The Republican National Convention, to paraphrase Jon Stewart of “The Daily Show,” put on a display of the anger of the enfranchised. They control all three branches of government, they’ve created the first presidential dynasty in more than a century, they got us into a war on the basis of spite, and they’re not going to take it anymore!
It’s a peculiar thing, when the powerful rail against the powerless. Peculiar and frightening and grand entertainment, if you can forget that the future of the country is at stake. Indeed, the Republicans’ ultra-scripted extravaganza of bile topped the Democrats’ love-in convention ratings by more than 2 million viewers. Let’s recap the highlights.
Who, for instance, could fail to be amused when Senator Zell Miller — the GOP’s yipping dog of a mascot — all but challenged MSNBC’s Chris Matthews to pistols at dawn? Up until then, I had taken author Thomas Frank’s assertion that the Republicans want to “repeal the 20th Century” to be a metaphor. But Miller’s outburst was funny only until you remembered that he had just given the keynote address at a national party convention — for the opposite party in which he says he resides. What does it mean when political discourse in America is such that it’s perfectly OK to threaten personal violence, but not OK to admit you speak French?
Speaking of blissful ignorance: How about those Bush girls? It’d be easy to mock Jenna and Barb’s giggly, amateurish performance at the convention podium if it weren’t so spookily reminiscent of their father’s public pre‑9/11 persona. Like dad, Jenna and Barbara show a genius for the mainstream. In Washington, the pair is known for frequenting the same divey college hangouts as any recent grad in town who works on a campaign. Never mind that it’s their father’s campaign, and never mind that he’s running for the presidency. This regular-girl pose underscored every titter of their not-quite-appropriate speech, with its coy references to “Sex and the City” and partying: “When we were young and irresponsible,” they explained, “well, we were young and irresponsible.”
Of course, what’s inappropriate is relative. I could stand the Bush twins’ sub-”Saturday Night Live” punch lines well enough, but Rudy Guiliani’s 9/11-themed exercise in hero-porn made for the event’s most excruciating moments. Just how plausible could it be that Guiliani’s thoughts at the sight of the burning towers would be, “Thank God George Bush is our president”? Wouldn’t “Where are my loved ones?” or “Holy shit!” or just “Why?” or, maybe “I sure wish I knew where my president was right this minute” ring truer? Apparently, the brazen Guiliani doesn’t mind that his anecdote makes it seem like he was thinking of this very speech four years ago.
Even worse, though, was the former mayor’s attempt to turn the burning bodies of 9⁄11 victims into this convention’s “thousand points of light” — transmuting human costs into political capital. Guiliani’s calculated speech made explicit what everyone had been predicting: The Republicans were going to build their convention platform over bodies of the victims of September 11. Standing on the shoulders of giants, indeed.
This exploitation was painfully compounded by the sharp contrast between dutiful worship of American freedom inside Madison Square Garden and the suppression of freedom outside it. The zealousness of the New York police and their iffy tactics have been reported. And it must have been satisfying, if cold comfort, to those 1,700-plus arrested when the New York courts decided that being locked up indefinitely in a former bus depot was, you know, not exactly legal. But the greatest victory for the protesters outside the Garden may have been mere visibility — whether you were annoyed by, supportive of or conspiring with the anti-RNC masses, they were impossible to ignore, and even the Republicans couldn’t keep them off of the evening news.
Amazingly, it was the protesters who made it (more amazingly still) inside the convention who got the least press — even those two agitators who managed to interrupt George W. Bush’s speech Thursday night. They were smothered by the Secret Service and hidden from a complacent media. They shouted, they were silenced, and in the media hubbub that followed on the convention’s heels about Hurricane Frances and the tragedy in a Russian school, the press somehow lost their names.
They do have names, of course, and a story to tell (see “Pretty Effective in Pink,” page 11). But this lacuna, and the camera’s sudden, jerky move on and off the disruption these two individuals caused, may have proved to be the convention’s most singular, most evocative and most representative moment.