THE SATURDAY NIGHT before the Republican National Convention opened, I arrived in New Orleans, dropped my bags at the hotel, and set off through the French Quarter in search of a late dinner. It was almost like walking onto the set of Satyricon, the difference being that, for this version, central casting had brought in all Republicans: a kind of PG-13 Satyricon. But the spirit was willing. First I saw Senator James McClure (American Conservative Union rating: 100) sauntering down Bourbon Street, the legendary avenue of gin joints and flesh parlors. I caught sight of him as he passed by Big Daddy’s All-Female Wrestling Parlor. He didn’t stop, I admit, but he was smiling, and the incongruity — What’s wrong with this picture? — startled me. Across the street some middle-aged folk in Robertson hats glanced good-naturedly into a saloon advertising “Unisex Love Action.” They elbowed one another and laughed. A few doors down, a woman with a BUSH sticker wrapped around her rump was pouring beer over the head of a woozy friend, who had collapsed against the side of a gift shop that sells what used to be called French postcards. At the intersection of Bourbon and Bienville a Bush cheerleading squad did cartwheels for the benefit of a local camera crew, and at the finish several of the girls ran over to their boyfriends and sloshed down Hurricanes from enormous plastic cups. “All night long!” one of them yelled, with some conviction. All night? All week is more like it.
Will someone please tell me when the rules got changed? The last time I (ACU rating: 46, and falling) checked, it was the Democrats — Warren Beatty and assorted rock stars, Gary Hart and Gerry Studds, Hamilton Jordan and Teddy, and remember Peter Bourne? — who formed the party-down party, the party for party-animals, the inclusive party that let in anybody so long as he didn’t spill the bong water and stink up the dorm room, while the Republicans were the austerity nerds, the chinpullers, the what’s-so-funny-about-our-future guys, the belt-tightening, green-eye-shaded, budget-balancing . . . oops. So it’s been awhile since I checked. In any event, I’d say it’s now official: the Atlanta convention proved that the Democratic party, circa 1988, is about as much fun as an autopsy; New Orleans, on the other hand, proved that the future belongs to the Republicans, for the future not only works, it chugalugs too.
Lloyd Bentsen characterized the high hilarity of the Republican convention as merely a “Mardi Gras for the Moral Majority.” Since Senator Bentsen has not heretofore been known as a boogie-till-you-puke sort, it’s safe to dismiss the comment as sour grapes, the complaint of a guy whose mama made him bring his kid sister to the high school dance. But there are nevertheless a few kinks still to be worked out in this new, re-made Republican party. A quick glance into any Bourbon Street music club, for example, immediately confirmed anew the ancient truth that Republicans can’t dance, and probably shouldn’t try to. And they will quickly have to grow more worldly about the underbelly of urban life, which in New Orleans they began to probe for the first time, with shy, tremulous fingers.
That Saturday night on Bourbon Street, a crowd, mostly Republican by the look of it, gathered outside Big Daddy’s (the All-Female Wrestling Parlor) when the “referee” and the club champion, “Angel,” stepped outside and announced that they were looking for a volunteer — “any of these fine looking ladies out here” — to challenge Angel for the grand prize of $100. “But I must caution you,” shouted the ref, “that Angel is a champion of wolf-style cajun wrestling from the swamplands and bayous of the great state of Louisiana. That means there will be roughness, there will be toughness, and there will be nudity.” The Republican women drew back quickly, but at the same time an athletic black woman charged forward, apparently from nowhere, loudly questioning Angel’s prowess and making extravagant sideshow gestures with her huge arms. “A volunteer!” cried the ref. Several of the young Republicans I had been trailing started to follow the ref and Angel and her challenger inside to the Big Daddy ring, when one of them drew me aside. “Listen,” he said, urgently. “I was here last night, and you know it was the same volunteer! The same girl! I don’t know. I think it’s a set up.”
Give ’em time.
IF I AM CORRECT about the Republican party reconstituting itself — and there’s no reason to think that I am — the question posed by the convention in New Orleans is, Who will lead this new party? George Bush, I suspect, will be a transitional personage merely, a figure linking epochs, contiguous with both Ronald Reagan and the new leader who will move the party of Lincoln into the twenty-first century and teach its followers how to do the shimmy-shake. After New Orleans, the answer that presents itself most obviously to Republicans, through no fault of their own, is Dan Quayle (ACU rating: 82) — an answer that is, as pundits are fond of saying, problematic at best.
According to James Baker, in asking him to join the ticket Bush told Quayle, “You are my choice, you are my first choice, you are my only choice,” but I doubt that it was as passionate as all that. More likely it was a matter of austere political calculation. Which is cold comfort. It was the preeminent political decision of the campaign, and it has proved — will continue to prove — an endless migraine. First of course was the National Guard-war wimp controversy. It does no good to tout the hypocrisy of the press — by citing, let’s say, the recent scientific survey by the Times-Mirror Co., which demonstrated that fully 38 percent of the members of the national media between the ages of 37 and 42 made false confessions of pederasty to avoid the draft in the late sixties and early seventies. (The other 62 percent, incidentally, actually are pederasts.) The facts, not the way the press reported them, have created the resentment some voters (probably not many) will feel toward Quayle through the coming months.
The National Guard business aside, Bush’s attempt to reach across the generations still has serious defects. If they discounted ideology, most of his supporters would have to admit that as a public figure — in speeches, in interviews — Dan Quayle comes off as (how to put it?) something of a jerk. There is, for starters, his annoying habit of referring to himself almost exclusively in the third person. (“Where’s Dan Quayle stand on this issue?” Dan Quayle will ask rhetorically. “Well, Dan Quayle happens to be the kind of guy . . .” and so on.) His enthusiasm, which never seems to give him a moment’s rest, is not the infectious kind, as was painfully demonstrated in his dockside remarks immediately after Bush anointed him. Tearing off his jacket, Dan appeared to be a man a few thumping heartbeats away from sun stroke. His arms chugged like the little engine that could. And when, with the man of the next generation shouting his way into incoherence, Bush stepped forward to shake his hand — the political equivalent of what in vaudeville was called “the hook” — Quayle wheeled and said, “Hold on a second!” “My God,” said a delegate next to me as we watched the gruesome scene on TV, “what has George done?”
And so in his acceptance speech before the full convention (and in other speeches since), Dan overcompensated — to a degree that called to mind the Bob and Ray interview with the President of . . . the Slow . . . Talkers . . . of . . . America. “You,” Quayle said, leisurely as molasses but twice as syrupy, “are . . . looking . . . at one . . . humble . . . Hoosier” (something no Hoosier, by the way, humbled before many millions of spectators, would say). Even in speaking of his wife and children the insincerity was palpable. Quayle is a student of the latest Republican Merlin, Roger Ailes, and it’s possible that he is simply overschooled in the media arts — that the tricks of style have been so drummed into him he has forgotten how to say what he means. Even so, in interviews the rudiments of understandable speech — things like subject-verb agreement and pronoun placement — fly off at once in a swift and brilliant flight, leaving him unarmed but for that patented pol’s grin and a wide-eyed stare that could snuff out a candle.
Those who know Quayle say he is a hard worker and a quick study, affable and interested. His voting record reveals a politician with principle and even guts. This doubtless is the Dan Quayle that George Bush knew, and chose. But if, as the rumors have it, some in the Bush camp thought of Quayle’s pleasing appearance as a political plus, they should have considered the dangerous obverse of good looks, as reflected, for example, in the word “bimbo.” I’ve met people in Hollywood who swear to this day that Jayne Mansfield enjoyed reading Kant. Maybe it’s true. But who believes it?
It’s entirely possible, then, that Quayle, if Bush is elected, will eventually go the way of John Nance Garner — thanked and then given the pink slip come 1992. Unfortunately, beyond him the ranks of candidates for New Leader are thin indeed. Most of the young up-and-comers in the Republican party are in the Quayle mold: probably hard-working and ambitious but a bit too pretty, not stupid but not exactly rocket scientists either. And they share with Quayle the inability, on camera, to put across even a slightly greater sense of reality than that provided by your average game show host. I saw a perfect personification of the problem on Monday morning, during the convention’s inaugural session, when I first went in to case the Superdome. The speaker was a fellow named William Paxon, introduced as the candidate for Jack Kemp’s seat from Upstate New York. Young Bill stood at the podium with the splendid posture (and haircut) of a Ken doll. As I walked along the upper rows, searching for my assigned seat, I listened to him in mounting disbelief. “Folks,” he said, as the handful of delegates present chatted among themselves and paid him no attention, “there’s something I feel I have to do. If you’ll just indulge me for a moment, I’d like to say something to my ninety-year-old grandmother, who’s watching right now.” (I assume his grandmother had C-SPAN, which was the only network diligent enough to broadcast these doldrums.) Bill allowed a pregnant pause; a slight Bob Eubanks smile. And straight into the camera: “Hi, Grandma.” Then he winked! Poor Grandma. She would have been lucky to hear this homey touch, since at that very moment there was the sound of three and a half million C-SPAN viewers barfing into their morning coffee.
I MYSELF MANAGED to hold back, but only by tuning out the rest of his speech and admiring the hall itself. As has been reported and reported, the Atlanta Democrats eschewed the patriotic red, white, and blue for a “salmon, eggshell, and azure” color scheme; the Republicans, to their credit, stuck to the traditional, more robust motif, with colors so brilliant and lights so bright you felt as if you were sitting in a giant test pattern.
In every convention appurtenance the Republicans outdid their rivals. The Democrats seemed to frown on the brandishing of outrageous paraphernalia; but in the Superdome countless booths were set up, selling all manner of glorious junk. (There was even a booth manned by the “New Orleans Chapter of Dialysis Patients,” which sold, among other items, a T-shirt reading: “I survived the Republican National Convention.” Congratulations, fellows!) If memory serves, the Democrats planned a single trip for delegates, a train ride to Stone Mountain outside Atlanta, the well-known memorial to the heroism of Confederate generals (a big hit with the Rainbow, as you can imagine). Republicans staged riverboat cruises, tours of the bayou, plantation galas; debauch followed debauch. The Party of the Future, inured to charges of sexism, also made heavy use of pretty girls — as hostesses, as ushers, as guides, even as security guards. Most important, the strategic decision was made (and enforced) to keep Maureen Reagan under wraps for the entire week.
If only the action inside the hall had been as invigorating as what took place outside it. The keynote address, by Tom Kean of New Jersey, was what you’d expect from a man who called Adlai Stevenson “one of the great masters of the English language in the past half century.” His theme was “the politics of inclusion” (although one friend of mine, noting Kean’s odd speaking style, suggested the term “the politics of malocclusion”). To my untrained ear, the politics of inclusion sounds much like the old Republican strategy of being for whatever Democrats are for only less of it, with a lot of talk about the death penalty thrown in whenever you’re suspected of going soft. Environmentalism figures prominently, and much was made of it throughout the week. The old Reaganite objections to the 1970s environmental movement — for instance, that it was merely an attempt by the propertied classes to use government as a breakwater against the encroachments of a rising lower class — were never mentioned. If, as some predict, the politics of inclusion becomes the guiding philosophy of the new Republican party, its patron saint will be not Ronald Reagan but Nelson Rockefeller. Watch for Happy’s reemergence in ’92.
The cumulative effect of the lackluster speechmaking in New Orleans was to make you realize how good Ronald Reagan is: if nothing else, he alone among contemporary politicians has mastered the ubiquitous modern teleprompter system, in which two screens, flashing the text of the speech so that only the speaker can see it, are set at some distance to either side of the podium. For most pols this results in great awkwardness — most obviously, because the speaker’s head sways from right to left in the pretense of addressing the entire crowd while his eyes remain fixed to the teleprompter screens. The head, in other words, is doing one thing, the eyes are doing another, and the intended effect of naturalness is completely undone. You feel as if you’re watching someone worried that a mugger is creeping up on him just beyond his peripheral vision.
Not so with Reagan. Achieving natural effects has never been his problem. Even when he stumbles—“Facts,” he said in New Orleans, with gusto, “are stupid things” — the genuineness that lies at the heart of his political personality never fails to carry over. Nevertheless, his valedictory at the convention was a disappointment. Partly this was caused by the weak sound system in the Superdome, which was particularly unsuited to Reagan’s style; for unlike other effective orators, the President never raises his voice above familiar, conversational levels. But there were other problems as well. The speech was preceded by a video recapitulation of Reagan’s tenure, which reduced eight years of rather substantial achievement to: getting shot; honoring the boys of Pointe du Hoc; getting reelected; flipping the switch that lit up the Statue of Liberty; making a solemn speech after the Challenger blew; and clearing endless acres of brush from his ranch. (The place, incidentally, should be pretty much cleared out by now.)
This of course is what Michael Dukakis would like you to think the Reagan years amounted to. Reagan himself tried to correct the impression by quoting some of his favorite economic statistics, but the bulk of the speech was devoted to sentiment and trumpeting Bush. It fell short here, too. What should have been the killer line — “George was there” — was oddly placed: it followed a segment crediting the Vice President with reducing government-required paperwork “by an estimated 600 million manhours a year.” (George Bush: an office manager for the nineties!) And the prose poem at the end, brimming with sunrises and new days and the like, was swallowed up among the rafters of the cavernous Superdome. What made the old man’s exit graceful and touching, however, was his own spontaneity: at the conclusion of his speech the thousands of balloons fell about him and he gleefully batted them back to the crowd, toward the security guards, at the journalists on the podium, all the while beaming like a kid. Naturalness, as I say, has never been a problem for him.
IF I WERE ASKED to plan a political convention — a request this humble Hoosier is not anticipating — I would follow the Republicans’ blueprint rather than the Democrats’. Not only did the Republicans understand that such a grandly irrelevant event requires great emphasis on superfluities — silly hats, comely security personnel, lots of day trips — they also understood the utility of bars that never close. These particularly came in handy on Thursday night, after Bush’s successful acceptance speech, when the Republicans took to the streets seemingly en masse — to reassess their chances in November, to take stock, to appraise where they’ve been and where they’re going, but mostly to drink rivers of Hurricanes.
The convention was not only a coming-out party for Bush and (less happily) Quayle; it was also of course a farewell to Reagan, whose popularity has allowed the Republican party to recast itself as the party of forwardlookers and boogie monsters. Up and down Bourbon Street that Thursday night his legacy was discussed, usually at high volume and in varying degrees of coherence. This is a party in ferment, so disagreements are frequent and greeted with toleration, but on the subject of Reagan’s stature there was unanimity.
There was also a healthy lack of regret. Reagan’s parting, for all its flaws, avoided the sin of despair. Perhaps this is attributable to Bush’s strong showing, but it is also testament to the party’s resiliency and confidence in itself. On my way back to my hotel Thursday night I got caught up with an animated group of young Alabama Republicans outside Pat O’Brien’s bar. I asked them about Reagan’s farewell, hoping, I suppose, for some suitably sentimental quotes that would place the thing nicely in perspective.
They weren’t biting. “He was a great man,” one of them told me, apparently unaware he was using the past tense. “But we’ve got a good candidate now in Vice President Bush.” He assumed an air of mock gravity and intoned, “We Republicans refuse to dwell on the past.” With that he and his comrades lit into a chorus of “We’ve Only Just Begun.” It sounded terrible, but I got the point. A party of the future, like New Orleans itself, should never call last call.