Thursday, Aug. 29, 1996
The year was 1968. Blood was flowing in the streets of Chicago. And I was--no, sorry, I was nowhere near Chicago. In fact, since political rhetoric has now entered its terminal, confessional phase, it's time for me to come clean: I may be the only member of my generation who didn't, until the recent clearance sale from the tape archives, even have a visual memory of the '68 convention melee. I was in Europe for the summer, ending two years of school-teaching in Compton as an alternative to Vietnam. My memories of the last Chicago convention are of reading one-paragraph, end-of-news-from-USA summaries in the InternationalHeraldTribune while sitting in Paris cafes, sipping espressos. Some days later, or earlier--hey, I'm a diarist, not a journalist--I was in Prague, attending Dubcek rallies and then getting out of the country, through blind luck, just before the Russians came in. This summer the Chicago police are trained and determined to prevent the Russians from re-entering Prague.
Sorry. Reminiscence in the pursuit of relevance is no vice. I'm just caught up in the general infogeist, which is finding that the most newsworthy thing about this week is the fact that it's 28 years later than another week. It's the kind of magical media thinking that became familiar to us in Los Angeles a couple of years ago, when the national press camped out to await the second Rodney King verdict, just in case the outcome triggered another riot.
I'm making the Republican elephant-and-pony show the first stop each morning on my satellite rounds. There's something about Haley Barbour, ringmaster of these daily replies to the Democratic line, that reminds me why, in 1967, I was scared to drive through Mississippi. Today, he's joined by Henry Hyde, who chaired the GOP Platform Committee in San Diego. Hyde must have been a kitten killer in another life to have gotten that job, but here he is, saying in response to a question about Bob Dole's well-advertised failure to read the product of Hyde's labors that at the time Dole made that comment, the platform wasn't all together as one document yet, it was a bunch of papers, and even he, Hyde, hadn't read "it" yet. But he reassured his questioner that Dole has certainly read the platform by now. Kemp, too. Enterprising reporters can follow this up. I choose to take it at face value. More fun that way.
Speaking of Dole, he is in Ventura, at an anti-drug rally. The Dole people, according to the WashingtonPost, have poll figures telling them that the drug issue plays well for Republicans, so here is the candidate, flanked by California Attorney General Dan Lungren and, more surprisingly, by the recently forgotten man, Gov. Pete Wilson. Apparently, if drugs are used by teen-agers in large enough numbers, they can make ghosts reappear. Lungren reads a sheaf of statistics about youthful drug use that are all percentage increases. This is a tip-off that the actual level is still remarkably small, which makes the startling percentage increase in drug usage (from .02 to .08 percent, for example) easy to explain. Perhaps it just coincided with the release of the latest Cypress Hill CD.
Also, Pete Wilson has been governor of California throughout the period of this reported "explosion" (Lungren's word) in drug use. Doesn't any of this rub off on him?
Dole takes the podium, and gives a textbook example of why his handlers don't want him ad-libbing. The boilerplate sections of his remarks are terse, their segues from point to point at least plausible, if not always compelling. But Dole starts riffing, and his first effort ends up echoing that African proverb of Hillary Clinton's (the African who thought it up must by now be kicking himself for having conceived of it): If drugs are the problem, Dole said, "then parents are the answer, schools are the answer, law enforcement is the answer ... everybody's the answer." If everybody's the answer, who's the question?
Are there people at this point in Dole's sightline, waving frantically at him to get back on text? If so, he doesn't see them. "Let's not have drug treatment," he barks. "Let's have prevention, prevention, prevention, prevention." He's gotten into the habit, since San Diego, of repeating things, words or phrases that recur, not like the well-spaced refrains of a Jesse Jackson (or even, later tonight, a Chris Dodd), more like the incessant beeping of a garbage truck in reverse. But then, the topper: "Don't get me wrong, we'll still have treatment."
At the same time, but in a far different key, Jack Kemp is visiting a Boys' and Girls' Club in L.A. This guy is good. He's able to end the session by saying to the assembled kids and black-community entrepreneurs, "Thank you all for what you've taught me today," and not make it sound like the most insultingly condescending remark since, "You folks sure can dance." But, in another compelling proof of incumbency's advantage, neither Dole nor Kemp has a prayer of live coverage. Both news networks are at this moment carrying yet another Clinton train-side speech. If you only saw one of these things, you might be impressed when he interrupts his remarks to notice that an older member of the audience seems to be having trouble with the sun, the heat, the wait, and says, "You need a doctor? We need a doctor over here. We need a doctor, and my medical team." You might be less impressed if, like me, you had seen all of these appearances, and had seen him make this move at virtually every one. Since the camera never panned off the president to find the purported victim, there may never even have been a troubled elder. But, as above, I choose face value. We've gone, in less than four years, from a major overhaul of the health-delivery system to the president personally calling in CPR for you. This is progress.
Not to be outdone by Peter Jennings, today brings Dan and Tom doing exclusive interviews with their affiliates. What these guys think is presented as news. That would be depressing, if you didn't know that each of these segments forces off the air a story about a bloody assault at a convenience store. Dan mounts the by-now-obligatory defense of being in Chicago: If the process of choosing the president of the United States isn't news, what is? Just an hour after he shares this insight, the delegates are encouraged to engage in their daily pursuit of the Macarena.
Over the first two days, some lulls between speeches (the lulls are the parts where no one is at the podium) have been filled by what look like film clips of Franklin D. Roosevelt. That is to say, they're in black and white, and if you were blind and squinting, the guy in the shot would look something like FDR. Nobody explained why they didn't get the real footage, since all the quotes had been captured on familiar newsreel clips, but today part of the mystery is solved. The FDR imitator appears live on stage, walking with crutches, wearing the obligatory glasses and cigarette holder, so we know who he's supposed to be. He's doing jokes, written as if Roosevelt had Al Gore's gag writer. This routine nicely illustrates the difference between crippled and lame.
The Clinton people, knowing that their train ride is about to end, let a pool camera shoot the president's view of the passing countryside. He has stretched the metaphorical potential of this trip way past its limit. At every stop, he has proclaimed that "not only is this train on the right track for Chicago, but we're on the right track for the 21st century."
Now we see what's along that track, and, to be kind, it's no Grand Canyon. It's suburban Michigan (his early stop of the day featured the president taking a short spin in the 2 millionth Jeep Cherokee) and Indiana, and it's flat and, to be kind, occasionally green.
I know this is supposed to be a convention diary, but my attention gets hijacked for a couple of hours by a feed that suddenly appears from what is obviously a black church. There's some singing, then some more singing, and finally, as one does with these unnarrated slices of reality, I figure out what I'm watching: O.J. Simpson dropping by a church in Our Nation's Capital. Before this thing is over, O.J. has slipped on a blue-and-gold African robe, surprising both because his sartorial style always seemed to lean more in the direction of youthful Swiss banker, and because blue and gold are the colors of UCLA, and Juice went to USC. One of the women who put this event together says challengingly: "People keep asking me, why O.J.? I ask them, why not O.J.?" I yell at my set, "Because he's a fucking murderer and wife-beater, that's why," but the satellite setup, while long on immediacy, is short on interactivity.
Back in Chicago, Al Gore is going confessional, relating the story of his sister's death from cigarette-caused lung cancer. Look, I will stipulate that tragedy is bad, and preventable tragedy should be prevented. There's just not enough time to hear the sob stories of every single American citizen. We all have them, and they can all motivate a hearer to shed tears. Can we move on now? There is a defective syllogism at work here, best illustrated by the show I saw at New York's Bottom Line a few years ago. Joey Dee, who hit the charts in the early '60s with "The Peppermint Twist," was making an abortive attempt to revive his career with the aid of his new, young, ambitious wife, Lois Lee. For his closing number, "Shout," Joey was joined onstage by a dwarf, who engaged in a round of frantic push-ups with Joey while the song crescendoed its way to a close. Over the applause, the dwarf stood up, reached for the microphone, and said: "Ladies and gentlemen, I've had a hard life. So put your hands together for Joey Dee and Lois Lee."