Aug 6, 2000

Saturday, July 29

Confession: I’m a congenital Democrat who now and then pulls the other lever. (In 1980, fed up with Carter, I voted for Reagan and imagined I heard the sound of three generations of my forebears turning over in their graves.) But here I am, at the Republican National Convention. Do I feel like an outsider? Sure, but then, that’s my business; I’m a novelist. George W. Bush has decreed his convention will be open, tolerant. So the stars and stripes are ablaze for us all.

Old Glory rules. Inside a cavernous hall, where a party for the media is in full swing, our national standard has been transformed into balloons, tablecloths, cocktail napkins, pastries of strawberries, blueberries and sliced bananas. Ambling around spiffed up Philadelphia, I notice hotels offering guests tricolor Italian ices, a scary trio of red, white and blue cocktails in gimlet glasses and after-dinner mints (tasty, although precipitating a plague of blue tongues).

I chat with conventioneers. One sweet-faced lady, who could be from Iowa, wears a remarkable hand-knitted vest, one Republican’s tribute to her American dream: GOP and VOTE stand out in chubby red and blue stitches, while two white elephants rear up, trunks aloft in a stance that usually signals an imminent battle to the death over a one-ton floozy with beady eyes. But the message she offers me is: The Clinton era is about to be over.

Sunday, July 30

Awesome! Except coming so soon after July Fourth, the First Union Center, site of the convention, resembles a mammoth red, white and blue clearance sale at Fortunoff’s. The day before the convention opens, the band is rehearses an ber-schmaltzy rendition of “Greatest Love of All.” A split-second before I can think cynical, Democratic thoughts, it’s booming the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Glory Hallelujah! I have thoseI’m-so-proud-to-be-an-American goose bumps.

Monday, July 31

Hazy, hot, humid, but most of all, happy. I gaze from the delegates up to the stage. It looks to me as if the GOP has recruited scores of ebullient extras from Harlem, Flushing and Jackson Heights. Ecru, beige, tan, brown, burnt sienna and black faces smile down at the mostly white faces in the audience, whose response is not the least bit conservative. The delegates are profligate with their pleasure. Bright, orthodonticized smiles beam back at the stage. No meanies at this convention. Except then I spot Rep. Asa Hutchinson, a manager of the Clinton impeachment, chortling warmly into a microphone. No meanies? I recall how he and his comrades took a year off of our national life with the Monica Follies, and closed down the government and were as one with Gingrich and his Contract With America.

Earlier in the day, at the PoliticalFest in downtown Philadelphia, the mood is also jovial. Delegates and their families appear amiable, bright, out-of-towners, the kind of folks who sit in front of you in Manhattan at a performance of “Cabaret.” They ooh and aah at an exhibit of recreations of inaugural-ball gowns of the first ladies- an excruciatingly slender group. They ogle historical treasures from assorted presidential libraries, have their photos taken behind the desk in a mock-up of the Oval Office and buy souvenirs at the GOP Shoppe: babies’ clothes that say “Weepublican,” “Barbara Bush for First Mama” pins, T-shirts that proclaim “Yo Quiero Bush 2000” and “My parents chose life. Thanks Mom and Dad.”

But even without my glasses I can read the same old agenda. A man sports a sticker: “Ken Starr for President.” A pin shows a doctored photo of our current first lady sporting a cropped, orangy Dennis Rodman hairstyle. “Hillary Rodman Clinton,” it says, “As Bad as She Wants to Be.”

Yet at the convention itself, I am touched by Laura Bush, gentle as spring in her green suit. Her face is the compassionate face that Republicans yearn to show America. Her soft voice sounds sincere. And her twin daughters are lovely as well, Snow White and Rose Red in some idyllic Republican fairy tale that will inevitably end with “happily ever after.” No Capitol Hill ogres: no Rep. Tom DeLay, no Rep. Dick Armey.

Colin Powell! I’m a fan. More: If not for his wife, my husband and the fact I don’t know him, I’d marry him. The man brims with the vigor of someone who’s made it on his own, a CCNY kind of guy. I listen to him: He’s swell. He’s so much my kind of man, how come he’s not going to L.A. with the Democrats next week? But for the word “vouchers,” he utters barely a traditional Republican notion. Nevertheless, the delegates whoop as if to cry: “Yay! Let’s spend federal funds on people of color!” Do I believe their changes of heart? Alas, no. Listen, I’m from Brooklyn, but I sense that in Texas, straight shooters don’t bury their platforms and hide their DeLays and Armeys.

Tuesday, August 1

The gray, low-hanging miasma over Philadelphia today seems to be the blahs. At a Christian Coalition gathering at the Marriott, I see that right-to-lifer Phyllis Schlafly looks as she always has: lips compressed, hair teased, dress ladylike. I anticipated a white tornado, yet she works the room listlessly. While people note her presence, there isn’t the usual buzz in the crowd that signals “Celebrity Present.”

The thousand or so attending the Coalition’s 2000 Faith and Freedom Celebration seem different from the rest of the 90-percent white, spiffed-up conventioneers. The folks here seem more racially diverse, of more modest means. I throw out a prejudice or two, having imagined a ballroom full of the shriekers and spitters who block access to abortion clinics. They are affable and courteous. A man’s headgear is a simple baseball cap that says “I Jesus.”

A New Jersey woman in a long flowered skirt tells me quietly that “they,” the Republicans, “don’t want to hear from us this time. But I’ll vote for him [Bush]. He believes what we believe.” Does he? When Pat Robertson speaks, he proclaims that all he’s asking of W. is five “righteous judges” for the Supreme Court. This chills me more than the Marriott’s overenthusiastic air conditioning.

A fog of lethargy hovers over the convention floor, despite the blazing lights. Even the usually exuberant John McCain, silent on campaign finance reform, seems bland as he offers his endorsement. The convention now resembles a Disney movie-expensively produced, uplifting and ultimately a snore. All that red, white and blue and still no color.

Wednesday, August 2

Several thousand Republicans in Chanel everything, in Stetsons decorated with star-of-Texas and elephant motifs-as well as the random yarmulke-are boogieing in the aisles of the First Union Center to “Shout!” A clammy, exuberant group, high on joy because Dick Cheney, their candidate for vice president, is on his way.

There he is! Avuncular, with a crooked smile, balding pate and broad shoulders to offset excess belly. I ask myself how it is possible, in this no-child-left-behind convention, that W. picked Cheney, a chap who voted against school lunches for poor children and against Head Start. But this is a new millennium and, as several Nebraska delegates assure me, he’s a really good guy.

But a winner? “Does anyone, Republican or Democrat, seriously believe that under Mr. Gore, the next four years will be any different from the past eight?” he inquires. Cheers, clanging of cowbells. Does the GOP want independents and even occasional swing voters like me to shrug off peace, a booming economy, the fat budget surplus and focus, once more, on Bill Clinton’s peccadillos? Come on, I want to tell Cheney. That strategy backfired for you with the impeachment proceedings. It sank the GOP four years ago, too, when, pre-Monica, Bob Dole demanded, “Where’s the outrage?” Maybe Bush- Cheney can bring about a national gnashing of teeth, but until then, the only people I can imagine yelling “Shout!” are the Republicans.

Thursday, August 3

The man from Midland, George W. Bush, gives a rousing speech that deserves the applause, balloons and confetti it generates. In place of the snide smile that made him seem like a cartoon dastard, I now notice a kindly, mature mien. His rhetoric is full of great expectations. No longer callow: He seems decent. Can he move to the center, the way Clinton did? Can he get someone like me to vote for him?

So I think: If he gives back the surplus in the form of tax cuts, where will he get the big bucks to salvage Social Security, promote literacy, revitalize the armed forces, provide decent housing for the poor? Will the anti-spending congressional Republicans-largely hidden this week-ante up for the good of less fortunate, more intensely colored citizens?

I hear W.’s condemnation of Gore-or Al Clinton-Gore-as the source of the Washington’s roadblocks and incivility, and I begin liking him less. It brings back the GOP’s crusade to drive a stake into the hearts of their monsters, Bill and Hillary Clinton.

Gov. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” isn’t really different from Clinton’s “tough-minded Democrats.” It’s a shrewd grab for the other party’s most universally appealing policies. Maybe by the Monday before the first Tuesday, he’ll have won over people like me. If he wins and can get his kinder, fairer vision past a Congress of government-shrinking Republicans, my hat will be off to him. If he fails, he’ll return to his beloved Texas, his ranch, his Rangers. And the poor will stay poor. And I’ll remain a Democrat.

And the GOP will revert to the radical right, and in 2004, the rainbow will vanish and the faces will, once again, be white.

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