A Bad Here Day in Philadelphia

PHILADELPHIA, Tuesday, Aug. 1—Why isn’t George W. Bush here? Because he fears that if he were here, we’d see how little there he’s got going? After two days of therelessness, the lines between here and there, real and virtual, true and false are beginning to blur. But don’t tell the delegates. They cheer every time Dubya beams in from somewhere (Gettysburg?!) on yet another video screen. As the GOP convention degenerates into a pastiche of virtual-thereness, in which Kate Smith singing “God Bless America” is no more here, or there, than the presumptive candidate for president, I present a brief list of other items, also neither here nor there, from the GOP convention:

  • You are not here. The networks have not invited you, and you probably wouldn’t have come anyway.
  • Ideology is not here. It may be there—among the delegates who came here to talk about abortion or getting rid of activist judges—but their jaws seem to have been wired shut by the party.
  • Bill Clinton and Al Gore are not here. Except insofar as they are very much here, as invisible specters. With Hillary, they float in the ether above us. Each speaker triangulates away from them, like distant stars. Yet they all go unmentioned, beyond the now-mandatory promise in every speech to restore “dignity to the White House,” suggesting an Al Gore who’d take office in clown shoes and a squirting flower.
  • News is not here, although newspeople are, 16,000 strong. We stride grimly back and fourth through four vast tents, credentials flapping, enjoying free cookies and free Internet hookups. We pull in and out next to one another at long banks of tables, tapping out our 1,200 words, like monkeys typing Shakespeare.
  • George Bush Pater is here but silent, although the Bushettes—Laura and Barbara and their lovely daughters and granddaughters, Barbara and Jenna—are very much here.
  • Condoleezza Rice is here, as are Dick Cheney, Chuck Hagel, and Colin Powell. They are here to reassure us that the governor has sort of subcontracted out for gravitas. They stand in as evidence of his thereness, so that he doesn’t have to waste his or our time with any hereness.

In my search for hereness, I travel to the Shadow Convention, the media creation of media creation Arianna Huffington. But first I bump into a GOP delegate from Orange County who expresses his outrage at having his lunch plans disrupted by the “free Kareem Abdul-Jabbar” protest. I ask if he means “free Mumia.” He does.

The Shadow Convention promises to address real issues the big parties have ignored.

The sensibility among Arianna’s people is reminiscent of those law school protests for “diversity” and “tolerance.” I think because I protest. Surprisingly, the crowd is not all college aged and not all skateboarded WTO protesters. I slip into the auditorium at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Hall among a forest of signs that read, “Not a Pac Donor,” “Not a CEO,” “Disregarded,” “Disaffected,” “The rest of us.” The signs are uniform, clever, and wry. They are not hand-lettered. They are media props. There’s something sad about professional cynicism. This event would have been much more compelling had it come from the ground up, instead of sprayed from Arianna’s aerosol can.

Today in the shadows, they are talking about the failure of the war on drugs, and Graham Boyd of the ACLU Drug Policy Litigation Project is talking about the ratio of white to black men in prison for drug offenses. About halfway into his remarks I notice the structure of his speech: topic sentence, analysis, statistical support, and conclusion. How strange. I’ve been listening to political speeches for 24 hours, yet this is the first structured as a speech rather than a lyric ode.

A panel of professional hecklers—Harry Shearer, Matt Cooper, Walter Shapiro, Paul Krassner, Jonathan Kozol, Jonathan Alter, and Al Franken—have assembled to ridicule the GOP speeches emanating from video monitors overhead. They sit in a semicircle on a stage and make fun of Barbara Bush and Liddy Dole and John McCain. Early on, Shapiro observes that these are all the white men missing from the GOP spectacle. It soon becomes evident that six of them are Jewish.

The vegan hip-hop crowd is still tweaking its own sense of humor to accommodate for political correctness, but as a general rule it seems that jokes about Ronald Reagan’s Alzheimer’s are funny, whereas jokes about executing minors are not. Jokes about race get laughs only if Jews are the subject. Jokes about homosexuality get mixed applause depending on whether the audience believes the speaker to be gay.

Much of the panel is devoted to speculation over whether the GOP’s conversion to inclusiveness can possibly: 1) be authentic; 2) grow to become authentic; or 3) fool the voting public. Alter suggests that some cross-dressers actually do become transsexual. And Franken suggests that the theme of the convention should have been: “No African-American Officeholder Is Left Behind.” Kozol points out the “apocalyptic lunacy” in holding an upbeat party on the edge of Camden, N.J.—the “poorest city north of Mississippi and the single most segregated city in North America.” He observes that the GOP failure to refer to this fact, even if only to vow to change it, reflects not that they are insensitive, “they just have no idea of the country they really live in.”

Franken’s cell phone rings, and the panel pauses as he takes the call. Alter wonders if George W. is going to get the presidency as a graduation present. Kozol wonders aloud whether Bush defines “compassionate conservatism” as praying after you have had someone executed. And after hearing the GOP convention’s seventh glowing tribute to the holy trinity of Ford, Reagan, and Bush, Shearer wonders whatever happened to Nixon, “the man who was never president.”

Condoleezza Rice finishes her speech to the convention, and Franken renames the theme of the evening: “Bomb them into the Stone Age with a purpose.” Shearer dubs Liddy Dole “the white Oprah.” The panel writhes and groans through John McCain’s speech, voting midway on “how much shit he has eaten tonight” and pausing the remote each time he does that painful half-smile (the one that looks as though he’s suffering some unspeakable anal torture but determined to soldier on).

As the cynics conclude their assessment of the vapor, a frustrated hippie in the back of the auditorium shouts out, “We should be out on the street protesting!” (She doesn’t specify what she’d like to protest. But someplace, somewhere, innocent puppets are dying.) People ignore her. Whether or not Gov. Bush has any there there, and whether or not Huffington is doing anything but puffing here, everyone is worn out. And these poor protesters who went sleepless in Seattle are now settling for just being thereless in Philadelphia.

Photograph of Arianna Huffington on Slate’s Table of Contents by Michael Lang/Reuters.