Television by itself wasn’t true to the occasion. But when you were in the hall it was necessary to look, as it were, at the movie, because a certain amount of what was going on went on only on the screen. Jeane Kirpatrick’s speech was preceded by a short film about Jeane Kirkpatrick. Mr. Reagan himself, in this film, introduced her to us as a woman of the stature of Golda Meir and Mrs. Thatcher. And that feminist angle was not unexpected: the press had been reporting, dutifully, that the Republicans intended to do something that evening about the “gender gap.”
The film ended; the live band played; the delegates shouted and applauded. The applause was rhythmical and ecstatic, as at a revivalist gathering. The placards—We Mean Jeane, We Love Jeane, painted by volunteers and placed by other volunteers on the floor, below the delegates’ seats—were hoisted and jigged about for the television cameras: the confusing interplay continuing between film and actuality, the experienced real occasion and its magnified film record.
The text of the speech was available; but the Kirkpatrick speech was considerably more than the text. It was delivered by someone with a feeling for language; it was the only speech at the convention which, even with its simplifications, permitted one to see a real intelligence, a more than political intelligence, at work. Its theme was the need for firmness with the Russians and their allies. This was wickedly knitted into a taunting of Americans of the other party: “But then, they always blame America first”—a refrain which, as it was repeated, acquired the effectiveness (as well as the rhythms) of Mark Antony’s “But Brutus is an honorable man.” The speech was rapturously received; a wonderful photograph the next day in The New York Times showed Mrs. Kirkpatrick radiant and uplifted in her moment of success.
After that it was downhill all the way in the convention hall. A famous black football player came on and introduced some Olympic athletes. This was not in the official order of business; it was an afterthought; the player was introduced with a reference to his great height (6‘5”) and his corresponding weight (which I failed to note). After that came the politicians, famous names. But they all—in spite of the music and the applause and the placards—seemed to make the same speech, in the same tone, and in the same dead words.
Howard Baker: The Carter–Mondale team gave us double-digit inflation; 21-percent interest rates; a punching bag for a foreign policy, and the misery index.
Katherine Ortega: Think how far we have come since the Carter–Mondale years of double-digit inflation, 21-percent interest rates, and economic misery.
Margaret Heckler: We are now at a great crossroads. We have a choice between stagnation and growth, a choice between the rhetoric of promise and the record of accomplishment.
Baker: America’s choice this year is not just between Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale. It’s between a team that has proven it can succeed, and a team that has proven it can’t.
Heckler: It is an easy choice for me to make. In Ronald Reagan I see the special American spirit under God that drew my Irish parents to these shores.
Ortega: My fellow Americans, on the minted dollar of the United States is the face of Liberty, the profile of the woman of that great statue whose centennial we celebrate in 1986, the midterm year of the second Reagan administration.
Perhaps, the occasion being what it was—celebratory, tribal–religious—it didn’t matter what was said. (Just as it is often enough for a Hindu holy man simply to give darshan, to offer a sight of himself.) But these speeches, so impersonal, so alike, did little for the speakers. English, like other living literary languages, is constantly enriching itself by internal references. It is hard to use it without being allusive, without knowingly or unknowingly making some reference to a phrase from Shakespeare or the King James Bible or any one of a number of poets or comedians or film makers or historians or statesmen. In a speech during the war Churchill used a line from the poet Clough: “But westward look, the land is bright.” Clough was soon lost in Churchill; and the words, now Churchillian and famous, can be used or twisted in many (now perhaps mainly ironical) ways. Even Mrs. Thatcher can make a telling point by adapting the title of a play by Christopher Fry (famous in her youth): “The lady’s not for turning.”
There was nothing like this in the language of Baker, Heckler, or Ortega. The same speech (or very nearly), the same tone, the same personality (or absence of it), the same language: unallusive, cleansed, sterile; nerveless and dead; computer language, programmed sometimes to rise to passion, but getting no higher than copywriter’s glib. As though, at the heart of this great, man-magnifying occasion, there was a hollow, a vacancy.
I heard a little more about the black football player who had appeared on the podium after Mrs. Kirkpatrick. His name was Roosevelt Grier. He was a “television character,” a “celebrity character.” He had taken up needlework, of all things, after his football. But politically he had been on the other side. I was told that he had been with Robert Kennedy when Robert Kennedy was killed. So his appearance on the Republican podium was sensational; it explained, I thought, the awkwardness with which he had begun.
After the politicians’ speeches, I thought I would like to look at the football player’s words again. And (not having made notes, having been made lazy by the information facilities) I went afterward to the Media Operations Center, as to some heaven where everything was recorded.
The girl said with a smile, “What speech?”
There were stacks and stacks (of varying heights) of all the other speeches. But there was nothing about Grier or from him. He had been an afterthought.
I said, “I suppose there’ll be a text in the papers tomorrow.”
She said, “I doubt it.”
And there wasn’t—I saw a reference to Grier in one of the Dallas papers, but I found no text of his speech. The journalists, busy and obedient, knew what to leave out.
Gerald Ford, the thirty-eighth president of the United States, was coming to the convention the next day. The newspapers were full of half-admiring, half-curmudgeonly stories about the great sums he was earning at the age of seventy-one, over and above his $100,000 presidential pension. But Mr. Ford was out of favor with the right, and that was why (according to another newspaper story) NCPAC, the National Conservative Political Action Committee, as part of their American Heroes for Reagan project, had chosen that very day for their big fund-raising Texas Gala. The gala, a $1,000 a plate affair (but media people, if admitted, fed free), was to be at the Circle T ranch of Nelson Bunker Hunt, twenty-nine miles out of Dallas.
Bunker Hunt—how could one resist that name? The man who had tried to corner the silver market; the man who had bought, on an astronomical scale, into soybeans and racehorses; the man who had inherited a billion of his father’s oil money and turned it into two; the man whose wealth—like the wealth of his brothers and sister—couldn’t really be comprehended.
I had been befriended by Andrew, a young writer from New Jersey. Andrew had driven down to Dallas in an old car he had bought for $650; and it was in this car, without air-conditioning, that we drove west out of Dallas, at about six-thirty, into a flaming sun, in a highway temperature of over 100 degrees. We were driving with many others into Dallas’s suburban countryside. It wasn’t countryside really. The Dallas–Fort Worth airport is one of the biggest in the world; and regularly, one behind the other, in perhaps two lines, the airplanes, trailing black fumes, came down into visibility from the hot ochre sky and their lights suddenly glittered. The highway hissed with commuter traffic; and all around, the sky roared.
Andrew, with his northerner’s excitement, had said that the Hunt ranch had its own exit. That would have been grand indeed. But it wasn’t like that; you simply turned left off the highway, a traffic policeman staying traffic in the opposing lane. The grass was bright green, surprising in the heat; the post-and-rail fence was painted white. Just inside were the first helpers (and the first line of security men): young men in black trousers and white shirts, and some with black or white baseball caps.
In the distance there was a big white tent. Toward that we drove. The low, regularly spaced trees suggested a fruit farm rather than a landscaped park. We stopped not far from the tent and got out of the car. There was “valet parking” at this gala—at $1,000 a plate there could be no less. Black-trousered, white-shirted young men were taking the visitors’ cars to the far-off car park; and they were running back—running, as though that was part of the courtesy.
We were checked. We hung our press passes around our necks; young NCPAC stewards (their own badges of authority, on a kind of sticky paper, fixed to their shirt pockets) eyed us constantly. The gala—what was it? A cowboy on a white horse smiled and smiled at no one in particular and kept on spinning a little lasso, which now rose and now fell. A cowgirl sat astride another horse. “Western” saloon-girls and gunslingers moved among the guests. People sat on a tame longhorn steer and were photographed. There was music and singing from an open tent, country-and-western pieces. There were food stalls with Texan and Mexican food. Out in the open a side of beef was being barbecued, dropping fat into a long black pan on the green grass. There was a stagecoach, in which some people took little rides; it was a reconstruction, the stagecoach, not real, not an antique. Elsewhere, at rest, horseless, there was a covered wagon, apparently old and genuine. And among the gala guests were three or four Indians in full feathered costumes, waiting to be photographed.
We were in Texas, in temperatures and a landscape that awakened admiration for the first settlers. What was the average speed of a stagecoach? Six miles, eight miles? The railway came in the 1870s—did that do fifteen miles an hour? But the West of this gala was not a celebration of the past. It was more like a “production”; and so indeed—according to the inevitable NCPAC press handout—it was; it had been mounted by a specialist and immensely successful company (the subject of another very full hand-out). Cinema and television had swallowed up the past; this gala was for people who perhaps liked—as much as westerns—the idea that, as patriots, they liked westerns. And this cinematic version of the West was itself now being filmed for television somewhere: show within show. A red crane with a television camera from time to time unfolded and rose above us all, against a glorious sunset. There were light airplanes in the sky: somebody said they might have been gala guests, dropping in.