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Elbowing my way into the center of a table, I take a seat next to a guy with a red puffy face who looks like he's about to start his own country in the woods. I direct my attention to the speaker's podium and try to look pissed off. The toastmaster reads off of a piece of paper, taking on the persona of George W. Bush doing a monologue that recaps the events of 2004. His bit draws huge smug laughter from the crowd as a primarily Hispanic waitstaff brings out plates of pancakes. (I haven't decided between the chocolate and the new caramel-apple fruit pocket pancakes.)
"Michael Moore. You big idiot. I made that movie for you, and you still blew it! [Ha-ha-ha] Teresa Heinz Kerry. You big dummy. My first cousin wouldn't have screwed up like that. [Ha-ha-ha] Maybe give up using that stupid hyphenated last name and go back to using Heinz. [Ha-ha-ha]"
A man resembling an evil schoolmaster -- he has a mustache and is wearing a blue sport jacket with an American flag pin -- is brought to the lectern to huge applause. David Sterling is the vice president of the Pacific Legal Foundation. Tonight's Town Hall topic: "America's 21st Century Challenge -- Preserving Individual and Economic Freedoms in the Increasingly Collectivist World."
"I think it's very important what you're doing," he tells the IHOP gathering, then launches into a joke, apparently to show off his conservative "funny" side.
"Eventually an American bomb catches up with Osama bin Laden and propels his fiery soul to the pearly gates," he reads from a piece of paper, gripping the podium. A red-faced, bulbous-stomached man starts shaking his head and convulsing with laughter, apparently having heard the joke before.
"Wait till they get his ass in Abu Ghraib prison," I tell the red-faced man, giving the thumbs up.
The evil schoolmaster continues: "Osama bin Laden screams, 'But this was not what I was promised!' An angel replies, 'I told you there would be 72 Virginians waiting for you.'"
Huge laughs are followed by claps and sighs. I slap the table, shaking my head, repeating, "Seventy-two Virginians!"
Our sojourn into humor is only momentary. The evil schoolmaster's dry demeanor turns drier. He no longer smiles. Neither do the conservative pancake eaters. "PLF is the leading public interest organization of its kind in the country," the schoolmaster says. "PLF has its own approach to some of the problems we have in the country."
"You got that right!"
"America for Americans!" I yell.
The evil schoolmaster offers a definition of the term "collectivist" that links it to liberals, socialists, and leftists; he punctuates each of these terms with a sneer. "Let me give you an example you may appreciate."
The schoolmaster spins a tale about Hillary Clinton, who supposedly told a group of well-heeled Democratic contributors how well off they were with Bush's tax reduction for the rich. According to Sterling, she then remarked, "The tax cuts may have helped you. We're saying for America to get back on track we're probably going to cut that short and not give it to you!"
The crowd gasps.
"'We're going to take things away from you on behalf of the common good,'" Sterling says with disgust. "Well that pretty well tells it."
There is disbelief. Audible grumbling rolls through the crowd. I raise some maple syrup for the cause.
"America for Americans!"
Collectively, this IHOP crowd is angry, and that's strange. Their president is in the White House. The state has a Republican governor. Yet these folks are one bunch of pissed-off pancake-eating conservatives! The world doesn't conform to their rules, which they believe come straight out of the Constitution, and that pisses the hell out of them. I guess.
"Some years ago, collectivist social engineers created a government program called affirmative action," the schoolmaster continues.
There are gasps; heads are shaken; those with folded arms fold them tighter; red faces turn redder. The schoolmaster proudly declares that the PLF is the only entity working the courts to enforce Proposition 209, a law, passed by initiative, that prohibits racial preferences by state and local agencies in admissions, hiring, and contracting.
"Recognizing that the Constitution grants rights to individuals. The Constitution says 'every person'; the Constitution doesn't say 'every black person' or whatever. It says 'every person.'"
"Yup! And no one seems to care if they are illegal or not," grunts a man who looks like the creepy uncle who'd offer candy and insist you bounce on his knee.
"America for Americans!" I cry.
The creepy uncle shoots me a look.
"A case going against the City and County of San Francisco is an uphill battle," Sterling says. "Finally we got an honest judge, a strong, courageous judge who nailed it and saw what the city of San Francisco was doing in granting race-based preferences in public works contracts in San Francisco, and he nailed it."