Hill of Beans Christopher Caldwell
Conventional Wisdom Back in 1996, I covered the Republican convention from the floor in San Diego and the Democratic one (which was held in Chicago) over gin-and-tonics in front of a television set at a Delaware beach house. Result? I remember nothing of the Republican event that doesn't relate to the two extremely narrow articles I was there to write. But I can tell you almost minute-by-minute what happened at the Democratic one-every macarena-ruined moment, from opening night through the Dick Morris toe-sucking scandal, including President Clinton's deft selling of his welfare reform, past the dry-heave-inducing idiocies of Luis Gutierrez, on to the balloon drop.
So my first resolution for this year's Republican convention in Philadelphia was that I'd stay off the floor. Aside from getting dragged out for some reporting during the Colin Powell and Laura Bush speeches, mission accomplished. I did go to South Philly-home of the First Union Center, where all the festivities were held-but spent more time on S. 9th St., as an informal arbiter in the ongoing dispute over whether it's Pat's or Geno's that has the better Philadelphia cheese steak. My verdict: Pat's has the better peppers, Geno's has the better meat and the better cheese fries, and the quart-size birch beers are equally good. (I sampled both places in 30 minutes-what a debauch that was. The hungover colleague I brought with me shook his head and said, "I want to friggin' yiff just lookin' at ya.") Willing to call it a draw, I asked the cab driver who took us back into center city which he preferred. "That's a tough one," he said, pausing as if he'd been asked whether Mill's utilitarianism is a workable ethic under Wittgensteinian verbal indeterminacy. Then he replied, in a strong Philadelphia accent, "If I'm in the mood for a really, really greasy one, I'll go to Pat's. Otherwise Geno's. I guess I like Pat's better." That sold me on Geno's.
Resolution number two was that I'd skip most of the parties. This proved an easier resolution to keep, since I was welcome at so few of them. It was only on Tuesday that I began to regret not having socialized more. That was the evening my colleague Matt Labash returned to the hotel from cocktail hour at the Marriott bar to tell me he'd come this close to getting in a fistfight with Johnny Rotten, who is covering the conventions for some new Internet site.
"Hey," Matt said, sidling up to Rotten at the Marriott bar. "How about if I follow you around when you're at the Democratic convention in Los Angeles? I could do a good article." I could never have said that. It will give you an idea of my age (and my continuing reverence for the Sex Pistols) if I say that I would be less inclined to impose myself on Johnny Rotten than I would be to impose myself on the Archbishop of Philadelphia. But Matt's less reverent than I am, and he's younger. For him, needling Johnny Rotten in a bar means no more than needling, say, Bobby Goldsboro would to me.
"You're interrupting me, mate," Rotten said. "Don't interrupt me when I'm drinking." Matt handed him a card. Rotten looked at it. Then they talked sociably for a few minutes until Rotten seemed to realize he'd been altogether more polite than befitted the bureau chief of inyerfuckinfaceyacunt.com, or whomever he's working for. "I want you to know," Rotten said to Matt, "that I don't give a fucking toss for anyone in the media." At this point, I'd've said sorry, sir, and gone home. But Matt ain't me. Matt said, "Well, gee...John, that would've made me sad...if you'd ever written a decent song in your life." That unleashed an exchange of the fuck-you-no!-fuck-you variety that was quelled only when a mutual friend-svelte, twentysomething, married (but you can't have everything)-of Matt's and mine arrived to divert Johnny's attention to higher things. But not before Matt let go what is surely one of the best put-downs ever unleashed at a proletarian Londoner: "I say...John. Would you mind saying, 'Piss up a rope' in that charming little accent of yours?"
Burning Bush My third resolution was to blow out of town and see Bush's speech in tranquillity, on the tube. I was really looking forward to this, because the Republican convention was venturing into unfamiliar territory. There hadn't been so many blacks on one stage in Philadelphia since Soul Train's heyday in the 1970s. By Wednesday night, all the Republican convention speakers were blurring into one another. It was as if one had spent 72 hours indulging the pro-life lesbian rap-artist (and Vietnam vet) Rabbi Stavros Ahmed Rodr'guez Gustafson O'Reilly, S.J., who slept under a bridge until he got into one of Gov. Bush's drug treatment programs but now owns a billion-dollar Internet startup, who backed McCain in the primaries, who rolled out in his wheelchair to tell us how he'd fled Iran when he was diagnosed with Down's syndrome, but now relied on his Japanese Buddhist faith to fight ageism and unequal access to daycare, and would never forget his roots, which were half-Hawaiian, half-Eskimo.
There were queasy moments, starting with the appalling Monday night speech of Colin Powell. To describe affirmative action as a marginal program that affects only a few thousand people-rather than the value system that spawned political correctness and permeates every corner of human relations in America-was either ignorant or dishonest. Still, as one minority after another tramped onto the stage, one could see the political point. Affirmative action, a purely Democratic program, may be creating electoral monsters for the Democratic Party the way the union movement did. Just as traditionally Democratic UAW workers shifted their party allegiances once the union had secured them houses in the suburbs, traditionally Democratic black corporate vice presidents who've gained their positions through affirmative action might be as keen for a Republican-style tax cut as white corporate vice presidents.
So deep, however, is the black distrust of the GOP that it would take a mammoth commitment to overcome it. Like, say, four nights of nonstop pandering at the party's convention. It's worth it. For decades, Republicans have been picking up about 5 percent of the black vote in presidential elections. If they can pick up 20 percent, the Democrats may not elect another president in your lifetime. That's because, if Democrats lose their unanimous support among blacks, the damage won't stop there. It will create an electoral chain reaction that will deprive them of the large segment of the non-black population that uses "the race question" as a moral barometer. Republicans reckon that there are a lot of whites out there who are fundamentally more sympathetic to the GOP, but who can't bring themselves to vote for a party that blacks shun altogether. According to one Republican I spoke to last week, the model is Nixon's 1972 victory over George McGovern, in which Nixon took a big chunk of the black vote. "When McGovern lost the votes of a quarter of blacks," my friend said, "he lost the votes of all the whites who were concerned about blacks."
So you could see where the Republicans were going politically with their inclusion message, but whether it wound up a triumph or catastrophe depended on whether they were going anyplace philosophically. That's to say the success or failure of the convention-of the campaign-hinged on Bush's speech. Either he would explain honestly to the country what he was doing (which would make the convention look like the laying out of fresh ideas) or he wouldn't (which would make it look like the crassest political pandering).
Let's be clear about what happened: he tied it all together. In the last two decades there have been only three great convention speeches: Ted Kennedy in 1980 ("And the dream shall never die"), Jesse Jackson in 1988 ("Keep hope alive"), and Pat Buchanan in 1992 ("There is a religious war going on in this country"). What these speeches had in common is that they were made by ideological outsiders who were tied down by no responsibilities to either unite their party or win the election. Bush's is the first truly earthshaking speech made by a presidential candidate since Barry Goldwater's in 1964 ("Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice").
Bush may not be too smart, but, boy, is he a gifted politician. He also seemed really honest about what he was doing. The stunning thing about the Soul Train Convention was that there was nothing nudge-nudge-wink-wink about it. The Republicans mean it. I had lunch with Michigan Gov. John Engler on Tuesday and he pulled out a photomontage that the Detroit Free Press had run the previous weekend. It showed 20 or 30 photographs of Bush embracing black children at various inner-city venues. "See?" Engler said, holding up the montage. "They're trying to imply that there's something unsubtle and unspontaneous about these meetings. Sorry, this is a commitment, a pledge. It's meant to be unsubtle and unspontaneous." I think blacks (and other nontraditional Republicans) will buy these appeals, as long as Republicans are up-front about them.
Bush's speech had some other obvious advantages. First, it sealed off several promising lines of attack for Gore. There was the nepotist attack, which President Clinton broached (unsuccessfully) early in the week, saying that Bush would never have been the nominee were he not the son of a president. But this does damage only if one retreats and looks like a disloyal son. Bush has turned it to his advantage. Do I love my dad? Of course I love my dad! Don't you love yours? When the unbeatable-looking Ann Richards tried to use the Daddy's Boy line against Bush in the 1994 governor's race, she hurt herself badly. Unsurprisingly, Texans appreciate candidates who like their parents more than those who repudiate them. Americans do, too. Bush did something even shrewder in last Thursday's speech, describing his father as "the last president of a great generation," thereby laying claim to that generation's virtues as his own.
Another line of attack was that, in a time of prosperity, Bush was reckless, that his tax plans constituted a "risky tax scheme." The Bush camp really thought this "risky" line was hurting them, particularly among women. But it's unlikely Gore will use it again, after this Bush flourish: "If my opponent had been at the moon launch, it would have been a risky rocket scheme. If he had been there when Edison was testing the lightbulb, it would have been a risky anti-candle scheme. And if he had been there when the Internet was invented..." That really brought down the house. Then Bush continued, "He now leads the party of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, but the only thing he has to offer is fear itself." Bush has used Gore's own rhetoric to sever him from his proudest party traditions and made a joke of one of his most effective lines.
When, in September and October, this campaign gets really dirty, don't think Gore's surrogates will neglect to bring up Bush's youthful boozing-or even to spread the rumor that Dubya is back on the sauce. That may have been the most important line of attack Bush closed off. He did it by yoking his excesses to religion, saying he believed in "grace because I've seen it, and peace because I've felt it, and forgiveness because I've needed it." A letter-perfect preemptive strike: now no one can call Bush a dipsomaniac without sounding unholy. (Wish I'd thought of it myself.)
Finally, he extricated Republicans, perhaps permanently, from the abortion thicket, when he said, "I will lead our nation towards a culture that values life: the life of the elderly and sick, the life of the young, and the life of the unborn. Good people can disagree on this issue, but surely we can agree on ways to value life by promoting adoption, parental notification. And when Congress sends me a bill against partial-birth abortion, I will sign it into law." Masterful. Pro-lifers will like it, but look at the passage again and see if there's anything that the average feminist Democrat would repudiate. They, too, claim to "value" life. As for signing a bill on partial-birth abortion, that only puts Bush in line with two-thirds of Americans. A partial-birth ban would still leave America with by far the most wide-open abortion laws of any country on Earth. (In France now, there is a national uproar over proposals to increase the gestation time during which abortions are permitted from 10 weeks to 12.) And notice that Bush didn't say he would push for an all-out abortion ban. He didn't say it because he doesn't want one.
There will be plenty of chances for Bush to drive voters up the wall between now and November. But it's time for Al Gore to get worried.