Thursday, Aug. 15, 1996
Maybe I should have made this clear at the start, but when I was in school, I never liked pep rallies. There was something creepy about the forced enthusiasm, the rhythmic chants, the whipping up of arbitrary animosities. So, good idea for me to come to San Diego this week, wasn’t it?
The day starts with some acts of mercy. (Parenthetical note: Perhaps because this hotel is so far out in the sticks, one of the nearby freeway offramps is called “Mercy Rd.” Just thought you should know.) Two radio programs that had booked me to reconstitute some freeze-dried wit tell me I’m off the hook. Usually, driving half an hour to find you’ve been bumped would make a man cross, but, to tell you the truth, by this time, I’m sick of my own voice.
Not that I take a vow of silence, but I just don’t have to hear the damn thing amplified through headphones. Instead, I head for lunch with my near-homonym, Robert Scheer. Scheer, in sound and look, is such a quintessential leftist–beard, Bronx accent, sardonic yet earnest mien–that it is probably a tribute to the much-lauded inclusionary spirit of this convention that he isn’t John Chancellored out the minute he sets foot in the hall. But, as he points out, he’s a family-values leftist. Before he actually invites me out to lunch, he verifies that I did not, in fact, slam his wife on a recent radio broadcast. His wife is a mega-editor of the L. A. Times, and I had read a news story that connected her with an episode in which two minor hoodlum characters in a comic strip had had their races changed, only by the Times, from black to white.
Thus vetted, I accompany him to a “family-owned” Italian restaurant, the quote his. There are more Italian restaurants in that little trendy district I keep referring to than there are in whole provinces of Italy. At that point, of course, all comparison ceases. But, like a true New Yorker, Scheer has found the one that’s most nearly Italian. We send one bottle of wine back, come close to sending back a second, and talk about welfare. I’m sure America’s poor folks would have their hearts gladdened to know that we cared enough to discuss their fate over a barely drinkable Gavi.
After lunch, I head for the convention center. Finally, after five days, I’m clear on the geography of this place. About two miles of walking last night showed me that the convention center backs right onto a yacht marina, where, each night, a post-session party seems to consist, on last night’s evidence, of some live country-music performances projected on huge video screens. That’s right, the one thing delegates to this convention just don’t get enough of during the sessions are huge video screens. Rumors are circulating that Jack Kemp will be rehearsing his speech in the hall, but I’m looking to connect with a friend, John Gibson, who appears to have been given the job of setting a new world record for consecutive hours anchoring a live event on cable.
This place, the convention environment, has the quality of a large reverberation chamber. I don’t mean the acoustics in the hall. But normally, when one writes something or makes an appearance on a CNN or an MSNBC, some time may pass, and one or two persons may eventually acknowledge having read or seen it. Here, everybody’s reading and watching everybody else all the time. People are enfolded in a closed feedback loop, a fact which is simultaneously flattering and intimidating.
But, on my way to see Gibson, who is broadcasting outdoors–have I mentioned it’s nastily, unaccountably hot in normally temperate S.D.?–I am accosted by a young woman working for the local NBC affiliate. She is, she tells me, a 1988 gold medalist in–help me, Lord–synchronized swimming. I have to take her word for it–she’s not wearing her medal–and I choose to. Maybe the clinching detail is her story about almost being thrown off the team because she was wearing, as she calls them, “floaties”–falsies for the, as she calls herself, “floatationally challenged.”
Still in the hall, and loath to give up the air conditioning, I head for “Talk Radio Row,” a hallway on the level above the convention floor on which talk-radio hosts spanning the gamut from the right to the near-right have been assembled. Here is Bob Grant, too controversial for Disney’s ABC Radio, but just right for its competition, WOR. Here too would be Oliver North, but he’s through for the day, and is probably out with his Luger looking for Bob Scheer.
But in the pavilion just next to this Babel-in-abeyance is the magic of the marketplace so often enshrined in Republican rhetoric, a temporary superstore of souvenirs and memorabilia, collectibles and throw-outables. Here’s where a lot of the American-flag-design vests and scarves come from. By the way, did I miss the debate where it was suddenly deemed patriotic to wear Flag clothing? Last time I checked in on this topic, people were getting thrown in jail for that particular fashion statement. Here, too, is a spacious booth selling souvenirs from the Nixon Library. The famous Nixon-Elvis handshake has become a life-size cutout in the middle of which you can be photographed with the president and the King. There’s also a souvenir book memorializing that meeting written by one-time Plumber Egil Krogh. I failed to check the index to see if he lists the drugs Elvis was on during this historic encounter. But wait a minute: Nixon–didn’t he die since the last Republican convention? Wouldn’t that normally entitle a former president to a video tribute all his own? Perhaps, but the GOP celebrating and advertising itself here traces its historical roots all the way back to Ronald Reagan.
Most tempting of all for a trashophile like myself is the booth selling paintings on black velvet of prominent Republicans. I do some reporting, and find out they are indeed painted in Mexico. Thank you, NAFTA. But here’s the good news: If you don’t like any of the paintings on display, you can custom-order, as the sign says, “your own Velvet Republican.”
Which brings us into the hall. If anything, tonight’s colors are even more pastel. The impression is that John McCain somehow has wandered into the ladies’ room. I check in with my whip friend, who reports with a rueful smile that he has yet to find an admitted platform-reader. Thanks to a bright and amiable self-described “nutty conservative” with whom I share a mutual friend, and who seems to have inherited a highly useful “Security Floor Pass” for the evening, I’m able to enjoy the privilege of being wedged in inextricably between delegates and still photographers as McCain nominates Dole. When the magic words are pronounced, the photogs go into action, elbows swinging, equipment bags driven smartly into neighboring groins. Ever wonder why normal people hate the media? Watch these guys in action.
I’m still on the floor when Liddy Dole decides to audition for the part of the white Oprah. This show makes Mike “Amazing Discoveries” Levey look like a man of substance. The whole convention has been heavy on the heart-tugging anecdotes, so much so that it should have been narrated, and scored, by John Tesh. A woman in front of me gushes, “Isn’t she great? She’s saying all this about him with no script, no prompter.” I think to myself, “Yeah, Liddy must know the guy.” It appears to be Bob Dole’s lucky day. Not only is he being nominated for president, but also, amazingly, all these people from his past just happened to drop by the hall tonight. I reach my limit when Liddy tells the story of Bob and her mom. In case you missed it, he comes in wearing a towel over his injured arm and says to her, “I think it’s time you saw my problem.” Mom-in-law says, “It’s not a problem, it’s a badge of honor.” Liddy ends the story there, but I punch it up: Bob says, “No, not that problem.” The big screens show us Dole in his hotel room watching Liddy pay this fulsome tribute to, among other things, his modesty. I wonder if we could get a picture, via satellite, of Phyllis, Wife No. 1, who also helped nurse him back to health, but unfortunately couldn’t be with us in person tonight.
The mercy that began the day is in short supply at day’s end. Calvin Trillin and Andrew Ferguson of the WeeklyStandard and I are booked to sit on the MSNBC balcony and wax comedic. In the event, we sit and watch the phantom roll call, as the state chairmen blatantly read their scripts, extolling their tourist attractions, bountiful crops, and love of a 15 percent tax cut, before abstaining from the vote, so that, eventually–very eventually–Kansas can put Dole over the top. A voting ritual with the voting removed. To paraphrase Ed Rollins, this convention gives “empty shell” a bad name.