For a night featuring mostly country artists, the Sean Hannity Freedom Concert attracts a pretty diverse crowd: white people of all stripes. There are some legitimate rednecks in attendance ('Burnin' gas and kickin' ass' reads the inscription on one Confederate-flag-sporting Chevy). However, the vast majority of concertgoers are country-music fans, typical suburban families and military men and women with their dates.
A sizeable number of people roam the venue like seniors with dementia, apparently not sure why they've come. Others have astounding certitude.
I'm on the ground less than 30 seconds before I meet 'Jerry' (not his real name). On the short side and with a cheery demeanor, Jerry might be a schoolteacher or postal clerk. Today, however, he's passing out flyers for a group that's determined to stop 'the coming merger with Mexico and Canada.' Apparently having missed the memo, I ask Jerry when the merger is set to take place.
'Oh, it'll be by 2010, or 2011 at the latest,' he responds flatly. I wonder aloud how a federal government that couldn't get fresh water to downtown New Orleans for three days after Katrina is poised to pull off such a massively unpopular undertaking, especially one that's unconstitutional-in three countries, no less.
'Well, they're getting started over at the CFR [Council on Foreign Relations] and the superhighway connecting Mexico and Canada. The Republicans want it because they want the cheap labor, and the Democrats want it because of all the increased tax revenue.'
I figure that with the war creating a massive deficit and the armed forces failing to meet recruitment goals, this might not be such a bad thing.
I make it another 10 feet before a square-jawed, muscled man in a Minutemen T-shirt hands me a flyer. Since 2005, the Minutemen have been patrolling the Mexican border as self-deputized Border Patrol assistants. Like with the Guardian Angels (who themselves were in attendance for reasons that defy easy explanation), actual law-enforcement professionals seem perpetually annoyed by their presence.
I ask if he's excited to hear Lee Greenwood.
'Eh,' he mutters. 'I wish they had some rock 'n' roll here tonight, but you take what you [can] get.'
Indeed. The Hannity Freedom Concert series has conservative pundit Sean Hannity touring the country with Nashville-based Greenwood-whose 'God Bless the USA,' released during Gulf War I, has become the unofficial theme song for invasions of Middle Eastern countries. A revolving coterie of honky-tonk pop bands headline each show (this night, it's Montgomery Gentry).
Also on hand is former Iran Contra lynchpin and current conservative radio pundit Oliver North, as well as soon-to-be Republican presidential candidate Fred Thompson. With country crooners, a shock jock, a convicted felon and a former TV chief prosecutor, you'd expect this motley coalition of the willing to advocate uncritical support of a foreign policy that's currently boasting a 30-percent approval rate.
Except it doesn't.
The concert's stated cause is the Freedom Alliance, a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing college education for the children of fallen soldiers. As an unassailably worthwhile charity organization, Hannity's managed to nestle an awfully compelling baby amidst a lot of bathwater. That bathwater includes a team of George Bush and Hillary Clinton impersonators (who 'hilariously' and repeatedly confuse Barack Obama and Osama bin Laden), a separate comedy duo that traffics in sub-Hee Haw humor and a presumably taxpayer-funded flyover by two Navy helicopters.
As the Sea Hawks churn overhead, I bump into two East County teenagers. I ask them who they are there to see.
'I don't know, really,' the taller, more pimply one replies. 'Our father won tickets on the radio and gave them to us.'
This would become a recurring theme: people who couldn't quite put their finger on why they were there. The biggest cheers of the evening go to Hannity and Thompson-who, ironically or not, spend the least time talking. A genuinely touching reunion between soldiers in Iraq and their San Diego families-relayed via videoconference-is undermined by massive amounts of radio interference. Greenwood's set is greeted with stunning indifference. I scan the orchestra section for anyone singing along. I find 10 people (out of perhaps 1,000) who look like they're doing something more fun than checking their e-mail.
Amid the mass of detached onlookers I meet Andrea Stone, executive director of the Rescue Task Force. Blonde and cheerful, she energetically explains how her organization collects donations to provide backpacks to injured soldiers at military hospitals like Walter Reed and Balboa Naval. The backpacks contain essentials (clothing, toiletries) and stuff to pass the time (Game Boys, CDs), as well as cell phones and phone cards so the injured troops can keep in touch with their families. As we chat, a gray-haired woman approaches and compliments Andrea on her American-flag lapel pin, complete with LED lights.
'I'll give it to you if you make a donation here tonight,' Andrea replies.
'How much?' Gray Hair asks
Gray Hair settles on 10, dropping the bills in an open backpack. A few minutes later, I see her aimlessly roaming the annex with her patriotic, flashing American flag pinned to her sweatshirt. I think about how Andrea Stone auctioned off her personal belongings for this woman's ten-spot. In that light, it's somewhat surprising when Hannity and North later announce that after 17 years, Freedom Alliance has managed to dole out 'over a million dollars' in scholarship money.
That amounts to a little more than $62,500 per year-about what it costs to send two children per year to a private institution. It also amounts to roughly 0.8 percent of the $125 million, five-year contract Hannity signed with ABC Radio in 2004. Assuming an average ticket price of $30 (after ticket comps are accounted for), it's roughly twice what this one concert grossed.