A Breakthrough Convention

George W. Bush’s speech was good, and a success. It did what it had to do with verve and persuasive power; it was more full of policy content than had been signaled by the campaign; and the policy was solid Bushian conservatism: pro-missile defense, for tax cuts, for abolishing the death tax and banning partial birth abortion. It was a gutsy speech in these respects, and others.

His vow on Social Security—to change it to include private investment—was accompanied by a firm and uncompromising declaration to those who are on Social Security or about to be on it that there would be “no changes, no reductions, no way.” That’s going to make it harder for Al Gore to demagogue on this issue in the future, though no doubt he will try, and hard.

Mr. Gore definitely won’t be able to use his “risky tax scheme” mantra ever again. He’s going to have to get a new one now that Bush has made a comic buzz phrase of it with his witty observation that if the vice president had been alive in Edison’s time he would have called electricity “a risky anticandle scheme.”

It was good stuff from beginning to end, and it did its job. It told people what Mr. Bush thinks, what he wants to do, what he thinks our problems are and what he will do to solve them; it told voters what a vote for George W. Bush means. Mr. Bush cleverly referred to President Clinton more in sorrow than in anger—what promise that man had, he suggested, and what an emptiness he has wrought.

But what I found most remarkable about the speech is the sense that it was infused by good feeling. There was a largeness, a generosity of spirit in its tone, a kind of hopeful sweetness at the heart of it. This is, these days, unusual in public discourse. No doubt there will be great and one hopes rousing fighting in the future, but for now, on this night, the good heart at the center at the speech seemed just right.

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And a fitting ending for a most interesting convention. This certainly wasn’t your father’s GOP, and in some ways that were truly good. This was a breakthrough convention for the GOP in that one of the big things it has been trying to do in a big way since 1968, finally really got done. A particular reality the Republicans want to establish has finally been established—because it is now a reality.

What I am referring to of course is the GOP’s desire to look and be inclusive, as in: Everybody’s welcome. Everybody has been welcome in the Republican Party for a long time, but every time the party tried to show this—by having black and women speakers, by highlighting Asians and Hispanics and immigrants—it always seemed like window dressing. But this time it didn’t, although the press insisted that is precisely what it was.

There were many images of the convention that I take home, but for me the most important was Condoleezza Rice at the podium. She is, as you know, black, 45, an academic, a former member of the National Security Council under President Bush, a brilliant and accomplished person who has more than earned her place at the table. And she was speaking not as a woman or a minority but as the leading national-security voice within a future presidential administration.

That was the breakthrough; that and Colin Powell, the esteemed civic leader and retired general, and Rep. J.C. Watts, one of the most respected voices in the party. And, most rousingly, the black minister who preached in full-throated soar to his roused and rousing congregation about why George W. Bush should be elected president.

It was all something. And it never would have occurred when I was a kid, and for me it was moving and beautiful.

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The media hated it. From green room to live shot on the floor they complained that it was all phony. A wonderful fellow with whom I sometimes work, a Gentleman of the Tube, said to me at one point, “Ya know the difference between a black Republican and a black Democrat?” I was a little taken aback, and asked if this was the beginning of a racist joke. He shook his head. “Black Republicans feel like they’re guests. Black Democrats feel like they’re home.”

I wondered how he knew this, as he isn’t black. I told him I didn’t think it was true, and then added that I would walk up to every black delegate and party official I bumped into and would quote him without using his name and ask if it was true. And I did it many times the next day. I started with a handsome couple in their 30s or 40s, as we walked together into the big gala lunch for the Bushes and Cheneys on Wednesday. I introduced myself, explained what I wanted to ask them. I quoted the Gentleman of the Tube, and the woman’s face went . . . blank is a good word.

“He didn’t mean his observation as a racist comment”, I said.

The woman looked at me and said, dryly, “Oh, well that’s a relief.”

We started to laugh, and she and her husband told me they didn’t feel at all like guests, that they were Republicans, that they felt completely comfortable because they were among Republicans. And they were tired, very tired, she said, of being asked by eager interviewers what it was like being black and here.

Every black person I talked to echoed their sentiments. What I am going to tell the Gentleman of the Tube is this: Black Republicans feel mildly harassed and abused by the liberal media, but not by their fellow conservatives.

He’ll smile. “You’re a riot,” he’ll say, with affection, because he knows my political philosophy probably dulls my eyes. I always wonder if he understands that his dulls his.

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But back to why I think this was a breakthrough convention. Normal humans, unlike reporters and political people, don’t sit, as we all know, for four hours straight and watch conventions. The television is on in grandma’s room and she’s got the door open and someone walks in and sees the convention and watches for a minute and then goes to check the pork chops or fix the doorbell. Most people get pieces of conventions. They get an impression of them. And that, ultimately, is why conventions have become so impressionistic—paintings full of dots and marks that together create a whole, a tree or a lady in a hat.

The impression a distracted viewer got when he walked by the set or turned on the radio was of diversity. Everyone’s welcome, everyone’s part, come join. This is very good. All of America should be more like this. And it is wonderful that the GOP has finally become what it wanted to be—what it struggled over many years, awkwardly and self-consciously and with inconsistent grace, to be.

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However. There was one compelling and accomplished and brilliant black man who is a famous Republican who was very much not involved in the proceedings, and that was Alan Keyes. He was not on the podium because he is that inconvenient thing, an eloquent and unstoppable social conservative who will never not tell you what he thinks.

The party seems to have done away with such things, and we all know why. Because they refuse to give the media any opportunity to use words like “red meat” and “extreme.” And indeed our friends in the media were so desperate to use those words—it’s as if they packed them in the briefcase next to the laptop, and have to throw it out now lest an unused epithet weigh down their bag on the way home—that they actually called Dick Cheney’s speech “red meat.”

Dick Cheney’s speech was critical, in a mild and rather reserved way, of eight years of Clinton-Gore. He was critical because he is in politics, and politics is an argument in which you assert and defend. He was making a political speech in which he asserted that the Clinton-Gore administration has, in many ways, been lacking.

Some red meat. Today, Thursday, reporters were calling it an example of negative campaigning. I sit back and wonder: Do they know how silly they sound?

Let me tell you of an unknown hero, a very smart and professional young producer/researcher at MSNBC. He was watching Mr. Cheney’s speech and picking up the media buzz, and he thought, as an intelligent man would, that the reporters were way off base. He remembered Al Gore’s acceptance speech at the ‘92 convention, in which he accused Bush-Quayle of causing “decay,” of creating a “crisis of the spirit,” of having left millions of Americans “betrayed by a government out of touch with our values and beholden to the privileged few,: of having “nourished and appeased tyrannies”; “they have embarrassed our nation”; “they have demeaned our democracy”; “the American people are disgusted.”

And that’s just in the first page.

Finding and handing out copies of Mr. Gore’s speech quickly dampened the growing media fervor regarding Mr. Cheney’s supposed slash-and-burn tactics. I think the researcher turned around a whole media river that night, or at least redirected it.

I don’t remember that the Gore speech—which truly was red meat, and, more than that, was quite vicious and extreme—was called any of those things. I think I remember it was called strong and passionate.

Really it is babyish to decry the massive and monolithic, unthinking and sly liberal political bias of the elite American media. It is not new; it is a fact of our lives; but I must say, every four years it jumps out at you like a child in the bushes on Halloween, making its ooh-ooh sounds and flapping its arms beneath the ghost costume. It has an endless power to startle you, and make you suck in your breath.

It isn’t television that has most changed the conventions, it’s bias, and the endless attempt to get around it.

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But we cannot end sadly, as we are not sad.

I’ll end with this, my favorite Republican moment off the convention floor. In line to get a cab to the convention hall. Long line, no taxis. I make friends with three strangers—a Hispanic woman who’s a delegate from California, a young black woman delegate from the same state, and a Stetson-wearing guy in jeans from the Texas delegation. We share the next cab.

On the long ride to the hall, cell phones are ringing; everyone is giving radio interviews or print interviews with reporters back home. For a moment there is silence. Someone says—there has been no talk of religion—”We should pray for the convention.” The Texan leads us in prayer, that only words of wisdom and kindness and truth come from our mouths this day, and we ask that God bless our efforts to help our country.

As we bow our heads we all join hands through the hole in the plastic seat divider that protects the driver. We pray and say “Yes, Lord” as the cab weaves and turns at great speed. We finish—”Amen and thank you, Lord.” There is quiet. For 40 seconds. And our phones begin to ring and we resume our busy talking.

We were beige, black, white and white and we loved and understood each other and vowed to be friends. We hugged goodbye. The tenderness of these good people takes my breath away.