"It's like the Howard Dean days," says a lady who is standing over by the pool, eating a piece of sushi. And in form, at least, it is: groups of strangers meeting in suburban back yards or tiny downtown apartments on a Saturday night, telling stories of "how I got involved," resuscitating that common enemy from the heady pre-election days, known in these circles as "the fascist government" or "the people destroying this country" or sometimes simply "Them."
The occasion is a throwback to those pre-November days of hope and action: one of more than 1,000 house parties around the nation organized by the activist group MoveOn.org designed to "protect the Supreme Court and have some fun, too."
This one is in the backyard of Chuck Fazio's house in Mount Vernon, a lovely spot on the site of George Washington's pig farm, overlooking Dogue Creek on one side and Fazio's pool on the other. The pool is decorated with what he jokingly calls his "tiki luau masks."
"Back here I want it to feel like a different place," says Fazio, 41, who runs his own media company.
Fazio's story is much like those of the 30 or so guests who have shown up after signing up for the party on MoveOn's Web site. Last time he felt this jazzed up was at the "Vote for Change" concert organized by MoveOn at MCI Center just before the election. There was "Bruce" ("We're huge Springsteen fans") singing his heart out for John Kerry, thousands of like-minded groovesters waving their arms and singing along, still giddy in that last window of giddiness, when there was still a chance.
Then came that black post-election phase when people at the party recall feeling "pretty depressed" or "burned out" or "drained" or "exhausted." "Let's just say I suffered quietly" are Fazio's words. He moped along, feeling helpless and frustrated, watching a lot of Fox News and throwing boxes of Cheerios at "Hannity & Colmes." Then came the fateful day of The Surprise Resignation.
Fazio was working in San Francisco when his partner, Genny Morelli, text-messaged him.
"Did you hear?"
She didn't have to fill in the details. He knew, and she knew he would know.
"Oh. My. God. We're in deep (expletive)," is what she remembers him saying.
"Gen, this is the worst freakin' news I could ever imagine," is how he recalls it.
And the future suddenly took shape. No more aimless Cheerios-throwing. Genny would come home from work every day and say to herself: "Chuck is energized."
"I said, 'You got to do something,' " she recalls. "This is very scary. They've pushed us over the edge." Last Tuesday he called her at the office, excited. He'd gotten the e-mail from MoveOn about the house parties, and now he had a plan.
"Gen, I know what we have to do. We're having a party. We're doing it. Were gonna use this beautiful house to help the cause."
So now he finds himself host to his own mini-movement in his backyard. He is barefoot, waving a water bottle, sweating with the heat and his own excitement:
"Enough is enough These people are scary and they're trying to take over. They've got to be stopped. I mean, the jig is up, man. These people cannot continue to lie because we know the whole story now."
The fall of '04 has cycled around again. Right after Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's resignation announcement, abortion rights groups meeting in Nashville held a spontaneous rally where Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation, found herself overwhelmed with "the huge outpouring of energy here." Ellen Malcolm, president of Emily's List, a group that promotes female, Democratic candidates who favor abortion rights, is organizing intense strategy lunches. People for the American Way has announced it will play a "leading role in opposing the president's nominee." Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) talks about "going to war."
The troops have massed on the front lines again, refreshed and ready for battle. But what's the battle plan?
At Fazio's party, guests get to say why they came. One talks about the nature of liberalism, another about being comfortable with yourself. They are drifting. "Folks, we really want to focus on the Supreme Court," Fazio reminds them for the second time.
In an election, the broad outlines of the strategy are clear: Knock on doors, make phone calls, getting as many people to vote for your guy as possible. But the judicial nomination process does not welcome the activist style of democracy. Only 100 people get to vote. And President Bush gets to decide whom to nominate, period. He can consult the whole Congress, his five top advisers or no one.
A handout at the party offers: "Call our Senators Today!" with phone numbers for Virginia senators. Another gives practical tips for organizing: Decide what time you will meet, invite the media to your event, choose team leaders, make conference calls.
Fazio gives it a try himself: "We have to send out, you know, what are they called? You know those things you sign?"
"Petitions!" someone yells out.
"Yeah! Go around and do the petition thing. Call 224-3121 and say, 'Can I have Senator Warner's office' and then say, 'Senator Warner, I'm against extremism.' I've always found an intern will pick up the phone, and they'll log it in. It's a small thing but . . . "
In the garden right in front of him is a joke tombstone. It reads: "I tried, but it died."
Eighteen miles away in a Woodley Park apartment, Vijaya Thakur, 20, is holding her own house party. She's called it the "Progressive Love Fest," because "there's a Republican in my office who was making fun of the MoveOn parties and calling it that."
Thakur is a student at Bryn Mawr and works at the Genocide Intervention Fund. The 30 or so people who've shown up are mostly young singles. The apartment is dorm-ish and looks like it could be packed up in an hour -- a mattress on the floor and a few mismatched chairs, two old desks covered with bags of Utz pretzels and potato chips, an old TV with a turn dial, nothing on the walls.
Thakur has the energy of an undaunted activist, something more solid and serious than peppy. She says the group at the party already addressed the notion that they are powerless to affect Bush's decision, and pulls out a chart the group has written up explaining their demands.
"The process must be inclusive," it says. "There must be actual CONSULTATION." That last word is capitalized and written in a different colored marker, for emphasis. "The country belongs to all of us."
Here, too, the guests go around and explain what brought them here. They pass around a lime, and only the person holding it gets to talk. One woman is from a family of activists and complains about the "fascist administration." A man from Iceland says he feels "sorry for you Americans." A teacher says she is "more and more scared about what's happening to our country."
They debate over form letters vs. personalized ones, delivering correspondence by hand vs. mailing it, and other basics of community activism. At some point the lime makes its way back to Thakur. It's late, and she is now lying with her head on the mattress. She has an e-mail list drawn up, a phone tree organized. For her, the night has been a success.
"Yea, us," she says, and invites everyone to stay and watch a movie, "Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism."