The Republicans have changed their image, big time. They’ve tacked toward the times while trying to hold to a grasp of traditional values. Not easy to do. They’ve moved toward diversity.
The protesters, on the other hand, showed themselves last week in New York to be behind the times and out of touch, screaming for peace while throwing punches at cops, delegates and anyone else foolish enough to be on the streets around Madison Square Garden in a jacket and tie.
This time the Republicans really did present a big tent. And if at times it seemed like a tent over a three-ring circus, it looked authentic, with a selection of voices and styles expressed with a robust meaning of e pluribus unum.
They’ve lightened up. Mike Huckabee, the governor of Arkansas and an ordained Baptist preacher, even joined Gov. George Pataki of New York for a set with a rock group called Capitol Offense. “We manage to offend just about everybody,” he said, tweaking an electric guitar.
The Bush twins created the real buzz. They offended some delegates (and a lot more of the prissier pressies) with giggly attempts to needle their kin with sexual innuendos and rebellious bon mots. (The author of most of the speech was Karen Hughes, a grown-up.) Their message seemed to be that you can be hip, trendy and even a little silly if you know enough to express it within the context of solid respect for the family that brought you up.
They weren’t forced to be miniature politicians. They will no doubt look back at their appearance with some embarrassment, but they can be pleased that they showed that a Bushie can be in touch with the pop culture without dissecting it. If they lacked the poise of the Kerry sons and daughters, who are older and more experienced on the campaign trail, Barbara nevertheless wielded a sharp needle for the opposition, gently mocking Alexandra Kerry’s story about her father heroically jumping into the lake to save a pet hamster.
“We had a hamster, too,” she said. “Let’s just say, ours didn’t make it.”
If the twins’ vaudeville routine wasn’t boffo, it wasn’t bad. These were the girls, after all, who had to suffer through “photo ops” two hours after they were born because their grandfather happened to be vice president at the time.
No one casts a vote for first children or first lady, but Laura Bush beat out Teresa Heinz Kerry for the easier-to-like award. Nobody in the boiler room has to worry about what will come out of her mouth when she is put behind the podium. For a woman who promised to marry George Bush if only he would promise never to ask her to make a political speech, she has become a natural. She moved away from the domestic issues she holds dear as Laura-the-librarian and emphasizes foreign policy as the most important issue for families: “George’s work to protect our country and defeat terror so that all children can grow up in a more peaceful world.”
Zell Miller, the rogue Democrat, won the Oscar for providing serious diversity. He remained a Democrat when lots of his contemporaries moved out of the party and became Republicans for Ronald Reagan. He’s determined not to give up the label he was born with, but he has finally given up waiting for Godot, or even for Scoop Jackson. “What has happened to the party I’ve spent my life working in?” he asked. “I can remember when Democrats believed that it was the duty of America to fight for freedom over tyranny.”
Not everyone at the convention was happy to be rallying in the belly of the beast. But the liberals who own New York may be showing their age even as a countercultural avant-garde is trying to emerge. Scott LoBaido had protested the painting of the Virgin Mary plastered with elephant dung when it was exhibited several years ago at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. He finally found a gallery south of the site of the World Trade Center just in time for the convention. One of his pieces depicts that American flag, an image popular in another artistic context in the ‘60s. LoBaido depicts the flag with a match close by, captioned: “Don’t Even Think About it.”
You could even find a few punk Republicans. They call themselves “gonzo conservatives” and they groove on the “Bad Brains” and the “Sex Pistols,” regarding the message of punk as one of “think for yourself.” They link accountability, responsibility and self-reliance to hipness.
Republicans, like most grown-ups, understand that there was a time to be young and irresponsible. That time has come and gone, but you don’t have to apologize for remembering.