Bikinis Upset GOP Love-In

Philadelphia, August 1 -- Among the myriad corporate sponsors of the Republican Convention this year is Dale Carnegie and Associates, Inc., the self-described "global leader in business training." Along with a plastic cup from CNN, a mini First Aid kit from Blue Cross/Blue Shield and Kraft macaroni and cheese in the shape of elephants, every reporter who arrived to cover the convention received a little golden booklet with pearls of wisdom from Dale Carnegie, the granddaddy of American salesmanship. Tip number one from the late author of How to Win Friends and Influence People is "Don't criticize, condemn, or complain."

The Republicans seem to have taken that one to heart. So friendly are the Republicans this year that the delegates and lawyers I've talked to repeatedly marvel at how little work there is to do. Disagreements in the Rules and Platform committees were quickly squelched. All controversy, debate, and ideology have been squeezed out of the proceedings. However, anti-abortion language remains unchanged from the 1996 platform and efforts to remove anti-gay rights planks failed. Still, there is no floor debate, no political jockeying, no issues to be resolved. Nothing remains but a giant corporate schmoozefest.

As far as most attendees are concerned, that's a good thing. "We got rid of the rough edges," says former Congressman Bob Livingston, who helped Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson craft the feel-good Republican platform. In a draft of the platform based on the tenets that passed in 1996, Livingston says, "they wanted to get rid of the Department of Education, and cut off funding for the space program -- we got rid of all that," he adds proudly. Never mind that Livingston himself, as a Newt Gingrich loyalist, once campaigned on a proposal to axe the Department of Ed. Tip number six in Dale Carnegie's little golden book is: "Don't worry about the past."

A few protesters have arrived on the scene to break up the don't-worry-be-happy mood. On Tuesday morning, at a $1,000-a-plate breakfast for Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss) at the Four Seasons hotel, a cluster of Republicans and corporate lobbyists were suddenly confronted by a bikini-clad hooker with a Miss Liberty hat and a pair of thigh-high fishnet stockings stuffed with dollar bills. "Trent Lott's a corporate whore, we won't take no more!" the "prostitute" and two other women chanted.

Hotel staff rushed to push the three protesters out of the room and close the glass doors. Miss Liberty, a.k.a. Jessica Parsley of the Rainforest Action Network, blew kisses and waved through the glass at the gawking breakfast-goers. (Look for Miss Liberty doing her part to "make the issue of money in politics sexy" on a cross-country road show en route to the Democratic Convention in Los Angeles. Washington Action, a coalition of environmental, human rights, and campaign finance reform advocates will be driving a forty-foot bus donated by Ben and Jerry's papered with cash).

After being hustled outside the Four Seasons, the protesters posed in front of the giant elephant erected at the hotel entrance, waving and chanting "Lott, Lott, he's been bought, family values he ain't got." Half a dozen print journalists and seven photographers, all desperately seeking news, descended on the group.

Protest organizers, Randall Hayes, President of the Rainforest Action Network, and Medea Benjamin, co-director of Global Exchange, said they planned the event on Monday night at a cocktail party where people were passing plastic cups and tote bags promoting a fundraiser for Trent Lott. The souvenirs sported the names of the event's corporate sponsors, Lockheed Martin, Freddie Mac, AT&T, Union Pacific, American Bond Market Association, and other companies. "It's amazing how brazen these politicians have become that they even give out bags and cups with their corporate sponsors on them," says Benjamin. "There is no separation between corporations and politicians any more. They're proud to be seen together."

As attendees emerged from the coffee, Benjamin waved a fistful of fake $100 bills and called : "Yoohoo! Did you buy a Republican today? What did you get for $1,000?"

Hotel security officers tried to block the cameras' view of the demonstrators, and a few police officers came over. "Don't they have to keep moving?" one of the hotel security guards asked hopefully. The police explained that no, the protesters had a right to be on the public sidewalk, and gently drew the guards away.

"Sometimes we have to explain to them how it is -- not how they want it to be," Lieutenant Anthony J. McLaughlin of Philadelphia Police Department's Civil Affairs Unit said.

It was a typical response by the police this week. While there is an overwhelming police presence in Philadelphia around the convention hall, for the most part the protesters and police are acting friendly and cooperative. It's a new twist the concept of a blue/green alliance. In Philadelphia, a strong Democratic, pro-union town, some of the cops even appear sympathetic to the protesters' message.

As reporters double-teamed Miss Liberty, the police chatted with Rainforest Action's Hayes about the various demonstrations at this week's convention. Lieutenant McLaughlin pointed out a group of yellow-shirted union members from the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) local 1776, which is in a stand-off with the state-operated liquor stores in Pennsylvania ever since Governor Tom Ridge moved to privatize the stores and scrap the workers' contract. "They haven't had a contract for four years," the cop told Hayes.

The soft talk and big stick approach by the police has helped keep conflict to a minimum -- there is a cop on every corner of the downtown, giving directions, smiling, and generally making the overwhelming law enforcement presence felt. Another reason the protest scene in Philadelphia is far tamer than at the massive anti-globalization demonstrations in Seattle or Washington, DC, is that it is dominated not by national groups but by local activists like the UFCW workers and the Kensington Welfare Rights Union. According to protest organizers, these groups made clear that they didn't want national organizations coming in and stealing the show.

On Monday, a 2,500-person march by the Kensington Welfare Rights Union drew attention to plight of Philadelphia's most impoverished neighborhoods. The Kensington group also ran "reality bus tours" of Philadelphia from the Liberty Bell through some of Philadelphia's most down and out communities. The tours drew a lot of interest from delegates and the media.

"We saw this as a chance to show that there is poverty in America," says Brian Wisniewski, an organizer with the welfare rights group. "In my neighborhood in Kensington the number-one source of income is welfare and the number-two source is drugs. When factories left Kensington everyone was pushed into underground economy."

"The Republicans haven't done anything for people in my neighborhood, and neither have the Democrats," he adds. "We're working to end poverty, not to get a little more money for social services or a homeless shelter -- those are just bandages on the problem. We're talking about ending poverty permanently."

The Republicans, meanwhile, are talking about "compassionate conservativism" and attempting to paper over their ideological rifts. The effort to project inclusiveness has not only unified the party, it also has helped stifle unrest outside the convention. Instead of marching in the streets like they did in Seattle and Washington, DC, the Teamsters are busy schmoozing in the convention hotels. RNC chairman Jim Nicholson hosted a "Salute to Jimmy Hoffa" on Monday night, at which Hoffa thanked the Republicans in Congress who opposed Permanent Normal Trade Relations with China, and posed for photos shaking hands with the RNC chair.

Blurring ideological lines and embracing gung-ho capitalism may be a winning formula for the Republicans this year. The same strategy of triangulation and cooptation won the Democrats eight years in the White House. In Philadelphia, it's up to a small band of demonstrators to get out the opposing view.

Ruth Conniff is Washington editor of the Progressive magazine.


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