Convention Comedy

The Democratic and Republican conventions played like a farce, but the actors on the political stage are deadly serious.


The 1984 presidential campaign has featured a militant anti-Semite who is billed as the "moral conscience" of America; a notorious peddler of "new ideas" whose chief personal commitment to newness consists of his assumption of a new name, new signature, new age (his birth-certificate age minus two), and a newly acquired ability to use the phrase future generations from four to six times per paragraph; a high-priced Washington lawyer-lobbyist who, shortly after cutting deals with every major leftist lobby in America, promised to unify the country by ridding the federal government of influence by special interests; and an incumbent who is reported to nod off during high-level national security meetings, does not recognize his own cabinet members, and is careful to have his wife stand by his good ear so as to prompt him during press questioning. Is this a great country, or what?

If the "Nobody for President" movement has not overtaken the American presidential parade, our politics are plainly inexplicable. Can statistical coincidence be blamed for the collection of nobodies spun upon the 1984 political stage? Ours is a system that prefers to divert its buffooneries to the public arena, where they may be closely watched, and so at least provide quadrennial entertainment in the form of primaries, conventions, and campaigns.

There is Jeffersonian genius at work here. Britain has brilliant (Churchillian!) politicos but is currently struggling to stay above Spain in the world's pecking order. France enjoys eloquence in its leaders, as do Egypt, Cuba, and China. V.I. Lenin was arguably the brightest man of this century to organize a government, but any who are not truly embarrassed by his vision ought to be the ones receiving Soviet electroshock rather than inflicting it. In America, a nonentity nearly always makes a finer "leader" than the brilliant. The last US president to have an inkling of what foreign affairs was about (Nixon) nearly ended his career in federal housing (meals provided, Sunday visitation); and the man before him, known to be an astute manager of men, politics, and government, was largely liable for the debacle of Vietnam. The brilliance of the American system is that it not only can function when led by losers—it functions best.

Hence, one may look to our future, in 1984, with great expectations. The reasons why were in great evidence at the two major parties' nominating conventions this summer.

For politicus Democratus, the magical scent of passion is synonymous with the aroma of moral righteousness. A Democrat will display his concern for Truth, Justice, and federal housing for the disadvantaged the way a streetwalker displays her cleavage. The Democrats will wreck the economy, plunge the nation into war, and tax away your entire paycheck, while claiming they did it for God and your own good.

At the Democratic convention in San Francisco, a very popular badge featured the word Hunger with a prohibitive line slashed through it. I asked some champions of the hungry sporting this fashionable Democratic medallion (generally while they were having lunch, which is an excellent way to abolish hunger), what position they thought their party should take on agricultural marketing orders, dairy price supports, and payments-in-kind to farmers. To a Democrat, their pupils dilated while their tongues sputtered. These are activists who wear their concern for the poor on their sports coats but oppose a policy of getting farmers to grow more food.

Among the Dems' prized contenders for the presidential nomination, Jesse Jackson was the moralist, Gary Hart the thinker, and Walter Mondale the no-nonsense man of worldly experience. All roles are hysterically funny, in the light of current evidence—particularly Mr. Mondale's tag, gained by virtue of having been closer to President Carter than any veep in history. How this qualifies a man to boast of his wealth of achievement under fire in government is no small part of America's continuing success story. The important thing about these perceptions is that the Democrats took them on faith. That they roundly rejected their idealized versions of the reverend and the futurist in favor of the plugged-in pol who will get them their federal contracts back says a lot about the current dilemma faced by idealists in the Democratic Party.

In opting for Walter Mondale, the Democrats may merely be demonstrating the veracity of pollster Patrick Caddell's observation that the party has suffered "brain death." As the New Republic wrote, Mondale's struggle for the Democratic nomination was not so much a campaign as it was a lobby: "Mondale, Inc." The former assistant president has never been elected to an office he wasn't appointed to first (Minnesota attorney general, US senator, and vice-president—counting Carter's selection as an appointment). True to form, he has this year captured a nomination to which he was first anointed by the AFL-CIO, AFSCME, NOW, and the NEA.

While Ronald Reagan's biggest problem may be that he can't stay awake through cabinet meetings, Mondale's problem is that he can. He was surely moved to hear his apparent heir, New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, tell a mesmerized arena full of Democratic delegates in San Francisco that "we insist on all the government we need…a government strong enough to use words like love and compassion." The analogy of the Government and the People as friends and lovers strikes any true American—particularly divorced ones—as horrific. A jilted amour can provoke a sleepless night; a jilted bureaucrat (or just an incompetent one) can mess with your life.

Americans have always known this, even before there were Americans, which is why we became Americans. Mondale and the Democrats keep hoping for a Europeanization of America, a dichotomizing by social class into plebeian and nobility. Reverend Jackson, who denies that America's line on opportunity has ever included his clients, is an ardent promoter of this faith. But Gary Hart's yuppies can only harbor such fantasies by discounting their own formidable opportunities in life or by assuming wholesale guilt for the plight of the less-fortunate.

Of course, the vast majority of Americans have never shared the Mondalian vision of a people helpless to act without federal supervision and do not believe for a minute that a vote for Mondale will procure them a three-bedroom townhouse with wet bar, jacuzzi, and attached parking. So, like the wolf picking up on Little Red Riding Hood, Mondale must carefully measure his steps to the White House.

In a San Francisco monologue reminiscent of the sly Eddie Haskell of Leave It to Beaver, Mondale accepted his party's nomination in his nicest, most-innocent pose. "Hello, Mr. and Mrs. Cleaver, can our party come in, stand for the Family, and wave the flag?" His historic defenses of school busing, teachers' unions, high taxes, protectionist trade, regulatory barriers, and legal policies that place the court burden of violent crime on its victims were no more in evidence than the contraband Eddie Haskell was sneaking in to the Beave.

For his part, Reverend Jackson didn't sneak around on the podium in San Francisco. He made it clear to all but those officially qualified for federal funds as mentally incapacitated that the poor are poor because the nonpoor are too rich. Jackson wants to actually give blacks at least a fraction of what white Democrats have been promising them and is either too honest or too stupid to avoid mentioning that this will mean massive tax hikes for what he calls the "super-rich" (but are in fact those Americans knocking down anything over $20,000 annually).

The enlightened word on Jesse is that he has courageously blazed a path for a black American to soon run and win the presidency. The truth is that the Reverend Jackson has made it far more difficult for a legitimate candidate who happens to be of black parentage to be taken seriously. One black delegate to the Democratic convention commented, after Jackson's revivalist hypnotism of the Dems, "I guess that a black candidate won't ever be a joke again."

Not as funny a joke as Jesse, at any rate. His entire campaign played to the delight of pure racism: blacks voting for Jesse because Jesse is brash, black, and running for Prez. Andrew Young, who for all his estimable faults is a serious participant in our nation's political affairs, told Jackson's friends in the press: "It makes us feel good to scare white folks. But this is counterproductive. In a minority situation you've got to bring the country along."

Jackson reintroduced old-fashioned bigotry on a scale not seen in national politics for three generations. His colorful "Hymie-town" language was a slice of this, but an even larger chunk was his indignation that a black reporter ("blood," dig?) would let this Jacksonism slip to a white colleague at the Washington Post. Jackson's major slander was not against Jews but of his fellow blacks.

That Jackson was to herd upwards of two-thirds of the black vote, sheep-like, into a bitter and vengeful crusade, while receiving only patronizing courtesies from his white Democrat rivals and eager indulgence by the press, will alert the vast majority of Americans that a black candidate will be judged by a different standard from a white. Certainly the most sensational revelation of this sad fact was the mere possibility of Rev. Louis Farrakhan serving as stump campaign stand-in for Jackson. Referring to Judaism as "a gutter religion" and touting Der Fuehrer as "wickedly great," the black-separatist Farrakhan routinely issued death threats throughout election '84: against the Post reporter who finked on Jesse's "hymies" commentary, against the reporter's wife, against Jews in general, against Jews in the press, against the press in general, etc.

Incredibly, Jackson ended his campaign with a challenge to white Democrats: "It is remarkable that not one white member of the House of Representatives, not one white US Senator, not one governor, not one major or minor white newspaper, endorsed my candidacy." That is odd? Odd to find people are unlikely to endorse campaigns that are issuing death threats to annihilate them?

But the Dems were chilled to their bones to hear Jesse's moral outrage in San Francisco. Sanctimony does for a true Democrat what musk oil does for the average American, and Jesse filled Moscone Center with the aroma of The Wronged. To a rapt audience of believers, he performed a solo orgy of hate, guilt, repentance, and political economy. To his cry, "Our time has come, Our time has come," the audience cried back, "Hallelujah," and "Amen." Jesse progressed into a frenzy, sweating through his designer shirt in the hour-long sermon, his hands contorting into claws by the three-quarter mark. In the end, Jesse seemed of another planet, twitching to his rhymes. The best: "Jesus said we should not be judged by what we wear, but by the fruit we bear." (How thoughtful of the Messiah to rhyme in English.)

Democrats were enthralled and ecstatic, apparently oblivious to the political reality that every Jacksonian bellow was responsible for the registration of 12,461 additional poor-white precincts in the Bible Belt. After his fiery oration, the awed crowd held hands, stranger with stranger, and swayed to the rhythms of the Negro spiritual "Ordinary People." And then, to complete the experience, the top-notch public-address system belted out the instrumental muzak version of the O'Jays' super-funk hit, "Love Train."

There was no preconvention Republican campaign, which made the Republicans very popular right off the bat. Their standard bearer, Ronald Reagan, is rumored to have passed away three years ago, shortly before administration officials began writing articles which began, "Now that the battle to cut big government down to size has been won,…" Reagan will apparently be replaced by an empty suit labeled George Bush.

The Republicans did, however, adopt a platform in Dallas. Party platforms are only important as an exercise in not giving your opposition any ammunition to use against you in the campaign; the parties would like to abolish their platforms so as to put nothing at all in writing, but not having a platform would be even better ammunition than a stupid one.

I read the 1980 Republican platform and liked the part where it said, "The Republican Party…pledges to place limits on federal spending as a percent of the gross national product (GNP). It is now over 21 percent." My mistake was that I thought they meant a maximum limit. But this year's budget will devour 25.7 percent of GNP (our highest peacetime share ever); they must have meant a minimum limit.

Not knowing how to translate most of the platform into English, I read little of the 1984 edition. Yet I did happen to spot an interesting commentary on the Federal Reserve, allegedly plugged in by supply-side Congressman Jack Kemp, blaming Paul Volcker for being too stingy with the money supply. Inflation, like drugs, knows no ideological prejudice: it gives everyone a buzz.

Eric Hoffer, the philosopher-longshoreman who passed into history last year, observed in his posthumously published autobiography that watching his union represent the dock workers of San Francisco reminded him of "the uniqueness of America.…It was exciting to watch a barely literate longshoreman acting as president and doing his job competently."

Yet Hoffer's endorsement was not universally shared. "There were a few intellectuals in the union, and invariably they felt frustrated and angry when a common longshoreman was elected to high office and performed tolerably well. It did not occur to them that it was part of America's uniqueness that in this country nobodies perform tasks which in other countries are reserved for elites. Like America, the union was founded by a leader. Harry Bridges is a sort of Jefferson. And like Jefferson, he created an organization that functions well without leaders."

Jesse Jackson has never understood this most magical property of the American experience. In his call for leadership he scolded the Democrats in San Francisco, "Leaders change things." But Hoffer's vision, of a land run by nobodies, is the Americans' proud heritage as well as the intellectuals' crude rebuke. It should give little pause for concern that the voters are essentially confined to choosing either Ronald Reagan or Walter Mondale come November 6. Either man is easily nobody-enough to rule, in the America of Jefferson.

Contributing Editor Tom Hazlett is a freelance journalist and a professor of economics at the University of California, Davis.

And the Winner Is…

Event: Best Music
Winner: Democrats
The manipulation of crowds can today be accomplished by a sophisticated high-tech combination of audio, visual, and air conditioning. The blasting of an inspirational melody, triggering a common emotion in the multitudes, is an essential convention trick, now aided by computer-age woofers and tweeters. The best song played after a Republican convention speaker was "Oklahoma!" following Jeane Kirkpatrick (Oklahoma being the state of her birth). The Dems offered the delightful "Chariots of Fire" theme after Gary Hart, in honor of jogging yuppies on all continents. The Dems also hit "New York, New York" after Mario Cuomo and Geraldine Ferraro, adding the Village People's "YMCA" one song later for Gerry. The Mondale performance was followed by "Let's Celebrate," while the Republicans kept running "Happy Days Are Here Again" after nearly every speaker.

Event: Best Free Beer
Winner: Republicans
Every convention for decades has seen the railroad industry host the Railroad Press Lounge. No, this is not for the exclusive enjoyment of reporters for "Rail Age" but is a refreshingly open attempt by the train lobby to buy off the nation's press corps. Reporters are issued passes to the lounge with their press credentials, entitling them to an abundant supply of free beer, sandwiches, potato chips, and TV sets (which is the only access a print journalist generally has to the convention's events, the hall being nonconducive to much reportage). In California the free beer was largely Anchor Steam, which this reporter finds a little too thick for his pro-American palate. The Texans did better with Bud, Miller, and Miller Lite. Chalk this one up for the GOP.

Event: Best Public-Interest Button
Winner: Reps
Don't mess with the adopted party of John Connally on blatant public-interest issues (you remember John Connally—the Democrat who wouldn't go Republican 'til Watergate made him feel at home). Republicans sported buttons recommending "Vote Braniff." Simple and to the point, the way politics ought to be.

Event: Best Public-Interest Hospitality Suite
Winner: Toss-up
Philip Morris, the well-known supporter of philanthropic causes like cancer research (how much less research we'd need if not for Philip Morris), invited Republican delegates to their hospitality suite at the Plaza Hotel to partake of "cold Seven-Up, Miller beer, and find 'agricultural foodstuffs' in the form of Marlboro, Benson & Hedges, Merit and our other brands." The Democrats took their puffs in an R.J. Reynolds suite in the posh St. Francis Hotel. We'll have to chew on this one a while…

Event: Classiest Party
Winner: Reps (by proxy)
After hearing the Democrats talk about Reagan dividing America into the Royalty and the Rabble, this shouldn't be tough to figure out. The first night in Dallas, I had to bully my way past a bouncer to gain access to a high-class affair, complete with a big band, at the Anatole. Taking notes on the tuxedos and evening gowns, I captured this bulbous Republican display of wealth in its full grandeur. On the way out I stopped to ask a bartender, "Is this a Bush campaign affair, or which committee is sponsoring this?" No, I was told. It was the Cadillac Dealers Association bash. Oh, well, a straightforward mistake. Let's call it Republican anyway.

Event: Best Reception
Winner: Reps
Then there was the "Reception Honoring Republican Women Office Holders Hosted by the International Brotherhood of Teamsters." These political bedfellows seemed destined for love at first bite; the food lay-out was awesome! The cracked crab, fresh shrimp, and salmon hors d'oeuvres were my favorites, but there were plenty of additional delicacies to choose from. (Their open bar served delightful Bloody Marys.) Burly men circulated amongst the GOP dowagers and occasionally asked, "Are you having a good time?" "Yes, sir, a wonderful time. Please tell us something about your organization, the Teamsters," was the most popular response.

Event: Worst Reception
Winner: Reps
The Dole Corp. hosted a Pete Wilson (junior senator from California) reception at Dallas's elegant Anatole Hotel. Despite high expectations, the room was crowded with 1,500–2,000 free-loaders, and the food lines were long. The pasta dishes were cooked for each order, thus holding up the free-loading process, and tasted entirely flat (at least the dish with clam sauce). The drinks were free but thin. Then Senator Wilson gave a speech.

Event: Political Comeback of the Year
Winner: Reps
Gerald Ford avoided injuring himself on the podium, in a remarkable display of agility. He also delivered a fine crowd-rouser that showed off the former president as virtually articulate. A stunned Republican crowd was so thrilled by the event, the band followed his performance with a lively rendition of "Hail to the Victors" (in spite of Mr. Ford appearing in that very morning's newspaper trivia quiz as the answer to the question, "Name the only American to be both vice-president and president without ever having been elected to either").

Event: Best Podium Impersonation
Winner: Dems
Jimmy Carter, whom the Democrats greeted warmly and rushed on-stage so as to be excused before prime-time EDT, was in rare form. In the best platform swoon this reporter has ever witnessed, the alleged former president warmed our innards with his patriotic pitch: "Our hearts will swell with pride to call ourselves Americans." His delivery was virtually indistinguishable from that of his apparent model and mentor, the Our Gang comedy character Alfalfa.

Event: Most Intellectually Stimulating Program
Winner: Reps
Dallas's Anatole Hotel displayed the following advertisement for its bookstore presentation: "Ex Libris is proud to present an autograph session with L. William Traxler, editor of Along Wits Trail: The Humor of Ronald Reagan, and Anne Lindsay Greer, author of Cuisine of the American Southwest." The Democrats had a speech by Gary Hart, but it contained not a single recipe.

Event: Most Patronizing Program
Winner: Reps
What do these three people have in common: Elizabeth Dole, Margaret Heckler, Jeane Kirkpatrick. Chromosomes? Whatever—they were feted at a Neiman Marcus rally by the Republican conventioneers. It takes a lot to beat the Democrats at tokenism—Mondale was nominated and seconded by an ethnic tick-tack-toe of black mayor Tom Bradley, woman bureaucrat Ann Richards, and Hispanic Representative Robert Garcia. But the Republicans made a very fine showing at the mall with this one.

Event: Most Ingenious Stunt on a Convention Platform
Winner: Dems
A union organizer addressed the Dems with a monotone tirade against the infamies of Ronald Reagan's presidency that could only be salvaged by a brilliant climax. Indeed, the resourceful speaker was equal to the task: in the cluckish voice used by Johnny Carson when doing editorial replies in a duck hunter's hat and Pendleton, the union organizer abruptly spouted, "We must blow the whistle on Ronald Reagan." Whereupon he blew a shrill whistle and stomped off stage. As the vast majority of Dems were paying no attention to the speaker, there was little reaction, although among the attentive, blank stares outnumbered the applauders, 8 to 1. The Republicans had nothing even approaching this for ingenuity.

Event: Most Ironic Political Argument
Winner: Dems
Democrats, in defending Geraldine Ferraro as a candidate not picked for her chromosomes, pointed out that Spiro T. Agnew was another veep selected without much national experience. Good point.

Event: Best Social Conscience
Winner: Dems
The Democrats have a keen perception of life's injustices. As I pulled away from a San Francisco curb, a Democratic delegate in her mid-40s points at my taxi and screams: "One person!" How morally offensive of me not to confer with the Board of Commuters before arranging a 15-block voyage. Just try getting a Republican riled up about one-person cab rides!

Event: Best Comment Heard at Either Convention
Winner: Dems
A three-foot robot in the employ of USA Today was set spinning on a crowded San Francisco plaza near the convention center. Approaching a middle-aged political activist with approximately 85 buttons festooned on his hat, the computerized smart aleck asked the crusader, "Why do you wear your memory cells on your head?"