Republicans Rant, Kerry Conciliates: By BECKY O'MALLEY

Friday September 03, 2004

Watching the Republican Convention on television is like picking at a scab. You know it’s a mistake, you know it will only make things worse, but it’s hard not to do it, albeit obsessively and secretly. It’s a metaphor-generating experience, because it’s almost impossible to describe the horror and disgust provoked in the person of ordinary sensibility using straightforward descriptive language.  

Look at poor David Gergen. Never expected to feel sorry for him. He’s always been a Republican, in fact was the MacNeil-Lehrer Newshour’s token Republican, paired with TradLibDem Mark Shields, who survives on the all-Lehrer version of the show. Someone asked Gergen what he thought of the anti-Kerry Swift Boat Veterans ads. His facial expression was roughly that of a person at a formal banquet looking at a platter on which a little Scottie dog, trussed and stuffed, is served up as the centerpiece of the meal. “Disgust” doesn’t begin to cover it. He did make two good observations about ex-Democrat Zell Miller’s speech: (1) Zell Miller got his start with Lester Maddox (the rabid segregationist Georgia governor) and he sounded just like Lester last night and (2) Republicans talk about Kerry’s flip-flops, but Georgians have been talking about “Zig-Zag-Zell” for years.  

And Miller himself! He is one of most frightening looking people ever seen in prime time, including in horror movies, with his hawk-bill nose looming over the frown lines which dominate his face. You could run a video of his speech with an audio version of Puritan preacher Jonathan Edwards’ hellfire sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” or Cotton Mather’s “The Devil in New England” and it would be plausible. A real American fundamentalist, in other words. 

The content of his speech, like the content of the one delivered by Iceberg Dick Cheney, also reminded the viewer of another tradition, a European one: the Big Lie, perfected by the Nazis. Republicans are telling big lies and small, consequential and gratuitous both. Someone on the Internet will surely have a catalog of lies told at the Republican National Convention, but it will come too late to make any difference in the opinions of the average viewer. The outright fabrications were too numerous for the talking heads to count on Wednesday night, even seasoned mudwatchers like Joe Klein and Joe Conason, who each got an occasional minute or two to try to comment.  

And there was very little intelligent opinion available on the two channels where some small amount might have been expected: PBS and CNN. The one commentator who was permitted occasional cogent observations was the token Spanish-speaker brought on by Larry King, Univision’s Jorge Ramos. Larry kept calling Ramos “Gore-hay,” and seemed uncharacteristically reluctant to interrupt, perhaps because he was desperately trying to remember how to pronounce the name each time. In the most elegant and discrete way, Ramos said that his Spanish-language viewers in the 13 Latin American democracies would be deeply shocked by what they saw of the convention, particularly the enshrinement of the religious right, when many countries like Mexico cherish their traditional separation of church and state.  

It was the consensus among the talking heads, both intelligent and brainless, that the Republicans have put on this show of viciousness to energize their base, rather than to convince the undecided. Pundit Central has decreed this year that the function of attack speeches and ads is really to scare the non-politicized undecideds into staying home, to convince them that politics equals evil. The pundits could be right.  

The Kerry camp’s strategy until now has been Mr. Nice Guy: don’t attack Bush, just deliver an upbeat, positive message and hope that it persuades. This is starting to make Kerry supporters very nervous. Polling and focus groups, which in the last few years have dominated candidates’ decision-making processes, don’t seem to be working, because results are within the margin of error of the methodology.  

The Shields/Klein/Conason contingent has started spreading rumors of a reprogramming effort underway at Kerry Central in Nantucket this weekend, which might produce a more forthright Kerry posture. The people in the streets in New York have been trying to deliver the strong criticism of the Bush regime which they think Kerry neglects, whether Kerry’s on board with them or not.  

Kerry’s personal style derives more from the New England of Calvin Coolidge than that of Cotton Mather. But in the past, in the days of Vietnam Veterans against the War, he showed himself to be capable of assertive leadership when it was required. Now he needs to shift gears, to connect better with the New England style of its Irish immigrants and their descendants, people like Tip O’Neill, skilled at forceful, issues-sparked political rhetoric. He needs, in fact, to borrow some moves from the Kennedys, to whom he is often compared. John Kennedy had the word for what Kerry’s campaign lacks: vigor (pronounced “vigah” in the local dialect). A little Vigah from Kerry right now might make all the difference.