If you sit long enough in the company of jolly Republicans, you will hear that the president’s problem is that he’s a ‘pansy-ass’, that he wouldn’t come to Israel’s aid against Iran because he’s ‘too Muslim himself’, that he’s trying to hide his family from the country because he’s ‘not a real American’, that it would be easy for him to prove everything with some ‘microfiche’ from the hospital where he was born, that the best thing about America is our defence, and that Obamacare is ‘full of terrible, terrible things’ called ‘entitlements’. I have heard this stuff in Tampa, not, it should be said, from delegates or officials, but from nice people who believe things if they hear them repeated enough times. I’ve also heard that the best years ever were the ones between 1983 and 1987, that no one ever did as much for American women as the dynamic duo of Ronald Reagan and the personal computer, that the parties at the RNC have never been as good as they were for Goldwater in San Francisco in 1964, that New York is a bad place to live because of rapists, and that the hottest guys at the convention are the officers of the Secret Service. I saw a woman swoon as she said the words ‘tax cut’.
I heard these things in hotel bars. At the Sheraton Riverwalk on Wednesday I tried to buy the Fox News presenter Megyn Kelly a drink, but she was drinking on Murdoch’s tab. She told me that she was enjoying the convention, her second, it was good to get out of the studio and out among ‘real people’, there was ‘a lot of energy in the room’ when Paul Ryan spoke, but generally people in Minneapolis four years ago had been ‘more fired up for Palin’. Palin meanwhile was throwing a fit about Fox cancelling her spots.
Yesterday C-Span was playing old GOP acceptance speeches while I was waiting for my laundry to dry. The delegates on the floor for Reagan’s 1984 speech looked a generation younger than the crowds in Tampa. It occurred to me that they may all be the same people. On the way into the hall I saw Martin Amis, apparently on assignment for Newsweek, being scanned with a metal detector. I collected my floor pass and headed for stage right, by the West Virginia delegation.
Jane Edmunds, an African American who served as workforce development secretary in Massachusetts under Romney, took the stage. ‘Minority speaker, turn your camera off MSNBC,’ someone behind me said. I turned and saw a young man wearing a West Virginia delegate credential and chomping on an unlit cigar. ‘That’s how I see Governor Romney,’ Edmunds said. ‘He is authentic. He is open to good ideas wherever they come from. It doesn’t matter if they are from a liberal Democrat like me.’ Not to state the obvious, but the crowds in the convention hall are overwhelmingly white. Among the delegations sitting in front of me I didn’t see a single non-white face from West Virginia, Wyoming, North Dakota or Maryland, though in front of them was the mostly Hispanic Puerto Rico delegation.
I had thought that the West Virginia delegates’ blue plastic helmets had something to do with sport. Kris Warner, a delegate and former state party chairman, told me they were meant to remind television viewers that when they switch on a light bulb the energy comes from coal. ‘I can’t explain love,’ Romney said in a promotional video about his family as Warner told me about Obama’s war on coal. Clint Eastwood came on to a standing ovation. I’d always thought of him as a tall man, but from stage right he looked almost as short as Martin Amis.
Marco Rubio followed with a history lesson: ‘For most of history almost everyone was poor. Power and wealth belonged to only a few.’ Indeed, some things never change – for example Mitt Romney’s habit of tilting his head downward and to the left when he finishes a sentence that makes him happy, as when he accepted the party’s nomination. The down-left tilt was combined with an up-right finish when he said that Obama wanted to succeed when he got to office. Another down-up when he talked about how women make good governors. He went with a left-hand palm flare when he said his wife would have succeeded in any career she wanted if she hadn’t been home with the kids. A squint when he said he didn’t ask his church to invest in Bain because he didn’t want to go to Hell if the company failed, and a squint when he talked about poverty. He raises his eyebrows when he says something he thinks is going to surprise you, as when he spoke of his plan to create 12 million new jobs as soon as he takes office. While he was talking about what it’s like to lose your job, two people in the upper deck to my left stood up holding a pink sign and yelling: ‘People over profits!’ The crowd around me chanted ‘USA’ to drown them out. Security guards showed up and ripped the sign from the hecklers hands in a way that did not look gentle. When the USA chant stopped Romney was still talking about what it’s like to be unemployed.
I was surprised to see that most of the crowd stuck around when the gaggle of Romney grandchildren ran out on the stage, so my getaway was quick. Outside the gates, mounted police were kettling a protest of what looked to me to be a couple hundred people. The protesters were angry and lots of them were holding both middle fingers to the TV cameras. They were all chanting: ‘Shame! Shame! Shame!’ One guy looked at me, mistaking me for a delegate, and said: ‘You people are freaks.’