Passionate Conservatism

Reassured, or moved to support Bush-Cheney?
photo: Staci Schwartz

It looked like Karl Rove was going to get away with it: presenting a nominating convention the press would call "moderate." The Times reported the opening morning how the "party seeks to pivot to the center." The first day's reviews depicted undeniable success, the Christian Science Monitor, for example, reporting on the Republicans, um, "pivot to the center." MSNBC put up an astonishingly Orwellian "Question of the Day" on its website: "Did Rudy Giuliani's speech reassure you or move you to support the Bush-Cheney ticket?" You could click either "Reassure" or "Move to support."

Rove had to have breathed a sigh of relief. No one was yet on to Donnie McClurkin.

McClurkin is the gospel singer the Republicans chose to warm up the crowd for President Bush on Thursday night. His name had been on the schedule for a week. But this had only seen print in The Charlotte Observer, which mocked him and the NYPD's singing cop as among the GOP's "most notable musical acts," and The Baltimore Sun, which cast a seconding vote: like most of the bill, "not a star outside their narrow world."

This world the Sun calls narrow surely encompasses within its borders viewers of the 700 Club. That means one million viewers each day. Among them McClurkin is notable, and cherished, as the man with the guts to say homosexuals are "trying to kill our children."

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Meanwhile, in another narrow world—that of the nation's five and a half million Mormons—activist Sheri Dew is famous for insisting supporters of gay marriage are on par with the folks who let Hitler get away with gassing the Jews. She delivered the convention's opening invocation Monday. That did not earn comment in any newspapers beyond Utah's Deseret Morning News.

It was only the first day. Maybe later the media would figure out that they were being punked: that for those with eyes to see this was not a "moderate" gathering in any recognizable sense of word.

Tuesday was compassionate conservatism night. Arnold Schwarzenegger was scheduled to rhapsodize about the immigrant dream, Laura Bush to wax gauzy about the man she calls "Bushie." At the Laugh Factory eight blocks away, on the other hand, it was "GOP Comedy Night," and the comedians must not have gotten the memo outlining that night's talking points. When the First Lady announced, "We are determined to provide a quality education for every child in America," she was perhaps disguising a sentiment expressed by the Laugh Factory's MC: "[We] have to face the fact that there are some dumb kids. It's time to give just a few of them coloring books, some crayons—press on to what we can save."

The only time you witnessed anger on the convention podium it came from a Democrat. That's all part of the hustle. If the bloodiest chunks are tossed out by someone who's not Republican, it can't be vicious partisanship, right? Even if the speech was the sheerest extrusion of rage since the days when Senator Joe McCarthy ranted and raved about Democrats as the party of twenty years of treason.

"My family is more important to me than my party," Zell Miller, the senator from Georgia, intoned, and no wonder: "In their warped way of thinking, America is the problem, not the solution." Democrats "don't believe there is any real danger in the world except that which America brings upon itself through our misguided foreign policy." And of the man his party has chosen to lead them—whom Miller called three years ago "one of the nation's authentic heroes": "This politician wants to be the leader of the free world! Free for how long?"

In a stunning display, MSNBC's Chris Matthews badgered Miller so mercilessly for his incivility that the Georgia senator nearly stomped off the air—but not before lamenting, not too unseriously, that he wished he could challenge the host to a pistol duel. This at least the media grasped: Miller traveled beyond the pale.

I give them little credit for the insight. It can't overcome the shame of the convention stories they so assiduously missed.

One of them concerns the central argument emanating from the podium: that George W. Bush is creating a new world of peace and stability in the Middle East. That story has shattered like a window pane, and the the administration's architects and implementers have been the ones wielding the bricks.

Men like Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, who wrote the interrogation policy that, via Abu Ghraib, has rendered every American in Iraq vulnerable to the kind of savagery described in—well, an astonishing article in the previous morning's New York Times, on how the Taliban-like militias in control of the strategically crucial city of Falluja (of most of Western Iraq in fact), are beheading leaders of the American-trained security forces. Men like War on Terrorism guru Richard Perle, singled out in a report that dropped Wednesday for culpability in the looting of 95 percent of the net income of a company, Hollinger International, on whose board he sat. Men like defense department analyst Larry Franklin, and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, and who knows how many neoconservatives to be named later—not to mention Ahmed Chalabi, Laura Bush's State of the Union Address companion, announcing his return to Iraq's political scene on Wednesday—all implicated as details emerged through convention week on an eye-popping two-year FBI investigation of the passing of classified intelligence to Israel. It was Wednesday night that Vice President Cheney said, "Just as surely as the Nazis during World War II and the Soviets during the cold war, the enemy we face today is bent on our destruction."  

I'm inclined to agree with him. Which leaves me in something of a spot. What to do about the fact that so many of the men the Bush administration has charged with redeeming the fear are turning out to be incompetents and crooks?

Speaking of GOP comedy. Did you hear the one about how two Americans blown up in a bombing in Kabul round about convention eve? Not if you were watching the convention coverage.

Instead, you heard the Republican talking points. Like the line speaker after speaker repeated, over and over again, about (these words are Laura Bush's) the "50 million more men, women, and children [that] live in freedom thanks to the United States." That is meant to include the entire population of Afghanistan and Iraq. Which brings us to the other missed story of this convention. The word that—if Michael Powell wasn't FCC commissioner, our press corps were stalwart, and there was any justice in the world—would be on every set of lips: bullshit.

Consider the "50 million" figure. Every informed observer knows that the idea that the 28 million residents of the nation of Afghanistan "living in freedom"—instead of in the zones beyond spitting distance of the capital, under the rule of the same old warlords and Taliban remnants as before—is a fantasy. Similarly fantastic, and repeated by nearly every speaker: that homeownership, and especially minority homeownership, is at an "all-time high." The number of homeowners has grown every year on record. Every year is an "all-time high." The relevant number is the rate of growth. In a typical two-year period during the Clinton years—from the second quarter of 1994 to the second quarter of 1996, for example, the percentage of American homeowners went up 1.8 points. In the last eight quarters, under Bush, it went up . . . less than one point. Dick Cheney's claim that the homeownership rate is proof that "the Bush tax cuts are working" is delusion on crack.

More and more as convention week went on, I found myself lamenting the lack of a word in the English language to describe the kind of utterance that produces this uncanny frustration, this furious oscillating over whether to call something you swear you just heard a lie, a product of ignorance, or a side-effect of lamentable political self-hypnosis. All are morally contemptible if uttered by figures at this level. Be that as it may, the problem is terminological efficiency. And it was the Great Communicator himself, the hero of this convention, who came through for me in the pinch. Ronald Reagan used to love to repeat, "It's not that our liberal friends are ignorant. It's just that they know so much that just isn't so."

Just so.

Honoring Reagan's memory, I began to refer to the phantasmagoric breaths of wind that kept on issuing from Madison Square Garden speakers as "not-so's." Try it. As a coinage, it's expansive. It even encompasses Zell Miller's claim that, say, John Kerry is "selling off our national security," leaving us to defend ourselves with "spitballs," because he cast a protest vote again an annual defense authorization bill that included funding for the Apache helicopter and the F14 Tomcat. It's just not so—at least not in any way that makes sense politically, considering that the vice president on whose behalf Miller toils is on the record around the same time calling those same systems "unneeded."

Surely this is historic. A presidential campaign is being built on a tissue of demonstrable falsehoods. And those are just the biggest not-so's. Here are some of the smaller. They came faster than I could fact check them. And, apparently, faster than the New York Times or Washington Post could fact-check them.

Zell exhorts, to a standing ovation that lasts 20 seconds, that "today's Democratic leaders see America as an occupier, not a liberator." A Nexis search indicates that Senator Kerry has never been quoted saying that. Nor Senate minority leader Tom Daschle, nor House leader Nancy Pelosi, nor Senate or House Democratic whips Harry Reid or Steny Hoyer; nor Hoyer's deputy whips Charlie Stenholm, Nita Lowie, Maxine Waters. I'll admit at this point I stopped searching. Maybe Miller is referring to the clerk in the House Democratic cloakroom.  

The great straight-talker himself, John McCain, breathed a not-so (like all the most vintage examples of the genre, this one also received a standing ovation) when he said Michael Moore's film depicted "Saddam's Iraq as an oasis of peace" (Moore's actual claim: there are children in Iraq, and they fly kites).

Bill Frist not-so'ed compulsively, not least when he implied that it was George Bush, not a generation of Democrats, who proposed a prescription drug subsidy under Medicare (the GOP stonewalled the notion until they had a president of their own who could claim credit for it).

"Arnold Leaves Them Laughing," Newsday headlined. He also, Newsday neglected to note, not-so'ed: "The President didn't go into Iraq because the polls told him it was popular. A matter of fact, the polls said just the opposite." The facts: two-thirds supported the invasion the month before it happened, 58 percent on its eve, and almost three-quarters after 9-11.

They even not-so'ed before the convention even started. Colin Powell skipped the event, officials claimed, because cabinet secretaries never participate in conventions. Poor Elaine Chao: perhaps she was presented in prime time Wednesday night not for her position as the president's labor secretary, but because she was the only Asian woman they could find?

The not-so's and the nutsos, those coarse threads woven within the skein of "compassionate conservatism": That is the story of this Republican convention. In the home stretch to come—only seven more weeks!—expect more waves of slashing attacks on John Kerry, on John Kerry's wife, even if an animated video shown on the screen at the convention is any indication, John Kerry's dog. The media won't call them on it. Nor will they call them on their habitual indulgence of a grassroots extremism that increasingly borders on mania.

The media didn't call the Republicans on Donnie McClurkin. He came. He sang. He conquered. He was surrounded on the stage by a cloud of singing little children, sitting cross-legged, wearing white, pure and innocent—a semiotic coding unmistakable to that narrow world where millions of people know that Pastor McClurkin has devoted his life to saving children from the cult-like snares of the homosexual recruiters. "The gloves are off," he told the 700 Club. "And if there's going to be a war, there's going to be a war."

The media missed that message.

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