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.