A Week at the RNC: Inside and Out

It was the largest demonstration in American history ever to greet a national political convention. On Sunday, as the Republicans prepared to launch a week-long media extravaganza in Madison Square Garden, over 400,000 protesters, blanketing two miles of Manhattan’s avenues, stole the Party’s spotlight. It was a quake whose aftershocks were felt in dozens of smaller actions throughout the following days. As an opening reception it announced that there would be two beats during the week of convention, one covering the speeches made inside the auditorium and one covering the outraged New York that lay beyond.

I had worried in the weeks before, as the police stoked fear and the mayor denied permits, that turnout for Sunday’s demonstration would be low. New York residents and visiting counter-delegations alike put my worries at ease. The march’s banner, “The World Says No to the Bush Agenda,” was broad enough to unite a wide array of anti-Bush voters and activists opposing the continued occupation of Iraq. Walking on that sunny afternoon, I saw marchers’ emotions range from angry to hopeful and resolute. I saw demeanors span from irreverent to solemn. “Yee-Haw is not a Foreign Policy,” said one sign. “Victims of Terror Are Not Campaign Props,” said another. One man carried an “Electoral Map of the World” with a few places like Texas, Saudi Arabia, and Australia marked as red states; the remaining globe was covered in a sea of blue.

To my mind, a procession of 1,000 coffins formed the most impressive part of the assembly. Nine hundred and sixty symbolic caskets draped with American flags represented U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq, and 40 more in simple black remembered all the others who have died in the occupation. At the end of the march, I sat on a curb and watched for twenty minutes as the pallbearers slowly paced by.

That evening, I flipped through the television news coverage. Stories of the protest led on all of the major networks. NBC’s top feature showed the march of coffins and profiled anti-war military families in the demonstration who had lost sons and daughters in Iraq. Following that story, the images in the program’s remaining segments seemed to carry new meaning: a shot of Dick Cheney inspecting the staging at Madison Square Garden; scenes of delegates on their way to a Broadway show. Before the march, some had predicted that Republicans would use footage of protests, rarely popular with the electorate, to advance their own agenda. If this was the case, one thousand coffins was clearly not what Karl Rove had in mind.

* * *

On Monday, I went as a journalist to the Garden to interview delegates. The Republicans were generally warm and enthusiastic about speaking with me, even though I forthrightly indicated I was writing for a leftist audience. Butch Davis, a delegate from Houston, Texas, offered this message for progressives: “Reexamine what you believe.” He said, “If you do believe in socialism, if you believe in gay marriage, if you believe in higher taxes, then stay a Democrat. If you don’t believe in those, you’re welcome to come on over.”

He then explained to me Hillary Clinton’s socialist politics: “She wrote the book, It Takes A Village. So her concept is that mother and father don’t raise the child, government raises the child, society raises the child. She’s socialistic from the word ‘go.'”

He showed such high spirits; I felt sorry to inform Butch Davis that, as much as I might wish otherwise, Hillary Clinton is not a socialist.

I have heard many stories of progressives, even longtime critics of the Democratic Party, being thoroughly charmed upon meeting Bill Clinton. I had never heard a parallel story about George W. Bush’s interpersonal powers until Hershelle Kann, an ex-Democrat from Bay Shore, Long Island, told me about meeting the president at a Washington gala. Ms. Kann described the encounter:

“I said, ‘It is a pleasure shaking your hand, Mr. Bush. And I want you to know that I am a Democrat who is voting for you this year.’

“He said to me, ‘You’re an American. You’re an American.'”

She continued, “There’s a warmth, caring, and respect that he has for Americans… all of us. He’s a deeply religious man who loves his family. He loves this country. He’s one of the people.”

As a New York Republican, Hershelle Kann disagreed with the president on gay rights, on gun control, and on stem cell research. She was in the minority. Those I spoke with inside the convention represented a corps of militantly conservative foot soldiers, steadfast in their belief that tax cuts were equitable and that weapons of mass destruction will yet be found, in Syria if not in Iraq. This divide was replicated in the convention as a whole. While moderates like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Rudolph Giuliani spoke in prime time, the likes of Rick Santorum and Trent Lott spent days shaping one of their Party’s most conservative platforms ever. A headline in The New York Times read, “Party Centrists Find Places on Stage, but not on Agenda”

To be fair, the Democrats also play to the center. Facing an Electoral Collage in which the representatives of swing states are the only ones left who matter, the Kerry campaign has put on its most moderate face. The language used at the two party conventions was often identical. As I was talking with delegates, a speaker on the podium, a Republican Congressional hopeful, railed against the “politics of fear,” presumably pursued by the Democrats. “We believe in the politics of hope,” he said.

Whatever the similarity in rhetoric, however, there is a difference in the parties’ posturing. An anti-war plank did not make it onto the Democrat’s platform. Democratic National Committee chair Terry McAuliffe took pains to disavow the convention protesters. The opposition party has largely internalized its centrism. The Republicans have not. Their world view constricts even the possibility of resistance. Hillary Clinton (Yale Law) and John Kerry (Skull and Bones) embody socialism, while George W. Bush (Skull and Bones) stands as a patriotic man of the people. The only direction to go is right.

* * *

Outrage at the Bush administration in New York ran not only deep, but wide. For every cocktail party, pro-life breakfast, or black-tie fundraiser that the Republican delegates soaked up during the week, there was a march, a poetry reading, or a civil disobedience somewhere in the city challenging their agenda. This year, New York’s Central Labor Council cancelled its Labor Day parade and opted instead for an anti-Bush rally on Wednesday. Union members filled seven blocks of Eighth Avenue–the same ground where there was a spirited march of 20,000 two days before, organized by community-based organizations including the New York City AIDS Housing Network, Make the Road by Walking, and Mothers on the Move.

At the labor rally, among the teachers, health care attendants, hotel workers, janitors, and ironworkers was actor James Gandolfini–better known as Tony Soprano. His address to the crowd suggested that he will not be voting Republican this year: “I just wanted to say, I can’t tell you how mad I am at these people who are in our city. I can’t tell you how mad I am that I have to walk around like a rat in a little maze to get somewhere.”

The caging of dissent–the NYPD’s infamous, and ubiquitous, protest pens–formed only part of the problem. As much as the pundits tried to make the week a re-staging of 1968, it was not. Even Tuesday, “A31,” a day reserved for more radical direct action, organizers overwhelmingly announced their intention to adhere to nonviolent civil disobedience. As it turned out, police would not allow them the opportunity to act at all. The New York Times described “a near-zero tolerance policy for activities that even suggest the prospect of disorder.”

Mere suggestion became a crime. The police arrested nearly 1,000 people on Tuesday alone, a large number of them “preemptively.” On 42nd Street, three people told by the police that they could hold a banner on the steps of the public library (but not hang it on one of the library’s famous stone lions) were quickly arrested for holding a banner on the steps of the public library. A half dozen scruffy-looking bystanders were grabbed as well. Leaving from Ground Zero, some three hundred people in a march led by the War Resisters League and School of the Americas Watch–having been told that they could march on the sidewalk, two by two, in remembrance of victims of war and terror–were promptly arrested for walking down the sidewalk, two by two.

My own group, which included the two-year old daughter of a friend, would have been rounded up and arrested in the procession from Ground Zero had we been just a few places further up in line. Instead, we were pushed back with the rest of the crowd. As we watched the arrests, I spoke with Don Peterson, a Republican conventioneer at the site. He took the position that, if the police are arresting them, the demonstrators must have done something wrong. This is American justice. “If you don’t like it,” he told me, “then sue them.”

* * *

I went back to the convention on Wednesday and Thursday night to listen to the speeches. Being present in those stands was a profoundly alienating experience. More than hearing distortions presented as fact, it was watching first hand the dancing on the convention floor and sitting through the standing ovations that brought home for me a sense that the pageant could have dire consequences. The veneer of friendly disagreement that characterized my personal interactions with the delegates had evaporated. As the speakers talked about the people whom they were “empowering,” I could no longer accept that they acted on noble intentions. I knew I was surrounded by adversaries, and I sat uneasily among them.

At their convention, the Democrats largely refrained from attacking the president, lest they be labeled hateful Bush-bashers. The Republicans pulled no such punches. While I support John Kerry’s candidacy as the best option for progressives in this election, I have never signed up for his fan club. Nor have I been awed by him personally. I once watched him speak on the campaign trail and left the event feeling less optimistic about the Democrat’s prospects for victory than when I had arrived.

My feelings about Kerry changed somewhat during this convention. I saw the way in which speakers invoked his name with revulsion, the way they enumerated his failings without fear of ever being held to account. (“He voted for tax hikes 98 times,” said the Republican Governor of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney, while his Lt. Governor, deploying a new set of implausible numbers, charged that Kerry “voted against tax cuts for American families 121 times.”) I sat by myself, feeling isolated, watching the bullies at work, and I grew to like the junior Senator from Massachusetts a good deal more than I had before.

Earlier in the week, President Bush caused a wave of media fanfare by indicating that he did not think the war on terror could be won. Within a day, he flipped back on the question. But in that revealing moment, as well as in some subsequent “clarifications,” Bush and his handlers confirmed an unsettling truth: That, if given the opportunity, the hawks will pursue a perpetual war, a war spanning generations. “The president was not signaling a change in policy,” White House officials assure us.

On Thursday night, I listened to President Bush invoke his “compassionate conservatism.” He promised to transform “our most fundamental systems–the tax code, health coverage, pension plans, worker training.” And he vowed to stay “on the offensive” militarily. The audience roared.

After the speech, I walked out onto 32nd street. There was a protest a few blocks away and a candlelight vigil in Union Square. I remembered the electoral map of the world. If it was dispiriting to feel small and isolated among the Republicans, it is heartening to remember that, in a larger sense, it is the Republicans who sit isolated among us. The majority of humanity opposes George W. Bush, just as the majority of this nation voted against him. The thought made me feel better for a while. Then I remembered the coffins, and I thought of the work that we have before us.

MARK ENGLER, a writer based in New York City, can be reached via the web site http://www.DemocracyUprising.com.


MARK ENGLER is author of How to Rule the World: The Coming Battle Over the Global Economy (Nation Books, April 2008). He can be reached via the web site http://www.DemocracyUprising.com