Democratic Contemption & Life in the Bush Leagues
American Politics Go To Hell During the '92 Conventions
By Turk Pipkin
"It's a continuous challenge," says carnival geek Todd Robbins shortly after eating a 60 watt light bulb, "to mount stranger things here than the Democrats put in the Garden."
I have fled Bill Clinton's Greatest Show on Earth and taken the "F" train to this Coney Island's Sideshow because I have heard all the Dan Quayle jokes I can stand. ("They asked Quayle to spell Mississippi. He said 'The river or the state?'")
Normally a three ring affair of mixed focus, this year's Democratic Convention was staged for television, complete with star-shaped sweeping spotlights, a circus band and just one set of previously approved opinions. No time for platform debates or the noisy distractions of those clowns from labor, family farming and the Rainbow Coalition.
To perfect this flawless salto mortale, the Democrats constructed a back-stage mock-up of the real podium and teleprompter so that Ron "P.T. Barnum" Brown could run his troops through their bare-back paces while the band rehearsed "Sabre Dance" and Sousa marches in the hall.
And with Dan Quayle's ineptitude providing the wind beneath his wings, Party head Brown cleverly transformed the big "D" Democrats from a loose rabble of social do-gooders to a well-oiled locomotive fired by $11 million in federal funds. (The GOP got the same amount and it's your own fault if you checked the Presidential election box on form 1040.) Brown raised another $20 million from the City of New York and much more from corporations and PAC's. Freudian slips abounded. One tongue-tied newscaster referred to it as the "Democratic Contemption." Another labeled the DNC, the "DMZ."
In fact, both the Democratic and Republican confabs were paid for by the same tainted mixture of public funds and corporate money. No one knows whether the donors will get their problems solved through legislation or high level interference, but the investments are sound nonetheless because all the donations are tax-deductible as ordinary and necessary business expenses. And somehow that don't seem right.
A press pass will do you no good at "Sideshow by the Sea" but a buck will let you watch the show all day. Having washed down his light bulb with Perrier, Todd Robbins proceeds to hammer a six inch steel spike into his nose. (George Bush, who says he'll do anything to get re-elected, would be a natural for this human blockhead routine). Asked to poll the fat ladies and sword swallowers on their preference in the election, Robbins soon returns with a decision of unanimous apathy, except that each and every one of the performers plans to vote for Bill Clinton because of an overwhelming desire to vote against George Bush.
I return to the Garden but my heart is no longer with it. There's only so much planned spontaneity one can take. Still, after the last balloon has fallen I watch the exhausted delegates struggle for the exits. Slipping on the mylar confetti and stumbling over piles of discarded signs, they look like a thousand Gerald Fords trying to climb back into a tiny clown car. Victims of excess, they make me realize that if the Democrats don't clean up their act – someone's going to get hurt.
In Houston the temperatures were nice but the humility was stifling. Anticipating the Democrats' giant convention bounce, the Republicans evicted the hapless Houston Astros from their air-conditioned confines and moved in for an all-American "Bush-league" series with myopic vision as their only opponent.
The opening pep rally in the nearby Astro Arena kicked into Republican high gear with the fanny-shaking family values of the Houston Oiler Dancers whose pelvic thrusts had one male delegate chewing on a red, white and blue pen.
Now I love the song "Dixie" as much as the next white guy; but a visual survey of the 10,000 in attendance showed no more than a scattering of blacks – none of whom were standing and singing along with Randy Travis like their lighter skinned counterparts. All week the Republicans claimed to be erecting a big tent, but they seemed to be putting it over an affluent white suburb.
The hometown arena crowd went wild when the President called the Democratic leaders of Congress "sultans of the status quo." Unfortunately his second moniker for them – "closet-liberals" – turned out to be an ominous foreshadowing of a rather homophobic week of jokes aimed at homosexual Americans. The tent grows smaller.
Inside the dome, the batters box or podium is located slightly in front of rows and rows of media umpires with pens poised and computers hot to call foul or fair on every barb and quip. Some sixty feet out from the batter is an elevated pitcher's mound sprouting the big league fast ball pitcher from media hell; a multi-armed, multi-eyed battery of television and still cameras which each speaker must fix with a steely glare.
With Texas Rangers' owner George Bush, Jr. managing the Mudville team from behind the podium (rather like the great and powerful Oz), Texas Treasurer Kay Bailey Hutchison threw out the first ball. "Poor Ann!" Kay lamented. "She can't help it; she was born with silver roots in her hair!"
Good line Kay, but to make yet another variation of the week's most persistent joke; "We've seen Ann Richards, Kay, and you're no Ann Richards." Sounding like she was addressing a classroom of third graders or a busload of tourists that didn't understand English, Ms. Hutchison also was the first of many speakers to halfway joke that she thought Bill Clinton really did inhale.
Still, Kay Bailey hit a respectable Texas leaguer into the shallow outfield. The clean-up batter, Pat Buchanan, unfortunately only wallowed in the mud. His calls for "cultural war" and "religious war" sounded not unlike the ills that presently plague Sarajevo, but his knuckle balls at "radical-feminist" Hillary Clinton were merely brush-back pitches. It was her "Slick" husband Bill who was nearly being beaned out of the game for being a pro-lesbian, pro-gay, draft-dodging dog whose "foreign policy experience is confined to having had breakfast once at the International House of Pancakes!"
All in all Buchanan set a tone of moral purging the likes of which our country has not been seen since the 50's. (We knew Joe McCarthy, Mr. Buchanan, and you're another Joe McCarthy.)
By far the most racially mixed groups at the convention were found – not seated in the hall – but standing in tunnels beneath the bleachers. At some pre-determined moment a veritable melting pot of Korean, Chinese, Hindi and other minorities would stream onto the convention floor to provide a more racially mixed scene for viewers at home. Standing near Texas Tech graduate Supreet Manchanda (wearing a red turban and carrying a sign reading "Turban Cowboys for Bush") was Dr. Selina Ahmed and her group of Muslims from Bosnia. Dr. Ahmed was hopeful of conveying a plea of support for Bosnia to the President.
After a two hour wait the entire group was finally allowed onto the floor in time to hear Roger Staubach – testing the waters for a run at Phil Gramm's Senate seat – tell the crowd what a great guy former quarterback Jack Kemp is. No mention of Bosnia was made.
The Texas delegation, located directly between home plate and the mound, had the best seats in the house until Republican Youth Coalition members stood in front of them cheering and waving signs. Unable to remove the enthusiastic bunch, the Texans later resorted to packing the aisles with alternates to block-off the front lines. (These were the same young rally squads who also disrupted a Democratic press conference at a nearby Houston restaurant and who paraded through the press building chanting "No more lies." One of the Republican's own attack consultants, Roger Stone, referred to them as "Hitler Youth.")
Wandering the saner parts of the convention floor, I found my self face-to-face with a flying wedge consisting of Republican strongman Arnold Schwarzenegger, a swarm of secret service types and a dense crowd of pressing fans.
"What's you're name?" asked Arnold, grabbing my notepad and beginning to sign his autograph. I said I'd like to ask him a few questions for Texas Monthly. Arnold passed the notebook back and started to leave. "Who's winning the game?" I called after him. Mr. Universe turned back to me, even as the crowd was sweeping him away. "You call this a game?" he demanded to know. I took his hint that the interview had been Terminated.
Nearby, Dan Rather waited patiently as his floor producer wrote phrases on cards for a brief segment. When asked how the convention would compare to an Astros game, Rather replied "Not one-tenth as exciting!" Obviously he hasn't been to many Astros games.
The low note of the evening was the Keynote speech from Senator Gramm. What Houston Congressman Jack Fields had earlier said would be a "stem-winder" ended in need of a battery replacement, damaging Gramm's '96 Presidential chances (along with the likelihood of a vacant seat for Roger the Dodger). At the end of Gramm's speech the band played the Aggie fight song which I assumed meant he'd kicked UT's butt, even if the Democrats had escaped unscathed.
A few miles away at the Westin Galleria Hotel, talk show host Larry King was broadcasting live with his guests Molly Ivins, political humorist Will Durst and Minority Whip Newt Gingrich who said rumors that in high school he was known as "Mad Dog Newt" are unfounded.
King, asked to continue the convention sports metaphor, said that Bush was "Ten games out of first with the same amount of season left. A tough go!" Referring to Bush's foreign and domestic policies, King said "He's won 99 on the road. He ain't won a single home game."
Ivins, making a physical analogy between usually unmentioned body parts and the Republicans, prompted King to say: "I always wondered how my show was going to end."
Humorist Will Durst, self-styled "bi-partisan smart-ass," told Mr. King that the convention seemed to be comprised of "a lot of white people" and that the cameras kept showing this one black man from all different angles. Proving why he is called the young Will Rogers (and proving much funnier than Mac Davis who laid an egg as the real Will Rogers at Ann Richards opening party in New York), Durst labeled Clinton and Gore "Stunt Doubles," likened the summoning of James Baker to the campaign as "sending up the Bat signal" and said Phil Gramm had the "timing of an end table."
But the award for the funniest material of the week goes to all the speakers who adopted the standard Bush-League message: "A vote for Bush is a vote for change." Wait a dad-gummed minute: a vote for Bush is a vote for change? Does that mean that a vote for Clinton is a vote for more of the same. Someone nudge Bush and tell him he's the incumbent.
The strangest sight of the week award goes to the "Southern Belles for Safer Sex" – dressed in antique ball gowns and handing out condoms across the street from the arena. Best sign of the week was at a nearby pro-choice rally. "Two, four, six, eight. We're the one's who ovulate."
But all of these distractions were only the seventh inning stretch before George Bush Sr.'s "Casey at the Bat" speech during which he was supposed to hit a grand slam home run and bring joy to Mudville forever. But whether he accomplished that amazing feat depended of course upon whom you asked. Democrats and the media ruled his deficit reduction check-off a foul ball while Republican stalwarts have faith in his Nixonian secret plan. What that means, of course, is that the conventions serve no purpose whatsoever.
Maybe we should have listened to H. L. Mencken's 1936 thoughts on political conventions: "Abolish them now!" he said. "These things are a waste of money!"