McCain’s Visit to Palin Country

I went to a Sarah Palin rally, but all I got was a lousy handshake from John McCain.

Selling McCain buttons at the Palin rally

LANCASTER, Pa.—The line to see Sarah Palin is the longest I have ever seen this side of security at JFK Airport. It starts at the front door of the Franklin & Marshall College gym; goes out to Harrisburg Pik;, turns right and heads all the way down the block, almost to Wendy’s; then turns right again and snakes through the parking lot, doubling back on itself so many times that people standing in the line are actually heckling those of us who are still searching for its end. “You’re not there yet!” someone cracks when I sidle into a gap that I’d mistaken for the end.

I eventually find the end of the line and fall into conversation with the family that slides right in behind me: an auto parts dealer with his wife and two young kids. They drove an hour from Wilmington, Del., despite not having tickets. Like most of the crowd, they’re not here to see John McCain. They’re here for Sarah.

So is the guy with the “Taxpayers for Palin” sign, the young women with the “You Go Girl” signs, and the many “Kids for Sarah Palin.” More than a few moms are sporting some variant of the Palin look, with their new icon’s boxy glasses and piled-up ‘do. They contrast oddly with the Amish men in beards and straw hats who also dot the line. Someone asks the question everyone is thinking: “I wonder if this many people would have shown up just for John McCain?”

Good question. Lancaster County, Pa., might well be described as the base of the Republican base. Megachurches dot the landscape, but the original Amish and Mennonite and Church of the Brethren settlers (whose descendants are still going strong) make the Wasilla Assembly of God seem socially liberal. SUVs share the road with horse-drawn buggies, McMansion developments rub shoulders with Plain People farms not served by electricity, and they vote in overwhelming numbers for Rep. Joe Pitts, who chairs something called the “Values Action Team,” which is basically the congressional wing of James Dobson’s Focus on the Family.

A sign of whom the crowd came to see

But just a few weeks ago, you didn’t see a whole lot of McCain signs around. And by and large, this is Sarah’s crowd. She’s the reason the two middle-aged ladies near me, members of a local symphony, called in sick to work today (which, in turn, is why they shoo away a TV reporter). There’s a tiny gaggle of protesters, maybe half a dozen, preaching to the unconvertible. And as the 3:30 p.m. start time draws near, it’s beginning to look like we might get stuck out here listening to them.

Soon enough a staffer delivers the Straight Talk: We’re hosed. The fire marshals have said no more people can be allowed into the gym. Everyone sort of sags, and begins the long trudge over to the Auxiliary Viewing Area, where a JumboTron has been set up. Unfortunately, it’s partly blocked by a fire engine and an ambulance, and a wall of Secret Service.

Sarah Palin and John McCain

Inside, the rally has already started. We know this because of the tinny cheers emanating from the gym’s side door. There is a moment of, dare I say it, bitterness. “I’m gonna vote for him anyways,” says a heavyset man in a military cap. Then the screen flashes on, and there they are: Palin in her blood-red power suit, McCain standing next to her. She goes first, launching into a remixed version of her convention speech; in her squeaky, cheerleader-mom voice, its harsh sentiments come off as almost saucy. The crowd hoots and claps at the screen. McCain stands beside her like a man who doesn’t know what to do with himself, blinking and waving to the crowd on cue with her applause lines. He seems quite happy to be her Denis Thatcher, and his own brief remarks almost seem an afterthought.

We can’t really hear too well, the sound’s been turned down so low, but still people clap and cheer. We’re happy at last because we’ve realized we’re going to get something far more precious: Palin and McCain will be coming out this side door, and we’ll have our own private audience! The bad news is the Secret Service won’t let anyone get close to the door. After more furious cell phoning and gesticulating, the Secret Service relents: We press forward to be individually wanded, then charge to our positions behind some metal barricades where we wait and wait, the excitement building as the sound system blares “Straight Talk” and that Toby Keith 9/11 song at tinnitus-inducing levels.

We wait some more. Finally McCain comes striding around from the back of the building, with a huge grin. But no Palin. The crowd cheers anyway, and even McCain seems pumped as he mounts the stage set up just outside the door. This must be like the old days for him, a rally of just a few hundred amped-up fans. I wonder if he misses those times, when he shot the breeze with reporters and mixed it up with the public and enjoyed having the spotlight to himself.

Up close, he seems like a different guy from the awkward and confused-seeming old gent we see on TV sometimes, the one who stumbles through his own speeches. He gives a quick pep talk in which he says, jokingly I think, “Kill the fire marshals!” That gets a big cheer.

Afterward he charges all the way to the end of the barricades, not afraid to wreck his shoes in the sodden mulch. His charge brings him very near. Up close, he’s compact and full of surprising energy. I’ve been getting squeezed by a fiftysomething guy who’s been using his 4-year-old granddaughter (I assume) as a battering ram, but now it pays off; I’m almost against the barricades. McCain is coming, his left hand floating into space toward me amid the surge of shoulders and limbs and cell phones and proffered hands.

I swoop in and take his hand in my right, overhand to his underhand, for a brief but firm squeeze. His hand is wrinkled but not rough, surprisingly soft, in fact, obviously well-manicured, and fragrant with lanolin. We make eye contact briefly, and there is an awkward moment when neither of us says anything. Then he moves down the line, giving the distinct impression that this might be the highlight of his day.