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Entering the Belief System

Voices from the Convention floor.
 
 
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Tuesday at Madison Square Garden was the Republican Convention's "People of Compassion" program. It was the night when Conan the Barbarian turned into Kindergarten Cop; when the Bush daughters let us know their hamster "didn't make it either;" when Laura attested to the President's humanity; when "the value of adoption" was front and center; and when every patriotic tune you can imagine was being broadcast to the far reaches of the hall. On stage, Republican speakers were, as on the previous night, hard on Senator Kerry, but soft and fuzzy on much else. It was a night so soft, in fact, that Arnold Schwarzenegger even managed, for the first time in memory, to sweep Richard Nixon back into the Party's welcoming embrace before an audience of multi-millions.

But while walking the convention floor, talking to delegates, what most struck me was the way in which this was really Dick Cheney's convention, even though no delegate I met even mentioned his name. Of all the members of this administration, Cheney was the one who never stopped hammering directly at the supposed connections between the 9/11 attacks, Saddam's regime, al-Qaeda, and the invasion of Iraq – connections that, along with Saddam's "weapons of mass destruction," and despite everything we now know, seem seared into the minds of at least 50% of the American people. The Republican Party's audacious decision to convene in New York City, to return to Ground Zero, reinforces such connections without having to engage in argument at all. It reinforces in a deeply emotive and fearful way the idea that the acts of "them," an amorphous mass of interchangeable terrorists and bad guys, are all one and the same. It's like reminding people that there are two points on a chart and the only heartfelt, obvious thing to do is connect them with a straight line.

As I walked the floor of the convention yesterday, I asked anyone I ran into – from a Congressman and the chairmen of various state delegations to ordinary delegates (the genuine political warriors of this administration's push to the November polls) – about the President's war on terror, his decision to invade Iraq, those missing weapons of mass destruction, the 9/11 attacks, and the ties, as they saw it, between them all. As a group, they were immensely approachable, willing, sometimes eager to talk even to a reporter with credentials from Mother Jones magazine. The chairmen were certainly practiced on these questions – the head of the Kansas delegation, for instance, promptly went into a rap on Saddam Hussein that he had clearly repeated many times before.

But when you spoke to individual delegates, you entered a world of genuine emotion; you entered, in short, a belief system. Unlike George Bush, with a speech carefully constructed by writers in front of him, the delegates all spoke without texts, quite spontaneously, and with numerous feelings on display – not the least of which was fear. Their words were sometimes a lot rawer than what you read in the papers or generally hear on TV, but what made them striking was how similar what they said was, not just in tone but in words used and points made (as you'll see). That, of course, is the mark of a belief system: lines repeated as your own from some deeper, jointly held text of conviction. Theirs is a text in which there is, generally, a single "them." "They" hit us. We struck back. Iraq was "theirs." The choices, such as they are, are simple and obvious. They would sound familiar indeed to those who remember the Vietnam era, when Lyndon Johnson, for instance, claimed that if we didn't fight the communists in Vietnam, we'd be doing so on West coast beaches. Today, once again, it's just a question of our soil or theirs, and theirs – Iraq (Iran, Syria, or North Korea) – is clearly preferable.

In this belief system, the arguments of their opponents carry, essentially, no weight whatsoever. It doesn't matter if the New York Times or the Los Angeles Times now reports that the whole "Sunni triangle" has blinked off the American map of Iraq and is being recreated as a series of mini-Taliban-like fiefdoms. This is no evidence of failure; nor are the missing weapons of mass destruction; nor is the lack of a bona fide al-Qaeda tie with Saddam (even if the 9/11 Commission confirmed its absence); nor is the now-never-ending, unaccomplished war in Iraq. In the end, it's enough to say that Saddam himself was a weapon of mass destruction, as most of the delegates did indeed do.

These are certainly not typical Americans. They're a politically mobilized minority of a minority; but with Iraq as the driving issue of the moment and given the way the Democratic presidential candidate has sidestepped the war, positioning himself so much in the President's policy shadow as to remove himself from contention on the issue, given the number of Americans who still believe in those al-Qaeda ties and Saddam's arsenal, given the fear still loose in the land, the Republicans are potentially capable of playing a powerful emotional chord likely to stir deep and real fears – and they may be relatively unopposed even as, within the next month, perhaps sooner, the thousandth young American soldier dies in Iraq.

Given all that, I thought it might be worth meeting these delegates in the raw – it was for me – since normally you're no more likely to "hear" them in your daily news reading than you are the voices of the anti-war, anti-Bush demonstrators (see Return to Ground Zero). I also included two delegates from the "margins," who were clearly feeding off somewhat different texts than everyone else.

You would, in a sense, expect no less of these delegates. Still, step inside their belief system for a minute and think about where the logic takes you, should there be another Bush round. The logic takes you wherever this administration wants to go, wherever "they" are found to be.

The Congressman

In a sea of empty chairs, on a late afternoon convention floor filled only with milling journalists and cameramen, Connecticut Congressman and convention delegate Christopher Shays, dressed in a grey suit and a "Let Freedom Ring" baseball cap, sits down to talk. Just as I'm starting to ask my first question, he suddenly places a hand on my wrist, a small swift gesture, and exclaims quietly, "Isn't this beautiful!" Up on stage, a singer has just begun a rendition of "God Bless America," which we both stop to listen to. When she's done, I ask him a version of the same question I'll ask every delegate I speak with: "Over a year after the Iraq War began, given everything we know now, how do you feel about the President's decision to take us to war?'

He's calm and cool, a well-practiced speaker with soft-spoken charm. He begins, "We should have been into Iraq sooner, not later. We shouldn't have allowed the sanctions to go on for twelve years and cause such misery for the Iraqi people. I've been there six times. Every Iraqi I met said the same thing to me: Thanks for getting rid of Saddam and when are you leaving? They're a proud people and they want to run their own country. They advised us not to disband their military and the police, and we did it anyway. The subsequent vacuum was a disaster."

I ask, "So when will we leave?"

He responds, "How long have we been in South Korea?" It's an answer that silences me as I consider the half-century-plus that U.S. troops have been on the Korean Peninsula since the bitter war of 1950-1953.

"We're going to have a presence in the Middle East," the Congressman says matter-of-factly. "Two-thirds of the world's oil is located there. We're going to have a presence, no matter what. It's a responsibility, but it will be like in South Korea the last ten years – to keep the peace."

I ask then, given the 9/11 Commission's Report, what he made of the link, or lack of it, between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda.

He doesn't waste a second: "I don't wrestle with that link at all. It's like fighting Germany when it didn't attack us at Pearl Harbor. I don't wrestle with the fact that we didn't find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. We were already there for twelve years. We should have been in there. Asking what did Iraq have to do with 9/11 is like asking, what did Germany have to do with Pearl Harbor?

"9/11 was a wake-up call. That's my problem with Kerry. You sometimes think he didn't vote for the use of force in Iraq. And there is a connection. It isn't that they planned it. Germany didn't plan Pearl Harbor either. After all, Osama bin Laden was against our bases in Saudi Arabia, but we were only in Saudi Arabia to have a fly-zone over Iraq, so their troops wouldn't pour into Iraq.

"Al-Qaeda? I never had to go that far. After all, Abu Nidal was the most feared terrorist before Osama. Nine hundred people were dead due to him and he was resting in Baghdad. He put four bullets in his head. Suicide. I call it, 'destroying the evidence.'"

An aide leans over and whispers to him. He checks his watch, tells me he has to go, and politely offers me a phone number in case I care to talk further.

The Chairmen

Pennsylvania: Alan Novak, lawyer and chairman of the state's Republican Party, is in a blue blazer, jeans, and cowboy boots. As I sit down next to him, I comment on the boots. "I've worn them for years, but the funny thing is that I actually bought a ranch in Texas two years ago. In Stephenville, outside of Fort Worth. Tom Ridge, who was governor then, arranged trips down there to meet the President and my wife and I just fell in love with the place."

"Iraq is just a stage in the war on terror," he tells me. "I often have to recall to people that 9/11 hit the folks in Pennsylvania too, not to the extent of New York or Washington, but Shanksville [where Flight 93 went down] became a very big and sobering part of Pennsylvania.

"When you step back and look at the big picture, the war on terror is not going to be resolved easily or in one action, but I happen to believe that Saddam Hussein coddled terrorists, worked with terrorists, courted them. He wanted to be part of that despotic, terrorist..." he pauses to carefully consider his words. "In that region, if you're a government, you either buy off the terrorists or they work with you, and I believe Saddam Hussein was involved in all of the above. I never doubted his involvement with terrorists. I think Iraq's a theater in the war on terror, much as in World War II there were theaters. For Iraq to emerge as a country that knows democracy will take time."

I ask then about those missing weapons of mass destruction.

He doesn't bat an eye. "We've all been out on the hustings," he begins immediately, "and we've been saying two things. First, the guy who was arrested, pulled out of that spiderhole, was a weapon of mass destruction. Secondly, everyone thought and believed, because of all the evidence that he had used WMD and courted people who had WMD, that he had WMD. Everyone did. It's not something that was unique to the people who took us to war.

"There's no question that Iraq divides people. But most people agree, if only you put the war in the context of a theater. Just the simple statement – Where do you want to confront terror, there or here? – works well in Pennsylvania. In Pennsylvania, the best way to deliver a message is with common sense, everyday logic. There are a lot of people smarter than I am that I'd call intellectuals. That's not me. But that's not what works either. Diner conversation, barbershop conversation, water cooler conversation, that's what matters. The more basic, the more simple we can make it the better chance to convince people.

"I'm not a policy wonk."

Vermont: Skip Vallee, a balding man in a black suit and red tie, is at his third convention as chairman of the Vermont delegation. He's a Republican National Committee member and, he proudly tells me, George Bush's state finance chair as well as one of his "Rangers" (which means he has raised at least $200,000 for the campaign). He owns a chain of convenience stores, he tells me. He starts by pointing out that his state is notoriously liberal and the congressional delegation "famous for being on the left" and Iraq war feelings in Vermont reflect that. Then he launches himself on Iraq:

"I have viewed Saddam's Iraq from the beginning as the historical equivalent of Hitler and the Third Reich, complete totalitarian control, the urge to conquer neighboring countries – which the countries of the forties did not respond to well, which in the end resulted in the catastrophe of World War II. I view Iraq in that context.

"It's a difficult challenge, but the President never said it would be easy to be on the side of freedom and liberty, and drain the jihadist swamp. That is a courageous political step. Churchill's leadership in World War II was rewarded with a defeat at the polls. That's one of Rudy Giuliani's comparisons that will not, I hope, be repeated.

On the question of an al-Qaeda link to Saddam, he comments: "The sense that you've got to connect whatever we do to make America safe as an act of retribution to al-Qaeda is misplaced. The President is saying that there are swamps besides al-Qaeda's that need to be drained. As for weapons of mass destruction, every bit of intelligence that the President had, the United Nations had, the good intelligence services – the British and Israelis – had led us to think they were there. They haven't found them, just the capacity. But WMD was just one aspect of all this. For me it was the Hitler connection. I don't connect 9/11 with Iraq from an operational point of view, but I considered Iraq a safe harbor for terrorists."

Kansas: In a dark suit and black shoes, he's standing at the very edge of the delegation when I ask if he'll have a "media moment" with me. He introduces himself as Dennis (two N's) Jones, 49, "prosecuting attorney fighting crime and social injustice battling to protect and preserve our cherished rural way of life"; as amid the increasing pandemonium of a convention just revving up, I fumble to catch all of that, he reaches into his pocket, saying, "Don't worry. Actually I have all that on my card," and he hands me a gold-embossed black business card. "I've been a Republican," he adds, "since 1968 when I was thirteen years old."

When asked about the President's Iraq decision, he launches into what clearly is a well memorized rap in a sonorous voice. "The decision to take out Saddam Hussein was the only decision that could be made. He had openly defied the United Nations; he put no value on human life; it was time for Saddam Hussein to go. I admire the President for making the right decision to take him out. It doesn't bother me at all if there is no connection [with al-Qaeda]. Saddam was a threat to the Middle East, a tyrant, a dictator. It was time for him to go.

"We have already won the war, now we have to win the peace. I have friends who have served in Iraq. They've come back and told me that about 90% of the Iraqis and 90% of the area has welcomed the Americans and they're having a far better style of life than they had before. Unfortunately, the American media seems to dwell on the hot spots and the actions of thugs and criminals who are trying to make it difficult for the United States to complete our mission.

"The President admitted he miscalculated the impact of the numbers of outsiders who have flocked to Iraq simply for the purpose of wreaking havoc."

As I'm getting ready to go, he suddenly says, "You're going to get a bounce out of this convention of six to eight points because the American public for the first time in four years is going to see something positive about the Republican Party."

Just Folks

North Carolina: Carson and Linda Daves are sitting side by side under the North Carolina delegation banner. He's wearing a stars-and-stripes vest covered with scads of Bush/Cheney political buttons and he tells me he's a nurse who "works in the operating room." His wife, he adds proudly, is vice-chairman of the North Carolina state party. She's 58; he's 57.

When I tell them I'm here for Mother Jones magazine, she says, hesitation in her voice, "I guess that's a liberal magazine."

I ask if, looking back, they still support the President's decision to go into Iraq.

"Absolutely!" he says.

"Without hesitation," she adds.

"You don't negotiate with thugs and terrorists!" he says yet more emphatically. "The terrorist organization declared war on freedom. We didn't ask for this war. How much of a connection was there with 9/11? Did Iraq finance, train, support terrorism and were they the most up-front on terrorism? Without the President's decision on Iraq, you're not going to have [Libya's] Gaddafi scale back on his military. He knew we meant business."

After each statement, however, he stops and I ask another relatively generic question. Each question makes Linda Daves visibly more uncomfortable. Finally she says, "I don't think we need to sit here and defend our President. I just somehow feel like the President's position speaks for itself." But as it turns out, once started on this tack, she's only warming up. Her voice fills with emotion. "The very fact that he's been such a decisive leader and he's never taken a poll! That's important. 9/11 was a message: You have to wake up! He's our commander-in-chief. He's tried to move forward with the United Nations, which is one of the most liberal organizations around. We'd never be anywhere if it was left to them..."

She suddenly leans closer and her voice drops slightly in the manner of someone privately imparting a home truth, if not a secret. "And anyway, you could bury a plane or a weapon in the sand and we'd never know. The weapons are there. We know that. The pacifists just never want to fight."

He: "Regardless of the weapons of mass destruction issue, there was one weapon of mass destruction, and he was found in a hole in Iraq."

She then tells me that my questions were off-putting: "For those of us who truly feel Iraq was the right thing to do, you just have to give us a chance to speak."

Michigan: Bill Reilly, a beefy 58-year-old with short white hair in a checked shirt and black slacks, tells me proudly that he's the Chairman of the Iosco County Republican Party in Northeast Michigan where, he assures me, Iraq is an important issue ("We've lost a few") and so are guns ("a major concern in the national campaign"). He works for the state of Michigan in the Department of Natural Resources, recreation division, focusing on waterways ("with the boating industry"). He and his wife also own an authorized-dealer Sears store and he's an ordained minister for the Community of Christ church. He wears "many hats," as he puts it.

"I feel the war was a necessary issue. I'm not concerned whether they had weapons of mass destruction or not. I'm concerned about the humanitarian aspects, the atrocities that have happened to those people. I look at them and hear their stories and I get teary-eyed.

"From everything that I hear and read – almost to the point that I know, though I'm not there – Saddam diverted his money to the terrorists and supplied weapons and promoted terrorism in the world. [As for the war's length] I'm surprised at it because I just thought we'd go knock the heck out of them. We've been very patient, kind of like at the United Nations, resolution after resolution. I'm surprised we didn't just go into that mosque [in Najaf].

"If the war remains an issue, I don't have any doubt that Michigan will go George Bush because of our base, the hunters, the fishermen, the sportsmen. I know two Democrats, UAW all the way, who are going to vote Bush because of the man, not the Party. Because of the straight course. It really hasn't wavered. He had the courage to stay his course, and he's got to wake up each day so frustrated with all the changes people have thrown at him. What a thing to have to overcome."

The Women

Texas: Dorothy Rogers, 67, like the rest of her delegation, wears a white cowboy hat, hers sporting a pin: "Texan women for Bush." She's white-haired, retired, and once worked for the Valvoline Oil Company. She's dressed in stars and stripes from the small sash on her hat to her red-toed cowboy boots. Even her earrings follow the motif. "We're red, white, and blue all over," she tells me with a small smile. In response to my initial question she says with quiet emotion,

"I think we either fight terrorism here or we fight it abroad. I think we did a service to the Iraqi people and it just takes time to get used to freedom, for that to sink in.

"I don't know that you can ever say there's no direct link with terrorism unequivocally just because we didn't find weapons of mass destruction. I thank our God every day that we had someone of George Bush's caliber to treat 9/11 for what it was, an act of war.

"Iraq's probably gone on a lot longer than we wanted, but I think we have to stay the course. With Desert Storm, he – "

I ask, "The President's father?"

"Yes, he was in and out fast. He went with what the United Nations wanted him to do. If we'd just gone [into Baghdad], then we'd be a lot better off today. If you wouldn't call Saddam a terrorist, I don't know what you would call him. I think that it was something we had to do. We've lost a lot of young people but, first and foremost, we have to support our troops. We can't let this be another Vietnam when they were maligned and degraded.

"I'm scared to death that if Kerry by any stretch of the imagination were elected, he'd pull us out of Iraq any way he could. He just flip-flops on everything plus you know he scares me with the stand he takes on the French and Germans and the others and that kind of stuff." She pauses for a moment. "He frightens me."

Montana: Jennifer Raybuck, also in a white cowboy hat (unadorned), a black fleece jacket ("I've just been cold everywhere"), jeans and white sneakers is a CPA from Bosman with a sweet, full face. Commenting on her relaxed attire, she says, "We live in Montana. You don't wear ties, you don't wear heels. It doesn't happen, except maybe for a funeral." Asked her age, she says 30, but "I get more the when-do-you-graduate-from-high-school sort of questions." She's part of the rising female demographic on the convention floor. ("I think George Bush has done a great job of putting women in his administration.") She tells me that she's loved politics as long as she can remember and that she runs local races. She's "very involved in GOTV," which she then translates as "get out the vote." She had visited Ground Zero just that morning – many Republican delegates have made the trip to the spot. Her guide – each delegation evidently had its own New York "ambassador" – took her to the twentieth floor of a building overlooking the field of attack where the Twin Towers once stood.

"He had us all in tears. Coming from Montana where you don't have a building over ten stories high, the impact was unreal. It was a pretty draining day. Especially after today, just seeing the visualization and imagining how it happened, how anybody can't go after terrorists is beyond me. I don't think there's any way you can say Saddam Hussein is not a terrorist. What matters to me is what he was doing even to his own people that was terrorism, and if we didn't stop him there, he would have come here. Everybody talks about no weapons of mass destruction, but who thought before 9/11 that an airplane would be a weapon of mass destruction?

"I certainly respect that [Senator Kerry] served the country. My biggest problem is his indecisiveness and his flip-flopping, for want of a better word. The President said what he was going to do. He said it in a speech to Congress right after 9/11 and also standing on the rubble of the World Trade Center and he's never wavered from it."

Alaska: Karoline Bekeris, 39, a fifth grade teacher, is standing at the back of the Alaska delegation wearing a bright red jacket-vest that says "Open ANWR, Jobs & Energy for America," and sporting an OPEC-No/ US Oil [with a check mark beside it] pin. She sports cascading red-bead "junk jewelry" earrings and says, "If I look dorky, I can at least look color-coded dorky," though, in fact, there's nothing dorky about her. At one point, she grabs a "Four More Years" banner from a passerby and waves it happily. She tells me she loves New York and wants to bring her husband back here with her. "The funniest thing that happened, I was trying to cross a street with all my Republican stuff on and I got caught in that huge demonstration. I couldn't get out for ten blocks! They were really friendly. No one spit on me. But you have to subtract one from the 500,000." And she laughs. She's been a Republican "since birth," she tells me. "No since fourth grade. That's when I became political."

"The war is my number one issue. I'll tell you, when the Twin Towers fell, it was school picture day. I was getting ready. I had hot rollers in my hair. I thought immediately, this is war . I turned to my husband and said, "Thank God, George Bush is president. He's going to go get these guys where they are. I think we should go out and strike fear into the hearts of the terrorists.

"The Democrats and the liberals believe you can negotiate with terrorists and dictators. We all have the same goal – world peace – but they believe in negotiations. I believe you have to be strong. It doesn't bother me a bit, even if we don't find a single weapon of mass destruction in any dune. If we don't get them, they're going to get us. The Iraqis hated us.

"I wasn't really surprised [by how long the war has lasted]. I'm not a military specialist, but I think it's a noble war."

New York: She's wearing an elephant motif scarf. Joan Thérèse Hudson is 69, retired from her work as Director of Suffolk County Women's Services, and considers herself, as a woman at the convention, "in the minority." She's a life-long Republican, originally from Brooklyn. ("When I became old enough to vote, I registered to vote Republican and my father said, 'What did I do wrong?' I said, 'Quite honestly, you did everything right. You taught me to think.'") She's proud to be in "the Party of Teddy Roosevelt" and believes in the "empowerment of women."

"I'm not really a policy-maker, but I certainly have an opinion on Iraq. This is how I feel. I live fifty miles from where our country was attacked. I have a son who was having breakfast directly across the street – and there, but for the grace of God...

"Having been a child of World War II, I never knew a war so close, or expected it either. In this case, we have to keep the enemy at bay. If we have to fight them, I'd rather fight them on other soil than our soil, because we're going to have to fight them, that's for sure. As for Iraq, we did have a terrible dictator who certainly had the means. It was only a matter of time.

"The President didn't wake up one morning and decide to make war. He tried diplomacy. He went to the UN twice. Did I think it was going to last this long? I am not a military strategist, but I think as far as terrorism, it will unfortunately go on for generations. We'll have to seek them out and end it."

As I'm getting ready to leave she says. "I do not agree with the [Party] platform in the entirety. I am more to the center. I am very much of the women's movement and anything that will help women make decisions about themselves, including choice. But I trust the President."

From the Margins

Wisconsin: Saied Assaf is a 47 year-old anesthesiologist from Green Bay. He sports a small, black mustache and has a friendly, open face. A U.S. citizen, as he tells me, he is of Iranian background. His father had been in the Iranian foreign service under the Shah and he went to high school in Kabul, Afghanistan – the American International School ("which unfortunately no longer exists") and came here in 1974. Once the ear-splitting music dies down momentarily, he says,

"I view the situation in Iraq as just another front in our efforts against Islamic fundamentalist ideology. It all started in 1979 when the Ayatollahs came to power in Iran. They've been sponsoring terrorism – and not so passively – ever since. You know, when I was a kid, we used to walk down Roosevelt Street in Tehran to Kennedy Square. Now, streets in Iran are named after known terrorists.

"I think you have to look at the information the President had at the time he made the decision [to invade Iraq]. Saddam had used chemical warfare against the Iranians and against his own people. What I'm afraid of is that next time we don't make the wrong decision because this time we didn't find anything. For example, one of the most important threats to face the world is a nuclear-armed Iran and I just hope the world has the resolve to prevent the acquisition of nuclear weapons by the present Iranian government, if you want to call it that."

Florida: Johnny Hunter, the publisher of the Tempo News ("a weekly black newspaper in Sarasota") is sitting in mid-row in the centrally positioned battleground state Florida delegation as the noise ramps up and I squeeze in beside him. He's 56, with a nearly shaved head, a grey jacket, a white-striped black tie, and black slacks. He says he's been a Republican ever since he registered to vote in 1989.

"I think the President made the right choice in that the Republican Party has always been at the forefront of liberating people that have been oppressed. This is the 150th anniversary of the Party, founded on liberating blacks from slavery. Now, we're liberating Iraqis from slavery. First of all, we're not liked in the world because we're the brother-keepers of that world. Saddam Hussein himself was a weapon of mass destruction. Although they have not been able to get the probated evidence in a court of law, there's a lot of circumstantial evidence that would explain what the President has done. Had he not taken the position he took, we wouldn't be in Madison Square Garden today, feeling safe and sound."

Tom Engelhardt is editor of Tomdispatch.com.