You grow so tired of hearing about the prerogatives of the suburban middle class. It's a flabby, overindulged house cat of a demographic, sprawling by a fireplace as the pine knots snap in the flames, catching scraps tossed it by a jolly wife in a winter kitchen, in a house in the hills, as the kettle sings and the muffins breathe and outside the snow settles into the woods?And when the stove clogs and blows, the force blasts the smug, voracious thing into orbit?where, in the last moments of its life before it's lost to interstellar space, it contemplates the impermanence of this life's blessings, and the certainty of the void.
But such tragedies don't, in real life, afflict the suburban middle class. And they never will, as long as Murray Sabrin can help it.
There's an ignored television blaring?perched high upon a shelf in the lobby of this Days Inn on Rte. 46 outside the village of Ledgewood in Morris County, in north-central New Jersey. Which, while it isn't at all an unpleasant place, is nonetheless one of those interstitial spaces in the American map to which you need never travel, unless you've got a good reason to, especially if you're a provincial New Yorker and your needs can be fulfilled closer to home.
It's one of those locales in America that can't figure out what time it is anymore. The suburbs are overspreading outer Jersey, to the point where in places you can't tell what geography you're supposed to be inhabiting anymore; can't tell whether the geography's a suburban or a rural one. Country roads are interspersed with new strips. What's a person supposed to do of an evening? Drink beer in a tavern? Or is one now a suburbanite? Does the world now expect one to indulge in more sophisticated pleasures?
As it is here, guys just sprawl in those colorless standardized Days Inn lobby chairs, drinking soda pop in the set's loud radiance. Outside a pure May rain drifts across new fields and wood patches, washing what remains, tenuously, the exurbs.
Inside the motel, though, in one of those gray-brown and tubercular meeting rooms that typically contain Shriners meetings and refreshment tables with stale danishes, a Republican candidate's meeting is in session. June 6 is New Jersey's primary election, when the Republican electorate?in its dignity?will select from among four local statesmen a candidate to compete for the U.S. Senate seat that Frank Lautenberg will vacate next year. And Murray Sabrin, one of the four?a sort of self-proclaimed redemptor of the supposedly embattled and persecuted suburban middle class?stands at the lectern, addressing several dozen of the human beings who hump in eczemic vinyl chairs. Some are members of the local Republican club, who've driven out into the rain tonight, motivated by honest curiosity about the four gentlemen in question. Others?like myself?are just along to observe what's going on in this obscure ditch in the American democratic landscape.
"If I win," Sabrin, a little guy with a round face and a bit of a combover, announces to the crowd, leaning over the lectern, his eyes wide, "if you think the Jesse Ventura phenomenon is something?wait till you see the Murray Sabrin phenomenon?this year and next year."
Before he spoke I'd watched Sabrin moon about the meeting room, an erect little guy, his eyebrows raised over a face that evinces what's either profound solipsism or a puckishly boyish interest in the pageant of life around him, with his hands often behind his back, pacing the back of the hall with his neck craned, a neat little guy, light on his feet, emanating the vibe of a Bergen County Cary Grant.
"I'm not interested in good press," Sabrin insists. "I'm not interested in looking good and politically correct to the media. I'm interested in protecting our fundamental rights. And if you understand that, there's only one choice."
A polite silence, which might have been confusion, and might have been something else. Who could tell what this could come to?
"I will be one of the most influential Republican senators in the United States," Sabrin's saying. "None of my opponents can say that. Because they are expected to win. I'm not. You know that?I know that."
Later, when the stout women of the local GOP part the brown curtains of air to appear before Sabrin in the fullness of their presence, his smile intensifies and his body shoots rigid and a hand extends jerkily and there's a feline pause as he hides behind the wan and obscuring smile and just waits silently for them to speak. And then they're gone and he paces some more, smiling that slight chessy-cat smile. It's easy to get to Sabrin. If you want Sabrin, there he is?over there on the other side of the room. He's neither surrounded by handlers nor clustered by staff. But when you get him, all you get is his hand and that grin, which could be telling you...anything. Or he disengages himself from you at length and gambols alone to one of those frame-and-vinyl seminar-room chairs, sits down and cranes his neck into the brown light, resembling nothing else than a secure and slightly strange little kid with his own agenda. Unlike any politician you've ever met, he doesn't sell you. He doesn't even really speak, just studies you with what's either patience or distrustful reserve.
But put him in front of a crowd, and he knows how to speak, all right.
"And I can tell you," he announces, "people will be cheering from Maine to what? San Diego. When I make that case on C-SPAN."
C-SPAN? Who does this guy think he is? I'd driven down into New Jersey that evening because, although I care little about politics in that state, I'd grown interested in Sabrin. I'd heard something about him; I'd been forwarded e-mails informing me that it was crucial that someone interview this guy named Murray Sabrin, who was running on a real Republican platform, not some phony, watered-down Christie Whitman stuff. He was selling the pure stuff, in other words, which explained why not enough people either in New Jersey or out of state had heard of him. The liberal media had?one could expect little else, man?blocked him out.
Sabrin's was a unique platform. Not so much for its extreme conservatism, which isn't particularly exciting at this point, but for the context in which it pulsed and throbbed. Sabrin was running as a paranoid early-90s suburban white guy?running so here and now, in a part of New York City's metropolitan area in the first year of the 21st century. He was a man out of time, it seemed, a politician who'd come along almost a decade too late. I wanted to look at him.
After all, it would seem that all of the bugbears, bogeymen and demons of the proverbial (and probably to some extent mythical) suburban white guy had been effectively vanquished and destroyed. Stomped into the dirt, chopped up, buried?then exhumed and stomped again. Every dopey, vicious, palsied, disingenuous, elitist political element that it was possible to hear conservative talk-radio hosts inveigh against a decade ago would seem by now to have been extirpated from the political discourse. Gone. The white guys won. The identity politics, the Big Government nonsense, the sneering, smirking battle-ax infernal harridan Upper West Side ideologues: all had been by now swept away by a variety of cultural factors, the boom economy and the Clinton administration's stealthy conservatism perhaps chief among them. It was hard these days to sit around in Morristown puling about how Dominicans were stealing everybody's jobs.
In other words, a cultural revolution had cleansed the landscape. But this guy Sabrin, who wasn't getting much press over here in the city, hadn't seemed to notice. It was fascinating. Here he was waging a rearguard action as if it were still the early 1990s?that period in American history when maniacs in the city romped on the subways, murdering for kicks, when the p.c. nonsense was infecting the cultural discourse, when the government wouldn't give a hardworking regular fella a break?Jeez, can ya believe it??and so on.
Sabrin, who makes his living as a finance professor at Ramapo College in Mahwah, NJ, had up and run for governor as a Libertarian against Christine Whitman back in 1997. I certainly hadn't noticed. Now, however, in his race for the Republican senatorial nomination, he'd scored the endorsements of a number of core-constituency Republican groups: New Jersey Right to Life, the Republican National Coalition for Life, the state's NRA chapter, the Republican Liberty Caucus and the Coalition of New Jersey Sportsmen. Furthermore, since he was splitting the vote with three other candidates, it was possible that he could pull it off.
I started combing through Sabrin's campaign propaganda materials. They contained some extraordinary data. It was obvious that Sabrin didn't give a damn. His positions were exciting?even perversely admirable?in their ideological exuberance.
At a debate in Trenton on May 22, for instance, Sabrin jauntily pronounced himself in favor of suburban sprawl. Yup: just full-on in support of a phenomenon the effects of which even other Republicans are trying to mitigate, and opposition to which is built into the politics of people as mainstream as Al Gore. Theoretically, at least, no sane politician is in favor of suburban sprawl?even citizens who willingly and happily live within it will condemn it if you ask them about it. And yet here was Sabrin, who had?with impeccable burgher logic?discerned that where there is sprawl, there is commerce. There is growth. There is, to put it more nakedly, consumption.
I encountered other data. Sabrin began a May 22, 1999, speech to the New Jersey Young Republicans as follows: "Good afternoon. I'm Murray Sabrin and I want to be your next Republican U.S. senator. Today I want to talk with you about the American Way and Political Correctness."
One wonders where this "political correctness" exists in the United States of America in the year 2000, other than in the obvious insignificant hives, like the universities and the Dept. of Housing and Urban Development. Political correctness? What? The Sabrin Time Machine, it seemed, cranked and sputtered on, warping back into the regions of the discarded past.
"Block the Appointment of Liberal Judges" is one of the planks under the "Where I Stand" heading on Sabrin's website. He's against New Jersey's auto emissions test, since it's a "federal mandate." And I'm against most gun control, too, but Sabrin's campaign flackery contains passages like the following: "The Nazis murdered 6 million Jews who had no way of defending themselves because gun control took away their means of defense."
"It is about time New Jersey had a U.S. senator who stood up and fought for the people of New Jersey," Sabrin announced in his Aug. 5, 1999, campaign kickoff speech. "Especially the overtaxed, overregulated, overburdened suburban middle class?the most discriminated people [sic] in America today."
Really? You wonder what more the suburban middle class could want in its incredible dominance of nearly every aspect of American political culture. The noses of their enemies, maybe, or the bodies of their enemies' wives.
"You wanna talk about Murray Sabrin?" a New Jersey Republican political strategist said when I spoke with him over the phone. "He's one of my favorite topics. Here's the deal. He runs against the head of the Republican Party, the governor of our state, Christie Whitman, for governor in 1997. He runs as a Libertarian. All right? And now he has the temerity, the audacity?granted, this is America, okay??to seek the Republican Party's nomination. He has no party backing, no support. On the contrary, he is the ultimate gadfly, this guy. And he's proud of it."
The strategist continued: "He is on record as being a supporter of the legalization of marijuana. He is a supporter of no abortions under any circumstances whatsoever. If it was up to him, kids would be carrying assault weapons around New Jersey, because he thinks anybody under any circumstances should bear arms."
The pro-sprawl position is the best part of Sabrin's trip. It's fascinating how the cheapest, ugliest, sleaziest geography extant in the United States has become the Promised Land of contemporary American conservatism. The strip mall and its zonal bedroom communities are?like the classical pediment and the Doric column in the early days of the Republic?the architectural icons of God's Country, conservatism's symbols of the great, good place.
Why this has occurred is open to debate. One reason is negative: there's no other vision for conservatism to co-opt. Cities are associated with liberalism and book-larnin', the latter more repellent to conservatism ca. 2000 even than the former, with which conservatism at any rate shares a firm respect for authority and a pious commitment to perpetrating government violence on populations, either its own or foreign. And rurality is associated with yurts, trees, fauna, Pan-fluting hippies and other faggotry, none of which is really very good for the body politic. The countryside also, conversely but just as insultingly, evokes a degree of frontier self-sacrifice and communitarianism?guys helping each other erect barns and lay up hay and split logs, and so forth?that has nothing to do with a political movement predicated on the moral necessity of tax cuts and the ownership of bigger, more consumptive automobiles.
And it's funny how the strip mall/sprawl burbs defy the core values that conservatism's always congratulating itself for promulgating. As if the idea of "less government regulation" means anything at all in the face of the fact that?in a sprawl environment like the sort found in most places in this country?a kid's proscribed by the very geography that surrounds him from walking down to the store for a soda pop, or going to Jimmy's house to shoot hoops. The strip burbs are all about regulation, all about a subtle, insidious variety of coercion?a coercion that you don't even notice. It's so holistically environmental that you don't pay it any more mind than you pay the force of gravity from day to day.
You can trace a depressing ideological progression here. T.R.'s was a rich-boy dilettante's vision of the American landscape?the frontier as a place of manly overcoming?but it had a certain romantic charm to it, once you decided to ignore the leeringly and murderously imperialistic intent that undergirded its conception. Goldwater had the open and anarchic Arizona desert. Even Reagan had the celluloid cowboy's Monument Valley, at least, not to mention the white ethnic urban cores (hello, Milwaukee!) of the Reagan Democrats.
But George W. Bush, say?who's apparently been entrusted with the task of carrying the glorious conservative movement forward?has on his side the low-slung Wal-Mart ratlands that emanate around Houston, surveillance environments in which a human being is prevented by the very infrastructure?by eight screaming lanes of commercial-strip traffic, typically?from so much as crossing the street. So much for the land of freedom and opportunity. In huge swaths of America a citizen lacks the opportunity to so much as cross a thoroughfare.
Murray Sabrin, meanwhile, has a whole state to conquer. A couple of weeks ago I drove down to watch him interact with his public, such as it is. It was a humid May day devolving toward summer, when the light's flat and muggy and already the sky's obscured by that gray cover that you might as well get used to, because it'll be up there above your head until October: the smoggy summer cloud cover of the metropolitan area that doesn't let the sun through, much like L.A.'s, though not as clean. Drove across the George Washington Bridge and barreled west on 80, losing myself when I pulled over for a soda in Totowa?a solid working-class place the main drag of which seethed with humans, and that was lined with graveyards. Totowa is, it turned out, the home of Sabrin's campaign office. I turned south onto 287 a while after Paterson, that heap of red-brick factory strata stacked up under a brooding sky, full of huge industrial witches' keeps set amidst tatty wooded hills. Stormed southward into deeper Jersey, trapped in that screaming traffic that teems in the Jersey petri dish, where it's always rush hour?seething movement over tough old towns and new sprawl. We should get rid of the idea that New Jersey represents "the suburbs," with the implication that the region's a subordinate appendage of New York City. For better or for worse, there exists out there a civilization that stands on its own and in many respects doesn't need New York City very much.
Drive down past Morristown and you see the landscape shift, and the crowded highways grow separated by wider and greener medians, and huge volumes of cars flow into and out of this next frontier for the subdivisions. You're nearing the edges of New Jersey's rural areas, the next blank slate on which will be imposed the obliterations of sprawl.
I reached Hunterdon County, in the state's horsey western country, in early evening, turning off Interstate 78 and following tertiary roads toward the village of Oldwick. Get out in that part of the world, and you'll find all of your evil New York City provincial prejudices about New Jersey blown to bits. Farmsteads nestle evenly and proportionately between swelling rises of lush land. You drive into this doomed landscape with something approaching exhilaration. Towns stop at their boundaries and become countryside, without edge city dissipation. There's a sense of proportion and demarcation, of masses settling themselves integritously into reasonable volumes of space. You're seeing small-town Jersey in the last moments before the economy destroys it.
And it's all the more magical when you're driving in on a wet early evening in May, when the lime-green foliage respires in the electric ambience before a storm. I drove down a road that turned off the village's main street, rolling among ancient homes behind white fences. Then, when I found the meeting venue?a gabled white clapboard barnlike structure with its back to the woods and green fields?rain arrived in huge, clean sheets. Cataracts washed along the roads. Trapped by the torrents, we sat in our cars in the parking lots, wipers swinging, waiting it out, watching lightning lacerate the sky?it was like artillery fire, that whole side of the world lit up?and listening to the thunder rattle and wondering whether the storm would hit us and blast us into ions.
Eventually we made a dash for the building, holding our jackets over our heads. Inside, middle-aged and elderly members of the local Republican club stood in the lofty space of the meeting hall. The evening lashed against the windows. Groups of us pressed our faces against the glass to see the storm. It was as if all the clean water in the world were falling down to flood and scour poor old New Jersey.
Then we seated ourselves in folding chairs, about 50 of us?concerned citizens, mostly. Sabrin and a big, likable dude named Jim Treffinger, who's also running for the Republican nomination, assumed a table on a riser at the front of the room, their backs to the window and to the spring purging outside. Treffinger spoke?a man who's clearly out of his league?then eased back and moved his tongue around in his mouth and played with his lips and sprawled and stared at the ceiling; did everything but play with his balls as Sabrin (who is this guy?) grabbed the mic and leaned forward into the crowd, which he instantly owned. His smile combined enigma and insouciance.
Sabrin: "When I first read Jon Corzine's website, I called up some of the press?this was last year, before The New York Times wrote its story?and I said, have you read Jon Corzine's website? They said no. I said, I just did, and it sounds awfully familiar. I said, it's right out of the Communist Manifesto."
Nervous laughter. These weren't the Bergen County suburban hillbillies of liberal demonology, but rather acceptable human beings?lawyerly guys in the frayed khakis and moccasins of the off-hours patrician towns of outer Jersey. The Communist Manifesto?
"And one reporter had the nerve to say I was red-baiting," Sabrin continued blithely. He shrugged. "I'm not talking about Communism. I'm talking about Marxism. There's a difference between being Lenin and being Karl Marx. He kind of looks like Karl Marx, in his younger days."
Sabrin paused and fixed the crowd with his eyes. Silence reigned. Treffinger looked at the ceiling, apparently not listening.
"The point is," Sabrin continued in his nasal, insouciant voice, "Jon Corzine's policies?if fully implemented in the United States?would turn us into Cuba. Into Cuba. The government will control nearly every aspect of our lives... That is the mindset of the left wing in the United States, the politically correct left wing in the United States..."
"And you have to know something about my background," said Sabrin, also. "My parents survived the Holocaust. Everyone in their family died. They were killed during WWII. So when people ask me about running for office, this is a piece of cake compared to what my father went through. A piece of cake. And the Senate of the United States will be a piece of cake. Standing up to Ted Kennedy. A piece of cake. Tom Daschle. A piece of cake... I will stand up to every politically correct senator in the United States Senate."
What politically correct senator in the United States Senate?
"Our ancestors, serfs in Europe, paid one third of their income in taxes. We are in a worse position relative to the serfs..."
And at one point Murray and I stood together, alone, in the middle of the floor as the crowd gathered itself in the warm, well-lit arc in which the group of us waited out the storm and he just looked through me with that little smile, and his tie was askew. He said nothing, just beamed at me from within the zone of his mysterious equilibrium, a diaphanous personality who stands there alone, and staringly smiles at you when you walk away.
"Murray, can I call you?" I asked him later that night after he'd spoken and old women approached to impinge upon his solitude. "I really need to talk to you."
"Sure, sure," he cooed, looking right past me, and I did call him, but he never called me back. I guess I don't blame him. I was from somewhere else, and realistically there was no reason for any sort of commerce between us.
So enough with New Jersey's suburban middle class.
But that night, as everything thundered and rain washed over everything so that sometimes I could barely see, I stormed back to the city, driving eastward after midnight into the brown worlds of first Bergen County and then the city, leaving behind a green, different place, a different time zone. Amazingly, it's in the city that everything is clearer. Manhattan's nothing at this point?a sanitized place. You start thinking it's the sprawling suburbs that are really the focal points of American energy at this point, the places that churn up the phenomena that have to be reckoned with, the strange monsters that, at least in terms of the understanding of a provincial New Yorker, who can't always wrap his brain around these things, can't easily be understood.