Report From the GOP Convention
SAN DIEGO, CA -- Bob Dole is the invisible man. No, not in the literal sense. In fact, we've seen and heard all too much of him at the Republican National Convention this week -- his nooky, half-cheeks, his drawn up by invisible strings smile, his prairie wit. Yes, we know that he is the 73 year-old presidential nominee from Russell, KS.Politically, however, Dole is still the ultimate invisible man -- fading into the crannies of compromise, or hiding out in the Senate cloakroom. Raising, then cutting your taxes. Consenting, and, in the next nod, demurring. A man whose temperature rises or falls to that of the room. A man who, even as he accepts his nomination, still straddles the words "daring" and "caution."Remember James Whale's film, The Invisible Man, starring Claude Rains? How you could only see Rains when he was wrapped from head to toe in bandages like a mummy?That is Bob Dole, at least in his 1996 edition. As a candidate for President, America has only known him by what he wraps himself in.Lately, it's been tax cuts tailored by Steve Forbes and Jack Kemp, and religion as fashioned by Christian Coalition executive director Ralph Reed and Patrick Buchanan.A search for the real Bob Dole -- and, indeed, the real Republican party -- in San Diego this week leads nowhere. Unwrap him (or it), and there's nothing but an uncorporeal essence, talking first in front of you, and then behind, tripping you, and then helping you up. Invisibility with a voice, or voices, that only takes form when it is wrapped in the banner of something else.Reporters like me are left holding the bandages, the trenchcoat, hat and glasses, and remarking upon them instead.One of the most increasingly tiresome aspects of political gatherings like the Republican National Convention is the abortion street theatre provided by lunatics like Operation Rescue, and the generally better mannered, but no less fervent pro-choice protesters that the Rescuers inevitably attract.The absurdity of this dynamic was readily apparent a day after I arrived, when I picked up Saturday's San Diego Union-Tribune , and read an account of a Friday Operation Rescue protest, in which the Rescuers were complaining that San Diego cops didn't use nunchakus to sweep them out of City Hall as they sat in protest.Of course, by that time, the GOP's abortion problems had been solved in favor of the religious right. Bob Dole had worn a "tolerance" scarf to the platform hearings, and took it off when the religious right got hot about it. The invisible man again.But no less invisible were those pro-choice governors like Massachussetts' William Weld, New Jersey's Christine Whitman and California's Pete Wilson, who also disappeared in the name of unity, of not spoiling the party (or the Party). Having won, however, some people were still out to spoil the fun. On Wednesday afternoon in Balboa Park, at the Christian Coalition's "Faith and Freedom Celebration," the Rescuers were out torturing their own.You'd think that Ralph Reed might have welcomed the Rescuers. After all, the second sentence of Reed's speech to the couple thousand sizzling in the sun was an affirmation that the Christian Coalition was "not going to walk away from the unborn child." What could better underscore that committment than a wall of 16 giant placards with a photo of what the Rescuers purport is an aborted fetus and the words "ABORTION" blown up above it?But Coalition security guards are trying to get the Rescuers to walk away from the family event. Rescuer event leader Cliff "Flip" Benham isn't having it."I just want to be a living parable," Benham wisecracks to a security guard who clearly regards him as a living pain in the ass.When more tight-lipped security gathers to convince them to stand down, Benham instructs his acolytes outside to pass more giant placards up. Pretty soon, there's a wall of bloody fetuses ranged along the back of the pavilion, and a wall of blue suit-jacketed security folks between the fetuses and the crowd."Stand for the Lord," one man admonishes the security guards. "Don't be ashamed."The meek may inherit the earth, but they won't inherit the GOP convention.There's a lot less open division inside the TV fantasyland that is the convention center.The GOP's grand trade show on the convention center's second floor is the nerve center of mainstream Republicanism -- awash with stuffed elephants, Dole/Kemp buttons and t-shirts, key chains, bottle openers and bumper stickers. It's a red, white and blue blossoming of Republican kitsch.And then there is the dark side. The ugliness. The scum at the bottom of the barrel. Part of the 1996 GOP psyche is a deep and abiding hate contempt for President Clinton, his wife, his real estate dealings and even his cat."Wash out the Socks," read one button. "Clean up the White House." Every aspect of the Clinton/Gore legacy is fair game in the trade hall. (I didn't see any knocks on daughter Chelsea, but maybe I wasn't looking hard enough.) There's dope smoking in bumper sticker land ("Clinton didn't inhale. He just sucks"), and indictment as well. (One bumper sticker suggests that Clinton's second term should be in jail") A gay favorite -- Clinton and Gore's heads stuck on two well-oiled hardbodies -- was on display at well, Republicanized by the tag line,"Now the truth can be told."On the other hand, there wasn't a lot of anti-Perot stuff. The best of the lot was a simple, wretched, Ralph Steadmanesque caricature of the billionaire martinet, with the simple heading, "He's Crazy."Hillary Clinton isn't merely crazy in the pachyderms' eyes. She's corrupt, venal, lying and just too powerful as well. "Ditch the bitch," read on t-shirt on sale down on Fifth Street. The convention trade show wasn't much kinder. Buttons with Hillary's head stuck on Ellie Mae Clampett's body, or on the body of a dominatrix were also on offer.The clear favorite, however, was a button that said, "Dump President Clinton (And her husband)."The convention generally stuck to the game plan and stuck it to the Clintons. But not everyone on the floor was happy about it.Even at Bob Dole's crowning moment, the roll call of states that would officially nominate him as the Republicans' presidential choice, the die-hard Buchananites wanted to make it a less than unanimous selection.Back in the Missouri delegation, frantic jockeying is going on to get Missouri's large Buchanan contingent to follow the lead of their own candidate and get behind Dole."It's fraud," one Buchanan Brigader tells me, frowning under the bill of his yellow plastic "Pat" work hat. "What's the difference if Bob Dole wins by 1900 or by 1800 votes."Another Buchanan backer tells me that Dole's people are blaming the computers."They're telling us that they can't register Buchanan votes if he isn't formally nominated ," he says. "That's just nuts."As Dole is at last nominated by Arizona Sen. John McCain, the Missouri delegation is still in a tizzy, hosting a mixed demonstration for Dole (whose delegates are positioned in the front of Missouri's section, and for Buchanan in the back rows. The Buchanan believers are waving pink "Missouri Loves Pat (Shelley Too)" signs against the tide, but in time with the orchestra's rendition of "Shout!"In the middle of the craziness, sitting calmly and quietly, is Eagle Forum head and Buchanan for President co-chair Phyllis Schlafly. Her Pat sign, purse, pager and white Pro-Life cowboy hat are perched on her lap. She brushes confetti away from her as it falls, and ignores the din.If there's anything bipartisan about this convention, it's the partying. One of the most shameless was the Republic of Cuervo party at a micro brewery near the convention center on Wednesday afternoon, hosted by the irrepressibly smarmy Dan Cortes.Among the invite -- only beautiful people is a state senator from Washington being advised by his staff not to get too soused. That's tough advice to take when dainty flag and sticker-bedecked women are doling out citrusy tequila in little flasks on a floor littered with black, red and gold popped balloons and confetti.I down a tasty concoction called an "Aztec ruin" (basically a margarita without the triple sec) and watch President Bill Clinton's brother Roger make an ass of himself on stage, doing white boy blues versions of 'Walkin' the Dog" and "Love the One You're With."Roger shamelessly plugs for more San Diego gigs. "I don't care who you vote for," he tells revelers. "Just vote!" Then, later, "Help me live here!" No one seems to be offering Roger any help in staying here.It's a wave of sound just to Bob Dole's left, crashing sporadically against the more pedestrian din that greets Dole acceptance speech lines like "I am here to tell you: it does not take a village to raise a child. It takes a family" and "All things do not flow from wealth or poverty. I know this first hand, and so do you. All things flow from doing what is right."It's the delegates from Puerto Rico -- all 14 of them -- chanting long, loud lines of "Viva Dole!" that rise over unfocused cheers of Texas' 123 delegates right behind them.It's their party -- they can cry out if they want to. The rest of us can just laugh, or cry, or just stand around and watch the balloons and confetti and hoopla from a presidential nominee who just gave a speech that would have made Cotton and Increase Mather (or Pat Buchanan, for that matter, who was finally recalled from exile to the podium) smile and clap.We're still left, almost an hour later, looking for the invisible man. Bob Dole might have said that he was "the most optimistic man in America" (I could feel hyper fitness guru Richard Simmons doing a slow burn), but the acceptance speech he gave was a return to that State of the Union Dole.You know the one: the dark, brooding, child-scaring, missile-bearing Dole. The first twenty minutes of his acceptance speech was a moral diatribe that looked back in anger. Things, Bob Dole told us (and he should know), have changed. As for now, a dose of that old time civic religion is just the tonic. "I am here to tell you that permissive and destructive behavior must be opposed, that honor and liberty must be restored, and individual accountability must replace collective excuse."Get to what that entails, however, and the usual suspects of this Republican Convention are rounded up. The Clintons, the teachers' unions, the IRS, the judges.Everyone but the Republican Congress, who didn't exactly get name checked in the speech. Odder even than that was Jack Kemp's powerfully delivered, but phony speech, which had an ad-lib about electing a "Republican Congress." (I thought we had one."Kemp excels at aping Kennedyesque rhetoric and image -- the finger pounding the podium, the karate chop emphasis -- but the rhetoric is blunted, and less-focused. He untracks, for example, at the end of his speech, switching into a complicated metaphor about Winston Churchill, Ronald Reagan and Bob Dole that even he -- the speaker -- doesn't quite follow.Weirdest of all is that sudden hunger for the common touch, the humble beginning. Everyone seems to have one nowadays -- Bob Dole, New York representative and keynote bomb Susan Molinari, presidential timber Colin Powell. It's like a cult. One can hear bootstraps being pulled up all over America.Even those who can't claim it are angling for that one high-five with the working American. Jack Kemp says that Democrats are elitists. Newt Gingrich finds freedom in beach volleyball.The message is clear. In 1996, unlike the 1992 ticket of the even richer tandem of President George Bush and Vice-President Dan Quayle, there are no silver spoon-feeders on the Bob Dole's ticket.That, in a sense, is true. The silver spoons were gone from the hall. But they were on the yachts out in blue and tranquil San Diego harbor, preparing parties and writing soft money checks, as they no doubt will be doing for the Democrats in Chicago as well.There's something scary in this shameless doublespeak on class, the same scary quality that's crept up the skins of journalists all throughout the week. It's not just the sense that things aren't as they really are. That was commented on enough by the media. Whether its 54 black delegates being shown 500 times a night, or moderates taking the podium to stump for a platform that none of them claim to have even read, the contrasts are clear.What's scary is that creeping invisible sensation again. We don't really know how things are in their essence. Is there a middle ground in the GOP? Is there a real Bob Dole? What happened to that Republican Congress?With the help of TV and speechwriters, the contrasts have been papered over, veiled, disappeared. But what's scary about Dole, and about the GOP, is the invisibility underneath this artificial indivisibility.Unrap Dole's happy march from San Diego into this campaign -- and there is nothing there. The real voices -- moderate and extreme, rich and poor, religious and secular -- are still there, however. They're merely waiting to take a form.