The Souls of White Folk

Only at an NBA game have I seen so many white people crowd into a sports arena to applaud so enthusiastically the performance of such exceptionally talented black people. Negro Night at the First Union Center in Philadelphia was so over the top that even the most cynical political observers found it entertaining. Just as viewers concluded that testimonials from inner-city minority entrepreneurs, followed by performances of black gospel groups, followed by performances of black R&B groups, followed by testimonials of black R&B singers who had become leaders in rebuilding the inner city, couldn’t be topped, a real-time, interactive broadcast of a rocking, singing, sanctified, inner-city, African-American, Baptist congregation appeared on the giant video screen in the convention hall.

Was the convention itself an homage to Lincoln – the last Republican president to offer a programmatic solution to problems confronted by blacks in America? Had we missed a complete transformation of the Grand Old Party, and was African-American Congressman J.C. Watts of Oklahoma really running the show?

Well, not hardly.

This is not to suggest that there were no African Americans on the convention floor. The 124-member Texas delegation included one black delegate: LaMarque teacher Geraldine Sam, who told me she left the Democratic Party because it takes black voters for granted and offers too few innovative solutions to the challenges she faces in the classroom – two complaints Democrats ought to be listening to.

There were also Hispanic delegates, but not so many as viewers would be lead to believe two days later on Mexican Night, when San Antonio Congressman Henry Bonilla would take the place of Congressman Watts. That evening of programming included at least one speech delivered entirely in Spanish (with subtitles for the few monolingual delegates who couldn’t keep up) and looked very much like Univisión’s “Sabado Gigante” – with less cleavage. When the ageless Vicente Fernández walked onto stage in full mariachi drag, for four minutes of ay, ay, ay, ay singing, he was perhaps the only person in the convention hall dressed with more folkloric panache than the Texas delegates. “He’s left the PRI and joined the Republican Party,” said Político publisher James García.

The Republican Party, and George W. Bush in particular, understand electoral demographics and are reaching out to minority communities. Yet the demographic snapshot The New York Times provided of the delegates on the floor suggests the party has a ways to go. Of the 2,066 delegates, 89 percent were white, 6 percent were Latino, 4 percent were black, and 2 percent Asian. And while it’s a safe bet that most of the congregants at Reverend Herbert Lusk’s Greater Exodus Baptist Church in North Philadelphia are barely thousandaires, the Times found that one in five of the delegates at the Republican convention are millionaires.

In eight short years, the Repubs have come from the Convention of Hate in Houston to the Summer of Love in Philadelphia. Yet this convention was not, as some critics complained, lacking in substance. It was packed with substance not normally associated with politics, elections, and policy. It was not pop entertainment encroaching on politics, but rather the calculated appropriation of pop entertainment by politics. Every detail was carefully calculated, from the content of the shortest speech by the most minor bit player to the rate of release of the synthetic, hypo-allergenic smoke used to make the convention hall look like a convention hall. Every theme was uplifting. Every message was upbeat and positive. Even Bush’s speech, as his campaign press secretary Karen Hughes teased reporters on the afternoon of her boss’s big night, would include only gentle, humorous criticism of Al Gore.

And it’s all market driven. Shortly after Newt Gingrich’s politics of coarseness and confrontation helped re-elect Bill Clinton in 1996, Republican pollsters like Frank Luntz began to learn through polls and focus groups that the public was turned off by negative politics. So Luntz – who stopped by the Tuesday Texas delegation breakfast to embrace Senator Phil Gramm and give the delegates a few pointers on dress and behavior – turned the party on to “the Politics of Pleasantry.” The Republican agenda, Luntz told the Texans on the second day of the convention, was best advanced by the gentle chiding and simple anecdotes of Ronald Reagan. When talking to reporters, don’t cite facts, Luntz told the delegates. Tell stories. Luntz even provided tips for casual styles of dress that make delegates more sympathetic to television viewers. So the consultant who helped draft Gingrich’s Contract With America became one of the architects of a convention that kept Gingrich and other Republican heavies – such as House Whip Tom DeLay and House Majority Leader Dick Armey – far from the stage at First Union Center in South Philadelphia.

A woman’s right to abortion is one issue that illustrates the influence of Luntz on the party. Luntz has repeatedly advised Republicans to avoid the issue, which he warns is a “lose-lose proposition.” So in a convention where every speech was vetted by the Bush team, talk of restrictions on abortion was banned during primetime hours – until Bush addressed it in two lines of his acceptance speech. Yet early on the first day of the convention, when it was hard to attract even a C-SPAN camera crew, Nebraska Attorney General Don Stenberg said what many in the party believe. In a brief speech, Stenberg said he took his state’s anti-abortion ban all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court: “We lost by a 5-4 vote. But George Bush will appoint Supreme Court justices that will turn that vote around.”

So convincing is Luntz’s argument on abortion, however, that even the religious right has accepted it, reaching something of a tacit agreement to behave as long as Bush will deliver if he is elected. “Don’t ask Governor Bush about abortion,” said Reverend Jerry Falwell in an interview conducted in the aisle behind the New York delegation. Falwell, described by the National Journal as “looking well-fed” (porcine is a more suitable adjective for the father of the Moral Majority), was holding forth while three or four reporters took notes. “Don’t ask him questions about are you going to appoint pro-life justices. Because if he answers the question yes, then he blows away millions of votes. If he answers the question no, then he blows away another million votes. Don’t ask him the question. Don’t make him answer it. Pray for him. Vote for him.”

Falwell didn’t get a lot of airplay, but anyone watching the convention on TV probably saw a lot of Texas Republican Party Chair Susan Weddington. With her vice chair, David Barton (founder and president of the WallBuilders, a group opposed to the separation of church and state) Weddington was often at the front of one state delegation the TV cameras couldn’t resist. In 1994, Weddington was elected vice-chair and in 1998 chair of the party, with the strong backing of the anti-abortion Christian right. And long before she was elected to lead the party, she was a vocal anti-abortion (and anti-gay-rights) activist in San Antonio, where she worked for the multi-millionaire right-wing party funder James Leininger. Weddington is confident that the party and George W. Bush have not abandoned the fight against abortion rights.

“It may not be the focus of as many speeches as it has been,” Weddington said in an interview, “but our fundamental support of the life issue is the same.” She predicted that the party’s goals on restricting abortion will not be achieved “all at once or over night.” “But Republican governors have been signing legislation providing reasonable restrictions on abortion – parental notification and waiting periods. And the earth hasn’t come to an end. It’s time to talk about other issues,” Weddington said, citing “economic security for women, a responsible approach to protecting the environment, education.”

So successful was the convention at diffusing the party’s conservative message that by the final morning six of the thinktankers who provide the party’s intellectual undergirding scheduled a press briefing to inform reporters that the party had not moved to the center. David Keene of the American Conservative Union reassured reporters that the Republican Party has not abandoned the goals set by Ronald Reagan. In fact, Keene said, the party has moved even farther to the right than it was when Reagan left office. “The A.C.U. did a poll of the delegates and found that they are more conservative than delegates at previous conventions and that they are more united now that they have a conservative running mate for a presidential candidate who already delighted them, with Dick Cheney.” For conservatives, this is the perfect package, Keene said: “a conservative ticket, conservative convention delegation, and a conservative platform.”

Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform was equally enthusiastic, taking to task critics who had described George W. Bush’s proposals as moderate. “Who would have ever imagined a candidate who would support privatizing social security, eliminating the death [estate] tax, reforming our tort law, cutting taxes, and building S.D.I.?” Norquist said.

Such was the genius of the convention organized by Bush strategist Karl Rove and convention consultant Ed Gillespie that conservatives had to convene a rump press conference to reassure themselves that the soft message of the convention had little to do with the hard values of the party. Luntz’s politics of pleasantry, they seemed to be saying, does not predict what the party would do if it controlled the presidency and both houses of Congress. It is, rather, an indicator of what the party is willing to do to sell to the niche market that will decide the election – a market dominated by suburban women, independents, lapsed Republicans, and Hispanics.

It was a brilliant dumb show, broadcast over the heads of the cheering delegates on the floor and into the living rooms of potential voters expected to buy the oxymoronic marketing message packaged as “compassionate conservatism.”

I loved every minute of it.

Former Observer editor Louis Dubose spent several of his formative years in South Philadelphia. He is the author, with Molly Ivins, of Shrub: the Short But Happy Political Life of George W. Bush.

Lou Dubose was editor of The Texas Observer from 1987-1999. He’s authored five books, including the best-seller Shrub with Molly Ivins. He currently edits The Washington Spectator.

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Published at 12:00 am CST