Aug 20, 2000

Saturday, August 12

DESPITE A penchant on the part of its citizenry for cheekbone implants (which leave a sizeable portion of its upper middle class looking like House Majority Leader Dick Gephardt) and a near ubiquitous police presence, L.A. in this pre-convention hour feels like home. I’m a Democrat. The Republicans I met in formal Philadelphia for their convention were mostly smart, dandy company and seemed tolerant, even moderate. But as a conservative acquaintance tells me: “A moderate Republican is a guy who’s temporarily out of ammo.”

This week, L.A. is like L.I. More laid back, but with chronic traffic congestion.Inadequate public transportation. Suburban sprawl. A splendidly diverse population: Roosevelt Field with palm trees.

Despite legions of this city’s questionably finest, many in the black flak jackets of riot gear, the mood downtown, around the Staples Center, is gay, almost frothy. There are campaign buttons urging “Smush Bush.” Others have photos of Al Gore and George W. Bush; printed beneath the faces are “Gore” and “Gornisht” (Yiddish for “nothing”). P.E.T.A., the animal rights group, makes its contribution to public discourse by dumping a truckload of manure near the Staples Center. The truck’s driver, dressed in a pink pig’s costume, is handcuffed and, in full porcine regalia from smiley snout to uncloven hoof, led off to the pen.

Sunday, August 13

Lieberman. Lieberman? Lieberman! Here on this dazzling afternoon in Culver City, on this dream of a Main Street with its heartbreakingly quaint ice cream parlor and dress shoppe, I, along with 4,000 Jewish Democrats, poach in our own perspiration in 90- plus shadeless heat and speak of what, a week earlier, we never believed possible.

A Jew is to be nominated for vice president of the United States. That sentence still has a ring of unreality, but then again, the Main Street we’re on is a set on the Sony Pictures lot, and we are attending a long-planned pre-convention event sponsored by the National Jewish Democratic Council. Even with speeches scheduled by President and Mrs. Clinton, the man of the hour is Joseph Isadore Lieberman. If this were a movie, the soundtrack would be playing “God Bless America.” Actually, what’s playing is a relentless klezmer band whose music helps me understand why my maternal great-grandparents fled Poland.

Lieberman. “Yale: college and law school,” a man, in a shirt he should have resisted in Honolulu, declares with pride usually reserved for a son. “A freedom rider!” a woman proclaims. She is Beverly Hills thin, yet not fragile; her biceps and triceps are so toned she looks as if she could bench-press Bill Bennett.

The ultimate Power Couple is warmly received, but after the Clintons are out of sight, they are out of mind. Four-thousand Los Angeles Jews stroll back along Main Street and back to reality, taking their American dream home with them. Lieberman!

Monday, August 14

Party, party, money, money, day, night. Chase Bank and Dreamworks set out a bounteous buffet on a sound stage at Raleigh Studios to honor women members of Congress. Tomorrow, “Maria Shriver and Arnold Schwarzenegger Invite You to an Evening in Honor of Senator Ted Kennedy and Vicki Kennedy.” This is not like throwing a barbecue for your Uncle George upon his 82nd birthday where you go to King Kullen and buy chicken and corn on the cob. Not that I expect to see Maria at the cashier handing over her coupons. Still, I am a tad surprised to note in teeny letters under all the RSVP details: “Sponsored by AmGen, Andersen Consulting, AT&T, Delta Airlines.”

Here, as at the Republican convention, lavishness is not enough; there must be excess. I speak to a big-bucks Democrat, a smart corporate poo-bah who’s been to the $25,000-and-up parties. Lamb chops and veal cutlets and chicken and steak on one dinner plate, he says. A meat mountain.

This being L.A. and the Democratic party, there are stars as well: Billy Baldwin, Jewel, Brad Pitt, Jimmy Smits. However, while few here would pass up an invitation to Barbra Streisand’s house to eat chic hors d’oeuvres (where my pal the poo-bah was), most delegates understand the difference between celebrity and power. Given a choice between avant-garde vegetable dumplings and a burger with Sen. Charles Schumer, convention cognoscenti, including my pal, would say, “Pass the ketchup.”

Five blocks from the hot-shots’ hotels, men lounge in cardboard cartons outside the Midnight Mission. Some aren’t ready to make the commitment to drug and alcohol rehab programs, or to the impressive array of social services the Mission also offers. What to me first appears fetid and fearsome is actually a safe zone along the sidewalk, a patrolled area where these people can sleep undisturbed.

The program is a conservative’s dream, a do-good, do-well outreach program that receives not a penny in government money. But if there were public funding of political campaigns, possibly one or two of the tens of millions of dollars spent on superfluous lamb chops might be donated to places like these.

Tuesday, August 15

“It’s the Supreme Court, stupid.” So proclaims a tote bag carried by a weary delegate from Cleveland. Like me, she’s shopping for souvenirs at Staples Center. I’ve been assigned by the mother of a 4- year-old Democrat to find a Convention Barbie, but unlike the GOP convention, the Dems do not have their very own stacked sweetie because the doll is not union-made. In the air-conditioned chill of the late afternoon, conventioneers are snapping up campaign buttons (“Read my lips. No new Texans.”), to say nothing of hot dogs that smell as if they were imported from Shea Stadium in an unrefrigerated freight car. This evening will be the Night of the Kennedys, and while the family is still revered, this interlude between Clinton and Lieberman, with Bush ahead in the polls, doesn’t seem to be zinging anyone’s strings. Without floor fights or even platform fights, delegates have gone from participants to audience. With all this passivity, Staples Center exudes a melancholy air! .

I need more life in my life. So I double-time it onto the floor and sit with two upbeat delegates from Anchorage. The woman is a union official. The guy beside her is a hearty fellow who introduces himself by pointing to a pin marked “Gay Democrat.” Both are exhilarated by the convention, excited by the ticket. Already I feel better. For delegates from a state that hasn’t gone Democratic in a presidential election since 1964, they are remarkably optimistic. I ask the union lady if she thinks Clinton should have showered more praise on Gore the night before. No, she replies, Gore’s got to show he’s his own man. I ask Gay Democrat if, compared to Bush, Gore doesn’t seem a bit stiff. Sure, he concedes, but he’s a qualified stiff.

Wednesday, August 16

Outside Staples Center, in the smog of late morning, the police have moved a bearded guy costumed as Jesus-albeit in orthopedic sandals-carrying a 6-foot cross into a zone with all the other protestors. The pink pig may be in the hoosegow, but the boys in the “Ban Breast Feeding” T-shirts are around screeching something I am delighted to find unintelligible.

Later in the day, near my hotel in Little Tokyo, I hear a roar. Demonstrators clearly have a march planned. They’re held back by several hundred cops in riot helmets. Three helicopters hover overhead, one stationary as though suspended there by the ultimate Higher Authority. Yellow police tape keeps me behind a line that I, for one, would not cross, having no desire to see what a rubber bullet whacking the solar plexus feels like.

What are they protesting? Squinting, I see signs: “Stop Police Brutality;” “Free Free Critters;” “Know the God of the Bible;” “Jobs, School Not Jails.” In my protesting days, there were two causes: ending segregation and opposing the war in Vietnam. Now there is no one issue powerful enough to attract a passionate minority.

Finally, the cops let the protesters march toward Staples Center, where they’re kept behind a chain-link fence. This lump-’em-all- together crowd control has families of victims of gun violence and radical environmentalists shoved shoulder to shoulder with loonies and anarchists. All have the First Amendment right to be heard. What reaches delegates, media and public is not free speech, but one incoherent cry for attention.

Thursday, August 17

I go to a cocktail lounge to watch Gore’s acceptance speech and order a beer that is not Lite. There are three patrons besides me. A guy with excessively fluffy sideburns mutters that he is not interested. A young couple who express no opinion beyond applauding Vice President and Mrs. Gore’s rather passionate kiss and making a youthful “whoo-whoo-whoo” ambulance siren sound. They tell me they’ll vote. For someone.

But the waiter, whose family came to L.A. from Mexico when he was 8, is a one-man focus group. He’s familiar with all four candidates.Dick Cheney, he says, is “intelligent and experienced,” especially about defense and foreign affairs. Lieberman is “a great senator” and was “brave” to speak out against Clinton’s behavior in l’affaire Lewinsky. Bush is “a nice guy” and “smarter than people give him credit for.” For whom will he vote? Right now he’s tilting toward Gore. He tells me life is much better for him than it was eight years ago: “What do they say? If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

I raise my glass to him and say, “Let the games begin.”

Reproduced with permission of the copyright owner. Further reproduction or distribution is prohibited without permission.