Fat Cats to Pussycats

Rating the political conventions


Best Banner: Democrats
Held by rally marchers, without punctuation: "Gay & Lesbian Animal Rights Caucus." No kidding. If you ever wondered about a French poodle swishing down the street, fearful its rights were going unprotected…relax. This interest group may occasionally bark up the wrong tree, but it will give some bite to those lobbying efforts in Washington. Just so long as they're not perceived as pussycats. Woof.

Best Button: Democrats
"Lemmings for Clinton" was the favorite lapel attire of the Brownies, and it recalls that the soul of the Democratic Party lies elsewhere. On the other hand, the soul of Jerry Brown probably lies somewhere in the Galaxy XGF-9.

Best Subliminal Slogan Implying the Other Guy is Boffing Lots of Chicks: Republicans
"Family Values." What is a family value? A discount mail-order bride operation? A reasonably priced adoption agency? Or is it growing up with Mom & Pop, Sissy, and Jr. down at the malt shop? Or, more darkly, does it say: Get straight, young man! Keep your knees together, young lady! Or, darker still: DON'T LET BILL CLINTON KISS YOUR BABY—YOU DON'T KNOW WHAT SHE'LL CATCH!

Best Coordination with a Local Retail Chain: Republicans
You'd think that New York's zillion and one nifty restaurants could top this, but Houston was perfectly positioned for Campaign '92 with an entire chain of entertainment attractions called Slick Willie's Family Pool Halls. I had some beers at the original with the night manager, Buzzy, but Gennifer never showed. Monday is Free Pool Night, however; there's a family value for you.

Most Conspicuously Unseen Button: Democrats
Change for a dollar? In 1980 the runaway best-selling button at the New York Demo Con read simply: "59¢." The knowledgeable knew this meant that a woman in America made but 59 cents for every dollar earned by a man, a lowly ratio that had been stuck there for years. These buttons have disappeared because, under 12 years of Reagan-Bush-Quayle oppression, the ratio has skyrocketed way up into the 60s. Social progress: the Democrats' curse, the button makers' salvation.

Miss Congeniality: Houston
New York's liberal mayor ruthlessly shipped out the homeless, cleaned up the streets, and covered the city with baton-twirling coppers, but New Yorkers still have that attitude thing. ("National political convention? Yeah, yeah, yeah.") Houston actually appreciated the business; we were met at the airport by a welcoming committee cheering us off the plane, answering questions, actually acting helpful. They didn't even steal our wallets.

Worst Speech: Democrats, Jesse Jackson
When the expectations are high, you'd better not whine. And Jesse's anticipated whoopee level was stratospheric. The dependably bombastic Jackson has never before failed to whip the Democratic elite into a frenzy. In San Francisco in 1984, he delivered a speech that left several middle-aged delegates dizzy with the vapors. In Atlanta, his virtuoso bravado bumped Kitty and Mike off into the orchestra pit. In New York, sadly, Brother Jesse just bombed. Jackson "Lacks Old Fire," charitably headlined The New York Times. Jackson began unsteadily, inexplicably launched into a desperate scream, and finished in a screechy hysteria. Gone were the rich tones of the super-orator, Rev. Jackson: He squeaked like a boy soprano, which, considering what Bill Clinton had done to him politically, he might now be. There was none of the smooth but powerful glide up to the dramatic climax, complete with haunting refrain ("Our Time Has Come," etc.). Instead there was this incoherent, homey tale of the "giant and the midget," twins who, by genetic luck, emerged with entirely different angles in life. Many thought Jesse had become confused over a certain Schwarzenegger and De Vito movie.

Best Tippers: Republicans
If you've got it, squander it. Democrats have much federal concern for the working man, but they apparently don't like to get personally involved. The cabbies I talked to in New York were uniformly p.o.'d at the Dems, who usually took free bus shuttles to Madison Square Garden, creating traffic snarls, and then tipped ever-so-lightly in the few taxis they rode. The GOPers made a better impression on Houston drivers—who deserve a little something extra, if only for thoughtfully equipping their cars with fuzzbusters (every taxi I took had one)—although I'm sure more than one nice Yellow Cab was soiled by a drunk College Republican.

Scariest Threat to the U.S. Constitution: Republicans, Pat Buchanan
What the hell does "cultural purity" mean? Why don't you just spell it out, Pat—in German? When the rightists mount the podium of patriotism and immediately conduct a purge of the citizen population, it reeks of a conservative nihilism. Reagan's great knack was to drag these Know-Nothing nativists up to a higher, more inclusionary plane. Now they're kicking and screaming.

Best Food: Republicans
Lots to choose from here, but personally my favorite reception was Ron (Estee) Lauder's GOP bash in Houston's Museum of Natural History. The beer was cold, the barbecue was delicious, and there was something about eating all that red meat amongst the Kudu, impala, and wildebeest exhibits. I asked for some brisket of Pterodactyl, and I noticed that the ribs on the Tyrannosaurus Rex had been picked clean. That's a Texas BBQ. But it's curious that Lauder was in Houston, when the big makeover was in New York.

Best Corporate Sponsors: Democrats
The GOP has really fallen down since the Republican Women's Federated had a gala reception sponsored by the Teamsters in 1984. There was something about the blue-haired matrons of Westchester mixing with the bullies of the interstate that just made my hormones race. But the Democrats, the party of Congress, now enjoy a fling with corporate America made all the more intense by the fact that they can't be seen in public together. All the better to denounce corporate interests by day and to really get to know them over champagne and caviar at a candlelit table by night. The Ocean Spray reception at the Water Club was exquisite, but my favorite was the NYNEX reception at a posh midtown club. Angry protesters denounced the upscale Democrats from just beyond the front door: "Fat Cats Dine in Luxury While Americans Go Homeless!" Yes, these Democrats are taking their Republican image very seriously.

Best Strippers: Democrats
The Paradise Club, just down the street from Madison Square Garden, hoisted a friendly "Welcome Democrats" sign. I'm outraged!, as the feminists might declare. (But I don't blame the strip entrepreneurs for trying; now that Teddy's remarried, I hear he's on the prowl again.) The week of the convention, a local judge threw out a law banning public toplessness on sex-discrimination grounds. Female liberationists/strippers were baring tops in public places all week. This gives the march for civil rights a brand new tan line.

Best Music: Republicans
Politics is about mood swings, and bouncy tunes are absolutely vital, particularly in kicking off any campaign's critically important Presidential Acceptance Speech Spectacular. The Democrats were melodically undistinguished until their grand finale, when they came up with some excellent Fleetwood Mac, "Don't Stop Thinking About Tomorrow," and a swell original score, "Circle of Friends." Basso boffo. The Republicans started stronger, with some bouncy unwed-mother music from Quayle nemesis Tanya Tucker, some fine C&W crooning from Randy Travis, and even a little Three Dog Night. (The funniest musical event was when the theme from La Cage Aux Folles, unbeknownst to GOPers, accompanied Barbara Bush's gay old time on Wednesday night. Rumor has it that Pat Buchanan was actually tapping his foot.) But Lee Greenwood? Get him back on the 4 a.m. cable spots, where he belongs! And the Republicans simply clanked out with the musical accompaniment to their Thursday Night Balloon Drop extravaganza, hitting (no kidding) "I've Been Working on the Railroad" as President Bush hit his "…and God bless the United States of America."

Oddest Support Group: Republicans
A merry band of hard-core GOP supporters that landed front-row seats in the Astrodome (they popped megabucks) came wrapped in East Asian attire and displayed signs like "Khalistanis for Bush" and "India Out of Khalistan." They were wildly enthusiastic, and George Bush must have liked them too, because these guys at least weren't bugging him about not having a domestic agenda. Perhaps they gave the president one of the "Turban Cowboys" buttons they were sporting.

Funniest News Coverage: Democratic Convention
The New York Times got a little dizzy with its spin control. In reporting on Jesse Jackson's speech, it told its readers on page 1: "And Mr. Jackson…discounted the importance of the party's drift away from old-fashioned liberalism. 'History will remember us not for our positioning but for our principles…." Blah, blah, blah. Ooops. On page 11, the Times prefaced the exact same passage from Jackson's speech with the comment, "…he spoke in somber tones, devoting the bulk of his remarks to the issues of the poor and powerless, in sharp contrast to the platform. And he clearly rebuked the party for its grand strategy. 'History will remember us…'" All the news that's fit to print—twice, with opposite implications.

Best Speech: Democrats, Mario Cuomo
He's the perennial winner on style, form, and degree of difficulty: Mario makes warmed-over liberalism sound "new and improved!" There's a sneaking suspicion spreading, though, that the governor goes undefeated only because he plays in such a weak league. "Mario Cuomo is the Larry Bird of the Democratic Party," noted San Francisco Examiner columnist Chris Matthews. "He's the only white guy who can give a good speech."

Most Boneheaded Political Strategy: Republicans
The GOP assault on Hillary Clinton is political suicide, as even a dim-witted RNC chairman should be able to figure out. OK, she's a borderline feminazi, a power-hungry and sue-happy attomey-at-law. Since she is a prominent adviser to the future president, her politics are fair game. One problem, guys: Your attack backfires. Each salvo launched puts Bill Clinton on the national news (the Democrats being crafty enough to keep Hillary a million miles away) with a stock outraged-and-appalled response: How low will the Republicans go, attacking even my wife? Will they stop at nothing? (High-school juniors could write this script.) It gives the philanderer of January a chance to be the loving, loyal husband of November. He's standing up for his little woman and subliminally taunting the President for picking on a girl ("I didn't know he was running for First Lady"). Genius Republican strategists with a lock on the White House? You be the judge.

Best Slogan Sacrificed for the Good of the Country: Democrats
When choosing a vice-presidential running mate, Clinton could really have given consumers value for their campaign check-off dollar. If only he had gone with Sen. Charles Robb of Virginia, the slogan could have been a killer: "Clinton-Robb! Babes, Babes, Babes." Or why not the senior senator from Massachusetts: "Clinton-Kennedy: Party 'Til You Puke." Or, as the political junkies were hoping: "Clinton-Cuomo: The In 'n' Out Team for the '90s." Instead, we have to fall back on a bumper sticker I saw in Houston: "Democrats in '92: Too Much Sex, Too Much Gore."

Best Balloon Drop: Republicans
For all their carping over "trickle down," the Democrats never fail to employ it as a technique in their balloon drops. We were expecting better this year, as the DNC, embarrassed by previous balloon fiascoes in Atlanta and San Francisco, had retained special experts to supervise. This year they launched 60,000 balloons, but only about 52,500 really made it down the chute, and those haltingly. The Republicans buried 'em: 250,000 bright little elastic orbs. It was a finale spectacular, with glitter that actually shined (the Dems' was not even sparkly), a special delayed drop of mammoth, oversized balloons, and indoor fireworks. Economic policy played a big part in the GOP's competitive advantage: The Democrats had to pay 50 cents to fill each balloon with air, even though volunteers using tanks can inflate one in seven seconds. The charge was a "corkage fee" to a local (balloon fillers'?) union.

Best Logistics: Republicans
I know the Democratic Convention looked better on television, but the Madison Square Garden logistics were ugly. The traffic snarled, as did the locals. (Houstonians were amazed to see their streets flow freely.) The Democrats proved they have not lost their love for command-and-control approaches, as bureaucratic nonsense haunted the proceedings. I had to pick up a press pass daily, for instance, several hours before the events began; this needless exercise—the Republicans handed out the week's set of daily passes at the beginning—burned at least an hour of my time and lots of cab fare. The only explanation was a deep and abiding Democratic commitment to lines, process, and regulation. Then there was the technical snafu: The Garden's elevators broke down immediately after Bill Clinton's acceptance speech, with 20,000 conventioneers racing for the blow-out parties. The herd had to push its way down several floors in lockstep; it was sweaty, clumsy, and dangerous—I almost lost an eye to an American flag jab. (Reminding me of the dangers of super-patriotism in the hands of political opportunists!)

Best Souvenirs: Republicans
AstroHall, adjacent to the Dome, housed a huge bazaar of political memorabilia. This was in stark contrast to New York, where the booths hustling goods and services were pathetic in both quality and selection. I suppose the Democratic Party operatives just haven't had much disposable income during the last 12 years, and this is perhaps the economic crisis they are most concerned about ending. In Houston I was able to buy me a genuine, 100-percent, official H. Ross Perot wristwatch. And—no kidding—it stopped running the next day.

Thomas W. Hazlett writes frequently about politics for REASON.