As the Republican Convention and/or segment of “The Apprentice” opens in Cleveland this week, my desire to attend any more of these donkey and elephant shows is virtually nil. What was once a meaningful exercise in American democracy is now like a boring trade show.
My first GOP confab was in 1988 in New Orleans, where I witnessed quite a number of profoundly silly events, such as:
▪ Dan Quayle’s rollout to America, which, at the time seemed like an insult to Western democracy. Now, I view Quayle as Thomas Jefferson-like compared to, say, Sarah Palin.
▪ Then-Vice President George H.W. Bush saying, “Read my lips: no new taxes,” immediately prior to raising lots of taxes.
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▪ A lot of conservative family values GOP delegates walking down the French Quarter on Bourbon Street and liking it. Too much.
GOP and Democratic conventions are superficially exactly the same, right down to the corporate sponsorships. A coincidence, I’m sure.
Frankly, the real reason for any journalist to go to a convention is to see other, more famous journalists using the restroom.
“I just stood next to Walter Cronkite at the urinal!” one colleague gleefully reported.
My most memorable moment? Or two?
▪ Seeing CNN’s Larry King eating lunch, I approached his table. I said, “Mr. King, I just wanted to say hi. I was on your radio show last year.”
He looked up at me with dripping contempt and said, “I remembuh.” Then looked down and continued eating.
I now draw him as weirdly as possible.
▪ Watching Judge Robert Bork waiting for an elevator, sullenly smoking a cigarette and looking very much like he just lost a Supreme Court nomination battle or a bar fight.
In 1996, I made my way to San Diego.
Sen. Bob Dole, the nominee, was upset by the scope of the convention hall, which was the size of a small Midwestern community access cable studio. It irked him that his moment wasn’t held in some vast cavern like the high-ceilinged Cow Palace.
Along with Dole, I too was shocked by the, shall we say, intimate scale of the set, er, hall. On the other hand, it made it very easy to see Major Journalists.
We also invented a game: “Taller or Shorter?” When you would see a celeb, you would call out to your friend, “Taller!” or “Shorter!” in reference to the height you thought they would be.
Sam Donaldson? Taller. Jack Germond? Shorter.
Of course, I did see some actual politicians, none at the urinal. One moment stood out. I was walking behind Sen. Strom Thurmond, who was a kicky 94.
He wasn’t really walking per se; he was holding onto one young aide in front of him while he was being carried under the arms by another, his feet lightly brushing the floor.
This was also the first time I saw George W. Bush in the flesh. I noted that he was not as tall as his father but looked like a guy I felt oddly compelled to have a beer with.
When Dole came to the podium, you could see that this wasn’t what he envisioned, and God knows he really didn’t care about seeing or going to the urinal with any Major Journalists.
A highlight: going to an exclusive cocktail party where I watched former Secretary of State Alexander Haig nurse a Manhattan. I was about to launch into my Nixon impression but lost my nerve. I also met Herb Klein, Nixon’s former press secretary; by now I was dying to do Nixon.
“Dammit, Herb, I told you: no (expletive) cartoonists!”
In 2000, I went to the GOP Convention in Philadelphia, which was held in a basketball arena in the middle of the nation’s largest parking lot.
Security was a breeze in 1988; by 2000, U.S. military personnel were stopping every single incoming bus and running bomb detectors underneath, and this was before 9/11.
Useful advice: Don’t say, “Who’s a good boy?” to a bomb-sniffing dog. None of them are.
Each night started at 8 p.m. East Coast feed time for TV. Each male speaker wore a blue suit, a white shirt, and a red tie (no stripes). Each female speaker wore a red suit, had blonde hair and looked very much like a Realtor.
George W. Bush, the nominee, spoke of compassionate conservatism (see also: kinder, gentler conservatism) while wearing a blue suit, white shirt and red tie.
Cleveland may be the oddest convention ever, but at least it’ll be intellectually honest.
It is just a reality show.