Red Meat And Astroturf: Decoding The Convention

In Houston last week, the delegates heartily repudiated Bushism in their platform and unanimously renominated George Bush at their convention. They had unity right from the start. They all arrived depressed, and they all left feeling better.

Now the race is a race, and the ambivalence is about to become energy. After all, nothing inspires troops like the possibility they will not die.

A prediction: This is going to be one of the great campaigns, a bruising contest, two groups of guys on a hill in the mud, wrestling in the rain for control of the ball. An inch-by-inch battle, and every week the observers will be saying, “This team is winning,” and then the next week, “That team is winning.”

When politics gets this tough and this tight, a wonderful thing happens, as if by accident. The talk turns to serious questions, they argue over serious issues, over different ways of seeing the world and how the American people ought to go about their pursuit of happiness.

We’re all going to remember this one. Keep the kids up—they’re going to see democracy in one of its great barbaric yawps.

[Header] Floor Mirages

The delegates stood during the opening program Wednesday night as a chorus sang “Proud to Be an American.” Men in straw hats with blue bumper stickers on the brim, women in leis and little elephant earrings—they looked around and half sang, half clapped. It was as if they were wondering: Where is the convention? Where is the convention I imagined when I imagined this week?

You look at the podium, at the network booths, at each other, smile and nod and finally show—happiness, or approval of the singers, by clapping or waving a clacker in the air. You find that a big challenge for delegates to modern conventions is to locate “reality.” Another is to locate what you feel when you are surrounded by the inauthentic—by artfully constructed platforms, TV network booths, films, by bright light and correspondents scanning the hall for a story and you realize you’re the story and you know something else: You’re not much of a story, you’re just a guy in a hat.

You ponder this and smile and a network camera catches you smiling and a CNN producer puts it on the air because he thinks you’re responding to what the speaker at the podium just said. You see your face on the monitor. You stand there surrounded by inauthenticity so pervasive, so inescapable that it feels like a balloon drop.

[Header] Truth in C-SPAN

The authentic sound of the Republicans in August was the authen-tic sound of the Democrats in July: “Richmond, Virginia, you’re up next.” The man and woman to whom all eyes turned in trust and for inspiration were C-SPAN’s Brian Lamb and Susan Swain. You could walk the halls of the big hotels, the Stouffer El Presidente and the Doubletree, and from room after room would come the gentle buzz of their voices. C-SPAN broadcast both conventions “gavel-to-gavel,” considered a seriously outmoded approach by the networks.

Lamb’s livelihood does not depend on advancing the story, so he can be humane and curious in his approach. His guests are not frightened and so reveal themselves, which advances the story. Swain is intelligent and calm. Her body language says, “I’m so interested, please tell me more.”

Tuesday afternoon, Lamb interviewed three delegates, all women, none of them famous, all of them delighted to be there. He asked how much it cost them to have this week in Houston. One said it cost $1,000 air fare and hotel, but “we’re sharin’ rooms and havin’ a great time!” They were. He asked who inspired them to be there, and one, a young woman with brown hair, said, “I’ll start to cry if I talk about it, but it was my dad, who’s a Democrat, who told me to always stand up for what I believe.” Her eyes welled.

It said more about who goes to conventions than any number of bright, gently spoofing network pieces. And unlike your basic anchor booth bluh bluh about whether Dan Quayle timed his floor appearnace to undercut Pat Buchanan’s speech, it was actually interesting.

[Header] The Presence of Lee

I met a friend of Lee Atwater at a hoedown Monday night. We stood in red bandannas, ate barbecue from plastic plates and drank from long-neck beer bottles. Later we shared a car home and talked about the Republican National Committee chairman who died of a brain tumor at the age of 40. Tell me something Lee taught you about being an operative, I say. He smiles, looks at his hands. “Play dumb, keep moving, take credit, stir the waters.” He laughs. “It’s hard to explain Lee. No one’s ever really got it.”

[Header] Strangers in the Night

Two men standing together at a reception.

    Consultant: Hello.
    Politician: Hey!
    C: So, we gonna win?
    P: Well . . . yeah.
    C: {Surprise} We are?
    P: {Alarmed} I don’t know, are we?
    C: Yeah!

They laugh, and look for other people to talk to.

[Header] Notes in the Night

Words jotted in a notebook after the first dozen speakers: “Do not mistake volume for passion, lectern-slapping for conviction. Fist-making does not convey strength but strength’s opposite.”

[Header] James & Mary

Walking, the Saturday before the convention, along the empty rows of the Astrodome, I saw Mary Matalin doing an interview. She stood so straight and looked so serious. I thought perhaps something had happened. Later, on TV, a reporter spoke of the interview. Matalin had been asked about whether her relationship with Clinton campaign manager James Carville has hurt her professionally. She said, “Yes, it hurts me because reporters always ask if it hurts me. They never ask the man, which in my view is sexist and unfair.” It’s nice when people say things that are both blunt and true.

[Header] In the Oratorical Zone

These are some of the people America watched last week:

Mary Fisher: An angel in pearl earrings and a black velvet dress who said, We must not judge each other, we must be kind to each other. She communicated this first through her presence, which said, I am a beautiful, wealthy, white, heterosexual mother, and when you think of AIDS, think of me. She used words not so much to assert as to underscore, and she manipulated the audience toward compassion by starkly stating her plight: “If it is true that my HIV will inevitably turn to AIDS, then it is true that my children will inevitably turn to orphans.”

Decoded: It is good that you care about traditional values. Moral generosity is such a value. Human beings sometimes see clearly only through tears, so I will make you cry.

Pat Buchanan: That wasn’t red meat, it was gristle and marrow. He defined: “Wrong, Albert. The central organizing principle of this country is freedom.” And merrily insulted: “Well, speak for yourself, Hillary!” His approach was bracing but hard, and he has forgotten Reagan Lesson No. 1: Conservatives who go national must be happy warriors who envelop, not pierce.

Problem to work on: The angry, unsmiling Pat looks slit-eyed and thuggish.

Marilyn Quayle: Flinty, unbroken and tough, she reminds me of the pioneer woman who, when the wagons were circled and the Sioux were coming over the ridge, kicked the cowering cowboys and told them to shoot, dammit. All this while sifting flour and breast-feeding a foundling.

It was a direct, substantive speech about societal arrangements and their meaning: Having a profession is not incompatable with being a good mother and wife; there are real trade-offs.

Problem to work on: When she tries to show her good humor, when her eyes take on a glint and her mouth a smile . . . well, to me she looks a like a Stepford wife who has a few wires just a little too tight.

Bad joke: After being introduced by the actor Gerald McRaney, Marilyn Quayle said, “If only Murphy Brown could meet Major Dad!” As some pre-school friends of mine say when they hear an adult say something dumb, DOYee.

Decoded: I don’t care if the media don’t like us, we’re not backing down. You don’t scare us.

Barbara Bush: Everybody in politics could learn from her canny knocking-down of expectations—“Oh, it’s just a silly little speech from silly old me, please don’t pay any mind!” She knows intuitively what some of the president’s men learned slowly: Don’t promise a great speech, a defining moment, an oration that will make your spine tingle and your teeth dance. Play it down, do your best, act modest. Don’t point to the bleachers unless you’re Babe Ruth.

George P. Bush: Touching testimonial from a poised teenager. “Viva Boosh!” was great.

Mrs. Bush and George P. decoded: On traditional values we don’t just talk the talk, we walk the walk. We have Hispanics in our family.

Ronald Reagan: Four-score years and one and hauling into the Astrodome to do it again: concentrating, speaking, acting, timing the jokes, trying to control the audience when he can’t quite differentiate the sound of cheers and chants anymore and has to go by what he sees, by the clapping and the faces moving, knowing exactly what he has to do, coming through, and, at the end, blithely kicking back a balloon and exiting, with a wink, stage right.

“I knew Thomas Jefferson . . .an empire of ideas . . . . The sky would not fall if an American president told the truth . . . . Of course, at my age, every night’s a special night.”

Those kids who crowded the platform, they wanted to chair him through the hall, hold him high and rock the house with “Thank you Ron, thank you Ron . . . . “

It’s nice when you see someone get the three little words they deserve.

Disclaimer: I adore Ronald Reagan.

Phil Gramm: A keynote speech is a hard old speech. This one won no converts at home.

Problem to work on: When Gramm juts out his chin to make a point, he looks like a startled turtle whose head popped out of the shell after someone touched his belly.

Dan Quayle: I was among those who weeks ago advised the president to remove Quayle and start over. I said he had been a good vice president, but he’d never, ever, win the confidence of the people, and in a close race this would count. But after his speech, I think maybe I was wrong.

History is funny. This man who never should have been chosen may turn out to be the grittiest guy in the fight. The speech started out goood, got better as it built, was delivered with force and had a nice joke about the Democrats: “If they’re moderates then I’m a world champion speller.”

Quayle’s eyes usually aren’t expressive, they don’t seem to widen or narrow much as he speaks, and it makes him seem—preoccupied, absent somehow. Maybe he’s just a little too careful. Whatever, he was plenty expressive in his speech.

The Quayle Film: Not as polished or as long as the Clinton film, but good. Great old family movies, great Indiana faces, made the name J. Danforth touching instead of a joke. But oh, Marilyn, “We met over the death penalty.” Like a satire of young conservatives in love.

Bob Dole: We see him so much in Washington we forget to notice. He has style, conviction and a wit that is an expression of a different, interesting sensibility. “If the polls were always right, I’d be speaking next.” How old will he be in ‘96?

President Bush: The night after the Gipper, a friend told me, “The problem with Reagan’s speech is it’s going to get better as the week goes on.” Meaning, it will make it tougher for Bush,

But it didn’t. All Bush needed was a good solid speech in which he proved he was up for the battle, showed he could admit a mistake and demonstrated that he understands history, his own and the world’s. He had it. He did it. If it didn’t always sing—can capital gains, bless them, sing?—it still hit the right notes, and the president appeared relaxed and eager for fun.

Most important words: “When it comes to taxes, I learned the hard way . . . . It was a mistake.”

Most important argument: You’re better off with a man who raised taxes once and learned not to than with another who isn’t at least philosophically opposed to raising them.

Unanswered question: Was the president suggesting he intends to liberate Cuba? Is something up?

Verdict: The other night on CBS, Terrence Smith found beneath the bleachers the Astro’s third base. He kneeled down, pointed and said, “This is where George Bush has to hit the ball.”

That is where George Bush hit it.

[Header] One of Them

Reporters work hard. They are up at 6 for the prayer breakfast, then to the Southern Belles for Safe Sex news conference, then to the Democrats’ news conference at Papadeux’s Restaurant where reporters tried to get the quotes and facts right as 400 placard-waving Bush/Quayle kids pounded on the windows and screamed. (Ron Brownstein of the Los Angeles Times said, “I feel like I’m in `The Birds.’ “)

Then they rush to the workspace, work the phones, wait for calls for a quote from the president’s cousin for the Bush profile that you have to file by 6, and he’s not calling. (Maybe it was that column where you sort of suggested another family member was a squash-playing, Repp-tie-wearing Greenwich weenies. Can’t these people take a joke?) And you wait, and worry, your stomach lining twitching with acid . . . and then the president’s cousin finally calls and you have to get told off for five minutes before he gives you, after long negotiations, the quote: “As a boy, George was always—polite!” You finish the piece, argue with the editor, then on to the Reagan Reunion cocktail party and then B/Q ‘88 Alumni Dinner, file again, cover the floor, go home at 2 and get up three hours later if you’re a woman to do your hair and makeup so your competitors won’t say, “That’s why she’s not on TV.”

I do not mean that hard work is an exonerating virtue; Mafia guys work hard. I do mean most of the politicians I know have only a passing sense of what a reporter’s life is. For instance: Journalists resent the relentlessness of spin—of political hacks shading facts and omitting truths to get the reporters to see things the way you want them to see them. This is the political journalist’s lot: to be patronized by dart-eyed campaign aides just out of business school, to be spun like fine silk by your intellectual inferiors.

Reporters resent being called an elite, but they are at least a hard-working one. I would offer them only one view they have not entertained lately: Referees are good, but the nation does not need a pack of schoolmarms. It’s a fight; let it unfold.

[Header] Waiting for ’96

Every serious Republican challenger for 1996 spoke at this convention. It was Jack Kemp, speaking to the big heart of conservatism, who most sounded like a president.