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Jewish World Review August 4, 2000 /3 Menachem-Av, 5760

Paul Greenberg

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Convention diary:
Waiting for W. -- PHILADELPHIA | Each night the delegates have heard from their presidential candidate, seen his assuring visage from afar and smiled with him as he makes his royal progress to their convention. Each night, as they wait for the buses back to their hotels, they review the events of the day with satisfaction, nod their heads and sagely conclude, "Yes, it was another good day.''

The opinion is nigh-unanimous, like all others here. All agree that it has been a "wonderful experience'' or, in the ascending Republican order of things, it has been unifying, inspiring and nice.

Certainly it's been a smooth convention. Smooth doesn't come close to saying it. This convention would make silk feel rough. Yes, sir, it's been a well-planned (not to say perfectly controlled) convention. Yes, ma'am, just what the party needed. Or anyway, just what the party ordered. A bus driver ending her shift says she's never had more polite passengers. Contentment reigns, but that's not quite what a political convention is about, is it?

All the smiley faces still wait for their Godot, and though they don't say so, or even think so, they have to wonder if he'll be here even when he gets here, if you know what we mean. That is the nature of Godots and presidential candidates. They raise unrealistic expectations. That is their function.

Whether this candidate will fulfill those expectations doesn't matter for now, only that he raise them. He has already raised one -- victory. This Republican convention feels nothing like the one four years ago in San Diego, which was about as cheery as a wake.

But a convention requires more than smooth. There must be a certain magic when the candidate walks out to the well-planned, perfectly controlled, tumultuous reception. He must bring with him a quality that is easy to sense, but not easy to define. Think of the opposite of Bob Dole. Think of whatever it is Al Gore doesn't have. It doesn't have to be charisma, as in John F. Kennedy, or an invincible aura of good will like Ike's, or a civilized eloquence like Adlai's, but it's got to be something. Something of his own.

Grateful as the delegates are to have a non-Gore as candidate, and grateful as they are for W.'s easy manner and that Texas twinkle in his eye, they're waiting for the magic. The only mythic moment at this convention was provided by Kate Smith. Although the Gipper can still bring 'em to their feet even in an old film clip. Just when you're thinking that no candidate can fulfill American expectations, it occurs that once a man did change the world. Godot did arrive.

In these times it is hard to put oneself back in the dispirited America and divided world of 1980 and fully appreciate the candidate who changed it. Talk about unrealistic expectations: Imagine a world without a Cold War. How did Ronald Reagan do it? Not because he was so eloquent, though Lord knows he could be, or because he was a model of the modern executive, and Lord know he wasn't, but because he was a great actor -- in both senses of the word. He acted. He made things happen. Even impossible things.

There was something about the man. He was a music man; he imagined and a real orchestra, led by 76 trombones, materialized. And the country, indeed the West, has been striding forward ever since. Maybe what he had was clarity -- first a clarity of vision, then a clarity of purpose. He was so clear that he scared some of us (as when he called an evil empire what it was), and inspired most of us. We did not turn out to be a fearful people after all. It was just that for a few years we had forgotten how to be clear, which is how to be brave. Ronald Reagan reminded us. He made it simple, just as FDR had. It was morning in America again.

Ronald Reagan is not here, and maybe not quite anywhere now. The ghost has left the machine. Mrs. Reagan is here to invoke the memory and the hope, but what this convention needs is the sense of possibility that Ronald Reagan invoked. Possibility is still the essence of America, the new world. But a while back -- it's not easy to say just when -- calculation began to replace clarity, and we started ameliorating problems, instead of changing things. Now we argue policy as if principle were superfluous. A different kind of malaise is back in politics, a malaise that has turned prosperous.

Can you believe that this long after Ronald Reagan, we still don't have the defense against ballistic missiles that he proposed? Can you believe we're still playing games with the rogue states out to develop nuclear missiles and become pipsqueak world menaces? (The only thing that has changed is that now we call them states of concern, not rogues.) Can you believe that this long after Jimmy Carter's energy policy failed, we still don't really have one?

Or that this long after Desert Storm, we're still scattering American troops here and there with no clear mission? And that, when American forces are deployed, it is in late, piecemeal fashion? When a general like Wesley Clark respectfully objects, he is ever so diplomatically relieved of his command. His offense: He embraced victory too openly.

Now and then on the floor of this convention, the happy fog lifts and clarity strikes. As when Condoleeza Rice tried to remind the country Tuesday night that the "men and women of the American armed services are not a global police force. They are not the world's 911.'' They are not the ploys of "multilateral diplomacy'' that our current secretary of state has mistaken them for. Or as Colin Powell put it in his memoirs, describing his reaction when Madeleine Albright first shared that sophisticated theory with him: "I thought I would have an aneurysm. American GIs were not toy soldiers to be moved around on some sort of global game board.''

John McCain also spoke. Now that he is no longer a presidential candidate himself, most of the fire is gone. But it's returning with every appearance. And the senator and war hero may really warm up if Bill Clinton keeps interjecting himself in the race. Do you think anybody has told the president he's not running this year? Does Al Gore dare?

There are plenty of sideshows here, but only on the issue of education has this convention attained clarity, both in principle and policy. Maybe that's another reason a school librarian -- Laura Bush -- was such a hit. Americans care about education, and we can see the problems. (How could we miss them?) When it comes to educating all our children, the GOP has seized the initiative and the day. But in general, this convention was concentrating on good feelings, and waiting for W.

Paul Greenberg Archives


©2000, Los Angeles Times Syndicate