Photo by Ted Soqui
NEW YORK — I’ve always wondered what Paris was like during the Occupation, and being in Manhattan this week may be the closest I’ll ever come to finding out. The streets are eerily depopulated, the security apparatus is inescapable — cops stand guard both outside and inside my hotel — and the locals often behave as if they belong to some imaginary, whimsical underground. When I joked about the Republican invasion to the bellboy, his obligatory surliness melted and he gave me a Gallic shrug then a sly, complicit smile. Vive la résistance!
Although protesters keep assailing the president with verve and unexpected wit — I’m especially partial to Billionaires for Bush’s mocking chant “Four more wars!” — many New Yorkers view the election with a sense of impending doom tinged with big-city snobbery: Those red-state idiots are going to win again. On Monday evening I gave a talk in SoHo, and afterward, members of the audience kept asking if I thought it was possible that Kerry might win — an astonishing defeatism, considering that polls show the race to be dead even. Talking to liberals here, you encounter the fearful perception that the Democratic campaign has floundered. On the hustings, Kerry has been unable to define what he stands for, spending weeks trapped in a 35-year-old swift boat; out in the larger world, bad news about Iraq and the U.S. economy has been overshadowed by the patriotic swell produced by Olympic gold medals, victories that are always good for the incumbent (which is why Jimmy Carter was so dumb to have pulled the U.S. out of the games when he was running against Reagan). Republican delegates arrived in New York giddy about that L.A. Times poll that showed Bush pulling ahead very slightly in key swing states, and the party now believes it is moving in for the kill. It’s not for nothing that Bush recently boasted to Time, “I’m the guy making history.”
Of course, under the guidance of that hairless Rasputin, Karl Rove, GOP conventions have turned into a media-savvy form of Potemkin Village. Back in 2000, when Dubya wanted to seem a compassionate conservative, the Philadelphia convention offered an endless parade of African-Americans. There were so many black faces onstage and so many white ones in the audience that, depending on your level of cynicism, the whole thing resembled an NBA game or a minstrel show. This year offers a slightly different form of bait and switch. Although the Republican Party is run by radical right-wingers — 85 percent of delegates think the federal government should not do more to protect the environment and worker safety — it’s busy feigning moderation. To soften his image, Bush has begun admitting to some “miscalculations” about Iraq and saying the War on Terror isn’t winnable (an uncharacteristically sensible statement that the Democrats proceeded to attack). The New York Times’ house neocon David Brooks keeps assuring readers that Republican congressmen who reject the theory of evolution are actually less benighted than one might think. And Rove’s flunkies made sure that Monday and Tuesday’s key prime-time speakers were not ideological werewolves like Tom DeLay but men’s men who might appeal to swing voters: Giuliani, John McCain and our own Gubna Schwarzenegger, who, as twinkly-eyed Pat Buchanan noted, is a real star, not just a famous politician.
For all their differences, this prime-time troika has three things in common. All have reputations for being moderate (by GOP standards, anyway). All are mistrusted, if not actively disliked, by the party faithful, who tolerate their pre-eminence on the stage as a purely tactical maneuver. And all three dream of being president — even Ahnold, who yearns for a constitutional amendment that will allow an Austrian Oak to be planted in the White House. To have any hope of fulfilling their ambitions, they know they must demonstrate their loyalty by coming out big for Bush. If they back him and he loses, so much the better. If they don’t back him and he wins, they’re toast.
McCain and Giuliani appeared on Monday (a.k.a. Terror Night), when the convention didn’t just trot out memories of 9/11 but milked them like a herd of prize Holsteins. The Arizona senator is widely admired for his freewheeling maverick style — he made a high-spirited guest host on Saturday Night Live — so it was depressing to watch him throw away his reputation for integrity by publicly praising a president he privately thinks doesn’t have any. (And to think they call John Kerry a flip-flopper.) McCain’s speech may have impressed some pundits — The Boston Herald’s Mike Barnicle said the senator’s endorsement of Bush was a certificate of quality — yet few things are sadder than a man selling his soul to the devil and getting nothing in return. Conservatives will never allow McCain to become the Republican nominee — he has, after all, pilloried the Christian right — and liberals who once admired him will dislike him for behaving just like any other political hack. Of course, by now the left should be accustomed to being let down by the likes of McCain, Bob Dole and Colin Powell, alluring figures who appear to be less partisan and more authentic than their fellow Republicans — until push comes to shove. Then they toe the party line as docilely as the dimmest first-termer from the Texas panhandle. After all, it’s the habit of obedience that made them choose the GOP in the first place.
Although McCain roused Madison Square Garden with his martial rhetoric and attacks on Michael Moore, the crowd was far more stoked by Giuliani, who once had the face of a particularly cruel Renaissance pope but now increasingly resembles Robert Duvall in one of his latter-day, loony-smile comic roles. Like Bush, Rudy was saved by September 11. For two and a half days after the terror attacks, he was a genuine hero and not the divisive jerk he’d been through the rest of his term as mayor. His valiant demeanor made him not only a national icon but a rich man — he parlayed tragedy into the manna of high-priced speeches. If those speaking gigs taught him anything, it’s how to please a crowd. Giuliani had delegates smiling appreciatively at his homey, upbeat anecdote about the Chicago cop who directed traffic in New York after the terror attacks. But he also wowed them with his work as a hatchet man, a task that he, like Dole (or a Medici), has always found to his liking. Indeed, once Rudy got past the inspirational 9/11 stuff and praise for Bush’s “us vs. them” philosophy — perhaps the president’s single worst quality — he served up a lavishly unfair summary of John Kerry’s record on the Iraq war, building to the brilliant gibe: “Maybe this explains John Edwards’ need for two Americas — one where John Kerry can vote for something and another where he can vote against the same thing.”
Giuliani’s lousy but potent speech reminded you that Bush is far from the nastiest guy in the Republican Party — naturally, Tom Brokaw praised Rudy for his “optimism.” Not surprisingly, the New Yorkers I talked to were irked to see their ex-mayor lionize a president who has failed to deliver the recovery money he’d promised them after 9/11 and still gives more anti-terrorism money per capita to Cheyenne, Wyoming, than he does to the Big Apple. But among the gilded commentariat, Giuliani’s speech was apparently a hit. Even as Chris Matthews was asking whether Rudy had delivered the KO punch to Kerry on terrorism — although the speech hadn’t even been broadcast on the big networks — other pundits wondered aloud whether the Democrats had blown it in Boston by not going after Bush. Listening to the praise for how successfully the convention was running, you began to suspect that the media were developing their own sense of inevitability about Bush’s re-election. Consider Tuesday morning’s “Question of the Day” on the MSNBC Web site: “Did Rudy Giuliani’s speech reassure you or move you to support the Bush-Cheney ticket?” The viewer was offered a choice between “Reassure” and “Move to Support” — no negative opinions were allowed.
Nor was dissent treated as anything more than a colorful sideshow, good for splashy tabloid graphics — both the Daily News and the Post had gaudy front-page photos of Sunday’s huge demo — but not to be taken seriously. This became obvious during the big Planned Parenthood march across the Brooklyn Bridge. Although thousands of ordinary people showed up to take a pro-choice stand, CNN chose to interview Kathleen Turner — yes, that Kathleen Turner — who throatily intoned that the rally was “so extraordinary for everyone involved.” Now, I don’t blame the actress for sharing her body heat with her fellow protesters — she was just being a good citizen. Yet CNN’s decision to focus on her helped feed the bogus perception, induced by decades of conservative culture-war palaver, that the left is dominated by the values of a bullying coastal (indeed, Hollywood) elite whose lives bear no resemblance to those of ordinary people (who also, it should be noted, support legal abortion).
Of course, the GOP has show-biz supporters of its own like Vincent Gallo, who wanted to speak at the convention, and Stephen Baldwin, who wandered the convention floor telling anyone who would listen that he was born again. While Republican Rob Long jokingly grumbled in Slate that the stars in his party are merely “fake celebrities,” Monday night boasted a fiery Old Testament speech by actor Ron Silver (last seen as a righteous pornographer in the enjoyable, short-lived TV series Skin), who praised the administration’s War on Terror with the same cocky, know-it-all sanctimony that once made him such an excruciating shill for the Democrats — Mr. Bush, you’re welcome to him. And Tuesday night, the convention not only showcased the man who may have the world’s most famous face (and surely its best-known jaw), he was followed by a burlesque routine by Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie, who wickedly impersonated the president’s twin daughters.
Although Duh Gubna took enormous pains to champion Dubya — comically leading the crowd in a chorus of “Faw maw yee-ahs” — his speech, like everything Ahnold does, was all about promoting Ahnold. He even told a story about meeting a wounded soldier who quoted one of his famous movie lines. Schwarzenegger has always been brilliant at presenting himself as a marketable abstraction — Mr. Universe, The Terminator — and in Madison Square Garden he offered himself as the embodiment of the American Dream. Naturally, the crowd ate it up. While the delegates may not so secretly detest Schwarzenegger’s liberal Republicanism, they were obviously thrilled to have a superstar in their midst (as were media types who should know better, like Matthews). They greeted his appearance with a voluminous whoosh of excitement, wildly cheering his catch phrases (“girlie-men”) and tired movie-title jokes (“the Democrats should’ve called their convention True Lies”) and greeting his paeans to America with chants of “USA! USA! USA!” Watching the Republicans go berserk for a sloganeering movie action hero was an amazing, perhaps unprecedented, pop-culture moment. Outside the Philippines, anyway.
John Powers’ book Sore Winners (and the Rest of Us) in George Bush’s America is available in bookstores. He can be reached at sorewinners.com.