The GOP Slumber Party

The most confounding of the Great Mysteries, to the male of our species, is what do women talk about over their mochas and muffins. Well, we mostly talk about them. The rest of the time, we talk about school, and prom, and kids. At the opening night of the GOP convention, the Republicans gave the world a taste of what it’s like to, you know, hang out with girls, like Laura Bush, and Claudia Kirkley, and Conna Craig, and Elaine Chao. Just hanging out in shorty pajamas, making prank calls, and dancing to the Temptations, and talking about, well … boys and what fine grandfathers they’ll make someday.

Oh Hillary, what hast thou wrought?

Mrs. Bush spoke from a classroom onstage, the better to illustrate her lead-balloon statement that “education is the living room of my life.” Making use of the time-honored good-girl device of denigrating her own professional skills, she hid her professional passion behind Charlotte’s web. She framed her husband’s core convictions through the lens of “family scrapbooks.” And in the only false note of her speech, she expressed the hope that the president of the United States might “sometime” be a woman. In short, Mrs. Bush used every technique in the Class of ‘66 yearbook to render herself, and national education issues, smaller than a breadbox.

Later, when George W. Bush spoke down from his Orwellian perch high in a classroom in Ohio, he told us he’d once promised Laura she’d never have to make speeches. Good girls don’t like to make speeches. Good girls talk about policy through the tulle of scrapbooks and childhood dolls. Thus, it was Slumber Party Night as the GOP attempted to woo this year’s soccer mom (the scooter mom?) through the pink crinoline of “women’s issues.” Women and minority men invoked “discipline” and “hope” in a Benetton-flavored event called “Leave No Child Behind”—a phrase I liked the first time, when Marian Wright Edelman used it during the Reagan-Bush years.

Although the theme of the evening was education, not one speaker mentioned teen pregnancy. No one saw fit to decry guns in school. (There is a delicious moment, in the platform, when the GOP prescribes vouchering kids out of “dangerous schools,” where all those other, bad kids are presumably exercising their Second Amendment rights.) Education was addressed along a narrow little bandwidth, of mentoring, literacy, good parenting, and nondenominational Christian philosophy. Your average day in Middlemarch; women doing good works, as money and taxes go to important men-stuff.

Almost all the speakers spoke approvingly of vouchers, which—unlike mentoring, volunteerism, and bedtime stories—reflect real policy. But giving a child a hug, a mentor, and a voucher does not an education policy make. Indeed it makes a “soft” issue almost transparent. Only Gen. Colin Powell tried to bridge the chasm between “soft” issues and hard facts. Only he spoke of funding crumbling school buildings and the absurd social cost of jailing more youth. Only he mentioned the crisis in children’s health care and the toxicity of violence. Only he addressed the need to reach out to the black community. Only he spoke for affirmative action. Only Powell could stand among all these women and speak with authority about money and power and children and only by virtue of the fact that he once unloosed a tankful of whupass on Iraq.

Powell understood what was otherwise lost tonight: Hungry students and third-rate health care are dollar-and-cent issues. They are policy issues that must be addressed all up and down a spectrum of tax policy, criminal reform, welfare, and health reform. They are as pressing as those tough, manly issues of national defense and finance reform. The way our poorest children live should be keeping generals up at night.

Don’t get me wrong. The slumber party was a rousing success. The music rocked. The Looks-Like-America cam picked out children and colored faces in a spectacularly diverse crowd. When all those Texas delegates really got going with their big red and blue foam noodles, it looked like bacteria under a microscope from where I sat in First Union Center. And if the delegates talked loudly over most of the speeches (and all but one of the speeches delivered by a woman), oh well. There was no discernible heat between most of those speakers and most of the crowd in the first place.

In one of the night’s infomercials for “Profiles in Compassion,” an elementary schoolgirl in the “Character Counts” education program in El Paso, Texas, defined “caring.” She should have given tonight’s keynote. “Caring means if you see someone hurt on the ground … and no one’s doing anything and something’s wrong … you should tell somebody.”

Go to the head of the class, kiddo. “Caring” and “compassion” are about noticing the fallen and telling someone. But is that enough? Is caring limited to hectoring the fallen about personal responsibility? Is it about murmuring about the need for others to engage in more volunteerism? Is replacing a flawed government bureaucracy with “compassion” the outer limit of caring?

The GOP women did much to remind us last night of the crushed-out children in America. They should be lauded for that. They honored the kids who need to be filled up, both spiritually and emotionally, by teachers, congressmen, and generals. But what didn’t happen last night, and what needs to happen, requires offering our kids the same respect we accord our tanks and guns: tough muscular solutions involving money, resources, and rigorous policy. Women voters are smart enough to demand that. We even talk about it over our mochas and muffins.