With the candidates in the bag, and no hope of drama, the Democratic and Republican conventions can be fairly judged only as extended advertisements for the parties that staged them. Just as Mel Gibson’s recent cross-and-sandal epic succeeds as Passion play and disappoints as conventional movie narrative, the goal of the undertaking is disconnected from that of the critic. The convention mix of carefully orchestrated speechifying, recorded campaign ads and tributes, and live entertainment adds up to something not quite sport, not quite news and not quite commercial–it is a pageant without a competition.
The floor at the Republican event was like the set of some giant multicamera movie production, with attendant EPK (Electronic Press Kit–those behind-the-scenes movie promo things you see on Entertainment Tonight) crews and celeb-stalking reporters. There were the stars–John McCain and Rudy and Arnold and Laura and Dick and W in his many incarnations; the supporting and bit players–each speaker demographically chosen to hammer home a specific point; and the extras: the delegates.
To keep the extras happy and energized for their onscreen duties, they must be informed, fed and entertained. They are not, however, your target audience–if they have even a moderately miserable time, they will still go to see your picture (vote for your candidate) because they had a role in it. The scene–the picture that you send out into the world–remains the goal.
Entertainment at the convention came in two categories–that meant to inform, excite and influence the viewing audience and that meant just to keep the extras from getting restless between setups. The appointment of Frank Breeden, former head of the Gospel Music Association, to coordinate this aspect of the pageant suggested a religious bent to the performances that did not pan out. With celebrities of various luminance like Ron Silver, the Gobernator, reality-show Survivor Elisabeth Hasselbeck, football favorites Lynn Swann and Jason Sehorn and Miss America taking the platform to speak, the thin line between politics and entertainment was faintly drawn. The house band–New York professionals dressed usually in a neutral black–filled gaps and generated pep-rally energy with a supply of upbeat R&B standards: “Knock on Wood,” “Dancin’ in the Streets,” “Soul Man,” “I Feel Good”–the stuff you hear canned during timeouts at professional sporting events and that seems to have become, since Animal House, a locus of frat-boy nostalgia. With little rehearsal time, their Big Apple chops were impressive–if anybody’s got a wedding reception planned, I’m sure the RNC can help you track them down.
Though a Broadway medley by more black-clad New Yorkers the first night seemed a bit showbizzy, the bulk of the acts were well performed and well integrated into the proceedings. Notable exceptions were the lame skit featuring Karl Rove and Barney the dog, who should both stick to their day jobs, and the self-conscious awards-presenter routine written for the Bush twins. They were not initially announced to appear, but perhaps the rumor that the girls were not ready for prime time spurred the planners into throwing something together on short notice. The ditzy teenage patter seemed more a parody of the Hilton sisters or Beavis and Butthead (that nervous giggling) than a heartwarming peek into the First Family. And the CJs (“convention jockeys”), mostly young female press secretaries stalking the floor to anchor pseudospontaneous Q and A’s with the rank and file, were overcoached in their enthusiasm, shrieking hyperbolically into their microphones (one fronting a fireman’s local in Milwaukee seemed on the verge of orgasm) even when their interview subjects were relatively low-key. This sort of MC brio is common on E! and MTV shows dealing with wet T-shirts and chugging beer, but here it verged on the hysterical, and by the second night somebody had either slipped the bunch some Valium or told them to back off. The pop-culture references included a Saturday Night Live intro parody and a slew of George and Laura spots with all the trappings–dewy-eyed orchestral music, slow dissolves, inspirational voiceovers–of the pharmaceutical ads seen on the Adult Incontinence channels. A few of the rock acts seemed a little lost–nobody I asked in the Texas delegation knew who Dexter Freebish was (though somebody thought he might be running for Congress in a swing state), and the Austin band, which seemed to harken from a very clean garage, garnered mostly polite applause. Daize Shayne, surfer-star turned singer, jumping around in front of some funky-looking backup players, brought a whiff of open-mic night to the floor.
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But most of the pros delivered what they were meant to. Darryl Worley sang about family and the relative fighting overseas but was not asked to deliver either his “Have You Forgotten?” or “I Miss My Friend,” both emotional paeans to the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. And Sara Evans’s “Born to Fly” (“But how do you wait for Heaven?/And who has that much time?/And how do you keep your feet on the ground/When you know…you were born to fly?”) seemed a secular feel-good message when sandwiched between tales from the podium of successful immigrant and minority striving. Jaci Velasquez sang an energetic but generic “Con Tu Amor,” and Dana Glover, with her powerful white-soul voice, got to sing more than one number. The segue, without introduction, from mourning relatives of fallen heroes to Daniel Rodriguez’s tenor rendition of “Amazing Grace” was obvious and effective, and he has the skill not to fall into the bagpipe drone that often ruins the song. Brooks and Dunn were perhaps the most on-message, singing of the opportunity available “Only in America” (“We all get a chance/Everybody gets to dance”). None of the songs or performers had the edge of danger or sex (just as at the Democratic show), no outlaw honky-tonkers, tragic drug-addled waifs or angry, cursing rappers graced the stage, which is to be expected. My disappointment with Christian rock has always been its lack of extremity, of the aching sorrow or joy, the celebration or desperation that fuels the best rock and traditional black gospel music. It all seems like the Pat Boone version, where Christ dies with clean hair and Hollywood celestial choirs on the soundtrack.
Jesus, or His relative absence, was notable in the performances. His name gets a workout in fundamentalist speech, in gospel and contemporary Christian music, but though God the Father was often invoked (this political season has been a bonanza for imams at the podium), the Son was scarce. Though Frank Breeden’s Dove Awards connections were manifest and faith was an inescapable presence in the convention text (as Elizabeth Dole reminded us, “The Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, not freedom from religion”), a decision seems to have been made not to harp on the possibly divisive star of the New Testament on national TV. The other word left relatively unuttered was “Israel.” As with the Democrats, nobody here wanted to deal with that nation’s central role in our present military drama. The first strong mention I caught was in the closing invocation of a Hungarian death-camp survivor, thus putting Israel and its enemies comfortably in the context of Nazi atrocities. The reluctance of the Democrats to tackle our policy toward Israel (and our other considerable influences in Middle Eastern affairs) leaves the assertion that the 9/11 attacks came from some simple hatred of “our freedom” unchallenged. Yes, Western culture, our secular materialism, our relatively unfettered women, our sexual openness offends and threatens the ayatollahs of the world, but I don’t think that puts suicide bombers into buses or planes. If we were a dictatorship with the same presence in the region, we’d still be the target of terrorists.
But pageants and ad campaigns are not made for critics. If the faithful are stirred, who cares if the organ was out of tune? If sales go up, why replace the annoyingly repetitive ad with something slick and clever? I used to try to watch Hee Haw because I like country music, and could never get past all the damn grinning and winking (what a relief for black musicians when they stopped having to smile every time they pulled their face out of their horn), but a lot of people tuned in every week. The buzz on the RNC’s production is coursing through the political chant-and-rant shows, but the product doesn’t hit the box office till November.
Though I thought billing Zell Miller as “the conscience of the Democratic Party” was brilliant.