Downtown Elko: Mojorider2/FlickrAmerica is full of small towns that bolster our national identity even though most of us rarely visit them. They are repositories of authenticity like Flint, Michigan; Treynor, Iowa; and Abilene, Kansas—factory, farming, and ranching towns. Every few years, national politicians parachute into a few carefully selected ones to stake claims to one political mythology or another. Which is essentially what Mitt Romney and Ron Paul were doing this week in Elko, a remote gold-mining town that's home to 0.7 percent of Nevadans, most of whom could drink whiskey all day long and still kick the shit out of the other 99.3 percent in a bar fight.
The romance of mining and its close relative, fist-fighting, factors heavily into the Silver State's brand of rugged individualism. Nevada's most famous early senator, William Stewart, once bragged of defending a mining claim by tackling an interloper into a ditch and strangling him with a woolen shirt. But while most of Nevada's prospecting happens at the slots these days, and its most talked-about fist-fights are pay-per-view, Nevadans still look to places like Elko to keep it real. In the lead-up to the 2008 election, Barack Obama visited Elko twice.
Possibly the best window into Elko life is Goldie's, a watering hole near the downtown casinos where, naturally, the gold miners hang out. A few years ago, I was nursing a beer there when the sloshed tatterdemalion sitting next to me saw it fit to call a guy with a cratered face ugly. Soon I had to get up from my barstool because the drunk's forehead was about to be pinned against it, his neck oddly immobile in Crater Face's vice grip.
When it comes to manipulating charitable giving for personal and political ends, Newt Gingrich wrote the book. In 1997, his charity work won him the dubious distinction of being the first House speaker ever disciplined by his peers for ethical wrongdoing. Congress fined Gingrich $300,000 in connection with claiming tax-exempt status for "Renewing American Civilization," a college course he'd taught for political purposes.
Gingrich has been at it again. Over the past two years, a Gingrich charity called Renewing American Leadership paid $220,000 to Gingrich Communications, one of his for-profit companies. The purchases included books authored by Gingrich, such as The Fight for America's Future and Rediscovering God in America. Daniel Borochoff, president of the American Institute of Philanthropy, told ABC News that the arrangement violates the spirit of how nonprofits are supposed to work.
In 2010, Mitt Romney and his wife gave just under $3 million to charity, or about 15 percent of their $21.6 million income. That's a sizeable sum even by 1 percenter standards, which is why Romney's backers say it's unfair to castigate him for exploiting tax loopholes. "Mr. Romney's taxes reveal the most generous charitable donor to run for president in recent memory," writesNational Review's Mona Charen.
But generous towards whom? Just over half of Romney's 2010 giving went to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. The Romneys didn't have much choice there: The church requires Mormons to tithe 10 percent of their income to remain members in good standing. The rest of the money went to the Tyler Foundation, a 501(c3) nonprofit funded exclusively by the Romneys. Though most of its donations defy criticism, others aren't exactly middle of the road.
Photo by Mark Murmann.On Sunday night, a day after the mass arrest of some 400 Occupy Oakland protesters—and journalists including one of my Mother Jones colleagues—many of those who'd been released met outside City Hall to let off steam. Broadcasting through a speaker in a bicycle trailer, members of Occupy Oakland's Anti-Repression Committee denounced the use of "teargas, rubber bullets, and assault grenades." The crowd chanted, "Fuck the cops!" But anger at those who'd encouraged police violence by throwing rocks, ransacking the inside of City Hall, and burning an American flag was hard to find. A veteran member of Occupy Oakland later told me that proponents of nonviolence had largely quit speaking up at Oakland meetings for fear of being shouted down.
The militancy of Occupy Oakland contrasts sharply with the culture of Occupy Wall Street in New York City, where I was embedded this fall. In the weeks leading up to the occupation of Zuccotti Park in September, experts schooled groups of young people in peaceful protest tactics. Calls to occupy the park invariably stressed nonviolence, and the movement's official "Declaration of Solidarity," adopted later that month, proclaimed that "we have peaceably assembled here." Occupiers took turns waving an American flag on the night of the eviction, and even during the most confrontational demonstrations that followed, enforced a code of restraint. During an effort to shut down the New York Stock Exchange, for example, I saw garbage bags that had been tossed into the street by a few rogue protesters get picked up by other activists and put back on the sidewalk. A young anarchist I was shadowing denounced the incident as "stupid black-block shit," showing his disdain for anarchism's militant wing.
One evening this past October, I went prospecting for natural-gas man Trevor Rees-Jones at the posh Hilton Anatole in Dallas. He was there to receive the Robert S. Folsom Leadership Award, a philanthropic prize that in recent years has gone to the likes of Laura Bush and former Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman. Unlike these prominent Texans, Rees-Jones is not widely known outside his hometown. If the name sounds familiar, it's probably because he shares it with the British bodyguard who survived Princess Diana's fatal car crash. The Trevor Rees-Jones that I came to see is the billionaire founder of Dallas-based Chief Oil & Gas and perhaps the fastest-rising star in Republican big-money circles.
Photo: Scott Womack
The dinner's PR people had promised me tickets, then changed their minds and, with apologies, yanked them. So I called up my sister, a Dallas debutante of recent vintage, to help me crash the thing. As we strolled through the Hilton's cave-like lobby in cocktail attire, we saw a troop of young Boy Scouts milling about. One of them inquired about our destination and then helpfully directed us to the event's open bar. An Eagle Scout himself, Rees-Jones has donated millions of dollars to scouting causes.
A few days earlier, Rees-Jones' high school acquaintance, the renowned GOP bundler Jim Francis, had thrown him a party with guests that included George W. Bush. Now Francis' broad-shouldered son, Jim Jr., was holding forth in the lobby about a Lenin statue that once stood outside his burger joint. (Inscription: "America Won.") It was eventually sold on eBay to some guy in Arkansas. "Perfect!" someone exclaimed. "That's where it should be!"
We all laughed at the Clintons' expense. I then asked Francis if he thought Rees-Jones would go all in on the 2012 presidential race. "Oh, yeah!" he gushed before realizing he had no idea who I was. "Uh, I think a lot of the big political backers are waiting to see what happens," he added vaguely. "I think it will be a real interesting year."
I'd been trying to speak with Rees-Jones for more than a month. I'd even shown up at Chief's headquarters, but nobody would see me. Recognizing the CEO by his ruddy complexion and Regis Philbin hairstyle, I approached the bar where he stood flanked by a towering bodyguard with a Band-Aid on his neck. With slight trepidation, I introduced myself, asking if we might arrange a time to talk. His face reddened. "I've been advised of your agenda, so I don't think that's gonna be possible," Rees-Jones snapped in a West Texas drawl that belied his Ivy League education. His sideman moved closer and my sister and I turned heel, working our way past a tightening cordon of security.
A pity, for had we stuck around, we could have caught Karl Rove taking the stage beside a large model pump jack and oil derrick to do some prospecting of his own. Rees-Jones "is what servant leadership is all about," Rove said, throwing a bone to the Christians in attendance, though a society blogger covering the event emphasized his saltier extolments: George W. hadn't made it to the dinner, Rove explained, because he was angry that Rees-Jones always beats him when they go mountain biking together. "He rides the president's sorry ass into the ground every time."