AllPolitics - Pundits & Prose

What I Saw At The Convention


From Senior Washington Correspondent Charles Bierbauer:

San Diego (CNN)--Bob Dole is now the Republican presidential nominee. Jack Kemp is his running mate. That much we got straight at the Republican party convention here.

The rest is a matter of perspective--what you might have seen and where you might have seen it. My view was from the podium, about fifty feet stage right from where Dole and company spoke. Good seat, unlike many in the hall.

Yours, most likely, was in front of a television screen That's exactly where Republican convention organizers wanted you. That's where their message fit best, even constrained by the limited hour-or-two-a-night appetite of the broadcast networks. To borrow a phrase from the print-side New York Times, it was all the news that fit in prime time.

So you saw Colin Powell on Monday, Susan Molinari on Tuesday, Elizabeth Dole on Wednesday and Jack Kemp and Bob Dole on Thursday with a smattering of other speakers and glimpses of the taped and live schtick--fireworks in Russell, Kansas--the Republicans conjured to perk up the program.

The pro forma roll call of the states--Mr. Chairman, the great state of [name your state], home of [name your football team], proudly casts [number] votes for the next president, Bob Dole [insert Buchanan votes if absolutely necessary]--was relegated past prime time, at least on the East coast. Cutaway for local news, if you choose.

Here are a couple of things you might not have seen:

SHADOWS OF 1992: I ran into George Bush backstage on opening night. The exchange was brief. "Never felt better," the former president said. He looked well. But his son George W. Bush, the convention co-chair and governor of Texas, told me his father was a bit concerned about the reception he might receive.

Many top Republicans are still bitter with Bush about the lackluster campaign he ran in 1992. The campaign really started downhill after the snarling Houston convention where Pat Buchanan delivered a still considered vituperative and divisive.

Convention organizers were intent on not making that mistake here. Buchanan did not have a speaking role, not even with his eleventh-hour endorsement. Nor did most of the other Republicans who had vied for the nomination. California Governor Pete Wilson, involved in the platform brawl from the abortion rights side, was a conciliatory add to the schedule Wednesday to introduce Elizabeth Dole. Others were relegated to cameo taped appearances. On Wednesday night three of them were dropped to make sure Elizabeth Dole got on before the witching hour of eleven.

TIMING: She did. Almost perfectly. As Mrs. Dole returned to the podium from her stroll among the delegates she pointed to her watch and asked Republican party chairman Haley Barbour "can I come back out." Of course, she could. The convention crowd was on its feet and she was on time.

Colin Powell cut the margin closer on opening night finishing his appeal for the Republican party to reach out and broaden its base just seconds before eleven. Convention manager Bill Greener had been anxiously watching his watch and the slowly turning pages of Powell's speech. When the general beat the clock, Greener was out of his seat and high-fiving his neighbor.

Monday's salute to Ronald Reagan opened with comments from Jack Kemp. Michael Deaver, Reagan's imagemeister for decades, had gathered the material for tribute. I asked Deaver if they'd made Kemp a late insert to the tape after Dole named him as his running mate or if Deaver was merely prescient. Neither. Deaver put Kemp in the piece when he could not get his first choice--Arnold Schwarzenegger. "Dumb luck," said Deaver.

CONFLICT: Yes, there were 43 votes cast for Pat Buchanan. One for Judge Robert Bork. Some Republican grudges die hard.

Buchanan raises most of the issues that divide Republicans--abortion, affirmative action, immigration and then some. But since his swan song speech Sunday to his remaining faithful, the former television commentator was confined to a few appearances in the television booths.

Television perpetuated the abortion debate this week with the complicity of the few, but vocal minority of delegates for whom the issue is primary. Convention organizers had sought to confine the debate to the platform hearings last week. They were largely successful. But as some convention delegates complained, the media found Republican unity a less compelling story than the threads of dissent.

"Every American is a dissenter," platform committee chairman Henry Hyde told the convention. The Illinois congressman had masterfully controlled the issue in the committee where abortion opponents held sway.

There were a few audible boos on the floor when Colin Powell acknowledged his abortion rights position. There were cheers when a few speakers voice anti-abortion views. But there were very few mentions of the issue in the formal convention.

Jack Kemp had a mid-convention conversion on the issue of immigration. Kemp has angered many California Republicans when he opposed their Proposition 187 curtailing state aid to immigrants. Kemp was not on the presidential charts then and could readily--and dismissably--voice his opinion. Now he's on the ticket and he's deferring to Dole who has supported the California proposition. But Republicans are far from unanimous on immigration, especially a ban on pubic school education for children of illegal immigrants.

"They can debate it all they want here in California," Texas' Governor Bush told me. "But it's not a universal law. We want to educate those kids in Texas."

Arizona's Senator John McCain, who gave Dole's nomination speech, agreed what Californians propose is not what he'd want for Arizona.

As debated as the platform was, Bob Dole said before the convention that he had not read it. New Jersey governor Christine Todd Whitman as she came off stage after Thursday's grand finale declared Dole did not have to read it because "he delivered it" in his acceptance speech.

And then the Republicans delivered the closing shot--a shot of closure with Buchanan and the other one-time candidates joining Dole and Kemp on the podium. It was picture perfect, though the Republicans were not taking network televisions pictures for granted.

TELEVISION: Republican chairman Barbour wears two hats here--wielding a gavel and a microphone. Barbour is hosting GOP-TV, his party's own coverage of the convention via satellite and cable. The chairman dashes up and down from the podium to a tiny interview studio set up backstage.

"The Democrats' may be the last not to broadcast their own convention," Barbour suggested, referring to the Chicago convention which comes two weeks on the heels of this one.

The networks downsized their broadcasts and the party made its convention fit. Ted Koppel declared there was no story and folded his Nightline tent. Political junkies had more alternatives, though, than ever.

And Elizabeth Dole delivered the television tour de force with her walking, talking 20-minute who is Bob Dole narrative. On the podium the four network correspondents--CBS' Bob Schieffer, ABC's Jim Wooten, NBC's Maria Shriver and I--with about a hundred years of television experience among us-- were impressed with the performance. If Bob Dole doesn't make it to the White House, Mrs. Dole can take on a new profession talk show host.

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