Brainerd, Minnesota -- Brainerd is located just north of the geographical center of Minnesota. Perched on the banks of the Mississippi river, it was founded by Zebulon Pike as he searched for the river's headwaters and viable trade routes. Former railroad and mill town, the city center has faded with the build up of big box stores, and while there is a vigorous push to revitalize the downtown area, nightlife revolves around the local bar scene. The chances of finding anyone actually watching the McCain acceptance speech was dicey, since this was "kick-off" night for the NFL football game between the Giants and Redskins.
The county seat for Crown Wing County, which went for Bush in 2004 with 57 percent of the vote, Brainerd is an interesting bellwether, since Kerry/Edwards carried Minnesota by 51 percent. See Minnesota Secretary of State
"Rick," the bartender at the iconic Blue Ox Bar on Laurel Street was not certain he liked the idea of the journalist from the HuffPost's OffTheBus in his bar on Kick Off night. The Giants were getting ready to trounce the Redskins, and the ten to fifteen people in the bar were well on their way to a night of revelry decked out in Mardi Gras beads and medallions. It was OK if the citizen journalist stayed as long as she "did not bother anyone."
The Blue Ox served as the fictional setting for the kidnap plot in the Academy Award winning movie, Fargo, written by former Minnesotans Joel and Ethan Coen. One half-expected the seven-month pregnant Brainerd "police chief" from Fargo, Marge Gunderson, to waltz into the room. "Hi ya, fellas," she'd say with heavy leather belt, dangling nightstick, and police issue weapon dangling from her waist.
Would anyone at the bar be watching the McCain speech at the RNC convention?
"Probably, not," Rick said over his shoulder as he poured another shot for an attractive young blond in a white T-shirt. The game was going to be the main attraction and Rick said most of his customers, himself included, would pick up the speech on "TIVO, FOX or C-SPAN." Network scheduling no longer dictates viewing habits in this well-wired town.
It wasn't long before Rick had something to say and the girl in the white T-shirt and her male companions pulled up bar stools to join the conversation.
In a bar, sooner or later everyone likes to talk. But this was not at all what one would expect on a night of sports revelry. Maybe it was the ghost of Marge Gunderson, but what the guys really wanted to talk about was Sarah Palin, and not John McCain. There was a certain air of chivalry in the air that was palpable.
"She was phenomenal," Rick said, referring to Palin's speech at the RNC the night before. "I love her. She is a straight talker and makes complete sense. I tried watching the Democrats and just about threw up."
Twenty-something Eric Johnson stood drink in hand and worried about Palin. "I think she was kind of nervous. Because she is a woman, every skeleton came out of her closet; it is not fair."
Rough bar or not, the men here seemed to be rising to the old-fashioned concept of fair play regarding Palin and it was all but impossible to turn the conversation to McCain.
"It should not have anything to do with her ability to govern. So what if her daughter is having a child out of wedlock?" Rick was asking the journalist the questions now.
Greg Gribbon, owner of the establishment a few doors down the street, "Liquor Pigz," agreed with Rick, but questioned McCain's judgment of the Palin pick. "Politicians will do whatever the have to do to get into office," Gribbon said as he invited us to stop in at the Pigz later.
However, they weren't planning to watch the speech at the Pigz either, so it was time to put "plan B" into effect and walk two blocks under the vintage streetlights to the Last Turn Saloon. The local Democrats were supposed to show up after their regular meeting wrapped up at the Brainerd Library. Game or not, there was always a second television available in the back room and an organization email circulated earlier suggested that they could "throw popcorn" at the television if they became frustrated. It did not matter what the so-called "anarchists' were doing in St. Paul. Popcorn hurling is about as nasty as it gets in Lake Wobegon.
The Last Turn is where you can usually find the Central Lakes (CLC) community college faculty, union organizers, a self proclaimed "communist" or two, and a good cross-section of political and social demographics. Garrison Keillor's statue of the "Unknown Norwegian," which points west from the fictional town of Lake Wobegon, is as well-known here as Mount Rushmore is to most Americans.
Faculty member, all around gentle soul, and psychologist Martha Kuehn was holding court with a dozen or so others at center table--known as the "democratic table." She gave a warm greeting to this reporter whom she knows from a twenty-year friendship.
Was she going to the back room to watch McCain's speech? There were about forty people in the main room, all intent on the game.
"It would be too disturbing for me to watch, because the Republicans are not in line with my personal values and views," Kuehn offered. "It was very exciting to watch Obama's speech," she added. "I suppose I should be watching McCain, but I guess I am taking the easy way out."
Kuehn did not watch Palin's speech either, but said she thought the "election will really be about Palin."
"I heard she represented herself very well."
But Kuehn had worries that there might be a backlash of voter resentment due to the attacks on Palin's personal life.
"Obama has made it clear that her family is off limits, but the media is doing the dirty work, and voters might turn against Obama as a result," Kuehn said.
What about Palin's qualifications?
"She is not fit to lead; she does not even have a passport, so how can she possibly understand foreign relations?" Kuehn asked.
Ten minutes to go to speech time and still there was no one in the back room. The guys at the adjacent table had been eavesdropping, so they looked like a good interview bet.
Ron Kaus of the sister city and commerce center, Baxter, welcomed a conversation. A parent, very young looking, and still blond 49, Kaus is an office service manager.
Again it was Palin and not McCain who dominated the thoughts of this self described "Libertarian with Independent leanings."
The ghost of pregnant police Chief Marge Gunderson seemed to be at the table.
Speaking about Palin, Kaus said, "She's great. She is what the feminists have always said they wanted, but they are too afraid of her."
"Palin has all of the feminist virtues, but she is being rejected by the feminists because she is not a liberal. It is hypocrisy," Kraus said, carefully weighing his words as he sipped a draft.
"Think about Clarence Thomas. Where was the ACLU for him?" Kraus asked.
This was the third question lobbed at the reporter in an hour. Did he view the journalist as a feminist?
"It's not like men would not vote for a woman, as the feminists have always been saying." Kaus was emphatic. "Men want a leader. Why are the liberals questioning Palin's competence when they don't ask the same questions of Obama?"
Fourth question aimed at the journalist.
Forty-something unemployed gas station attendant, Dave Hays had been taking it all in, until now.
A "Republican," but leaning more "independent" who "can't stand any of the political propaganda," Hays said he is going to wait out the hype, read everything he can gets his hands on before the election, and then make up his mind. Hays is adamant that the reporter understand this about him.
Cal Preisinger is a twenty-six year old account executive who does not have much to say about McCain, but says Palin "gives me hope, for the first time."
"I like the way she comes across. We will finally have someone not from Washington whose main life was not one of a politician."
While the Dem table stayed put, Kaus, Hays, Preisinger and a few stragglers retired to the back room, and after getting help with the balky controls on the old television, tuned in just as McCain took center stage to the blue backdrop.
Conversations stopped and the seven or so people in the room were clearly annoyed when the bartender kept dropping in and asking if anyone wanted a refill. These guys had been nursing the same beer for the last half hour.
There are approving murmurs as McCain praises his wife.
The gas guy, Hays, says he did not know McCain had seven kids. This obviously impresses him.
Kaus says he has been aware that McCain has several adopted kids and is surprised McCain does not mention this. "I guess he does not wear it on his sleeve," he said.
Finally, a woman walks into the room. Beth Cordes does not give her age, or perhaps she did not hear the question. She looks to be in her late twenties. Cordes works for the State of Minnesota, is a Republican, and very much resents being forced to join the union.
Cordes is effusive in manner and speech. "I love McCain, I love Palin, I love his wife."
She almost jumps out of her chair when McCain begins to list Palin's accomplishments.
The camera shifts to Plain and Cordes shouts, "Look at her. I love her. She is the best choice they ever made."
Kaus says, "She is the energy of the campaign."
The unemployed Hays is not impressed.
"Isn't McCain part of that crowd--the Washington insiders he says Palin won't be a part of?" he asks.
"Examples please," Kaus suggests as McCain moves on. "Let's get to the agenda."
When McCain says "I work for you," someone clinks a glass and the others follow suite.
A young man walks into the room and interrupts Cordes for the third time. She brushes him off, too intent to leave the room.
When McCain says "I'd rather lose the election than see my country lose a war," Kaus and Cordes say in unison, "that was a good line."
McCain's admonition not to "legislate from the bench," provokes general positive response and much quick interchange from the group.
Sociology Professor, activist and "independent Democrat" Gary Payne walks into the room, straight from a night class at the college. He recognizes the journalist from previous interviews, some from over twenty years ago.
"You writing for Arianna now? She's pretty cool," he offers.
Kaus grumbles in the background that he is still "Waiting for substance during the speech."
Preisinger adds that "the only thing I've seen or heard that is good so far is Palin."
Payne has been watching intently and quietly offers that McCain "looks a little tired, doesn't he?"
The young man approaches Cordes again and she ignores him saying "thank you, thank you" to the television as McCain terms Washington as "the home of the Democrats."
There is light applause for the POW story and Cordes says "he lived for a reason" when McCain says he "was blessed by misfortune."
Payne finally speaks up after the speech.
"I respect John McCain. He was well received, but he did seem unusually tired. He did not deliver with the vigor of Obama."
Without prompting, Payne also wanted to talk about Palin's speech.
"Palin is overshadowing McCain and surprising everyone. When McCain came out after Palin's speech last night, he looked like a lost chimpanzee."
As for the personal attacks on Palin's family, Payne said, "I am not a fan of personal attacks, but she has left herself wide open by pushing abstinence and family values. When the outcome from her family is far from perfect it is a wide open door for the pundits."
Sociologist Payne pointed out the voter demographics of Crow wing County, which is viewed as Republican leaning. Despite the presence of the community college, Payne says that the students usually fail to turn up at the polls and it is the population of the elderly which can be counted upon as "reliable voters."
"The youth won't vote, and Obama cannot count on them," Payne suggests.
Payne thinks that Obama is a good speaker; but that Palin is the best orator he has ever heard, because of her ability to engage her audience. Someone else in the room throws in a reference to John Kennedy.
Kaus is marginally satisfied with McCain's delivery. "It was a good speech, but part of me says it was not pragmatic enough. Lead us to your vision."
The night is over, and for Kaus, the mythical stature of the unknown Norwegian is the only effigy pointing the way to a unified vision.
"Feminism was taken over by liberalism," he reminds the reporter.
Ya. Fer sure the ghost of Marge Gunderson is walking the streets of Brainerd tonight.
So is the specter of Sarah Louise Heath Palin.
The author volunteered for Coleen Rowley's Congressional bid in 2006. She has not contributed to either party in this election cycle, has no plans to do so, and is not committed to either party. The author believes in fair and ethical reporting regarding all of the candidate's backgrounds that adheres to recognized standards of journalism.