Postcards from the edge.
"News is information that somebody, somewhere, wants to suppress," said former NBC News president Reuven Frank (himself quoting Lord Northcliffe), in one of the few illuminating moments offered at this year's Republican National Convention. "Everything else," continued Frank, who was being questioned on a CNN panel, "is just advertising."
No sooner had Frank finished that thought than he was himself suppressed. Anchor Bernie Shaw cut Frank off mid-sentence and CNN's directors tossed the coverage down to urgent "breaking news" on the convention floor. Dan and Marilyn Quayle were strolling in to take their seats for the opening-night rituals, and a CNN floor reporter and remote camera crew were upon them. The Quayles, however, fared as poorly as did Mr. Frank. Just as Marilyn gushed over the leisure time she now had available for private walks on the beach, some nervous pigeon in the CNN control nest twitched and the audience was zoomed across the hall to the next "event"--the arrival of Pat and Shelley Buchanan.
In an off-camera voiceover, Shaw apologized, saying time had run out now on the segment with Reuven Frank, whose last words were something about what a pity it was that nowadays, just when the networks had the technology capable of instantaneously transmitting news from anywhere at or around the convention, they were no longer interested in finding any real news to transmit. Click.
The Frank-Quayle-Buchanan video menage during the first hours of "convention coverage" set the tone for the rest of the week. A four-day dirty dance between the networks and G.O.P. convention planners ended in a backseat surrender to the latter. All of us present--the 2,000 delegates, the 15,000 press and media technicians, probably an equal number of service staff--were reduced, in the words of Jerry Brown, to being unpaid extras in one cynical, prolonged political simulacrum.
Soon a predictable three-stage cycle emerged: By night, the media would splay itself wide for whatever Riefenstahl-esque "news" Paul Manafort's convention scripters decided to produce; there was prime-time coverage of the party's multimedia tribute to its dying god Ronnie and his weeping and loyal spouse.
By the morning light, the news columns of the papers of record would overflow with remorseful ruminations from network executives agreeing that maybe they had sullied their otherwise pristine reputations by letting those G.O.P. bullies go a little too far.
But come evening, those news hussies were back at it, just unable to resist the Republican entreaties. "Blowaway competition...dynamite...electrifying!" exclaimed an awe-struck Dan Rather of Liddy Dole's performance. "Masterful," ruled NBC's Tim Russert. "A watershed moment," said PBS's Jim Lehrer solemnly. "Absolutely remarkable," seconded Mark Shields. "An unquestionably brilliant piece of stagecraft," gushed Peter Jennings. Click.
Predictably, the most pious of our newscasters, Saint Koppel, carved out a special role for himself in this orgy of denial. On night two he announced his early return to New York, declaring in his learned judgment that there was, in fact, no news in San Diego worthy of his investigative efforts. That is, the man who believed the O.J. trial deserved fifty-nine programs could find no lobbyists, no corporate underwriters, no back-room dealers to smoke out for his inquiring audience. Click.
Despite all this, the Republican media strategy was, in the end, a failure. The only "drama" not completely wrung out of the show was seeing whether Bob Dole and his party would actually survive his final-night acceptance speech. I know he's The Candidate and all. But you'd think all those smart G.O.P. media managers would have come up with some Information Age gimmick to preclude Bobdole (as he calls himself) from addressing the nation a cappella for fifty-five minutes. The Republicans have been hoping that an uneasy America would turn away from the youthful prevaricator in the White House and seek the reassuring embrace of a loving, familiar grandfather; instead, they offered up someone who looks a lot more like your step-uncle Arnie, eager to wash your mouth out with soap if you do any cussing or stay out too late.
It was the familiar Bobdole all right. The dark Dole. Skating right out there to the thin ice of the right fringe, fulminating over a bumper crop of illegitimate babies, pandering to the Posse Comitatus, promising to bag the I.R.S., making fun of Boutros-Ghali's name and even howling against the World Trade Organization, which he helped strengthen with his pro-GATT voting record.
There was one undeniable truth, however, in Bobdole's final convention moments. Savoring the prospect of victory, he proclaimed, "I'm the most optimistic man in America!"
As Colin Powell basked in hurrahs upon completing his address to the Republican we-love-moderates gabfest, Pat Buchanan stood to leave and asked an aide, "Is that it for me?" The putative populist probably had in mind his schedule for the night. But the question implied a broader sweep.
San Diego was cruel to Buchanan: no speech, little notice. His 150 delegates were nonpersons on the convention floor. When three rushed forward with a Buchanan banner during the nominating roll call, floor managers intercepted the loyalists in SWAT-like fashion and no colors were unfurled. On the first night, Buchanan arrived with several aides and proceeded to the five seats the party had provided him: last row in the first section of general admission. No escort was supplied, and this small Buchanan squad was left on its own to thwart the media-swarm that descended. Then, as he watched a Republican-come-lately who has never won a single vote defend affirmative action and abortion rights, Buchanan simultaneously scowled and pouted, his expression shouting, "Should be me up there!" When asked for a reaction to Powell's speech, he uncharacteristically muttered, "I'm far away from all this right now. What did you think?"
At the end of his pitchfork crusade, the rabble-rouser handed over a weak endorsement of Bob Dole and sat grim-faced in the loser's section of the V.I.P. area on the final night. In return, he received nothing. He and sister Bay spun as best as possible, telling supporters and reporters that the platform (unread by Dole) was a Buchanan platform: antiabortion, harsh on immigration, anti-affirmative action, critical of the United Nations. But the party had long ago taken a Buchananesque swerve on social matters. As David Keene, head of the American Conservative Union and a longtime Dole ally, observed, "Pat Buchanan was never going to not get what he wanted on social issues." What has distinguished Buchanan from run-of-the-mill conservative extremists is his advocacy of worker-first economic nationalism. In the platform Buchanan penned, he bemoaned the "gulf between the affluent and Middle America," "amoral transnational corporations that...have adopted a profit uber alles mindset," "corporate contributors, lobbyists" and "a Quiet Depression" of low wages. The G.O.P. platform committee has not embraced the core of Buchananism. And as he dismantles his barricades, it should be noted again that for all his railing against corporate power, Buchanan still declines to enlist government in the attempt to restrain the profiteers. Instead, he favors the same old Republican fare of tax cuts and loose regulations desired by most corporations. Still, he will not find an easy accommodation within the G.O.P. anytime soon.
Buchanan's most fervent followers know this. The day before the convention began, Buchanan called the devoted to one last rally, at the California Arts Center in Escondido, a town twenty-five miles from San Diego. His campaign had not been able to procure a speaking site in the convention city. (At one point, the campaign believed it had lined up a hall in San Diego; then--poof--the site pulled out.) In Escondido--which means "hidden"--Buchanan had a hard time even with his own. During Oliver North's warmup address, many in the two-thirds-full auditorium heckled the conservative stalwart when he suggested it was time to saddle up behind Dole. Buchanan's own subdued let's-fight-within-the-party speech was interrupted by cries for an independent run.
Buchanan has fanatical fans, but not enough to leverage anything within the G.O.P. or strike out on his own. (Various polls show that conservative Republicans have indeed rallied behind Dole, even before his dark, liberal-baiting, antigovernment, America-is-devastated acceptance speech.) Buchanan acknowledged this reality in San Diego. And all he can offer his backers is the vow to battle on--somehow, somewhere--for there is always a fight for the future of a political party. Jack Kemp's ascendance to the heartbeat-away slot is an affront to Buchanan, even though both are ardent antiabortion advocates. Kemp represents upbeat conservatism predicated on dynamic internationalist capitalism (and the gold standard, of course). With a flick of Dole's fancy, the Kemp clique has been boosted in the G.O.P. sweepstakes. And then there's Powell, a prop the conservative-controlled party is eager to court to enhance its image. (Not so successfully, it seems; only 3 percent, in one poll, said Powell's speech caused them to feel more favorably toward the G.O.P.) Within certain G.O.P. circles, there is nervousness about the general's potential. Ask a conservative activist about Powell's chances, and he or she will all too swiftly dismiss the notion that Powell will be able to save the party (and swipe it from the rightists) should Dole lose his last campaign. They are worried that the "inclusionist" image they have unleashed might come to dominate a post-Dole party. Buchanan will face tough competition in the years ahead.
"This party is becoming a Buchanan party," the man himself trumpeted in Escondido. But not if he's speaking about his particular brand of populism. His effort to redefine Republicanism and the conservative movement along economic lines has been stilled, as he declares a truce with a party establishment that stuck him in the cheap seats. Toward the end of the convention, Buchanan was asked what comes next. "Laying low for now," he said--and grudgingly doing the bidding of the G.O.P.'s knights and nobles.
Journalism sure is a funny business, whether it's the headline writer who wrote the double-entendre caption "Second Wind," under the Dole-Kemp photo on the cover of Newsweek, and was now bragging "I finally got one in," or the reporter in San Diego grousing, "Oh, Ted Koppel was just grandstanding--he knew there wouldn't be any news before he came here." True, the convention did reek with predictability. For me, the most exciting moment turned out to be my first bite into a free sample of chewing gum. There was a burst of artificial ingredients and then suddenly it was all over, just like the Republican convention.
The most exciting moment at the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago had a little more bite--it occurred during an Unbirthday Party for Lyndon Johnson at the Coliseum. While Phil Ochs was singing "I Ain't Marchin' Anymore", somebody started burning his draft card, then more and more individuals set fire to their draft cards, with the crowd cheering wildly at this patriotic display of spontaneous combustion. Ochs received a standing ovation.
It was a tough act to follow. I was a speaker and told the audience about a reporter who had interviewed L.B.J.; the President confided to him, "What the Communists are really saying is, `Fuck you, Lyndon Johnson,' and nobody says `Fuck you, Lyndon Johnson,' and gets away with it." I paused to savor the implications of the leader of the Western world displaying such paranoid megalomania. "Well," I continued, "when I count three, we're all gonna say it--and we're gonna get away with it! Are you ready? One, two, three..." And from the Yippies and the Mobilization Against the War and the Clean-for-Genes, it came at me like a tidal wave--5,000 voices shouting in unison, "Fuck you, Lyndon Johnson!"--a mass catharsis reverberating from the rafters.
The violence that had been escalating all that week reached a peak during a protest rally at Grant Park the night Hubert Humphrey won the nomination. Bob Pierson, a police provocateur posing as a biker and acting as Jerry Rubin's bodyguard, revealed in Official Detective magazine the incident that set off what the Walker Report would describe as "a police riot." He wrote: "One thing we were to do was defile the flag. The American flag in the park was taken down, then rehung upside down. After this had been photographed, a group of us, including me, were ordered to pull it down and destroy it, then to run up the black flag of the Viet Cong. I joined in the chants and taunts against the police and provoked them into hitting me with their clubs. They didn't know who I was, but they did know that I had called them names and struck them with one or more weapons."
Weeks earlier, several Yippie organizers had flown to Chicago to secure a permit for the revolution, or at least to allow demonstrators to sleep in the park. Mayor Daley's assistant, David Stahl, said to me, "Come on, what are you guys really planning to do at the convention?" I responded, "Didn't you see Wild in the Streets?" (In the movie, teenagers put LSD into the water supply and take over the government.) "Wild in the Streets," Stahl repeated. "We've seen Battle of Algiers." In that movie, a guerrilla woman plants a bomb in an ice-cream parlor, and the camera pans around to show the innocent faces of children who are about to be blown up. What was to happen in the streets of Chicago, then, was a clash between our mythology and their mythology.
San Diego was a much calmer scene. A lone African-American man stood silently holding a placard stating, "Angry American Black Male." Fanatics from the antiabortion group Operation Rescue cut the transmission line of a Feminist Majority vehicle. A Jew for Jesus who refused to say whether he now eats bacon exchanged pamphlets with an animal-rights woman in a pig costume carrying a sign saying, "Cut the Pork--Tax Meat."
Many delegates at the Dinosaur Follies were wearing variations of the American flag as clothing, blissfully unaware that Abbie Hoffman got arrested twenty-eight years ago for wearing an American-flag shirt. Today, Hoffman's son, Andrew, is wearing a T-shirt sold by Chicago cops that reads: "In 1968, we kicked your father's ass. Wait'll you see what we do to you!" Phil Ochs's daughter, Meegan--who was only a child in 1968, and now works for the A.C.L.U.--is going to the Democratic convention as a personal pilgrimage. For me, it will be like returning to the scene of the crime.
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Title Annotation:||journalists' views of 1996 Republican National Convention|
|Author:||Cooper, Marc; Corn, David; Krassner, Paul|
|Date:||Sep 9, 1996|
|Previous Article:||Monster truck presidents!|
|Next Article:||Flouting convention.|