AS SOON AS HE WAS OLD ENOUGH TO DRIVE, Mark Hamilton began to travel the country with the Grateful Dead. In the spring of 1986, he was out there among the freaks and tie-dyes. And then, like so many Deadheads, he lost his way. A decade passed before Hamilton again longed for the road, and by then, Jerry Garcia was dead. So he withdrew his wild, reckless energy from the past in one lump sum and reinvested it in Patrick J. Buchanan. “It was a kind of crystal moment,” says the sleepy-eyed, goateed 27-year-old. “The candidate told his followers not to wait for a call but instead to ride to the sound of the guns, and off I went.”
In the heady days of Buchanan’s early campaign victories, Hamilton set out for New Hampshire from Upper Montclair, N.J., an affluent suburb of New York where his parents live. Growing up, he’d been one of those odd kids who absorb the politics of their parents whole, 10-year-olds who think that more than anything, this country needs a cut in the capital-gains tax. After graduating from high school, he went to the University of California at Santa Cruz, where he endured life as a conservative among hippies, It’s a very liberal school,” he says. “Not many people shared my views.”
Six years later he came back East to work for a Wall Street firm. To his surprise the culture of money was also not suited to his taste, “I was listening to people brag about the amount of money they made,” he says. “And I realized that Cohen if I were successful, I might do the same thing. So I quit.”
Hamilton returned to Upper Montclair. “My parents were worried,” he says. “I was a freelance writer who got very little work, which made me just enough money to party in the city on weekends. They thought I was doing nothing. But I was doing something: I was waiting.” In early 1996, Buchanan’s presidential campaign gained steam, winning the Louisiana and Alaska caucuses, finishing strong in Iowa’s. For a few strange months, Buchanan, this man on the fringe, this ex-pundit, this self-styled populist, was an honest-to-God contender for the highest office in the land. This made perfect sense to Hamilton and still does. “He’s the only one telling the truth about America’s decline,” says Hamilton. “We need him to right ourselves.”
To say Hamilton dropped everything is an exaggeration: He had little to drop. He went off to New Hampshire, where he walked into Buchanan for President headquarters in Manchester and volunteered. He started off stuffing envelopes (“Real paper-cut stuff,” he says), losing himself in the Mardi Gras atmosphere of the primary. “Insane,” he says, “Politicians showing up everywhere, newspaper guys getting drunk.”
Buchanan’s America First campaign is a guerrilla operation: no pollsters, no frills, mostly buses. This may have been bad for Buchanan, but it’s been good for Hamilton and other young volunteers. Whereas it might take months for a 27-year-old believer to penetrate one of the other campaigns, Hamilton was shaking hands with Buchanan within days. And as the campaign set off across America, Hamilton was asked to come along; he’s the only unpaid volunteer who gets to travel the country with Buchanan, To Hamilton, this progression of events is no less remarkable than the idea of Pat as president: “I went from kicking around my house doing nothing to all of a sudden traveling with the candidate,” (The campaign workers almost never call Pat Buchanan Pat Buchanan — they call him the candidate, as if invoking his real name would be a kind of sacrilege.)
Hamilton usually carries a walkie-talkie, which hangs from his belt. There is almost always one voice coming from the radio, the laid-back monotone of his colleague and fellow true believer Sean McCabe.
“Mark, you there? Hey, Mark?”
“Yeah, I’m here,” says Hamilton to the box. “What’s up?”
“Tell the Good Morning America people they’re on,” the voice answers. “They’ve got five minutes with the candidate 10 minutes from now.”
As Hamilton goes off to set up the interview, the drone goes on, the monologue that seems to be running things, the voice of Sean McCabe.
McCabe is an easygoing, hard-working 26-year-old. He has red hair and red eyebrows; his skin is red, and when he gets excited it turns even redder. He grew up in Franklin, Mass., a middle-class, mostly Italian suburb of Boston, where he listened to headbangers like Van Halen. After high school he joined the Navy, spending four years working radar on the USS Mount Baker, an ammunition ship based in the port of Charleston, S.C. Back in civvies, he decided to major in political science at Stonehill, a Catholic college in North Easton, Mass.
So there was McCabe in small-town New England, reading about political campaigns in musty texts, far from the action. He knew some things about himself: that he was conservative, that the Democrats had little to tell him, that he believed America had gone off course and needed change. The rest he hoped to learn in battle. He was probably wondering if he would ever find this battle when he heard the sound of the guns, “I threw some Reagan books in my car with a duffel bag full of clothes,” he says, “and drove to New Hampshire, walked into the Manchester office and volunteered.”
Within months, McCabe was greeting and placing new volunteers. “You always have to be careful,” he says, “because someone can just come into an office, say they’re a volunteer and cause mayhem.”
McCabe, like many young Buchananites, was attracted by the candidate’s certainty, especially his make-no-exceptions stand on abortion, his promise to “stand up for the silent scream.” According to McCabe, although pro-choice is painted as a youth issue, the people who really want abortion rights are in their 40s and 50s. He says technological advances like ultrasound have convinced many young people that abortion is murder. “Has a fetus ever turned into anything but a baby?” he asks. “I mean, it doesn’t turn into a basketball. I think that’s what people are realizing.”
If you challenge these young Buchanan aides on some of their leader’s views — his beer-hall anti-Semitism, say — they look back at you with hurt eyes. You’ve said something rude. “The candidate has been hammered on that unfairly,” says McCabe, sipping white wine at the Embassy Suites in Greenville, S.C. “He’s the furthest thing from anti-Semitic. Al Hunt’s defended him, Mark Shields defended him, everyone who knows Pat Buchanan says he’s not anti-Semitic. Ask people why he’s anti-Semitic, and they can’t tell you. It’s ’cause their parents told them, they read an article.”
The young campaign workers mostly have college degrees and mostly have prospects. They are clean-cut, preppy, short-haired, articulate, not afraid to piss you off, hoping to piss you off, anchored by that sense of certainty that comes from knowing they are right. They are not an uneducated rabble but rather the kind of ideologues who are always drawn to movements. For such kids, the candidate’s appeal is not just about particular issues — though these matter — it’s about style. They find in Buchanan a charismatic father figure, the kind of person you want badly to impress. “We know how serious he is,” says McCabe. “He will not compromise his beliefs, and that gets us motivated. He gets the troops moving.”
When the young followers of Pat talk about first meeting their boss, their eyes grow wide, and they speak in hushed tones. “I love to talk, but that night I said nothing,” says John Frick, a 20-year-old who worked on the South Carolina campaign. Frick, who is from Anderson, S.C., is sitting in Buchanan headquarters in Columbia, with two McDonald’s double cheeseburgers before him. “Here is this great man. Anything I said would sound stupid.”
“He’s the only one with real vision,” says Dan Griffith, the 24-year-old who managed the South Carolina campaign. Griffith spent much of February in a one-story cinder-block building on the edge of Columbia, in one of those sketchy neighborhoods you always find on the edge of college towns, Griffith is heavyset, with reddish-blond hair, big teeth and glasses. Sitting at a desk in back of the office, he discusses Pat’s appeal to young voters. “We were raised in an era where there are no real absolutes,” he says, clasping his hands. “And now you see us returning a little bit to the ideals of the ’40s and ’50s. Some of us are infatuated with the idea of bringing ourselves back under a moral code, living in a moral culture. We’re seeing church attendance going up among young people, which is unprecedented in this country. I think we’ve got a bum rap when you talk about Generation X. People say, ‘Well, they don’t really care about anything.’ But I think a lot of us do care. We’re searching for that solution, and Pat Buchanan is offering it.”
FOR MCCABE AND HAMILTON, AND FOR everyone else on the campaign trail, daily life is a blur of events. They come out of the rain into steamy, jampacked rooms where the candidate rolls up his sleeves, bangs on a table and wins a few more votes. About 30 people travel in Pat’s entourage (a few staffers, many reporters), and they must constantly be informed by the aides of schedule changes. It’s snowing in Baltimore? All right, fuck it, let’s go to South Carolina — maybe we can pick up some votes there.
Much of the time, Hamilton and McCabe act as flak catchers, absorbing the spilled-off anxiety that naturally boils over in the presence of Pat. For several days, the comedian Al Franken, whose book Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot and Other Observations is on the best-seller lists, traveled with the campaign, trying to set up an interview with Buchanan. So all of a sudden, Hamilton’s job was to coddle this liberal funnyman but also to steer him clear of Buchanan. “What’s with that guy?” Hamilton says after Franken is gone. “He thinks we’re going to let him sit down with the candidate so he can mock him?”
The paid staffers are given shiny pins that wink diamondlike from their jackets. One day, Howard Walsh, another young aide, is sitting in a car outside a hotel in Columbia. Hamilton looks wistfully at Walsh’s pin. “I want one of those,” he says jokingly. “Wearing that thing, he can walk right up on the stage at the convention in San Diego, interrupt a nationally televised speech and say, ‘Mr. Buchanan, I just wanted to say hello.’ “
Usually, Hamilton and McCabe are on the bus, shepherding around a changing cast of reporters, which includes writers and photographers from the local and national press, as well as TV correspondents from the networks. Heading to the next speech, the bus is part of a motorcade led by a squad car, its red lights flashing, then a dark-blue Chrysler New Yorker. As the motorcade turns right, the aides in the bus can just make out the outline of the candidate through the window of the Chrysler ahead.
Until the convention, the young Buchananites will remain on the road, following the candidate as if he were some kind of cleaned-up, deprogrammed Jerry Garcia. “I never know what city I’m in,” says McCabe. “You don’t look forward to Saturday, because there is no Saturday.” Out here, the mission is always the same: Spread the word, win the delegates; it is only the setting that changes.
Today’s setting is a small South Carolina highway. We are heading toward the Citadel, the all-male military college that recently shook off Shannon Faulkner, the school’s first female cadet. Up and down the bus, reporters are playing back tapes of Buchanan on minirecorders, and it sounds like two dozen tiny candidates have boarded the bus and are stumping.
To Hamilton, all this coverage proves his point. “If you guys didn’t think he could be president,” he says, settling into a seat up front, “why would you be here?” Some of the reporters have an alternative theory: With a candidate as provocative as Pat Buchanan, there’s a chance he might get shot, and how would you tell your readers you were covering a flower show when Buchanan took his bullet and his place alongside the great populist martyrs of this century?
As we near the Citadel, the bus, having made Cohen a wrong turn, is separated from Buchanan. Ahead, the candidate steps from his car and moves into the crowd. “This cannot happen,” says an Associated Press reporter, through clenched teeth. “We must be with Buchanan at all times!”
“He’s not even talking yet,” says Hamilton defensively,’ “He’s just shaking hands.”
“‘Just shaking hands,”‘ repeats the AP man incredulously. “Did you know George Wallace was shot just shaking hands?”
The cadets are out there in their gray dress uniforms, their ponchos slick with rain, their jaws set, Standing before them, the candidate smiles and waves. He says, “We know the battles you’ve been put under by a lot of leftwing lawyers and a Justice Department that ought to know better. But let me tell you, when I get up there, I’m going to call those fellows over at the Justice Department and say, ‘Listen, as of today, you are changing sides. You are on the side of the Citadel, or you’re going back to Berkeley.’ ”
From there, his speech runs through the usual fears and threats. This is the candidate’s every day, moving place to place, spinning some new version of the same old remarks, “Friends,” he says again and again, “we have to take this country back!”
And everywhere, he’s tapping the same frustrations, the same fears — the country is no good anymore, it’s all going to hell, things will get worse before they get worse — and, surprisingly or not, he’s luring a lot of youthful followers. “He’s not a yes man,” says James Vincent, a 21-year-old private from Hampton, S.C. “He’s not going to say one thing here, then go up North and say something else.”
THE MEMBERS OF THE ENTOURAGE ARE on a runway in South Carolina. They’re standing out of the rain under the wing of a chartered Delta 727. Buchanan’s car pulls alongside the stairs at the front of the plane. He ascends the stairs and takes a seat in first class, where he sits with his wife and staff. The reporters and Hamilton wait for the candidate to get settled, then board through the rear of the jet, spreading out laptops and cameras in coach. Now and then, after the seatbelt light has been extinguished, the candidate starts moving around up front; you can see his big head from the last seat in coach. All of a sudden, everything is quiet on board. Conversations stop. Everyone watches. Pictures are snapped, recording the humdrum of life on the trail.
As the plane heads toward Boston, it’s soon clear that the airport there has been shut by snow. But we’re being allowed to land anyway. Special clearance! The message must get through! As we descend through the storm, the plane’s knocked around like a ping-pong ball. The nuts and bolts, the wings and engines — they sound like they’re about to shake loose. And when the plane at last touches the runway, which is white with ice, we seem to hydroplane, barely in control. But the young aides and the reporters hardly seem to notice. Dying in the same plane crash as Pat Buchanan? What are the odds? That would be like dying in the same crash as Buddy Holly or Otis Redding.
As the plane taxis, Hamilton rushes up to first class. He and McCabe are among the first off the plane, helping the candidate to his car. Then they run back to the bus and nod to the driver. Off we go, flashing through Boston, arriving in a blaze of light at Lexington Common, where the first shots of the American Revolution were fired. Snow covers the common and bends the trees. Stepping to the podium, the candidate is looking into a howling mob of a few hundred supporters and about as many college-age protesters, who are booing and waving signs: BUCHANAN FOR FUHRER! VOTE BUCHANAN AND RIDE THE DIXIE TRAIN TO HELL! PAT BUCHANAN: THE IDIOT HEARD ROUND THE WORLD!
More than any other candidate, Buchanan polarizes young people. Foes who have not squared off since they met in the lunchroom — thick-necked jocks, long-haired bohemians — meet again in places like Lexington, where the candidate’s words force all those within earshot to take sides. Out here it’s not so much about NAFTA or GATT, immigrants or factory closings; again, it’s about style, about what it means to be an American, about inclusion or exclusion, about which is the cooler way to live.
“I think he’s a racist, sexist hatemonger,” says John Bassarini, 19, who’s waited all day in the snow to see the enemy. “I think it’s disgusting that he’s coming to the birthplace of America’s freedom to appropriate it for his own anti-gay, anti-immigrant platform.”
“The candidate scares people,” McCabe says. “Change always scares people. People say they want change but don’t really. And they know there’ll be change if the candidate is elected. There will be change.”
As the candidate starts talking, a chant comes up from the crowd: “Pat Buchanan, go away!/Racist, sexist, anti-gay!/Pat Buchanan, go away!”
Looking at the protesters, the candidate seems confused. He tells the children to quiet down. He says he’ll put them under curfew at the dorm. He laughs. He frowns. He shakes a fist. He stammers. He says, “This is symbolic of what’s happening in America. The establishment is terrified.”
He then says that they should let him talk, that the men who fought on the common believed in the Bible and that they would have let him talk.
“Why don’t you try reading the Bible, Pat?” shouts Bassarini. “It doesn’t say to hate.”
The insults and snowballs start flying. Scuffles break out. And even here, among the taunts and jeers, the candidate seems to be having the time of his life. Whether lambasting Bob Dole, pissing off a women’s group or waving a gun he probably wouldn’t know how to fire, something in the candidate is brimming over, some great inner voice going, “Wheeeee!” And this joy, which creates the electricity, the danger, the fun, is yet another thing that draws the young people. Have you ever heard a speech by Bob Dole?
Storm clouds have bunched along the horizon. A cold wind rises. Buchanan throws the crowd a thumbs up and follows Secret Service agents to his car. Behind him comes Hamilton, pushing through the snow, through the protesters. He is frowning: Look at these people: How can they be so blind? Don’t they know the candidate has the message? That all the yelling in the world won’t change the truth?
“I don’t care what they yell,” he says as the bus moves off through the crowd. “I know what’s right, and win or lose, I’m here till the bitter end.”
IN THE FOLLOWING DAYS, THE primary losses mount. McCabe and Hamilton must know what is coming — the dwindling crowds, the fleeing reporters, the pressure from the Republican establishment to fold it up. But so what? At the very least, the candidate will pull the party right, forcing Dole or whomever else the Republicans put forward to embrace a pro-life running mate, an anti-immigrant stance. Besides, anything can happen. “I’m really optimistic about the campaign,” says Hamilton, “and I’m having a blast.”