RE-INVENTING THE ELEPHANT
the Second Session of the 37th Republican National Convention
Tuesday, August 1, 2000
RICHARD E. BERG-ANDERSSON
The Second Session of the 37th Republican National Convention was gaveled to order a short time before the appointed time of 7:30 P.M. EDT (2330 UTC), Monday 31 July 2000. The first speaker was Paul C. Harris, a member of the Virginia House of Delegates who represents what is- however ostensibly- the same seat once occupied by Thomas Jefferson (though a comparison of how Representation was applied to a post-Colonial legislative body and how it is applied to a modern State Legislature yields significant differences: the fact that Harris, an African-American, was even a member of his legislature spoke of such differences) who spoke on the "Principles of Freedom" but, more importantly, set the tone for what would be following by noting that "Opportunity should be available to all Americans" and that Governor Bush, as President, would seek to "ensure that no child is left behind", sounding the twin themes of that evening's Session "Opportunity With a Purpose: Leave No Child Behind". Sounding an underlying theme that would resound throughout much of the evening's presentations, Harris proclaimed that "low expectations and low standards may be the liberal prescription for America's poor and minority children, but we Republicans know better".
After Delegate Harris had finished speaking, one witnessed the Presentation of the Colors by the Historic Pennsylvania Colonial Fife and Drum Corps, the Pledge of Allegiance led by young Justina Sol Cristobal and the singing of our National Anthem by young Mari Griego- both girls hailing from New Mexico. Rabbi Victor Weissberg of suburban Chicago led the invocation and his reference to a Psalm of David "who ruled in a united Jerusalem"- seemingly a pointed reference to the recently failed Middle East peace talks at Camp David- was duly noted by this observer. It seemed as if we were in for an evening of ethnic and religious minorities, groups which the GOP was going to try and strongly go after in the Party's efforts to defeat the Democrats this coming Fall.
To start with, there were three Convention Deputy Permanent co-Chairs: Congressman Henry Bonilla of Texas- a Latino, Congressman J.C. Watts of Oklahoma- an African-American and Congresswoman Jennifer Dunn of Washington, each of whom would be the Convention chair for approximately one hour of the proceedings in succession, but only once the one remaining procedural Order of Business- getting the so-called "Rolling Roll Call" rolling- had been completed. It was left to Temporary Chairman Trent Lott (finally taking the gavel- but well AFTER the Permanent Chairman, Speaker Hastert, had already been installed in the previous Session: yet another sign that National Convention parliamentary procedure was now to be more honored in the breach) to bring the Convention to order and have two Assistant Secretaries come up to the stage to begin recording the first night's portion of the Roll Call of the States. Some highlights:
Arizona's vote was announced by its delegation chairman, Cindy McCain- wife of the Senator who had, during the month of February, strongly challenged George W. Bush for what had appeared to be his prize from the get-go. The 30 one-time McCain delegates gave all their votes to Bush.
California's was a long-winded speech glorifying the Golden State which became anti-climactic when California finally announced it was passing. This prompted Colorado to announce that it would take "less time to vote than California took NOT to vote!" before casting all its votes for the nominee-presumptive. Connecticut, another State made up of all McCain delegates but which also is the native State of the Texas Governor (as it is for the author of this very piece as well), followed Arizona's lead and cast all its votes for its native son (George W. Bush, of course... not myself!)
California's having passed was followed by a number of the larger states as it became clear that the basic mathematics of the "Rolling Roll Call" was being set up to assure that, come Wednesday evening, Texas would put its own Governor over the magic number of 1,034 delegate votes needed for the Republican presidential nomination: accordingly, Florida, Georgia, Illinois and Indiana all duly passed. After Iowa had cast its vote, Convention co-Chair Bonilla announced that the Roll Call was to be suspended until the next evening, when it would be picked up with the vote of Kansas.
Thus, the first "round" (as I search for new terminology to describe the different phases of the brand-spanking new "Rolling Roll Call") of the Roll Call of the States went like this:
the total (so far!) being 283 for Bush, 5 for former Ambassador Alan Keyes.
Once the Convention had completed this first part of the "Rolling Roll Call" (still, in my book, an altogether silly idea!... the mainstream electronic media would- even with their truncated coverage of late- at the very least show the Roll Call of the States, allowing state and local candidates a few minutes of fame before a nationwide audience [but, more importantly, the audience watching back home]: from purely the point of view of Party political strategy, this aspect of the Convention was now being squandered. More importantly, the link between the remarks of Virginia Delegate Harris earlier and what was to follow had now been broken by this strange interruption of normal Convention "flow"!), it was time to resume that evening's Theme: "Opportunity with a Purpose: Leaving No Child Behind"- but not until a fair amount of time-wasting vapidity had to be tolerated, a spectacle which had me thinking of H.L. Mencken's observation- though it be from a very different time- that a National Convention is "as fascinating as a revival or a hanging", that "it is vulgar, it is ugly, it is stupid, it is tedious... and yet it is somehow charming" and that "then suddenly comes a show so gaudy and hilarious, so melodramatic and obscene, so unimaginably exhilarating and preposterous that one lives a gorgeous year in an hour".
Nothing, and certainly not modern post-Menckenian technology- not television, remote video feeds, the cell phones many of the delegates seemed to be talking on during speeches and presentations, laptop computers- had changed much since Mencken had penned those words over three-quarters of a century earlier (during the infamous 103-ballot Convention of the Democrats in stifling New York City). First, we were treated to a musical interlude of the orchestra "vamping till ready" on the Stray Cats' Rock this Town. This was followed by the strange appearance of musical entertainer Hank Williams, Jr. who- instead of performing- merely said, in a mock version of his Monday Night Football opening cry (of course, it WAS Monday night):"Are you ready, my fellow rowdy Republicans!". One barely had the time to digest the fact that the phrase "rowdy Republicans" sounded altogether oxymoronic before the big screen showed two football helmets- one with a blue elephant, the other with a red donkey (the colors themselves were intriguing, reminding me of my own home town of rock-ribbed Republican Madison, New Jersey which gave out- on primary day- "true blue" slips to GOP voters and decidedly pink [as in "-o"] slips to the few who deigned to show up at the polls and publicly admit they were Democrats)- which crashed into each other a-la the Monday Night Football opening montage- except, of course, the elephant helmet survived the resultant explosion.
All this hoop-la (well, as I have already argued in this web site's "Mission Statement", Politics IS Sport!) was followed by a local Rock band called The Interpreters performing live (using an underlying riff in the chorus which, to my aging Baby Boomer ears, sounded like a pastiche of the Beatles' All Together Now ), followed by the orchestra breaking into a "vamp till ready" version of Elton John's Crocodile Rock. I began to realize just WHY the "over-the-air" networks (and even some cable ones) have abandoned "gavel-to-gavel" coverage (although these interludes, of course, would have been used- in the old days- for network interviews in which a former President could talk about trying to negotiate a "co-Presidency" if he were offered the status of running mate or something of that ilk). There was now a video presentation- which seemed to signal the opening of the more serious portions of the evening's proceedings- in which children of varying ages were seen (some being in isolation shots intercut with scenes of children learning in school, children playing, children reciting the Pledge of Allegiance) backed by a musical soundtrack with lyrics which spoke of "finding my Place in this World": by the end of the evening, I would look back on this and realize that this could very well have been the mantra of the GOP we were seeing unfold before us at this Convention- a Party seeking to be "compassionate" while "conservative" but seemingly unsure of just what that entailed. But there was no immediate follow-up: instead, the band struck up Glenn Miller's American Patrol and we were off on another musical interlude.
Then, as if to illustrate Mencken's point exactly, onto the stage trooped Ben Stein- lately of Comedy Central- to do what was described in the official Convention schedule as a "political version of his hit show" Win Ben Stein's Money: here, seemingly all at once, was the "vulgar" and the "stupid" mixed with more than a bit of the "gaudy" and, above all, the "preposterous". Ben Stein had, as his "contestant" at the dais, a former Miss America named Nicole Johnson, who admitted- upon apparently inadvertent prompting by Mr. Stein- that, while she had represented Virginia in the pageant in which she was victorious, she had actually been a Floridian. Now that we had learned that Republicans would not have much minded, say, Hillary Clinton having switched state residences if she were in a beauty pageant rather than in a race against their candidate for the U.S. Senate, it was time for the ultimate insipidity; questions were now asked by Mr. Stein of Ms. Johnson, such as "which State was ranked # 1 in Math?" and "which State was ranked # 1 in Teacher Quality?": surprisingly, all the answers seemed to be "Texas"- of which, I believe, nominee-presumptive George W. Bush is Governor. I wondered if anyone looking in really learned anything substantive about the candidate's policies on Education from this performance.
Mercifully, Ben Stein soon enough introduced Claudia Daye-Kirkley of Healthy Start Academy of Durham, North Carolina who talked of her privately-funded school and the good work it had done in Math and Science and the more serious part of the evening Session was finally underway. This was followed by the first in a series of three of what were called "Profiles in Compassion" videos- this first one being about "Character Counts" education at Carlos Rivera School in El Paso, Texas and introduced by that city's Mayor Carlos Ramirez. There was now a short break in the proceedings as former President Bush and former First Lady Barbara Bush made their way to their seats in the galleries and were acknowledged by the assembled on the Convention floor. Then the Convention heard from Pilar Gomez of Milwaukee- a single mother who is also a parent-training coordinator with the American Education Reform Council- and Boston's Conna Craig, president of the Institute for Children who spoke about adoption and foster care.
Another musical interlude followed, with the orchestra breaking into a version of the Beatles' All You Need Is Love. When the proceedings resumed, co-Chair Bonilla had given way to co-Chair J.C. Watts and soon we were treated to "Profiles in Compassion" video # 2 about the Cornerstone Schools in Detroit, Michigan, a private school operating under what was described as a "non-denominational Christian philosophy". The next featured speaker was Elaine Chao, currently a Distinguished Fellow at the Heritage Foundation but who had also been a former United Way president and a one-time Director of the Peace Corps: she spoke movingly about her family's experience as immigrants to the United States. This was followed by a brief Moment of Appreciation, called for by co-Chair Watts, for the Republican Congressmen and Senators in attendance at the Convention.
What came next actually had the GOP house fairly rocking: a live video feed was placed on the big screen- it was of Rev. Herbert Lusk, like Watts a former professional football player, preaching before the congregation of his Greater Exodus Baptist Community Revitalization Church in Philadelphia. At the end of his preaching, the Church's choir broke out into a smoking rendition of Black Gospel song and- during the vamp- was joined by the Bill Jolly Choir, live on stage in the Convention Hall itself in order to do its own African-American Gospel number before the assembled Republicans.
All this soulful music was followed by yet another musical interlude, with the orchestra breaking out into the Spencer Davis Group hit Gimme Some Lovin' , after which Convention co-Chair Jennifer Dunn took over the proceedings from Congressman Watts for the duration. Dunn introduced Sharon Darling, president of the National Center for Family Literacy who was, in turn, followed by Permanent Chairman Hastert who gave his own brief speech before lining everyone up for the official Convention photograph. No sooner was this little piece of more traditional business completed when Dick Cheney and his wife took their seats in the galleries and were acknowledged by the delegates below, after which musical entertainer Brian McKnight took the stage to entertain the Convention, followed by the last in the series of "Profiles in Compassion" videos- this one about the Center for a New Generation in East Palo Alto, California and founded by former Bush Administration staffer (and now adviser to the G.W. Bush campaign) Condoleezza Rice.
The time was now fast approaching when the traditional "over-the-air" networks would be giving their rather begrudging hour of Convention coverage this night. David Levine and Michael Feinberg, co-founders of Houston's Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) Academy, took center stage and, in an impromptu classroom set up on the Convention stage, the KIPP'ers were shown going through their paces of drill-like instruction, after which Mr. Feinberg introduced Laura Bush, the First Lady of Texas and the wife of the GOP nominee-presumptive. Mrs. Bush came out and stepped up to the dais- with the KIPP'ers arrayed behind her- to the strains of the orchestra playing the Jackson 5's ABC and a shower of glittering confetti.
After making a few "rubber chicken circuit"-like quips (for example, she told the delegates that, in terms of the Party's impending nominee for President, "you've made a great choice" [as if the Convention as a deliberative institution had had anything to really do with it!]: she also noted that, while older adults face the "empty nest syndrome" [the Bushes' twin daughters are entering college this Fall] in different ways, she found her husband's running for President a somewhat extreme solution), Mrs. Bush launched into the main themes of her speech- in which she linked her family life (that of the family she grew up in as well as that she raised), her career as a librarian and schoolteacher and her own advocacy of early childhood reading to her husband's Education policies as Governor of Texas as well as his proposed policies as a candidate for President. All in all, it was a very effective way of linking the nominee-presumptive's policies as an office-holder to a man who had to raise his own family and make decisions regarding his own daughters' education.
As the Texas First Lady- upon the completion of her remarks- joined the KIPP'ers in waving to the crowd before striding off the stage, the orchestra broke into a rendition of Stevie Wonder's Higher Ground. There seemed to be less dancing in the aisles than there had been earlier in both this and the previous Session this day as the delegates seemed to be anticipating the introduction of retired General Colin Powell- chairman of America's Promise, scheduled to be the Convention's next and final speaker of the night. After the completion of this last musical interlude, Convention co-chair Dunn strode to the dais, from which she announced that- although tradition was that the nominee not address his Party's Convention until the final day- the soon-to-be Republican standard-bearer, nonetheless, wished to say a few brief words to those assembled in the First Union Center.
The Convention was thereupon treated to George W. Bush, the nominee-presumptive himself, addressing the Convention via a live video feed to the big screen from a classroom at Westerville South High School in Westerville, Ohio outside the state capital of Columbus. The scene was oddly unnatural, particularly coming mere moments after the apparently genuine enthusiasm the KIPP students had just shown both for their schooling drills AND the Governor's wife before the Convention proper as well as Laura Bush's own remarks: there were high school students seated in rows behind the Texas Governor- many of them unsmiling (another glaring contrast to the KIPP'ers), although it was true that it was a.) Summer and b.) 10:30 on a weekday evening- a combination which, under more usual circumstances, would have had not a teenager in sight!
Governor Bush himself stood erect, his back to the students and, though he clearly warmed up to the task- gesturing frequently- as he spoke glowingly of his wife and then did the same in his introduction of General Powell, I thought he would have been much better served to have been sitting down- perhaps on the edge of the teacher's desk in the front of the classroom (which was visible just off to his right before the camera zoomed in on him), perhaps even interacting briefly with a handful of the students behind him. Certainly, better use could have been made of this real classroom setting (as opposed to the impromptu one set up for the KIPP'ers on the Convention stage earlier) in its showing that Governor Bush was "hands-on" about Education, the very theme of this evening's festivities! It would have visually made a "connect" to all that his own wife had just said: instead, it all came off as merely just another "photo op"- only this time with movement and sound.
I found myself distracted- as the Governor spoke in that strangely disconnected manner- by a pull-down wall map of the United States, slightly fuzzy due to the focal length of the camera directly in front of the nominee-presumptive, at the back of the classroom behind the students. From the tinting of various parts of the Continent, I quickly realized this map was intended to illustrate the Missouri Compromise and the America that had existed between the admission of Missouri to the Union in 1821 and the admission of its neighbor to the south, Arkansas, 15 years later. It suddenly struck me that this map was of the America which had been visited by Alexis de Tocqueville and his traveling companion, Gustave de Beaumont, back in 1831-32: the very journey that led, a few years later, to Tocqueville's seminal two-volume work Democracy in America, of late a literary iconograph- albeit one greatly outdated- for late 20th Century American neo-Conservatism. The America of which Tocqueville wrote was, of course, filled with such politicoeconomic devices as tarring-and-feathering, warning out and, above all, Slavery: although I instinctively knew I was surely one of the very few watching the video feed from Ohio who would even have noticed this, I couldn't help thinking that all of what had been presented during that evening's Convention Session fairly smacked of the localism that Tocqueville had so greatly admired in his observations though, admittedly, they be about a "way back in the day" America in which "conservatism" was, in its essence, NOT so "compassionate" as that this Convention was trying its best to promote!
Governor Bush's somewhat awkward performance via video was even more to be unfavorably compared to that of General Powell, who gave what- to my mind- was the closest thing we were going to see at this Convention to the more traditional "Keynote Address" typical of most National Conventions: although he was ostensibly summarizing the "Opportunity with a Purpose" theme of the evening, he included references to many other policies supported by George W. Bush- most notably, rebuilding the Military and continuing the post-Cold War Foreign Policy of the Texas Governor's father (policies which, by implication, the Clinton- no... to Republicans it would be, of course, the so-called "Clinton/Gore"- Administration had abandoned). "We defeated Communism, we defeated Fascism: we defeated them on the field of battle and in the field of ideas", the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff would proudly proclaim.
But the thrust of Powell's speech echoed the themes already established earlier during that evening's Session. "The issue of Race still casts a shadow over our country", he intoned,"... it is still with us". Later, he quoted the nominee-presumptive's own words before the NAACP Convention earlier this year that "the Party of Lincoln has not always carried the mantle of Lincoln": Powell assured the assembled GOP delegates (and, one presumes, a nationwide television audience- as this was one of the few portions of the Convention the mainstream electronic media deigned to carry) that Governor Bush "wants the Republican Party to wear that mantle again". More than a few of the delegates, however, appeared to be nonplused at this statement and I was reminded of the possibly apocryphal story of how, when future President George Bush the father said- during his acceptance speech at the GOP Convention in New Orleans twelve years earlier- that he wanted "a kinder, gentler Nation", then-First Lady Nancy Reagan- sitting in the Convention galleries- openly asked, "kinder and gentler than WHAT?!"
Powell accentuated "the cynicism and distrust" that pervaded minority communities, especially the African-American community, about the motives of the Republicans as over against those of the Democrats: he urged the GOP to reach out to these communities, "not just in an election year" adding that- if such a Republican outreach were to be successful- "it must be a sustained effort, it must be every day and it must be real". He then went on to say, "some in our Party miss no opportunity to roundly and loudly condemn Affirmative Action that helped a few thousand Black kids get an education but you hardly hear a whimper when it's 'Affirmative Action' for lobbyists who load our Federal Tax Code with preferences for Special Interests... you cannot make that case!": it was either a lukewarm defense of at least SOME Affirmative Action or a tongue-lashing over the issue of so-called "corporate welfare"- perhaps it was more than a little of both. But I couldn't help thinking about a statement earlier in Powell's speech about how, in order to "ensure a diverse college population with the loss [emphasis mine] of Affirmative Action, Governor Bush has guaranteed acceptance at public universities for the top 10 percent of every high school graduating class in [Texas]"; I also couldn't help thinking that- until he accepted the Texas Governor's offer to be his running mate- Dick Cheney was part of Dallas-based Halliburton Corp., an oil fields services company: what benefits did just such a firm itself derive from the Federal Tax Code preferences Powell was now so openly scoring!
But, as I've said, Powell's speech primarily was meant to dovetail with the evening's Theme and the retired General was certainly up to the task. "We have much work to do and a long way to go to bring the promise of America to every single American", he said- later noting that "we must begin with our children... so many of the problems we worry about go back to how we raised our children... we must get back to the task of building our children the way we know how or we will keep building jails in America". Later, Powell talked of how "education is the key to breaking [the] cycle of poverty and failure" and- while defending much of the public school system (noting how honored he was to have four public schools named after him), he scored schools that were "trapped in fossilized bureaucracies, bureaucracies that have low expectations for children and, consequently, set low standards for them: these schools are failing our children and they must be fixed... now!"
In the end, he- as any good keynoter of a Convention in which the nomination outcome is assured would- strongly urged the national TV audience (one must assume that at least most of the assembled delegates needed no such urging) to elect the Bush/Cheney ticket, noting that "'Good for America'- that should be the measure for all we do" and that Governor Bush was someone who- as President- "use Government where it makes sense and get rid of it where it doesn't". As he had at the beginning of the speech, General Powell- towards the end of it- acknowledged his former boss, former Defense Secretary Cheney- sitting in the galleries- and hailed him as someone who would make a great Vice President: Cheney still appeared somewhat uncomfortable (as he stood up and waved) with the chants of "Che-NEY! Che-NEY!" that this engendered among some of the delegates but one got the impression that he was slowly beginning to warm to the role he would soon have to play as a major party running mate once the Convention was over.
As General Powell left the stage, I was beginning to wonder just what the more traditional Republican- more used to the style of National Convention of years past- would right now be thinking: what, with the inclusion of a Gen-Y Rock band, the day's parade of minorities who had abandoned the Democratic Party and Colin Powell's actually defending- at least in part- Affirmative Action, two words which were once a pariah to the GOP. But, suddenly, I was jolted out of these musings by Convention co-chair Dunn's calling on everyone assembled to rise and sing along with Kate Smith- magically present on the big screen via black and white video footage- as she belted out her traditional rendering of God Bless America. This was, in due course, followed by the night's benediction given by the Rev. Franklin Graham of Samaritans' Purse in Asheville, North Carolina- son of the television evangelist Billy Graham and who, in appearance as well as in voice, strongly resembled his famous father- and I once again realized that, despite all the African-American Gospel and the gyrations of the post-hip hop dancers backing Brian McKnight, this- after all- was still a Republican National Convention!
The Second Session- now gaveled into history by Congresswoman
Dunn- made it very clear what one prong of the Bush/Cheney strategy come the
Fall was going to be: a more aggressive than usual attempt to pry minority
voters away from the Democrats and Al Gore: "Opportunity... Leave No Child
Behind" was a clear move in this direction. However, the Theme of the following
night- "Strength and Security... Safe in our Homes and in the World"- left me
with no doubt that the more traditional pro-Military/Law and Order Republican
would, at the very least, be sharing the spotlight at this GOP Convention in
short order. Kate Smith and Billy Graham's son seemed to offer a foreshadowing
of such for the next evening's Third Session.