“The Republicans sure know how to throw a party, don’t they?” my grandfather asked me on our first night out in Cleveland.
“No kidding,” I shouted back over the band – a group from San Diego playing “Sweet Home Alabama” at a function hosted by delegations from Mississippi and Wisconsin.
The 2016 Republican National Convention hadn’t even officially begun yet, and already the attendees were partying like they’d won the election. Our first event, a reception honoring RNC Chairman Reince Priebus, was as lavish as any big-budget wedding reception, featuring no fewer than five open bars, the largest mountain of meats and cheeses and crackers and fruits and vegetables I’ve ever seen, and a separate room for the desserts. There weren’t any balloons descending from the ceiling or confetti being fired from air cannons, but the swing dancing, toasts to party leaders past and present, and shared cigars on the terrace outside all conveyed a real sense of ease, if not confidence, going into the GOP’s big week.
I felt a little overwhelmed at all the business card swapping and talk of various committee proceedings and general GOP strategizing – it didn’t help that I couldn’t hear a word anyone said while the band was playing – but to an extent it didn’t really matter, so long as I stayed close to my grandmother, a delegate from Tennessee and one of those people who somehow seems to always know everyone in the room. And if she doesn’t know someone, she never hesitates to march right up to a stranger and introduce herself.
“I’m Beth Campbell. I’m from Tennessee! Now, where are you from?” was her go-to line of introduction.
No more than an hour into the party, my grandmother had already tracked down Chairman Priebus. He was hard to miss, given the swarm of doters that circled him to shake hands and offer their welcomes and congratulations. I watched from a distance, absentmindedly piling another cheese slice onto the cracker in my hand, when my grandmother, just over five feet tall on a good day, appeared from the crowd with Priebus in tow, motioning for me to come over.
I swallowed the cheese and cracker, wiped my hands on the back of my pants, and threw on a smile. I shook hands with the RNC Chairman and wondered how my grandmother managed to pull this very busy, powerful man out of his path in order to meet her grandson, who was, politically speaking, of no importance to him.
“Pleasure to meet you, sir,” I told him.
He smiled and nodded. My grandmother, shouting over the band, leaned up to him: “He’s writing an article about the convention! It’s for an online magazine.” Her old-school Memphis accent was unmistakable even at that volume. “An article about grandmother and grandson at the convention.”
Every time she offered that preface, it made me think: do they know I’m not voting for their candidate? Of course, I wasn’t going to sit around and badmouth Donald Trump in front of a bunch of Republicans gearing up to crown him their nominee, but I wondered if my grandmother would broadcast my writing so prominently if she knew I wasn’t working on a piece extolling the glorious convention of the Republican Party. Had she come to terms with the fact that I long ago vowed never to vote for Trump? Our family’s unquestioned devotion has always been firmly in the with the GOP, and I worried that I was violating an old family code, breaking rank, stepping out of line. That fear sat heavily in the back of my mind as the convention got underway, especially in moments when Honey would say with a wink and a nod that she hoped being at the convention would “convert” me.
My grandmother, Beth Campbell – I’ve always known her as Honey – is a veteran of GOP trench warfare stretching back to the first Gulf War, when she became convinced that the incumbent Democratic Senator from Tennessee, Jim Sasser, did not have the best interest of the nation’s armed forces at heart, specifically when it came to his stance on American involvement in the war and the need for “land-based air cover” should the U.S. enter the conflict.
“My son Chip was in the Naval Academy, and we knew once he graduated he might be sent to the Middle East,” she says. “I shook my finger at the TV and said, ‘Jim Sasser, if anyone of integrity runs against you, I will ring doorbells against you.’”
Sasser’s challenger ended up being Bill Frist, a surgeon from Nashville and a political unknown at the time. After introductions from mutual friends, Frist’s campaign manager found his way to Honey’s dining room table in Memphis.
“I asked him,” Honey says, “‘what are you expecting from me?’ He looked at me and said, ‘Fifty-one percent.’ You have to remember, I was a novice at the time – all I’d ever done was vote and put signs in my yard – and it was a long shot to get Frist to fifty-one percent.”
The Frist campaign tapped Honey as the chairman for Shelby County, the largest county in Tennessee, and things turned out pretty well.
“Shelby County,” Honey says with pride, 22 years later, “was the deciding county that put Frist over the line to beat Senator Jim Sasser.”
I was only a toddler during the Frist Senate victory, but since then, I’ve participated in all sorts of political activities at the behest of my grandmother, from posing for campaign photos when she sought election to the Tennessee Republican Party State Executive Committee to making calls from a phone bank to strangers in Iowa ahead of their caucuses. I can’t say I did these things out of any real sense of political fervor. I did, however, love my grandmother (still do) and was bad at saying no when people asked me to do things (still am).
I’m now 24 years old, in grad school, and have spent my years since high school maintaining a healthy disinterest in politics and immersing myself in social circles increasingly distant from my family’s socio-political norm – simply a fact of being in an MFA program where old guard conservatives are few and far between. I’ve grown slightly further away from the conservative political beliefs of my family, but somewhere inside me there remains a tinge of attachment, loyalty even, to the world in which I was raised, and in the few elections I’ve had the chance to participate in, I’ve never yet voted Democrat. So it’s a matter of some confusion that I’ve found myself with the opportunity to accompany my grandmother to the Republican National Convention and witness the crowning of one Donald J. Trump, who, to me, always seemed like a bit of an egomaniac with a tenuous grasp of the issues and a proclivity to spout off crude, insensitive sound bites about women and Latinos.
The 2016 Republican National Convention is an especially important one for Honey because it marks her appointment to the Republican National Committee, a title given to only two Tennesseans at a time. That she’s risen through the ranks from county campaign chair to national committeewoman in the span of my lifetime is a testament to her commitment and tenacity. And yet, she’s by no means a career politician. Far from it: she’s a volunteer.
“I’ve had the chance to meet so many people from Tennessee and across the country who are on the same team as me,” Honey says, “it feels like being part of something bigger. When you’re down on the convention floor, you’re with Americans of all walks of life, and you’re together, really doing something for the principles you believe in. That’s part of my legacy – my legacy to my family, and to my community.”
That legacy is of great importance to Honey, as it would be to anyone. One morning, sitting in our hotel room, by this time overflowing with the various trinkets and promotional gifts we’d all been given, we were preparing for the arrival of my other grandfather, my dad’s dad – that’s right, both of my grandfathers came to the convention. We’d realized that we hadn’t secured a wristband for my incoming grandfather to the RNC hospitality area inside the convention arena and were scrambling to think of a solution.
“Maybe I can just make my wristband loose, so we can swap as we need to,” my grandfather suggested.
“One of us can go in and grab the food and bring it out for him,” I said. “They’re cool with letting you take food and drinks beyond the curtains.”
My grandfather and I continued to think of more ways to sneak in my other grandfather into the hospitality area, when Honey chimed in:
“Just let me take charge of this.”
This assertion shouldn’t have surprised me – after all, one woman Honey introduced me to described my grandmother as a “powerhouse” – but it did clue me into what else might be behind Honey’s drive: the desire to provide, to show tangibly that she could be the one to make something happen. We didn’t need to settle. She could get that wristband for us.
A grandmother is often a kind of provider to her grandchildren, although it’s not usually the I-have-the-connections-to-give-you-exclusive-access-to-restricted-areas kind of provision. But the convention gave me an even more nuanced view of this woman I’d grown up with. Like anyone else, she wants to prove that her efforts have paid off tangibly, be it in the form of wristbands or in the form of political action.
The convention hall inside Cleveland’s Quicken Loans Arena is truly unlike anything I’ve ever seen. The sheer vastness of the red, white, and blue spectacle on the floor of the arena elicits a moment of pause to take it all in.
“There must be ten thousand balloons up there,” my grandfather said to me at one point, gesturing up to the nets on the ceiling holding the balloons in place.
The first day of the convention was filled with drama. We’d heard rumblings that a cohort of Never Trump-ers was going to attempt a last minute coup on the floor that would force a roll call of all delegates to vote on changing the convention rules, a move that the Never Trump-ers hoped could put Ted Cruz back on the ballot.
The motion for the roll call was met with a chorus of boos when put to the floor, and what followed was a literal shouting match. From the nosebleeds, my grandfather and I watched the chaos below, as Arkansas Representative Steve Womack, after briefly disappearing from the stage, came out and put the motion to a voice vote. Initially met with grumbling, the ayes, when called upon, rang out loud and long, attempting to out volume-meter the no’s. I was a bit taken aback that such an important motion was decided by letting one man determine which group shouted the loudest, but the consensus among the Tennessee delegation – my grandparents included – was that the Never Trump-ers were a bunch of sour grapes who were unnecessarily breaking from protocol, and needed to come together and unite with the rest of the party, or go home.
Before the no’s could reach their crescendo, Womack proclaimed, “In the opinion of the chair, the ayes have it!” He pounded the gavel and then proceeded to leave the stage. Delegates from a couple states, furious at the outcome, stormed out, though all we could discern from on high was a stream of bodies, their voices rising up in a mixed uproar, some shouting, “Roll call, roll call!”, but most proclaiming, “Trump! Trump! Trump!”
Through all the madness, it dawned on me that somewhere down there, though I couldn’t actually make her out in the crowd, was my grandmother. This is the image I’ll remember from the convention: all the pomp and fanfare and theatrics could easily make one cynical about the whole process, but seeing Honey out there gave me a real taste of what democracy should really be about. Some might call it a circus, a mosh pit of political wheeling and dealing, but to me, there was something beautiful about it. Politics aside, it is part of what Honey calls “the American experience.” It is democracy distilled, given to the hands of the people, average citizens making real, impactful decisions for our country. It’s messy and flawed, this system of ours, but in the moments of chaos and madness, there’s always Honey somewhere in there, an average woman from Tennessee, my grandmother, making her voice heard loud and clear.
As the states announced their delegate counts on Tuesday night, I sat watching the TV in the RNC hospitality area, thinking of Honey there on the convention floor. I realized something: this trip was never really about Donald Trump. While Honey wasn’t quite able to convert me to the Trump cause this week, I think what she really wanted to do was show me what it looked like to go out and do something, to provide.
Whether for family or for country, I saw that what meant the most to Honey was not Trump’s victory – after all, she was attending the convention as a delegate for Marco Rubio – but was instead the knowledge that she’d shown me how to provide, how to make real, lasting contributions. Donald Trump is not the legacy Honey wants to leave me; it’s showing what it really looks like to do something about the things you believe, even when they’re little things. It’s tracking down an extra wristband.