Beautiful Intolerance: The Republican Convention
Color and substance, substance and color -- 15,000 bloodthirsty journalists trample each other, looking for a sweet draught of either. But, it's an endless desert, with no oasis in sight. In someone's ghoulish idea of comedy, it's been left to the National Republican Convention to supply substance and San Diego to offer the color.It's over now, and a grateful public can go back to watching favorite shows without fear of pre-emption, at least until the Demos kick off their wingding next week. For most, there's a hazy sense that something happened down south, but what?One can be forgiven for not being sure exactly what transpired during those four days of wall-to-wall coverage. That there were folks who actually thought anything actually did happen is a testament to the power of the media. The real story is how desperation and inspiration combine to meet a deadline, to create an illusion of substance and color when, in fact, there is neither.Republican delegates, visitors, even cynical journalists, are charmed as they wander about this tropical paradise, looking out at the sparkling bay or up at the gently swaying palm trees. "Oooh, it's so pretty," they gush, vowing to themselves to move here someday. San Diego envelopes each of them in her perfect mid-80s climate and caresses them with a soft ocean breeze. "How clean it is," they remark to each other as they stroll through the carefully restored Gaslamp District and bum-free downtown.But they're in my neck of the woods now, in a town I lived for over a decade, and I know the real gal. She's the saucer-eyed, big-haired blonde that men always snap their necks to get a second gander at. She seduces them with her pouty good looks and they're hooked like a ten pound bass. But eventually, maybe 400 orgasms later, the Hooked One decides to have a conversation with his little gumdrop. "California Civil Rights Initiative," he may query her. "A medieval setback for affirmative action or a brilliant political move whose time has come?"Chilly fingers of foreboding grip his guts when he realizes she is watching his lips as he talks, unable to follow so many three-syllable words at a time. This is the San Diego that I came to know and love and hate myself for loving. So warm and lovely, but, sadly, about as deep as a dinner plate. Maybe it's the relentless sunshine that bleaches away anything in the brainpan weightier than "Have a nice day."And, like the big-haired gal, there is little naturally beautiful about this border town. Anyone doubting that need only look about 15 miles south to the Mexican border to see the sunbaked barren hills pocked with the occasional straggly creosote bush. Nope, San Diego is cosmetic surgery at its best. The shimmering Mission Bay surrounded by miles of lush lawns and bicycle paths was dredged out of mudflats. Exquisite Harbor Island was cobbled together out of landfill. And on it goes, from world famous Balboa Park to Crown Point and La Jolla.Just as Las Vegas was snatched out of the unforgiving desert and forced to bloom, foresighted San Diegans bankrolled a gargantuan boob job and tummy tuck for their snookums. It has paid off handsomely, for the small town girl just hooked one of the sweetest sugar daddies in the convention world. With a final brush, she managed to displace the estimated 6,000 homeless, the ranters and ravers, the winos and mentally ill that normally line the downtown streets. Looks are everything.Arriving at the airport, I am sardined into a hotel shuttle between Arkansas delegate Steve ("Stayve," he drawls), and Harvard student Roger. The shuttle engine hasn't turned over before Roger is grabbing and shaking hands, heartily introducing himself to everybody in the van. A law student, he's here to network, he tells us, an ever-present grin pasted on a head that keeps bobbing like those hula dancer dolls in the back of a car. Stayve announces to the rest of the riders that I'm with the "nasty old press," a joke that gets the rolls of blubber hanging over Stayve's K-mart shorts quaking with mirth. I see a long, very long 48 hours ahead.FETUS IN A RICKSHAWAlex Hershaft is standing outside the Convention Center wearing a bright red T-shirt emblazoned "Republicans for Animal Rights." It is only 9:30am but the mercury already hovers around 80 degrees and the circus is in full swing. Not inside, of course, but out here, where the abortion groups, pro and anti, face off with their own brand of theatrics. Both groups are far outnumbered by the police, who've erected themselves between the two factions. Hershaft watches the histrionics as he tries to shove leaflets into the hands of pedestrians. He admits that there's no such group as Republicans for Animal Rights. However, the real name, Compassion Campaign '96, he explains with a gesture towards the pro-lifers, "sounds too much like them." Hershaft blew in from the Nation's capital to advance his agenda, but Operation Rescue and its minions are no easy sell. "We try to talk to them and they feel we're making light of them," he admits, shaking his head sadly.Apparently, Op Rescue doesn't like its pre-born young 'uns compared to puppies and chicks and kitties. "They only represent 11 percent of the Party, but they've taken over the Convention," the animal lover notes. They've certainly taken the spotlight. A favorite T-shirt this sunny morning is "Intolerance Is a Beautiful Thing." The bloodied fetus placard is here in abundance, being thrust into spectators' faces like a showgirl's tassels. Operation Rescue's guiding light, Flip Benham, is rushing back and forth directing the marchers, offering up sound bites and recitations from the Bible that seems glued to his right hand.This is when I wish George were here. "Saint" George, as we call him, is a gentle man who has fashioned a life out of doing odd jobs so he can devote most of his time to reading and studying the Bible. He knows the Gospel backwards and forwards, inside and out. One day when the Jehovah's Witnesses came calling and the rest of us hid, George strode out with his Bible. Three hours later they left, but were back next week with six more of their flock crammed in the station wagon. Apparently, they had never met anyone who knew the Good Book better than they, and could match them chapter and verse, psalm for psalm.George is truly perplexed by the Christian Coalition and Operation Rescue, for he's only found a God of mercy, tolerance and love in those well-thumbed pages. He, like some of the rest of us, wonder how those folks not only managed to hijack the Republican National Committee and the GOP, but Christianity as well. Some of those who love the promise of Christ -- who are inspired by faith, the Holy Trinity, mystery and redemption -- are just a little miffed at these folks who are passing themselves off as Christians. I try to picture Jesus the Carpenter in this crowd, wearing one of those "Intolerance is a Beautiful Thing" T-shirts and mewling out one of those hideously maudlin hymns. Then I imagine Him inside the convention, pulling out his hammer and nailing together the Republican platform -- punish the immigrants, deep-six affirmative action, deny aid to unmarried teen mothers, ban gun control, expand the death penalty. And, of course, outlaw abortion. Hmmm. Squint though I might, the picture won't come into focus. A few quick-thinking Operation Rescuers have rented a pedicab, and a sweating college student rides them and their cardboard bloody fetus around and around the picket line. They laugh excitedly as a friend leaps out and starts snapping away with his Kodak.MISS NUDE REPUBLICANThere are a few hours to kill before the evening's roster of speakers. I lay on my bed at the Holiday Inn, wondering where to find this substance and color that is becoming as endangered as Flip's fetuses or Hershaft's little puppies. Suddenly, it hits me and I dial my old friend Kimberly, now happily married with one child and another on the way. "Tittybars," I announce. "What better barometer to gauge the effect of the Republicans on the town?" Within minutes she is at my door and we're off in the Bridgemobile, a whale-sized Chrysler that any good bridge or canasta player would be proud to helm.First up is Dirty Dan's, the topless joint closest to the festivities. As my pregnant friend sits quietly sipping her Seven-Up in front of an undulating dancer, a few other young women gather to answer questions. Not unlike the convention site, Dirty Dan's has also beefed up its security for the event, anticipating an upsurge in business. A willowy blonde named Rio has already noticed more customers, not the swabbies and jarheads she usually shakes it for, but serious suit types. Who, by the way, aren't tipping so good. Then there's Tabitha, who isn't happy at all about this group of out-of-towners. The raven-haired dancer sports a tattoo fanning out from her pierced navel and a few other pieces of metal in her nose, eyebrow and tongue. "Tips are down for me," she scowls. "I gotta really fish for it," her tone making it clear how repulsive this is. "They like the prissy ones," she figures, referring to the blue-eyed, blonde heartland types that shimmy for the men. She thinks for a while, then reaches a conclusion. "They're frightened of anything different."The next stop is DeJaVu, an all nude bar catering to upscale businessmen. The marquee outside pulls us in with the promise "Miss Nude Republican Convention Contest." Owner Mike Jollay (aptly pronounced "Jolly"),practically crows about this brainstorm. There'll be three days of semi-finals, with the winner accepting her nomination -- just like Bob Dole! -- on Thursday night."So who's kinkier," asks Kimberly, "Republicans or Democrats?" Well, he should know. Jollay's been in the "adult entertainment" business for 30 years, running bookstores, peep shows, massage parlors and, of course, nude bars. He's rubbed elbows with smut-film heavyweights like the Mitchell Brothers and counts porn star Marilyn Chambers as his close friend. Republicans, he opines. They're much, much kinkier. He remembers his working girls often pointing to a conservatively dressed trick as he left the building. "You wouldn't believe how many three-piece suits hide a pair of fishnet stockings underneath them."MISSED BEATS AND MISSING HORMONESColin Powell has closed the evening's festivities describing a vision -- inclusion, support for affirmative action and a woman's right to choose -- that was about as warmly embraced by this audience as the news that Snoop Doggy Dogg just proposed to their daughters. Now, it's off to Planet Hollywood, where the Young Republicans are going to be getting down with their bad selves.There's a reason they call it the Grand Old Party, if the doddering delegates are any indication. Anybody under 40 stands out almost as much as Blacks and Hispanics in this group of aging white men, so it will be interesting to see what passes for young.The press is herded into a small corral, but another enterprising photographer and I sneak into the fenced off pavilion in front, where a disco band is just setting up. Somehow, it seems appropriate that music popular a quarter century ago will be featured here tonight. The musicmakers break into "Disco Inferno," and the young Republicans start shakin' it down. But -- they're not young, not really. Remember how your parents danced that rock & roll style like they were trying to be cool, but they actually moved like they had a Coke bottle up their butt? You were embarrassed for them, but you knew it was because they never got laid anymore, cuz it's sex and hormones that puts the fluidity in those hip thrusts and butt shakes. The folks cutting up on the dance rug were technically under 40, but every jerky, spastic dance move screamed "old fart."Everybody oohs and aahs when in stride actor Billy Baldwin and his entourage. However, given how many Baldwin brothers there are, it's pretty much statistically impossible not to run into one at some point in your life. Shocking many, "studmuffin" George Stephanopolous and the Ragin' Cajun James Carville also decide to stick their heads in the lion's den tonight. "Goddamm Stephanopolous," snarls a nearby YR. "I'd like to bash his fuckin' head in."It's almost midnight and I drop exhausted on a couch next to Candace Gingrich -- lesbian, human rights activist and sister to speaker of the house Newt Gingrich. I turn to her with the evening's political question. "Fashion sense -- Republicans or Democrats?"Candace pauses to give this the full weight of her consideration. "Have you noticed all the nautical-themed outfits here this week?" she replies, then begins to chant: "No more nautical themes! No more nautical themes!" With chills, I realize I'm witnessing the birth of a new chapter to her activism.Emboldened by this little tete-a-tete, I pose the same question to the entouraged Baldwin. He does a double-take, then gets out something that sounds like "incredibly insubstantial," before the goons toss me out the door. Clearly the Baldwin has no activism in his future like the fine Ms. Gingrich.THE RIGHT STUFFThe plane is almost ready to leave, but no convention is complete without the requisite visit to the GOP Emporium, a full floor dedicated to doodads, books and T-shirts of the conservative ilk. I brush past the acres of rhinestone-encrusted gaudy baubles, which seem tailor-made for the nautically themed, and plant myself at the bumper sticker stand. Looking for the perfect one for my favorite rabid right wing talk show host,I'm torn between, "I Will Forgive Jane Fonda When the Jews Forgive Hitler," and "Feed the Homeless to the Hungry." But, then the perfect one catches my attention -- "Liberals Make Me Sick," and the warm fuzzies suffuse me as I imagine the joy dancing in his eyes when it's presented.Substance and color, color and substance -- both MIA on the convention floor or in my old hometown. With minutes to go, no chance of finding it here in Tshatshke Land. On impulse, I return to the fake jewelry stand and studied the pieces. The cubic zirconia are blinding, styled into gold-plated aluminum that would give even Tammy Faye Bakker nightmares.Who buys this shit? It's fake -- only an idiot would be fooled by its outside appearance. There's nothing, absolutely nothing here. Oh. Right.