The Swing Voter
I couldn't believe it when he told me that he was worth four million. Pete Carlucci was an average-looking 50-something guy: short, mustached and a little paunchy—a face-in-the-urban-crowd.
I met Pete in early 2004. He was a consultant who taught evening courses in Business Management in downtown Boston, not far from my job. My firm paid tuition for the two-part course, which was voluntary. There was a spring course and a fall course; both courses demanded two hours every Tuesday evening over a thirteen week period.
There were about twenty students signed up for the spring classes. Most of them were young. Pete tended to chat with the few of us who were around his age. Although he wasn't a charismatic figure, he was assertive and professional. I learned a lot from Pete, at least during the spring classes.
The social atmosphere of the spring classes was stiff. The class started at 5:30. All the students came in right after work, with Dunkin Donuts coffee cups, notepads and textbooks.
After the first four or five weeks the atmosphere loosened up slightly when Mary, an older student, attended with a huge white patch over her right eye. I arrived early and she and Pete were talking about her operation.
"Hi, James", he addressed me. "You're just in time to hear about Mary's anesthesia."
Mary smiled amicably. I took my usual seat in the front, right before Pete's podium. There were no individual desks, but rather several long gray tables that seated up to five students per table.
"God, Mary," I said. "You are brave. I was thinking of cutting class tonight because of a sinus headache."
We were allowed to skip two classes per each course. The spring course actually started in late February. Every week there were a few absentees; students punctuated Pete's lecture with coughs or sneezes.
"Now c'mon, James", said Pete. "If you're moving up to management, you've got to bite the bullet."
He turned to Mary: "I hope you don't miss any of my dynamic body language tonight."
Other students filed in during our airy chatter. There were two young women with a similar look: straight blonde hair, small features and squeaky clean complexions. At the first class Pete inquired if they were sisters. The two shook their heads "No" and looked at each other. One, Linda, was more fashion conscious than her look-alike. She wore cool half-moon reading glasses with sleek black and gold frames; she always sat behind me.
The oldest student was 60-something Ray, a friendly gentleman in a blue blazer who always sported a white handkerchief in the vest pocket.
When spring really arrived, it was more fun going to the Tuesday night class, which was conducted in an old building by the wharf. I was absorbing the material and doing my home work. I was ambitious. I had been guaranteed a promotion at my firm if I successfully completed the spring and fall courses. In addition to attending the classes, I had to pass exams after each course. The exams were conducted in a nearby testing center and lasted two hours. Like most exams, the passing grade was 70%.
It was now mid-April and there were five classes left for course #1. We were halfway through the 300 page textbook, on the chapter entitled "Ethics". This chapter provoked the first mention of politics in the class.
"Now if a company doesn't report contingent gains, the IRS will get on their case with an audit," said Pete.
"Not necessarily," remarked Ray with a cynical smirk.
"What are you getting to, Ray?" asked Pete.
"Well nowadays some people can do whatever the heck they want," said Ray. "Now take Dick Cheney—please."
I laughed slightly. I looked around the classroom for other students' reactions. Everyone was quiet and without expression. Linda smiled at me; she probably thought that I was exploiting the minor hurly-burly to see what she was wearing that week.
During the next class Pete inculcated a few put-downs of George W. Bush and the right-wing TV pundits into his lecture:
"Thank God all the anti-Bush books are coming out in the election year".
"It's hard to tell who's dumber—Sean Hannity or Bill O'Reilly."
Again there was no visible reaction from anyone in the class. Ray was absent that week. I was pleasantly surprised by Pete; I had assumed from his bearing that he was a Republican.
The next week Pete solemnly mentioned that he had lost relatives in 9/11.
"Oh God—that's awful," said Mary. "I'm so sorry."
"Something like that must take a long time to get over," said Ray, as he cleaned his glasses with his white handkerchief.
"I'm still not completely over it," said Pete. "Now please turn to the chart on page 213, the one for 'Cash Flow'."
Pete's liberal politics, in light of his personal tragedy, moved me. My perception of him changed; he wasn't just a competent teacher but a complex substantive guy as well. My social preconceptions had been upset by the face-in-the-crowd, the quiet soldier in sea-blue windbreaker and tasseled Bostonian loafers.
I finished the spring classes and took the first exam in mid-June. I studied at least an hour a day during the three weeks between the last spring class and the exam. I passed with 78% and was very excited.
Shortly after this initial success, I got an e-mail from Pete (that was addressed to the entire class) inviting me to join him in a drink on him. The e-mail was really just for me, Mary and/or Ray. I knew none of the kids would respond. I felt slightly sorry for Pete, who had tried to warm up the crash course class.
As it turned out I was the only one who took him up. We met at a popular restaurant in Copley Sq.at 5:30 on a drizzly June evening. He worked in Copley and was there first, standing out front in a dark pin-striped suit.
I shook hands with Pete.
"Hi, James", he said. "I'm sweating like a trooper in this suit, but it was a necessary evil today. Big meeting with a CEO."
"You know, it's the first time I've seen you in a suit, Pete," I said.
When the waitress brought menus, Pete said: "Feel free to order a sandwich, James. As you were the only one who took up my offer, expenditures are now reallocated."
I ordered the grilled chicken on Parmesan roll and a glass of chardonnay. Pete ordered the burger and a Sam Adams ale.
It had been a while since his cracks against Bush & Co.; in this less formal setting, I had hoped to join him in a "Bush Bash".
During the first drink I confined myself to asking him about his big meeting. When the sandwiches and second drinks arrived, I got political.
"I just sent Kerry and Edwards forty bucks. I hope they don't blow it!" I said.
Pete wiped his mustache with a napkin.
"I just sent some money to Bush-Cheney," he said. "I feel the same way."
He smiled like a chameleon. I managed to collect myself quickly because I had had a similar experience a year before with my boss, whose flexible style had me peg him as a liberal. That experience, however, wasn't as strange as this one with Pete Carlucci. If he were a Republican, why the anti-Bush cracks just a few months ago? I guessed that either he was either simply politically capricious or that he had been play-acting for Ray's benefit.
"Hey wait a sec, Pete," I said. "I was under the impression you were more left-liberal."
"Well James, there were certain issues I was uncomfortable with for a while, but—I've been a Republican all my life."
We ate in silence for a few minutes. The grilled chicken on Parmesan roll was excellent.
"Who do you think will win the election?" I asked.
"Bush," he said. "By six to eight points, all voted by 'undecideds'. Unless there's another 9/11 before the election, God forbid, they'll just pull the lever."
"But what about the Abu Grahib stuff?" I asked.
"What about it?" he shrugged. "A few bad apples lost control. They'll be punished."
I changed the subject to John Edwards, Kerry's running mate.
"I read on an internet blog that Edwards' personal fortune is nine million," I said.
Pete took a bite from his gigantic burger.
"That's five million more than me," he said casually.
The conversation continued after the meal, as we nursed our second, and final, drinks. I stuck with the interviewer role I had fallen into:
"Pete, if you don't mind my asking: You're not 'born again', are you?"
"Roman Catholic", he said.
"Well, what do you think of all these 'Christian Right' forces that support Bush? Do you think they want to bring in an authoritarian society?" I asked.
"Never happen, James. You'll never see a lock-step, Tito-Franco type of benevolent dictatorship in America. We just don't have that in our nation's history."
My final question concerned a Newt Gingrich interview I had seen recently:
"He kept comparing Iraq to World War II! Now Pete—that is ridiculous, don't you think?"
"In a way, you're right about that, James. During World War II there was no internet or embedded news media that could weaken U.S. civilian
morale by constantly showing our dead or maimed soldiers."
Pete paid the check. In front of the restaurant we talked about the courses, which he encouraged me to complete in the fall. We shook hands again.
"As a parting shot, James, please remember: we couldn't have talked as we did tonight in most countries in this world," said Pete.
"You're right about that, Pete," I said.
There were only six students in the "Business Management II" class that fall; all were 40 or 50-somethings. As the election got closer, political banter flew about, usually just before or after Pete's lecture. After the first Bush-Kerry debate, Pete enthused over Bush's ridicule of Kerry's "global test" phrase. Another time his eyes dilated in fear as he expressed fear that Kerry might win.
On Election Day we had an e-mail exchange that concluded like this:
Pete: "If I had my way, we'd carpet bomb Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia until we got back down to $15 a barrel for oil!"
I got the last word by quoting an Eisenhower who had said that the Republican Party of 2004 bore little resemblance to the Republican Party of the 1950s. I didn't expect this to sway Pete.
Kerry lost. The following morning in I saw a woman cry in an elevator. There were two classes left to the fall course, which had been more difficult for me than the first course—too much dry accounting/math stuff.
I cut the second-to-last class.
At the onset of the last class, Pete overheard me tell another student that the recently deceased punk-rock guitarist Johnny Ramone had been a Republican who had uttered, "God Bless President Bush", on his death bed.
Pete was cool that evening, not bringing up the election until the final class was over.
"Well, what do you say, James? Were you surprised by the outcome?"
"Not really," I shrugged. "They were saying until the bitter end that it would be close."
"Yup. But I guess a certain Radical Punk came through in the end."
I took the second exam in January 2005 and failed.