I had to be careful watching the political love-fest last Thursday night at the Republican National Convention in Madison Square Garden. I almost got converted. In fact, they actually enchanted me. There was Tommy Franks, the now retired general who led the conquest of an already ravaged Iraq, looking sharp in an orange tie and standing before a bright red background, telling us that George W. Bush is the real thing. Soon, George Pataki, serene because of (or in spite of) his ten years as Governor of New York, proclaimed that we must “attack them before they attack us.” He wasn’t talking about the Democrats, at least at that moment. He was referring to those guys in the Middle East. He might have added that we shouldn’t attack them unless we have reliable evidence they really are going to attack us. But that’s a minor point on a night like this.
The documentary film that followed was worthy of Michael Moore, director of Fahrenheit 9/11. It was powerful. There were images of firemen from 9/11. There was a shot of Yankee Stadium, the House that Ruth Built. The columns in front of the White House shone in ethereal light. And the production of the rally was just as good. The music was moving, the electronic light show riveting. And then came George W. Bush, not strutting – “in Texas we call it wau-king,” he later said – but almost prancing onto the custom-made circular stage. The man looked good. Don’t pretend otherwise. And don’t forget this: in the clutch, as before congress and the nation after 9/11, this guy delivers his best speeches when the pressure is on.
He assured the nation that if it showed uncertainty and weakness, the world would drift toward tragedy, but that would never happen on his watch. He’d take care of things overseas so we wouldn’t have to deal with the terrorists here. And, of course, he was also taking care of things at home. Education was going great. Reading and math scores were up. Job training was more plentiful than ever. He was a champion of health care for the little guy, and fighting to ensure that small firms could join together to purchase at discounts the same health coverage available to large companies. He was doing all this, and vowing to permanently reduce taxes.
Not many people are going to deny the desirability of stuff like that, especially when the man making the promises is relaxed and confident and smiling, and spinning some good jokes, which included this comment about his claim that Democratic opponent, Senator John Kerry, planned to increase federal spending by $2 trillion: “And that’s a lot, even for a senator from Massachusetts.” Then, after vowing to protect marriage – how it could be destroyed, he did not adequately explain – he was back on the national defensive, proclaiming that Afghanistan was free, Iraq was free, Libya was de-nuked, wonderful things were happening in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, and three-quarters of Al-Quaeda’s leaders had either been detained or killed. Democracy is coming to the Middle East, he vowed, and I hope he’s right and that the world really is “more just and will be more peaceful” as a result of his attack on Iraq. He also emphasized that, presumably because of his determination, “freedom is on the march” and the “transformational power of liberty” will soon embrace the whole world. Many of us in the West have long dreamed of a world democratic from pole to pole. And that will happen, most likely at a pace in tune with the evolutionary rhythms of the people who’re becoming free. Can this president, instead, force feed his values and customs to others? We’ll find out.
Right now, though, we were being inundated by thousands of balloons released at precise intervals – unlike the faulty attempts at balloon pageantry at the Democratic National Convention – and the impressive Bush family began to join the president on stage. His wife was handsome and steady, his twin daughters young and pretty, his father tall and dignified, his mother the woman you know and trust. The music had resumed. Energy and optimism were in the air. The Garden was alight in many beautiful colors as balloons continued to cascade over the royal family. The coronation was almost complete. We have only to wait for the election.
In the meantime, it’s helpful to note that some things Bush said were true, and some were quite misleading. For example, it is outrageously inappropriate for a president who inherited a budget surplus of unprecedented size, and soon devoured it into a deficit of unprecedented depth, to attack his opponent as a big spender. The president, naturally, never mentioned the deficit during his speech. And while it sounds wonderful to have eternal tax cuts, Bush declined to explain how he can continue to bring in less money and still maintain aggressive forces overseas while also realizing his commendable domestic goals.
Though not publicly mentioned by the president on this occasion, there also loomed the issue of Senator Kerry’s war record in Viet Nam. It really shouldn’t be an issue. Out one side of his mouth, the president has commended Kerry for serving his country and from the other he has, at least privately, encouraged those who are in effect calling a man with five war medals a coward and a liar. Let’s be clear about this: George W. Bush spent most of the Viet Nam War era drinking and carousing in the United States and, aided by his family and its endless connections, made sure he’d never have to bear arms in Southeast Asia. And Vice President Dick Cheney, among the most fanatical of war drum beaters, received five draft deferments. Yet these two men piously state they really don’t know what Kerry did in Viet Nam and that they can’t control what the guys on the other patrol boats say. Even General Tommy Franks, in an interview right after his speech, said he just can’t figure out who to believe. Well, Mr. President, Mr. Vice President, General, why not believe the twelve (of thirteen) guys who were on Kerry’s boat and have verified his bravery and military competence?
That wouldn’t be good politics, I’m afraid. Good politics is most about smearing your opponent, avoiding indisputable disaster, and about being a star. The war in Iraq, after many more years of bloodshed, possibly could result in democracy being established, so it’s not going to be perceived, now, as a disaster by a majority of voters. And in the “Who’s the Star?” sweepstakes, I, a Democrat who wasn’t motivated to watch John Kerry at the convention, must assume that the primordial pull of personality and appearance favors George W. Bush and will nudge him to reelection. If that happens, I congratulate him and wish him and the rest of us good luck.