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Jewish World Review August 3, 2000 /2 Menachem-Av, 5760

Paul Greenberg

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The keynotes: There's a method to their moderation -- PHILADELPHIA | All day long, the cliches had marched across the First Union Center here like an army of locusts, reducing any ideas to nothing but empty husks. It was beyond boring, beyond tiring, beyond hackneyed. It was awful. All of us inky wretches knew this was a small, almost homey coliseum as national conventions go. But we didn't know it was so small it couldn't hold a single thought.

The press was very, very unhappy. We had nothing to report -- no news, no conflict, no Defining Moments. That should have been our first clue that something was happening here, something effective. But as the long day's journey to ennui continued, nobody noticed. And the evening's program looked no better. On tap were Ben Stein and Miss America, a nice speech from the First Lady presumptive, and a briefing by General Powell on do-gooding. It offered all the excitement of a campaign opener for the United Way.

The emblem of this IPO that has replaced American political conventions has to be the rolling roll call. It doesn't do away with the old ritual of the old Roll Call of the States but reduces it to bite-sized pieces, so that one can enjoy the nostalgia but not waste a whole evening. It's a kind of instant communion, history lite, new tradition, consistent contradiction. ... In short, a rolling roll call.

Think of the rolling roll call as the Restoration Hardware of political styles. So that one can enjoy the past without having to experience any of it except the surface sheen. It's perfect for the new, non-ideological times. Watch for a Rolling Roll Call near you; it'll be franchised and squeezed in between Gap and Banana Republic.

But then something happened. After an obligatory pause for a GOP press release read by the speaker of the House, Dennis Uh-You-Know-His-Name, the house lights went down. The floor, or rather the pulpit, was turned over to the Greater Exodus Baptist Church (The Rev. Herbert Lusk, Pastor) of Philadelphia, Pa. It was a film, but it could have been a revival meeting. For the first time this hall came alive, raising the possibility that Republicans have souls.

As the gospel music mounted, people were standing, hands waving, and before long everybody in the place except Orrin Hatch was alive. One had the feeling that not just the convention, but the campaign, had begun. These dead bones lived again.

Then the Republicans upped and walked away with the education issue -- one the Democrats used to call their own. The whole evening was being devoted not to education programs, but to education. There's quite a difference.

One after another, myths were swept away -- like the one about charter schools and vouchers just being ways to give the rich more private academies. Instead, these innovations are ways for the poor, for Hispanic and black families, and for the kicked-around in general to have the kind of choice in education that the rich have always have had. Boy, that would break some chains. Empowerment might actually acquire some real meaning.

Imagine: no more captive students. Maybe no more captive voters. The whole prospect terrifies the teachers unions and the rest of the Democratic establishment. Who will tell These People what's best for them?

Colin Powell did what he was supposed to do in his Colin Powell way. He is a great man, but not a great speaker. Which is just what this year's soft-sell calls for. The same lines that worked moderately well four years ago in San Diego worked moderately well again. The general spoke the way a secretary of state should. And it was a nice touch to have W., who was still on the road somewhere in Ohio, precede General Powell. This time, the presidential nominee was introducing the hero, instead of the other way around. Maybe we'll get our priorities in this country straightened out after all.

The knock-out number of the evening was Laura Bush in her own, 1950ish way. One halfway expected her picture to show up on the television monitors in black-and-white. But the young matron -- and teacher -- was relentless in her cool style. She showed the politicians how to mention Bill Clinton without mentioning him: Her husband, she said, would be a president the country could respect. And "his core principles will not change with the winds of polls.''

Laura Bush was able to pull out the latest Rand study of education in Texas to tout her husband's accomplishments, not just promises, in education. Especially among the kinds of students too often isolated and neglected by the system -- the poor, the black, the Hispanic.

Yes, the picture Laura Bush painted was of a mythic America -- but where else does a society derive its goals but from its myths? There is something to be said for a party that has the courage of its platitudes. And for a convention that, however well orchestrated, had begun to come alive. Multiculturalism, Hell, E Pluribus Unum was suddenly back in retro style, and it felt darned good, amigo. Ain't nobody here but us Americans.

What had begun with premonitions of Thomas E. Dewey had, by midnight, started to sound Eisenhoweran. There is moderation and there is stirring, uniting, successful, smiling moderation. The kind that lifts, not snarls.

Never underestimate an organization with the unembarrassed good judgment to end the first night of its convention with a black-and-white but never dated Kate Smith, still singing "G-d Bless America.''

I pretended not to cry.

Paul Greenberg Archives


©2000, Los Angeles Times Syndicate