No Place Like Home
Trapped in every direction by the pitfalls of whatever resembles principle, the party had only treacle and excess to promote itself. I didn’t make it to the Welcome Party in St. Petersburg before the convention, but a young delegate from Oklahoma named Jorge told me how it had impressed him.
“It reminded me of The Hunger Games, like we were going to the Capitol.” It was invitation-only, and the bus he was on from Tampa with other delegates passed the armaments paid for by the $50 million that Congress gave each host city for security. About 3,000 out-of-town officers from some sixty different agencies were deployed. ICE was there, TSA, Homeland Security, the National Guard, the Secret Service. They made a kind of bivouac under a highway overpass, where troops coming off duty reclined with energy bars while others began their shifts. Most wore the same beige uniforms. The aim was to create “a perception of overwhelming force,” Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, a Democrat, told ABC. Outside the expansive downtown security zone, a waterfront park, the county center, the police department and a monument to fallen officers were also barricaded. Overhead, helicopters buzzed.
This was Jorge’s first national convention. His bus passed through gates to Tropicana Field, where the party was held. “There was so much food. They had a whole pig, with the head and all, laying there on the table. I thought, Really, you’re doing this in a recession?” People were dressed up, some in the kind of partisan costume familiar to conventiongoers, others in the uniform that would be apparent every day in the halls of the forum: short, tight dresses for the women, teetering on platform shoes; khaki and rolled shirt sleeves for their squishy men; maybe a pair of Stars-and-Stripes trousers on a hipster. A country star commanded the stage with cheerleaders for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in their scanty pirate togs.
For every conventioneer there was a swag bag advertising Busch Gardens, and for every journalist, too. Like provisions for intrepid hunters in the Safari of Fun, it included sunglasses, sunscreen and a battery-operated personal fan that generated no breeze. Here were breath mints, courtesy of railroad giant CSX; a beer can holder, courtesy of the Tampa Bay Storm; No Apology, courtesy of Mitt Romney; a luxury coffee-table magazine called Bay Pop.
“The [Tampa Bay] community is not the flashiest, but the wealth is outrageous,” Rob Elder, president of Elder Automotive, told Bay Pop in a mini-profile wedged between features on rare colored diamonds, equestrian-themed fashion and an auto spread that wondered, “Been dreaming of a crossover [SUV] that goes 200 mph and costs 200K? An all-electric, speedster SUV? A custom-built version that can run you over $300,000? All are on the way.”
It was only a promo giveaway, but symbolically it told a story that in other ways the convention sought to keep under wraps. I had picked up mine a few days later at the Convention Center, where the press was mustered, where fawning reporters listened to whatever Jon Voight wanted to say and looked on as Michael Steele did his cutting-up routine. Google had its own cafe. The energy company CNGnow was offering free water and specialty coffee. It was pleasant there in the glass box, with a waterside view and little areas carpeted in AstroTurf with bright blue picnic tables by cheery tableaux of flowers, trees and butterflies. In other circumstances I might have appreciated it as an hommage to Florida kitsch, but in real life the kitsch has been bulldozed. Tampa’s towers could be in any city, and there were too many ads, too many lies, too many party leaders onstage justifying all because their parents had come to this country with only $10 or had dug in the mines or had started a business with no one’s help, too many delegates mouthing talking points like robots on Obamacare and the need to bite the bullet on entitlements and the shame of throwing Israel “under the bus.”
I was regarding Bay Pop with a couple of working-class delegates in T-shirts, Ron Paul supporters who now call themselves free-thinkers and who were not prepared for their encounter with the Republican Party. They’d thought they were coming to Tampa to hammer out positions, to gather together, as another first-time delegate told me, “to make plans to save the United States.” They were shocked that the convention was scripted. Shocked by the overwhelming presence of corporate money. They looked at the magazine’s cover boy, a smug, square-jawed model under the title “The Young Delegates,” and compared him to people walking the halls. “Plastic people with plastic brains,” they said, and then told me a story about an 8-year-old who’d come to Tampa with his parents to be part of history. The boy was precocious, wearing a Paul button and delighting grown-ups on the convention floor before the proceedings. “And what do you think of Mitt Romney?” somebody asked him, hopefully. “Screw Mitt Romney,” said the child.
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