The Republican national convention is far less glamorous than the show surrounding Obamas nomination for President. The Republicans have chosen to position their candidate with memories of Vietnam and the help of a Democratic party pariah.
The scene is somehow bitter. It is Tuesday evening shortly before 9:00 in St. Pauls Excel Center. An aged George Bush Sr. and his wife Barbara are there and are being celebrated by the delegates. First Lady Laura Bush is onstage to introduce the man I love and is cheered. But President Bush is speaking to the party faithful, who are avoiding him, from more than a thousand miles away via satellite. He is given six minutes for his speech, half the time originally planned. John McCain, according to a plausible rumor, is relieved that a higher power Hurricane Gustav prevented Bush from attending the convention in person.
Its been decades since a sitting President hasnt attend his partys nominating convention, even during years of war or crisis. But Bush puts the best face on it, joking about the maverick McCain who campaigned against him in 2000 (Believe me, I know what Im talking about) and praises him as the right man to lead the country in a dangerous world. If the North Vietnamese, who broke McCains limbs torturing him, werent able to break his resolve, angry liberals wont be able to do it either, he says.
Without admitting it, the President hands over the Republican reins to the man who challenged him and party discipline often enough. McCain/Palin sell themselves as a team of reformers and freethinkers who want to save a decrepit party. George W. Bush finishes before 9:00 PM when the networks switch back to the convention in St. Paul.
Convention planners, who had to discard in two days all their plans of the last two years, had envisioned an evening of reflection and farewells. Nostalgic videos honoring Republican Presidents from Abraham Lincoln to Teddy Roosevelt, McCains role model, to Ronald Reagan (He changed our nation and the world) to George H. W. Bush. The 84-year old ex-President once again sees himself as a young pilot in a grainy black-and-white photo of him getting out of his plane after he was shot down in the Pacific.
Hes planning to celebrate his 85th birthday with another parachute jump. He and the other Presidents in the film appear strangely younger than George W. Bush. Applause flickers up as the clip of him at ground zero, megaphone in hand, is shown. And it flickers out just as rapidly. John McCain and George W. Bush are shown in the same scene, a joint appearance on some airport runway during the campaign, for a total of twenty seconds. Radioactive is the nasty phrase for the unpopular President, even in his own party.
The battle this evening isnt about the future of the country and not against Barack Obama. They are looking back at a heros life. Fred Thompson, ex-Senator, movie star and earlier this year forgettable failed presidential candidate, is the first to throw the raw meat the delegates need. He praises Sarah Palin for refreshing the Republican party and causing panic among their opponents. Outside the convention hall, many see it just the opposite: Palin-panic is spreading among the Republicans. Thompson gets applause for comparing McCain with Obama.
He says the war hero and noble rebel isnt one who gives speeches aimed at Americas foreign critics. But he soon sinks back into the comforting horrors of the Hanoi Hilton. In painful detail, he depicts how McCain was tortured, his bones broken, and how he starved for two years in a corrugated iron cell. Being a POW certainly doesn’t qualify anyone to be president, Thompson cried, but it does reveal character.
Following Thompson, who slept through his own campaign before becoming an ardent McCain supporter, came the man McCain really wanted as his running mate right up to the end. Senator Joe Lieberman, nominally still a Democrat, had almost pulled off the masterpiece of being the running mate of both parties. Al Gore chose the Orthodox Jew as his running mate in 2000 but John McCain, an intimate friend of Liebermans, had to do without him. Apparently, his advisors feared a party rebellion.
Joe Lieberman is a burning advocate for the Iraq war and therefore a pariah in his own party. But he defends a womans right to abortion, intolerable to radical pro-life activists like Sarah Palin and the religious right wing.
Lieberman said goodbye to the Democrats in St. Paul. He called Obama a good speaker without substance and said, God only made one John McCain. He said that nation came before party, especially in dangerous times. The Republicans applauded politely but didnt embrace him.
He departed, homeless, lonelier than before.