Live From New York

Empire State Holdouts

Veterans for McCain rally in a most unlikely place.

By 11.3.08

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No Republican presidential candidate has come within hailing distance of winning New York since Ronald Reagan's 49-state sweep of 1984. Since then, a state that was once hotly competitive between the parties -- Herbert Hoover even managed to carry it over native-son Al Smith in 1928 -- has slipped ever further into its current status as among the bluest of blue states.

The reason can be found in the dramatic changes New York City and the state have undergone since that final Reagan triumph twenty-four Novembers ago. Ironically, Reagan's very success had something to do with bringing these changes about. As Wall Street boomed along in the '80s and '90s thanks to Reagan's investor-friendly tax and regulatory policies, the city was flooded with highly credentialed Yuppies from elsewhere who would rather choke on their sushi than credit Ronald Reagan with anything positive. At the same time, the low-skilled, low-wage labor needed to man the restaurants, bars, and convenience stores that catered to this new overclass poured in (legally and illegally) from Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Both groups, for different reasons, voted virtually unanimously Democratic.

The losers in this process were the GOP's base: the socially conservative, fiscally-conscious ethnic working classes of New York City, its suburbs and the upstate areas. As the industries on which they depended for employment fled for more economically welcoming climes, these folks retired, died, or moved away themselves. Archie and Edith Bunker, if they are still alive, have long since settled in Florida.

It was the remnants of that demographic that gathered the Saturday before the election in Manhattan's Foley Square. United under the banner of "Veterans for McCain," about 150 of them joined in unseasonably warm fall sunshine to defiantly proclaim their support for John McCain, his running mate Sarah Palin and the values they share (and that his opponent, implicitly, does not): God, family, and country.

LEE GREENWOOD'S "God Bless the USA" wafts over the loudspeakers as the attendees gather. Gray heads seem to be in the majority, though a few young families with small children are also in evidence. A handful of New York's Finest hover at the fringes, looking relaxed. They are probably grateful that this is one crowd that appreciates their presence.

The speaker's list, as one might expect, is heavy on veterans (which makes electoral sense -- there are around one million in New York State) or folks with military connections. They are under no illusions about taking the state for McCain, but believe theirs is a message that must be heard, especially just a few blocks from Ground Zero.

"We are locked in a deadly conflict with Islamic terrorism," says Gary Berntsen, a New York native and the author of the 2005 bestseller Jawbreaker, his account of his time in Afghanistan as a senior CIA operative after 9/11. "We need to stay on offense in this conflict, and John McCain is the only one running for president who can do that."

National security is also high on the list of motivations for Bartle Bull, a former publisher of the Village Voice and civil rights lawyer in Mississippi who served as New York chairman for Robert F. Kennedy during his 1968 presidential campaign. He now heads Democrats for McCain in New York.

How did he go from supporting Bobby Kennedy to supporting John McCain?

"They have two things in common," he says. "A strong national defense and a belief in the free enterprise system. I don't think Barack Obama really believes in either. I think that's what pushed me over. My country is more important than my party."

While the crowd is mostly white, a smattering of Asians, Hispanics and, yes, African-Americans are also present. I asked one of the latter, a Hofstra University journalism student named Akeem Mellis of Queens, how he came to be here.

"I've been a Republican for seven years, ever since 9/11," he said, sounding a theme that was heard several times during the day.

Asked what his family and friends think of his affiliation, he smiles a bit awkwardly.

"It can be tough to resist the allure of 'The One,'" he admits. "My family was split between Hillary and Barack earlier this year, but now they are all firmly behind Barack Obama. I think they are more impressed with the style rather than the substance." No matter how the election turns out, he's likely in for a tough Thanksgiving dinner.

THIS BEING NEW YORK, it was to be expected that a few Obamaniacs would try to crash the proceedings. Perhaps realizing they are locally outnumbered, they confine themselves to pushing their way toward the front row near the speaker's platform, hoping to draw the attention of the handful of local TV news crews who have shown up.

But men who have faced enemy fire won't be so easily brushed aside. Mark Moody, a Mississippi-born Bronx resident who walks with a cane due to the injuries he sustained leading an Army platoon in Iraq in 2005, moves immediately to interpose his bulk between the Obama supporters and the cameras. He is joined quickly by several other veterans. Realizing that knocking an injured war veteran to the ground might not be the best publicity, the Obama supporters give up and slink off.

The rally was capped by a man who has known John McCain longer than anyone else in attendance. More than forty years after his F-4 Phantom was downed over North Vietnam, retired Air Force Lt. Col. Barry Bridger still looks fit enough to climb back into the cockpit and fly again. He met McCain when he found himself confined in the next cell after they and 34 other prisoners were removed from the Hanoi Hilton and isolated in a separate prison because they were "troublemakers."

"John McCain showed up at the Hanoi Hilton with a broken leg, two broken arms, a broken shoulder and a bad attitude," he recalls. But McCain also brought with him, Bridger says, "the values of his ancestors. And those values were what brought him and the rest of us through. And those values are embedded in the DNA of every American."

Does he think that the sacrifices he and other veterans made are still held in the same esteem as they once were in this country?

He thinks for a moment.

"The country has changed a lot since Vietnam," he says. "A 'politically correct' mindset has taken hold in a lot of areas since then. We didn't have that back in Hanoi. We couldn't have afforded it."

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About the Author

John A. Barnes is a writer living in New York.