The Real Convention

The Reform Party prides itself as the voice of "citizen politics," the kind we had before conventions were bland, scripted spectacles, when decisions that mattered were made (so we're told) in caucus rooms by ordinary Americans. In Long Beach last weekend, what once was merely rose-tinted nostalgia became a vivid reality, with no rose-colored covering in sight. This was politics: recriminations, faction wars, opportunistic coalitions, and even a rump convention around the corner, where the party's dissidents met in a half-empty theater to anoint a rival ticket for the presidency. It was Capra crossed with Moliere, a circus attached to a revolution.

That sounds like a put-down, but I like circuses: They're a sign that things are still unpredictable, still lively. All kinds of characters came to Long Beach, from New York Marxists to California Birchers to a Scottish Nationalist from Florida. The latter's name was George Bashure, and the TV crews seemed to love his hat: Four flags were attached to it, one American, one Confederate, one Scottish, and one Scottish Nationalist. He treated me to a short history lesson, which soon evolved into a long diatribe against the English.

Former Sex Pistol frontman Johnny Rotten was in Long Beach, too, covering the convention for VH1. As he passed, some older delegates took note.

"I think that's Sid Vicious," said one.

"I thought Sid Vicious was dead," another replied.

Time to put my years as a college DJ to use. "It's Johnny Rotten," I said.

"Who?" asked an old man.

"Johnny Rotten. He was a Sex Pistol."

"A what?"

Back in the day, the Sex Pistols sometimes adorned themselves with swastikas, and there are those who see some sort of incipient fascism in Pat Buchanan's presidential campaign. It's a silly charge--the closest I heard to a racially charged remark was when a delegate said that the husband of Ezola Foster, the African-American woman Buchanan chose for his VP, looks like Shaft. I'm pretty sure it was meant as a compliment.

That said, it'd be remiss not to note that there was at least one crypto-Nazi in attendance. Willis Carto, founder of the anti-Semitic weekly The Spotlight, had a table, where he distributed copies of a paper published by one of his front groups, "Americans for Buchanan."

And yes, I was a little uncomfortable when Bill Grutzmacher, Nevada's Reform candidate for the Senate, addressed the crowd. I enjoyed his Gary Cooperish voice, but was surprised at his views on World War II. Grutzmacher's no isolationist: He thinks we should've armed the Germans and Italians to drive the Russians out of Europe.

Still, the war question is where Buchanan is best, at least for libertarians: He plans to get out of the Balkans, get out of NATO, and stop the sanctions against Iraq. Others, of course, have their own reasons for backing Buchanan. A Maryland Reformer told me he liked Pat's stance against immigration. A couple from West Virginia dug his views on trade: They worked for Weirton Steel, whose employee-owners had laid off much of the workforce in recent years, thanks to competition to cheap imports. Their union local had endorsed Buchanan, to the embarrassment of their higher-ups. (The couple was also Serb-American, so they also liked Buchanan's views on the last war.)

And then, of course, there's abortion. The crowd cheered lustily every time a speaker promised to save the fetal masses, but it wasn't until Saturday night that I met someone for whom abortion was the issue. Our exchange didn't rise to the level of a conversation, as that would imply I got a word in edgewise. I'm still not sure why she decided I needed to hear a self-righteous pro-life harangue, since I never did get a chance to tell her my position on the issue. I guess I must have a baby-killing face.

Her name was Karen, or maybe Kelly, and she was part of the Michigan delegation. Another Michigander, though friendlier, seemed upset at me because I was part of the media. We were avoiding key issues, he told me. Like all those school shootings, he said: Why didn't any reporters suggest that they might be caused by the Holt Health Book?

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