed its action to coincide with Card’s speech, arguing that the White House is disingenuous in calling itself compassionate about AIDS in developing countries. “Right now, sub-Saharan African nations are pouring $15 billion a year into repaying debt to wealthy nations,” ACT UP spokesperson Sharonann Lynch later said in a statement. “That money could and should be used to provide treatment to the millions of people on the continent living with HIV/AIDS. The Bush Administration must move to save the lives of people in the world’s poorest countries by supporting 100 percent debt cancellation now.”
The young Republicans responded instantaneously. They waved their own placards higher in the air, drowning out the protesters with a call for “four more years.” According to one junior delegate, 23-year-old Owen Waller of Brooklyn, New York, a volunteer in a green NYC 2004 shirt started kicking the protesters. “There was one psychotic Republican who was trying to beat them up,” said Waller, who was sitting three rows behind the AIDS activists.
In a few seconds, Secret Service agents and New York police officers were sprinting across the floor, cuffing the protesters and dragging them across the convention hall’s red carpet and down a stairway. “Hey guys, there’s no need,” one of the activists shouted as police twisted his arm into a half-nelson. Another woman screamed, seemingly in pain, as she was dragged off. All told, about six protesters were arrested.
And Chief of Staff Card barely missed a beat. “Even more than those who work for the government, the president has served you, the people,” he droned on, as if no commotion had taken place.
Several speakers later, conservative talk-radio personality Ben Ferguson took the podium. Billed as the nation’s youngest syndicated radio host, he told the crowd, “You wouldn’t believe it from what they say on TV, but the Republican Party has young people.” But 20-year-old Dmitry Nadgorny had other things on his mind. The young Republican from Brooklyn glanced up at Ferguson. Then he turned to his friend and asked, “Man, can this guy ever get laid?”
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