Too soon to care

If Americans don’t wake up to the election soon, well, it’ll be pretty much like the last 10 or 12 elections.

Dick Cheney seems unusually relaxed—considering the election is only a few months away.

Dick Cheney seems unusually relaxed—considering the election is only a few months away.

RN&R File photo

Michael Santa Rita is an occasional Reno visitor and frequent freelance writer.

In addition to my freelance-writing gigs, I work at a Borders bookstore in Tyson’s Corner, Va., just outside of Washington, D.C.

Recently, I was standing at the cash registers when Vice President Dick Cheney entered the store with his wife, his granddaughter and a host of secret service agents in tow. After about a half hour of shopping, he made his way to the registers carrying a stack of children’s books and a non-fiction account of a flu epidemic that hit the United States in the early 20th century.

A serious man, Cheney didn’t crack a smile or engage me in any conversation as I rang him up. He merely handed me his American Express card and then left my register, with the Secret Service agents still circling him like vultures.

A little over a week later, his wife appeared, again accompanied by a flock of Secret Service agents. She bought a few cheap thrillers and the complete second season of The Sopranos. She likes to watch the series while exercising, she explained to me.

Fairly prosaic stuff. But it got me thinking: If Dick Cheney has enough free time on his hands to read a lengthy tome about a flu epidemic; if his wife is watching The Sopranos as she trips along on the treadmill—or whatever it is she does—then they can’t be losing any sleep over the upcoming elections.

There are no late night, caffeine-fueled strategy sessions, I thought. No strenuous cross-country campaign trips, no well-thumbed copies of Kerry’s campaign book littering the vice president’s mansion, no vicious bickering about Kerry’s position in the polls. Nope, just the flu for Dick and James Gandolfini for Lynne. Middle American tastes for two Middle American people—albeit people with a lot more money than you or me.

So I thought: Well, what about the rest of us? If these two can keep a mundane existence going as the election year begins to heat up, what’s on the rest of our minds?

Despite the endless back and forth from our chattering classes about who’s a wimp, who’s a flip-flopper, who skipped Vietnam and who was a hero, does this election year feel real to the man on the street just yet? Or are we waiting for Bush and Company to diminish the hundreds of millions of campaign dollars they’ve stockpiled before we sit up and take notice?

So I decided to do a little person-on-the-street survey. The first place I stopped was a newspaper shop in Adams Morgan, Washington’s trendy, multi-culti neighborhood.

When I asked the man behind the cash register at the newspaper shop whether anyone was talking to him about the elections, the answer came in thickly accented speech, “Nobody.”

“Nobody,” again was the answer when I asked him if he heard people talking among themselves about elections. Seeing that I was going to get some really great one-word quotes from this guy, I moved on to a coffee shop down the street.

Aaron Lloyd, a 32-year-old law student at American University, told me that the elections haven’t really caught on, yet, among the people he knows.

“People are kind of sitting and waiting a little bit,” he said. People will only be interested in August and September. He was careful to make a distinction. “You have to remember that there’s residential Washington and there’s official Washington. The two communicate, but they’re not necessarily the same.”

Adams Morgan, the area I was in, was definitely residential Washington. So I called Patrick Butters, an editor friend of mine who’s more plugged into official Washington than I, and I asked him if it felt like the election year had started in Washington yet.

“Everyone is talking about it,” he said. “The mood is definitely the 2004 election.”

Journalists and politicians are taking the election seriously, but over at the State Department, a lawyer friend told me nobody was talking about the elections just yet.

Again, in the wealthy neighborhood of Georgetown, Robert Devaney, a resident told me, “I think it’s more like, ‘Let’s see what happens.'”

But he assured me, “Georgetowners tend to be Democratic. D.C. will overwhelmingly go Democratic in the national elections.”

At George Washington University, my alma mater, Weishu Tsai, a 23-year-old engineering student, told me I’d soon be able find people interested in the election. “After spring break,” he said.

From my mini-survey, I came away with the impression that apart from the journalists and the politicians, Washington, which is basically a sleepy Southern town when you subtract the politicians, hasn’t really awakened to the election year yet.

But as my friend at the State Department said, “I think what Washington thinks is minimal. You’ve got to pay attention to West Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Missouri, Florida.”

Still, if what I saw on the streets of Washington is reflected elsewhere in the nation, the simple fact of the matter is we don’t care yet. We’ll continue to see the apathy that attends American elections until September and October, and then half the voting population will wake up to the fact that it really doesn’t like the other half of the voting population, and the battle will be on. And then, somehow, George W. Bush and Kerry will suddenly seem to matter. Until then, we’ll be satisfied with Scott Peterson, Wacko Jacko and the host of other stories that keep us entertained.

But did I address any of this to Dick Cheney as he walked away from my register? Nope. I just said, “Oh, you forgot your receipt.”

He turned, took it from me and left.