Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
September 2, 2004
POLITICS: Inside the RNC
Through the efforts of a friend, I managed to get into the Republican convention last night, and will be returning tonight. A few thoughts on the evening:
*I only had to go through security twice to get in; although security was wall-to-wall and very observant and had closed off many of the numerous approaches to MSG and Penn Station, the actual run through the metal detectors didn't seem as intrusive as the usual routine at airports and courthouses.
*My convention pass got me access to the press area behind the scenes, which means going past booths/tents filled with people from all the recognizable major media outlets, from newspapers like the New York Daily News to opinion journals like the Weekly Standard. But I wanted to see Bloggers Row, and eventually I followed the signs for the media until I got to Radio Row, where numerous radio stations are set up and broadcasting side by side. The blogger contingent was set up at a long patch of table off to the side - a small area crammed with laptops, but well-situated and visible. I was surprised at how many people were dropping by to see the bloggers, some of whom were quite smooth at setting up interviews. I got to meet all sorts of bloggers I had been in contact with by email but never met, including Alan Nelson from the Command Post, "Captain" Ed Morrissey from Captain's Quarters, Kevin Aylward from Wizbang!, Matt Margolis from Blogs for Bush, and David Adesnik from Oxblog. Roger Simon was probably the most recognizable in his trademark fedora. I also spoke with Hugh Hewitt, who had just wrapped up his radio show with an interview with John Fund; Hewitt is set up right across the aisle from the bloggers and is most gracious in person.
*Michael Barone dropped by the bloggers' area; there's a skill level involved in being a really high-level pundit that's truly impressive. Barone was peppered with questions from all sides and poured forth high-level punditry pretty much continuously, and was still doing so in a crowd when he headed away, talking about everything from the effect of down-ticket races (he cited Adlai Stevenson's gubernatorial campaign as particularly crucial to Harry Truman's re-election in 1948, complete with references to the number of electors Illinois had in that year) to the effects of abortion on national politics (he thinks Giuliani is such a star that we may see the first pro-choice GOP nominee in 2008). Barone reminded me of nobody so much as legal scholar Richard Epstein, who I met at a Federalist Society conference in law school, and who had a similar gift for rapid-fire extemporaneous opinions on every topic that passed his way.
*After that, I moved into the arena. A convention is a political junkie's dream come to life; there were familiar faces from the media and politics just everywhere, and if I was more aggressive about these things I could easily have struck up a few interviews (on one of the entrances to the Garden I was on line behind Alan Keyes). From my perch in the arena I could see interviews going on with Jack Kemp and Newt Gingrich, and watched Barone (again) and Candy Crowley and Rudy working the floor.
*Someone with a sense of humor set up the Al Jazeera booth right next to Fox News.
*The first two speeches I saw were Massachusetts Lieutenant Governor Kerry Healey introducing her boss, Mitt Romney. Romney got a very warm reception, but it wasn't 10pm yet, and the crowd clearly was not into the early speeches; Healey in particular seemed to be shouting enthusiastically into an empty room. Same-sex marriage? not popular with Republican delegates. Healey's biggest applause line was her reference to how Romney "stood up to an activist court" to protect "traditional values." She did also draw a little reaction by noting that John Kerry doesn't talk much about when he was Massachusetts Lieutenant Governor under Michael Dukakis. Romney's speech seemed just wasted; he told a moving anecdote about a U.S. Olympic athlete who carried the tattered World Trade Center flag at the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City, but nobody seemed to be paying attention.
*Then, John Kerry was given Zell. Zell Miller is not a guy you want coming after your candidate, as I remember well from 1992. I was surprised that Miller's speech (1) didn't do more to set out his Democratic bona fides (as he's done in op-eds for the Wall Street Journal) and (2) focused entirely on foreign policy. My wife, watching at home - after having seen Rudy and McCain Monday but skipped most of Tuesday - was worried that the convention has been too overwhelmingly focused on national security to the exclusion of domestic policy, although I suspect that that is partly to help set the stage for President Bush to set out his Big Idea agenda tonight (as Bush told Rush Limbaugh on Tuesday when asked about his domestic agenda, "I'm going to save some of it for the speech if you don't mind."). Miller's comparison of the Democrats of today to Wendell Willkie was rough stuff - the common Democratic complaint is that Bush has played politics with national security, but really, if the Dems had been as supportive of the Iraq war as they were in Afghanistan, the war on terror would be a much smaller issue. More on this another day, but it's precisely because of the political battles over foreign policy that this is such a predominant issue this year, to the point that convention delegates seemed bored during the domestic policy parts of Cheney's speech.
My wife worried that Miller came off as too harsh, and he was certainly rough: after he said, "nothing makes this Marine madder than someone calling American troops occupiers rather than liberators," I half expected him to add, "Senator, you messed with the wrong Marine!"
Miller had a field day with Kerry's opposition to various weapons systems, climaxing with "This is the man who wants to be the Commander in Chief of our U.S. Armed Forces? U.S. forces armed with what? Spitballs?" My wife said Miller was less prepared to deal with CNN interviewers later who pressed him with DNC talking points about how Dick Cheney as Defense Secretary had not pressed for some of those systems. That's poor preparation: this has been a Democratic talking point for months, and if you take the record seriously it's hard to put much stock in the notion that Kerry and Dick Cheney have similar records on defense spending and weapons systems. (This particular talking point is vintage Kerry; his campaign isn't willing or able to tell you what Kerry stands for, but is instead obsessed with trying to disprove anything that's said about his record).
This was also a good passage, tying together the long years of Kerry's vascillations on foreign policy and blunting his efforts to hide behind his Vietnam service:
As a Senator, he voted to weaken our military. And nothing shows that more sadly and more clearly than his vote this year to deny protective armor for our troops in harms way, far-away. George Bush understands that we need new strategies to meet new threats.
John Kerry wants to re-fight yesterday’s war. George Bush believes we have to fight today’s war and be ready for tomorrow’s challenges.
*Then, Lynne Cheney, who told us that her husband "entered public life as the Gentleman from Wyoming." I know it's too long ago to be worth explaining the relevance to today of Cheney's term as White House Chief of Staff under Gerald Ford, but is it too much to ask his own wife to remember that he held the job?
*As for the Vice President, he was low-key as always. I was actually sitting next to Cheney's speechwriters, which was amusing, since they knew exactly what was coming and were chattering about various passages in the speech as it went along. His speech started with the much-underappreciated fact that Cheney himself, despite his current image as the Mr. Moneybags guy from Monopoly, is from relatively humble origins: "my grandfather didn’t have a chance to go to high school. For many years he worked as a cook on the Union Pacific Railroad, and he and my grandmother lived in a railroad car."
Many of Cheney's lines were repeats of things he or Bush have said before, which was disappointing on one level, but a sign of both the consistency and the marketing savvy of the Bush team - they understand the importance of recycling key phrases to reinforce the public's image of what they stand for. (And, having done so, they don't blame those key phrases on "overzealous speechwriters").
Cheney told us that Libya's "uranium, centrifuges, and plans for nuclear weapons that were once hidden in Libya are locked up and stored away in Oak Ridge, Tennessee . . . " Gee, should he have just given us a street address? I sure hope they are well-guarded.
The foreign policy section of the speech bored heavily into Kerry, in classic Cheney fashion:
After Cheney cited Kerry's experience as a Senator and a soldier, I half expected him to say: "a man with John Kerry's experience should know better." I was specifically disappointed in two things: first, Cheney should drop that line mocking Kerry's reference to a "sensitive" war on terror, which really is taken out of context; far more damning, in my opinion, was his reference back in June to "the real war on terror in Afghanistan and northwest Pakistan" and his claim that the Bush Administration had "transferred it for reasons of its own to Iraq." That's a stark admission of Kerry's fundamental unwillingness to accept the centerpiece of the war on terror, which is the idea of an offensive strategy of changing the conditions and removing the forces that support and nurture terrorists throughout the Arab and Islamic worlds, as opposed to concentrating solely on taking down those specific nations and organizations that can be proven to have already attacked us.
Second, even beyond the weapons systems and the $87 billion, I really wanted to hear more on Kerry's plan to gut intelligence spending in the mid-90s. I could also have done with some of Kerry's quotes about the Reagan policies that made such a difference in the Cold War; it's one thing to cite votes, but Kerry's speeches took some very tough lines against nearly every major controversial initiative of the Reagan years, from Central America to missiles in Europe. Still, there's only so much time, and you do have to cut to the chase.
My wife was concerned that there seemed to be a lot of empty seats in the hall while Cheney was speaking, although that was news to me where I was sitting. I'm also not sure the TV caught the full impact of the rows of people doing the tomahawk-chop-style "flip-flop, flip-flop" wave. Which played in with this:
Aside from the laugh line, this is clearly a central point to Cheney: a guy who can't keep his message at least straight enough that his supporters could answer the question "would Kerry have gone to war in Iraq" is never going to project the certainty about American intentions and resolve that is itself an important element of stability in foreign affairs.
All in all, an entertaining night, and one with a lot of red meat for the crowd; the parade of moderates was most definitely interrupted, and the base was happy. The stage is now set for the next-to-last major movement (other than the debates) of this campaign - the president's address to the nation laying out his agenda for the second term.