Originally published in The Stranger on August 22, 1996
Bob Dole is in big trouble.
This wholly unoriginal observation comes to me on my flight to San Diego via Reno, Nevada, "Home of America's Most Depressing Airport." Two little old ladies, identical twin sisters as it turns out, sit next to me on the plane. Alice and Antoinette's resemblance is obscured by the large, dark sunglasses Antoinette is wearing. Three years ago, Antoinette, lost her sight. "I was just driving along the road, when bang. It was like somebody turned the lights out" The sisters have been up in Seattle visiting an eye specialist. "That's visit, you understand. We don't say 'see the doctor' anymore," jokes the blind twin.
I tell them I am headed for the Republican National Convention, and in the best tradition of story-framing coincidences, it turns out that Antoinette was a delegate at the '45 and '52 Democratic National Conventions, and Alice is a lifelong Republican.
Expecting the question could very well end our conversation, I ask Alice and Antoinette what they think of the wrangling over the abortion plank in the Republican Platform. If not for her seat belt, Antoinette would have leapt out of her seat (7E): "Abortion should not be the government's business," thundered the blind, 85-year-old, practicing Catholic clutching the arm I was trying to steady my notebook with. "The government doesn't produce babies, women do. We should have the right to decide for ourselves!"
Antoinette will vote for Clinton this November, even though she doesn't think he's a very good president, "not compared to Truman or Roosevelt, at least." I ask Alice, the 50-year Republican, practicing Catholic, and anti-immigrant rancher, who she thinks she'll vote for "Don't know," she answers. "We'll have to wait and see. Probably Clinton." Bob Dole is in big trouble.
Several hours later, I stroll out of the seedy firetrap called the Hotel San Diego, the only place The Stranger could afford to put me up. The Hotel San Diego is a six-story building, about a hundred years old, and looks every day of it. My room is a rectangular afterthought, wedged into a corner of the fourth floor. There's a cigarette burn on every piece of furniture in the room, no towels in the bathroom, and the ceramic lamp by the bed has been smashed and put back together with packing tape. The lobby is that odd mixture of defeat and resistance that shabby hotels are prone to: the furniture is all threadbare and filthy, but there are fresh bowls of new plastic flowers on every table and counter.
I'm headed for a media reception hosted by the San Diego Union Tribune, in a bayfront park which has been closed to the public in honor of the event. Dozens and dozens of restaurants are plying the assembled media with free chow in the hopes, I guess, of garnering mentions in convention coverage, or maybe, reviews somewhere down the road. Almost everyone handing food to us largely pink media types, and certainly everyone cleaning up after us, is a brown person. Many of these brown people are, doubtless, illegal immigrants. It's restaurant work, after all.
There are lots of anti-immigrant Republican politicians at the party: Trent Lott, Haley Barbour, and California Governor Pete Wilson. Near a table loaded with champagne, I watch an anti-immigration speaker I'd listened to earlier in the day pass an empty plate to a Latino teenager. If this speaker had his way, this teenager probably wouldn't be in the country, let alone working this party. But the speaker doesn't see the busboy. All he knows is that one moment he was holding an empty plate, and the next moment it was gone, whisked away by some invisible force. Some invisible, probably illegal, workforce.
Ironic, ain't it? All over San Diego this week, queers and immigrants in food service will be waiting on, cooking, and mixing drinks for members of the gay-bashing, immigrant-bashing Republican Party. I wonder how many entrees, glasses of water and bowls of ice cream were brought out with a little extra garnish: if you found yourself waiting on a man who wanted to deny citizenship to your American-born children, kick you out of school, and throw your ass back over the border or back into the closet, wouldn't you spit in his food?
After we were all drunk and stuffed, we were treated to a fireworks display. The fireworks and the media reception cost upwards of six or seven million dollars. Meanwhile, it's been four years since The San Diego Union-Tribune's employees have received a raise. I know this because the paper's employees picketed the party, passing out leaflets and asking party-goers to wear a button to show solidarity with the paper's abused staff. I put on the button and walked in. I was the only person at the party wearing the button. No one talked to me.
There are 2000 delegates in San Diego, and 2000 alternates. One out of every four delegates is a member of the Christian Coalition. There are fewer female delegates than in '92, and half as many African American delegates are at this convention than were in Houston—yet if you watched more than one night of convention coverage, you could doubtless pick all 52 African American delegates out of line-up, as they appeared on camera with such distorting frequency. Two-thirds of the delegates are male, and only 3% are nonwhite.
Were it not for the presence of 15,000 members of the media, the Republicans would not have gathered at all. Because the only reason political conventions have survived, despite the fact that nothing actually happens at them anymore, is the desire of both parties to get extensive, free media coverage. If it weren't for me, and my 14,999 colleagues, this made-for-TV infomercial wouldn't exist.
I feel so dirty.
Most of the big media folks are based at the Marriott. The New York Times, Knight/ Ridder, Gannett, The Washington Post, Newsweek, Time, The Los Angeles Times: they've all set up temporary newsrooms in ballrooms and conference rooms all over the hotel. Of course, as the week wore on we discovered that there would be no news to report at this convention. But there we all were, just in case.
Despite the fact that most of the Republican bigwigs and media celebs were staying at the Marriott, throughout the hotel—and throughout the convention for that matter—the security was incredibly lax. The Marriott is right next door to the convention center, and I almost fell over Lamar Alexander at the bar, then turned around and ran smack dab into A.R. Rosenthal of The New York Times, quickly followed by Maureen Dowd, Alan Keyes, and Pete Wilson. Throughout the week I kept a list of VIPs I could've easily assassinated during the Republican National Convention, had I been so inclined. The list grew quite long.
My press credentials, which supposedly could get me access to any area of the convention hall, had no photo, no name, no number, nothing that proved they were my credentials. If someone had stolen them, they could've walked into the convention center and done... anything. Getting these credentials was remarkably easy: we simply sent a letter to the Republican National Committee on Stranger letterhead. I'm sure they'd never heard of us, and our letterhead is no great shakes—just a computer printout.
Any psycho could go over to Kinkos, whip up some letterhead, and get into this convention. Of course, there were metal detectors we had to pass through on the way into the convention center, but plastic guns and knives exist, and, like I said, you didn't need credentials to hang out at the Marriott. "Maybe the convention won't be a complete bust," I thought to myself. "Maybe someone will get killed."
Today we slogged through the only daytime session of the convention. It was at this daytime session (which most people didn't see on television) that the harshest anti-choice platform plank in Republican history was passed, without a peep of dissent from the many moderates. The platform was, according to Henry Hyde, Chairman of the Platform Committee, "...a victory for life, and a victory for life worth living." At the session people held up signs that said things like "Life, the first inalienable right!" and pictures of aborted fetuses.
Four hours later, during prime time, General Colin Powell took the stage. General Powell's party officially backs a constitutional amendment outlawing abortion, with no exceptions: not for rape or incest, not even to save the life of the mother. Nevertheless, tonight Powell was applauded as everybody's favorite pro-choice, pro-affirmative-action Republican.
By far the most exciting thing that happened to me on Monday morning was having Newt Gingrich brush past me. You know, Newt's one butt-ugly piece of work, much more so in person than on TV. On the tube, Newt looks impish, like a fat boy who sticks firecrackers in toads' rear ends; despite his budding sadism, this childlike Newt is still endearing. But in person, he looks like the heavy from a Dickens novel—the gluttonous, cruel manager of a workhouse. Or an orphanage.
Before returning to the convention center to hear Powell speak, I head over to the protest area. Literally on the "wrong side of the tracks," the Officially Designated Protest Area is small parking lot, fenced in by 12-foot-high chainlink, bordered on one side by streetcar tracks. It's a cage. It looks like the playground where Tony died in Maria's arms at the end of West Side Story.
When I arrive, a Latino group is protesting an anti-affirmative action initiative that will appear on the ballot in California this fall. The crowd chants, The People/ United/ Will Never Be Defeated." A nice sentiment, even if in reality The People, united, are defeated with alarming regularity.
The Protest Cage, as it comes to be known, is run on a tight schedule. Groups are booked into the cage for ninety minutes each, and when your ninety minutes are up, you're out. Cops are everywhere to insure that the protesters don't stray from the cage and meander anywhere near the convention itself.
Three boys, dressed identically in khaki pants and blue Oxford-cloth shirts, arrive. They stick out like sore thumbs, even before they hold up their Buchanan signs. They won't answer any questions, they'll only say they're here to "save America." They're quickly surrounded by the protesters, and the cops move in to keep the peace.
While I loathe their motives, their politics, and their haircuts, I admire the guts it takes for these three young Republicans to come into the cage: they've put their white-boy butts on the line (and not bad butts at that). When one is arrested for getting into a shoving match, TV cameras and reporters appear as if from nowhere to cover the scuffle: something is finally happening at the Republican National Convention! Something that isn't supposed to be happening, is happening!
By Monday evening, word in the Media Lounge (free food and drink courtesy of Bell South) is that the convention will be an absolute wash-out, news-wise. Had any of the dozens of groups who'd signed up for slots in the protest cage made an effort to, say, disrupt the convention itself by taking their protest inside—like the Buchanan boys had brought theirs outside—whatever their cause, they would have made the cover of every newspaper and they would've been the top story on every news program. Meanwhile, back at the Convention, Mary Fisher was speaking. Fisher is the Republican Party's designated person-with-AIDS. She spoke at the '92 Republican Convention in Houston. Gee, she's been dying for a long time, hasn't she? At the end of her speech, giving us our first taste of the diversity to come, Fisher was joined at the podium by a young black girl with AIDS, who read a poem that ended with the line "I am the future, and I have AIDS." She also had a nose ring, which made her the first person with a nose ring to speak at a Republican Convention. As nothing happened on that stage without a purpose, it seems pretty clear that the Republicans must have been reaching out to the piercing community. Maybe in 2000 someone will show us their nipple piercings. "I am the future. And I have a hole in my tit."
I walked back into the hall just in time to hear Powell speak, having missed Nancy Reagan, George Bush, and Gerald Ford. In the notes I made before he began, I wrote: "Considering this crowd, if Powell talks about affirmative action and abortion rights, he's a fool; if he doesn't, he's a coward. Either way, he can't win."
The General did mention abortion and affirmative action in his speech, as everyone well knows, but he did so in the most chickenshit way imaginable: he told the room, and the viewers at home, what they already knew. "I support a woman's right to chose an abortion and I support affirmative action...." And that was it. He didn't say why he supports those things, he didn't make a case for other conservatives to support abortion rights. He only told us what we already knew. And then he pointed to his invitation to speak as evidence of the Republican Party's inclusiveness and diversity. Oy-oy-oy!
The black speakers at the convention, and the black delegates, have a special function, similar to the one Fisher will apparently keep playing until she drops dead. The black folks and the AIDS babies are there to provide absolution. Their presence absolves the party from its past and future sins. No matter what the Republican Party platform says, no matter what elected Republican Officials do, no matter what the delegates believe about race, or women, or AIDS, the presence of white women with AIDS, or retired African American Generals, is held up as proof that Republicans are not now, nor have they ever been, racists, AIDS-phobes, or hate-mongers. The delegates weren't applauding for Powell when he finished speaking, they were congratulating themselves.
Later that night, I manage to sneak into a Rock the Vote party thrown by MTV and the Young Republicans at Planet Hollywood. If you've never seen it, watching Republicans dance is an odd, vaguely jarring experience. It's not right, somehow, though you can't quite put your finger on why. Walking home from Planet Hollywood, this is the best I can come up with: watching Republicans dance is like watching dogs swim. They can do it, but only just.
I get up at about 9 a.m. and watch Little Lord Fauntleroy on American Movie Classics—the original, not the Ricky Schroeder re-make. What a cute movie.
Yesterday, I made a huge mistake. I bought a pair of sunglasses. The only store near the convention center selling sunglasses was kinda pricey, and I kinda got swept away by all the privilege and money everywhere, and bought an expensive pair, which was a terrible, ghastly mistake. As I usually lose sunglasses pretty quickly, I don't normally spend much on them. But the expensive glasses are the only ones that don't make me look like The Fly, so I bought them.
I spend the rest of the week in San Diego wondering where my new expensive sunglasses are. Every fifteen minutes or so, I panic and feel for them in my pockets, on my head, in my bag. Maybe the reason I always lose sunglasses is because I always buy cheap ones, glasses I don't feel bad about losing. Well, now I've purchased an expensive pair, and I don't think I'll ever lose them, as I now live in a near-constant state of where-are-my-sunglasses panic.
I put my sunglasses on and wander over to the media lounge in the Marriott. I eat the free pretzels, drink the free beer, read the free papers and watch George Stephanopoulos and Ralph Heed duke it out on CNN's Crossfire. They're arguing about abortion, about the influence of the Christian Coalition, about whether the party is "tolerant," or whether this inclusive, diverse convention is a sham.
George and Ralph would make a really cute couple—they'd be the gay Mary Matalin and James Carville. "They disagree about everything, but they're in love!" If they were a kinky couple—and they'd pretty much have to be, wouldn't they?—George would look better in a dog collar than Ralph, as a nice strong jawline is required to really work a dog collar, but of the two. Ralph would be much likelier to get off wearing one. We know about those conservatives and their kinks, don't we?
Why am I sharing all this with you? Well, because AMC, my sunglasses, and the idea of George and Ralph dragging each other around the room on leashes are all infinitely more interesting than anything that's going on at this convention.
Tonight Liddy Dole played Oprah, and in a surprising move, the assembled delegates voted to nominate Bob Dole for prezidenoftheunistaysamerica, and Jack Kemp for Vice President.
The most interesting part of the proceedings was the endless parade of "proud disabled Americans" that walked or rolled across the stage in support of Bob Dole. Miss America, who is deaf, spoke for Dole, and mocked Clinton, which is the first time I think I've ever seen a Miss America, deaf or hearing, involve herself in the down and dirty of party politics. Listening to Miss America mouth her scripted Clinton gags, in her deaf-person's voice, was odd, to say the least. Next up, a cop paralyzed from the neck down, followed by a veteran with no legs and only one arm. Each said basically the same thing: Bob Dole's overcoming his war injury made him better qualified to lead this country than Bill Clinton, who has never, to his political detriment, been blown to bits, shot through the neck, gone deaf, been struck blind, etc.
I half expected Miss America to roll on a cart full of severed arms and legs, the leftovers from TWA Flight 800. "The people to whom these arms and legs belonged would understand that being blown to smithereens is a character building experience," Miss America would slur, "...and had they survived the crash, I'm sure they would have voted for Bob Dole."
After Liddy Dole spoke, the "Roll Call of the States" commenced. I wandered upstairs, past Henry Kissinger, Pat Robertson, and Christine Todd Whitman, to the Republican Shopping Mall/ Food Court. Some highlights: black velvet paintings of Dole, Reagan, and Bush ($300), the limousine from the Nixon Library, cans of Coke ($2.50), forty-dollar T-shirts, buttons, books, and "Ditch the Bitch" bumper stickers with pictures of Hillary Clinton on them.
Back on the floor, the voting continued. It may interest you to know that, in addition to the delegates, there were also about a thousand Young Republicans on the floor who'd been coached on how and when to cheer for their man, Bob. The point of the entire convention, when it comes right down to it, is not nominating the nominee, or passing a platform, but demonstrating to the rest of the country that the Republicans are honestly and truly excited by Dole. After all, he got blown up once, fifty years ago, and what could be more exciting than that?
Writer Michelangelo Signorelle is covering the convention for Out magazine. He and I spend today together, shooting the shit, eating nachos and snickering through a Log Cabin Club press conference. We agree that, while the convention has been a bullshit waste of time, we're glad we came for one simple reason: where else would we get to pester and annoy Phyllis Schlafly, Pat Robertson, and Ralph Reed? Gay and lesbian reporters can't get near these people normally, but in the convention hall, we can run right up to them, stick a tape recorder in their faces and ask, "Why are you such a prick?" and there ain't a thing they can do about it. We've got press credentials.
Bob Dole speaks tonight. For three days, speaker after speaker has heaped messianic praise on Bob Dole's withered shoulders. He's not only going to cut our taxes, balance the budget, and preserve Medicare and social security, at the same time as he miraculously throws more money into defense—he is also going TO SAVE THE WORLD! "Bob Dole! Bob Dole! Bob Dole!" chant the delegates, front and center, going ape-shit crazy, whoopin' and hollerin' on cue for Our Man Bob.
Our man Bob. Bob Dole, that is, the very same candidate almost knocked off by Buchanan in the primaries, rejected by Republican voters in his presidential bids in '80 and '88. Our Man Bob, whose '96 campaign has been so disastrous that conservative pundits, including nationally syndicated columnist Cal Thomas, have called for him to step aside. This same Bob Dole, we are now supposed to believe, is not just the obvious choice, by virtue of his war injuries, long years of service, upbringing, and values, but the only choice. It's obvious now even to the men who ran against him. Why it wasn't obvious to them, say, five months ago, no one is saying.
When Dole finally enters, after a half dozen mini-speeches, Kemp's speech, and a video about his life, Signorelle and I head into the delegate pit to watch the speech. After the three-day build up, his entrance is received with absolutely orgasmic reactions. Little old ladies are standing on their chairs shrieking his name—you'd think Elvis had entered the building.
The best received sections of Dole's speech concerned Dole's proposed 15 percent tax cut. "I will cut your taxes, 15 percent!" he screamed, slapping the podium with his good left hand. Dole then blasted away at Bill Clinton's '92 tax hike—the tax hike that halved the deficit by raising the taxes of only the wealthiest 1.5 percent of American taxpayers. This fact didn't stop Dole, or anyone else who spoke at the convention, from claiming that Clinton's tax hike was harming America's "working families." Americans are of course, the least taxed citizens of any industrialized Western democracy. But Dole was playing to his audience; one out of every five delegates in the room was a millionaire—"working families" who were feeling the pinch of Clinton's tax hike.
When Dole finishes speaking, the room goes crazy: this is the Republicans' last chance to convince the viewer at home that this man is electable, that his "plan" for America makes sense, that "we're excited about Dole, and you should be too!" Balloons drop, Kemp and Dole hold hands, and everyone dances around the podium.
Before leaving the convention center, I run back up to the Shopping Mall. I want a T-shirt, one of those forty-dollar jobs, but I'm torn: whatever money I spend will end up in Republican Party "coffers," war chests, slush funds, etc. If I buy a T-shirt, Bob Dole will be forty dollars closer to being President, and if he wins in November, I won't be able to sleep at night. But I really want one, and I promised the publisher of The Stranger that I'd bring him a souvenir, so... I buy two shirts.
Feeling tremendously guilty—eighty dollars! and where am I going to wear the damn thing? to bed? my boyfriend wouldn't speak to me—I decide to redeem myself in some small way. I go back into the shopping mall and steal a third shirt, a baseball hat, and a kitchen magnet, hoping that the three things I've shoplifted will more than cancel out whatever profit the Republicans made on my purchase. I would've also stolen an Official 1996 Republican National Convention Nipple Ring, but there wasn't one for sale. Maybe at the ever-more-inclusive, ever-more-diverse Republican Party Convention in the year 2000, I can pick up a GOP nipple ring. If there's room enough for pro-choice, pro-affirmative action Colin Powell in this big tent, then lord knows there ought to be room enough for people with holes in their tits.