CLEVELAND — It’s a party right out of his nightmares, and Bill Kristol can’t even find a way in.
“It’s the last gasp of civilization, it’s the end of the Roman Empire,” he said, standing outside Quicken Loans Arena more than three hours before the Republican National Convention kicked off its celebration of Donald Trump. “Oh my, is this the line of people to get in?”
A sweaty, impatient crowd of people snaked its way through a fenced-off swath of downtown Cleveland alive with cops, bright lights, protesters and a general circus atmosphere. (Is that a polar bear walking toward the CNN Grill?) Kristol, shorter than you ever realized from his many TV punditry spots, craned his neck to see how far back the line went.
“David Gregory is in there,” said a colleague walking with him. “I think it’s our best bet.”
Kristol, a ring leader in what he calls the “beat down” Never Trump movement, had been melancholy ever since his first glimpse of the arena early Saturday.
“Going through my mind on the convention floor: This is a bad day for the Republican Party,” he said, for once not smiling or making a joke. (He generally relies on a healthy dose of “gallows humor” as a coping mechanism, he said). “Whatever the limitations the other candidates had, they weren’t an embarrassment or a disgrace. I was upset.”
He paused. Collected himself. Restored his natural grin to his face. “But I did get to stand on the spot where LeBron stood.”
Okay, but what was Kristol even doing here? As it is for so many Trump equivocators or Trump loathers in his party, the GOP convention is all about business. They don’t care to cheer for the nominee, but there are still clients here to meet, sponsors to schmooze, networking to be done. And so they are gamely splitting hairs, letting it be known they’re “in Cleveland” for the events surrounding the convention, but not “at the convention.” (Ohio Gov. John Kasich is in the milieu but has made it clear he won’t set foot in the arena.) Kristol, meanwhile, has a contract to go on air for ABC here this week. Plus: It’s always a good opportunity to catch up with friends.
Kristol isn’t exactly Mr. Popular here in Cleveland. He spent the first several months of the GOP primary adamantly predicting Trump’s imminent demise, and the last desperate weeks trying to recruit a conservative independent to run against him. (His pick, an obscure lawyer-pundit, didn’t take the bait.) On the light rail trail to downtown on Monday morning, he said, a fellow commuter looked him straight in the eye and told him: “You don’t turn me on.”
“I was polite and didn’t tell him I was sick of people like him,” Kristol said. He gets it, he said; he knew he wasn’t going to be greeted here with “adulation” and “flower petals.”
But that doesn’t mean he’s without fans. Here came one now! A man in a dapper suit pulled Kristol by the arm and thanked him for coming and for being true to himself. Then he went to get in line with everyone else.
“The Democratic county executive now likes me,” Kristol exclaimed, playfully rolling his eyes. “Is there any other way to get into this thing?”
An old friend of a friend, a former Republican fundraiser, spotted Kristol and reached to shake his hand.
“What are you doing here?” Kristol asked.
“Oh, you know, I’m kind of wandering,” the man said.
“Oh, you’re like all of us,” Kristol says. He looked again at the line. “This is getting ridiculous. I’m going to get a Coke.”