Committee Of Correspondence

The Republican Convention

Alan Brinkley
8:11 a.m.  Friday  8/16/96

Over at last! Dole’s speech was, I thought, good but not great. He touched on most of the issues he needed to; he looked reasonably energetic and engaged (which is not always the case) and spoke pretty well (which is seldom the case). But the speech seemed abstract to me, at least in parts. (And what a strange beginning–necklaces of lights and views of earth from space; where did that come from?) The biggest problem, though, was the overly rhetorical tone, which seemed so unlike Dole to me. Reagan might have pulled it off, although he would never have chosen so self-consciously literary a style. But Dole sounded slightly unnatural delivering these conspicuously crafted sentences. I could see Mark Helprin’s fingerprints all over it. It had a slightly pompous, Harvard-like quality. (Helprin apparently marched out in a huff because Dole rejected some of his prose; I wonder what it would have been like if Dole hadn’t.) Kemp’s speech seemed a bit flat to me, given his reputation as a stem-winder. There was nothing wrong with it, but it never really took flight. I heard reports that he had been deliberately toned down so that he would not overshadow Dole. If so, the strategy worked. Overall, I think the convention–unsatisfying as it was to me as a convention–was a considerable success for the Republicans and for Dole. It probably helped erase the effect of Dole’s miserable last few months. It generated some clear enthusiasm among the Republicans (although Elizabeth Dole seemed to stir them much more than her husband did). And it helped remind people of the things they dislike about Clinton. (If they needed reminding, which the rabidly anti-Clinton delegates clearly did not.) I suspect when the dust settles, Dole will have closed a lot of the gap between him and Clinton–at least until the Democratic convention. But I don’t think this was the kind of transforming moment that Bush had in 1988–or that Reagan had every time he showed up. It was a good week for Dole, and it will help. But he’s still got a lot of work to do. Christopher Hitchens
8:38 a.m.  Friday  8/16/96

I took the decision to bale out of San Diego after three days, because I found it increasingly humiliating to be part of the stage army for a pseudo-event. This is the first time that I have found myself in agreement with Ted Koppel on any aspect of “journalistic ethics.” There were some sheepish looks in the various press bars and enclosures after Nightline made its easy call that there was not, and would not be, anything worth calling a story. What did that make those who stayed on? Accessories? Evidence that this kind of conventioneering is infectious, and was transmitted from New York in 1992 (and “rapid response” refutation to my prediction of yesterday that the Democrats would not try to trump Mrs. Dole) has come by way of the leak to Wolf Blitzer that Hillary Clinton will, after all, be given podium time in Chicago. An amusing semi-irony, played all this week, has been the apparent willingness of the GOP to call the President a Republican wannabe and an unprincipled bum, often in the course of the very same joke or the very same breath. I call it a semi-irony (perhaps better say a quasi-irony) because it is not clear at whose expense it is charged. But the speed of emulation in this instance would be evidence for either view. As I began to notice yesterday, even the tightest scripting will fall victim to the literal mind. Jack Kemp was allowed to say, twice, what he had said on the Reagan memorial video-that RR was “the last lion of the 20th century.” If there is any merit in this blatant lift from William Manchester, it seems to leave Robert Dole looking like the last-what? If there isn’t another lion to come, what’s the point of all this stuff about the 10th Mountain Division? (Described by Dole himself as fighting “next to” the black American detachment from which of course it was at the time legally segregated.) Not only did Dole join in the general sneering at the United Nations, he also placated the Buchanan and backwoods types by taking a xenophobic shot at the World Trade Organization–a first on his part, if I make no mistake. My conclusion about this repetitive trope is that it makes up, by way of a sop, for the absence of references to abortion. It is unfair to call this tactic “Goldwaterite.” The Senator from Arizona was always much more brave and candid. A closing note on the zeitgeist factor. It was probably shrewd of the main speakers to go out of their way to mention the coming millennium (the real one I mean, not the Robertson one) and the new century aborning. Failure to stress it would have left an uncomfortable hole where the age issue ought to have been. Coupled as it was with an emphasis on Social Security and the late Claud Pepper–nice to hear from him again–and an assault on the yuppie despotism at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, this opens a combat of imagery that may not play out quite as predictably as I once believed it would. A little self-hatred from the baby boomers and who knows? Just kidding. Karlyn Bowman
8:56 a.m.  Friday  8/16/96

The convention was a 10 and will probably set the standard of orchestration for all future conventions. Kemp’s speech reflected his personality–exuberant and passionate. He seemed more disciplined than usual. The biographical part of Dole’s speech reflected just what he is, too–plain-speaking, dignified, and modest. I thought those portions were the best part of the speech. The thematic part of the speech didn’t have the unity or the effectiveness of the biographical part. Bob Dole will no doubt get a bounce from this convention. Our analysis suggests that every candidate except George McGovern has received one. Still, come September, he will still face a deficit in the polls. This convention hasn’t exactly been the “festival of ideas” that Haley Barbour promised, but it gave people enough to contrast Democratic and Republican approaches to governance. Nelson Polsby
9:45 a.m.  Friday  8/16/96

Evidently I have missed something, namely why the GOP has it in for the Internal Revenue Service. Bob Dole’s speech gave me a possible clue when he said that the cause of crime was criminals. Maybe he also thinks the cause of taxes is the IRS? The more general point is that the events of the convention did not include much in the way of serious discussion of real issues. Dole’s speech was especially rich in what I guess are policy non-sequiturs, coming out against crime and teachers’ unions, as though these were items actually on a president’s agenda–especially a Republican, 10th Amendment-invoking president. I think Alan Brinkley is quite germane in reminding us that the excellent, conflict-avoiding packaging of the Republican party this week does raise serious questions of truth in packaging. Where this seems to me particularly important is the systematic concealment of the GOP congressional leadership, as though most of what a president might want to do could be done unilaterally and without congressional action or influence. It’s true the GOP congressional leaders and their record so far are–to put it mildly–controversial and unpopular. This leads the convention managers to the view that no Newts is good Newts. Maybe so, but it’s quite deceptive. Especially since in many respects the House leadership does business quite differently from the way Dole ran the Senate–about which, by the way, we learned very little this week beyond the highly credible testimony of Pete Domenici that Dole keeps his word to colleagues and, unlike Newt, treats the people he does business with decently. I might not have raised this point had not Herb, in response to Alan, argued that we were supposed to be learning this week how the candidate would operate as president. I didn’t learn much of anything about that this week. On the performance of the big commercial media, including their narcissism and their chagrin at their inability to find or to promote an agenda different from the agenda of the convention management. I agree with Karlyn’s sentiments on this. It’s understandable that the party managers would like to see their message conveyed more or less unmediated. For the media to make an independent input would have required the newsies to know a whole lot more–about politics, about public policy–than they do. My bottom line. The Republicans got their message out quite successfully. Since it’s advertising, it’s in important respects deceptive and perhaps flat-out untruthful. But that’s not their problem, it’s our problem.