The Potemkin Convention

PHILADELPHIA, Wednesday, Aug. 2—Up in the bleachers of the First Union Center on Night 3 (“Hangin’ in the Hood With Jon Secada”) it occurs to me that you can listen to how the GOP are saying it, or you can listen to what they are saying. Sure, they’re saying it in Spanish, in Motown, and in Single-Welfare-Mom. But the message itself—even when carried by blind mimes from a charter school for Alaskan goat herders—is not radical. This message has two parts: Older is better; family is everything.

It’s a bit like watching badly dubbed kung fu. Blacks and minorities crowd the stage, longing for some sepia-drenched, rural America of which they never would have been a part. Single moms valorize sprawling, patrician families that would never have afforded them a welcome.

Even set to hip-hop rhythms, tonight, all eyes are on the black-and-white days, when taxes were low, governments were small, and hogs were … well, they were still hogs back then. The crowd roars as ideology shows its face for the first time in three days. “This is not the government’s money, it’s my money” says single mom Kim Jennings. “They are working men and women … watching anything extra they can save disappear for somebody else’s priority in Washington, D.C.,” says Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore.

The nostalgia is for an older economy—mom-and-pop businesses and family farms. When whiz kid Internet entrepreneur Christina Jones crows, “Today, nearly 60,000 Americans will log onto the Internet for the very first time. Fellow Internet users, we are making history!” her two fellow Internet users are in line at the payphones. The crowd’s silence isn’t hostile, just indifferent. The new economy sucks. The lady-farmer receives a hero’s welcome.

And if out on the convention floor they long for the good old days, they long even harder for the good old families. Larger-than-life, sweeping dynastic families they want, like Judith Krantz does ‘em. Hand-lettered signs beneath my seat read: “Spot for First Dog”; “Barbara for First Grandma”; “We [heart-sign] Jeb Too!”

Spot for first dog?

Speaker after speaker and delegate after delegate takes time to describe their great-granddaddy’s cousin’s deathbed advice (“Son, elect someone like George W. Bush …”). The only currency of value in this hall tonight is family. Which is strange since we all have one.

One perhaps unintended result of this reverence for family has been the entertainment roster. So far, we’ve heard from Hank Williams’ less-famous son, Stevie Ray Vaughan’s less-famous brother, and Billy Graham’s less-famous son. I am certain they tried, and failed, to get Lee Greenwood’s less-famous brother, Sancho Greenwood, to sing “Proud To Be an American.” The subtext of all this: “If you can’t get the original, get someone who at least shares some DNA.”

The whole, “I’m not famous, but I’m related to someone famous” theme would seem to be a loser for Bush, but it actually works. After the carnage of the Clinton administration, a mediocre dilettante from a good family is reassuring. This harmless goofball—whose family can either bail him out or buy him out—is vastly preferable to a charismatic narcissist who was only in it for himself. Sure there’s subtle classism, elitism, and racism underpinning the idea that white-trash individualists are charming but ultimately lethal. Think Jay Gatsby. But then, classism, elitism, and racism are old-fashioned. So they must be right.

The apogee of this back-to-the future celebration of old families comes with Dick Cheney’s aerial helicopter tour of history; a tour that careens from the Founding Fathers to Vietnam, until you find yourself groping for the vomit-bag. On the dizzying Cheney tour of Washington, D.C., nothing bad ever happened before 1992. “The troubles” plainly came only with that lying, vacillating philanderer who brought his saxophone and his … er, cigar …  into the White House and turned the place into MTV’s Real World—all sex and music, sex and music, sex and …

Cheney, at least, makes the sound fit the picture. Shunning the temptation to don a gold chain and rap his remarks, he does a creditable millionaire oilman hatchet job on Clinton/Gore. He ably paints them both as enemies of history and enemies of family. And as the crowd tomahawk-chops their way through the refrain of “it’s time for them to go,” this otherwise dreary convention is energized. The delegates have put up with three days of blind goatherds. This is their payback. Now they get to trash Gore.

“What an exciting night,” intones Trent Lott, the way you might say, “What a delightful earwig.” But it’s working. This crowd is pumped.

If George W. Bush is a creation of history, clan, and nostalgia, he may well win merely because the time is right. The wheel has turned, and we’ve gone back to the future. Bill Clinton has put us off smarty-pants individualists for good. It takes a village to raise a president.