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.