The Republican Convention started in earnest last night, as those of you with cable TV know. Those of you with cable also know that reporters and commentators–and commentating reporters–are blathering endlessly about how scripted this convention is, that the speakers are suspiciously black, brown, and female, while the delegates are decidedly white penis people.
This year's Republican rhetoric is meant to be as soothing as a Kool cigarette, in marked contrast to the harsh no-filter Camel butts of years past (especially Houston in 1992). Hence, last night, efforts to attack affirmative action were attacked harder than President Clinton, Vice President Gore, and other high-profile Dems. Country singer Hank Williams Jr., the embodiment in many ways of the Houston convention, got only a minute on stage, while the greasy-haired and unknown group, the Interpreters, were indulged with an entire song, an eternity in TV time.
This can't be pleasing the rank-and-file Republicans, Clinton haters all, who work hard for the election of Republicans and attend the conventions at great expense. Or can it? That's the mystery at the heart of this convention.
I worked the corridors of the First Union Center to get my answer. It's fine with Salvador Muñoz, an alternate delegate, who traveled alone from Southern California (his wife is expecting soon and couldn't travel). It's the values espoused by the Republican Party that attracted Muñoz, who opposes abortion. He wants to see Bush elected, and he's not troubled by the lack of focus on social issues. I ask him about the entertainment. He's wearing a cowboy hat and I figure he might have wanted more time for Hank Jr. "We are opening ourselves a little bit abroad to bring more people in the party," he says, right on script, although in a Spanish accent that would please Dubya.
I next bumped into Richard Atkinson, a Republican city council member from Youngstown, Ohio. Atkinson also happens to be black. He's been to five conventions and has little patience for talk of this one being overly scripted or phony. "Every convention is scripted, you know that," he said. Atkinson supports the diverse program. "You have to reach out and they're taking the steps to reach out to women and minority groups to make sure they feel included."
I interviewed the GOP's new target demographic: a 30-something threesome consisting of an openly gay Republican, an independent woman, and a black man who is registered as a Democrat but is increasingly pulling the lever for Republican candidates. They're all lobbyists, which is why they are here. The scripting didn't bother any of them–they know the game. They want the party to be more inclusive of women and gays and welcome the more moderate and sunny tone.
This was the story and tone of the night, and it intensified after Colin Powell's speech. The evening's theme was "Opportunity with a Purpose: Leave No Child Behind." The crowd erupted when George W. Bush introduced Powell by satellite feed. "I hope his greatest service to America still lies ahead," said Bush of the man who, rumor has it, would likely be tapped for Secretary of State in a Bush administration.
Powell didn't attack criminals and liberal judges. He attacked the prison-industrial complex, telling the crowd of "convicts who aren't consumers," and people who are "paying time not paying taxes." In a roar-inducing line, Powell said, "It's time to stop building jails in America."
Powell also attacked those who oppose affirmative action while saying nothing about lobbyists who fill up the tax code with preferential treatment for corporations. He talked of private scholarships, public school vouchers, and charter schools. He also called for more spending on education.
Is this a new Republican Party? Do people who liked the old one care?
If there was any grumbling about the substance or tone of the evening or Powell's speech, I couldn't find it. Conventioneers were giddy as they left the First Union Center for post-convention parties. Sara Banks and Shannon Fiecke, two college students, were bubbling on the escalator down from the mezzanine level. "It was awesome," said Banks, who came specifically to hear Powell. "Oh, it was so incredible, we are really excited."
Jesse Lott, Trent Lott's cousin and a delegate from Oregon, told me his state's delegation is united behind Bush and the convention's message, although he still wants to get rid of the Department of Education. Says John Lindsey, who's running for congress in Oregon: "I was pretty happy with George W. Bush, but when I heard the announcement of Dick Cheney I almost went through the ceiling. We're going to have a great election year."
Stuart DeVeaux, who handles communications for the California delegation, was standing outside the First Union Center catching a smoke and working his cell phone, trying to settle on what party to attend. He ruled out Lynrd Skynrd, who were reportedly playing at a Southern Tribute party. Too retro for Stuart, in an unhip way. "Republicans are like Pepsi," he told me after ending his call. "The choice of a new generation."