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War Party 

John Kerry gets his marching orders in New York

Thursday, Sep 2 2004
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Photo by Ted Soqui

As I sat in the Madison Square Garden bleachers and watched John McCain’s opening-night speech to the RNC, I kept longing for Poppy Bush and his great 1992 Houston convention.

Twelve years ago the president sat in his special convention box with Pat Robertson, a firm believer in cosmopolitan devil conspiracies, at his side. There was the never-to-be-forgotten Christian Coalition rally led by Pat Boone, dressed in white-red-and-blue and quoting wildly from Scripture as frenzied devotees and delegates shouted their amens. Later that same day Marilyn Quayle came to the convention floor and mistily reminisced about meeting dear hubby Dan during a college-era rally — in favor of the death penalty.

And who among us who experienced it up close from the media seats will ever forget Pat Buchanan’s prime-time culture-war declaration along with its vow to take back America street by street and block by block. As Buchanan ended his speech, leaving us all a bit breathless, I’ll always remember looking to my side and seeing the momentary wrinkle of fear cross Norman Mailer’s face. As loud booms exploded over our heads and the smell of burned powder tinged the air, it took us a moment to realize that the GOP was merely setting off some in-the-arena fireworks and that we were not, fortunately, the first targets in Buchanan’s just-initiated kulturkampf.

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Now that was what you call a real Republican convention! Whoever put that sucker together makes the careful managers of this week’s neatly canned RNC show look like a gaggle of girlie-men.

The catch, of course, was that just a few months later Old Man Bush, unable to crack 40 percent of the vote, was routed by a tainted governor from a small Southern state.

I don’t know that the whoopin’ wild Houston convention had much to do with the sorry outcome. But the lesson was, nevertheless, learned. And we’ve never had a Republican loony show like that since and likely will not for some time to come.

Which means that the story that comes out of Madison Square Garden is pretty damn slim. What’s left to be anticipated when the Republicans have repeatedly demonstrated their discipline in fashioning a very sharp and simple message and then guaranteeing that it gets endlessly repeated?

For several weeks before the RNC, the media choir had been unanimous. I’ll even admit to some of my own complicity in making the same prediction as everyone else that — in a transparently cosmetic gesture — this fundamentally conservative party would use the convention to showcase its more moderate, even liberal faces. Just about any big-name Republican too moderate to win a national GOP primary, anyone from McCain to Rudy Giuliani to The Governator, would be given great prominence.

But that’s not really what happened. Not that these guys aren’t in fact more liberal than the Republican mean (they are). But the convention planners said the theme of the first night would be “Courage of a Nation.” And that’s exactly what it was — with not even a hint of sleight of hand.

Fishing among the freakish political waters of Hollywood, the Republicans hooked the goofy and pretentious Ron Silver and then released him kicking and flapping before the convention. With his hip near-shoulder-length hair and his overstylized oratory, the meat of his message was, nevertheless, Republican blood-red. The first of the night’s speakers to conveniently conflate the war in Iraq with the war against al Qaeda, Silver declared: “This is a war we did not seek. This is a war to which we had to respond . . . the president is doing exactly the right thing.”

Later that night Silver popped up on MSNBC, lauding Ralph Nader, endorsing national health care, slamming both parties for being on the corporate take, but then re-endorsing Bush because, he said, nothing else mattered if we lost the war against Islamic fundamentalism.

That’s why the McCain we saw this week was not the straight-talking maverick who bucks his own party on issues of campaign finance reform and corporate welfare. Instead it was the fire-breathing, jingoistic, superhawk ex-POW McCain who addressed the convention and passionately argued — in almost so few words — that fighting the Taliban and fighting Saddam were the same. And while McCain genuflected toward bipartisan civility and recognized the “sincerity” of Democrats, his speech was but a gussied-up threat of Us or Them, either Republican leadership of this unspecified, ongoing, multifront and endless war, or some dark chaos under the unsteady rule of his good friend John Kerry.

I got as much of a laugh as anybody when McCain took the opportunity in his speech to bash the silliness of Michael Moore. But, my personal satisfaction aside, it was a real low point for McCain and a sorry disappointment for many who have admired his thoughtfulness and gravitas (especially compared to the incumbent he so passionately endorsed). McCain knows better than to toss that 300-pound chunk of lard into the center of the final phase of a crucial presidential election that has already suffered enough distractions, including Michael Moore. But McCain did it anyway, and there wasn’t an ultraconservative in the house who was discomforted.

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