The Republican National Committee had six weeks to transform the Xcel Center in St. Paul, Minnesota, from a hockey rink and concert venue into an architectural ode to the Republican Party and its nominee, John Sidney McCain III. In that time, construction workers built 30 media suites outfitted with 25 miles of voice, date and coaxial cable; installed 44 “hospitality suites” to keep corporate donors and lobbyists well fed; broke down 3,000 arena seats and loaded up 58 semitrailer trucks full of other suddenly unnecessary equipment reported to include three Zambonis, a basketball court and a subfloor. But what took place at the Xcel Center was a complimentary makeover at Sephora compared to the Jocelyn Wildenstein–worthy reconstructive surgery that was the convention itself.
The first sign that this would be a Republican Convention scrubbed clean of the past eight years of Republican domination in Washington was delivered to media personnel and delegates in a black swag bag (care of Coca-Cola and a corporation obliquely named “Southern Company”). Inside were a pin promoting wind energy, two granola bars, a sample of a new calorie-free sugar, a pack of seeds for a flower called sweet alyssum, a water bottle, a luggage tag, some mints, an umbrella and a box of limited-edition Kraft Macaroni and Cheese with overly adorned elephant-shaped pasta. Now, here’s where it gets good. On the back of said Kraft product was a short history of the Republican Party, drastically more truncated than the convention schedule itself.
“The Republican Party was officially formed in 1854,” it begins, “to oppose the extension of slavery into the U.S. territories. … The Republican Party first captured the presidency in 1860 when Abraham Lincoln was elected with 40 percent of the popular vote against three opponents. … Republican presidents over the years include Ulysses S. Grant, William McKinley, Teddy Roosevelt, Warren G. Harding, Herbert Hoover, Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan and George Bush.”
In other words, George W. Bush, the sitting two-term president who started two wars in as many years costing more than 4,000 American troop deaths, all while cutting the taxes of the obscenely wealthy (a first in American history), is more of an embarrassment to his party than Nixon and as hidden from the public eye as Herbert Hoover.
The presidency of George W. Bush is the latest Republican Party cover-up, but unlike Watergate, this one might actually be successful.
A brief glance inside Xcel was all it took to verify what my box of mac ’n’ cheese suggested. The banners all read “Country First” and “McCain” and “Palin.” As did the 360-degree, full-color LED board, the signs printed for delegates to wave maniacally at television cameras, and all other officially sanctioned GOP paraphernalia. But if there is one piece of flair delegates love and wear in abundance, it’s buttons. Delegates love buttons as much as they apparently love all-you-can-eat buffets and one-size-fits-all sweatshirts. After five days in St. Paul, while Bob Dole pins were surprisingly common — proving either the existence of irony in the GOP base or a leave-no-memorabilia-behind mentality — I did not see a single George W. Bush pin.
Delegates on the floor didn’t want to talk about Bush any more than the prime-time speakers, not one of whom mentioned Bush by name. One man answered a question about the Bush administration’s handling of Katrina by professing his support for offshore drilling, as if his white hard hat with oil-rig decals and vest with printed images of oil rigs didn’t already do all the talking. But finally I discovered the one place Republicans would discuss their president: hotel bars.
I sat with two Latino women from Brooklyn, both longtime McCain supporters, at Jake’s Restaurant in the Bloomington, Minnesota, Courtyard Marriott. The hotel’s top selling point was its proximity to the airport, and the bar’s top selling point was its proximity to the booze. The women believed that Bush was being ignored at the convention not because he had an approval rating of 33 percent, or because the majority of the country now believes the Iraq war was a mistake, or even because a hurricane had just moved across the Gulf Coast like a saw blade almost exactly three years after Bush was caught serving McCain birthday cake on a tarmac while Hurricane Katrina swallowed a major American city whole. No, they believed Bush was being ignored because this convention was about the future, not the past. Then, following Governor Sarah Palin’s speech, one of the women turned to me and said, “I hope Obama’s girls watched that and said, ‘I want to be like that [woman] one day.’”
Erasing the past and focusing on the future is probably the Republicans’ only shot at the White House this year, which makes the Palin pick all the more rational. She doesn’t have a record and the national party thinks it doesn’t have one either. In an interview with Tom Brokaw on Thursday, Republican National Committee Chairman Mike Duncan said the nice thing about electoral politics is that every four years you get to hit “the reset button.”
For this party, the goal is winning elections, not governing. Its nominee is a veteran who used his acceptance speech to elaborate on his prisoner-of-war experience. Yet only a single veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars was given a speaking role, and he’s running for Congress. One other vet got prime-time coverage, but he was far from the lectern. His name is Adam Kokesh and he was in the crowd holding a sign reading, “You Can’t Win an Occupation” on one side and, on the other, “McCain Votes Against Vets,” a reference to McCain’s opposition to a new GI Bill. Kokesh was swiftly escorted out of the hall like a streaker at a Dodgers game.
A reset button in politics is an absurd idea bordering on offensive until you realize just how well it’s working already. The Republicans’ war in Iraq rages on, a gallon of gas in Minnesota costs about as much as a pack of cigarettes, the middle class still bears the heaviest tax burden, unemployment is now above 6 percent, the nation lumbers along without a comprehensive strategy for combating global warming, and the country’s infrastructure is eroding like powdered sugar in the rain. But none of that was relevant because Republicans hit that reset button in St. Paul last week. They scrubbed Bush’s name off every surface, gave us Sarah Palin, and now the national conversation is right where it was in 2000. Once again we are talking about the inexperienced governor who tells a good joke, hasn’t spent much time outside the U.S., blames the media for being elitist and refuses to take questions from the press.