Silly in Philly

JULY 31, 1:30 p.m. — There is going to be an absolute motherfucker of a balloon drop here. That’s for sure. In the rafters of the First Union Center — the Eff You Center — above the glittering Erector Set light-and-sound rig, the Republican National Convention’s balloons loom, bundled in netting. They form long balloon-masses, like giant sausages, and in the spaces between them you can see still more balloon-masses higher up. There are tens of thousands of balloons.

This is where George W. Bush and the GOP are going to be “Renewing America’s Purpose. Together.” That’s what is says on the camera platform across from the stage and on Page 1 of the party platform. Outside and somewhere else entirely are the unregistered, uncredentialed people and events: the Shadow Convention, the dueling pro-life and pro-choice pickets, the anarchists and the Free Mumia crowd and the drug-war opponents. The merchandisers, with bottled water and anti-Clinton stickers and oversized rave-influenced Uncle Sam hats.

And the 15,000 media representatives are supposed to figure out what this means, this Renewal of America’s Purpose and all that goes with it. I am not, I confess, trying to answer the question objectively. I come to Philadelphia with a frank and pronounced bias. It was in this city, 60-odd years ago, that Franklin Delano Roosevelt (or his agents) set my grandfather up with a New Deal job, while the invisible hand of the market was still flopping around uselessly. Scoccas remember this. And in this fall’s election, my stake in the Democratic Party is more direct: My wife is an associate director for domestic policy in the Clinton White House. If Gore wins, we might buy that Audi A4 wagon we’ve been eyeing.

But that is the crude old politics of self-interest. America’s Purpose is, I gather, a more rarefied thing, or at least a slipperier one. It is about leadership and civility, about “important tasks and higher goals,” as the preamble to the Republican platform puts it. On stage, Fred Brown of the National Black Republican Council is taking his stab at defining it, in theatrical cadences to the mostly empty hall: “Gaaaawg W. Bush believes in hope and opportunity for aaall Americans!” Don’t we all.

10:30 p.m — It is a stereotype and a cliché to say that Republicans don’t have funk, but damn it, it’s true. The band is playing Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground,” which seems to be a convention theme song, and they’re suffocating it. The rippling bass line of the original — bucka-bow-bucka-bow-bucka-bow-bucka-bow — is blurry and plodding: bung, bung, bung, bung. Stevie Wonder isn’t the only person whose material is being reinterpreted.

Today’s official convention theme is “Opportunity With a Purpose: Leave No Child Behind” — the subtitle lifted directly from the non-Republican Marian Wright Edelman of the Children’s Defense Fund. The keynote speaker on the theme, Gen. Colin Powell, says: “We either build our children or we build more jails. Time to stop building jails.”

He goes on: “There’s work for all of us to do — parents ... teachers, the government ... the private sector, our great nonprofits ... all joining in the crusade to point kids in the right direction in life.” It takes a village to raise a child. It’s not just the substance that’s so familiar. It’s the style. This is where Bill Clinton and his New Democrat advisers were eight years ago, moving the fence line between the parties. Crime-fighting, welfare reform, fiscal restraint — why, these weren’t Republican issues. These were everyone’s issues. Now it’s education, poverty, racial discrimination — we all need to fight these problems. Together.

AUG. 1, 4:30 p.m. — Up in the Convention Center, George H. W. Bush is a hot property. This is PoliticalFest, 250,000 square feet of politics-themed displays and activities. There’s a mock-up of the Oval Office (“on loan from Universal Studios ... featured in Dave and Contact”), collections of historical flags and presidential mementos, a simulated newscast. And an actual ex-president! Standing in an exhibit based on his own presidential library! The aisle is filled with people, pressing close, holding up cameras, just like in a real-world rope line.

The former president is as inarticulate as ever, and the PA system chews up his words. I move away to hear better. “We don’t really give him any advice,” Bush says, referring to George W. A genuine ex-presidential fib!

7:17 p.m. — This, it turns out, has been direct-action day for the protest coalition. And the action is about to get very direct. I’m in the middle of 15th Street, west of City Hall, the latest street the protesters have blocked off.

Before that, they were down on Broad Street, at Spruce, locked together with plastic tubes and duct tape across the city’s main north-south artery.

By the time I got there, that blockage had been broken up, and the blockers were being carted away in two sheriff’s buses.

But then farther up, where City Hall bestrides Broad Street, I saw the helicopters. Protesters had filled the street, beating on cans and buckets, waving signs, and stretching a rope across the way. There are 500 or 600, including dancing clowns and people wearing cardboard animal heads and some well-dressed members of Billionaires for Bush or Gore. Signs decry police brutality, sweatshop labor, drug policy. “We basically just want to raise press awareness,” says Scott Murphy, a 30-year-old from Ohio. Did he hear Powell talking about prisons last night?

“I thought his speech was all right,” Murphy says. “As far as those other crackers go, they’re just puppets.”

The demonstration stops abruptly at a line of mounted police, more than two dozen blocking the street in close formation. Some of the horses have riot shields over their eyes. A few protesters, arms linked, sit in the street, facing back at them.

Warning spreads: Reporters onto the sidewalk. It’s a narrow strip, with a low wall behind it. Spectators line up on the other side.

A few of the horses ride in on the protesters, trampling into the crowd where the people sit. Then the line surges forward and re-forms, maybe 10 yards farther along the street.

The innermost cop gets in a jawing match with a red-haired kid. They jostle, and it starts: Either the kid clutches at the horse, which is pressing at him, or the cop takes a swing. The horse scoots forward, wheeling and scuffling. From behind the line, five cops from the bicycle unit run up and pounce. The kid’s face down in the street, with four baby-blue shirts on his back. The line of horses charges forward again, leaving him behind, pinned by 600 pounds of cop, in the open street with horse manure all around.

10:40 p.m. — I’m rehydrating in the media lounge, watching John McCain on HDTV; the high-definition feed is clearer and more lustrous than the real-life convention. On HDTV, McCain’s eyes are gleaming obsidian, his hair white as burning magnesium. When the crowd applauds, you see every clapping hand distinctly, like leaves ruffling before a thunderstorm. I can’t remember anything he’s just said.

AUG. 2, 12:55 a.m. — Have I killed Gerald Ford? For weeks, I’ve been predicting a presidential death during the convention, but I thought it would be Reagan — dropping dead on Day Three, one last big play by the Gipper to put George W. over the top. It had crossed my mind that he might even already be dead, like Konstantin Chernenko, and in the freezer for deployment at a key moment.

But as we’re leaving Chinatown, my friend gets a phone call: Rumor has it Ford’s dead. He heads back to the Eff You to cover it; I go back to where I’m staying.

3:00 p.m. — Alan Keyes is loved, no matter what they do to him. The last candidate to concede to Bush has just spoken at the National Coalition for Life luncheon, surrounded by wood paneling and marble statues at the Union League of Philadelphia.

Why hasn’t he released his delegates to vote for Bush? one reporter asks.

“It’s kind of hard to have anything to do with your delegates when you’re not in any sense at the convention,” Keyes replies, skirting self-pity in favor of something like saddened amusement. He is much more charming than he is on TV, making his points so patiently and ingeniously, they feel like gifts — even when what he says is appalling. This being a pro-life event, someone asks him about the death penalty. The death penalty, Keyes, says, is “God-given.” Here, 10 out of 10 other people would refer to the Old Testament and start talking about an eye for an eye. Keyes appeals to the New Testament: What would — what did — Jesus do? He, uh, died on the cross, someone says.

“And what was that?” Keyes asks. We pause, puzzled. Patiently, triumphantly, Keyes clues us in: “He accepted the death penalty.”

4:21 p.m. — On Franklin Square, across from police headquarters, protesters are camped out, demanding the release of the 450 who’ve been jailed. In the crowd, I see one of the cardboard animal heads. I’d meant to ask what species it was yesterday, but lost track of the animal-head crew in the confusion. I catch up with it and ask. It’s a goat, the wearer says.

Goats for the Votes. I look closer: I know this guy. His name’s Morgan. We went to the same college. Worked at the radio station. He’s legally blind. He tells me how the cops knocked him off his bike yesterday.

8:40 p.m. — The band in the Eff You breaks into a stiff little melody that sounds really, really familiar. It’s Talking Heads, “Life During Wartime.”

Then they come to the chorus: “Come together/Right now ...” They’re playing the Beatles so ineptly, it sounds like new wave.

For the record, Richard Nixon once tried to deport John Lennon.

9:32 p.m. — The roll call vote is under way, with all its boring-yet-endearing boosterism. North Dakota boasts of “clean air and short commutes”; South Dakota calls itself the “pheasant capital of the world.” But right after Utah (“the only state that starts with the letter U”) the acting chair starts getting antsy. Having wasted time earlier by forgetting to repeat each state’s vote count — that is, by bungling the actual election procedures — the people in charge realize they’re three minutes off schedule, and start harassing the voters. Wyoming — Dick Cheney’s native state, which has been set up so its votes can put Bush over the top — gets nagged and interrupted in the middle of its made-for-TV moment. Finally, the votes are cast, confetti and Bush-Cheney banners descend, and the crowd cheers.

When the hubbub dies down, it’s time for the next big convention event. So far, the majority of convention speakers have fallen into two categories.

First, there are what the official program calls “Real Americans,” ordinary folks brought in to hold forth on policy topics they’re all but ignorant about. A teenage mom from Arkansas, with a daughter named Burgundy, addresses the income-tax rate. A farmer from Oklahoma holds forth on the estate tax.

The second category is minorities. At every opportunity, it seems, the GOP has been running African-American or Hispanic people out on stage. Though party leaders refer to this as outreach, when they admit it’s going on at all, what it seems to be is a version of the Cotton Club: nonwhite folks performing for a white audience, so that the white audience can partake, vicariously, in their difference.

And now, the two categories converge, horribly and cynically, in the person of Windy Smith. Smith is 26 years old and has Down syndrome, and she would like to share a letter she wrote to George W. Bush. “Hi,” she reads slowly. “I’m pulling for you to be our next President.”

This is, simply put, the most grotesque piece of political theater I’ve ever seen. If Bush wins, she says, “it will be a happy time for America.” When she finishes, the crowd rises to its feet, screaming approval.

AUG. 3, 8:41 p.m. — The vote finally concludes, all but seven delegates having voted for Bush. The Texans throw their hats in the air. But now, there’s a proposal from the floor: a move to make the vote unanimous. This is traditional, to affirm party unity. But that tradition exists to clean up divisive struggles for the nomination. This nomination was a landslide, rumbling before a single vote was cast, when Bush lined up his father’s supporters. There’s something perverse about wiping the seven dissenters off the rolls now.

And whom, exactly, does all this unanimity serve? The Rev. Kirbyjon Caldwell (another African-American) gives a speech urging an end to “partisan foolishness” in Washington. Gov. Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania, who may have lost a chance at the vice-presidential slot because he favors abortion rights, accuses Gore of seeking “to lead America by dividing us.”

This is the big lie for Bush as it was for Clinton: that there are no differences in American politics, that everyone wants the same things in the end, that we share the same values and goals. All week, reporters and delegates have been scratching their heads over the protesters. What do they want? Are they just protesting for the sake of protesting?

Or is it that the delegates are acquiescing for the sake of acquiescing?

10 p.m. — After four days of “compassion videos,” we get one last docu-mercial on the big screen in the hall: the life of George W. It repeats what we’ve heard before, how the hard-working life of Midland, Texas, gave W. a firm moral compass. There is no hint of the earlier version of his life story, where he wakes up in a drunken stupor at age 40 and gets Jesus to give him a mulligan on all the wasted decades.

The lights come up, and there is the man himself. After he accepts the nomination, his first words are the convention slogan: “Together, we will renew America’s purpose.”

He says fine things, warm things, not necessarily true. “I don’t have a lot of the things that come with Washington,” he says, as his father the ex-president sits across the way. He denies being ambitious.

But the most striking feature of his speech is how thoroughly he has assimilated liberal principles, at least as rhetoric. Four years ago, Bob Dole was clamoring to turn the calendar back to 1950; Bush mentions the intervening gains — women’s rights, civil rights, environmental improvement — and says, “we will not turn back.”

He quotes Martin Luther King saying “We shall overcome,” to a room full of the very people King was talking about overcoming. Talking about the tax code, he says, “on principle, those in the greatest need should receive the greatest help” — neatly paraphrasing the Marxist standard of economic justice.

The crowd saves its enthusiasm for tax cuts and a late-term abortion ban. But the most telling counterpoint comes when Bush first utters his refrain: “They have not led. We will.” At that moment, the video feed on the big screen cuts to a shot of Henry Kissinger.

At 11:00 sharp, he finishes. The balloons cut loose. They fall and fall and fall, all the ones that were visible and many more, regular ones, big spherical ones, deflated ones fluttering down like leaves.

Fireworks fill the air with sulfur. The band strikes up “Signed, Sealed, Delivered.” And the avalanche of balloons keeps coming, red, white and blue, till the delegates, the voters, are swimming in them, buried in them, vanishing.

Tom Scocca writes for the Baltimore City Paper. E-mail [email protected]

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