I was searching for the Sauk County Fairgrounds last Saturday when, just outside of Baraboo, I fell into the slipstream of an aged Nissan held together with bumper stickers. One of them read: "Who would Jesus Bomb?"
I pondered its corollary - Why were we bombed in Allah's name? - as I trailed the import like a Sidewinder missile. It led me straight to Bob Fest.
Like a modern-day Margaret Mead, I was determined to record the fifth annual gathering of the Fidel Castro wing of the Democratic Party. Perhaps I could befriend some of them.
I considered camouflaging myself in Hate Bush paraphernalia, like the natives. But I chose to be who I am: a former Truman/JFK Young Democrat turned neocon Republican. So I slathered on all the right-wing stickers I could find, capped off (literally) with an NRA emblem on my safari pith helmet. Couldn't find my pro-life button.
"You're in the wrong place, you know," the parking attendant warned me.
But in about two hours of Bob Festivities, I was the target of only one imprecation. (Hey, buddy, do you eat with that mouth?)
The old-fashioned Baraboo fairgrounds evoke the early 1900s, when Wisconsin's great Robert M. La Follette mounted the back of a wagon, pounded his fist and orated for hours. Whole families would throw down their pitchforks, pack a picnic basket, and come listen.
Today's "Progressive Movement" has commandeered Old Bob's image and likeness, much as the Americans fighting for a communist Spain in the late 1930s expropriated the good name of Abraham Lincoln.
The Bob Festers celebrate "Fighting Bob" for opposing our entry into World War I - for which Teddy Roosevelt, no slouch as a progressive himself, called him "a skunk who should be hanged." Bob is also known for good government stuff like open primary elections and worker's comp.
Bob Fest is a souvenir hunter's paradise. Jars of "Fighting Bob's Progressive Mustard" were on sale at the information tent. I saw Lee Rayburn of 92.1 "The Mic" purveying a kiosk full of Bush-bashing political buttons. One read, "Bush People Suck." Don't tell J.B. Van Hollen.
Entering the exposition building, I was handed an expert knock-off of a U.S. currency bill, denomination "9/11." Its face side framed a belligerent-looking George W. Bush over a crest reading "International Terrorist." It was festooned with 9/11 conspiracy Web sites.
Inside awaited a bustling soukh of radical left activism. Among the groups: Amnesty International, the Coalition to Normalize Relations with Cuba, NARAL abortionists, the ACLU, the League of (Left-Wing) Women Voters, the Freedom from Religionists, and something called Femocrat.
Bob Fest is billed as "Wisconsin's biggest political event of the year!" and for good reason: Unlike the annual state party conventions, this event crackles with genuine passion and energy.
Speakers included John Nichols (who usually greets me as "comrade") and Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa. Russ Feingold, whom Bob Festers avidly promote for el presidente in 2008, was a no-show.
The genial Garrison Keillor of this event was Ed Garvey, the liberal-at-law who founded Bob Fest and who is trying to stop an alternative-energy (ethanol) plant just north of here. ("Paging Sen. Harkin!")
I clambered up the grandstands to hear a 96-year-old woman from New Hampshire called "Granny D." Real name Doris Haddock, she walked 3,200 miles in 1999 to back the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform. Thanks, Granny, for the 527-funded Swift Boaters who helped sink John Kerry.
True confession: I was prepared to write that the wonder of this old lady, like Samuel Johnson's sermonizing dog, was not that she spoke well but that she spoke at all. But Granny D was a hoot! Shriveled to a pip by age, she barely peered over the Old Bob-draped podium. That each breath came as if it would be her last added to the drama in a speech worthy of Cotton Mather.
"We have crooked elections," she croaked. Our leaders "no longer represent the people but the corporations and the wealthy elite." The "scramble by corporations for resources...has set the people...in warfare against each other." (Which side did the corporations take in Romans v. Visigoths?)
"Prepare," she commanded, "to make a new order."
And that, in a defused shell casing, was the recurring theme of Bob Fest 5:
If we didn't do it to ourselves, we had 9/11 coming.
All politicians are crooked (except Tammy, Russ and Peg).
That Progs don't rule is due to conspiracies of Da Vinci Code proportions.
The Corporations are behind it all.
At the Bring the Troops Home booth, I offered to sign the nice lady's petition if she would take my unscientific survey, which I'd printed up.
The first question: "Would you rather be governed by Bush or Castro?" She chose the Cuban dictator. She also answered "Evil" when asked, "Historically, the U.S. has been a force in the world for...." (The other option was "Good.") She felt the U.S. should negotiate with bin Laden and that 9/11 conspiracist Kevin Barrett "is more right than wrong." But she believes that if Vice President Cheney were to seek a UW teaching job, he should be denied.
To the question "Do you think the government is spying on you?" she checked Yes. (For the full survey and her replies, see Document Feed at TheDailyPage.com.)
"We don't have a democracy," she explained.
I was incredulous. Here she was, in full daylight, in a public place, asking people to sign a petition to change government policy amid others calling for the president's impeachment and worse. Try that in Havana and you'll be outfitting your '59 Chevy with pontoons for the jailbreak to Key West.
I had to ask: Do you expect to be arrested and detained without trial this evening?
"Maybe not this evening," she demurred.
A deal's a deal: I signed the woman's petition to bring the troops home, adding one small proviso: "When the enemy is defeated."
What I found at the fairgrounds on Saturday was a distinct subculture, one that animates Madison politics but cannot seem to find traction outside of university towns. Even in Sauk County, Republicans run the courthouse and hold the legislative seats.
At Bob Fest, I felt the frisson of people who fancy that they are flipping the finger to authority. But it is the false bravado of an Eddie Haskell.
Just what exactly is the Bob Festers' program? Smash the corporations? (Not on my 401k!) Enshroud our skyscrapers in Kevlar? Become the world's biggest Belgium? Spin homespun in our cottages?
Anger, paranoia and resentment are not governing philosophies.
These people revel in their status as a permanent minority. For that, they have precedent. In his run for the presidency in 1924, La Follette garnered 16.5% of the vote, to finish third against Cal Coolidge and John W. Davis.
The Bob Festers inhabit an alternate universe with its own history, belief system, currency, music (does anyone else enjoy folk?) - even its own shadow government.
Like Mexico's Obrador, they have set up a rump "People's Legislature" - unelected, of course. They are led by a shadow governor, Garvey, who was trounced 60% to 39% by Tommy Thompson in 1998.
Can the new order of a "People's Republic" be far behind?
David Blaska is a Madison writer and former County Board supervisor.