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The McCain Fizzle

The world is your playground/And you want to win.

So sang the frontman for a little-known and unimpressive rock band named Dexter Freebish at the opening night of the GOP convention. Was he sending a subtle message? Nah, he looked much too happy providing a generic backbeat for delegates who moments earlier had cheered a film tribute to Gerald Ford (it was a short film). And conventions are not the place for subtle messages.

Ask John McCain. In 2000, he was the victim of one of the dirtiest assaults in modern politics. Bush-backers circulated vile rumors about the man, and the Bush campaign refused to condemn this hit job. George W. Bush campaigned with the leader of a marginal veterans outfit who falsely accused McCain of betraying veterans, and the Bush administration would later reward this scoundrel with a job. Yet McCain played the loyal soldier at the 2000 convention, where he delivered a weird and robotic speech in which he endorsed Bush and did little to promote the reform-minded message of his own campaign.

Four years later, McCain, the former Navy pilot and POW, again agreed to fly wing for the fellow who skipped out of his Air National Guard service. For weeks, McCain has been stumping with Bush (even while he has defended Kerry's Vietnam record), and some have asked, why is he cheek-to-jowl with Bush? Not too long ago McCain seemed to entertain--if only for a moment--the notion of running as John Kerry's second. And how could he not bear a grudge against Bush for 2000? When I asked a Republican strategist close to McCain why McCain finally took a seat on the Bush Express, he replied. "He's a Republican." Does he want to be veep, should Dick Cheney take a powder? "He's a Republican," I was told. Is he positioning himself for a run in 2008, when he will be 72 years old? "He's a Republican." Does he want to be Secretary of Defense after Bush throws Donald Rumsfeld overboard? "He's a Republican."

Hey, maybe the reason is that he's a Republican. Washington is a binary culture. You either are a D or a R. And if you're an R you are expected to answer the call when it comes. So there was McCain, the first prominent speaker of the 2004 Republican convention, and this much-ballyhooed gig ended a flop.

McCain may be BMOC in Washington. But he hardly received a hero's welcome from the less-than-capacity crowd at Madison Square Garden. (Reminder to McCain fans, myself included: McCain was rejected by his party in 2000.) When McCain took the stage, the big-screen television showed Cheney clapping rather unenthusiastically. And McCain's speech did little to rouse the delegates.

Keeping with the skip-the-nuances M.O. of most conventions, McCain delivered a set of obvious nostrums, as he supported Bush's prosecution of the so-called war on terrorism and defended the war in Iraq: right makes might, love is stronger than hate. His rhetoric hardly soared: "But we must fight. We must." McCain issued a heartfelt call for reviving the national unity that appeared to exist in the days after the September 11 attacks: "We were not Democrats or Republican, liberal or conservative. We were not two countries. We're Americans." He noted that Democrats, like Republicans, are committed to winning the war against terrorism. "I don't doubt their sincerity." He praised Bush, though his actual endorsement had an odd ring:

"While this war has many components, we can't make victory on the battlefield harder to achieve so that our diplomacy is easier to conduct. That is not just an expression of our strength. It's a measure of our wisdom. That's why I commend to my country the reelection of President Bush, and the steady, experienced, public-spirited man who serves as our vice president, Dick Cheney."

I commend the reelection? Were we in the House of Lords? This was not a kick-ass call for Americans to swing behind the commander-in-chief. The crowd did respond with shouts of "four more years." But the delegates were not entranced by McCain's can't-we-get-along plea. What popped their cork, though, was a swipe McCain took at filmmaker Michael Moore (who was in the hall, as an accredited columnist for USA Today). Defending the war in Iraq, McCain said,

"Our choice wasn't between a benign status quo and the bloodshed of war. It was between war and graver threat. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise. Not our critics abroad. Not our political opponents. And certainly not a disingenuous filmmaker who--"

Now the delegates went wild. It was the first signs of life in the audience. When the jeers died down, McCain continued:

"--who would have us believe Saddam's Iraq was an oasis of peace when in fact it was a place of indescribable cruelty, torture chambers, mass graves, and prisons that destroyed the lives of the small children held inside their walls."

McCain, a war hero, fretting over Michael Moore? He was only elevating Moore's status. It was red meat, but McCain looked smaller for hurling it to the delegates. He then returned to his pitch for unity:

"We have nothing to fear from each other. We are arguing over the means to better secure our freedom, and promote the general welfare. But it should remain an argument among friends who share an unshaken belief in our great cause, and in the goodness of each other. We are Americans first, Americans last, Americans always....We're Americans, and we'll never surrender."

McCain then left the stage in what seemed record-time. He had failed to sway the crowd, for soon after the delegates were roaring with delight when Rudy Giuliani spoke and sarcastically derided John Kerry for being a flip-flopper. This was an all-out attack on Kerry's sincerity. Giuliani, like McCain, voiced a yearning for the good ol' post-9/11 days when Americans came together, when Chicago cops traveled to New York to help out, when a fan at a Red Sox-Yankees game held up a sign that proclaimed, "Boston Loves New York," when Republicans stood hand in hand with Democrats. But Giuliani gleefully bashed Kerry as a man without principles. That's not the way to foment unity. (How Republicans can assail Kerry for being a knee-jerk liberal and, at the same time, accuse him of being nothing but a finger-in-the-wind, ever-shifting pol remains an impressive acrobatic feat.)

Guess who went over better with the Repubs? Though Giuliani speech was much too long--delegates started streaming out before it was done--the GOPers cheered him on much more than McCain. It appears the Republicans enjoy calls for unity when the are coupled with in-your-face attacks. (Which probably could be said of Democratic partisans as well.) McCain was upstaged by Guiliani. His speech--skipped by the broadcast networks--barely registered. Yet the Bush campaign has gotten what it wanted: McCain's submission. He has become a prop of the Bush campaign. Given McCain's genuine streak of independence--on campaign reform, on global warming, on tax cuts--that is a sad development. But that's the price this good soldier pays for being a Republican.

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Read about my adventures in partying with conservatives by clicking here. And see my report on the problem shared by gay GOPers and fundamentalist Republicans.

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When you're done reading this article, check out David Corn's WEBLOG at www.davidcorn.com. Read back entries on the Swift vets and other matters.

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DON'T FORGET ABOUT DAVID CORN'S BOOK, The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception (Crown Publishers). A NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER! An UPDATED and EXPANDED EDITION is NOW AVAILABLE in PAPERBACK. The Washington Post says, "This is a fierce polemic, but it is based on an immense amount of research....[I]t does present a serious case for the president's partisans to answer....Readers can hardly avoid drawing...troubling conclusions from Corn's painstaking indictment." The Los Angeles Times says, "David Corn's The Lies of George W. Bush is as hard-hitting an attack as has been leveled against the current president. He compares what Bush said with the known facts of a given situation and ends up making a persuasive case." The Library Journal says, "Corn chronicles to devastating effect the lies, falsehoods, and misrepresentations....Corn has painstakingly unearthed a bill of particulars against the president that is as damaging as it is thorough." And GEORGE W. BUSH SAYS, "I'd like to tell you I've read [ The Lies of George W. Bush], but that'd be a lie."

For more information and a sample, go to www.davidcorn.com.

RNC Has Extreme Makeover

Remember the incessant media punditry during the Democratic National Convention--particularly pervasive on Fox and CNN--which echoed GOP claims that what viewers were seeing wasn't the true face of the party? (As Paul Krugman put it in response: "Apparently all those admirals, generals and decorated veterans were ringers.")

Well, it's going to be a lot easier to make the case that the GOP has had an extreme makeover when the party sends out its array of sort-of-moderate, pro-choice speakers while keeping neanderthals like Tom DeLay, Rick Santorum and Sam Brownback under wraps. But maybe it's only fair that GOP moderates dominate the prime slots at the convention. After all, if Bush is elected in November they will not be seen or heard from again for four more years.

Bush's Flip-Flop

Now that the damage has been done to Kerry's campaign by the Swift Boat Veterans, Bush is trying to play the good guy. After the demonstrably false charges against Kerry has made news for weeks--abetted by cable news shows which have effectively provided free campaign advertising for his attackers--Bush now wants to drop the debate over their respective wartime service. See the story buried on page A23 in the August 28 Los Angeles Times. (Unfortunately the paper's website makes it impossible to link to its articles.)

Bush's flip-flop came shortly after a video resurfaced on the Internet showing former Speaker of the Texas House Ben Barnes describing--and apologizing for--the sleazy way in which he personally pulled strings to get Bush into the National Guard.

On the video, Barnes states: "My name's Ben Barnes. I was Speaker of the Texas House when George W. Bush went into the National Guard. He got preferential treatment. I know. I gave it to him. His family sent a representative to my office and asked me to move their son up on the waiting list. And I did. It was wrong. He was jumped over hundreds of others in line. Some of them went off to Vietnam and died. I made a mistake supporting that war. And as other, less-privileged kids were going off to be killed, I helped the son of a congressman avoid combat. I wish I had not. But I think it's time people know. And it's time for George W. Bush to stop attacking the people who did serve."

I don't think the debate about Bush's service should be dropped. Why? Because this posturing flip-flopper of a President continues to needlessly send American troops to their deaths while campaigning as a resolute war president. Just watch the convention script this week.

We also still need answers to the unresolved questions surrounding Bush's stint in the Texas National Guard from 1968 to 1973. Specifically, what explains the gap in Bush's Guard service between April 1972 and September 1973, a 17-month period when commanders in Texas and Alabama say they never saw him report for duty and records show no pay was issued though Bush was allegedly on duty in Alabama.

The White House has released hundreds of documents--after Bush said in a TV interview in February that he would make all his military records available. But the files released so far haven't answered those questions, and some documents have yet to be made public. And since February, the White House spin-machine has banned all Guard and military commanders outside the Pentagon from commenting on Bush's military record. At least a half-dozen news organizations have filed requests for Bush's files under the Freedom of Information Act, but judging from this White House's systematic clampdown on information--including blocking the scheduled release of presidential papers from Bush I's period--it seems unlikely that the relevant documents will see the light of day--at least until after the election.

A Tale of Two GOPs

From the hard right to the mushy right--within minutes you can experience both in New York, as each extreme fights for a piece of a tent that's not so big. While religious right fanatics confronted anti-Bush demonstrators on the city's avenues, GOPers pushing for gay rights sipped cocktails at a lovely reception off Bryant Park. In language, in look, in priorities, the two bands had little in common. But both are disappointed by Bush. And Bush probably has each in his pocket.

As hundreds of thousands of progressives marched past an empty Madison Square Garden on Sunday, a hundred or so counter-protesters screamed at them: "Kerry loves communists, Kerry loves terrorists." And they held up signs decrying abortion. Leading this brigade was Randall Terry, the longtime abortion foe famous for having led the so-called Operation Rescue years ago (and for being tossed out of his church for infidelity). An unabashed Christian fundamentalist who used to advocate stoning as punishment for unruly children, Terry once tried to deliver a fetus in a jar to Bill Clinton. He ran for Congress in upstate New York in the mid-1990s as a Republican and lost. In recent years, he has devoted much time to battling gay marriage and gay rights. Not long ago, his adopted son came out of the closet and denounced Terry. (Terry's adopted daughter also blasted him publicly.)

As Terry's troops tussled with the marchers, Terry spared me a few minutes. He noted that Bush has been "disappointing" for doing little to criminalize abortion. "If he gets to appoint a Supreme Court justice, he better not make his dad's mistake. His dad gave us [Justice David] Souter." Souter, of course, has supported abortion rights. Why do you think it is, I asked Terry, that people who tend to oppose abortion rights support the war in Iraq? '"There's an ethical connection," he replied. "Either you believe in fixed principles of justice or you are swayed by the emotional arguments of the moment. Truth and justice are eternal. Saddam Hussein needed to be killed." But wasn't Bush's talk about weapons of mass destruction the "emotional argument of the moment?" No, said Terry: "I think they had WMDs and just moved them." And, he added, "if we pull out of Iraq, the terrorists will be running the country in six months." He had a final point to make: "All you need to know is that Islam has never once converted a country peacefully." (I missed the part where Saddam Hussein's regime was an Islamic government.) "Jesus died to start Christianity," Terry continued. "Mohammed killed to start Islam."

As Terry returned his attention to the ongoing shoutfest between his comrades and the demonstrators, I asked about his family troubles. "It's still painful, and it has gotten worse," he said and offered no details. And why was his group not brandishing graphic pictures of aborted fetuses? Where was the fetus in the jar? "Oh," he answered, "this is not a day for that, and I've mellowed a bit."

While Terry was yelling at the protesters, ten blocks away in a toney restaurant off Bryant Park, the Log Cabin Republicans (that is, the gay and lesbian Republicans) were listening to Senator Arlen Specter declare that supporting gay rights--whether or not it wins a candidate any votes--is the right thing to do. In an April primary election, Specter, who was endorsed by the Log Cabinites, had beaten back a conservative GOP challenger who had tried to cash in on Republican anger over Specter's support for gay rights and abortion rights. "There's a lot of muscle...behind the gay and lesbian community," Specter told the assembled. He noted that several years ago he had been the only Republican senator to support hate crimes legislation but that recently seventeen GOP senators voted for such a bill. The crowd of several hundred well-dressed people--mostly men--applauded. Some were wearing buttons proclaiming, "Inclusion Wins!" Many in the room backed abortion rights.

The audience cheered louder when William Weld, the former governor of Massachusetts, took credit for the advent of gay marriage in the Bay State. Judges he had appointed had supported the court decision that led to gay weddings. Weld then explained his opposition to the proposed constitutional amendment banning gay marriage: "I've been invited to oppose it on states' rights. I prefer to oppose it on substantive grounds." The Loggers shouted out their approval, and Weld went on: "The recognition of gay marriage...is the conservative point of view....I'm surprised this is not a more broadly held position....You're not going to repeal biology in the US Senate or the House, no matter what you do." He added, "I'm glad the Log Cabin has decided to stay in the Republican Party. The Republic Party is grounded in the notion of liberty."

Neither Specter or Weld discussed what the Log Cabin gang should do about Bush. The president's embrace of a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage has presented queer Republicans with a challenge. How do you support a fellow who would deny your most basic aspirations? On this warmest of hot-button issues, Bush has sided with the Terryish fundamentalist wing over the cosmopolitans of the Log Cabin. But the Republicans in this restaurant want to be part of the GOP action. "I'm very upset with the president," Scott Schmidt, the communications director of the California Log Cabins told me. "How he approached the gay marriage amendment was very divisive. It was not in the spirit of how he campaigned in 2000. It was very offensive to the gay community." Well, Bush in 2000 did welcome the support of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson in 2000, and used the religious right to squash Senator John McCain's presidential effort. But history aside, it did seem that Schmidt was being generous to Bush by complaining about how Bush has supported the gay marriage amendment rather than Bush's support for the anti-gay measure.

More importantly, Schmidt, like others in the room, was quick to point out that neither John Kerry nor John Edwards have endorsed gay marriage. This is the lifeline for gay Republicans. Since there's no difference between the parties on this contentious issue, they argue, why shouldn't we stick with the party that represents our views on tax cuts, the war in Iraq and other matters? "As far as gays and marriage are concerned, you're screwed either way," said Carla Halbrook, a national board member of the group and a self-professed heterosexual. "The country is not ready for gay marriage. So I'm going to vote for a president that keeps me safe."

The Log Cabin reception was something of a denial zone. It is true that Kerry and Edwards--and Hillary Clinton and other leading Democrats--run screaming from gay marriage as political and policy matters. But it is also clear that the Democrats do not abuse the issue in demagogic fashion and are not explicitly fueling and exploiting the obsessions of gay-bashers to win elections. The folks in this fancy restaurant are smart enough to recognize such a difference. They choose not to acknowledge it.

There has been some speculation that the Log Cabin Republicans might withhold their endorsement of Bush. That would likely not be much of a blow to the Bush campaign. But the mood at the reception seemed to be one of resigned acceptance. The gay marriage amendment "has generated a lot of passion within the group," Bill Browson, the chairman of the board of the Log Cabin Republicans, said. "We have people at both ends of the spectrum," he said, "and [Bush's support of the amendment] is a deal-killer for many." Yet there was no discernible outrage in the room, and the safe bet appeared to be that these GOPers would hang on dearly to the no-difference-between-the-two excuse, swallow hard, and go with Bush. "We see there's no distinction on the gay marriage issue," Schmidt explained. "So I have to get over that....If we abandon the party, it will never come around on gay rights. " [UPDATE: The day after the Log Cabin reception, the group unveiled a television ad that criticized the GOP's support of the gay marriage amendment--but only implicitly. It asks, "Will we [the Republican Party] unite on the things that matter most ,like winning the war on terror? Or will we divide the American family with the politics of intolerance and fear that lead to hate?" The ad, it should be noted, was a question, not a declaration.]

Oh to put the Randall Terry squad and the Loggers in the same room. Each group feels let down by Bush (though Terry has less to complain about than Schmidt). Both claim they are going to triumph eventually. "There is no question in my mind we're going to win," Terry said, "because at the end of the day even you know it's a human life that's being killed." Before the Log Cabin group, Specter said, "In the long sweep of history, those who favor gay rights are on the right side." But each wing cannot be right in its prediction. Yet that does not matter at the moment. The fundamentalist can hope (and pray) for an end to abortion rights and gay rights. The liberal Republicans can patiently await a social reformation. In the meantime, the GOP's tent holds for yet another election cycle, and Bush benefits.

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Read about my adventures in partying with conservatives by clicking here.

*********

When you're done reading this article, check out David Corn's WEBLOG at www.davidcorn.com. Read back entries on the Swift vets and other matters.

********

DON'T FORGET ABOUT DAVID CORN'S BOOK, The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception (Crown Publishers). A NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER! An UPDATED and EXPANDED EDITION is NOW AVAILABLE in PAPERBACK. The Washington Post says, "This is a fierce polemic, but it is based on an immense amount of research....[I]t does present a serious case for the president's partisans to answer....Readers can hardly avoid drawing...troubling conclusions from Corn's painstaking indictment." The Los Angeles Times says, "David Corn's The Lies of George W. Bush is as hard-hitting an attack as has been leveled against the current president. He compares what Bush said with the known facts of a given situation and ends up making a persuasive case." The Library Journal says, "Corn chronicles to devastating effect the lies, falsehoods, and misrepresentations....Corn has painstakingly unearthed a bill of particulars against the president that is as damaging as it is thorough." And GEORGE W. BUSH SAYS, "I'd like to tell you I've read [ The Lies of George W. Bush], but that'd be a lie."

For more information and a sample, go to the official website: www.bushlies.com. And check out Corn's blog on the site.

Less Than La Guardia; Less Than Lindsay

Forty years ago, when Republicans suffered their worst presidential election defeat of the post-World War II era, roughly 800,000 New Yorkers voted for the party's nominee, Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater.

Four years ago, when Republicans secured the White House in one of the closest presidential elections in the nation's history, roughly 300,000 New Yorkers voted for the party's nominee, Texas Governor George W. Bush.

Like most urban areas, New York City has become dramatically more Democratic in recent decades. Yet, unlike Chicago, Detroit, Atlanta, Boston and so many other American cities, New York still elects Republicans to serve as mayor. Of the last six mayors of New York City, three have been elected as Republicans: John Lindsay, Rudy Giuliani and the current occupant of City Hall, Mike Bloomberg. And it should be remembered that the man many believe to have been the city's greatest mayor, Fiorello La Guardia, was also affiliated with the Grand Old Party.

To be sure, New York Republicans are a different breed from, say, Texas Republicans. They get elected by arguing that they will manage the city more competently, not that they will turn it into Houston on the Hudson. New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg, a wealthy publisher who was a generous contributor to Democratic campaigns before he bought the Republican nomination and was elected mayor in 2001, backs abortion rights, gay rights and new taxes. And he has grudgingly welcomed anti-Bush protesters to the city.

But Bloomberg, like Giuliani before him, is a tepid version of the New York Republicans of old. Perhaps by the Republican standards of today, he can still be called a "liberal." But he is no fighting liberal, as has been evident in the weeks leading up to the second Bush coronation.

Instead of challenging conservative orthodoxies -- on everything from the right to dissent to the right to choose -- Bloomberg has placated the Bush administration and its rightwing allies in the leadership of what was once a Grand Old Party.

Don't expect any fireworks today, when Bloomberg delivers a perfunctory welcome to the Republican National Convention delegates who are gathering in the city for the first time in the party's 150-year history.

At the most scripted convention in the history of American politics, Bloomberg will, like every other speaker this week, color within the lines drawn by the Bush-Cheney '04 reelection campaign -- which has effectively remade the party in its image. In so doing, Bloomberg will abandon the historic responsibility of New York Republicans, which was to pull a kicking and screaming Republican Party as far to the left as politically possible.

One of the great tragedies of the contemporary Republican Party is that what is left of its liberal wing is so wimped out as to be completely inconsequential.

Once upon a time, Republican mayors of New York would have picked up on the themes of the anti-war and anti-corporate protests that are filling this city's streets this week.

Had La Guardia been asked to welcome a Republican National Convention to New York City, he would never have agreed to read from the script distributed by the Tories who have taken charge of the party. He would have torn the script up and told the party to defend the interests of the poor against the rich, of labor unions against business interests, of consumers against corporations.

Lindsay would have lectured the delegates from Idaho and Iowa about the importance of funding urban programs. The passionate defender of civil liberties -- who Nat Hentoff said "wielded the Bill of Rights against its enemies" -- would not have hesitated to condemn the Patriot Act. And, in a time of illicit and ill-advised warmaking, he would have suggested that solutions to problems at home could be found by redirecting U.S. policies abroad.

That's exactly what Lindsay did in 1968, when he told the Republican Party's platform committee that, "The course we have been following in Vietnam, I submit, has not been one of a great nation." Lindsay told fellow Republicans that staying the course in Vietnam would prevent the United States from becoming a great nation. "For the truth, I'm afraid, is that we cannot achieve either the cities or the society we would like as long as we continue the war in Vietnam," the mayor explained. "We cannot spend more than $24 billion a year in Vietnam and still rebuild our cities. We cannot speak of non-violence at home when we are displacing, maiming, and killing thousands of Asians for the professed purpose of protecting the peace in a land half way across the world."

Four decades later, the Republican Party could stand to hear the mayor of New York deliver a similar message -- with only the name Iraq replacing that of Vietnam. Unfortunately, while New York has a Republican mayor, it does not have a La Guardia or a Lindsay.

Partying With the GOP

The Saturday night before every political convention there is usually a party for the thousands of journalists that will be covering the shebang to come. The familiar faces of TV news mix with the worker-bees--producers, bookers, engineers, camerapeople, makeup artists, interns--and together they guzzle tons of free food and an ocean of booze. A good time was had by all--right, left, and unaffiliated--and the event afforded me a fine start to one of my missions in New York this week: hang out with conservatives and have a good time.

The Boston media bash for the Democratic convention featured an indoors carousel and Little Richard banging on the piano. The fete in New York City featured....shopping. It was held inside the Time Warner Center in Columbus Circle, which is essentially a mall: J. Crew, Hugo Boss, Williams-Sonoma, Borders, Bose, the Art of Shaving, and so much more. On the sidewalk, where the smokers gathered and moaned about Mayor Michael Bloomberg, I spotted the National Review's Kate O'Beirne. As we started chatting, New York Times reporter David Carr asked us to compare this extravaganza--Bloomberg flipping potato pancakes! clowns on stilts in neon suits! Don King citing Reconstructionist theology in praising George W. Bush--to the Boston party. I replied, "Leave it to the Republicans to turn a party into a shopping spree." On the way in to the Time Warner Center, every one of the thousands of revelers was handed a book of discount coupons they could use in the stores when they weren't gorging upon sushi, sashimi, pizza or the mayor's pancakes. Right away, O'Beirne replied that this was part of George W. Bush's economic plan. "See people are using their tax cuts. Aren't you happy about that, David?" It was just like being on Capital Gang. Yes, I answered, I'm glad I received my tax cut, even though local taxes have had to go up and the costs of Bush's tax cuts will be forced upon future middle-class taxpayers who will be saddled with a deficit exacerbated by Bush's givebacks to the wealthy. "Whoa," said a bystander. "These guys can make even a party political."

At this point, a champagne glass tipped over and shattered. Carr departed and disappeared into the party. "Guess we didn't give good quotes," O'Beirne remarked. Then she spotted a pal and said, "Barbara, come over here. David was just making a cheap joke about your old boss." O'Beirne was referring to my comment about the large statues in the lobby of the Time Warner Center: a very round man and a very round woman, naked and anatomically correct. (At least the woman was; I did not check out her partner.) Pointing to the statues, I had said, "I wonder what John Ashcroft would say." The newcomer to our conversation was Barbara Comstock, who had been the spokesperson for the attorney general. (She now is working for Blank Rome Government Relations, a lobbying and communications firm.)

"There are lots of cheap jokes one could make about Ashcroft," I said. "I suppose I could just show the video of him singing his song, 'Where Eagles Soar,' but Michael Moore beat me to the punch on that one."

"You know," Comstock replied, in a matronly tone. "I used to be a liberal. I came to Washington from Massachusetts to be an intern for Teddy Kennedy." What went wrong? I asked. "I had children. That makes you into a Republican."

"Really?" I replied. "Last election, a majority of Americans voted for either Al Gore or Ralph Nader instead of George Bush. More than 50 million, I believe. I bet that some of them had kids."

"Do you have kids?" she asked. Two, I said and whipped out my cell phone, which has a lovely photo of my five-year-old girl on the opening screen. I passed it around. "Five years old," I told the assembled, "and my younger daughter is three-and-a-half years old."

"Oh, just wait until she's thirteen," Comstock responded. "Then you'll be a Republican."

"Why?" I asked. "Let's say she makes a stupid mistake when she's thirteen. Will I want her not to be able to choose to have an abortion? Will I want her to have to pay off the $4.6 trillion in debt that Bush is bequeathing her? Will I want her to be the citizen of our country despised around the world? Will I want her to fear the approaching consequences of global warming?"

"Oh," she replied, "you are a lost cause." But, she added, she liked anyone with small, cute kids. So I passed that test.

Thank you, I replied and said good-bye. I headed toward the front doors of the Time Warner Center. But I encountered conservative pundit John Fund of The Wall Street Journal. In a convivial mood, he told me he has a book coming out next week. About what? I asked. "About how we have the shoddiest, worst voting systems in the entire industrialized world," he said.

"You mean," I replied, "America is not Number One? We're not the best? Other countries do something better than we do? We really are not Number One when it comes to democracy?" Fund smiled to humor me and said, "Are you trying out material for The Hotline comedy show?" (In Boston, I performed briefly--thankfully--at a standup comedy show organized by The Hotline, a political tipsheet. I was panned by The Wall Street Journal. Other reviews were more encouraging.) What's the name of the book? I asked Fund. "Stealing Elections," he said.

"You've come over to our side?" I exclaimed. "It's about 2000? John, how great, you're expanding the horizons of the Journal." I knew damn well that his concern was not what happened in Florida. For years, he has written about voting problems from the perspective of a conservative worried that folks who favor Democrats are gaining far-too-easy or illegitimate access to the voting booth. I was pulling his chain, and Fund politely went along with the joke. He even said he would invite me to the book party next month.

By now the hour was getting late, Fund excused himself and headed toward the subway. I tried to get back into the party. I had yet to sample the sushi, which had drawn fave reviews. But--damn--the doors were blocked by the nattily dressed private security guards. Closing time. The party was ending. I headed back to my hotel--the wildly fashionable Hudson (more on this later, perhaps). And I resolved: at the next party, make sure to eat before jousting with the conservatives.

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When you're done reading this article, check out David Corn's WEBLOG at www.davidcorn.com. Read the latest on howthe Swift Vets' attack on John Kerry continues to sink and how Pat Buchanan wants to take over Christopher Hitchens' column.

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DON'T FORGET ABOUT DAVID CORN'S BOOK, The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception (Crown Publishers). A NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER! An UPDATED and EXPANDED EDITION is NOW AVAILABLE in PAPERBACK. The Washington Post says, "This is a fierce polemic, but it is based on an immense amount of research....[I]t does present a serious case for the president's partisans to answer....Readers can hardly avoid drawing...troubling conclusions from Corn's painstaking indictment." The Los Angeles Times says, "David Corn's The Lies of George W. Bush is as hard-hitting an attack as has been leveled against the current president. He compares what Bush said with the known facts of a given situation and ends up making a persuasive case." The Library Journal says, "Corn chronicles to devastating effect the lies, falsehoods, and misrepresentations....Corn has painstakingly unearthed a bill of particulars against the president that is as damaging as it is thorough." And GEORGE W. BUSH SAYS, "I'd like to tell you I've read [ The Lies of George W. Bush], but that'd be a lie."

For more information and a sample, go to the official website: www.bushlies.com. And check out Corn's blog on the site.

It's Only Just Begun

It's now official that there are far too many anti-RNC events in New York this week for any one calendar, guide, website or publication to keep up with. But you can generally stay abreast of the panoply of protests, demonstrations, panels, film screenings, readings, concerts and other, more unconventional expressions of a robust civil society with these online compilations:

The People's Guide

RNC Not Welcome

The Imagine Festival

CounterConvention.org

MediaChannel

The Village Voice also published a good guide, available online, to the week. Check New York IndyMedia for up-to-the-minute reports on protests, demonstrations and actions from the activist perspective. On the airwaves WBAI will be broadcasting live coverage of Sunday's United for Peace march (assemble at 10:00 between 15th and 22nd Streets, from 5th to 9th Avenues) and will devote more airtime to the protests this week than any other New York media outlet. RadioNation's Marc Cooper will also be posting audio interviews, speeches and interviews from both inside and outside the convention hall on The Nation's website all week.

No Dissent Allowed

The principle that people of good faith might disagree on issues such as abortion, family planning and gay and lesbian rights lost by a 4-1 margin when members of the Republican party's platform committee debated the notion this week. According to most media, that was the "news" from the Grand Old Party's platform deliberations -- just as the failure of moderate Republicans to move the party toward the center on social issues has been the "news" of every Republican National Convention since 1976.

Christopher Barron, an activist with the Log Cabin Republicans, the party's largest gay and lesbian rights group, was correct when he complained that the platform -- with its militant anti-abortion rights plank and its endorsement of a Constitutional amendment designed to ban same-sex marriages -- makes a joke of the efforts of convention planners to present a moderate face by featuring convention speakers who happen to be pro-choice and sympathetic to gay rights. "You can't craft a vicious, mean-spirited platform and then put lipstick on the pig by putting Rudy Giuliani and Arnold Schwarzenegger on in prime time," explained Barron.

In truth, there was never any chance that Republican moderates would soften the party's official stances on hot-button issues such as abortion rights and gay rights. There was never even a chance that the platform committee, which met in New York on Tuesday and Wednesday, would endorse a "unity plank" acknowledging that issues involving reproductive freedom and the rights of gays and lesbians can be "complex" and that "Republicans of good faith may not agree with all the planks in this platform."

Yet most of the news stories regarding the platform committee's sessions focused entirely on the empty "debate" on social issues that saw Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, who moved to reject the "unity plank," declare that with a straight face that, "We are the party of the open door."

Unfortunately, the real story of the platform process was not the latest failure of groups such as the Log Cabin Republicans and Republicans for Choice to get any respect from the party to which they have maintained a touching, if not particularly rational, loyalty through brush off after brush off. The real story was the revelation that the 150-year-old Republican Party has ceased to exist as an independent entity.

It is now a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Bush-Cheney '04 campaign, much as the Brown & Root military-contracting firm is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Halliburton. Like everything else about the 2004 convention of this once-great party, the platform carries a great big Bush-Cheney imprint and no evidence whatsoever that grassroots Republicans had any say at all in the process of shaping their party's agenda.

No one expected the Republican Party to pick a fight with its maximum leaders. Platform deliberations for both parties long ago ceased to be the ideological battles that they were in the 1960s and 1970s. That was evident in this year's Democratic platform writing process, which was far too deferent to the demands of John Kerry's presidential campaign.

But the Democrat deliberations, as controlled as they were, looked like a free-for-all compared with the micromanaged Republican sessions.

Veteran platform committee members and observers were stunned by the extent that, more than ever before in the history of the Republican Party, this platform is the reflection not of the ideas and values of people who were supposed to draft the manifesto but of the Bush-Cheney '04 campaign. The 90-page document opens up with a 41-page apologia for Bush's handling of the war on terror; while the rest of the document mirrors the Bush line -- or lack of line -- on every issue from tax cuts to stem-cell research.

To be sure, the GOP manifesto is a conservative document. But it is Bush conservatism that defines it, not the thinking of grassroots Republicans. Thus, on the divisive issue of immigration reform, the platform language reflects the administration's "have-it-both-ways" line by offering only a murky promise that the country's new immigration rules will be "legal, safe, orderly and humane."

"It's Clinton-like doublespeak in a Republican platform," grumbled Congressman Tom Tancredo, a Colorado Republican who is the party's most visceral critic of the administration's attempts to develop of "guest worker" program for immigrants.

Tancredo may be wrong on this and other issues, but he is right about the doublespeak.

"This platform is less a forward-looking declaration of party principle than a backward-looking review of President Bush's four years, more so than with past incumbent presidents," noted conservative columnist Robert Novak, who has been attending Republican platform hearings for decades. "(The) Bush White House completely abandoned the old platform process."

To a dramatically greater extent than the reelection campaigns of Richard Nixon or even Ronald Reagan, the Bush-Cheney '04 campaign placed its imprint on the manifesto that will be approved by delegates at next week's convention. Nixon and Reagan both accepted a measure of genuine debate and dissent within the Republican Party -- indeed, the 1984 platform deviated substantially from the language Reagan aides had sought on tax policy. But those days are gone.

The platform process illustrated the eerie extent to which the Republican Party has become nothing more than an arm of the president's reelection campaign. Instead of letting the roughly 100 members of the platform committee craft a document and then debate it -- as both parties have traditionally done -- a draft document was handed to platform committee members at 7 p.m. on the night before they were expected to approve it. Novak said the drafting process was so secretive and controlled that it came to "resemble the Manhattan Project of developing the atomic bomb."

"The process," Novak observed, "fits the Bush white House's authoritarian aura that has tempered enthusiasm within the party on the eve of the national convention."

Diebold Wines and Dines Officials

At a time when there is much controversy over electronic voting and some election experts are raising concerns about the integrity of such voting, should the leading manufacturers of electronic voting machines be wining and dining state and local officials responsible for conducting elections? Well, they are.

This week, scores of elections officials from across the country have gathered in Washington for a conference sponsored by the Election Center. A Houston-based nonprofit, the Election Center is an organization for government employees responsible for voter registration and elections administration--such as voter registrars, elections supervisors, city clerks, state election directors, and secretaries of state. According to the group's website, its purpose "is to promote, preserve, and improve democracy." The Election Center keeps its members up-to-date on regulations and court decisions. It performs research for registration and elections officials. It offers classes in professional practices.

The center's description of its activities does not note that it also allows the manufacturers of voting equipment to hobnob with state and local elections officials. At this week's national conference, election officials have been able to attend panels on the Help America Vote Act, ethical dilemmas, recounts, voting for the blind and disabled, and elections litigation. (At one panel, according to an audience member, Representative Bob Ney, a Republican, was applauded when he dismissed demands for auditable paper trails for electronic voting, noting that a rigged electronic machine could also be fixed to produce a misleading paper trail. ) But in the hallways of the Grand Hyatt Hotel, voting machine manufacturers--including the companies that have drawn the most criticism--have been plying their wares. And to impress the local officials at the conference, three leading manufacturers of voting machines have been paying to make sure the attendees--the government employees who decide what voting machines are purchased--have a swell time.

According to the center's program for the conference, the conference's welcoming reception on August 26 was underwritten by Diebold Election Systems. The next day, a scheduled "Dinner Cruise on the Potomac and Monuments by Night Tour" was cosponsored by Sequoia Voting Systems. And Election Systems and Software (ES&S) agreed to pick up the tab for the final day's "Graduation Luncheon and Awards Ceremony."

Each of these firms have had brushes with controversy. Sequoia had their machines rejected in the 1990s by New York City due to concerns about fraud. Earlier this year, Diebold machines malfunctioned in California and disenfranchised thousands of voters. Election officials there accused Diebold officials of lying and misconduct, and Secretary of State Kevin Shelley banned Diebold machines from four counties. Earlier, Diebold CEO Walden O'Dell, a fundraiser for George W. Bush, said in a letter that he was "committed to helping Ohio deliver is electoral votes" to Bush. After that letter was revealed, he prohibited Diebold executives and employees from making political contributions. But since 1991, Diebold has handed GOPers $346,366 and Democrats $2700, as Ronnie Dugger recently noted in The Nation, a ratio of 127-1. ES&S is owned by prominent conservatives in Nebraska.

More importantly, computer and systems experts have questioned the security of electronic voting, and they have criticized these companies for refusing to supply information regarding their systems. As Dugger reported, David Dill, a professor of computer science at Stanford and a critic of computerized voting, recently asked, "Why am I always being asked to prove these systems aren't secure? The burden of proof ought to be on the vendor. You ask about the hardware. 'Secret.' The software? 'Secret.' What's the cryptography? 'Can't tell you because that'll compromise the secrecy of the machines.'...Federal testing procedures? 'Secret'! Results of the tests? 'Secret'! Basically we are required to have blind faith."

Electronic voting is a contentious issue. A recent poll showed that almost half--44 percent--said they believe computerized voting systems are unreliable. Three-fourths said the systems ought to leave a paper trail that can be audited.

Between 48 million and 61 million Americans will use computerized voting machines this November, according to various estimates. And that has many experts and citizens worried. (The they're-going-to-steal-the-vote-with-rigged-machines conspiracy theory seems to be spreading through anti-Bush circles.) The nation's elections officials are instrumental in making sure the election system works--that there is no fraud, that votes are counted. It is their task to insure that vote-counting machines operate properly and are secure. On its website, the Election Center declares, "Freedom is an inherent human right, but it is also fragile and can be lost through neglect or abuse....Therefore, it is our unique role as elections officials to serves as the gatekeepers of Democracy."

As gatekeepers, they should not be accepting libations, nourishment, and entertainment from the companies they must negotiate with, evaluate, and oversee. The Election Center's board of directors includes the executive secretary-director of North Carolina's board of elections, the secretary of state of Colorado, and the Pennington County (South Dakota) auditor, and the outfit notes, "It is our sacred honor to protect and promote a public trust and confidence by our conduct of accurate and fair elections. As the public's guardians of freedom within a democratic society, we are responsible for the integrity of the process." To maintain that integrity and to promote public confidence, they should not accept gifts from the controversial manufacturers of controversial voting machines. That seems a no-brainer.

I called the Election Center to speak with a representative but did not hear back from the group. (The conference is under way.) But by accepting support from Diebold, Sequoia, and ES&S, these elections officials do little to encourage confidence in their judgment and impartiality. A cynic would not be unjustified to ask, if they cannot be trusted to make this call, how can they be trusted to count the votes?

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When you're done reading this article, check out David Corn's WEBLOG at www.davidcorn.com. Read the latest on howthe Swift Vets' attack on John Kerry continues to sink, how Bush's top lawyer spins the Swift Vets' attacks, and how Pat Buchanan wants to take over Christopher Hitchens' column.

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