LAST WEEK CALIFORNIANS WERE GIVEN A TASTE OF Republican Noh theater when George W. Bush came to stump for Bill Simon, the latest GOP tycoon to try to buy state office. "Stump" is probably too populist a word to describe Bush's effort, which was not to persuade millions of people to vote Republican, but to raise millions of dollars that will be thrown down a black hole marked "TV." Besides Simon's Stone Age conservatism and utter lack of public-service experience, his campaign suffers from a family business scandal and the candidate's own golemlike personality. Still, the unindicted Simon seemed to be enjoying his photo ops with Bush; the president, though, looked about as happy as he would tucking in Yasir Arafat in the Lincoln bedroom.
The ritualized oratory and stylized choreography of Bush's visit -- brittle haikus of praise for Simon but no public appearances with the would-be governor and only rubber-gloved contact with him at fund-raisers -- said as much about the White House's obsessive image manipulation as Simon's hapless campaign. The full stagecraft of presidential pomp was certainly on display Saturday, when Bush and Simon appeared at a Westwood power breakfast. Helicopters hovered overhead, sharpshooters stood on the Armand Hammer Museum, the president's black limousine roared in, followed by the White House staff's white Suburbans; an LAFD ambulance pulled up beside the limos, possibly a sign that Dick Cheney would be on hand.
"I just knew he was going to be here, man, probably washing down breakfast with a shot of bourbon," said Angela, a young woman with streaked hair, who greeted Bush with two signs, reading "Eggs, Bacon & Fraud," and "Got Oil?" She was explaining how she'd learned of the gathering and how, even though she wasn't sure her protest would be noticed, she felt the need to be here. "Hopefully it will get into the media instead of the 'good news' that people are spoon-fed every day," she said. "I don't think people understand the role of oil in Bush's war plans. It's about corporations and money ruining the planet -- I'm getting pissed."
Angela was one of about 300 demonstrators assembled at the intersection of Wilshire and Westwood boulevards, a cross section of dissent representing a left still trying to define itself both in the age of the American imperium and in the wake of 9/11. The protesters ranged from a lonely contingent of anarchists standing in front of the Hammer to a gathering of seniors from Sunset Hall across the street. Veteran labor activists like the AFL-CIO's Dave Sickler were here out of fear that Simon might slip into the governor's mansion if too many Democrats write him off and don't bother voting in November. Scott Grant, a young spokesman for the California Public Interest Research Group (CalPIRG), was here to publicize a renewable-energy bill making its way through the Assembly.
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Many had come to denounce Bush's war plans against Iraq, others demanded disclosure of Simon's tax records -- one man wore a striped prison outfit -- and banners extended from the tone-deaf ("Bush: You Stink of Corporate Crime") to droll ("There's a Terrorist Behind Every Bush"). A few Republicans mingled among the crowd and tried to provoke people. "I'm a Zionist from Brooklyn, New York!" proclaimed perennial candidate-about-town Larry Green (né Melrose Larry Green). There was more. "And I'm a Yankee fan. And I support the death penalty -- 100 percent!"
BREAKFAST WAS SERVED 17 STORIES ABOVE ALL THIS, AT union-busting developer David Murdock's Regency Club, an aerie once lauded for its "diversity" since its membership is open to female and nonwhite tycoons. The demonstration deflated soon after Bush left the building and acting LAPD Chief Martin Pomeroy began shaking his troops' hands. Piles of unused protest signs attested to the demonstration's fairly low turnout, though in the end it would have made no difference to Bush and Simon if a million people had shaken their fists at Murdock Plaza this morning. They, after all, belong to a new plutocracy that is so thoroughly removed from the rhythms of everyday American life -- from its conversations, its flat-tire frustrations and its laughter -- that they seem to require translators whenever they speak with their fellow citizens. (Certainly, looking at the transcript of Bush's rambling Regency Club speech is like reading a cell-phone call from the moon.)
These modern Manchus genuinely cannot comprehend why any sane person would object to, say, the giveaway of California oil leases or the appointment of racist oafs and Christian fanatics to judgeships and other high offices. Such men and women are sincerely flustered and perplexed, then enraged, when one of their diktats to repeal estate taxes or lower drinking-water standards is even questioned by Congress or The New York Times.
In hindsight, Bush's frosty treatment of Simon was too harsh. True, a court panel ruled that the candidate's investment house had defrauded a partner and fined it $78.3 million. But this crime, after all, is the equivalent to an overdue library book compared to the swindles engineered in the corporate suites of Enron, WorldCom and Halliburton. "Bill Simon assures us," Bush recently said, "that when the courts look at this case, he'll be innocent. And I take the man at his word." This might not sound like the heartiest endorsement a president can make, but Bush might find himself repeating words like these many times in the months ahead.