Geraldine Emmett collected pennies as a young girl out in Arizona to help save Old Ironsides, and this week, at age 90, she finally got a look at the historic ship. It was her first trip to Boston, and she arrived saying that she had never been more afraid in her life. Of the cross-country flight? "No, dear," said the button-festooned matriarch of Prescott Democrats. "Of George Bush!"
Late Monday night, in a hotel room they share to save on expenses, two delegates from Iowa engaged in a lively debate about the Middle East, a discussion shaped by their markedly different backgrounds: Newman Abuissa as an Arab American engineer who grew up in Syria but now lives in Iowa City, and Alan Koslow as a Jewish doctor from West Des Moines who is active in an Israeli lobbying group. But Tuesday morning when they ventured through the cobbled streets to the Democratic National Convention, they were united by the same sensation that overwhelmed Geraldine Emmett, a force more powerful than whatever might separate them.
In Democratic circles not so long ago, "FOB" stood for "Friends of Bill." Now a new meaning has permeated the party: Fear of Bush.
Young and old, black and white, Arab and Jew, male and female, feed-corn farmer and real estate developer, even Yankee fan and Red Sox fan -- the multitude of Democrats who have gathered here say they feel more together in spirit and purpose than at any convention in recent times, bound by the proposition that their country, and as well as the world, have never been more divided, and by a belief that President Bush is the reason.
Leo Tolstoy wrote that happy families are all alike, meaning uninteresting, and the political equivalent of that idea is that a political convention without internal strife is a nonstory. But in fact the uncommon unity brought to the traditionally fractious Democrats by the intensity of their concerns about Bush and his policies is a central thread of this convention's narrative.
"George W. Bush has done more to unify the Democratic Party than any other Republican in my lifetime, and I've been active in state politics for about 60 years," said 79-year-old Dennis Jenson, an Arizona delegate from Sun City, sounding a variation on a theme that echoed again and again during interviews with delegates from Arizona to Wisconsin. The Rev. Nelson "Fuzzy" Thompson, attending his sixth national convention as a delegate from Kansas City, Mo., said Bush "has galvanized the Democrats because he has been such a divisive force. He has created a real unity within the party, far more than what we had four years ago, when we were a bit complacent. This time there's no playing around."
The delegates have been asked to present a positive agenda and to emphasize the attributes of the Democratic standard-bearer, John F. Kerry, and the FleetCenter orations from former president Bill Clinton on down have more or less tried to hold to that strategy, yet hostility toward Bush among conventioneers is not merely an undercurrent but more like a tidal wave of group thought. Away from the packaged presentations on television at night, Fear of Bush rhetoric has flooded through the delegation breakfast caucuses, midday lunch meetings and evening cocktail parties.
"There was some straying from the reservation," a party official said, smiling, after particularly raucous Bush-bashing at an Ohio caucus Monday, including a riff by Rep. John Lewis (Ga.) in which he said the brood of chicks that he fed and comforted in his backyard chicken coops as a kid seemed to have had more on the ball than the president.
Bush is everywhere here in image as well as words. Smug representations of his mug, perhaps even more than Kerry's drawn and serious visage, can be found on some of the most popular buttons worn by delegates: Stop Mad Cowboy Disease. Nobody Died When Clinton Lied. One Nation Under Surveillance. ABB Anybody But Bush. 1000 Points of 1 Dim Bulb. The New Carb Diet: No Cheney. No Ashcroft. No Rumsfeld. No Bush.
For the Kerry organization and field leaders in the swing states, the Fear of Bush factor is considered somewhat of a mixed blessing. It has brought energy and coherence to the rank and file, but it might not be enough in and of itself to lead to victory in November.
"We've been famous for our fights, we've been famous for tearing each other apart, but I'm not seeing any of that this year," said Jim Pederson, a Phoenix developer who chairs the Arizona Democratic Party. "But if President Bush has been a unifying factor, we can't continue to ride that horse. We have to help Senator Kerry as he introduces himself to the country and presents his vision of where he is going to take us. If we just base the campaign on anti-Bush rhetoric, I don't think that's gonna do it in the end."
But for the most part the delegate sentiment about Bush, even in its stridency, seems to reflect not so much campaign posturing as expressions of deeply held feelings and concerns. Many of them put George W. Bush in a place apart from previous Republican bogeymen. He and his coterie, they argue, are more alarming than Bush the elder or Gerald R. Ford or Ronald Reagan or Robert J. Dole or even Richard M. Nixon.
"I think George W. Bush has done more to hurt this country than any Republican president since Herbert Hoover," said Lee Viorel, a soft-spoken revenue collector from Hannibal, Mo., who is attending his second convention from a swing state that went for Bush by 3 percentage points in 2000. Thompson, Viorel's Missouri colleague, who preaches on Sundays at Mason Memorial United Methodist Church, said Bush "doesn't compare with any of those earlier Republicans. . . . I used to think that his father was the worst, but he is the worst."
The comparisons grew darker among Arizona delegates, who are seeing renewed interest in their state as a competitive contest this year after Al Gore lost to Bush there by 6 percentage points four years ago. "He really is the worst of the bunch," said Lorraine Frank of Scottsdale, at age 81 another Arizona elder and a veteran of six decades of politics. "I can't believe I'd ever say this, but he is worse than Nixon. I almost never use the term, but I think this guy is evil. Or the people around him are." Beverly Fox-Miller, a third-generation electrical union member from Mesa attending her third Democratic convention, fell into stunned silence when contemplating Bush before finally muttering, "Unbelievable. Ridiculously unbelievable. . . . I refer to him as 'Reagan Times Ten.' "
As the junior member of the Iowa delegation, in a swing state that went for Gore by fewer than 5,000 votes, 18-year-old Monica Severson of Cedar Rapids said the first president in her memory is George H.W. Bush. "Everyone likes their first president, and I liked him because he was the one I associated with being presidential. But I feel more threatened by his son, George W. Bush," Severson said. Swati Dandekar, a delegate from Marion, said she considered Bush the least knowledgeable of the Republican presidents of her lifetime. "I had lots of respect for President Ford, and even Ronald Reagan I felt had a lot more knowledge than President Bush," she said.
"I was expecting something along the lines of what his dad did, but it's worse, a lot worse," said Abuissa, the Iowa City engineer who became a U.S. citizen after a childhood in Damascus. "That was the reason I ran for delegate. In my opinion, he has done more to damage our reputation worldwide than any other president we have had in this country." Iowa's father-daughter delegate team, Augustus Lartius of Boone and Kumini Henry of Des Moines, were only slightly more forgiving when comparing Bush with other GOP leaders. "Reagan was perhaps one of the best presidents of the U.S., and Bush the elder could work with the Democrats to solve problems," Lartius said. "Personally, I like the younger Bush, but what I do not like is that he underestimated the intelligence of the American people." Prominently displayed on his daughter's blue jacket was a button with Bush's profile and the words "Massive Intelligence Failure."
It is a cliche, one of the most persistent in American politics, for candidates to claim that their election is the most important of a lifetime. Veteran delegates have heard that phrase many times over the years, and usually ignore it for the overstatement that it is, but this week in Boston they have adopted the phrase as their own and repeated it with conviction.
"Oh, my God, yes! This is the most important election of my lifetime," said Linda Jacobsen, a Missouri delegate who runs a small business in St. Charles County and is running for the U.S. House in a district north of St. Louis. "I have people working in my campaign who say they may move to Canada if this guy is reelected."
Gerry Emmett's inaugural trip to Boston in her 91st year was made possible when her family and friends in the Church of Christ and members of the Arizona delegation held a money-tree party for her at a resort on the Navajo Indian reservation where she had spent many of her 43 years as a teacher. Emmett has been around long enough to have once played the ukulele for the first-ever governor of Arizona, and she has lived through all the wars of the 20th century and the Depression and "the Goldwater era and the rise of the John Birch Society in Arizona."
But this election year, she said, "is the first time I have ever really been frightened. I really think this is the most important election of my long lifetime. We've got people in the world who hate us so bad, and that just breaks my heart."