America is now offering lessons in what little wisdom it takes to govern the world. Confounded in Iraq, isolated from its traditional allies, shamed over Abu Ghraib, soaked in corporate corruption and the backwash of environmental harm, sustaining an uninherited budget deficit while preparing more tax rewards for the rich, as dismissive of the unhealthy as the foreign, as terrified of the unfolding truth as of mailed anthrax, it is a society made menacing by a notion of God’s great plan. America is tolerance-challenged, integrity-poor, frightened to death, and yet, beneath its patriotic hosannahs, a country in delirium before the recognition that it might have spent the last three years not only squandering the sympathy of the world but hot-housing hatreds more ferocious than those it had wished to banish for ever from the clear blue skies.
New York, August 2004. It was hot, that seaboard steam prising its way under collars and cuffs, hot like it was in the summer of 1949 when E.B. White holed himself up in a hotel without air-conditioning to sweat out the paragraphs of his book, Here Is New York. White began scanning the skies in the hope of raindrops, but all he saw was endless blue, and he began to think of the bombers that had destroyed Europe and Japan, the aircraft with their loads of misery. ‘The race between the destroying planes,’ he wrote,
and the struggling Parliament of Men, it sticks in all our heads. The city at last perfectly illustrates both the universal dilemma and the general solution, this riddle in steel and stone is at once the perfect target and the perfect demonstration of non-violence, of racial brotherhood, this lofty target scraping the skies and meeting the destroying planes halfway, home of all people and all nations, capital of everything, housing the deliberations by which the planes are to be stayed and their errand forestalled.
But when the Republicans came to New York this August they had other deliberations in mind, new quantities of dislike and refusal, and not one of their statements could be thought to have been framed to mitigate or forestall the destructive impulses of their enemies.
‘It’s no fun to protest on an empty stomach,’ said Mayor Michael Bloomberg to assembled journalists, ‘so you might want to try a restaurant. Or you might want to go shopping, maybe for another pair of sneakers for the march.’ New York is a Democrat city, but also a famous backdrop, and the Republicans took the chance that the memory of 11 September would drown out all protest. They raised a platform at Madison Square Garden on which to parade their anger as a mode of strength; for the first days of the convention, at least, it appeared that the present administration was seeking re-election in return for its having been suitably shocked at the events of 9/11, implying that it had shown great leadership in finding what happened that day very bad. George W. Bush has boiled doublethink down to a sticky residue: ‘you’re either for us or you’re for the terrorists’ is its central flavour. But choosing New York for the convention was overweening even by Republican standards: like Woody Allen, only less humorously, they wanted the sweep of Manhattan to enlarge a panoply of private concerns, and blinded with tears and outrage, they wanted to forge a kind of unity in commemoration of the disaster. Cynicism is not news in politics: the Republicans simply chose to shoot their publicity splashes on location, yet even by the standards of shamelessness prevalent in political life, the selection of New York City felt opportunistic, the perfect spot for a government mired in weakness to talk about strength.
Bush’s supporters have method in their madness, but more than that, they have a sense of manifest destiny. Thus, Senator Kerry, a man who willingly served in his country’s armed forces and willingly gave it some thought afterwards, can be characterised as a coward and an enemy of freedom, while his opponent is engulfed in glory for having had a father influential enough to keep him out of harm’s way. With their advertisements on television paid for by well-connected Republicans, the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth have turned this chicanery into an opinion-poll-smashing juggernaut. To a person from another planet, or perhaps another country, the success of this campaign would appear unlikely or even impossible: man of courage and conscience turned into coward and traitor; other guy crowned Fittest Commander-in-Chief by a Mile. The equation is beyond easy comprehension. But that is what happened. Days before the New York convention began, Bush was beginning to pull away from his opponent, who was considered not to have responded forcefully enough to the Swift Boat TV campaign.
‘The Man from Abilene’, Eisenhower’s TV advert in the presidential election of 1952, started the trend. With the aid of shaky cue-cards and overemphatic announcers, Eisenhower sells his own war record next to a fear about other people’s:
FIRST ANNOUNCER: The man from Abilene. Out of the heartland of America, out of this small frame house in Abilene, Kansas, came a man, Dwight D. Eisenhower. Through the crucial hour of historic D-Day, he brought us to the triumph and peace of V-E Day. Now, another crucial hour in our history – the big question.
MAN: General, if war comes, is this country really ready?
EISENHOWER: It is not. The administration has spent many billions of dollars for national defence. Yet today we haven’t enough tanks for the fighting in Korea. It is time for a change.
FIRST ANNOUNCER: The nation, haunted by the stalemate in Korea, looks to Eisenhower. Eisenhower knows how to deal with the Russians. He has met Europe’s leaders, has got them working with us. Elect the number one man for the number one job of our time. November 4th vote for peace. Vote for Eisenhower.
SECOND ANNOUNCER: A paid film.
In 1964, the Goldwater campaign was using Raymond Massey to front a television ambush of Johnson’s record:
We are fighting a no-win war in Vietnam, a war we don’t want to win. Well, as an American I don’t like it. I don’t like our policy and I don’t like no-win wars. Barry Goldwater wants to put a stop to that mess in Vietnam, that mess that’s killing our men, that mess that’s costing us a million dollars a day. I’m going to vote for Barry Goldwater and I urge you to do the same. Vote for a real American. Vote for Barry Goldwater. In your heart you know he’s right.
Jimmy Carter, in 1980, sold himself on television as a man of peace who knows about war: ‘It’s good for the nation’s security when the commander-in-chief is himself an experienced military man. Jimmy Carter, Annapolis graduate, is just that.’ Walter Mondale, in 1984, set out to attack Ronald Reagan on Star Wars: ‘Mondale,’ the advert said, ‘an army man, senator on the National Security Council, vice-president. He knows the world for the tough place it is.’ But Reagan had a plan to outspend the Soviets, and people believed in it. ‘Draw the line at the heavens on election day,’ his people said, and draw a line they did, but under the Democrats for two more terms. In 1988, Michael Dukakis was made to look ridiculous and phoney in a Republican TV ad which showed him riding around in an open tank like Snoopy.The 2004 Republican campaign has been clever in the way it has borrowed from all these past efforts, positioning Kerry as the politician who has tried to rid America of a number of weapons systems, but also as a man who ratted on his comrades in Vietnam. The Democrats have done less well on the television front – the front of all fronts – with adverts that deal in nuance where none is welcome:
KERRY: Let me tell you exactly what I would do to change the situation in Iraq. I would immediately reach out to the international community in sharing the burden, the risk, because they also have a stake in the outcome of what is happening in Iraq. The American taxpayer is paying now almost 200 billion dollars . . . And we’re paying the highest price in the loss of the lives of our young soldiers – almost alone. I’m John Kerry and I approved this message.
In a world of instant projections and medium-is-the-message contemplations, commentary on the presidential race of 2004 might finish right there: Kerry’s style is downbeat, America-blaming, slightly depressing, while the opposition beats its drum and chases invisible killers through the caves of Tora Bora. Game over. But not quite: the darkest hour is ever before the dawn. Bush did not win the popular vote in 2000, and since then he has started a disastrous religious war, cut subsidies to poor families, added four million to the jobless total, and become the first US president to ignore the Geneva Conventions by refusing inspectors access to the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay.By any estimate, there is enough rage at the administration’s perceived lies and ineptitude to make this campaign blossom further into life and pop a few more colours before it’s over.
At the corner of 6th Avenue and West 16th Street, outside a nail salon and a bicycle repair shop, two young men were reading out jokes about George W. Bush. Across the road, a hundred cardboard coffins were draped in American flags. ‘Two to a coffin,’ said the organiser.
‘Hey. How about a coffin for the head of state?’ said a man carrying a sign saying ‘Bush Lies: Who Dies?’ The organiser ignored him and turned busily to his charges who were tying on black armbands. ‘Here are your pallbearer instructions,’ he said. When I asked about the flag material, I was told that shops were selling it by the yard after 9/11.
Two young girls, Alisha and Tracy, both from Brooklyn, were carrying a coffin between them. ‘Just who are the soldiers dying for,’ Alisha asked, ‘if their corpses can’t be shown on TV?’
‘What happens if Bush is re-elected?’
‘I’m frightened,’ said Tracy. ‘I don’t want to think about it. I don’t want to find out.’
Seventh Avenue was jammed. The coffins were backed up below Chelsea and whistles filled the air. A woman standing in a burka sewn out of American flags seemed to shiver every time the subway train rattled below the grille she stood on shouting for justice. Helicopters were buzzing up and down the avenue and settling above the rowdies, but the march moved on, half a million people, and under their feet on 34th Street I could see the remains of a hand-scribbled placard with a tattered picture of a child and a caption that said: ‘Muhamad Hamza, Age 2 Years Old’. At Madison Square Garden there were hundreds of police wielding plastic handcuffs. Above the crowd, Fox News was advertising itself and its advertisers on a giant screen. The protesters howled up abuse as they passed underneath.
A certain mica sparkled through the atmosphere of the Republican National Convention: it was the notion that a lack of patriotism was the enemy of democracy, that a love of nuance was a brand of elitism, and that being proud of your country was the only strength that mattered in foreign relations. In this same atmosphere – pungent with intolerance – the notion prevails that foreigners hate America not for its actions but for its values, its ‘way of life’. When people speak of American imperialism this is what they more often mean: not the corrupting, internecine dealings of Halliburton and the Carlyle Group, the cronyist, Saudi-protecting demeanour of the Texas oil barons, shocking though all that is, but the everyday self-certainty that makes America a fighting force against other cultures and ways of life.The delegates have breathed a lot of this stuff into their lungs in recent years, but they wanted more. ‘The Muslims just hate us for our love of freedom,’ said a woman from Iowa wearing a cloth elephant on her head. ‘They don’t have any culture and they hate us for having a great one. And they hate the Bible.’
‘Really?’ I said. ‘The Iraqis had a culture for thousands of years before Jesus was born.’
‘What you saying?’
‘I’m saying Muslims were building temples when New York was a swamp.’
‘You support the Iraqis?’
‘You support the killing of innocent people going to work? People who have to jump out of windows?’
‘You aren’t listening to me.’
‘No, buddy. You ain’t listening. These people you support are trying to kill our children in their beds. Where you from anyway, the New York Times?’
The convention floor was less glitzy than it was in Boston, less neon, more intimate. The Bush crowd will spend the week in a show of machismo – how tough we are, how resolute – while their every move would show itself to be defensive. In its heart the administration knows it’s in trouble, and it overcompensates by avoiding all mention of its difficulties and by banishing from the convention those areas of right-wingery that constitute the administration’s central battery of ideas. The Iowa woman’s mention of the New York Times reminds me how convinced the Republicans are of a liberal conspiracy. They understand the world in terms of conspiracies (as well they might), but the liberal-bias model is the most bogus of all: American television subscribes to the same notion of American democratic purity that the Republicans sell throughout this week.
The words ‘9/11’ were spoken so often at the convention they began to travel in the bloodstream like a drug. Nobody would raise an issue or spell out a policy or dream a dream that wasn’t about revenge. A Republican from Puerto Rico called Luis Fortuno was speaking on the stage. On the floor a group of red-clad women from Illinois were proving that Republicans can’t dance, while a sea of men from Texas waved their hats, as if waving goodbye to something we all could recognise. Suddenly, one of Fortuno’s sentences came billowing across the tiers: ‘President Bush believes in empowering his panics.’
I considered this for a moment. ‘That’s true,’ I said to myself. ‘That’s obviously true. He empowers his panics, gives them a motivating role in policy formation. That’s it. Bush’s panics are the central element in his administration.’ I looked up.
Fortuno: ‘And for the first time, his panics . . .’
‘Yes,’ I thought. ‘If only he could control his panics.’
‘Yes, for the first time … ’
‘Hispanics!’ I said out loud. ‘He empowers Hispanics.’
‘That’s right!’ said a woman next to me with Stars and Stripes doodlebugs bouncing about her head.
I wanted to say he was right the first time. ‘What about your panics? What about our panics?’
When you watch footage from the 1980 Republican convention in Detroit, you see the nominee for vice-president, George H.W. Bush, weakly rallying the troops towards a dead certainty: ‘Let us go forward,’ he trills, ‘to make 1980 a victory not only for Ronald Reagan but for the US and the cause of freedom throughout the world.’ As the ticker-tape begins to twirl down on the stage, you see Frank Sinatra beaming from the crowd (he never got over John Kennedy’s snubbing him in favour of Bing Crosby in 1962), and, off to stage right, a slightly out of control and overexcited person in a tan suit, the vice-presidential nominee’s son George. There was something very lost about George in those days, something wild in the eye, just as there is in pictures of him in those months when he flew planes in an effort to defend Oklahoma from the Viet Cong.
A half-dozen or so years after Detroit, George, with the help of Billy Graham, finally gave up the booze. In doing so, he made common cause with God and the religious right, an alliance that would remake his politics and get his father out of his system. In more recent times, asked by Bob Woodward why he didn’t seek the opinion of his father before going to war with Saddam Hussein (given that his father was the only other person in the world to have been a president and to have done that), he said: ‘He is the wrong father to appeal to in terms of strength; there is a Higher Father that I appeal to.’
This kind of thing – and much more – has made George W. Bush sound like a Christian fundamentalist warrior, or at least a Christian soldier marching as to war. Evangelicals, Pentecostals and fundamentalists clearly believe their man is in the White House. Kevin Phillips, the author of American Dynasty, has given the association some thought:
Biblical scholar Bruce Lincoln’s line-by-line analysis of Bush’s 7 October 2001 address to the nation announcing the US attack on Afghanistan identified a half dozen veiled borrowings from the Book of Revelation, Isaiah, Job, Matthew and Jeremiah. He concluded that for those with ears to hear a biblical subtext, ‘America’s adversaries had been redefined as enemies of God and current events had been constituted as confirmation of scripture’ . . .
Occasional presidential use of phrases popular with preachers like Falwell and Robertson could be used to give them quiet recognition. A top campaign operative told Newsweek that during the critical 2000 primary in South Carolina, sending Bush to ultra-fundamentalist Bob Jones University had been a calculated appeal to Christian right voters: ‘We had to send a message – fast – and sending him there was the only way to do it.’
Bush’s religious allies also responded to the large number of top personnel and policy-making jobs given to Christian right appointees, especially where they would deal with hot-button subject-matter: church-state relations, federal aid to religion, women’s rights, birth control, abortion-related drugs, family aid, and federal volunteer programs.
At the Justice Department, Attorney General John Ashcroft was a lay activist in the Pentecostal Assemblies of God, pious enough that before being sworn in he had himself anointed with cooking oil in the biblical manner of King David. Ashcroft chose Carl Esbeck, who had directed the Center for Law and Religious Freedom run by the conservative Virginia-based Christian Legal Society, as the first chief of the department’s faith-based office. He named Eric Treene, former litigation director at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, as special counsel for religious discrimination, a new position in the Justice Department.4
The most striking thing about the Republican convention was Bush’s refusal to allow it to present his government in a true light. Bush’s administration chose to pretend they were moderates, and to give the biggest speaking slots to Republicans (and Zell Miller, a Democrat) who hold views quite opposite to those of George W. Bush on most matters to do with social policy, but not on matters to do with 11 September and the War on Terror. So we had the former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani presenting himself as a walking and talking salute. ‘Standing below the north tower and looking up and seeing the flames of hell and then realising that I was actually seeing a human being jumping from the 101st or 102nd floor drove home to me that we were facing something beyond anything we had ever faced before . . . I grabbed someone’s arm and said: "Thank God George Bush is president.”’ He said nothing about the economy, nothing about greenhouse gases, nothing about the death penalty, nothing about the 3000 people killed last year by the police in the United States, nothing about Abu Ghraib, and nothing about the one million people likely to die in Darfur by Christmas. ‘George Bush sees world terrorism for the evil that it is,’ he said. ‘John Kerry has no such clear, precise and consistent vision. It is critical to see the contrast in approach between these two men.’
A woman called Tara Stackpole came on and spoke among the shadows orchestrated onstage, under a screen bearing a single line of text: ‘11 September 2001’. Her husband was a fireman and she described him running into the towers to save the lives of people he never knew. She spoke of duty and liberty and announced that her son was due to go to Iraq in December. The audience clapped and cried and some of them felt that no message had ever been so clear. Meanwhile, Arnold Schwarzenegger, the California governor who opposes George Bush’s position on abortion and gay marriage and the church, was chosen to give a platform speech opposing anti-war ‘girly-men’ and praising George W. Bush for having a tough and unshakeable position on Homeland Security. Homeland means a lot to Schwarzenegger: he used to be from Graz until his dream came true and he became an American. ‘I saw tanks in the streets,’ said the governor. ‘I saw Communism with my own eyes.’ This brought the Reagan-mourning audience to its feet: it would have spoiled the party to let on that Arnie was born two years after Soviet tanks were last seen in his corner of Austria. When he left the country it was run by the Conservative government of Josef Klaus, a Catholic with nothing but disdain for Moscow and for socialists. ‘I’ll be back!’ said Arnie. And so he will, but not to Graz. He likes to use the titles of his movies to punctuate his speeches. Maybe he just forgot how good he was in Total Recall.
New York was buzzy with parties, as Tina Brown might say. In fact she did say it, about something or other, on her new weekly television show Topic [A], with Tina Brown, which created its own buzz by having Hendrik Hertzberg and Armstrong Williams slug it out about whether or not it mattered that Kerry had been 100 yards from the Vietnam border while Bush was 14 million yards away (Hertzberg had worked it out). But the parties turned out to be more noisy than buzzy, more shouty than noisy, more iffy than elegant, and less fun generally than spending a few nights on a buggy mattress at Pier 57, the Manhattan police facility which had taken in more than 750 protesters over the first two days of the convention. The courts eventually ordered the precinct to let them go.
At the New York Yacht Club people were giving out little insults to Senator Kerry. The one I saw was on a card: it featured a band-aid with a purple heart glued in the middle. ‘It was just a self-inflicted scratch,’ ran the message underneath. ‘But you see I got a Purple Heart for it.’ At Caroline’s, a night-club on Broadway, the Creative Coalition, which is a Hollywood think-tank, or ‘the premier non-profit, non-partisan, social and political advocacy organisation of the entertainment industry’ if you’re feeling punctilious, was giving an award to Republican Senator Amo Houghton for being a good egg. I spoke to Richard Kind, who plays the press secretary in the sitcom Spin City, and his chum Tim Blake Nelson, who was very funny in O Brother, where art thou?
‘It’s a fair trade issue,’ said Richard Kind. ‘Canada is constantly taking jobs away from American actors.’
‘Oh come on,’ I said. ‘Los Angeles has its fair share of work for actors.’
‘No,’ said Kind. ‘I lost an acting job shooting in Vancouver because I wasn’t Canadian. It’s about free trade.’
‘Yeah,’ said Nelson, ‘and neither party in this election is actually into that.’
A person from the Creative Coalition tells me they’re giving an award to Senator Houghton because he ‘stands athwart conventional wisdom on many issues. He is a symbol of how politicians should work across parties and across ideologies. It was always the American way.’
‘Not any more,’ says a passing hairdresser.
Gotham Hall is a large, golden-domed aviary where paintings of Republican presidents stare from the walls, where Michael Reagan, ‘for one night only’, broadcasts his radio show from a crow’s nest high above the jazzy stage, and where blow-dried ladies come and go in their festive plumage, their glasses empty and their talons red. Phyllis Schlafly, 80, Republican matriarch, doyenne of the Christian right, has been hating feminists and opposing gay rights since the Goldwater campaign, in praise of which she wrote a little book. The woman whom Betty Friedan once told she would like to see burned at the stake was standing in front of me. Her pile-up of blonde hair was gleaming against the dark party going on in the background. She has recently spoken of ‘how vicious the gays are’.
‘Do you think Arnold Schwarzenegger is the right person to be giving an address at the convention,’ I asked, ‘given his views on gay marriage and everything?’
Mrs Schlafly opened her mouth as if to bite me a little. ‘He’s a wonderful governor of California,’ she said. ‘And he won a great victory.’ She turned away. You have to assume that Mrs Schlafly makes allowances for California, and also for her son who is gay.
Waiters were carrying trays of blue martinis. ‘Are they sweet?’ someone asked.
‘I’m not allowed to taste it,’ said the waiter.
A lobbyist from the Competitive Enterprise Institute wore a White House pin on his shiny lapel. ‘Does that mean you work at the White House?’ he was asked.
‘No,’ he said. ‘My brother does.’
David Keene, boss of the American Conservative Union and always described as being close to Bush and his cabinet, influencing their journey rightwards, said: ‘Conventions are not what they once were. They just show a candidate off to the public. The gold mine is among the voters who are already for your candidate, but who don’t vote. At a convention, you spend the first two nights bragging about what you did, then you talk about what you’re gonna do.’
I asked him about the deficit and about the war and whether it was going to end, or was it to be continuous? He ignored the war part of the question. ‘We’re going to hold the line on spending in the second term,’ he said. ‘All the problems stem from terrible schools and a culture which has developed where people don’t want to get educated. Politics can’t fix that.’
I had thought that was exactly the sort of thing politics could aim to fix, but Keene was delighted with himself and I aim never to come between a man and his self-delight. Grover Norquist, on the other hand, speaks like a man who had all the delight squeezed out of him years ago, leaving him with nothing in his voice but a high-pitched squeak of disdain. Norquist is the man Hillary Clinton described as the leader of the right-wing conspiracy in America; others have called him the Grand Central Station of American conservatism, the president of tax reform, or, as television nabob Bill Moyers prefers, ‘the most powerful man in Washington not to hold public office’. Norquist is a tight little person with a trimmed beard and round glasses. He believes taxation is a kind of evil, and loves the idea of people being free to carry guns into bars. He’s on the board of the National Rifle Association and cut his teeth in the 1980s and early 1990s as a kind of desk-bound Oliver North, lobbying and agitating on behalf of men and groups such as Savimbi’s in Angola. I asked him about Darfur.
‘Where?’ he said.
‘Sudan,’ I said. ‘It’s a disaster.’
‘I don’t know where that is.’ I assumed he couldn’t make out what I was saying: that he was having trouble with my accent in all the brouhaha.
‘Sudan,’ I said. ‘If America is interested in saving lives . . .’
‘Maybe,’ he said. ‘But what is happening?’
‘Christians are being murdered.’
‘You have experience in Angola, no?’ Norquist looked at me warily, as if I’d asked my first real question.
‘If you’re interested in politics,’ he said obliquely, ‘then you know who you’re going to vote for.’
‘What advice would you give Kerry?’ I asked.
‘Good question,’ he said.
‘Good enough to answer?’ I asked. And suddenly he was off, stretching out for his girlfriend’s hand.
An immigrant Filipino woman linked arms with her son as they sang ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’. She looked up with a smile that could conquer continents.
‘I’ve got a simple question,’ I said.
‘You support guns?’
‘Tell me: why does anyone in civilian life need a semi-automatic rifle?’
‘When push comes to shove,’ she said, ‘sometimes the police aren’t gonna get there on time. Whether you use a baseball bat or whatever, you’re going to want to be a responsible gun-owner. It may sound Pollyanna-ish, but if anything positive came out of 9/11 it was the notion that being American is not something defined by politics or class or education, but some humanity that draws us together. It was a rediscovery of the value of . . . every man.’
All the buildings around Broadway ask for photo ID as you enter: they don’t search your bag, they don’t insist that you be collected; they simply ask that you show a card with your picture on it, a document that is possessed by every well-wisher and ill-wisher in the world. At the convention, a foreign author with borrowed credentials, I found my way into the VIP section behind the Bush family, where I sat for hours conjuring dreams of enlightenment. And as I sat there I heard a half-crazed organiser issuing orders to the security people on the aisle to my left. ‘This is where they sit,’ she said. ‘You understand? So not just anybody in these rows behind. These seats are for VIPs. No wanderers and no media, not even disabled media. This is a special area for special guests and it must be protected.’
Eventually, when the seats were all filled and the band was bellowing soul classics, I noticed the audience beginning to chant: ‘USA! USA! USA! USA!’ The woman beside me threw down her Filofax and jumped up and down saying: ‘USA! USA!’ It was as if these were not expressions of hope or even pride, but words of threat and anger pressed into the New York night, words of invocation to some powerful conviction about belonging, and the hall some great chamber of echoing identification. ‘The man and woman on the hometown streets of America know the truth,’ General Tommy Franks writes in his autobiography, American Soldier:
Thanks to the decisions America’s leaders made, the people of Afghanistan and Iraq – more than fifty million men, women, and children – are free today. Terrorists no longer plot strikes against America from havens in these countries. And rogue states around the world have been served notice. We need not apologise for these successes. History will record that America’s strategy for fighting terrorism was a good strategy, that the plan for Operation Iraqi Freedom was a good plan – and that the execution of that plan by our young men and women in uniform was unequalled in its excellence by anything in the annals of war . . . Despite 9/11 and the global war on terrorism – we are still a land called Free.
‘Thank you,’ says a man from Florida as Zell Miller dumps on the anti-war people in his own party. Miller was the firebrand, the unexpected hero of the convention, stripping away every veneer of tolerance for the opposition, battering out the message that Kerry and his company are disloyal to a cause they can barely understand. ‘While young Americans are dying in the sands of Iraq and the mountains of Afghanistan,’ said Miller, ‘our nation is being torn apart and made weaker because of the Democrats’ manic obsession to bring down our commander-in-chief.’
‘Thank you!’’ said the Florida man.
‘Woooooooooooooo! Eeeeeeeeeeeeeee!’ said the woman, dropping her Filofax as she rose up.
‘Never in the history of the world,’ said Miller, his face distorted with belief, ‘has any soldier sacrificed more for the freedom and liberty of total strangers than the American soldier . . . it is the soldier, not the reporter, who has given us the freedom of the press. It is the soldier, not the poet, who has given us freedom of speech.’
‘God bless you,’ said the man from the Sunshine State.
‘Eeeeeeeeeeeeeee!’ said Mrs Filofax. Then she fumbled for her phone and pressed a button. ‘Baby. I’m leaving you a message. The best thing has happened. Whatever you do before you go to bed: make sure you hear Zell Miller’s speech. Oh my God. Night honey. Sleep tight.’
Dick Cheney appeared onstage like a morbid family retainer. He knows where the bodies are buried; he pipes once again for the enemies of peace and sings for the greatest supper in the world. Cheney’s speaking style relies on one fact followed by six lies: ‘President Bush delivered the greatest tax reduction in a generation, and the results are clear to see. Businesses are creating jobs. People are returning to work. Mortgage rates are low, and home ownership in this country is at an all-time high. The Bush tax cuts are working.’ One truth, six lies. He speaks of victory and freedom and morality and duty as if the words had no meaning, as if individuals and nations had not exhausted themselves to make them real, thousands of years before the Statue of Liberty was erected. Cheney finished by saying Bush’s government left the American people in no doubt about where they stood, and yet, for all the huzzahs and coloured ribbons, doubt is all they did leave. And where there wasn’t doubt there was only fear.
Sleep tight indeed. Sleep like reason. The hours passed in a miasma of triumphalism but without mention of America’s troubles with itself, or of the world’s troubles with America, as if all the grief in existence, all the threats, were mere phantasmagoria in the minds of the unfortunate.
The next day it would be George W. Bush plying his trade from the set of the Starship Enterprise, saying nothing in particular and then nothing at all, to the raucous accompaniment of whistles, bagpipes and sirens. George W. Bush swaggered in front of a microphone that caught the sound of his nothings and somehow gave them the sound of victory. He spoke of trust, while hoping and indeed trusting that nobody would ask who he was and how he got here. He looked over the heads of the dancing delegates to see his father, the avenged, the vanquished, and the keeper of the trust.
‘Goodnight,’ I said to a Russian woman near the door collecting paper cups, then I stopped and asked her if she liked them. She made a face.
We thought we could hear the protesters outside on Seventh Avenue, but it was hard to tell from the roar in the hall. I wondered if the large television screens on Times Square would be running the television ads by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth; all the other TV campaign ads entered my thoughts too, more than a half century of claims and accusations. ‘People are always shouting that they want to create a better future,’ Milan Kundera once wrote. ‘It’s not true. The future is an apathetic void of no interest to anyone. The past is full of life, eager to irritate us, provoke and insult us, tempt us to destroy or repaint it. The only reason people want to be masters of the future is to change the past.’
‘Goodnight,’ I said to the lady of the cups, and she smiled and nodded at the buzz outside.
‘You never know,’ she said.