The Happy Talk Express

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Political theater critic Eric Engberg, who has observed mucho national political conventions, offers incisive commentary on the current Republican production.

The curtain rises majestically on this our opening night for the first political convention of the millennium. Mr. Conductor, may we have the overture please...


"I love you, you love me;
We're best friends as friends should be.

With a big hug and a kiss from me to you,
Won't you say you love me, too?"


We're joshing, of course. The Republicans, exhibiting a shocking willingness to write off the blue reptile vote, did not enlist the services of Barney the Dinosaur and his infamous theme song as the opening music for their convention. But Barney's message of Big Tent sweetness and, above all, inclusion would have fit right in to the opening night love-in staged by the GOP.

For the party that has suffered mightily in the last two national elections from its inability to win the votes of many women and minority group voters, Monday night's curtain-raiser was awash in the message: We are just as diverse as the Democrats. Not only that, we love to dance. The convention planners inserted so much time in the schedule for obviously required and hideous dancing in the aisles by delegates that one expected John Travolta to appear from behind a curtain in a white disco suit, without rhythm.

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But, in addition to happy feet, the party is selling a happy face, one that doesn't frown at anyone, even if they can't afford the country club dues. Monday night's featured performers included an African-American state legislator from Virginia, a Hispanic child singing the national anthem and the Asian-American wife of a Republican senator. It was clear that a super effort had been made to give women a lead role in opening night, including Mrs. Dubya, wife of the presidential nominee to be.

With the party's hard right elements muted by their desire to see a Republican in the White House again, the Bush campaign has taken every advantage of its opportunity to put on a telegenic convention without sharp elbows. Platform planks attacking foreign immigration and affirmative action, included in past party platforms, are gone this year.
Up in the celebrity seats, Bush the Elder, accompanied by Bar, must have felt thoroughly redeemed. Just eight years ago, he and his campaign ides had fumed helplessly offstage as renegade Pat Buchanan stood before the prime-time cameras and wrapped the party in the flag of anger and division. Whilst the Elder's administration wanted to stand for a "kinder, gentler nation," it was Buchanan's sulfuric message of a "cultural and religious war for the soul of America" most undecided voters carried away from that convention. It helped make the Elder a one-term president. Now, the Elder, dressed in a blue blazer presented to him by the Whiffenpoofs some years ago in New Haven, could watch the handiwork of his son's slick political machine, which had sanded down every edge of the confrontational elements within the party. This, among other things, is the anti-Buchanan convention.

All the good will and happy talk, of course, meant no small measure of silliness. The evening session opened with a remote from Philadelphia's Carpenter's Hall, where the first Continental Congress had been convened. After an actor dressed as a town crier rang a bell and yelled "Hear ye," the Speaker of the House, Dennis Hastert, appeared to welcome the delegates. It was proof of an old political axiom, "Once you go down the road to hokum, it is impossible to stop." Hastert, squinting and uncomfortable as he was book-ended by actors in Colonial era wigs, looked just like a wrestling coach in a school play, which he once was.

It is of course easy to malign the modern day political convention as just another television show lacking in the dignity of conventions of old, where the party actually did its business. Such criticism, it seems to us, loses its bite in a day and age where truly serious enterprises, like the National Football League and one of their principle broadcast outlets, have turned to Dennis Miller, a comedian, to liven up the Monday night games. For the record - and this does not mean that your Reality Checker turned over to ABC out of boredom to check out the game - Miller's first official joke as Monday Night color man went as follows: "It's just a game ... it's not the Vatican. But then the Pope doesn't go over the middle against Ronnie Lott."

On a par with Miller's flameout was the convention's only effort at intended comedy. Former Nixon speechwriter Ben Stein did a partisan spoof of his Comedy Central show, Win Ben Stein's Money. It was a big fizzle. Watching an Alan Keyes speech would have been funnier.

On the subject of jokes, the only gratuitous Monica Lewinsky cheap shot heard tonight came at 7:45 p.m., EDT, during the newfangled Rolling Roll Call the Republicans are using to formalize Bush's nomination. The leader of the American Samoa delegation, for no known reason, said he was casting that tropical possession's paltry number of votes "because we know what the meaning of 'is' is." No one said anything about cigars. The hall was clearly awash in good behavior.

After two hours of ersatz Ed Sullivan and real pople, it was delightful to get to a regular, old political speech by Laura Bush. This was Mrs. W's night to introduce herself to a country that has not heard much from her. And she did a friendly, comfortable job. As the cameras panned to her twin daughters in the audience, she concluded by saying that some day her husband would make a "great grandfather," and, in the meantime, he'll be a "great president." It's one measure of the proceedings that even this applause line measured comparatively low on the evening's saccharin scale.

Earlier in the night, Mrs. Bush made it clear we won't hear much more. In an interview with Dan Rather and other CBS News correspondents before she spoke to the convention, Laura Bush made it clear a Hillary-in-Waiting she ain't. Asked about a critical remark made by Mrs. C about the Republican convention, Mrs. W replied that she would not be making such political remarks. Moreover, she added, if she became first lady would not be running for any office on her own. This disavowal by itself could win over a sizable number of votes from that portion of the electorate tired of the emotional rigors that go along with All in the Family style politics.

The other main attraction of opening night was Gen. Colin Powell, architect of Desert Storm and expected by everyone to be Secretary of State if Bush triumphs. In prior years he might have been showcased at a GOP convention to emphasize the party's commitment to a strong defense and perhaps to twit the Democratic incumbent one more time about his draft dodging. Not this year. Powell talked about education and helping disadvantaged kids.

But it was Powell who delivered by far the toughest talk of the night. That came when he took Republicans to task for not working hard enough to understand minority voters. And the words were well received.

Tonight was the night for Big-Tenting and Compassionate Conservatism.

The whole venomless, tediously uplifting tone of the evening might have some usefulness as political shtick. But it sure makes for a boring show.