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The Man from Lincoln, Part 5: State Fair! (Or, Fred Karger vs. Rick Santorum)

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This is the fifth installment in a series of stories about my experience on the campaign trail with Fred Karger, an openly gay candidate for the Republican presidential nomination.

Two words sum up my disappointment with Fred Karger's campaign for President of the United States: Rick Santorum. It is Rick Santorum who has taught me about the consequences of self-imposed limitations in politics, and the lesson began one summer day in Iowa nearly two years ago.

* * * * *

They say, "You can take the boy out of Chicago, but you can't take Chicago out of the boy." Maybe that's why I felt so at peace sleepwalking through O'Hare Airport.

It was August 2010, and I was spending the day at the Iowa State Fair with Fred Karger. The red-eye I had taken from Los Angeles was so early that the tram from United Airline's Terminal for Tomorrow wasn't running yet. The trek to the commuter gate for my flight to Des Moines was a long one, especially with all my camera gear, but I didn't care.

The feeling of not belonging, which I wrote about in an earlier installment, applies to groups of people, not individuals, and certainly not geographical locations. As a filmmaker, one learns to appreciate the power of locations. And O'Hare Airport is a gateway to one of the most significant ones in my life.

* * * * *

In a similar way that the banks and currents of the mighty Mississippi provided Huckleberry Finn and Jim their route to freedom, the ravines and bluffs of Lake Michigan in Illinois, where I cavorted in my youth, bestowed on me such a sense of autonomy and security that I grew up believing I was capable of anything. So indelibly imprinted on my psyche are they that when graduating from Stanford and facing the awkward task of coming out of the closet, I chose Chicago, not nearby San Francisco, for the passage. With Wrigley Field and St. Clement Catholic Church as my sentries and the Great Lake as my shield, I was able to recapture the invincibility I felt as a boy and wage an earnest if uncertain campaign for manhood.

* * * * *

They also say, "People in Chicago do what they say they do," which is true, especially from the perspective of someone who now calls West Hollywood home. It's even truer in Iowa, which casts an ironic if unsettling tint on the events that were about to unfold at the Hawkeye state fair.

First up on Fred Karger's schedule that day was an in-studio interview with Jan Mickelson, the conservative voice of Iowa radio, and although Fred had already been on his show once, long-distance, this was to be his first face-to-face sit-down with the radio host.

I hit pay dirt immediately.

Jan's guest right before Fred was none other than the former Senator from Pennsylvania, Rick Santorum, and he was there for the same reason as Fred. I knew more than a little about the socially conservative Rick Santorum. The 18-point repudiation he suffered at the hands of his Pennsylvania constituents in his bid for reelection in 2006 had been a hopeful sign to me at the time, pointing the way toward a more reasoned partisan discourse, especially in terms of issues important to gays and lesbians.

That 18-point drubbing also made his presidential ambitions seem even more far-fetched than Fred's were quixotic, which cast him as a perfect character foil to my story's hero. Former Senator or not, Santorum couldn't compete, I thought, with Fred's chutzpah. What Fred lacked in bona fides he more than made up for in charisma, strategy, and determination. He was, hands down, a better story, too. Don't take my word for it, though. Take WHO TV's, the local news channel that ran a story about the two political longshots that day:

I relished the prospect of Fred publicly debating the likes of Rick Santorum. Too bad, I figured, that the Pennsylvanian wouldn't make it past the Ames straw poll.

* * * * *

By the time Fred and his ragtag band of supporters had moseyed up to the station's studio on the fair grounds' main esplanade, Jan and Rick were already deep into their segment, and their friendly-sounding banter echoed off the rows of festooned booths hawking everything from fresh-squeezed lemonade to chops of plump pork and sweet and savory deep-fried delights of every type. The topic of the day was the proposed construction of a Muslim mosque just a few blocks from "ground zero" in New York City. I sighed as Santorum ran through a litany contrasting the prophet Mohammed to the messiah Jesus Christ. He had all the rancor of a South Park episode, with none of the insight or self-deprecating humor. Dutch law and "Islamofascist fatwahs" notwithstanding, I smiled at what a Trey Parker-Matt Stone match-up between the two holy men (like the one they pulled off between Jesus and Santa in "A Christmas Story," their short video that launched the animated series) might look like.

Insight is not something Rick Santorum will ever be accused of having, unless you count specious arguments like the one he made at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference that American's founding document is the Bible. He did, however, display a knack for self-deprecation when Jan poked fun at him for the raunchy definition of his name that a Google search brings up, courtesy of another Chicago Catholic boy, writer and pundit Dan Savage.

As he good-naturedly allowed Fred to have a picture snapped with him during the break between their two segments, I'm tempted to say that I rethought my assessment of the Senator's viability. But that would be disingenuous, because although he seemed affable enough, he also looked like a deer caught in the headlights, and those headlights belonged to an 18-wheeler named Fred Karger rolling right for him.

How wrong could I have been?

* * * * *

The fact that I'm even writing about Rick Santorum this late in the primary season baffles my mind, as does the role Illinois, the state of both Fred's and my births, might play in his insurgent candidacy. But I get it. Rick Santorum has done it the old-fashioned way, with a lot of shoe leather left on the main streets of Iowa and a healthy dose of religious conviction. Fred Karger, on the other hand, has been all over the map, literally and figuratively. In Saving the Boom, he talks about how his 27 years in politics taught him the shotgun approach: "throw everything out there, and something will stick."

The buckshot in this case has included Big Oil:

The National Organization for Marriage:

Partisan rancor:

Mitt Romney's voter registration, getting America fit, teen suicide, amending the voting age to 15, and even demon frisbees, which, as the commercial's maker, I'm proud to say made it onto The Rachel Maddow Show and a top-10-wackiest-political-campaign-ads list:

The thing about shotguns is you don't have to be a very good shot to hit something, and Fred Karger hasn't done anything more than just fire at the wall.

* * * * *

If only Fred Karger had taken his potential seriously and believed in himself. If only he had believed in me, or his aide, Kevin, or any of the folks along the way who were touched by the idea of his candidacy, because I believe any good campaign is about the people behind it, not the ego headlining it.

His talk before the recent Michigan primary of the importance of actually winning delegates, which any self-proclaimed "gay Shirley Chisholm" (as Fred likes to call himself) would have known since the outset, does offer a ray of hope, since Karger intends to stay "in the race" through the California primary. But it's a ray that may have already faded, and winning those delegates and really making the history he talks incessantly about will require Fred to get out of his comfort zone, which so far he has seemed unwilling to do.

Fred describes himself as a micromanager, comparing himself to Jimmy Carter. That's a nice way of putting it. But the point is well taken, and the lesson is learned.

Rick Santorum feels like vomiting? This JFK already has.

Up next: Part 6: AIDS Does Discriminate