Griffin’s campaign manager, a veteran of that 2008 primary against Jones, calls to tell the candidate that he “should have left five minutes ago.” He’s destined to be late to a meeting of the Crystal Coast Tea Party in Emerald Isle, an hour away if you’re lucky. So Griffin hands his number to the Tea Partiers he’d been talking to and walks to a Chevy truck with a “W ‘04” sticker on the back and 216,937 miles on the speedometer. “I’m running this thing into the ground,” he says. “The mileage is terrible.”
We head off, and Griffin talks on and off the record in between phone calls and stories about how he used to drive to the shore. He’d just been endorsed by Sarah Palin; some of the calls, from supporters, are about how best to leverage this burst of free media. “Right after Palin was chosen for the ticket, Steve Schmidt called me up and said, ‘You’re heading to Alaska,’ ” recalls Griffin. “Someone packed my bag and I flew right there.” It was his job to beat “a hundred investigative reporters” to the Palin dirt and give daily spin.
I eventually get around to asking Griffin how much he agrees with Palin. Over the weekend, she’d joked that waterboarding was a way to “baptize terrorists.” That definitely wasn’t the sort of thing Walter Jones would say. What did he think of the quote?
“Well, Sarah Palin’s a lot more quotable than me,” says Griffin. He pauses for a few seconds. “The struggle between civil liberties and national security did not start yesterday and it won’t end tomorrow. Pre-9/11 we went too far in the wrong direction. Now, we need to ask whether we’re swinging the pendulum too far back in the direction before 9/11 that allowed an attack on our nation. But we cannot forget that there are still people in the world who want to destroy Americans and our country and our way of life.”
This is not how Griffin usually talks. When we get to the Crystal Coast Tea Party meeting, at the back of a seafood restaurant, 15 activists are talking about a mounting threat to the state’s voter ID laws and linking it back to Attorney General Eric Holder. Griffin interrupts them with good cheer.
“There is no harder-working Tea Party group or grassroots group in the district,” he says. “People respect you all over North Carolina. They know you all do your homework. You’re talking about the tall-structural ordinance and you’re talking about the school budget. You all understand that government starts at the local level and that citizens have to be on the watch.”
They also deal in congressional politics, and they happened to endorse Griffin by a landslide, after an already legendary interview (“we pelted him with questions,” says one activist) that started at 6 p.m., continued until the restaurant locked its doors, and ended at another bar’s closing time. Griffin’s rewards included a place on the CCTP’s voter palm card and the loyalty of activists who show up at the polls, write blog posts, and call in to radio shows.
“I’ve been working the polls and it’s going at least 4- or 5-to-1 in your favor in the early vote,” one activist tells Griffin. “Today, you throw Sarah’s endorsement in there and that’s taken some people from ‘hm, maybe’ to ‘yeah, OK!’ ”
After the meeting breaks up, as Griffin talks to the organizers (“I usually get a beer with those guys afterward”), I talk to Jim and Pat Nalitz. They moved to the district permanently in 2007, after years of making annual escapes from the Virginia suburbs, and have long pined for a way to oust Jones.
“People here have come to the conclusion that he’s no longer conservative,” says Jim.
“He’s been corrupted by the bubble,” says Pat. “It’s what happens when you get up there.”
“He’s not even a good Republican when it comes to being a conservative,” says Jim. “The other House Republicans don’t even like him.” He stops himself. “Well, that might not be a bad thing.”
“I did support him when he got kicked off the committee,” says Pat.
It’s not easy to hold this kind of Tea Party support, or this kind of Republican. Jones, according to Griffin, is so ineffective that the district won’t be able to get what it needs from the government. Those people employed by the military bases—well, they need to stay employed. But voters want a Republican who’ll say no to most things. On the drive back to New Bern, Griffin tells me he would have joined the Republicans who refused to fund Obamacare “if the defund strategy made sense.” Later, back in his old-new hometown, he reminds me how he started in politics.
“I worked with Jesse Helms, and I think international institutions are largely useless,” he says. “It’s absolutely time to re-evaluate our U.N. dues.”
Griffin buys coffee and baked goods from one of the merchants he now knows by name, and talks through all the “lazy” ways to talk about his race. He’s already read the story about how “insiders” like him are taking over politics. Lazy. He’s read the “Paul vs. neocons” story. “I don’t think Walter Jones fits neatly into the Paul box,” he says. “In the Venn diagram, there’s some cursory overlap, but that’s not who Walter Jones is. The point is that this election is about eastern North Carolina.” Anyway, neocon? “When a label becomes a pejorative, it no longer has any use in describing people.”
We talk a little bit about the National Security Agency, and Griffin takes some pleasure in walking me through the SWIFT program, the terror money-tracking initiative he worked on in the Bush administration’s Treasury Department. Griffin repeats what the administration said when the New York Times broke the news of the program’s existence: There might be blood on Bill Keller’s hands. It strikes me that Griffin and Jones have completely divergent views of what the Bush/Cheney legacy’s going to be.
“I observed George W. Bush as a person who got up every morning thinking about what was right for the country,” says Griffin. “You’ve got to remember, this was a time when we felt the threat of a terrorist attack was very real. It affected all of us. We felt an incredible obligation to protect the country from the next terrorist attack. You have to view every decision made in that context. And in that context, I think history will see him very well. History isn’t written yet. The drafts of history written contemporarily are always much less favorable than the drafts of history that are made with the benefit of perspective and hindsight.”