News

Riding the RNC

Alaskans, anarchists and the alternate reality of the GOP convention

by

Arriving in St. Paul, Minn., for the 2008 Republican National Convention, one couldn't help but wonder what Larry Craig was thinking. Though the Bush administration may hold more of the blame, Craig represents an early flashpoint in the GOP's current schizophrenia. Since the party's nasty treatment of the senator following his bathroom stall incident last year, its various constituencies have been in rapid fray. At the convention's start, nominee John McCain was trailing Barack Obama by 8 points in some polls. Meanwhile, Democrats were poised to crush Republicans in congressional elections and McCain's barely vetted vice-presidential pick, Sandpoint native Sarah Palin, was just about to unveil a laundry list of family issues.

Sen. John McCain and Gov. Sarah Palin, center foreground, at conclusion of Republican Convention, during balloon drop. - PAUL HOSEFROS
  • Paul Hosefros
  • Sen. John McCain and Gov. Sarah Palin, center foreground, at conclusion of Republican Convention, during balloon drop.

Though Craig himself wasn't at the Xcel Energy Center for the festivities, his spirit was. In fact, just outside the convention hall, someone was selling a T-shirt reading "The Minneapolis/St. Paul Airport welcomes the Republican National Convention" featuring a drawing of some bathroom footsie. But that was downright subtle compared to the messages conveyed by the ubiquitous protesters, who came from across the country to rain on the GOP's parade.

Decrying everything from the war in Iraq to tax cuts for the rich, their masses included a few oddball Bob Barr supporters and, reportedly, an Idaho contingency of Ron Paul partisans.

The previous weekend had seen the raid of a handful of anarchist and suspected rabble-rouser meeting spots around the Twin Cities. Police seized items like laptops, gas masks, bolt cutters and, yes, giant containers of urine. (Authorities said the pee was for throwing at police; protesters claimed they simply had no functioning bathrooms.) On Monday, Sept. 1, thousands marched from the state capitol to the Xcel Center, but other than a few undercover, anti-war Code Pink dissenters who snuck into the center and disrupted McCain's speech on the final night, protesters never got anywhere near the convention. In fact, the atmosphere was almost exactly like a post-apocalyptic movie, with giant fences separating the credentialed from the screamers.

Inside Xcel, the festivities got off to a slow start due to the Gulf Coast machinations of Hurricane Gustav. Vice President Dick Cheney and President George Bush canceled their speeches and headed for the Bayou. This left us with Cindy McCain and Laura Bush. The night ended in a three-way tie between the Republicans, the protesters and Mother Nature.

The masses of protesters let their message of dissatisfaction be known to the world the next day, though their concerns weren't rampant conservatism so much as their inability to see a free Rage Against The Machine concert. In town to perform at the Target Center, Rage was to play an unannounced show at the state capitol on Tuesday evening, but police moved to halve the unpermitted proceedings. The band exited behind the stage and weaved out to the front of the crowd to lead a short set of a capella sing-a-longs. Call it Rage karaoke—sans machine, of course.

They next led a march toward the Xcel Center, with bike cops pedaling nervously alongside and guards standing along the route in pads and gas masks. When the group reached the perimeter of the buffer zone in front of the center, folks began shaking and rattling the fences. The police gave them a few warnings and then began firing off tear gas and noise-making bombs. Party over.

Back inside the center, former presidential-candidate Fred Thompson got the crowd worked up before former Democratic vice presidential nominee Joe Lieberman deflated them by saying fond things about, of all people, Bill Clinton. Of course, the evening was just a warm-up for Wednesday's main event—University of Idaho grad Sarah Palin's speech.

All eyes were on her, as stories of varying veracity concerning her family had been flying around all week. They included rumors that her 17-year-old daughter Bristol, not she, birthed their Down syndrome newborn Trig (false), that Bristol herself was pregnant (true), that the Palins would make lemonade by marrying off Bristol hastily (true), and, finally, that the executive director of Jews for Jesus spoke recently at Palin's Wasilla Bible Church (also true, though the media has yet to really pounce on this last bit).

After an introduction by former candidate Rudolph Giuliani—in which he somehow compared running New York City to running Wasilla but didn't, to his credit, say "9/11"—Palin took the stage to a warm reception. She trotted out her already well-trod, "Do you know the difference between a hockey mom and a pit pull ... lipstick," line, and went on to list her accomplishments in office.

She may have canceled the "bridge to nowhere" and taken on the cronyism of entrenched Alaskan politicians like the Murkowskis. But while she spoke of being a deficit hawk, some have noted that her operating budget rose during her tenure, and, should the price of oil slide, the state will be in way over its head.

Though many in attendance had initially supported Mike Huckabee or Mitt Romney, everyone seemed to have finally come around to McCain's campaign-finance reforming, pseudo-environmentalist Republicanism by closing night. A video montage introduced him, detailing his time spent in a Vietnamese prison camp. It included a black-and-white video of him smoking a cigarette with one of his broken arms. One of the main themes of the film and his speech was how his time in captivity made him a less selfish person. When offered early release because his father was an admiral, he said, "Hell no. I want four more years of torture."

It's hard to argue with his reputation as a political iconoclast, although Democrats complain that he's recently fallen in line with the Bush administration. As if to counter this point, McCain used the word "change" repeatedly in his acceptance speech, although his proposed policies sounded like Republicanism as usual—school choice, loosening trade restrictions and strengthening private health care. Only when he looked the right-wing faithful in the eye and told them things they didn't want to hear—like about how the "Contract for America" Republicans lost their way ("We let Washington change us")—did he give hints as to why he's been so successful. But it was likely too little, too late.

Who knows what the final two months will bring, but departing the convention, one couldn't help but think that—despite McCain's best efforts, thousands of conventioneers and thousands more protesters—the hoopla surrounding Palin's family could well decide the election. Americans could decide it's high time for a suburban hockey pit bull mom. But, then again, they could decide that they don't want a circus ringleader a heartbeat away from the presidency. Reports of Britney Spears' younger sister sending Bristol pink burpclothes only underscored what we already suspected: Politics and entertainment have collided head on.

Ben Westhoff is a freelance writer from Hoboken, N.J.