By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
The first night of the “Rapid Response Panel,” the convocation of acid-tongued pundits that held forth each night last week at Arianna Huffington’s Shadow Convention, got off to a rocky start. The pundits‘ job was to comment on what was going on at the Democratic Convention, but instead they were immediately caught up in events happening at their own. Due to a bomb scare, Patriotic Hall had to be evacuated and Gore Vidal, Christopher Hitchens and Jonathan Kozol were forced to kick things off on the back of the AntEye.com truck parked outside the building as riot police moved slowly down Figueroa Street. The 74-year-old Vidal entertained the crowd with some of his favorite Ronald Reagan jokes, but his eyes darted nervously as the riot police crept closer. Seventy-four isn’t the age to tangle with tear gas and truncheons.
Dressed like a disreputable academic in corduroy jacket and jeans, Hitchens didn‘t look nervous at all. He looked like he’d had a few drinks. His eyes were bloodshot, his gut expansive, and his hand trembled as he raised a cigarette to his lips. But he was ready for a fight. A microphone in his hands, a crowd before him and simian riot police within view -- you could tell he just loved this. His voice wafted over the crowd as sonorously as ever. “You‘re on the front lines, you’re counted in,” he commended us. “This year as never before we‘ve seen an election where there was no choice in the choice. Everything was prepackaged, everything was bought, everything was paid for . . . From the first primary all the way through the bogus conventions, the whole thing has been prearranged.”
By the time people were finally allowed back in the building, Vidal had slipped away and Hitchens and Kozol had been joined on stage by comedian Emily Levine, moderator Michael McKean, and Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute, a job position that earned Ornstein some hearty boos. But he soon made the crowd laugh. “My favorite line from the speech so far,” he said, “was when Clinton said, ’My fellow Americans, this is a big erection!‘”
The idea behind the Rapid Response Panel was that it would react to a live telecast of the Democratic Convention being shown on two giant screens. But thanks to the bomb scare, by the time everyone had assembled on stage, Hillary had already finished and Clinton was halfway through his long goodbye. Hitchens, the left’s chief Clinton-loather, visibly seethed as his nemesis flung cliche after cliche at the adoring crowd inside Staples Center and ended his peroration with a line from a cheesy pop song.
At the first opportunity, Hitchens informed us that the new paperback edition of No One Left To Lie To, his book about Clinton, was on sale in the basement with a new appendix detailing the various rape charges against the commander-in-chief. Several times he pronounced himself heartily sick of the president‘s “fat, bloated face” -- the face “of a rapist, a war criminal and a psychopathic liar” -- seemingly unaware that the president went on a diet several years ago and that the camera inside Patriotic Hall had his own increasingly bloated face (pouring with sweat, moreover) in a tight and prolonged close-up. “If you can look in Juanita Broderick’s face and say that the chances of her telling the truth are [no better than] Clinton‘s telling the truth, I don’t know where you‘ve been for the last few years,” he concluded. Some people cheered; others were annoyed. “You’re making the right look good!” someone yelled out shortly after Hitchens had instructed one audience member to “Read the book, asshole” (Hitchens‘ book, that is).
Norm Ornstein took exception to Hitchens’ view of Clinton. He had met Clinton in small settings and liked him a great deal, he said. “Good for you. That‘s nice to hear. I’m personally thrilled to hear that,” Hitchens sneered. But the real point of contention between Hitchens, other panel members and much of the audience was whether the New Democrats were any different from the Republicans, or worth casting a vote for at all. A lot of people in attendance seemed far too worried about Bush appointing right-wing justices to the Supreme Court to risk a vote for Nader. For them, the Democratic Party, bought and paid for though it might be, still represented something.
The same issue came up on Tuesday night when another radical Englishman (okay, Irishman) and fellow Nation columnist, Alexander Cockburn, took part in the Rapid Response Panel discussion along with McKean (moderating again), Al Franken, Paul Krassner, Tommy Smothers, and Matt Cooper of Time. On the screen above the stage was Ted Kennedy, beamed in live from Staples Center, so corpulent he looked as if he was about to explode. “These Kennedy people, they wheel them on year after year. It‘s a fraud from start to finish,” Cockburn said, dismissing the entire clan with a languid wave of his wrist.
Like Hitchens, the blond, bespectacled Cockburn looked every inch the academic, if sober and less scruffy. When McKean introduced the panelists at the start of the evening, it was Cockburn who got by far the largest cheer from the crowd. But once he started speaking, speaker and audience seemed to drift apart. “That’s completely ignorant!” hissed the person sitting next to me when, in a discussion of George Wallace‘s third-party candidacy back in the ’60s, Cockburn defended Wallace‘s commitment to workers. Facing off against the more mainstream (and funnier) Al Franken, Cockburn ridiculed Al Gore’s reputation as an environmentalist and rejected out of hand any notion that eight years of Democratic rule might have had a beneficial effect on lower-class Americans. “If you voted for Clinton in ‘96 to protect yourself from Dole, you got Dole anyway,” he said. Franken looked startled. Evidently, the author of Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot is accustomed to slightly less radical company.