Harry Shearer

Harry Shearer

A weeklong electronic journal.
Aug. 27 1996 7:28 PM

Harry Shearer

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Episode Two
Tuesday, Aug. 27, 1996
       I did let Day One pass without mentioning Sunday's concert of healing. Hey, it's not my job to make fun of healing, I might need some myself some day. And there was a weird kind of resonance to the family values embodied in this event, in which children (and, in the case of David Dellinger, a grandchild) of '60s activists paid tribute to the tribulations of their elders. These, in all their wackinesses and transformations, seemed much more like the families my friends and I have traveled through than the instruction-manual groupings endorsed in San Diego.
       But, damn it, we did not come all this way through all this time just to hear some more goddamn music from Hair. The show was a meretricious misrepresentation of its time at the time, and now it has entered into popular culture's simulacrum of history as a document of a counterculture. So, let me recall for you my visit to backstage at the Aquarius Theater in the late 1960s, when Hair was in its second year of service to the community. Posted on the bulletin board was a notice to the cast from the director. "Remember," it said in part, "we are a church." Most of the people I knew in the '60s were rebelling against that kind of religionizing of secular experience. The Vietnam War, after all, was a battle against godlessness. For most of us back then, not even the church was a church, let alone a show whose music had more in common with Tommy Roe than with the Stones.
       I feel all better now. And today, the Democrats' SpinTV operation (my name, their idea) was in high gear. On two satellite channels, morning till night, party figures ranging from Bob Reich and Dee Dee Myers to folks whose names mean something in what broadcasters call the secondary markets sat in front of a DNC backdrop and offered the party line. That phrase is used deliberately. This convention, and its lovely matching companion piece in San Diego, have become ritually compared to American television spectacles. But--and please don't mistake me for some network whiner trying to justify my news division's inflexibility by criticizing the newslessness of an event we committed too much money to covering--it's becoming increasingly difficult to differentiate these occasions from the proceedings we used to deride in the old Soviet Union. Televised to rouse the faithful, dissent discouraged, a joyless kind of enthusiasm coursing through the veins of the delegates assembled to rubber stamp decisions made elsewhere--we have become, in this odd way, that which we fought against.
       So here are Dee Dee and Bob and friends trooping in to do their half-hour stints, parceled out in five-minute segments to local stations across the land. Even more than the presidential candidates, who at least have a world to gain, the repetition these folks have to engage in--each new locality calls forth a fresh recitation of the president's accomplishments, and the dangers of a ratified Newt--reminds you just how depressing and mind-numbing this game can be (like a stand-up's tour of comedy clubs without even the promise of laughs) or, alternatively, just how much all these people stand to gain by winning. Is there a third explanation?
       Back on the tracks, Bill Clinton is chugging into Columbus, Ohio. Today, cameras are allowed on board, and I'm treated to a train's-eye view of the president surveying the passing landscape. We even see his sitting area, complete with small TV. It sure looks, from the brief view, as though he's getting CNN on the train, cable without a cable, a technological wonder which deserves, by current standards of informativeness, a full hour of explanation at the convention.
       A clergyman introduces Clinton in Columbus, and takes embarrassing advantage of that tantalizing opportunity to address his remarks not to the audience, but to the president. It is a mark of Clinton's professionalism that only the most hateful observer can imagine him muttering under his smile, "Get off the stage, you Presbyterian windbag."
       Back in Chicago, Kenny G hits the convention hall stage to rehearse. Unshaven, Kenny G looks far less angelic. I don't care if, as we are to learn tonight, he was one of the late Ron Brown's favorite musicians (it is a straight line for which only Bob Grant can provide the blowoff). Kenny's playing is to jazz what Clinton's presidency is to liberalism. Their successes only prove the similarity of their strategies.
       And the diligent satellite viewer can also dip into a forum on social policy, A Conversation with American Families, featuring prominent Democratic leaders and slow-scan video of families around the country. In San Diego, I used to see flyers and press releases for "issues forums" like this one, and, until I remembered that I could see C-SPAN cover these events from the comfort of a hotel bar, I'd feel some vague sense that at such gatherings was the serious meat of the convention being chewed. Judging by today's discussion, a scriptwriter's re-enactment of a conversation too one-sided to have ever actually happened, watching from a continent away with remote control in hand is the only way even to sample this stuff. Rehearsed substance is no substitute for rehearsed fluff.
       Clinton's train ride offers two moments, each ratifying a diametrically opposing view of his capacity for authenticity. After the Columbus rally, the president sheds his coat and starts working the crowd, when a short old woman, no taller than Bob Reich, actually, grabs him by the back of the neck and pulls his head down for a kiss, after which she faints. The next thing you know, the president has escorted her back up to the podium, where he announces to the crowd that she's celebrating her 98th birthday, and leads the assembly in a rendition of "Happy Birthday" for the woman, whose daughter confides that she is a Democrat "all the way." Only Secret Service men are near Clinton as he decides to make this gesture; no Dick Morris is at his ear. The move is corny, and he's probably done it a time or two before, but it looks spontaneous, and it probably either delighted the old woman, or induced a fatal infarction.
       But on the train, the president tells a crowd why he's making this trip: "I wanted to see your faces." Clang. Closer to the mark would be: "The people who make my commercials wanted to see your faces in the same shot with my face. They'll be looking to pull out selected frames from the tape of this appearance, so tuck in your shirts, y'all."
       The convention begins, and right away, a stereotype of liberalism is reinforced. DNC chairman Don Fowler intones the call to the convention, then re-recites it in Spanish. It's a gesture encyclopedic in its emptiness: This is the only part of the evening to be so translated. Plus, Fowler's command of the language is so bad as to make the most uncaring Beverly Hills matron's instructions to her maid sound like a Berlitz tape. Aside from making the English-only crowd grind their teeth, it's hard to think of a purpose for this exercise.
       When you're in a convention hall, you see the profusion of cameras, lined up in rows, with local TV reporters lined up in parallel rows, each facing his or her own lens. Here at the nozzle end of the hose, you can watch the convention proceed in the background of a shot, with your choice of these preeners in the foreground. Almost immediately, you are filled with something resembling pity for the network news directors who undoubtedly get inundated each month with audition tapes from these fine-looking and deep-thinking folks.
       There are also a couple of "pool feeds," master broadcasts of the proceedings even blander than C-SPAN's coverage--fewer cuts to fewer shots, no supers on the screen to tell you who thinks they're who. C-SPAN gives you the crowd chanting "Union, yes"; the pool feed offers the music they're chanting along to.
       Edward James Olmos is the first of the evening's actors to speak to the convention, and he shows the difficulty an actor has in adjusting to this particular stage. Early-evening convention speakers are talking to a crowd that's not even sitting, let alone listening. Up-and-coming politicians take this as part of either their seasoning or their hazing process, and they plow ahead with an eye toward making, if not an impression in the hall, at least a piece of tape they can show at the next fund-raising dinner. But actors' egos are more delicate. They--we--need to be heard. We're not doing this for our health, you know. So Eddie, noticing the crowd is in heavy denial of his existence, starts whistling for their attention. Not a tune, mind you. Just that short, sharp whistle that calls a vagabond dog back from a distant tree. He's whistling the delegates into silence, and verbally guilt-tripping them to listen to him. "I'm talking about the CHILDREN!" he gruffly shouts. My British father-in-law, over here on vacation, suggests that anyone who tried that at a British political gathering would be booed out of the hall. Olmos intimidates the crowd into something resembling an ovation. I stand, you deliver.
       Off momentarily to another "bird," as the satellites are called in the trade, where, just in time, the first Dole-Kemp post-convention 30-second spot is being fed out to the news media. It is called TheThreat. Following on Haley Barbour's presentation of Bill Bennett as chief truth squadder at the GOP's "Chicago Bull" presponse (yes, I'm copyrighting that word, along with "internetaphorical," for such usages as "come visit our site," when you're not moving your ass one inch), this spot picks up the image of the little girl picking petals off a daisy from the 1964 Democratic commercial that sank Barry Goldwater. The danger then, a woman's voice says, was nuclear war. The danger now, she darkens, is drugs. But, hey, wait a minute. The same Bennett who takes the podium as the voice of virtuous outrage against the indiscipline of a boomer administration has publicly admitted to a nicotine addiction, and was widely reported in San Diego to have been seen in the recent past in a condition that might prompt his liver to sue for damages.
       The convention proceedings are enlivened, twice, by an opportunity for the delegates to line-dance to "The Macarena." Once a decade this country is sentenced to an indeterminate term of a Latin dance craze. Those who are too young to remember the Lambada are condemned to repeat it. The second helping of the dance gets one of the biggest hands of the evening. Did grass-roots people really scrimp and save to send these delegates to Chicago so they could do "The Macarena"?
       Who could not be moved by James Brady and his wife Sarah? Well, Paul Weyerich. Here he is, feeding his very own cable channel, National Empowerment Television, and telling the meta-ubiquitous Fred Barnes--I suspect conservative journalists rail against liberal media bias just so they can multiply their own network face time--that he was disgusted by the heart-tugging, both here and in San Diego. Weyerich would, presumably, prefer something intellectual--a photo montage of dead fetuses, perhaps.
       You gotta have two TVs in the same room to pull off this assignment correctly. That way you can, as I did, be watching Christopher Reeve at the convention and Bill Clinton chatting on the train with Paula Zahn simultaneously. Clinton's rapid-fire paradiddles of words serve as the rhythm track for Reeve's halting lead vocal.
       After we've all had a good cry, Cokie Roberts asks Ted Koppel if he would like Jesse Jackson on the program. "He wants to come over and talk to me. No? Okay." Quasi-inevitable conclusion: After all his years of work on the subject, on this night, in Ted's estimation, Jesse is not somebody.
       And on the pool feed, the formal session comes to a close with an ensemble musical number by the cast of Rent. Did we all come this far, over this many years, to have to watch a goddamn '90s version of Hair?