Dispatches From the Republican Convention

I Want To Believe
Notes from different corners of the world.
Aug. 4 2000 11:30 PM

Dispatches From the Republican Convention

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PHILADELPHIA, Thursday, Aug. 3—Not since we first encountered Anna Nicole Smith has the question "Are they for real?" more consumed this nation.

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While at its worst, the GOP's new inclusiveness and social sensitivity is pandering (the 400-foot sombrero on the Mariachi singer tonight being rock bottom); at its best, it's pretty moving. A genuine note of Christian redemption—we have ignored you, O poor and downtrodden, we have shunned your NAACP conventions—was sounded throughout the week. Even cynical reporters found themselves wondering idly whether, maybe—is it too much to hope?—this was more than just a shameless ploy.

Dahlia Lithwick Dahlia Lithwick

Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate

Tonight on the way to the convention, I chat with a black man who works in television. I ask if he believes there's a kernel of authentic redemption in the new GOP. He shakes his head, saying it's all just a commercial. He says the pandering sickened him. "Why can't they spend this money they use trying to fool us refurbishing schools?"

The speculation about the genuineness of George W. Bush's new compassion is reminiscent of how we feel about death-row inmates who claim to have found Christ. We want to believe they've really changed. But mostly, we just go ahead and flip the switch anyhow.

But the Republicans say they really have changed, and the Democrats are wigging out this week because the country is just desperate enough to need to believe it. Now the Dems have to figure out how to communicate the message that they cared about the poor and downtrodden first without looking like a bunch of babies. As if poor minorities are a lunar landing and whoever gets to them first gets to keep them.

Still, it's hard to doubt Gov. Bush's compassion for the burnt-out and the broken tonight.  In his speech he describes the 15-year-old black boy, an "angry, wary kid" he encounters in the Marlin, Texas, jail. He tells of the boy's "haunting" question: "What do you think of me?" And he understands what the kid is really asking: "Is there hope for me? Do I have a chance? ... Do you, a white man in a suit, really care what happens to me?"  Imagine Ronald Reagan giving such a speech. Bush has spoken to a black boy in a jail. But he has not answered the boy's question.

Toward the end of a nearly flawless speech, Bush returns to the boy in jail. And again, he does not tell us whether he answered this boy.

Is the New Sensitivity real or made of silicone? And what if it ruptures and poisons us all? Bush has selected a running mate who's made his feelings about poor children, bullets, and Nelson Mandela pretty clear. But he's building a case for himself as the first Republican presidential candidate in a long time to lie awake nights worrying about the crack babies instead of his chip shot. A black boy in juvie is still a prop—a human version of the 400-foot sombrero. Unless there is an answer for his questions. An answer would have made him—and in turn Gov. Bush—easier to believe in.

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