Committee Of Correspondence

The Republican Convention

Karlyn Bowman
6:30 a.m.  Thursday  8/15/96

I watched C-SPAN again last night from 8 until after 11 EST. There were times when I wondered whether I should get hazardous-duty pay for this assignment. Still, I found many of the speeches moving. It’s not surprising that the networks would make this a story about themselves. The arrogance is just breathtaking and explains why the media have joined big government, big business, and big labor as an institution about which there is enormous public skepticism. The networks complained that they had been promised a video of the Reagan film so that they could judge its news value. Later we learned what constituted news value for them–new footage of a declining Alzheimer’s victim. Ted Koppel didn’t like the scripted infomercial. I suppose he thinks that when he covers the president at Yellowstone the event is spontaneous. Another anchor told us that blacks are underrepresented in the delegations compared to their proportion in the population and overrepresented at the podium. At the Democratic Convention, will we hear that blacks are overrepresented in the delegations and underrepresented at the podium? This is news? I agree with Christopher Hitchens that the networks are complicit in this exercise. Their performance explains the major networks are losing audience. News articles in the last few weeks have suggested that a decision has not been made about whether Hillary Clinton will address the Democratic Convention. Apparently, Chelsea is being considered, too. My guess is that after Elizabeth Dole’s flawless performance last night, the Dems will put Chelsea on. By all accounts, she is a delightful young woman, a credit to her parents. The ingenue will contrast nicely with the extraordinarily polished Elizabeth Dole. The polls I review suggest that most Americans think Hillary is a positive role model. But a significant number of people now say she puts her own interests ahead of the country’s. That perception and her involvement the health care debacle explain why negative perceptions of her have been rising. People made a judgment about Bill Clinton’s character early on and the judgment was negative. But they’ve moved on. The verdict on Hillary Clinton has been longer in coming. Herb Stein
7:21 a.m.  Thursday  8/15/96

If you were watching last night you can tell your grandchildren that you were present on Elizabeth’s day. And if the American people were watching, and voting right afterward, I think they would have elected Bob Dole. It was not only that Mrs. Dole’s performance was stunning, but also that it concentrated on the right subject–Bob Dole’s qualities of courage, integrity, compassion, and leadership. Sen. McCain, a bit upstaged by Elizabeth Dole, also concentrated, with dignity, on the same subject. Of course, the managers of the convention did their best to pollute the atmosphere. In the roll call of the states, one after another rose to say, “The great state of wherever casts umpteen votes for a $1700-per-family tax cut!” thus transforming the scene from magnanimous to venal. Am I being too gushy? I am a longtime fan of Elizabeth Dole’s, since before she was Mrs. Dole, and a longtime skeptic about big tax cuts. What do the panelists, presumably more objective, think? Well, tonight we shall see whether Bob Dole can live up to his introduction. Alan Brinkley
7:55 a.m.  Thursday  8/15/96

Elizabeth Dole’s smooth, polished, Oprah-like stroll through her husband’s life of good works and generosity was, I’m sure, very effective in burnishing his image. But to me, it was even more effective as a symbol of what this convention (and presumably all conventions) has now become. Not just an infomercial, a description virtually everyone now uses, but a Potemkin village. What Mrs. Dole said about her husband may be true. But what was striking about last night, and about the convention as a whole so far, is what has remained invisible. The convention has created a gauzy veneer of empathy and good feeling to cover over a group of delegates, and a party, that has very strong views on controversial issues. Dole (like almost every other Republican presidential candidate) has spent the last two years paying court to and polishing his credentials with, among others, the pro-life movement, the NRA, the tobacco industry, and the Christian right. Ralph Reed is now a major force within the party. Pat Robertson’s cable network is broadcasting gavel-to-gavel coverage of the convention, a broadcast packaged by the party. None of these forces, or the ideas associated with them, is even faintly visible at this convention, even though they form much of the heart of what the Republican Party has become. Bob Dole has been portrayed consistently over the last three days as someone notable for two things: He is a good man (which he is), and he is deeply committed, as someone whose word is his bond, to the vision of a low-tax, high-growth economy (which he has clearly never been until the last few weeks). It is hard to blame the Republicans for presenting a picture they would like the world to see. The Democrats certainly are not going to highlight Whitewater or health care or affirmative action. But the phoniness of this enterprise–and the credulousness of the media in presenting it–has become so palpable that, for me at least, it’s almost impossible to watch. I’ve attended 10 conventions over the last 30 years, and I’ve watched all the others on television with great interest. Even the most elaborately scripted of them (the Democrats in 1976 or the GOP in 1984, for example) still seemed to me to be important windows into American political life and the character of the parties. But after three days of San Diego, I’m beginning to agree with those who argue that it’s time to let the institution of the convention die. Christopher Hitchens
10:08 a.m.  Thursday  8/15/96

Faced with the free-fall in viewer ratings for San Diego, David Brinkley mused aloud the other night about the possibility that this might very well be “the last convention.” The last, one presumes he meant, in the sense of a televised primetime extravaganza, taken by the media at something like its own face value. However that prediction fares, one thing does become very evident by the middle of the week. These things really need last no more than two days. Monday night the managers knew what to do, and hit us with everything from “Ronnie–The Video” to Colin Powell. Tonight they know what to do, with the coronation of the nominees. In between-blah. Even with long stretches of down time, it was difficult to fill up all the available space on Tuesday and Wednesday. The Liddy Dole catwalk show was, however, a minor masterstroke of its kind and something that no Democratic impresario, however sanguine, will be able to consider replicating in Chicago. I’m not quite sure what that last realization tells us. Gore Vidal once referred to San Diego as “the Vatican of the John Birch Society,” and the shade of Robert Welch and his Blue Book continued to pop up on Wednesday. To the roster of those attacking and denigrating the United Nations can now be added the fragrant Jeane Kirkpatrick, whose tenure as ambassador to the world body was the high point of her career. Nelson Polsby
11:59 a.m.  Thursday  8/15/96

Last night (Wednesday) at the convention was, to my mind, much more interesting than the first two days. For at least the following reasons: (1) More of the podium speakers spoke with what sounded like their own voices: Jean Kirkpatrick, James Baker, Bill Bennett, and, especially, movingly, Sen. McCain. If the Republicans want to market themselves as a party of ideas, there should have been more of this, and earlier. (I make no comment on the content of their remarks.) (2) The roll call of the states likewise permitted some individuality to emerge. This is really the sort of thing that makes political junkies love politics: the “low multitudes” of Wyoming; the “full specter” of human types in Ohio, according to the governor, who ought to know; the state (North Dakota) that produces most of America’s “edible dried beans.” Tommy Thompson’s irrelevant bloviating about professional sports teams gave great credibility to his claim that Wisconsin produces one-third–at least one-third–of America’s cheese. Ordinarily, Democrats do this sort of thing a lot better than Republicans do. It’s a pity that Republican reflexes require keeping the lid on. (3) Taxes. Am I the only one who heard taxes mentioned spontaneously far more often than any other topic during the roll call of the states? These Republicans really care passionately about their money. Read their lips. (4) Mrs. Dole’s tour de force. A really great performance, especially in the context of everything else being so controlled and buttoned up. Of course any television viewer can watch the myriad successors of Phil Donohue do this sort of thing every day of the week. But we don’t get to see it much in nationally televised politics. Indeed, I ask myself, what other national politician could possibly do what Mrs. Dole did? I answer myself: Alas for Republicans, Bill Clinton. Herb Stein
1:42 p.m.  Thursday  8/15/96

To Polsby: I don’t think the frequent references to tax cuts in the roll call of the states were “spontaneous.” Each state had an estimate of the tax cut per family in that state, which was not the same in each state, and that suggests to me that a statistician at the Republican National Committee must have prepared a handout and given it to the state chairmen. To Brinkley: I sympathize with the desire to hear more about the program of the party, but we don’t elect a party, we elect a president, and it would be important to know more than we do about the presidential candidate’s character, personality, and values. If elected, he is going to confront problems he never encountered before, and he is going to learn more than he ever knew about subjects he thought he was well versed in. A key question is how he will react in these new situations, and knowing more about him personally would help us to predict that. Of course, it is awfully hard to learn, and the candidate’s wife may not be the most reliable source. Nelson Polsby
1:42 p.m.  Thursday  8/15/96

Herb, I didn’t really think they were spontaneous either. But heartfelt.