I'm deathly afraid of cops, so the last place I'd ordinarily want to be is in a roomful of uniformed, burly men with guns, all listening to U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft defend the Patriot Act.
But it's Saturday and I'm here at the Sheraton Imperial, a hotel located between an expressway and an airport, not in Rome, China or Britain. Although I'm on the inside, my sentiments are outside: On my way in, I'd driven past several hundred of my friends and neighbors who were holding up signs that displayed astonishing variants of the word "no."
I'd dressed my very best for this occasion, which means a jacket, tie and recently washed hair. Still, as I approached the hotel, I wondered if I was carrying anything that would get me in trouble at the security screening like, say, some Durham Co-op Grocery coupons.
As it turns out, there is no security screening, and this makes sense to me once I see all the soldiers and cops in the banquet hall.
Inside, the scene is nothing less than a television set, and most of the props have taken their positions behind the lectern: several dozen uniformed public servants, sitting ramrod straight.
It's 11 a.m. and there's an hour to go before Ashcroft is due to appear.
Attendance is by invitation only, but I wonder if the invitations were delivered by a process server. There aren't many people in the audience--it's looking like a hundred or so. I see Marcia Conner, city manager of Durham, and wonder if she'll be the biggest political celebrity in the audience. (Pretty much, as it turned out.)
A guy with an earpiece and a loose-fitting jacket suggests that I take a seat in the rear of the room, in the section of the room that's reserved for media. I'm not a real reporter, and I'm certainly not an intrepid reporter, but I figure I can play one on a television set. I tiptoe up the aisle and ask several law enforcement guys about the Patriot Act. They shrug blandly.
It seems that the people who really, really want to see Ashcroft are my friends and neighbors, the people outside the hotel. There are certainly more of them out there than there are in here.
Someone hands us copies of the remarks Ashcroft is about to deliver. We're promised that, after the speech, and after the television interviews, Ashcroft will meet briefly with the print reporters in a "gaggle" conference.
There will be about 10 of us in the gaggle. Several are working for college papers. One is in high school.
As it happens, the high school student is Erin Carter, the Chapel Hill High senior who was subjected last year to a notorious interrogation by two Chapel Hill police officers passing themselves off as feds. Erin's working with the N.C. Independent Media Center (chapelhill.indymedia.org).
I begin to notice one guy who doesn't seem to fit in. He's in his mid-30's, and he's pacing about, looking tense and agitated. He's wearing a jacket and tie, but it definitely looks like a disguise. I wonder if any of the earpiece guys have noticed him.
An earpiece man tells me to return to my seat. At a couple of minutes before noon, Ashcroft enters the room, steps up to the stage and begins shaking hands. A few seconds later, everyone remembers to give him a standing ovation.
When Ashcroft begins to speak, I realize how it was possible for him to lose a Senate race to a dead man. He is an appalling public speaker. Despite the assistance of the teleprompter, despite the assistance of speechwriters who have provided him with an orderly procession of declarative sentences and short, punchy phrases, he just drones and stammers. "You are the doers. You are the achievers. You are the soldiers... on the ground and in the trenches... who put your lives on the line...." Simple lines, but Ashcroft's delivery is akin to a scratchy LP spinning erratically during a brownout.
The staged quality of the event has its effect on the audience. Despite numerous would-be applause lines, Ashcroft is only interrupted three times--twice for the same dubious assertion: "We are winning the war on terror!"
When he gets to the line, "Their murderous vision of an America in flames has united this nation," I wonder if Sept. 11 has truly become the Reichstag fire of the Bush Administration. Hitler used the burning of the German parliament building in 1933 as an excuse to suspend liberties and crack down on political opposition. Although I'm too patriotic to carry the analogy any further, my nervousness isn't assuaged when Ashcroft starts using semantic sleight of hand to justify the disappearing of individuals from their families, their jobs and their homes: "We have deported more than 515 individuals with links to the September 11th investigation."[emphasis added]
As the speech grinds on, it becomes clear that the AG loves the word "hallowed." And then it comes.
"In 1863, Abraham Lincoln stood on the hallowed ground of freedom at Gettysburg and expressed the sense of resolution familiar to anyone who has looked into the void at Ground Zero...." Ashcroft goes on to mangle that much-abused document, comparing the dead of Sept. 11 to the dead of the Civil War. But never mind that the dead of Sept. 11 were civilian victims of a mass murder, while the Gettysburg dead were enlisted pawns in a terrible but unavoidable war. Lincoln's anguish was born of his knowledge that he and his counterparts to the south had sent those soldiers to their deaths.
Listening to Ashcroft mouthing Lincoln's words, with clumsy interpolations to wrench them into this new context, makes me want to scream.
The speech ends and the hall quickly clears. Ashcroft goes out to do his one-on-ones with the television reporters. I see the agitated man again. He seems to be looking for Ashcroft, and he doesn't look happy. He's not standing quietly with the rest of the gaggle.
After about 15 minutes, an Ashcroft aide tells us that he is on the way. "Give him some room," he barks. Then Ashcroft is upon us and his hand is in mine.
"Uh, hi," I say. Ashcroft's hand moves into one that belongs to the agitated man who has suddenly slipped behind me.
"Ah, you again," Ashcroft says.
"Here I am, your stalker," the man replies in a game attempt at jollity.
The gaggle begins, and it's lucky we get any time at all; in other cities, Ashcroft has flatly refused to talk to the print media. But it quickly becomes apparent the interview will be very brief and Ashcroft will stay firmly on-message. The stalker is getting antsy, and Ashcroft's aides are obviously shutting him out. "Eric, we're going to talk to local reporters first," a female aide says.
"Eric" turns out to be Eric Lichtblau of The New York Times. On Monday, his markedly hostile account of Ashcroft's tour would appear without the benefit of a single interview quote from the attorney general. My image of a Times reporter--Jayson Blair notwithstanding--is a mild, bespectacled scribe, and it's something of a revelation to discover that they've assigned such an attack dog to Ashcroft. It makes me want to earmark my $23 monthly subscription fee to the maintainence of the hard-working Lichtblau's dry-cleaning bills. The press conference is drawing to a close and Lichtblau is getting louder. Ashcroft's aide spots me. My turn.
"Uh, Mr. Attorney General, a year ago my paper published a story that got a lot of attention," I say. My voice is shaking and my throat is starting to constrict. I'm afraid of cops, you see, and the nation's top law enforcement officer is looking at me with narrowing eyes.
I avert my gaze and charge. "A high school student was investigated by police officers who allowed themselves to be taken for FBI agents, because of comments on her Web site," I say. I'm looking at him, and he's looking at me. Coldly. Before I can phrase my question in the form of a question, Ashcroft turns to the other reporters and denies any knowledge of the case. He turns back to me with a glare of pure hate. It feels good.
The gaggle is over and Ashcroft splits. Eric Lichtblau is still running after him.