Elephants Never Forget

A retro convention for the neocons: 9-11 gives way to 1968

Strategically staged in the realm of the perpetual orange alert, the Republican National Convention was supposed to be the 9-11 convention—with the fallen twin towers as its invisible backdrop and a backbeat of subliminal terror threats as the theme song. There would be a select group of gallant 9-11 widows in the Madison Square Garden gallery, gaggles of Republican delegates in outsize fire-chief hats posing for souvenir snapshots alongside New York City's Bravest, Arnold Schwarzenegger would appear in full Collateral Damage mode, Rudy Giuliani and George Pataki—each in his Yankee baseball jacket—would be running rival tours of ground zero, and then finally George W. Bush would accept his divine mandate while intoning the sacred mantra "September 11" with robotic regularity.

It may all still happen, but even as we slept, the 2004 RepCon inexorably morphed into a scripted remake of something else. Are we facing a replay of the fabled Democratic convention of 1968? Is it going to be Chicago redux? The events of 9-11 may have obliterated the '70s, '80s, and '90s, but never the '60s. They're back. . . . The nation will be fighting that war until the last boomer is in the ground.


As the city kvetched in anticipation of the invading out-of-towners, the New York Post revealed that a posse of Weather Underground "anarchists," recently released from prison, were headed our way, "trained in kidnapping techniques, bombmaking and building improvised munitions." Had the Post gotten word that the crowds of anti-Bush demonstrators were to be infiltrated by special-op provocateurs? Might order really break down? What kickass campaign images those might provide!

Back in the day, Abbie Hoffman called the 1968 Chicago police riot "an advertisement for Revolution," and sure enough, Republican political commercials—some of them even designed by the future Fox News honcho Roger Ailes—took the Yippie entrepreneur at his word. The Democratic candidate, a ridiculously ebullient Hubert Humphrey, was juxtaposed with footage of Chicago street fighting, accompanied by "There'll Be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight."

Wild in the streets and Vietnam on the brain: just like old times. Even as the RepCon cranked up and the biggest festival of guerrilla theater in a quarter-century mobilized to meet it, the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth prepared to release a new wave of commercials. These featured then Vietnam Veterans Against the War representative John Kerry's April 1971 testimony before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. In the finest moment of his political life, Kerry spoke powerfully of the cost of the war and its atrocities on the men who fought it: "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?" That was less than a month after Lieutenant William Calley was found guilty of murdering 22 Vietnamese civilians at My Lai and a few weeks after then president Nixon ordered him released from the Fort Benning stockade. Meanwhile, a thousand anti-war vets camped out on the Washington Mall . . .

But three weeks of Swifty smears, paid for by Bush's Texas supporters and telepathically masterminded by Karl Rove, have successfully muddied the Mekong. According to a recent Los Angeles Times poll, Kerry lost two points and Bush gained three during the August doldrums. Thus, Bush is poised for his RepCon coronation with a slight lead while, having had his combat performance successfully demeaned, Kerry is about to be recast as a long-haired hippie protester—his own Willie Horton.


We may wind up with some version of Chicago, but for all the creativity of the assembled demonstrators, it will only be on television. The other convention that the RNC resembles is RepCon '72, the last wartime conclave organized by a ruling party—a rigorously planned and flawlessly orchestrated pseudo-event.

No detail of the media scenario was considered too inconsequential. A special elevator behind the speaker's rostrum insured that no one would appear taller to the broadcast audience than the president. Above the podium were three 12-by-25-foot screens that replayed the RepCon's defining moments: Nixon's arrival in Miami, a pro-Republican rock concert, the president embraced by Sammy Davis Jr. Whenever important images were shown—like the campaign film Portrait of a President—the hall lights were shut off, compelling the networks to transmit the Republican programming rather than their own "live" reporting.

"We actually prepared, down to the minute, a script for the whole convention," campaign worker David Gergen recalled. By one account, a team of BBC reporters was mistakenly handed an actual copy, complete with applause cues, scheduled "spontaneous" floor demonstrations, and specified prime-time features. In fact, there were many, many more anti-war demonstrators at Miami Beach in 1972 than there had been in Chicago four years before, but because they hardly ever made TV (and because the demonstrators' encampment was strategically flooded with quaaludes), they effectively did not exist.

If the '04 RepCon goes according to plan, the nation will be treated to a post-Olympic four-night series of three-hour telethons set off by wraparound coverage of the most egregious street demos. These action highlights will effectively replace the Republican color commentary that helped undermine the inept production that was the Boston DemCon. Indeed, several of those "commentators" will be onstage: Rudy G (a 1972 McGovern supporter), Arnold (who back then, and even later, dreamed of becoming a mighty "dictator"), and poor John McCain, smeared by the Rove(r) Boy Swifties of 2000 as the original Manchurian Candidate.

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