NAPLES, FLORIDA — It is late Tuesday afternoon in Naples, and a few thousand people have gathered around the Cambier Park bandstand to express their support for Newt Gingrich, who is leading the polls with a week to go before Florida’s presidential primary. At half past five, in the last moments before twilight, the park resembles a scene out of a Rockwell painting: ruddy-faced seniors in golf shirts and sensible shoes sprawl on the grass; children climb trees to get a better view of the bandstand; politicians, dignitaries, and men in patriotic costumes crowd the stage; a Dixieland band, resplendent in red checkered pants, string ties, and straw boaters, plays upbeat music from a bygone era.
Everyone’s there but Gingrich, who is very, very late. Though he was supposed to arrive by five o’clock, the candidate is nowhere to be found, his bus gone missing somewhere between here and Ft. Myers. Though the organizers of the event would argue otherwise, this is no great loss. Whether it’s Newt on stage or some random snowbird in a golf hat equating liberalism with mental illness, these staged expressions of fandom are often information-free affairs.
Missing along with Newt, though, are most of the media members covering his campaign. When I was in New Hampshire before that state’s primary, many of the reporters were following the candidates around in their own cars. Here in Florida, most of the remaining journalists have apparently consolidated onto the campaigns’ press buses. They show up when the candidate shows up. This is a shame, because an hour skulking around the outskirts of a candidate-free rally offers a barometric reading of the pressures currently weighing on America—a look at the biases and beliefs of the public that our political media is supposed to serve.
In the crowd, few people are giving up on Gingrich, though that doesn’t stop them from grumbling. “They say he’s an hour-and-a-half late,” one man says. “You gotta be on time,” says another, heading to his car. “You say five o’clock, you be here at five o’clock.” The rally’s organizers send a series of candidates and office-holders to the microphone, hoping to hold the crowd’s attention, or at least distract people from the fact that it’s getting close to dinnertime. Congressman Bob McEwen gives a theatrical speech devoted to praising America at the expense of Western Europe and, essentially, all other countries. “When a typhoon hits the largest Muslim nation on Earth, to whom do they turn for help?” he asks. “Those generous Americans!” The congressman’s personal website notes that “Bob McEwen is known for his spectacular talent at communicating complicated issues in an easy to understand manner.” Hearing him in person, one suspects he wrote that copy himself.
There are about ten Occupy protesters here, some wearing T-shirts that say “OccupyNaplesFlorida.org” on the back. They’re circling the park with homemade signs, to the great displeasure of the Newt supporters. “I’m part of the freakin’ 99 percent! Why don’t you get out of the way!” yells an angry blonde woman on a picnic blanket, upset that a sign-holder is blocking her view of McEwen. The sign in question reads “I Work 3 Part Time Jobs, I Have A Degree, I Bathe, I Can’t Afford To See The Doctor! Medicare 4 All!” An old man is having none of it. “So what’s the point? You work three part-time jobs! Good for you!”
Ron Paul’s people are here, too, toting their own customary homemade signs. “Abolish the IRS,” the signs say, and “Honk for Liberty,” and, somewhat heartbreakingly, “Ron Paul Is A Top Tier Candidate.” As they parade around the perimeter, they banter with the rally-goers. “Define victory in the Middle East. You can’t!” A guy who looks like Grover Norquist crosses his arms. “I can define stupid. It’s right in front of me.” In New Hampshire, I met primary-goers who wanted to talk; these Floridians seem to just want to talk over people.
McEwen dismounts, and the band members take up their instruments again. “I wouldn’t watch 60 Minutes on a bet,” says a crew-cut fireplug of a man who, moments earlier, was insisting that Islam is a cult. “I watch Fox News, period. Because they tell both sides of the story.” His T-shirt reads, “Recession is when your neighbor loses his job. Depression is when you lose yours. Recovery is when Obama loses his.” The conversation shifts to the previous night’s debate, where audience members were prohibited from cheering. “I’d’a got right up and grabbed the megaphone, and said ‘Who the hell are you to quell my freedom of speech?’”