A part of me recoils at the thought of adding even a syllable to the ocean of pontifical sludge emanating from the Republican confab in Philadelphia, so mind-numbingly inane and diligently deceptive were both its intent and execution.
Yet we ignore the Republicans at our peril; not merely because Bush the Younger has a surprisingly strong chance to win in November but also because what we saw in Philadelphia--however disheartening--is clearly a harbinger of things to come. It was a politics for a people who are not paying attention; a democratic show for a nation entertaining itself into somnolence; a "democracy," in Robert Entman's phrase, "without citizens."
The thousands of pages of analysis the elite media offered while the convention's speeches, parties and golf tournaments were still rolling were surprisingly substantial. All of the nation's major newspapers and newsweeklies paid considerable attention to the fundamental disconnect between how the Republicans sought to present themselves and who they really are; to how many corporations were paying how much to buy legislative influence; and to how many genuine right-wingers were kept quiet, on the floor and in the skyboxes, but out of the official proceedings. We learned, for instance:
§ Despite the prevalence of black gospel singers, r&b artists, rappers, breakdancers and gay white congressmen on the convention stage, damn few delegates fell into any one of these categories. (The ratio, studies show, is approximately equivalent to the percentage of black gospel singers, r&b artists, rappers, breakdancers and gay anythings who are also Republicans.)
§ While chairman Jim Nicholson claims that his is the "party of small donors who represent grassroots America," two-thirds of the party's $137 million in unrestricted "soft" money has been provided by just 739 contributors, many using disguised identities. Delivering at least $250,000 each were 150 Republican "Regents"--about a hundred individuals and fifty corporations. "We're raising money left and right," bragged Tom DeLay, who does a better job of keeping his donor list secret than Los Alamos does with the family jewels. He has to, he told the Washington Post, because rich guys don't like "Dan Rather calling up and saying, 'What are you getting for the money you're giving?'"
Not to worry, Mr. Exterminator. While the media always note the presence of moneyed interests at political conventions, they do not generally make the explicit connection between X company and Y piece of legislation--even though they are spoon-fed this information by various money and politics watchdogs. So we discovered, for instance, that GM provided a million bucks' worth of cars, trucks and minivans. Microsoft gave $900,000 in software and $100,000 in cash. AIG, the New York-based insurance firm, ponied up $500,000 to the Republicans (with another $2 million for the Democrats). All of it is tax-deductible.
DeLay excuses the closed-door fire sale of public resources, saying it is "cynical for the media to make like it's bad." He notes, "It's better to raise money than to have the government pay for elections." Alas, this nonsensical point went virtually unchallenged all week. Public financing of campaigns was discussed only by nose-pierced radicals while getting themselves arrested, good-government automatons likely to vote for Ralph Nader and the world-champion self-reinventionist, Arianna Huffington.
The far right is deep inside the party closet, happily playing "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" with its handsome nominee. Alan Keyes may have been the only black Republican in America not invited to speak from the podium. Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, Ralph Reed, Newt Gingrich, Henry Hyde and the whole swarm of House impeachment managers were all acting as if they had dropped into Philly for a vacation. All professed to be absolutely delighted to be excluded from the proceedings. I asked Gingrich if he thought his newfound anonymity had anything to do with the fact that the whole time he was prosecuting Clinton, he had his own, ahem, "personal troubles." Nahh, he replied. "When was the last time a former Speaker of the House was invited to speak from the podium of a Republican convention?" Quite a while ago, maybe, but when was the last time the Republicans had a former Speaker of the House? From Hyde, Robertson and Falwell I also got nothing but happytalk. Falwell delivered his lengthy message of Christian love and redemption in uncomfortably physical terms, keeping his arm around me the entire time. Only Keyes was the slightest bit off-message: At a rubber-chicken luncheon sponsored by the Family Research Council, he told me that the rest of the so-called conservative leaders were "sellouts" and insisted that if Bush did not live up to the GOP's frightening party platform, he and the grassroots would be deserting Bush in November.
But the money stories, the "Where's Newt?" stories and the "Who's Really a Gay, Black, Poor and Handicapped Supporter of Free Trade?" tales are just the trees of this benighted forest. The real story was the one that 15,000 journalists somehow managed to cover and miss at the same time. It's just this: To quote Ron Reagan (son of the Gipper!) speaking to a gathering sponsored by the Creative Coalition, "The big elephant sitting in the corner is that George W. Bush is simply unqualified for the job. He's probably the least qualified person ever to be nominated by a major party. Yes, he was elected Governor of Texas, and before that he ran a baseball team and lost a lot of other people's money in the oil business. But what has happened in the intervening five years to make people believe he'd be a good President? What is his accomplishment? That he's no longer an obnoxious drunk?" (Reagan apparently forgot Bush's key achievement with the Rangers: sending Sammy Sosa to the White Sox.)
In fact, it's worse than that. Not only has Bush next to no apparent qualifications (or aptitude) for the job, he also has little intention of explaining what he wants to do if he gets there. The Republicans are pretty sure they can sell a President purely on the basis of the fact that he seems like a nice guy so long as you don't threaten to beat him in South Carolina. Gore's problem, we are told by witnesses as disparate as Marty Peretz and Tommy Lee Jones, is that he's a helluva lot more fun than he appears. Well, tough luck, fella. To paraphrase the political philosopher/comedian Billy Crystal, "It is better to look nice than to be nice."
True, the media were not fooled by the idiocy on display at the convention that led to the two nominees' acceptance speeches. While a lot of Fred Friendly types were beating up the networks for ignoring the convention for football games and sitcom reruns before it began, almost no one had the heart to continue to make this argument once the beast revealed itself. (The event was so scripted that the Washington Post website published an AP report on Colin Powell's speech, replete with assessments, written in the past tense, an hour before Powell even took the stage!) At first the Republicans' "feed and air-condition the press to death" strategy appeared a miscalculation. All these hungry journalists without a morsel of news to digest: What if they went out to find something to chew on all by themselves?
The truth is, it would make no difference. Who was paying attention? ABC lost nearly 60 percent of its audience on Thursday night in the transition from Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? to "Who Wants to Be the President?," leaving it in a ratings tie, with considerable poetic justice, with WWF Smackdown. Including the cable networks, barely 22 million Americans watched the convention--fewer than one in ten.
This is just as well. For most people, who tend to ingest their politics on a catch-as-catch-can basis (that is, when it interrupts what they were doing in the first place), only the broadest pictures matter. What they saw preceding Bush's speech was a lot of happy nonsense. And what they heard when Bush finally took the podium was much of the same. The intention seemed to be to trigger the following Pavlovian response: "He seems like a nice guy. Let's make him President. What else is on?"
For while there is much to disagree with in Bush's plans as outlined to the media and even more in the extremist platform his party has adopted, his speech was offered at such a level of generality that its specifics floated away on air. Even a liberal Democrat could find precious little of substance with which to disagree. Bush says the Republicans are "the party not of repose but of reform." Just who is in favor of "repose"? He wants to "change the tone of Washington to one of civility and respect." Is Al Gore in favor of incivility and disrespect? He talked endlessly of children, of self-sacrifice, the poor, the immigrants, the left-behind. How much longer before he swore he felt their pain?
But what of the actual issues that divide the two major candidates, even more so their parties? Just look at the voting records of VP candidates Dick Cheney and Joe Lieberman if you doubt the difference. The Republicans feel perfectly comfortable with a man who favors cop-killer bullets, who supported Nelson Mandela's jailers and who has done the oil companies' bidding at every turn. Gore's VP choice, on the other hand, though he comes from the conservative, DLC wing of the party, is an environmentalist who fought oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, who has a deep commitment to gun control and abortion rights, and a good relationship with organized labor. At the GOP ticket's top, however, Bush apparently didn't think an acceptance speech following the nominating convention--when his audience would no doubt be larger than at any other time save the debates--was an appropriate moment to reveal his differences with anyone.
And guess what? He was right. Postspeech kibitzing rarely rose above the typical Cokie-ism: The convention, she said, had been "a very successful convention," and the speech had been "a very successful speech" ("perfection," Al Hunt; "remarkable," Bob Novak; "excellent," Tucker Carlson). Already beaming over the choice of reactionary insider Cheney, elites speaking collectively through David Broder's typing fingers were happily reassured to learn that perhaps Bush was not quite as big a dolt as he appeared during the primary campaign. Bush, wrote Broder, following the time-honored pundit practice of transposing his own views onto hundreds of millions, "is seen by the public as a stronger leader--and, by almost any measure, a man more likely to help cure the poisonous partisanship of the capital city."
Yes, partisanship is poisonous, Dean Broder, but without bringing up Bob Jones University or raising the Confederate flag, how about a few questions of substance before we proceed to the coronation? For instance, what happens to workers holding Bush's individual Social Security investment accounts when the market tanks? What happens to the trust fund when the money is withdrawn to pay for them? What evidence is there that churches, synagogues and mosques can provide the safety net that America's poor and indigent require to keep them alive and rebuild their lives? (And what of indigent atheists?) How would a Bush presidency help seniors pay for prescription drugs or help parents pay for childcare? How will the nation replace lost revenue from the abolition of the estate tax, the marriage "penalty" and lower uniform rates once the economic picture is not so rosy? How will Bush react to the kind of dangerous and irresponsible legislation favored by Gingrich from '94 to '98 and by DeLay and Archer ever since? And what about foreign policy? Since Bush opposes the Kyoto treaty, how will he address global warming?
Here is our conundrum in a nutshell: All the answers to these questions can be found in the elite media's voluminous coverage of the election so far. Take my word for it, not a single one is particularly convincing or remotely comforting. But who cares? Certainly not the network correspondents or Bigfoot pundits--not anymore, anyway. Every four years these same elite media go into enormous detail about the candidate's positions on every conceivable issue for about a year, and then, right when a few normal people start paying attention--as we get our first acceptance speech from an actual nominee--we get nothing but horse-race coverage and dime-store psychoanalysis. (For a preview of the existential nothingness that lies ahead, see Joe Klein's wholly contentless August 14 New Yorker convention "Comment.")
Yes, George Bush, like Ronald Reagan, has proven he can throw up a half-decent oration after months of practice. And like Clinton, his political charm works double time on lonely-hearted journalists pining to fall in love. But what would a Bush presidency mean for the country? If Gore tries to tell us, he'll be derided as droning and "partisan." So long as the Republicans can successfully divert the public's attention to Bush's winning personality rather than his potentially ruinous policies, their victory in November could be a dangerously sure thing. In a postmodern political universe, "nice" guys finish first.