The poor communicator

George Bush Junior's selling a kinder, gentler GOP. Will you buy it?

ARE YOU DONE dry-heaving yet? I'm not. I'm not even in recovery from last week's GOP convention and the wretched mess of a nomination acceptance speech George Bush Jr. made.

All political conventions are phony affairs, PR pep rallies to juice the candidate ratings and mobilize the hard-core party loonies who show up for these things. But they can reveal a lot, often unintentionally, about a presidential candidate and the politics of the moment.

To understand where Bush, his speechwriters, and the GOP bigwigs are coming from, let's go back a little bit. In 1984, Walter Mondale decided to mobilize Democrats by being a true Democrat. He announced at his convention that he would raise taxes, and he picked a woman for his running mate. Of course, he was annihilated at the polls because Americans don't really like true Democrats. In 1988, Michael Dukakis seemed to have learned half the lesson: He was a liberal Democrat who was an outsider with a good economic track record (the so-called Massachusetts miracle), and he tried to show that he was no weak sister on defense by driving a tank. Do you remember the picture of a ridiculous Dukakis in that tank? Keep it in mind.

OK, so Clinton, ambitious striver that he is, realizes Democrats can only win if they convince the people they're Republicans. In 1992, he kicked butt by saying leadership is all about the economy and that the middle class must be coddled and preserved. But he did it with charm and empathy; he cared like a Democrat but he thought like a Republican—a winning combination for eight years.

So Bush says, OK, the only way the GOP can win after years of glorious economic prosperity is by hiding Newt and Dole and the whole Bob Dornan wing and running as Republicans posing as Democrats posing as Republicans. Offer Clintonian compassion and vague economic promises, combined with a little saber rattling, and presto.

THE WHOLE THING is as sincere as Bush Senior's famous: "Message: I care."

And it looks as ridiculous as Mike Dukakis wearing an armored assault vehicle.

Here is a candidate who is already sincerity-challenged, whose whole career (tiny as it is) is filled with questions about his brains, accomplishments, and whereabouts during a decade or two, delivering the party's least sincere message ever: The Republican Party—we love Negroes and poor people and whatever now! Ronald Reagan (not to mention Strom Thurmond) must be rolling over in his deathbed—or is it grave? Will somebody please tell me if Reagan is dead yet? And how is Thurmond doing? And what about Franco?

If you watched Reagan, if you read the Edmund Morris creepy bio/fantasy, the one thing you know about the Gipper is that he truly, truly believed every insincere thing he ever said. That's what actors do. Bush can barely mouth what his speechwriters are dishing out. After his speech, throughout which he looked pained, he woodenly walked the platform—like Al Gore on a playground—looking for friends. His expression seemed to indicate he'd just had Reagan's colorectal surgery rather than just picked up Reagan's mantle.

And his speechwriters—through Bush—had revealed their desperation: This serious, long-winded bore of a speech grasped at every clich頁merican politics has to offer, and did it poorly. It's as if his staff ransacked the Political Slogans Museum but didn't know what they were looking for—like two-bit burglars in an art museum. The larceny ranged from "We are coming home," (McGovern's 1972 slogan: "Come Home America") to "Americans live on the sunrise side of the mountain" (confusion with Reagan's "It's morning in America" gratefully appreciated). Plus perennial chestnuts such as "we will renew America" and "America is ready for a new beginning," both of which were probably used by Christopher Columbus.

SURE, LARCENY and triteness in politics are expected. But the speech just couldn't pass the straight-face test (unless, of course, you are a TV pundit, in which case you talk solemnly about how Bush did a great job of not falling off the stage or hurting himself—isn't this what we say about toddlers?).

Even if you choose to believe Bush's Clintonian rhetoric about caring for and uplifting people, did you buy this central bit about being some Midland, Texas, outsider? "I don't have a lot of things that come from Washington," he says, trying to distance himself from DC partisanship. Don't have a lot of things from Washington? Your father was the fucking president of the United States! Vice president, too. Before that he ran the GOP, the CIA, and was ambassador to China and a Congressman! Your granddaddy was a US senator and you have benefited from political and financial favors all your life: You are a product of Washington. Washington made you, boy George.

And all that ugliness in Washington during the Clinton years: that was your party shutting down the government, impeaching a popular president, and taking out a contract on America. Yes, that was your people, your party, your legacy.

If Al Gore can't womp this chump, he deserves to lose and we deserve what we get. The GOP convention may have mobilized the Republican base—but it mobilized me too. I can't wait to vote—when I get done puking.

 
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