Life in the land of make-believe


by Norm Winick

I went to their Garden Party.

When the Republican faithful gathered in New York to annoint George W. Bush as their party’s nominee, I was not the only non-Republican in attendance. Michael Moore was there, reporting for USA Today. Terry McAuliffe, chairman of the Democratic party was there giving op-eds.

Here are some of my firsthand observations.

Three hecklers disrupted President Bush’s speech on Thursday. One was sitting two seats away from me in the nosebleed seats in section 338 behind and to the side of the podium reserved for the periodical press and visitors. She quietly unfurled a paper banner from her purse that read "Strong but Wrong." A "visitor" in the seat in front of her tried to grab it and she held on. It tore but remained readable – if anyone was actually looking up into that dark upper nether region. After about 20 seconds a convention volunteer came up to our row and barked "get up." I, on the aisle, and the people in from me ignored him. He then demanded "get up now!" to me and all three of us between the aisle and the lady with the banner in a way that indicated he wasn’t kidding. After he forcibly helped us move to the aisle, he grabbed the sign, crumpled it up and then forcibly grabbed the protestor and dragged her away, never to be seen again.

During this brief commotion and two other times when similar incidents occurred in other parts of the arena, the crowd, led by the convention operations staffers, broke into chants of "four more years" to drown out any demonstrator noise, while the president sported a befuddled look – obviously wondering why the crowd was interrupting him at a place in his speech not intended to generate applause or any particular reaction.

Compared to the Democrats in Boston, the Republicans weren’t nearly as good at timekeeping. The Democrats started each hours’ proceedings on time and, if they finished early, filled the few minutes at the top of each hour with music as the cable networks showed commercials. The Republicans had hours of recorded music, in 15 and 20-minute blocks, all during the evening. Delegates were bored and restless and often out of their seats because nothing was going on for so long.

Even during the main event Thursday, New York Governor George Pataki, introducing the President, finished at about 9:52pm – a full eight minutes before the major networks would be starting their coverage live from the hall. So they played some recorded music. It was as if Ed McMahon had said "Here’s Johnnnny" and Johnny wasn’t there. Then, to continue the loss of momentum, they played a video which they abruptly cut off when the President walked onstage. I’m sure it played well to the TV viewers, though, and that’s all that really matters.

Madison Square Garden was nowhere near as crowded as the FleetCenter. That’s partly because it’s a little bigger and the Republicans had fewer delegates. They also had some no-shows. They put signs on the empty seats to disguise them – even during the President’s speech. There were published reports that they even paid people to fill seats on early convention nights and that they gave away tickets at the main New York Post Office.

Both parties had problems with their balloon drops. The Republicans’ was much smaller and only was intended to drop on the main part on the floor but they couldn’t get them all to fall at the same time either. No balloon-drop technician was caught on camera swearing about it though. Mixed in the confetti were little one-inch circles of tissue paper with key Republicans, such as the President or Laura pictured on them. As soon as people realized they were in the confetti, hundreds of delegates and others on the floor went down to their knees and started scavenging these "collectible" bits of confetti from aisles, under chairs and everywhere else. It became impossible to move on the floor to get anywhere. Oops. Instant gridlock.

While tens of thousands of signs were passed around by blue t-shirted staffers identified on their credentials as "sign distributors," there was one thing missing from them all. There were professionally printed ones reading "A Safer World," "W. Our President," "4 More Years," "a Nation of Courage," and dozens more that were painted by staff to look handmade. None mentioned the vice-president. Dick Cheney’s name was not to be seen. When Bush 41 and Barbara arrived in the box facing the platform, the PA announcer greeted them. When Laura Bush arrived, they interrupted a video to announce her. Both received polite applause. When Dick and Lynn Cheney arrived to sit in the vice-presidential box with Rudy Giuliani and Newt Gingrich, (the Scarlett Letter section) nothing was said. There was no applause for him. Other key members of the administration, such as Condoleezza Rice, were sitting with the first President Bush, Barbara and Laura – not with the vice president.

Cheney wasn’t the only key administration member relegated to obscurity. Despite all the talk about 9/11 and how the president is making us safer, Tom Ridge, the man given that responsibility, was nowhere to be seen. He didn’t get to speak at the convention. He didn’t get recognized in any of the speeches. He was noticably absent.

The President keeps getting better at speechifying and his writers have adapted to his weaknesses. They never used the word "nuclear" so he couldn’t mispronounce it and they didn’t have to spell it phonetically on the TelePrompter like they did four years ago in Philadelphia. I didn’t notice if he’s learned to pronounce "terror" or if they kept that word out, too.

The speech itself started out slow but he did kick it into high gear. Overall, he effectively told his audience what they wanted to hear and they were thrilled. I thought he was most effective when he challenged John Kerry’s claim to represent "conservative values." He clearly exaggerated and distorted Kerry’s positions, but he defined the differences between the two very clearly. He was generally very personable and occasionally self-deprecating. He was charming when he proclaimed, "I’ve come to learn as president that whatever weaknesses you have, people will notice them, and whatever strengths you have, you’re gonna need them."

At the conclusion of his speech, the crowd in the hall was exuberant. It was almost as if they were terrified he would screw-up big time and they breathed a collective sigh of relief when he didn’t.

A large area below the arena held dozens of booths set up for radio stations and syndicated shows from around the country. Various politicos and celebrities would wander from booth to booth getting interviewed. Hawkers from the various talk shows would go and corral the potential guests – including some of the talk show hosts themselves.

Among the guests I saw were Terry McAuliffe, G. Gordon Liddy, Pat Buchanan, Pat Boone, Don King, former Senator Alan Simpson and Governors Mitt Romney and George Pataki.

Before and after the main event, I was able to talk with some prominent Republicans. Here are some of the more interesting things they said to me:

Commentator and former presidential candidate

Pat Buchanan:

"There is a mythology that still persists that my speech at the 1992 Republican convention was responsible, at least partly, for President Bush’s loss. That just isn’t true. The only way Bush could have won in 1992 was to make the campaign about social issues. The Clinton’s kept it focused on the economy which was the right thing to do – for them – and it would be the right thing for Kerry to do too. Bush was too controlled to the country club Republicans and they are aren’t concerned about the social issues."

"In 1968 I was at the Democratic convention in Chicago, sent by the Nixon campaign to spy for them and keep an eye on the Democrats. Nixon and Bebe Rebozo would call me every hour to see what I had found out. At one point, I went to Grant Park to see what was going in. I was wearing my Republican three-piece suit and I stood out like a sore thumb. People started taunting "FBI, FBI" at me. I saw the cops clubbing the protestors. I got gassed. It was one of the greatest experiences of my life. I told Nixon after that not to propagandize. We didn’t have to. Just get out of the way and let the Democrats self-destruct. And they did."

"The killers of 9/11 were over here because we were over there. This administration is wrong in claiming that they attacked us because of who we are. They attacked us because of what we do and say. We have a huge imperialist footprint in Saudi Arabia. We support corrupt governments. We refuse to criticize Ariel Sharon or Israel. There are rich deposits of resentment in the Arab world. That is not a justification for what they did but we ought to know the reasons they did it. We need to ask why people want to kill us."

Boxing and self-promoter

Don King

"John Kerry has made no commitment to African-Americans; George Bush will preserve our freedom. His friends respect him; his enemies fear him. That’s good ebough for me."

Illinois Congressman and Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert

I Asked him about Galesburg’s job losses and NAFTA. "We need to help make the country more competitive by making American business more competitive. Because of our corporate tax structure, lawsuits, and our regulatory costs, American businesses aren’t competitive. Those embedded taxes add about 18-30 percent to the cost of American products."

"I’d like to see a national debate at the grass roots level about changing our whole tax system. I’m not saying I support a flat tax or replacing income taxes with a V.A.T. or national sales tax, I am saying we need to publicly start discussing those issues."

Former Illinois Governor

Jim Edgar

On Alan Keyes: "I’m out of this a little bit. I was in Colorado when the State Central Committee met and chose Keyes. I’ll see what happens. I will say that I wasn’t happy with his remarks I read about gays and the vice-president’s daughter."

"I’m chairman of President Bush’s reelection campaign in Illinois. I think his tax cuts have jump-started the economy from the recession he inherited. The federal and state governments have a role to play and the philosophy they adopt towards the economy is important. We have to instill in peoples’ mind the psychology that the economy is improving. The President’s policies have helped. The tax cuts will get the recession over quicker. Illinois is always slower to get into or out of any change in the national economy. The recovery will eventually get to us."

"NAFTA isn’t the problem. Mexico had the maquiladora region long before NAFTA. The jobs would have gone away anyway – somewhere. Overall, NAFTA’s been more of a plus than a minus. We are in a global economy. We need to figure out our strengths and build on them."

"I respect Denny Hastert’s call for a national debate on our tax structure but for Illinois we need a national debate that will lead to an energy policy. An energy policy is more doable in the short term and vital to getting our dependence on foreign oil reduced and getting more reliance on domestic, renewable sources of energy such as ethanol. Ethanol is key to Illinois’ economic recovery and, in an international geopolitical sense, good for the world."

Illinois State Treasurer,

State Republican Chair,

Chair of the Illinois Delegation

Judy Baar Topinka

She was there with her son, Joseph "GI Joe" Baar Topinka, on leave from the military. I helped her scavenge signs to bring back to Illinois. Like the Kerry campaign, the Republicans aren’t spending much money in Illinois when they have states that could still go either way. She asked Joe to remove the state sign from its stanchion and he dutifully did.

"I’m glad it’s over," exclaimed Judy as she was picking up signs. "It was a lot of work. I’m done being state chair, too. When I took this job in 2002, I said I’d do it for two years and that’s all. Somebody else can have it!"

Despite the senate candidate fiasco that occurred on her watch, she doesn’t think the landscape to totally barren for the Republicans. "This convention has done one thing for us in states like Illinois. It has convinced us that the Republican Party is still vibrant and things aren’t so bleak as they seem. This convention has given us hope that maybe President Bush does have a chance in Illinois."

On Alan Keyes: "I support the nominee of my party; that doesn’t mean I’ll vote for him, though."