Before all the fighting and bickering, before the arguments that seem to bring George W. Bush that much closer to reelection, 65-year-old Ruth Pleva sits comfortably between the oversized cushions on her living room couch. She fiddles with a brie-and-cracker spread on the table in front of her and spears plump strawberries with toothpicks. Guests will be here any second. "I used to say that the most difficult group to deal with is family," says Pleva, a thoughtful Boca Raton grandmother who has spent three decades as a marriage counselor. "Now I say it's people in politics."
A few months ago, Pleva had the inspired idea of forming an army. She collected family members and friends -- mainly retirees in suburban Boca who wanted to oust the president -- and formed a group she calls the Committee to Defeat Bush. Her followers circulated fliers to gather more members. "That's not easy around here," her husband, Hu, a retired dress manufacturer, says as he aligns chairs in a circle around the couch. "Everywhere's gated. You have to sneak in on your bicycle to put fliers on the cars."
Even so, the Committee to Defeat Bush quickly became as hot in Boca as free tickets to a Babs concert. Its first assembly drew 500 supporters to hear state lawmakers speak at the South County Civic Center. The second assembly, in December, drew 200 more for a debate on touch-screen voting machines headlined by Janet Reno. That kind of attention to a political event is rare in Palm Beach County. "People around here are not interested in politics," Ruth Pleva explains. "You ask someone who their politicians are and they have no clue. Ask them where to go to eat and they can name 25 restaurants. So this was a big feat for us."
But nothing in politics -- particularly Democratic politics -- is simple. "I do not belong to any organized political party," humorist Will Rogers once told an interviewer. "I'm a Democrat." Confirming the abiding wisdom of Rogers' words, those who came together January 12 in Pleva's living room with the shared goal of unseating a perceived White House tyrant have agreed on little since.
From the beginning, with two dozen of Palm Beach County's most active Democrats settling in Pleva's living room, things go badly.
Ellie Whittey, a retired county elections-office worker with flowing blond hair and tight-fitting jeans, kicks it off by announcing a group she's formed called the West Palm Beach Democratic Club. With about a dozen other Democratic clubs already in existence in the county, the reaction in the room is less than enthusiastic. Pipes up a disgruntled Pauline Grande: "I'm not going to join what looks like a splinter group of malcontents of other organizations."
And they're off, with shouted remarks about unity and togetherness mixed with volleys of flinty non sequiturs. Whittey tries unsuccessfully to calm the crowd and then changes the subject. It's been difficult getting other Democratic clubs to join the cause against Bush because it's hard to contact them, she complains.
"We need to e-mail everyone and tell them to join," one man blurts out.
"I've tried this," interrupts Democratic activist Anita Bragin. "Most of the club presidents don't have e-mails, and if they do, they don't pass it on to the members. And there are a lot of people around here who still don't have e-mail, let alone know how to use a computer." This is clearly not the high-tech crowd.
It's only a few minutes into the meeting and the room is already thick with random thoughts about Wesley Clark, gossip found on the Internet about Pat Buchanan, or complaints about the meeting's lack of direction. Pleva remains calm, facing the group in lofty marriage-counseling mode, trying to remain sensitive to the far-ranging ideas sailing around. She answers each with a thoughtful, drawn-out "OK" while nervously consulting the forgotten agenda. Suddenly, she skips ahead to item number four. "I've got this idea," she says. "If we flood newspapers across the country with hundreds of letters from all of us, they have to write about us."
"They will be so inundated they will have to write a story," Whittey agrees. "I mean, this is the site, after all, of the 2000 election. Hanging chads and butterfly ballots and all that."
A long shot, several say dismissively. Pleva refers it to the group's "media committee," which, it turns out, barely exists. Elly Rakowitz, the appointed head of the media committee, announces: "I'm currently the chair, but I'm looking for someone to replace me."
Someone in the back shouts a question: What about throwing the group's support to a designated Democratic candidate?
"We do not support any one candidate," Pleva says firmly.
"Until next summer," Bragin corrects. "Then we'll support the nominee."
"No!" screams Grande. "We support nobody. The only thing we support is getting rid of that doofus."
"All right," Pleva interrupts, as Whittey helps by clanking her rings on a water glass to end the argument. "Let's go on to the next item. I want to introduce Bruce Serell." Pleva points her one-page agenda at a middle-aged man in a tie-less white dress shirt with a cell phone clipped to his belt. He's president of the Florida Grassroots Project, another Boca-based group that aims to oust Bush. The group has a snazzy website, a few dozen members, and plans to hold a "Bush farewell party" in downtown West Palm Beach. Someone notes the event is planned for April.
"OK, but when is Passover?" Pleva asks the crowd.
"April 6," at least a half dozen people shout back.
"We can't hold this in Pesach," one man shouts. "Nobody will be there."
"We can hold things in Pesach," someone else argues. "We've done it before."
"Are you kidding?" Hu Pleva says. "Nobody's going to come during Pesach."
Near the meeting's hour-and-a-half mark, the attention somehow focuses on who should speak at the next assembly. How about the Democratic candidates for U.S. Senate? Jonathan Siegel, a high school senior who's the youngest in the crowd by about 20 years -- and the constant voice of reason among his elders here -- warns of repercussions. "If you invite [Miami-Dade Mayor] Alex Penelas," the 18-year-old warns, "you will have a riot. I guarantee you."
Hu Pleva suggests a headliner. "We need a big name," he says. "We need someone who's a sports hero or a big politician. The candidates for Senate? Who are they? Nobody's going to come for them."
"All right, all right," Whittey interrupts, with a lightning tangent that threatens to unravel the whole thing. "I have a question." She turns to Serell. "Your organization, Florida Grassroots, is it true you are working with Rob Ross?"
Serell looks wounded. "He is our attorney, yes."
"Because if you work with Rob Ross," Whittey says sternly, pointing a finger in Serell's face, "I want nothing to do with you or your organization. He is a Holocaust denier, and I will not bend on this."
The room erupts. Participants quickly split into those who know about the accusations against Ross and those who want to learn the gossip. There's more who have never heard of him, so the young Siegel explains: Ross is a Republican defector who rose through the ranks of the Palm Beach County Democratic Party only to be brought down last year by a controversy over a friendly letter he wrote in 1988 to a historian who thinks the Holocaust was exaggerated. (Ross has adamantly denied any sympathy with the man's position, noting that the letter was related to something else entirely.) "I don't personally have an opinion on whether Ross is anti-Semitic," Siegel says, "but if you ask most Jews, I think you will get an angry reaction when his name is mentioned."
"I am Jewish," Whittey says, "and I will have nothing to do with a group which has a Holocaust denier for a lawyer. I have my principles."
As the meeting veers close to disintegration, Ruth Pleva begs for calm. She picks at the brie as she waits for silence. "So, Ellie, are you saying you don't want to partner with Florida Grassroots because of Rob Ross?"
"That's what I'm saying. I think."
Serell's face is crimson. "I'm kind of annoyed by all of this," he barks. "I am up at 6 a.m. this morning and I come here to see if we can partner our two groups. I don't have to put up with this. I am Jewish too, you know, and I do not associate with anti-Semites or Holocaust deniers or whatever."
As the meeting creeps slowly past the two-and-a-half-hour mark, Serell is barraged with both apologies and disgruntled shouts about anti-Semites.
"I had family die in the Holocaust," one man says.
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"You have to fire him," one retiree demands.
Finally, Pleva can no longer conceal her frustration. "I will have no more of this!" she yells. "I do not want to hear another word about Rob Ross. Not one!... I suggest we talk amongst ourselves for five minutes, and then we can end this meeting."
"Why don't we just end this meeting now?" the teenaged Siegel asks. (Jonathan Siegel. Remember that name. You'll be seeing it on a ballot some day.)
"Good idea," Pleva concedes. "That's the end of this."