Wouldn’t It Be Nice

Can Window Dressing Turn Into a Window?

Heading back to my hotel after George W. Bush's anointment in Philadelphia's Battlestar Galactica- style First Union sports complex, I ended up riding alone in the rubberized middle section of an accordion bus dotted with tired but cheerful delegates, the metal disk my seat was bolted to pivoting me forward and aft on the turns. Since I try not to look gift metaphors in the mouth, I stared at my shoes. No good: they were swiveling too.

My disorientation had set in on Monday, when Colin Powell gave the best acceptance speech by a Democratic vice-presidential candidate I've ever heard. Not only isn't Powell a Democrat, he's the first man since John Foster Dulles to run for secretary of state—in any incoming administration that wants him, supposedly. His suddenly advertised willingness to entertain job offers from President Gore was almost certainly a warning that his party had better start living up to the illusion of inclusivity he'd just helped it create. As for me, I was dazed by my longing for the fraud to come true. Sometimes Fantasyland just has its way with you. When you're doing the convention-floor sidestroke through a sea of Republicans all boogying to "Come Together," anything seems possible.

But not likely. Wuh's first public appearance in Philly was at a "Hispanic Welcome Rally" hosted by first-nephew-in-waiting George P. Bush at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Under banners proclaiming "Un Nueva Dia," the few dozen Latinos near the stage were penned in by an acre of blond hair, blue eyes, and pale hands dutifully holding up "Viva Bush" placards as George P. praised his uncle for following in Cesar Chavez's footsteps. Even Republican rallies now feature signers for the deaf, but this one might have done better translating the candidate's Spanish ("Cómo estas? Vamos a gagnar," etc.) into English. Spotting one vanilla attendee's state badge, I remarked that I'd never known there were so many Latinos in Mississippi. Cordially, he assured me that Jeff Davis's home state now has quite a few, what with the construction boom. The one Latino I buttonholed got huffy when I treated him as a lucky find. "We're all Americans," he snapped—"and my friends are Republicans." Smaller but better-credentialed—i.e., not predominantly Anglo-Saxon—a group of counterdemonstrators were holding up "Latinos for Gore" placards across the way, with "Latinos" scribbled in a white space left blank on their printed signs. Some young viva-Bushies went over to squabble, including a blond who slaked my curiosity as to what Ann Coulter was like at 19. Between jeers, I horned in: "Excuse me, but aren't you a little embarrassed that they're all Latinos over here—and most of you aren't?"

I'd just asked Martha Stewart if she frets about having bum taste. Her voice was pure prep-school freeze-out: "Absolutely not."

"But you just went to a Hispanic rally where practically nobody was Hispanic."

"I went to a diversity rally. I bet you'll never hear Al Gore speaking Spanish!"

Realizing she scared me was reassuring. This was the good old GOP, whose rising generation always chills my blood. But Wuh's orders against drawing any made for considerable comedy around town. The Christian Coalition itself had gone respectable. "At times in the past, we've gone wrong when we've spoken the truth in hate," the faithful heard—from Kansas senator Sam Brownshirt, no less. But if Pat Robertson's breathless croak is frailer nowadays, it's no less disingenuous: "All we want is a place at the table." Robertson's reprise of how he'd launched his crusade had a valedictory tone, which made his joke about said crusade's alleged demise—"Somebody better tell the fire department there's a ballroom in the Marriott jam-packed with corpses, heh heh"—more gruesome.

"I bring you greetings from the Republican National Coalition for Life," Phyllis Schlafly announced, to Klingon-embassy effect, before debunking the convention's touchy-feeliness without violating Wuh's rules by listing all the right-wing plums in the platform. But most speeches stroked the religious right's belief that it's oppressed, which Robertson's fellow noncorpses relish as much as being oppressors. They lapped up every war story about the CC's fight to retain tax-exempt status—a tollgate squabble elevated into "the speech police" trying to "take away your right to speak."

Mitch McConnell, who uttered that nonsense, won howls by warning, "When you hear the words 'campaign finance reform,' some liberal's trying to shut you up." His main rival as a laugh-getter was Jay Sekulow, who runs Robertson's answer to the ACLU—short for "Anti-Christian Legislation Unit" in Jay's book. Sekulow also let it drop that he's a converted Jew. It figures—they make the best lawyers, you know.

As the first minority group co-opted by the GOP—and I'll bet Joe Lieberman isn't going to bring too many of them back—Jews had bragging rights in Philly. At the Ritz-Carlton, the Republican Jewish Coalition tossed a "Salute to Republican Governors" whose buffet featured sushi flanked by hummus and latkes, with all three exotic dishes carefully labeled for the uninitiated—including governors like Dirk Kempthorne, who announced the dedication of an Anne Frank memorial in Boise before burbling, "The citizens of Idaho who just happen to be of the Jewish faith enjoy being part of Idaho and the community."

At the same event, Christine Todd Whitman drew so many autograph hounds that the MC tried to quell the hubbub. Whitman's resemblance to a perplexed David Bowie playing the Scarecrow of Oz has its charm, and I like her enough to suspect her ghastly grin in That Photograph betrayed embarrassment. So I sorta hated asking her what I did, which was whether it was fair to think that, not too long ago, the same snapshot of Whitman patting down a black nonperp could have gotten her onto a GOP vice-presidential short list.

"I don't think that's the kind of thing that would have gotten anybody any mileage, ever," she said flatly. Which was a fib, because she's old enough to remember Spiro Agnew.

J.C. Watts isn't. The one-man caucus—his joke, not mine—is an anomaly in Congress, but to black Republicans, he's as glamorous as Lindbergh. Between jogs to the podium, he was the star at every African American-oriented event, delivering a spiel so steeped in entrepreneurial values that its talk of improving his party's "marketing" and "image" clearly didn't strike him as ironic.

Outranking even Watts as the GOP's highest elected black official, Colorado lieutenant governor Joe Rogers can bloviate with the best; his flack kept handing out glossy PR packets touting the boss's formidability as a speaker-for-hire. It was from Rogers that I first heard the brilliant spin that this artificially rainbow-hued convention represented the party "not as we were, not as we are—but as we will be." But he can be blunt when it suits him, and it did in our brief interview. Even if it was just rhetoric, I asked, wasn't this convention's message upping the ante so much that people would have every right to be bitterly disappointed—and more alienated than ever—if it turned out to be smoke? Rogers's answer was as eloquent as Colin Powell's speech, so I'm going to quote it in full.

"Yes," he said.

MEANWHILE, THE ALREADY ALIENATED WERE HIT-

ting the streets—those who found their alienation worth acting out, anyway. The theme that should have been programmatic instead of ramshackle was America's and the world's underclass. Poverty is now a radical rather than a liberal issue—which makes addressing it a Republican opportunity, as even Wuh seems to suspect.

In Philadelphia, though, the anarchy kids were missing allies—above all, the unions, whose presence in Seattle was a one-shot. Some protesters cheered when a Teamsters truck drove by, little knowing James P. Hoffa was being feted at a GOP gala that afternoon. Signs unnervingly directing attendees to a reception honoring "Jimmy" Hoffa didn't dissuade the son of the Jersey Turnpike's best-known speed bump from pursuing his strategy of playing both middles against the end by declaring that he felt right at home.

The protesters' combination of knowingness and naïveté could be breathtaking. One teen handing out a clever "checklist" for reporters (sample question: "Did you make sure to take pictures of weird-looking protesters to discredit the movement?") took mine back after spotting my Voice ID: "You're not commercial media." Oh, you baby. Between fracases on Tuesday, I got to chatting with a straw-hatted onlooker who turned out to be Mark Hosler of Negativland, indie-rock's found-object recontextualization specialists. During a chant of "This is what a police state looks like!" Hosler quietly said he didn't think so. Then he smiled: "Seattle was what a police state looks like."

I wouldn't know. But at the risk of making that kid's checklist come true, the Philly police did a good job from what I saw—one big exception that I didn't being a clampdown raid on a warehouse where protesters were allegedly making bombs, which I doubt a single raider believed. Even so, I'll never giggle at bicycles as police equipment again; they're ridable truncheons. From my hotel window, I got used to seeing them circling City Hall each morning—ah, yes, the Tour de Philadelphia.

Aside from having to take the subway when one shuttle-bus route got blocked, the delegates were unaffected. Even the big-time donors who strolled to a Republican Finance Committee meeting from a wingding at Tiffany's two blocks away went unharassed; they were still showing off their Tiffany bags when they entered the Ritz-Carlton. Instead, Joe Average paid for Daddy Warbucks's sins—a familiar quandary summed up by one story of demonstrators throwing a rock through a limo windshield while its chauffeur was inside. (Shit on you guys if you really did that; even Bernadine Dohrn would have known to aim for the back window.) You'd also have to be as heartless as Trent Lott not to feel for the poor bastard whose Camry got trashed while he was fixing somebody's air conditioner—and who got quoted as saying, "I didn't do nothing to nobody."

The week's other rebuke to the Republicans was too intelligent to generate much pizzazz. The Shadow Convention's only outrageous note was that apostate Gingrichphile Arianna Huffington was running it—and anyone who can morph from the Belle Dame Sans Merci into Tom Paine in six years has, to say the least, an operatic sense of the good fight. Not that her social life has suffered. "Some of my friends haven't read anything I've written for a while, and think nothing's changed," she told me. "Or they just haven't updated their guest lists, so I still get invited to things. I went to the Nancy Reagan party yesterday," which made her laugh—with reason, since the Shadow Convention spent that day assailing "The Failed War on Drugs." Breaking off to deal briefly with an overtime problem, she turned back to me with a sigh. "All these people who talk about labor issues," she said, "—and they're running the crew for 15 hours." I was smitten; it was like interviewing a brainy, radicalized Zsa Zsa Gabor.

While I'd have preferred an event that found more (and funkier) common ground between Huffington's panels of anti-Establishment Establishment types and the anarchy kids who shared her issues, what justified her conclave's sedateness was the imprimatur her Rolodex gave positions seldom broached by Republicrats. But David Gergen belonged on this bill like a pig in a henhouse, and—Arianna's remonstrations to the contrary—the audience was dead right to boo John McCain for urging them to vote for Wuh right after they'd applauded his reform rap.

Discharging a similar chore, Jesse Jackson escaped heckling by never mentioning Gore's name. But his trips to this well have taken a lot out of him. More interesting was the willingness of two moderate Republicans less immunized by fame than McCain to risk their party's wrath by venturing across the river. I missed California's Senate hopeful Tom Campbell, but New Mexico governor Gary Johnson was impressive—a straight arrow whose reluctant conclusion that we'd better legalize marijuana landed him in deep elephant dung once he got back to the whiteness on the edge of town.

A no-show at the fake convention, Ralph Nader crashed the real one at WBAI's invitation. Gridlocked near the Florida delegation, he answered our questions with the pleasure of a man who's discovered waggishness late in life—"Why am I here? Because Wall Street is closed tonight"—and traded quips with state chairman Al Cardenas, who mock-congratulated him on becoming a Floridian and then got kind of steamed. But like most stunts, this one ran out of gas fast. Before he was ushered off the floor—he may have been hoping to be ejected outright, but they were smart enough to let him carry on in the corridor—a strange lull fell, and Nader looked around: "Any other questions?"

A good reporter would have had six ready, however trite. Unfortunately, he was asking me—and suddenly, I realized I couldn't think of one whose answer might surprise me.

IF PAT BUCHANAN HAD TRIED THE SAME GAMBIT, delegates starving for a jihad might have hoisted him onto the podium. One reason they stayed docile was they had no hero to get them going. Right-wingers need a knight, and don't much care if the dragon slays him. That just proves the dragon is a dragon.

One McCain delegate told me that his crowd had hoped their man would raise more of a ruckus. But McCain is a different kettle of fish, most of them now belly-up. The Hanoi Hilton couldn't break him, but Wuh's victory has turned him into the Manchurian Losing Candidate. While his endorsement at the Shadow Convention was dutiful, its prime-time repetition Tuesday was downright spiritless. If the nominee traded him the Pentagon for it, which isn't inconceivable, the nominee got rooked.

Even if Wuh thinks Henri IV is the hero of a Herman's Hermits song, this convention's mantra was "Paris is worth a mass." Yet as Clinton might say, a lot depends on what the definition of "Paris" is. While the Georgia moderate who told me he found the softened tone a relief had company, many true believers clearly assumed that they were going along with a ploy for victory's sake. They may be right, but that didn't stop me from spending convention week alternately enticed and disturbed by a wild surmise. I couldn't stop thinking that if this election obliged—or enabled?—the Republican Party to become even half as tolerant as it was pretending to be, a Wuh victory might not be too high a price to pay.

The best defense of this shameless charade is that the candidate doesn't seem to find it uncongenial—and that it's going to be awfully hard for him to take it all back. Sham though the rank and file's situational acceptance of today's polyglot world may have been, Philly forced them to confront the fact that to their own party's elites, whose lives are less constricted, it's willy-nilly becoming a reality. Sure, George P. Bush's status as a great-grandson of privilege far outweighs his half-Mexican ethnicity—yet there he was, livin' la vida GOPa. Wuh's ultra-right-wing vice-presidential nominee shared the VIP box with the out lesbian daughter, who's his closest adviser, and nobody raised a peep. Of course, maybe they were just too stunned, and they're sure to recover their wits before long.

Not that it made him more likable. Cheney slid into his own welcome rally on Sunday with the sidelong grimace of a mortician entering a casino, and didn't improve with exposure. Should Nelson Mandela die during Bush's tenure, it's going to be awkward to send the Veep to his funeral. Yet I marveled when that cryptic crock Alan Simpson told CNN that Cheney's speech was the "red meat" delegates craved. Eight or four years ago, they wouldn't have called it a cheese sandwich.

It's worth remembering that the Republicans pulled a lot of inclusivity shtick at their sullen, lackluster '96 convention—and nobody gave a rat's ass, because San Diego was a gavel-to-gavel bummer. If Colin Powell's speech in Philly was as rousing as its '96 prototype was flat, that may be because he knows the difference between window dressing and a window.

However entertaining it was to hear Clinton's lack of leadership attacked at a convention cribbed straight from his handbook, Wuh's speech included passages that were startling from a GOP presidential candidate. However uncomfortably they bumped against tax breaks for the rich and Star Wars for the rest of us, the reproaches to pure materialism and rejections of divisiveness were more prominent than lip service required. If President Wuh acted on them, I could forgive him a lot—even his horrible mother. But if he's got no intention of trying—that is, if he's really nothing more than the cocky, mean-spirited chucklebrain that Molly Ivins swears and plenty of his supporters hope he is—he'll be viler than Poppy's predecessor. At least Ronald Reagan couldn't be accused of generating false hopes.

If only in the short run, an inclusive GOP would spell hard times for the Democrats. But Huffington and Nader are right to call the two parties all but indistinguishable—pro-life and pro-choice wings of the same corporate shack job. Once both have the identical welcome mat, they'll be compelled to redefine themselves in other ways. If the Republicans revert from being the party of hate to just being the party of business, devoted only to forming a more perfect First Union, the Democrats might have to rediscover a few reservations about unbridled capitalism—and what a wonderful world that would be.

If it sounds like I'm inspecting a grenade for silver linings, that's because I left Philadelphia convinced that Wuh will be hard to beat. If he wins, it won't be with my help. But if this scion of privilege has any brains or decency, unlikely though his history makes that seem, he'll realize that his convention's brilliantly engineered fakery could change his party for real. I've long believed the GOP should be either transformed or destroyed—and now is no time to get sentimental about which I'd enjoy more.

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