NEW YORK — It seems clear now that the decision to bring the Republican convention to New York was a stroke of pure genius. All in all, it has to be considered a victory for George W. Bush and the Republican Party.
The president’s speech, though interrupted twice by protesters and packed beyond sufferance with Karen Hughes’ inputs, redeemed itself to become a good one. But for a moment or two, it seemed that Republicans’ worst fears of insurrection might be confirmed — there they were, right in the convention hall, eager to have their way. And those few dark moments, which were overcome by a rousing, positive crescendo, mirrored the emotions of the week in New York.
On Tuesday evening, I emerged from Gotham Hall’s Republican reception on Broadway and 36th Street and walked two blocks south into Herald Square, 34th Street and Seventh Avenue, just a block north of Madison Square Garden. The crowds lining the streets were a far cry from the comparative tranquillity of Sunday’s gatherings. When they chanted “Bush Must Go,” it sounded more like “Bush Must Die.” Police barricades were everywhere.
It’s a truth about big cities, and New York especially, that you can walk a few steps and find yourself in a maelstrom from which there is no discernible escape. In this case, it didn’t seem I’d walked more than 50 yards before I was boxed in tight on the sidewalk, pressed in close with the rage of thousands and my own claustrophobia.
I’ve lived in Manhattan for 13 years and attended my share of demonstrations, but I’ve never felt the hostility that was Tuesday evening. The crowd seemed ready to blow. People were packed so tight on the sidewalks that those standing with backs against buildings turned their heads to let people pass. I looked ahead of me to 34th, and behind me to 35th, and never did a city block seem so long. As I moved through it, looking up at the sky to remind myself there was space, I came upon a protester with a sign I couldn’t ignore. It quoted from the infamous August 6, 2001 security briefing warning about al-Qaeda attacks on the United States and its caption read, “President Bush, what part didn’t you understand?”
“So you believe in pre-emption, then?” I asked him.
“Oh, you want to mix it up?” he replied.
“Sure, let’s,” I said, and we moved within the smallest of pockets in the crowds to hash out Afghanistan and Iraq. He was about my age — late thirties — but he had the bug-eyed, frothy passion of the career agitator. “Mixing it up” with me seemed to be the action he needed in life. I did my best to speak in modulated tones, no louder than I needed to, but it didn’t matter. He always responded in shouts.
DURING CONVENTION WEEK a popular cry of the demonstrators was, “This is what Democracy looks like,” but most of the time they showed what mob behavior looks like. If I’ve learned anything from 13 years here, it’s how to spot when trouble is brewing, and so I got out of Herald Square. Trouble did come shortly after: over 900 arrests took place later Tuesday evening, accounting for just over half of the nearly 1,800 people arrested since the end of last week.
The demonstrators have assaulted Republican delegates, hurled objects at cars, and provoked police. They fulfilled at least one of their pre-convention threats, hijacking a delegates’ bus and forcing the police to evacuate it for the safety of the passengers. All the while, they chanted about freedom of speech and President Bush’s repression of same. You could call them hypocrites, or ironists, or, if you’ve lived here long enough, just idiots.
Walking home Tuesday evening, I felt despondent by the size of the crowds, by their contempt even for Laura Bush (many of them had been waiting to “greet” her motorcade), and by their violent hatred for the country. It was finally starting to get to me. Here, in the city of 9/11, the homegrown flotsam and imported jetsam — two-thirds of those arrested through Wednesday night were out of state residents, according to the New York Times — seemed to have taken over. Thankless, ahistorical, self-indulgent, petulant, controlling, they were unworthy of the protection lavished upon them.
But then I watched the Tuesday and Wednesday speeches: Arnold Schwarzenegger’s, so magnificent not even the floozy act of the Bush twins could obliterate it. The majesty and passion of Zell Miller; the adult gravity of Dick Cheney. And Thursday, the president himself.
BUSH AND HIS PARTY HAVE done the two things they were warned not to do by the media and the desperate Democrats: discuss 9/11, and attack the record of John Kerry. They’ve done it over and over again this week. While the protesters outside discredited themselves with deeds, the Republicans inside the Garden did them in with words.
The original inspiration for holding the convention in New York, to recapture the party’s identification with an embattled city, seemed to fade away as the event approached, so tense and hostile had the climate become. But the protesters unintentionally redeemed the idea. By creating a non-lethal reminder of the siege mentality that prevailed after 9/11, the Left re-created the original inspiration for Republican identification with New York. And the Republican response was wonderfully similar — were coming, we’re not afraid, we’ll deal with it.
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