By Michael Miner
They're Right, They're Left, They're Gone
As phenomenon, as chutzpah, as shake and bake, the Republicans' convention whipped the Democrats'. It was old news that the Democrats, to keep and get back power, had decided to sound like Republicans. But to keep and get more power the Republicans turned into Democrats. Jack Kemp invoked Lincoln--the unmentionable of earlier GOP conventions--and Martin Luther King, Father Hesburgh, and There Are No Children Here. The familiar dismissal of Democrats as the party of big government gave way to a vision of them immensely more presumptuous and entertaining.
"Today," Kemp said, "the Democratic Party is not democratic. They are elitist. They don't have faith in people. They have faith in government. They trust government more than markets." The Democrats were marked as yesterday's men, hapless as King John at Runnymede, Cornwallis at Yorktown. In my pity for these doctrine-stricken mopes, I felt invited to recall one of the century's more curious figures, the dashing young Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera of Spain.
Jose Antonio was a charming, chivalrous guy (Garcia Lorca's friend) who made a splendid martyr, but to a cause doomed to end on history's trash heap. "Jose Antonio's point of view was paternalist," wrote Hugh Thomas in The Spanish Civil War. "The liberal state, he said, has meant 'economic servitude, because it says to the workers with tragic sarcasm: "You are free to work as you wish: no one can force you to accept such and such a condition of work. But as it is we who are the rich, we offer you the conditions we like; if you do not accept them, you will die of hunger in the middle of liberal liberty."'"
In short, Jose Antonio, son of a benevolent Spanish dictator who'd been forced out by republicans, was a sentimental feudalist who suspected capitalism and believed in the dole. To challenge the liberals who thought otherwise, he organized the Falange, thereby helping set off the Spanish civil war, in which he was immediately taken prisoner and soon executed.
And that was Jack Kemp's message as I heard it. Democrats are now so wayward and out of touch that their antecedents have become not the liberals of old--whom today's Republican orators proudly claim--but the fascists of the 30s. Or as Dennis Byrne, stating the case even more elegantly than Kemp, put it after listening to Colin Powell: "Powell's assumptions are optimistic; the Democrats' are pessimistic. Powell assumes that free men and women are inclined, even compelled, to seek and find. The Democratic creed assumes that the instincts of free men and women are base and dangerous. Without a honeycomb of government regulators and overseers, Americans forever would be at each others' throats. Americans, left to themselves, would tear this society apart, because racism and greed are permanent conditions, a secular form of original sin that can be exorcised only by government intervenors."
This is one of the best Byrne columns I can remember reading, because the idea it raises is so provocative: that Democrats believe the people are weak and divided and require a hard hand--even a Franco or Tito. The Democrats of course would have none of it, and during their convention two weeks later a couple of Kennedys insisted that in all but the technical sense they were the genuine "party of Lincoln" (if not of the Abraham Lincoln Battalion). But if few Democrats would recognize themselves in the new Republican caricature, they'd have to admit it beat being scorned as tax-and-spend vegetarians.
Robert Dole, however, wasn't the man to connect Kemp and Powell's cheery dots. Though he duly proclaimed his optimism, Dole views life with a novelist's bleak eye; it's his palpable stoicism that makes him attractive. I was more impressed by Dole's acceptance speech than I was by the address of any other speaker at either convention. I admired it for the reason I admire a homely person with a sense of style. The speech fit him. Language is no less real than serge or satin, and the speech written for Dole showed him with a sure sense of what he wears well.
"Who am I that stands before you?" he said. "I was born in Russell, Kansas, a small town in the middle of the prairie surrounded by wheat and oil wells." Later he would insist, famously, "It does not take a village to raise a child. It takes a family," but there was no contradiction. Other than his parents, all he remembered of value of Russell was its sky. "Under the immense sky where I was born and raised, a man is very small, and if he thinks otherwise, he's wrong."
Offering himself as "the bridge to a time of tranquility, faith, and confidence in action" (as a Jose Antonio might have offered himself as a bridge to the reign of Charles V), Dole mourned the passing of "right conduct" in America. He wondered, "Why have so many of us, and I do not exclude myself, for I am not the model of perfection, why have so many of us been failing these tests for so long?" His answer was intriguing. "It is because for too long we have had a leadership that has been unwilling to risk the truth, to speak without calculation, to sacrifice itself." Dole may have had in mind the last 16 years of leadership, even the last 32, but presumably he was speaking only of the last 4. Dole was admitting his imperfections and blaming Clinton for them.
But Dole was also generous to the president. He spoke of war as one who knows war, and he spoke of Vietnam. "In Vietnam the long gray line did not fail us--we failed it," Dole said. "The American soldier was not made for the casual and arrogant treatment he suffered there, where he was committed without clear purpose or resolve, bound by rules that prevented victory....The American soldier was not made to be thrown into battle without clear purpose or resolve, not made to be abandoned in the field of battle, not made to give his life for indifference or lack of respect. I will never commit the American soldier to an ordeal without the prospect of victory."
To which millions of 60s draft dodgers, among them Clinton, can with a clear conscience say, "Amen."
Pundits would quickly decree that Clinton trumped Dole's bridge to yesterday with his own "bridge to the 21st century." I don't think so. This was a phrase so shapeless and contrived that no amount of repetition could make it sing. I began to flinch whenever Clinton spoke the words.
I was there with my family the last night of the Democratic convention. The spectacle was overwhelming. Later on the shuttle bus a delegate told my wife that when the thousands of red, white, and blue balloons that had been held in nets at the top of the United Center finally descended, they all fell in too small an area around the stage. Panicked Democrats began flailing away at the balloons, smashing them to escape suffocating. Indeed, the explosions cracked three tiers up. Imagine these balloons as bubbles of oratory, and that was August.
Lean and mean has its good days, but fat, mean, and smart has more. Admirable on its own terms, the Sun-Times's coverage of the Democratic convention was eclipsed by the Tribune's. The Tribune offered more writers, more pages--a separate daily section, in fact--and the sort of editorial ingenuity that space and numbers lubricate. Tangential features such as the essays by Saul Bellow, Sara Paretsky, and others; Richard Ciccone's ruminative history of conventions past; and the commentary of TV critic Steve Johnson helped set the Tribune apart. The Tribune--whose coverage was led by managing editor Ann Marie Lipinski and deputy managing editor James O'Shea--simply had more first-raters to put into the field than the Sun-Times, and the difference showed. It's not true that when there's no news there are no stories. When there's no news there's nothing but stories, and they need to be unearthed and told.
The only news found the Sun-Times at its best, offering a Robert Novak column and excellent Steve Neal feature on the disgraced Richard Morris. With another $100,000 to spend the Sun-Times might have provided more formidable competition. That's the money it preferred to invest in Chicago '96.
For the edification and amusement of the delegates the Tribune, on the opening day of the convention, carried a long profile on a throwback Chicago ward boss, Alderman Richard Mell of the 33rd. The account written by Patrick Reardon was far from flattering. But given that reporting began last January, that Reardon was just one of seven reporters in an investigative team led by Hanke Gratteau, and that Mell's son-in-law, Rod Blagojevich, was barely mentioned, even though he's running for Congress, the question asked itself--"Is this all there is?"
Maybe not. "We'll be covering the Fifth District race," Lipinski told me. "Some of the things we learned will show up when we start reporting that race."
Aside from Mell and Blagojevich, no one cares more whether another shoe drops than David Axelrod, a former Tribune reporter who's now a political consultant handling Blagojevich's race against Michael Flanagan in the Fifth District. Axelrod describes himself as "a pain in the ass" for five of the eight months the story was in the works, and in late July he made his case to editor Howard Tyner and publisher Jack Fuller in a 13-page letter, most of it single-spaced.
He pleaded for fairness. "What would be unfair," Axelrod tells me, "would be to kind of accord one candidate far more scrutiny and attention than the other candidate." He also says he worried that "the people working on the project were being placed under tremendous pressure to produce something spectacular for the convention week."
It could appear that Axelrod got what he wanted. Lipinski said the Tribune originally intended to run a series of stories on Mell, then decided on a single piece. But that decision, I'm reliably told, was made before Axelrod's letter arrived.
"The only thing David accomplished with his constant whining and this letter is damaging his reputation with those he needs most at the Chicago Tribune," says Gratteau. "He really attacked some of the people who worked for me on the investigative team. He attributes to them motives and manners of behavior that aren't even close to the way they operate."
"Frankly," says Axelrod, "I think I could have saved myself a lot of time and aggravation if I'd just kept my mouth shut--just kept my keyboard shut."
"David and I talked over and over," says Gratteau. "I promised it would be fair. He constantly agreed it would be fair. He knows me long and well enough to take my word on it."
"Perhaps," says Axelrod, "I went farther than I needed to and sold some people short in terms of what might happen."
As for what might happen yet, we'll see if and when.
I, and apparently every other Chicago reporter, heard last week from Joe Walsh, the Republican running against Sidney Yates for Congress. Yates turned 87, and the Tribune column "D.C. Journal" by Mike Dorning and Mary Jacoby noted that "no fewer than three press releases went out announcing a birthday celebration Walsh threw for the congressman (suggested donation $87--get it?)."
In the Sun-Times Basil Talbott's "Capital Letters" reported that "although Rep. Sidney Yates was a delegate to the Democratic convention, he didn't show up in Chicago....GOP challenger Joe Walsh tried to make some hay about the absence."
Poor Walsh. No one's more casually cruel than journalists who don't take you seriously. When an 87-year-old congressman doesn't or can't attend his party's convention, even though he's a delegate, his opponent damn well better make some hay. The mystery of the congressman's health deserves to be both an issue and a news story.
Bait and switch. From the August 24 Sun-Times: "Dole apologizes for NCAA snub; Page 8."
On page eight: "Dole apologizes for NAACP snub."
Some days the only decent way to feel is indecent. The ageless nature of the press conference wasn't going to change simply because Joseph Cardinal Bernardin called his to announce in the most serene way imaginable that he expects to be dead of cancer within a year. As the cardinal on television described his terminal illness and his plans for his remaining months of life, offscreen reporters shouted over each other's questions, raising their usual ruckus. Some of those questions surely didn't need to be asked. But others did.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Jon Randolph.