No, this pole [the Great Pole of Weirdness] is different. It is dark like a stovepipe and slick with human grease, criss-crossed with long scars and teeth marks that will give you a queasy feeling if you stare at them too long. Desperate men have struggled and slid down this pole, and only a few have gone up. It is like Jack’s beanstalk, with a long root on the bottom end.

La bas. Down there. Where the beasts are all blind and the doomed scream all night in the darkness. Spiro Agnew is down there, and Richard Nixon will join him soon enough….There is also Lyndon LaRouche, Jim and Tammy, Michael Deaver, Patrick Gray and maybe Gary Hart….

And there are also the old-timers, the vets: Boss Tweed, Phillip Nolan, Joe McCarthy, Martin Bormann, Caligula, Marshal Tojo, James Hoffa and a whole crowd of mutants and zombies like Papa Doc, Hubert Humphrey and the ineffable Ulysses S. Grant.

—Hunter S. Thompson, “Swine of the Week,” Sept. 14, 1987

Before I leave the house in Alexandria to catch the metro to Vienna, I go shopping in front of the bookshelves, staring at some Mishimas and Twains. Carlos says, “Take this,” handing me Hunter S. Thompson’s Generation of Swine, Gonzo Papers Vol. 2, “it’ll get you hopped up.”

But on the train, I find all the old stories of Meese and Reagan and Haig and Buchanan and Biden (!) and Hart, the news I half-remember from my youth suddenly blooms into a stale taste in my mouth, a combination of dread and nostalgia. I’m joining my sister-in-law for our first major political rally, both of us on the cusp of 40. On her birthday—today—her present will be either an old hound-dog or a squealing puppy. I need a bourbon.

30 pm
Photo: November 3rd, 6:30 pm outside the Vienna Metro station.

In this atmosphere of political schadenfreude, enjoying the spectacle of our own past (thankfully passed) elections, the mood is enhanced by a sax player at the exit of the metro station. He’s doodling along short versions of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” “Amazing Grace,” and “Down by the Riverside,” which seems to fit the night, while five or so party volunteers wait, patiently holding up signs. A McCain supporter and an Obama supporter stand next to each other and chat amicably, laughing and joshing while throwing out phrases like, “the utter disaster of this administration.” I ask if I may take a photo of them together, and the McCain supporter says, “Sure. We’re both for a free press.”

Obama rally in Manassas
Photo: Route 234 on the way to the Prince William Fairgrounds.

And off we go for the two-and-a-half-hour drive to the Prince William Fairgrounds, a trip that should take 30 minutes. Spirits are high. On Route 234 people have left their cars somewhere in the dark and are walking along the road. We are crawling along, catching up on family gossip.

Obama rally in Manassas
Photo: Hustling to the venue at 9 pm.

We park on the track of the Old Dominion Speedway, watch a Mini-Cooper make a jaunty-fast round of the empty track, and then we settle into parking spots that will take hours to depart. Onward to the fair!

Obama rally in Manassas

We arrive just in time to realize Obama is going to be late. So we settle in, listen to soul and hip hop and the occasional Springsteen, and stand among thousands and thousands of people. Later we will be told we are 80,000 strong. Obama in his speech will bump it to 100,000.

We get speeches from the 18-year-old son of a congressman (or some such) who is voting for the first time (as is a big cheering portion of the audience), and more from various coat-tail riders. More music. A musician says, “I’ve been told I gotta give you one more,” and we all say “No…” in a 80,000 mouth sigh. “Thanks a lot,” he laughs. Time goes by. More music.

Then slightly bigger fish arrive: Governor Kaine is excited Obama has come to Virginia and is giving Virginia a chance to go blue after 44 years. The former governor and U.S. Senate candidate Mark Warner lays out some careful words: People of Virginia, take me on the Obama ride. OK, OK, but bring us what we want. Bring out the Voice. The crown chants O-BA-MA, it dies out, and we mutter among ourselves. He’s an hour late.

Obama rally in Manassas

And then he’s there. Lots of woos and yays. He apologizes for his lateness (traffic at Dulles), thanks various people, tells us we show grit and determination for trekking out to see him “on a school night.” My sister-in-law says, “But it’s not a school night, all the kids are off tomorrow in Virginia.”

He gets to it:

After the first bit about how we, the American people, have raised him up, given him hope, given him more love than he’ll ever need, he speaks of decency and dignity in politics. I’m thinking of Thompson’s Great Pole of Weirdness and how I had felt when Clinton was elected—and then later. And how I feel now when Carlos reads aloud the Morgan Stanley statement.

Obama continues, “One hundred thousand people is a pretty representative sampling size. Let me see with a show of hands, how many of you make less than a quarter of a million dollars a year?” Hands go up, I’ve never seen thousands and thousands of hands flutter up as in a city of Arnold Horshacks, “Ooh, ooh, Mr. Obama!”

Obama then offers us a Babette’s Feast of political dainties: tax cuts, health care, alternative fuels, emphasis on early education for children, paying our teachers better (my sister-in-law cheers), taking care of military families (“Oh, that’s me! Yay!” clap clap), ending the war in Iraq, balancing the budget…I want to start singing:

In the Big Rock Candy Mountains,
You never change your socks,
And the little streams of alcohol
Come trickling down the rocks.
The shacks all have to tip their hats
And the railroad bulls are blind,
There’s a lake of stew and of whiskey, too,
And you can paddle all around in a big canoe
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains.

Hooray! O-BA-MA! Yes we can! Everyone cheers, hooray! But then, he warns us that we may have to wait a bit for this great vision. We have to dig ourselves out of the hole Bush and his sidekick McCain have dug for us. We moan. Boo.

Then he tells us a story about County Councilwoman Edith Childs, and her famous “Fired up! Ready to go!” [The scansion is difficult. My Yankee mouth wants to say, “Fire it up” because fired in two syllables requires a twang.] It’s the story of the early days of the campaign. He visits a small town and is discomfited by Councilwoman Childs’ chanting, over and over, “Fired up!” He purrs, in a tone suited to an intimate dinner party after a few rounds of good wine, “But here’s the thing, Virginia, after a minute or so, I’m feeling kinda fired up.” And we answer back with some erogenous cheering. “I’m feeling like I’m ready to go!” He works it a bit with some back and forth chanting. Ready to go, ready to go. Ready to go, ready to go.

It’s over. We shuffle-shuffle out, a happy crowd, groups starting chants “Fired up! Ready to go!” which is answered with “Hurry up! We’re ready to go!” It takes an hour to get to the car, we nap in the car for an hour waiting for the parking lot to clear, and I get home at 2:45 am. Carlos mutters sleepily, “How was it?”

“It was good. I’ll tell you tomorrow.”

Happy Birthday, Pia. I hope you get your puppy.