I. Kinder, Gentler, Compassionate
Philadelphia, Wednesday morning — Something’s wrong with our TV sets. What we‘re seeing is the photographic negative of the actual Republican National Convention. During the convention’s first night, all the speakers were black. All the delegates, however, were white. (Well, 89 percent of them. A whopping 4 percent of the delegates were black.)
The distortion doesn‘t stop there. A whole lot of women are speaking at this convention, though 65 percent of the delegates are male. Nothing so sordid as a direct attack on Bill Clinton has yet been leveled, though the veiled attacks are the convention’s biggest applause lines, and Clinton-loathing fills, as W would put it, every willing heart. No child, the people at the podium assure us, will be left behind, though children are relegated to the fine print in W‘s proposed budget. The boys of Normandy, the barking voice of Stormin’ Norman Schwarzkopf and the military heroism of Papa Bush — for that matter, of Papa Dole — are all displayed to confer on W a suitably martial air and conceal the fact that he, like Dick Cheney, wheedled his way out of Vietnam. Above all, the Republicans are projecting themselves as an inclusive, moderate party, even as their platform snarls at gays and W‘s economic plan declares war against the poor.
Consider, for instance, the casting of W as the education candidate, who would leave no child behind. Again and again, we’ve heard that W plans a $5 billion program to teach reading to disadvantaged children. Mrs. W, Laura Bush, in what was quite an effective speech, recalled fondly how W had read Hop on Pop to their twin daughters. She told of her own efforts to teach reading, and of her concern that she hadn‘t done as well as she should have.
Not enough attention has been paid to the way in which W’s campaign echoes that of the Old Man. It‘s not just that W has conferred upon himself, in only slightly altered form, the “education president” mantle that his pop claimed. It’s not only that the title is as spurious as the Old Man‘s, since W’s $5 billion plan to teach reading to disadvantaged kids cannot be enlarged because he is also proposing a $180 billion tax cut over five years for the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans. There‘s a more fundamental resemblance between the two campaigns: Papa George, we should recall, vowed to hew to a conservatism that was “kinder and gentler.” W’s conservatism, by contrast, is “compassionate.” Karl Rove, W‘s strategist, has been widely praised for coming up with a new Republican play book, but the campaign really comes straight out of the Bush Family Haggadah, from which they read the very same story election year after election year. (“We were strangers in Kennebunkport . . . ”)
But W has gone Pop one better. Old George merely vowed to be kinder and gentler to all those other folks (blacks, non-members of Skull and Bones, etc.), while W has had no one but those other folks talking on TV. Only one white male actually addressed the convention on Monday night, House Speaker Dennis Hastert, and, well, from one white guy to another, Denny, you didn’t do us proud. I refer to the claim you made for your fellow Republicans in the current congressional session: “We protected Social Security and Medicare for the first time in 40 years!” Actually, Medicare was only enacted (over Republican opposition) in 1965. A knowledge of history and Denny Hastert are practically synonymous.
At the end of its first two nights, the Republican convention is a mix of tolerance voiced and intolerance unvoiced. A raft of speakers from Texas, along with W‘s national-security-adviser-in-waiting Condaleezza Rice, have all affirmed W’s benign attitude to immigrants. (To his credit, W opposed Proposition 187, and besides, the reason there‘s so much poverty in Texas is that those immigrants sure do work cheap.) No one has heard a peep, by contrast, from the Republicans’ religious fundamentalists and gun nuts, though the party‘s platform commits the GOP to oppose abortion and gay rights in all cases, and a New York Times poll of the delegates shows them evenly split on the idea of mandating trigger locks on handguns so that the children not left behind won’t accidentally shoot themselves.
Already in high spirits from their belief that W will clean Al Gore‘s clock, the Republicans seem tickled pink at their own displays of non-bigotry. On Tuesday night, Arizona Congressman Jim Kolbe, the only openly gay member of the party’s congressional delegation, was actually permitted to make a speech favoring free trade, and the delegates just couldn‘t get over how compassionate they’d become. There were limits to this, of course: Colin Powell‘s call for universal health care for children received just a smattering of applause (after all, the party has killed this idea repeatedly in the House and the Senate), and his impassioned if brief plea for affirmative action met with a stony silence. The moment he moved to the next topic, however, the folks on the convention floor were beaming again. Imagine! We didn’t boo!
In fact, from the moment last year when Ralph Reed, the former executive director of the Christian Coalition, signed on to the Texas governor‘s campaign, it was clear that W could call for collectivization of agriculture without anyone raising an eyebrow. Until election day, the right will make only one demand on W: Just win, baby.
After election day, we’ll talk.
II. Sic ‘Em, Bob!
Fortunately, the Bush campaign is trying to help them through this difficult time. The trick is to have speakers say nothing directly about Clinton, but merely that it is time to restore respect, or honor, or bi-partisan sweetness and light to government. Even Laura Bush was given one such zinger. Since the campaign commenced, she said, she’s frequently seen parents who “hold out pictures of their children, and they say to George, ‘I’m counting on you. I want my son or daughter to respect the president of the United States of America.‘” This line was delivered at around 10:20 on a Monday-night session that had begun at 7:30, and it drew the biggest ovation of the evening. After nearly three hours of making nice, the Republicans were plainly relieved that whoever was running the convention had found a way to let them vent.
But not far from the convention floor, at receptions and soirees across town, the truly unreconciled unburdened themselves. Such was the case at a Sunday-afternoon reception of the Republican Jewish Coalition, a small but hearty right-wing band. The program began with a nice talk from Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, who was elected in 1994 as a conservative true-believer and is leading in his re-election race this year chiefly because he’s morphed into a moderate. Like everyone on message in Philly, a Santorum hailed W‘s “message of compassionate conservatism” and his “reaching out” to all races, ethnicities, you know the drill. Then the host introduced a ghost — the personification of everything that W was trying to distance himself from. Newt Gingrich stepped up to the podium.
Freed from the burdens of public office, Newt has picked up one swell tan, or maybe he’s just perpetually flushed. Wearing a brilliant blue blazer and a yachtsman‘s white trousers, with a shock of white hair perched atop a beet-red face, he looked like a rather menacing Pillsbury DoughBoy dressed as the American flag.
After the most perfunctory of prefaces, he began to speak quickly, urgently. And for the first time all weekend, the guests heard a real conservative. The word “compassion” did not escape his lips; the very concept seemed alien to him. Without a single reference to George W. Bush, he began to talk about the “terribly dangerous” deeds that Bill Clinton had committed at Camp David. Clinton was wrong to say in an interview after the conference that he was considering moving the American embassy to West Jerusalem. Why? [Because moving the embassy to the declared capital of Israel “shouldn’t have been raised as a threat to Arafat.” And there was another reason, “even more profound”: Clinton should have said this at the beginning, not the end, of the negotiations.]
When you consider that the (politically) conservative wing of American Judaism has waited for decades for an American president to make this statement, the fact that Clinton made it at the wrong time for the wrong reason might not have loomed so large — except that it illustrated Clinton‘s fecklessness and lack of principle. Newt then zeroed in on the North Korean threat to every hearth and home, and the criminality of the Clinton administration in not having already deployed an anti-missile system to counter that country’s nuclear arsenal. He concluded with the thought that we were all in Philadelphia, where a constitutional congress had met to “create a constitution of stunning brilliance,” and that America was still an experiment that could either mark the “victory of human freedom,” or be “just a moment between eras of barbarism” if the Republicans didn‘t prevail this November, to which end the worthies in the room could surely write big checks.
Whew! Here was the real thing — a Republican who could only speak in superlative or apocalyptic tones, who still clung to a Manichaean view of the world in which the barbarians and the Koreans and the appeasers and the Democrats and Bill Clinton are all the enemy. Nostalgia swept the room.
But the warm feelings were as nothing to those that a hearty band of impeachment die-hards and Clinton conspiracy buffs experienced the following afternoon in a downtown hotel. The occasion was a reception honoring Indiana Congressman Dan Burton, who has used his chairmanship of the Governmental Operations Committee to investigate the Vince Foster suicide and the administration’s complicity with Chinese spies, and to continue looking into Travelgate though the special prosecutor had already moved on to other things. The co-honoree was Georgia‘s Bob Barr, the first House member to introduce an impeachment resolution, way back before the Monica Lewinsky scandal — a House prosecutor so unhinged that Henry Hyde assigned him to go over the briefs for punctuation. Co-hosts David Bossie, a onetime Burton “investigator” whom Burton had to let go when the quality of his (Bossie’s) evidence was called into question, and right-wing author Floyd Brown presented each solon with the “Citizens‘ Hero Service Above Self Award.” Phyllis Schlafly was there, and former G-Man Gary Aldrich, who’d uncovered some of the most erroneous information on Clinton during the past 8 years. Henry Hyde, the Emperor Penguin of the Judiciary Committee, waddled slowly in, surveyed the roomful of lunatics, and waddled right back out.
Floyd Brown took to the podium, his mission to dispel any mistaken notion that the new, Bushified Republican Party didn‘t want them anywhere closer than three light years from the convention. “At this convention,” Brown began, “you’ll hear very little criticism of Bill Clinton. That‘s because that criticism has already been made, and it’s already sunk into the American people. Today, we honor two heroes who already accomplished” what the Republican nominee now didn‘t need to undertake. Bossie then added that “The conservative movement needed leaders like Dan Burton, Bob Barr and Jim Rogan.” Burton, he added affectionately, “never backs down, whether the fight is within his own party or outside it.”
Burton stepped forward to receive his plaque, and told his admirers why it was important for Bush to win and for the GOP to hold on to Congress. He began with some historic perspective: “The last time we held the White House and both houses of Congress was 1954, and ever since then we’ve seen the welfare state expand and people‘s lives change for the worse.” Then he got to the real reason a Republican victory is imperative: With Bush in the White House and he himself still chairing the committee, the pursuit of the Clintons need not — perhaps, need never — end. “If you want us to get to the bottom of these crimes and bring these people to justice,” he concluded, “allow me to continue as chairman, and don’t let Henry Waxman [the committee‘s ranking Democrat] take my job!”
III. Mild, then wild, in the streets
Like the Republicans, the protesters here in Philadelphia are mainly staying on message, but their message is very diffuse.
At one level, they are protesting against rising inequality, the persistence of poverty, the death penalty, the corporate-financial domination of the planet, and, as in Seattle, the commodification of fucking everything. But at another level, the message was a good deal more specific. It was handed to me by a college-age demonstrator, one of a number shouting support to friends, then being arrested for blocking an intersection. “We apologize for the inconvenience,” this unsigned manifesto began, “and know that this unexpected delay in your afternoon might appear as a malicious attack on the city and the Republicans. We need to convince you this is FAR from the truth.”
While corporations can spend millions for advertising, the document continued, “We have our bodies, a $20 budget at Home Depot and some moral convictions” — chiefly, that “too much is controlled by too few.” This odd broadside concluded by proclaiming, “We speak in this forum because it is the only one you have put at our disposal. We hope it is not wasted.”
The demonstrators, while creative, were relatively few in number: Roughly 5,000 people participated in a mainstream, permitted march and rally on Sunday; roughly 2,000 in Monday’s welfare-rights and anti-poverty demonstration; and perhaps 2,000 in Tuesday‘s guerrilla street-corner sit-downs.
As of Wednesday morning, moreover, the cops clearly outnumber the protesters; they have been extremely tactically adept and, by the standards of police, relatively nonviolent. On Sunday and Monday, the police fell back to let unpermitted demonstrations proceed to their peaceable conclusions. Tuesday, when protestors went in big time for direct-action civil disobedience, was more confrontational on both sides, but no tear gas has been fired off anywhere in the city.
As in Seattle, the majority of demonstrators are middle-class, college-age kids, some clearly older, some still in high school. The spirit of Teamsters and Turtles isn’t dead yet: On Monday, there were kids demonstrating in Justice for Janitors T-shirts, lots of kids who said they‘d been active in campus anti-sweatshop campaigns, 30 high school students who belonged to the Young Philadelphia Friends — all of whom cheered as a Teamsters Union truck rolled by, horn tooting loudly. Their subversive slogan of choice seemed to be “Hey, heyHo, ho Poverty has gotta go!”
The street theater was exceptionally good, particularly a group called “Billionaires for Bush (and Gore),” whose slogan was “Because inequality isn’t rising fast enough.” Decked out in top hats, tuxes and gowns, they performed period dances, they sang, they chanted (“Keep our profits healthyWelfare for the wealthy!”). When the larger group of demonstrators then moved down Broad Street, mothers and kids in strollers in the lead, the police decided to ignore the fact that this was an unpermitted march and, consulting constantly with the protesters‘ attorney, fell back, then, finally, escorted the marchers nearly all the way to the convention site.
Tuesday evolved into more of a running battle. Teams of kids roamed the city, sitting down and blocking key intersections, in many instances chaining themselves together. Police blocked them off on all sides so the sit-downs couldn’t expand. At the downtown intersection of Broad and Locust streets, police arrested the 30 protesters who refused to clear the intersection; these evolved into by-the-book civil-disobedience arrests, the cops escorting the kids who were willing to walk, dragging those who weren‘t.
Somehow, a large electric sign with constantly changing messages abruptly appeared on the steel beams of a high-rise under construction on the corner. Slightly off-kilter slogans — for instance, “It is easy to get millions on every continent to pledge allegiance to eating and rising inequality” — appeared one after another as the arrests proceeded.
As Tuesday afternoon wore on, groups of kids sat down at more and more intersections, cops surrounded and arrested them, frustration and anger grew on both sides. Protesters smashed the windows of police cars and overturned dumpsters; the cops began to use their nightsticks. With dusk falling, cops and kids both converged on City Hall. Protesters in goats’ heads danced; cops advanced on horseback to force some demonstrators to retreat on one side of a large statue, some on the other, splitting the demonstration into two, more manageable groups. At which point, at the southwest corner of City Hall, several kids biked forward and, jumping off, slid their bikes at the horses‘ hooves, causing the horses to stumble and the officers to lose their balance. (Not something I’d recommend D2K do in L.A. unless they‘re willing to go up against PETA.)
After several days of protests, it begins to look as if the actions of the new movement that burst forth in Seattle are yielding diminishing returns. Thus far, the Philadelphia demonstrations are smaller than the A-16 demos in Washington, which were smaller than Seattle’s; they‘ve received less press than A-16, which received less press than Seattle’s.
The movement, moreover, is unsure of its own objectives and themes. Seattle had one tangible target (the WTO), one central message (financial and corporate globalism is undermining living standards and democracy), one achievable goal (shutting down the meeting). R2K and D2K have as their targets the conventions, but they have no clear, achievable goal: They don‘t aim to shut down the conventions, merely to disrupt enough of the normal flow of things within the host city to win attention for their causes. In Philadelphia so far, they’ve disrupted traffic, but they‘ve made no serious impact on delegates or the money men and lobbyists who are here to check up on their investments in various elected officials. (While the demonstrations were underway at City Hall, directly across the street at the Ritz-Carlton, Bush’s Team 100 — his biggest donors and fund-raisers — were going about their business largely oblivious of the commotion; the loudest sound in the lobby was a string quartet.)
As was also not the case in Seattle, this time around the protesters are demonstrating for a multiplicity of causes; in Los Angeles, 23 of them. Frederick the Great once remarked that to defend every place is to defend no place, and by the same token, 23 causes are the functional equivalent of none.
In short, this new movement against hyper-capitalism is already in a rut. Its goal cannot simply be to show up at every large symbolic conclave of capital to block the streets. The power of the powerful today is not impeded by slowing street traffic. The means of protest have only the vaguest connection to the end.
Finally, nothing can discredit the movement more than acts of violence. The perpetrators‘ indifference to the movement’s political prospects and moral standing is equaled only by George W.‘s indifference to all the outrages that the demonstrators, quite rightly, protest.