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A Times Editorial

George W. Bush's show

This week's Republican convention has been carefully scripted to avoid rancor and surprises. Still, attentive observers may learn something about the candidate.

Revised August 8, 2000

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 30, 2000

Republicans will convene in Philadelphia on Monday to open a tightly scripted media extravangza culminating in the formal nomination of George W. Bush as their candidate for president. Unlike four years ago, when the party suited up Bob Dole for a battle the faithful sensed was already lost, Republicans are upbeat and confident this time, convinced that the Texas governor is poised -- even destined -- to reclaim the White House his father lost to Bill Clinton in 1992. Only once before have a father and son been elected president (John Adams and John Quincy Adams).

The 2000 Republican National Convention, held in the City of Brotherly Love, is designed to project the image of a unified party, a kinder, gentler one, rallying behind their presidential standard-bearer in a spectacle so lacking in drama, suspense and spontaneity, the wonder is that anyone will pay attention. Bush bills himself as "a different kind of Republican," and he wants a different kind of convention.

In Philadelphia, there is to be no overt Gore bashing, no Clinton sniping. Republicans say this convention will be dedicated to building up Bush, not tearing down his Democratic opponent. No ugly platform fights. No declarations of war against gays and abortion supporters. No rough stuff. No surprises.

Bush even robbed the convention of any suspense about his choice of a running mate. The week before the opening gavel, Bush chose as his vice president former Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, who has an impressive resume and an appalling congressional voting record.

The prime-time speaking slots will be filled not by shrill ideologues but by pragmatic governors and party stars such as John McCain and Colin Powell. Pat Buchanan, the rabble-rouser who abandoned the GOP, will be elsewhere plotting his takeover of Ross Perot's Reform Party.

Barring some unforeseen departure from the script or an unexpected breakdown in decorum, this Republican convention has been planned to reassure the voters that the divisive cultural warfare of past conventions has been replaced by a compassionate conservatism that reaches out to constituencies that have not always been welcome under the Big Tent.

President George Bush lost control of his 1992 convention to the Pat Buchanan wing of the party, and the screeds against feminism, gay rights, immigration and affirmative action horrified many voters watching the dark side of the Republican Party in full throat at the Houston convention.

The son does not intend to make his father's mistake. This time, the party's fringe voices will be off camera and out of sight. Everyone will be expected to be on their best behavior. Better a dull convention than an out-of-control one, the Bush campaign decided.

This will be George W. Bush's show, and his acceptance speech will be the main event. It is his opportunity to assuage the voters' doubts about his gravitas, his leadership ability and his agenda, his last chance to speak uninterrupted to the American public before Vice President Al Gore comes after him in the fall campaign.

Bush is an amiable personality, someone

most Americans might like to have as a neighbor. But if Gore has his way, the voters will see him as just another conservative Republican who would radicalize the U.S. Supreme Court, wreck the country's economic prosperity and jeopardize Social Security and Medicare. Gore's task may have been made easier by Bush's choice of hard-edged conservative for a running mate.

Although many Americans already have formed a tentative impression of the presidential candidates, Bush's acceptance speech can reinforce the voters' early perceptions of him, good or bad, or give them reason to reconsider their leanings. Only the presidential debates will give greater definition to the campaign.

One wonders what H.L. Mencken, the searing observer of long-ago political conventions, might think of the modern version, so choreographed, so contrived, so controlled, so transformed by television as to be almost meaningless. It was not always so. Conventions once were scrappy, raucous and sometimes convulsive affairs complete with brutal platform fights, back-room dealing and even occasional fisticuffs. They had drama and suspense.

". . . There is something about a national convention that makes it as fascinating as a revival or a hanging," Mencken wrote. "It is vulgar, it is ugly, it is stupid, it is tedious, it is hard upon both the higher cerebral centres and the gluteus maximus, and yet it is somehow charming. One sits through long sessions wishing heartily that all the delegates and alternates were dead and in hell -- and then suddenly there comes a show so gaudy and hilarious, so melodramatic and obscene, so unimaginably exhilarating and preposterous that one lives a gorgeous year in an hour."

For all their folly, hilarity and vulgarity, conventions once had a certain majesty and purpose that, at times, gave observers a sense that history was being made and that the decisions reached in those cavernous convention halls would plague the nation, or perserve it, through the years to come. It would be hard to take such an impression away from conventions these days.

The sad fact is that, like the political process itself, the modern presidential nominating convention has been distorted and degraded by television. And the irony is that the more conventions prostrate themselves before television, the less news they produce and the less time television (except for the cable networks desperate to fill air time) devotes to them. The television cameras increasingly are drawn to the convention sideshows.

Inside the convention hall, the Republicans will stick to their daily themes, which range from "Opportunity with a Purpose" to "Prosperity with a Purpose" to "President with a Purpose." If delegates want to hear an airing of those controversial issues the Bush convention planners have swept under the carpet -- campaign finance reform, the war on drugs and the growing gap between rich and poor -- they will have to slip away to a nearby "shadow convention" organized by Arianna Huffington, a former Republican activist and socialite who says she has been radicalized by the way modern politics is practiced.

Sen. John McCain of Arizona, not exactly a party favorite these days, will speak on national defense at the GOP convention, but he is scheduled to open Huffington's shadow convention, which is expected to draw celebrities and an assortment of fringe activists, with a speech on campaign finance reform, his signature issue. Gary Johnson, the Republican governor of New Mexico, is to discuss the nation's failed war on drugs. Huffington also has invited actor Warren Beatty and Bill Bradley, who unsuccessfully challenged Gore for the Democratic nomination, to speak their minds at her counterconvention.

There's not much doubt which Philadelphia convention Mencken would be attracted to if he were still around.

However, the voters should not be discouraged. Even the dullest conventions can be revealing despite the party's best efforts to control their message. So tune in and listen closely. The Philadelphia convention is likely to say something about George W. Bush that his convention planners didn't plan on.

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