It wasn’t until the final night of the Republican Convention that I realized George W. Bush has no white friends.
Oh, I knew that most of those he had designated to speak for him, both from the podium and the floor of the convention, were African-American or Latino. But last night, when the convention’s bio-pic was aired, just before W. himself appeared – well! It turns out that all his closest friends, the people who can best attest to his character, are minorities. It’s just Dad and Bar, Laura and the twins, all those other Bush boys, and black after Latino after black after Latino. Apparently, every black and Latino in Texas falls into one of two categories: either the Gov is your buddy, or he executes you.
In a sense, the Republican Convention just concluded is the single most successful act of political imposture I can recall. The party that has been blocking passage of a patients’ bill-of-rights, a higher minimum wage, and a prescription drug benefit, the party that wants to privatize Social Security and reward the rich with nearly a half-trillion dollars in tax cuts over the next five years, is really the party of Martin Luther King Jr., and Cesar Chavez. (At the Hispanics-for-Bush rally on Wednesday, W. was actually likened to the great farm-worker leader.) I’ve seen nothing in contemporary politics quite so brazen. Or brilliant.
Bush’s remodeling of the Republican message is being equated to Bill Clinton’s successful campaign to nudge the Democrats from center-left to just plain center, but it’s really something quite different. Clinton genuinely is the centrist he said he’d be. W., on the other hand, may himself believe he’ll turn the GOP into a well-dressed version of the Catholic Worker, but virtually every plank of his platform will only increase the inequality that is the hallmark of our time.
That said, W.’s acceptance speech was nothing short of brilliant. Perhaps its greatest achievement was to demonstrate that W. could still be W. and at the same time – given a first-class speech writer and extensive rehearsal – a serious fella. But it accomplished a good deal more than that. It not only allayed anxieties as to whether he could get through a speech with an air of presidentiality. It also positioned his candidacy to appeal to the moderate women voters whose support Al Gore desperately needs. And politically, it painted Gore into a corner.
The Republican ploy, apparent for months but given its fullest expression in W.’s speech, is to warn voters that the somewhat slimy Gore will just be sliming some more when he attacks W.’s plan for Social Security (“This is their last, parting ploy,” W. said, “and don’t believe a word of it”), or his record in Texas. Gore, of course, absolutely has to go after W.’s Social Security fix, inasmuch as it would eventually destroy the system altogether. Indeed, the Republicans are certain that Gore will come after them chiefly on this issue, because they themselves understand that by allowing workers to redirect some of their payroll tax to their own investments, a huge shortfall will be opened up in the benefits due Social Security recipients. Economist Martin Feldstein, a Reagan-Bush economic consigliere, has authored a defense of W.’s plan that acknowledges this shortfall.
W. artfully sounded another theme that will be a subtext of his campaign. Gore, he said, would have viewed the moon launch as “a risky rocket scheme,” would have told Edison that the light bulb was “a risky anti-candle scheme.” The only thing Gore has to offer, he concluded “was fear itself.” The image, of course, is not only of Gore the calculator but, worse, Gore the wimp.
AT ITS MOST DAZZLING, the speech fused liberal and conservative rhetoric in a way we’ve never seen, far beyond anything Bill Clinton has done. It was filled with echoes of Roosevelt and King, citing as examples of America’s can-do spirit both the boys who stormed Normandy and the civil rights workers who vowed, “We shall overcome.” W. quoted Ronald Reagan’s mightiest line – “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down that wall!” — and later, after noting the barriers between races and classes that still persist in the nation, said, “My fellow Americans, we must tear down that wall!” This one line epitomizes the speech; indeed, epitomizes Bushism: invoking Ronald Reagan while demanding greater racial tolerance and economic opportunity.
There are many ways to yoke opposites together. In this instance, it is done through fraud. W. assured listeners, for instance, that, “We are learning to protect the natural world around us,” but his record as governor is one that invariably has favored the imperatives of business over those of the environment. “Corporations are responsible to treat their workers fairly and leave the air and waters clean,” he continued, but Texas is a state where the laws enable corporations to thwart almost totally any attempts by their workers to unionize; the rate of unionization in Texas is 48th among the states. W. opposes any raise in the minimum wage, despite his love for the poor. Still, that sentence is not literally inaccurate: It is the corporations’ responsibility to care for their workers and the environment, and if they don’t, well, that’s just too bad. Nowhere during the convention was the spirit of Teddy Roosevelt, who first instilled the idea of regulating business in the nation’s consciousness, more flouted than here.
Bush also vowed that his administration would “give taxpayers new incentives to donate to charity,” but he also called for eliminating the death tax and reducing the maximum income tax rate from 39 to 33 percent, each of which will significantly reduce the charitible tax-deductible donations from the rich. These were promises, I might add, which received huge ovations from the crowd.
THE OVATIONS, BY THE WAY, weren’t the half of it. As W. spoke, the spectators in the boxes and the good seats – that is, some of America’s wealthiest investors and an entire army of corporate lobbyists – joined in the cheers. The feeling in the arena on Thursday night was much the same as that which filled Madison Square Garden on the night that Bill Clinton accepted his presidential nomination in 1992. The elation was that of impending victory, of an end to the party’s exile from power. That is why corporate lobbyists could bring themselves to cheer the references to Martin Luther King Jr.
A couple of hours after the speech, I found myself in the lobby bar of the Ritz-Carlton, the hotel that had been home for a week to Bush’s biggest donors and fund-raisers. The scene was all cognac and cigars, opulence and glee, the sense of impending power and increasing wealth. A four-piece ensemble was playing some Gershwin tunes. I told them I’d pay them five bucks to play “We’re in the Money,” but they stuck instead to Gershwin.