Pay no attention to the gentleman in ninja black at the door and his M16 rifle. These were just precautions for a week of endless love and rage in New York City, in honor of our sitting wartime president and in ridicule of a particular "liberal senator from Massachusetts," and with virtually none of the divisive social issues that have been such a problem in the past. The 2004 Republican National Convention was not about to revert to the bad memories of '92 and '96. No Christian soldiers or culture warriors on camera ever, except for the president himself.
Kiss me, I'm a Republican was a silly slogan on a button, a cheap memento pinned to the lapel of a young woman in a stars-and-stripes scarf, but it represented the philosophy of the moment for the delegates and speakers gathered last week at Madison Square Garden. They seemed to agree on everything: on the divine wisdom of George W. Bush, on the venal character of hated Sen. John Kerry, and on the certainty of their victory this November. Voting on a party platform was a mere formality, quietly shoved outside of primetime, along with its call for a constitutional ban on gay marriage, against stem cell research, against abortion. The winning message this past week was instead about terror and Iraq and a broadening tent, within a party that ex-Rep. J.C. Watts claims enjoyed a 70 percent increase in African American participation in New York over the last GOP convention.
Major speeches were largely delivered by moderate voices, such as Arnold Schwarzenegger, the superstar California governor, still making the same bad jokes with his old movie titles, and whose speech lacked any substance at all beyond the essential message: I am an immigrant and it is good. He was joined by Arizona Sen. John McCain and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, beloved here as much (or more) for their popularity beyond the party as for their actual stated positions on the issues of the moment.
"There are all kinds of people here who don't agree with parts of the platform, maybe even a majority," suggested former California Gov. Pete Wilson, who early in his first term called the most combative right-wing members of his state party "the Neanderthals." The delegates were unconcerned. "They're here because they believe the president has given us decisive leadership at a time of critical need."
The true believers have their own heroes. Ex-Congressman and Clinton impeachment button man Bob Barr of Georgia made a point of grumbling, as he sat on a panel of conservative activists early last week, "I don't know about us all being Giuliani Republicans." Newt Gingrich was closer to his kind of rock star, and treated like one as he stood on the convention floor with the Georgia delegation. The deposed House Speaker received hours of worship at Madison Square Garden, a true warrior conservative. Elected officials and fresh young Republicans shook his hand and posed for pictures and more pictures, putting an arm around him like a favorite uncle, shouting "You the man, Newt!" even as Vice President Dick Cheney delivered his speech from the podium in a typical narcotic monotone. But Gingrich himself was not invited to speak.
Which suggests the big show onstage offered a misleading image of the party. Arnold, Rudy and McCain are the kind of Republicans that swing voters like, but are unlikely to get from a second G.W. term. Patrick Buchanan craves a more direct testimonial. He left the party to run for president as an independent conservative in 1996, after stints in the Nixon and Reagan administrations (aside from his continuing work as a writer and commentator). "I was in the Reagan party, and he had a "no pale pastels' platform in 1980," he remembered. "It was a very conservative platform on social issues, economic issues, foreign policy, and there were people who dissented. And the president said you are welcome, but we're going to tell the country where we're going if we win. He was very successful. That's the kind of politics I like."
Wednesday night offered U.S. Sen. Zell Miller, introduced as "the conscience of the Democratic Party," a fitting title for the man who has turned against Kerry's party. "It's the soldiers, not the agitators, that gave us the freedom to assemble," Miller declared angrily, as if to actually exercise that right was somehow dishonorable. The speech was almost scary in its intensity, a wilder version of his keynote address against the first President Bush in this same room at the 1992 Democratic National Convention. Which makes Miller like the captain of the debate team, an effective speech-maker from any position, except that in 2004 his spew of disgust outdid anything from the culture war conservatives of the notorious 1992 Republican convention, overloaded with metaphor and helium, and bordering on bitter dementia.
That kind of mania is of little help to Bill Jones, candidate to replace incumbent U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer. In 2004, it is unwise for anyone, Republican or otherwise, to be seen in California embracing Bush policies. In the Aug. 10 candidates debate, the two-term senator sought to link Jones with the White House of Bush-Cheney. Jones preferred to talk about Arnold. He hoped the primetime speeches of Schwarzenegger, McCain and Guiliani would help his campaign that so far has struggled to find traction.
"People say it's all themes and not reality," Jones said on the convention floor, a conservative with a tiny golden pin of a California brown bear on his lapel. "But as someone who's been around this business quite a while, when you can put the whole Republican Party in one place and pull off a convention without a problem, that's a big deal. This war on terror has pulled people together, and it's put all the other issues in perspective."
Jones even suggested that California could be in play in the presidential race if Bush chose to fight for it, with the help of Schwarzenegger. It's unlikely, though he realizes his campaign would be helped if Bush did.
When the president finally arrived for his speech at the Garden, he stuck mainly to Iraq and "the war on terrorism," while throwing out a few pointed commitments regarding stem cells and abortion, all aimed back at the base. Bush also called the tax code "a complicated mess," inspiring an Arizona delegate to shout, "Burn it!" And by the end of last week, Bush did enjoy the bounce in polls that Kerry never quite got after his own convention. It will likely recede as the Garden euphoria fades with more American casualties in Iraq. But within days the Massachusetts senator had recruited key players in the first Clinton victory, still in search of that bounce. Even in the otherwise unfriendly territory of New York City, the Republican Party had surrendered nothing.
Convention week in New York City was as much about the anger gathered outside Madison Square Garden as it was the big show inside, as activists from around the country and the globe joined locals in protesting threats to abortion rights, questioning policy towards Israel, demanding increased education funding and mostly condemning the war in Iraq. The war is Bush's greatest weakness and his greatest strength in the 2004 campaign. It has coalesced the opposition toward meaningful action and Bush supporters to his defense. The ambivalence of 2000 is gone, transforming this election cycle into an even split of rage and righteousness on either side.
So there were wild predictions and hysteria about the coming anarchist crusaders to New York. Streets were blocked. Police were everywhere-NYPD, Secret Service, U.S. Customs. The FBI interrogated known activists before they even arrived. And somehow a few protesters managed to get onto the convention floor during the week, there only to shout at Bush and Cheney or unfurl a banner for an instant before security quickly made them disappear. There were other arrests, but no cataclysmic clash between police and protesters, nothing to compare to those terrible images from Chicago 1968, when blue-helmeted police swung batons indiscriminately and in the name of the Democratic Party. Protests this time were frequently loud and angry, with classic scenes of civil disobedience and street theater. Water in city fountains was dyed the color of spilled blood. A woman at the World Trade Center site carried a sign reading: "Bush Can Kiss My Black Ass," while nearby a circle of young people were on their knees, desperately ringing tiny bells, casting a spell over a photograph of Bush and Cheney on the sidewalk. Leading the chant for this mock exorcism was Tess Walker, 22, a music student from Boston: "Ooooh, go back to Texas ... Texas, Texas ... Go back to Texas!"
No Starbucks windows were smashed or even threatened. That did not prevent police from arresting more than 1,800 protesters during the week, before delivering them to the temporary detention center in a former parking garage at Pier 57. It was called "Guantanamo on the Hudson" by critics for its stark conditions, without even beds to accommodate the hundreds of arrested protesters, who were forced to sleep on a bare concrete floor reportedly covered by a layer of oil. And if there was a big moment, a defining scene of peaceniks confronting authority, it was a quiet one that began at Ground Zero on Tuesday, Day 2 of the convention. Believing they had an informal agreement with police to march, activists with the War Resisters League walked peacefully down the sidewalk two-by-two toward the Garden, before NYPD abruptly swept up about 200 of them for marching without a permit. It was quietly outrageous and inexplicable, except as a means to quickly take hundreds of protesters off the streets. Tom Hayden noted that there were far more arrests in New York than in Chicago in 1968, where he had been a protest leader and tried as part of the Chicago 7 case.
For Republicans to bring their convention to overwhelmingly Democratic and liberal Manhattan seemed to many an exploitive, dangerous, even insane act. And yet on Sunday, a march hosted by United for Peace and Justice drew an estimated 400,000 locals and invading activists, roiling peacefully through midtown and right past the Garden, mostly without incident. One man carried a simple sign to define a collective assessment of the Bush presidency: "This is as Bad as it Gets." Nearly 1,000 flag-draped coffins were carried to represent American war dead. It was also a march to nowhere, as the city and the courts refused to grant a permit to end at a rally on the Great Lawn of Central Park. Republican Mayor Michael Bloomberg claimed he was worried about damage to the grass. Hundreds of defiant marchers still ended up there, amid the softball games and picnics, but without the speeches and purpose to matter. Topless lesbians danced and clapped to tribal drumbeats, and the ironic performance group Billionaires for Bush strolled onto the lawn in laughable Thurston Howell attire, muttering lines like "Everything is wonderful. We'll soon be privatizing the lawn" and "Goodbye, middle class, it was nice knowing you!"
There was just one serious incident the entire day. Just before 3 p.m., near the corner of 7th Avenue and West 57th Street, and within sight of the Garden, a squad of protesters with their faces covered ignited a small, dragon-shaped parade float. One of them poured flammable liquid onto the surface, as a young woman lit the fire. Marchers screamed and ran from the flames right outside a McDonalds. Cops inside ordered customers back from the window, which soon filled with billowing clouds of smoke from the fire, an eerie echo of images from 9/11. A plain-clothes officer was attacked and hospitalized during another march outside the United Nations, and bloodied protesters could be seen with their wrists tied up.
During the convention, delegates en route to the Garden were unloaded from their buses across the street from Macy's, where one man walked the sidewalk shouting, "Go home! We hate you! Nobody wants you here! You're a bunch of lying greedy bastards!" Foot traffic was often blocked, as protesters, New Yorkers leaving work and the occasional Republican delegate were trapped together behind police barricades.
Sitting atop a light pole was Tzadik Greenberg, 26, in baggy shorts, sandals and a bushy brown beard. A round medallion of the Star of David rested below his chin. He came from Arizona to be here. And as soon as someone handed him a video camera, he began shooting footage of the protest and police response. A cop noticed and barked into a megaphone: "Sir, get off the light pole!" He repeated himself again and again. "Get off the light pole!" Greenberg ignored him. Another protester instead shouted back at the cop, "Sir! Get off the megaphone, sir!"
Greenberg finally looked back at the line of cops and said, "Everything was fine until I started filming you guys. You didn't say anything until then."Later, one delegate and self-described conservative from Oklahoma, spoke of tolerance for the protests. "In a democracy, you need to listen to what people are saying, even though they may not be right," said William Crozier, 57, a 1984 candidate for U.S. Senate. "It depends on how they poise their positions, even if they use bad words. All of us do that occasionally. The criticism is part of the democracy and you need to look at it."