On the campaign trail: Romney gets his facts wrong

Turns out Jeep isn't moving to China.

There must be pool reporters covering the Romney campaign trail who by November 6 will have the Kid Rock song “Born Free” indelibly burned into their brains. Whenever it plays, for the rest of their lives, they will flinch and remember the campaign-trail – because every time Romney or Ryan appears at an event, it is Born Free that heralds their arrival. Every god-damn time.

It plays again in Defiance, Ohio – just up the road from where I'm staying in Hicksville – when a grinning Mitt Romney strides out to speak to a large and enthusiastic crowd on the high school football field, his hair slightly wind-blown. It was an all-star event; Romney was supported by both Ohio Governor John Kasich and Senator Rob Portman, who had played the role of Barack Obama in Romney's debate preparations.

The audience of around 8,000 was, as usual for Romney, an older, whiter crowd, many who had come in from surrounding counties, Paulding, Williams, Puttnam, Henry, rural farmland areas which are more naturally conservative than the town of Defiance, which has a large United Auto Workers union presence and a huge GM foundry on the edge of town.

Governor Kasich's speech was bullish. “I remember when Ronald Reagan beat Jimmy Carter and restored the American dream. And folks, I've got a feeling that this is that kind of election...” but Romney's address was workaday. “That Obama campaign slogan, 'forward'; well it doesn't feel like moving forward to the 23 million Americans out of a job. I'll tell you what does feels like moving forward: getting a new President!” was followed by massed chanting of “Mitt! Mitt! Mitt! Mitt!” and the re-hashing of Romney's usual stump-speech “five-point plan” to deficit reduction, but – apart from at one point – nothing new to see here; even “you did build that” got an enthusiastic redux.

Local reporter Jack Palmer wasn't too impressed with Romney's performance. “I didn't hear any new stuff,” he tells me. “But he was well-received by the crowd. The atmosphere was pretty good, though – they had some country music singers first.”

One line was new, though, and played especially well for Romney here: “I heard this morning,” he told the crowd, “that Jeep is thinking of moving production to China.”

This would be a huge blow for the President. There is currently an enormous Jeep factory in Toledo, an hour from Defiance, and others in the state and in Michigan, and their survival is a key tenet of Obama's reelection – at a visit to the Toledo plant in June he said that the car “symbolises freedom”.  “I'm not sure about that [Jeep line], says Palmer, skeptically. “I hadn't heard that. You'll have to fact-check that.”

I check it, and unfortunately for Romney it isn't true at all. The line came out-of-context from a Bloomberg interview with a Chrysler executive – in context, he is actually saying that the company is thinking of expanding Jeep into China, not in fact closing and moving plants from the US: good news for American autos, not bad.

To remove all doubt, Chrysler said in a statement that: “Bloomberg recently produced a story that led some to incorrectly believe that all Jeep production could shift to China from North America. That is not true, and Bloomberg quickly amended its story to eliminate any potential inaccurate perception. To be clear, Jeep has no intention of shifting production of its Jeep models out of North America to China.”

Outside the rally, meanwhile, 150-odd Obama supporters and union activists were protesting, including Roger Molnar, a resident of Defiance. He tells me people have come to protest for  wide variety of reasons. “We're for Obama, but there's people with [libertarian candidate] Gary Johnson signs, stop the war with Iran signs, we are the 99 per cenr signs – there are a lot of issues here. The unions have their signs going on.”

Jacob Gallman, a cook at a restaurant in town, is also skeptical of Romney. “Personally, I think some of the stuff he does and says seems like he's almost set up to fail. It's hard to take him seriously.”

Mitt Romney. Photograph: Getty Images

Nicky Woolf is a writer for the Guardian based in the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

Photo: Pablo via Creative Commons
Show Hide image

Is Lithuania still homophobic? My girlfriend and I held hands to find out

The Lonely Planet guide warned that for gay and lesbian travelers, "small displays of public affection can provoke some nasty responses".

It’s midnight somewhere on the greyish outskirts of Vilnius, and my girlfriend has just burst out laughing. Our Uber driver starts laughing too. Nonplussed, I scan the oppressively functional Soviet-era architecture we’re driving past for literally anything funny.

Then I see them. A series of panels above the stairway to a basement bar; photos of topless blonde men with glistening six packs. This is – as is usually the case – either a tribute to the most homoerotic scenes in Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, or something deliberately gay. And 99 out of 100 it’s the latter, this being no exception.

Soho Club is the most out-of-context gay venue I’ve ever seen. It sits on a poorly lit street on the edge of Lithuania’s capital, almost as if it’s been plucked out of the city centre and dumped there.

Given the staunchly Catholic and formerly communist Baltic state’s uneasy relationship with its LGBTQ community, this wouldn’t be particularly surprising.

According to the Lonely Planet guide to the Baltic States for gay and lesbian travelers, "small displays of public affection can provoke some nasty responses".

Homosexuality was only decriminalised here in 1993. And, any legislative victories aside, a 2009 poll found that attitudes amongst the population were much the same as the pre-1993 days. Eight in ten respondents considered homosexuality to be anywhere between a perversion and a disease. 

Such a gay-hostile place probably seems like an odd choice for a romantic getaway with my girlfriend, on my birthday weekend. Then again an itinerary like ours, which includes a visit to the both the Museum of the Victims of Genocide, and the Holocaust exhibition at the Jewish museum, is hardly "gondola ride in Venice" or "Eiffel Tower at sunset". This is a stark, ex-Soviet, mostly-raining introduction to being gay outside of the liberal London bubble. Which is to say: dreamy.

Having said that, Vilnius’s cobbled old town is beautiful and, compared to other more mainstream Eastern European capitals, decidedly less stag night-y. Same-sex couples, it turns out, can be drawn to a city for features other than its queer nightlife. 

On the short walk from Vilnius’s central train station to our Airbnb, we passed a mural of Donald Trump smoking a spliff and giving Vladimir Putin blowback. A definite tribute to the gay kiss between the USSR's Brezhnev and East Germany's Honecker depicted on the Berlin Wall.

It was hard to tell what this said about the area’s attitude towards queers, but it was on the side of a bar that’s blasting out Black Lips and full of Lithuanian hipsters in their twenties. Say what you like about hipsters, they are not known for gay-hate. It was difficult to imagine anyone in there giving much of a shit about our sexuality.

At the Airbnb, we were greeted by one such Lithuanian hipster. She was about 20 and seemed a little nervous speaking to us, even though her English was near fluent.

The flat – an immaculate new build – was decked out in Ikea classics. Like the bar with the homoerotic Trump/Putin mural, anywhere with a Malm just seems to radiate gay-friendliness. It’s both sterile and PC. Like the Lib Dems, or a free sachet of lube.

Our host gave us a brief lesson in how to work the flat, before saying a polite goodbye. We’d just started unpacking when there was a knock on the door. It turned out the host had done a 180.

"One last thing," she said, "Do you need an extra duvet, or are you… sharing the bed?"

OH GOD, I thought. This is it. This is the kind of shit you read about. You never do read about anything good.

"Yeah, we’re sharing," I said, feeling both – I hate to say – embarrassed about being in a same-sex relationship, and embarrassed about being embarrassed about being in a same-sex relationship.

"OK, cool. No questions!" said the host, before disappearing into the afternoon at the speed of sound.

"No questions," I repeated, "Hmm."

Just to be clear, no, this wasn’t exactly a hate crime. I’m also reluctant to judge a 20-year-old from a very religious country for – well – judging us. And anyway, maybe "no questions" meant "no judgment". Who am I to… judge?

We’d been in Lithuania for about an hour before my girlfriend and I decided to really test the water and hold hands in the street. Mostly, we were starting to wonder if we were being xenophobic by assuming Lithuanians were probably homophobic.

This, I suppose, is the point at which bigotry really starts to eat itself. Unfortunately though, almost the moment we held hands, a group of...shaven headed individuals, who wouldn’t look out of place in a modern day pogrom, walked past, staring us down as if we’d stopped there for a spot of mid-street fisting.

I made brief eye contact with one of them as I let go of my girlfriend’s hand as fast as a bottle of water at airport security.

"Oh," I said to her, when – as far as we knew – Vilnius’s only out homophobes were at a safe distance. "Yeah…" she said.

There are parts of the world – Uganda, Russia and, most recently, Chechnya –  where both socially and legislatively speaking, things are actually getting worse for queer people. But, the overarching narrative is "it gets better". Visiting anywhere with less good attitudes towards The Gays than I’m used to feels like a step back in time.

I wonder, in terms of acceptance of, say, two women holding hands, which decade in London is reflected in 2017 Vilnius. The 80s? The 70s? I’ve only been gay in London since 1989. And back then – as far as I know – I wasn’t a particularly dykey baby. 

So began a weekend-long game of political PDA. We walked through the cobbled streets of the old town, admiring baroque churches and wondering if we were allowed to be a couple near them.

Without a strict set of rules, every stranger’s glance is open to interpretation. My interpretation being, "Let’s just not make a scene, OK?", my girlfriend’s interpretation being, "Stop being paranoid and xenophobic. No one cares."

In the evening, as we sat in a busy restaurant eating zeppelins (remarkably dense Lithuanian potato dumplings, not airships) we spotted – lo and behold – what we (homophobically?) thought might be another gay couple.

Two men in their twenties stood waiting for a table. They had professionally shaped eyebrows. One of them had earrings. In Nineties terms, they were gay as fuck. At a dumpling joint in Vilnius, at ten at night, who the hell knows? And, more to the point, why the hell should they care? Well, when your relationship has been reduced – via queer invisibility – to a handholding battle, you’re kind of desperate to find another same-sex couple.

"Are they…" I said.

"They must be," she said.

"Should we…?"

"NO."

I’m not even too sure what I was asking we "should" do (speak to them? Buy them drinks? Demand a gay tour of Vilnius?), or why I was shut down without finishing my sentence. Whatever we should or shouldn’t have done, we didn’t.

But back to Soho Club. The car stops and we leave behind our bewildered and slightly too amused Uber driver. Tentatively, as if approaching an ancient Egyptian tomb by lamplight, we walk down the stairs past the muscle man panels.

The complete silence – not even interrupted by passing traffic – doesn’t exactly say "buzzing" or… "Soho". Inevitably, almost, the bar is closed. In fact, it’s arguably the most closed bar I’ve ever seen. We’ve turned up, ready to party with Lithuania’s finest gays, at a giant lead box. What’s more, we look around us and realise we’ve strayed into Murder Town.

On our way to the nearest bus stop, we pass a life-size fiberglass cow devoid of any explanation, and a lit-up poster that looks startlingly like an ad for dead babies. The streets get wider and desolate-er until we’re at a petrol station, holding hands out of pure fear. On my part at least. If this is Vilnius’s gay scene, I’d like to give it some kudos at least for quite strongly resembling a David Lynch film.

Having somehow not been sawn into pieces and turned into outsider art, we find ourselves back at Vilnius airport the next day. While idly internetting on her phone, my girlfriend notices our Airbnb host has reviewed us as guests.

"Leonore and her friend are very friendly people!" she wrote.

In all fairness, I have shared beds in Airbnbs with friends. And whether or not someone is tiptoeing around my sexuality like a puddle of something that may or may not be wee, it’s always nice to be considered friendly. And to have "friends".

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.

0800 7318496