Waiting for Newt in Naples

Just because the candidate's not there doesn't mean there’s not a story

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?’”

Naples Mayor-elect John Sorey takes the stage and starts reading off the weather in other cities. You get the feeling this is a common pastime for Naples residents. “It’s twenty-one degrees in the city of Obama: Chicago,” he proclaims. The information comes as little consolation to the rally-goers, who have, at this point, been waiting for over an hour. “Hell of a political rally, huh?” one man says to another.

“It’s starting to waver.”

“It’s like the fervor just ain’t there.”

With all the candidates seemingly having had a chance to speak, and the Dixieland band having played all the songs they know, a jolly woman takes the stage, intent on drowning out a handful of screaming Occupiers. “We’re gonna show ‘em what Collier County is all about!” she cries, leading the crowd in a series of improvised chants. “Newt-Newt-Newt-Newt, Newt-Newt-Newt-Newt, O-ba-ma, goodbye!” she sings, to the tune of “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye.” “We all have a voice, we all have a vote, don’t waste it! Speak up! Speak up! Speak up!”

The “Newt-Newt-Newt” refrain soon loses its charm, and the woman transitions to more patriotic material: “God Bless America,” then the Pledge of Allegiance, then an original chant: “U-S-A! U-S-A! The greatest country in the world! The greatest country in the world! U-S-A! U-S-A!” A Paul person offers a rejoinder: “U-S-A Constitution!” Those who aren’t chanting are, understandably, speculating over Newt’s continued absence. “The bus musta got a flat to be this late,” one man says.

When the bus finally shows, ninety minutes late, all its tires intact, it’s dark outside. Newt takes the stage to a mighty cheer. “Mr. Speaker, welcome to the city of Naples! We’re honored that you took your time to be here with us tonight,” the mayor-elect says, before presenting Newt with the key to the city. “We hope you use it often!”

Newt’s stump speech is the same as it was in New Hampshire, heavy on rhetoric and light on specifics. As before, he gets most excited about his idea to challenge Obama to “seven three-hour debates in the Lincoln-Douglas tradition.” He even uses the identical language to introduce the concept, down to the hoary laugh line about how he’ll allow Obama to use a TelePrompTer. Watching this predictability unfold while seated outdoors in balmy weather is like watching a drive-in movie, or an aging rock band run through its greatest hits, and it offers about the same amount of political substance. You can see why reporters get jaded, and why campaign coverage sometimes resembles sports writing or theater criticism—evaluating the candidates on how well they wear the uniform or play their role.

The modern-day political campaign is a factory for cynicism. If you embed yourself within one, you will end up enduring photo op after fungible photo op and hearing the same variations on the same hysteria and cant, and you’ll be expected to report on this, day after day, as if actual news has happened. The only things that change are the places and the people, and that’s where the reporter’s competitive advantage lies, so to speak. More often than not, that’s where they’ll find the most interesting, original, and telling angles on stories—which is why it’s so frustrating that, so early in the process, political reporters latch on to candidates, who never say anything new, and yoke themselves to campaign buses, on which they’re least likely to encounter anyone or anything that might expand the scope of their reporting beyond sound bites and electoral soothsaying.

Newt speaks for about eighteen minutes, then zooms off to his next stop, somewhere else in this sprawling state. The park clears out in a few minutes, people grabbing their lawn chairs, retreating to their respective corners. As it turns out, there was relatively little coverage of the rally, and that coverage tended to focus on the unexpectedly large crowd—one of the largest gatherings in Cambier Park history. But I read little that captures the most memorable elements of what I saw in that crowd: hustling, boredom, ill-informed arguments, several near-fistfights, and one woman from Europe, surveying the scene, cheerfully oblivious to the barrage of insults being leveled from the dais against her home continent. “We’re from Denmark. We are coming here today to see what’s going on,” she says.

“American politics?”


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Justin Peters is editor-at-large of the Columbia Journalism Review.