You don't have to have combed lice from the body politic to know there are all kinds of people in this country, from those who hiss at the mention of Sarah Palin's name to those who would join her at the drop of a "g" in a rousin' round of "U.S.A.!, U.S.A.!" But in Madison, it's easy to assume that everyone is a liberal, except for those who call themselves progressives. You can walk into any east-side bar -- or west-side one, or one that's downtown -- and pretty much know you're in Obama Country, with maybe a few holdouts for Ralph Nader or Cynthia McKinney.
I thought it would be fun to watch Tuesday night's second debate between Barack Obama and John McCain at Mickey's or the Harmony or the Laurel Tavern. It probably would have been. But instead, I put on a clean pair of jeans and a flannel shirt and headed for Wiggie's, on Madison's north side, owned by conservative County Board Supv. Dave Wiganowsky. Here was a place, I reasoned, where one might catch a glimpse of that rarest of local birds: the Red, White and Blue American Republican.
I'm not sure I found any.
When my wife, Linda, and I entered just before 8 p.m., there were five people at the bar, a couple playing pool, and two people playing the video slot machines. One guy at the bar was wearing a flannel shirt. I gave him a knowing nod.
We ordered some food and drinks and asked the bartender -- Dave W. was not around -- if he could turn on the debate. Sure, he said, asking what channel it was on. I gave him some options: "CBS, NBC, ABC, CNN, Fox..." He found one of them.
Regular programming was on until 8, then Tom Brokaw introduced the candidates at Belmont University.
"We gotta listen to this great debate?" the guy in the flannel shirt who wasn't me demanded. I never got his name. I'll call him "Flannel Stan." The bartender said there were customers who wanted to listen. Another guy at the bar -- I eventually heard his name but I'll just call him "Fred" -- said he'd like to hear a little. He was there with a female companion.
"If people want to listen to this, I'll forgo the jukebox," Flannel Stan said magnanimously. But being a democratic-minded fellow, he sort of put it to a vote: "Are we going to listen to the debate or hear some music?" No one said anything, at least not that I heard. Flannel Stan went to play video slots.
"I want to hear," Fred said. "Can we turn up the volume?" The bartender obliged.
Two guys were still playing video games, oblivious. The couple kept playing pool. Barack Obama was saying he had to correct something McCain had just said, "not surprising."
"Not surprising?" chortled Fred. "Hah!"
Fred and his female companion ordered shots, asking that they be large enough to "last until bar time." Actually, they lasted more like five seconds.
McCain made some point about what was wrong with something or other. "An asshole like you in Congress!" shouted Fred. He elaborated on his political philosophy: "It doesn't matter who they are, it's all fucking lies." Someone must have given him a skeptical look. "It is!" he insisted.
Fred and his companion were the only ones besides Linda and I listening to the debate, and Fred's interest was waning. He began talking about a cold remedy involving the use of Mountain Dew.
The couple playing pool sat down at the bar. "We're watching the liars' debate!" said Fred.
Flannel Stan came back to the bar. "I'm watching the presidential debate when I'm half in the bag," he announced loudly. Of course he was being facetious; he was more like three-quarters.
"It's a liars' debate," explained Fred. "It's who's lying the most."
Obama was talking. "He's almost a rock star," said one of the barroom pundits.
McCain mentioned terrorists, more or less in passing. "Ooh, terrorists!" said Flannel Stan. "I have to check for terrorists every day in my basement."
Fred's female companion was at the jukebox. "How do you spell 'saw'?" she asked aloud. "Isn't it S-A-W?" Someone must have pressed her for more information. "If I saw you in heaven," she said.
"It's Clapton," someone offered.
"C-L-A-M?" she asked.
"C-L-A-P!" came the retort. "Eric Clapton."
Brokaw posed a question from the Internet: What sacrifices would the candidates ask Americans to make?
"Your first-born child," cracked the bartender. His one good line.
Both Obama and McCain offered their views. Flannel Stan cut to the heart of the matter: "Oatmeal and macaroni and cheese, that's what I'm hearing." I was really starting to like this guy.
Fred had joined his female companion at the jukebox. "You spelled it wrong, you know that" he declared. "There's no 'Y' in Clapton." They left soon afterward. Now it was just us and the couple who'd been playing pool. They didn't seem interested in the debate. Flannel Stan surveyed the scene. "Well, I better go out and have a cigarette!" He did.
Linda and I paid and left. It was 8:32.
We drove to the Villa Tap, nearby on Packers Avenue. There were a lot of cars, but when we entered we saw that the TV showing the debate did not have the sound on; the one with the football game did. We left.
Driving to our next stop, we listened to the debate on 92.1, The Mic. The feed was interrupted by a series of commercials, including a plug for "The Ed Schultz Show." Even the folks at Madison's progressive radio station couldn't devote 90 minutes of undivided attention to an exchange of views between the candidates for U.S. president.
Our final stop was JJ's Top of the Swamp, on Northport. It was now 9 p.m. We didn't even go inside. We could see through the windows that both TVs were carrying the football game.
Come Nov. 4, let's hope they all remember to vote.