Looking for the ‘Other’ 30 Percent of American Voters at a Concert

by Stuart Rothenberg July 23, 2007 · 12:05 AM EDT

Wish I Didn’t Know Now” — Toby Keith song (1994)

While most people spent Saturday evening reading or watching television at home, chilling out at the movies or partying with friends, Athanasios Genos (yes, that’s his real name) was working.

Marine Cpl. Genos wasn’t dodging bullets on combat duty, though it’s true that he has been in Fallujah, Iraq. Instead he spent his most recent Saturday evening in Bristow, Va., about 35 miles southwest of the nation’s capital, manning a Marines recruiting table at a Toby Keith concert.

Keith, one of the brightest of stars in the world of country music, drew more than 20,000 fans to the Nissan Pavilion, and Genos, a public affairs specialist in the Marines, joined a handful of other Marines posted just inside the venue’s gate as thousands of music fans poured in.

The placement of the Marines’ recruiting tent — which included a pull-up bar for those wanting to test their strength and a few tables on which sign-up sheets sat for those seeking information about joining the Marines — surely tells you something about the crowd.

While I didn’t take a survey of attendees, it was pretty clear that I was surrounded by the “Other America,” the 30 percent of Americans who still say they approve of the job that President Bush is doing.

No, I saw not a single T-shirt supporting the president — or any of the Republican presidential candidates, for that matter. In this political environment, even Bush’s supporters tend to keep quiet, more than a bit disappointed by the war and by his administration’s overall performance. The closest thing I saw to a liberal message at the event was a Ben & Jerry’s “Lick Global Warming Campaign” ad on the giant video screens that flanked the stage.

What was more important, I suspect, is that I didn’t see a single T-shirt that was critical of the president, Vice President Cheney or the war. (I know what you are thinking: Maybe folks at these concerts are too busy wearing T-shirts about getting drunk or with pictures of semi-naked women on them to bother with politics.)

I saw plenty of flags — Confederate and American — in the parking lot as tailgaters, most of whom looked like college kids more interested in partying than making a political statement, warmed up for the event. And when, throughout the show, Keith mentioned his multiple trips to Iraq and Afghanistan, saluted a number of uniformed military in the audience or sang his signature songs “American Soldier” and “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American),” the crowd went nuts.

Yes, many in this audience were members of the “Silent Minority,” the 30 percent of America that doesn’t always agree with Bush but isn’t calling for his political lynching.

But do people, even these people, really stop at the Marines’ recruiting tent during county music concerts? Don’t they know that joining the Marines now means heading to Iraq?

“If people are interested in the Marines, they already know that we are the fighting force. We are here to recruit, and if you sign up, you are going to be defending the USA,” Genos told me in a straightforward way. He went on to estimate that at least 100 or 200 people fill out information sheets at these concerts. And indeed, as I watched for a moment or two, a couple of young men stopped to fill out forms.

Keith’s show ended with a symphony of red, white and blue lights, fireworks and American flags waving on the video screens. The crowd was delirious.

I don’t know if most of those in attendance took a political message from the event, other than the raw patriotism that the entertainer is famous for offering. But I do imagine that some people, particularly those who dismiss country music (both for its lyrics, music and assumed politics), might be surprised to know that Keith has been a registered Democrat for years, according to an October 2004 article in the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

While he voted for Bush and is openly critical of his own party’s liberalism, Keith turned down a request to perform at the 2004 Republican National Convention and, according to a January 2007 article in Newsday, he voted twice for former President Bill Clinton. He also says that he doesn’t support the war and “never did.”

But Keith, who joined with veteran singer Willie Nelson, hardly a conservative icon, in 2002 to record “Beer for My Horses,” has been critical of celebrities who urge their fans to back certain candidates.

One of Keith’s big early hits included the lyrics, “I wish I didn’t know now what I didn’t know then.” While those words referred to his ex’s behavior, for many Americans, they easily could have referred to Bush’s Iraq policy. But for the vast majority of those attending Keith’s concert, patriotism certainly appears to trump policy.