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Ain’t that America

At the 21st Amendment, on Beacon Hill, the crowd is split, fittingly, into two factions. Each time the television shows John Kerry picking up a state, the crowd toward the left of the bar cheers and raises glasses. Every time George W. Bush does the same, there’s a vociferous howl from a gaggle on the right. But there’s one guy who just looks on, bemused. In fact, he could give a toss. My friend David is not from this land of red and blue states, of hourly addendums to some weird abstraction known as the Electoral College. He’s from Scotland. Good on him.

He’s lived in the Hub for almost two years, but David is new to American politics. He’s especially new to the Massachusetts variety — so new that he thought until just recently that Mitt Romney’s name was Matt Rooney. (To be fair, Mitt Romney is fairly new to Massachusetts politics himself.) This election-night rigmarole has David gobsmacked. They just don’t do it this way at home.

In the UK, for one thing, even though the whole county’s in the same time zone, it’s unusual to get any type of read on the results until late in the evening. "It may be midnight or one," David says. "It’s not like you’d hang around in a pub until seven onward." What’s more, the folks who’d follow the returns on live TV are a rare breed. "A Conservative would have a cigar, a few sherries, and watch Maggie Thatcher get back in," he says, before pausing. "Not me personally. I’m on the other side of the fence. I want to make that categorically clear. I’m Labor. And Scottish Nationalist."

As he takes a pull from his pint of Bass, I pose a hypothetical question: imagine John Kerry and George W. Bush were running for prime minister in the UK right now. Same guys, same platforms. Only difference is the accents. What happens? "Bush would be ridiculed," he says.


"Well, for the ‘Bushisms’ he’s so famous for, for one thing," he says (he’s just placed a copy of Jacob Weisberg’s compendium on the desk of a conservative co-worker in honor of Election Day). "The press in the UK are brutal. They’ll pounce on anything." I tell him that it often seems the press in the US has done just the opposite, and done the American people a grave disservice. "Yeah, it’s all very moderate," he says of the media here. "They don’t want to offend anyone. In the UK, they have free speech. America looks at itself as a great democracy when they have controls over that speech ... [but] it’s not the free democracy it’s made out to be."

But even if Kerry got the fair handling he deserved, David says, he’d still have a tough row to hoe in Britain. "He would still be looked upon as a stiff, upper-class twit." (David was unaware, incidentally, that Kerry once dated Morgan Fairchild. When I tell him this, he seems genuinely pleased. "Good on ’im, then!")

On the TV above the bar, Tim Russert takes out that God-awful dry-erase board, the one we all remember from 2000, and scrawls across it with multicolored third-grade penmanship, adding and subtracting, scribbling and scratching out as the segment moves along. I ask David what he thinks of the Electoral College. "I have no idea what the hell is going on," he says.

"Me neither," I say back. And as Bush’s red-state tally grows, I retire to the sidewalk for a smoke.

"I heard we lost Florida!" says some girl in a navy-blue pea coat as she passes me, practically screaming into her cell phone. "I have it on a reliable source. What the fuck!"

When I get back inside, the Sunshine State is still shaded gray ... for now. But the boisterous mood on the left side has calmed precipitously. "It’s all gone pretty quiet on the Democratic front," says David mock-regretfully, speaking both of the bar patrons and the electoral map.

"There’s no’ a lot of blue on there," he muses as the Deep South and the heartland are engulfed in red pixels, with only New England (sans New Hampshire) and New York as a bulwark against the crimson onslaught. "I would’ve thought red would be the color for Kerry. Communist red, and all that," he laughs. "Labor is red and Conservatives are blue in the UK. At first, tonight I thought Kerry was stormin’ home. I thought he was ramblin’ home to victory with all that red on the map."

"Well, keep in mind," I say hopefully, "this is only with a small percentage of the vote in."

"I’m a statistician, y’know?" says David, who works as hard at busting malfeasants for a well-known insurance firm as he does at bursting my bubble. "I do sampling on one percent of the population and I get pretty good results." As he says this, another state (Iowa? Nebraska?) fills in with red.

"FOUR MORE YEARS!" go the cackles on the right side of the bar. "FOUR MORE YEARS!"

"FOUR MORE HOURS!" comes the retort from the left. "FOUR MORE HOURS!"

As the noise rises, we leave the bar. David, not being from around here, wants to go to Cheers. So we do. And at the bar, he relates his travails with a female co-worker, a die-hard Republican who’s said out loud that she would gladly marry the POTUS.

"It’s like talking to a brick wall," David marvels, speaking of the obstinacy of the modern American conservative. "They just can’t see no wrong. She was trying to argue that John Kerry is in line with Al Qaeda. They honestly think that! I mean ... wha’ the fuck?"

Another thing that astounds David is the American voting process itself. It’s not just the shady Diebold machines or the challenges mounted by GOP partisans. It’s the wait. He’s shocked that I stood in line for half an hour this morning to cast a ballot.

"That’s not so bad," I tell him. "On Saturday, the early voting in Florida, the lines were four-and-a-half-hours long."

"Four and a half hours?! That’s like a Third World country! That’s like Afghanistan!"

David gets up to "go for a waz." But when he returns, he has some questions that, I confess, I wish I knew the answer to. "How can you Americans not see this? It’s just this drunk whom ‘God has spoken to!’" Then he follows up with a question only a foreign admirer could pose.

"Your country’s only 200 years old. How’d they fuck it up in that short a time?"

On the way home, near Copley Square, as Jon Bon Jovi strums his way slowly through Elvis Costello’s "(What’s So Funny ’Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding," the crowd goes nuts.

"Only in America," David says. A little later, he admits, "I’m surprised how much I care."

Issue Date: November 5 - 11, 2004
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