An unconsummated hate can be almost as unsettling as an unrequited love. After all its decisions were made, the Republican convention was nonetheless inconclusive. Reagan’s forces won every battle, and lost the war. They humiliated Ford without defeating him. The President crawled through to the nomination on his knees; and, while he was down there anyway, embraced Dole as his vice president. The ticket needed balance, and Mr. Ford is obviously nice.
The scattered impact of it all was augmented by the convention’s physical setting. Kansas City tends to wander, like the attention of its visitors. Near the mushy junction of the Kaw River with the Missouri, Kansas City survived when other landings had been washed away; it straddles rock outcroppings. This meant gullies had to be bridged or ignored as the city reached out to neighbor bastions. The result is episodic, like the convention that chased around the city trying to find itself.
Whenever Kansas City picks a rocky height and decides to build on it, it builds big. Tom Pendergast encouraged that, since the biggest buildings used most of his Red-D-Mix cement—including Harry Truman’s Jackson County courthouse. Truman liked to boast he brought in outside (read: honest) architects to construct that pile. Pendergast didn’t care: he would pour cement to anybody’s plan. He even poured a broad deep bed for a creek in the fake “Seville” called Country Club Plaza. His style continues in sedater monuments. When Joyce Hall (of “Hallmark” valentines and dollar signs) wanted to put something on Signboard Hill, he poured more concrete than most state highways contain. The resulting Crown Center is waste and scary as a Chirico above, but a labyrinth of boutique-warrens down below. The hotel lodged in the “complex” is plashy with fake waterfalls—three fountains in a coin. The president stayed there, where the week’s craziest party was held—and also the best party.
Begin with the best. Under the twisted sail-canvas shelters of Crown Center’s plaza, Carl Privaterra held a “Festa Italiana” on the opening weekend of the convention. The Italian community—which furnished hit-men to Pendergast, like Johnny Lazia and Charley Carolla—sang and danced more engagingly than anyone else would do all week. Unfortunately, Mr. Privaterra went on to the other party, inside the President’s hotel, where he was asked to lead the Pledge of Allegiance, and forgot “under God” before “indivisible.” The patriots were reduced to a gabble and disjunct patter toward the end.
This party was held by the “US Citizens’ Congress,” with Secretaries William Simon and Earl Butz as guests of honor. Rabbi Baruch Korff, a leader of the Citizens’ Congress, embraced both men as they came in, and lobbied delegates to voice a demand that he address the convention on President Nixon’s behalf. Republicans are wonderfully polite—they let the rabbi babble, and tried to think of ways to help him. Mr. Butz spent much of his speech praising Mr. Simon. Then, when Simon praised him in return, the secretary of agriculture threw pennies up over the podium to the secretary of the treasury—who obligingly stooped to pick them up. Both secretaries praised the free enterprise system, which is the mystical doctrine binding Republicans together. What they describe has never been seen on land or sea, but they solemnly promise each other to “preserve” it. This makes them, they think, “conservatives,” though what they want to conserve is the most revolutionary force on the face of the globe. Capitalism is expansive and risk-taking; it accumulates resources to make large leaps into the unknown. When the resources cannot be gathered any other way (e.g., from peasants), a government takes charge of the project—this form of capitalism is called communism, and is the mortal enemy of the “capitalists” who sit and listen to Bill Simon tell them how private enterprise made them what they are today.
Earl Butz told the assembled wealthy that farmers are the hope of America because they have learned that you cannot make “Bossy” stop giving milk on weekends, and because no evil union has arisen to put two drivers on every tractor, the way they put three men in a railroad engine. He concluded this hymn to private initiative by adding that the government would not embargo wheat sales to Russia any more, making sure the competitive capitalist revolutions fight each other with both hands in each other’s pockets.
Republicans are terribly engaging; they are the only people who still believe the slogans we were all brought up on. Democrats talk just as much nonsense; but they know it is nonsense, and that ages them. Republicans are young forever. They go on thinking the capital accumulation revolution is “conservative.” When they are not cursing “the State,” they are asking It to censor books and movies, enforce the sabbath, and keep booze in brown paper bags. The revolutionary nature of this enterprise never strikes them at all; not even when they have drafted a party platform calling for wholesale rewriting of the Constitution—with five brand-new amendments to begin with. They are permanent revolutionaries, the warriors against reality; and the forlorn quality of their battle makes them more likable than the sordid traffickers in fact.
The only problem with Republicans is that their naïveté puts them at the mercy of crude self-promoters like Baruch Korff. Korff rose, toward the end of the evening, to offer Bill Simon to the convention for vice president. That explained why Simon was there—as he would be in delegation after delegation, chasing off Pat Boone, the Reagan crew’s perennial teenager, with praise for Gerald Ford. But the price was a high one to pay. Conservatives put fine minds like that of Simon to the most demanding tasks—even to finding reasons to praise Ford.
Praising Reagan was comparatively easy. After all, he had the good taste not to know his own vice-presidential candidate, whose name he kept mispronouncing. I was in the crowd that welcomed Mr. Reagan with such good grace that it did not even gag when Richard Schweiker got up to say he had opened the door to liberal Republicans (that forlorn crew represented by dyspeptic types like my own senator “Mack” Mathias). Murray Kempton thought this sounded like Nixon’s overtures to Mao. Schweiker was decently hidden much of the week, but not quite forgotten. He took the bloom off conservatives’ real claim to honor—that they have always had the decency to despise Nelson Rockefeller. What good is accomplished by endlessly insulting Rockefeller (who takes the insults with a grateful smile) if you are just going to bribe Richard Schweiker to give up his enthusiasm for COPE? The good old hates were oddly confused, and remained unconsummated.
The convention had no real focus. It was almost as individualist as Republican myths would have us believe the country is. The true story had to be chased all over Missouri and half of Kansas, wherever the Republicans’ national committee had found room to stash an uncommitted delegate. The out come was preordained: the individual, unsupported, will yield in time to the greatest power. Ford, despite all his efforts, simply could not throw away his party’s nomination. There is too much power in residence at that address on Pennsylvania Avenue. Delegate after delegate gave up his idealism to the comic promise of power from a man who does not know the first thing about it. The closest thing to a focus for this convention was the Ramada Inn where Mississippi played the shameless flirt. Clarke “Broken” Reed kept bidding up the price for his own sale, until Harry Dent was forced to seek more reliable brokers in that delegation. John Sears covered his own failure with the Mississippi delegates by describing it as an act of mercy—if any more bids were made to the state, delegate by delegate, he felt the whole motel full of them would drop dead of fatigue. If you can’t buy it, you might as well call it damaged merchandise.
Since no single journalist could equal the President’s resources in holding the hand of all the scattered delegates—much less wangle an invitation to go with each one to the White House over recent weeks—most of us settled for the John Sears sideshow. Sears kept the attention of “the media” by ignoring facts, in the best Republican tradition. He made the improbable Ron look good by juxtaposing him with the impossible Schweiker. “This is so crazy he must have something in mind,” most journalists said, for want of anything else to say or think as the dreary mopping up of the last dozen delegates or so went on. Sears amused us by proving he could commit every indignity upon the President of the United States short of unseating him. He used the nomination of Schweiker to argue: “If you think what we did is crazy, just wait till you see what Jerry does.” Sears had already let Jesse Helms rewrite the platform at will; then—to add a final note of contempt—he cooked up a last-minute addition insulting the President’s foreign policy. The President simply held his nose, and swallowed. Even when Ford won, he booted away victory: after defeating the Sears ploy of announcing vice-presidential choices ahead of time, Ford paused, at the very moment of leaving Kansas City, to call this a pretty good idea—which proves that it isn’t.
The myth this convention gave birth to is that John Sears almost tricked the Reagan people, who love to lose, into winning. But the only people Sears really tricked were journalists, who had to justify all those daily sessions in the Municipal Auditorium (a huge pile of Red-D Mix, with art-deco chromium insides). Reagan’s people do not want to win; they want to believe. If Sears had found a way to win, they would have found a way to stop him. As it is, there was no way to be found. Anyone who loses to Ford obviously had to lose.
The night trip to the other side of the tracks, where Kemper Arena flexed its exoskeletal spine and elbows of pipe, was a formality. Almost all the buying and selling was done by the time the purchases arrived, properly ticketed for admission. Ford’s people tested the tolerance of the convention on Tony Orlando before daring to slip Henry Kissinger into a seat. Mr. Orlando was the Sammy Davis Jr. of this convention. Davis, you remember, smothered Richard Nixon with kisses in the small of his back, while the stunned president wondered what could be attached to the black hands that had grabbed him. Mr. Orlando used the President’s wife to sell another million or so records of his song about a convict returning from prison. Connoisseurs of Republican conventions might remember that Mrs. Magruder tied a yellow ribbon around a tree at her front door when Jeb was sprung.
Without much serious business to conduct, the convention settled down to serious screaming. The ritual drone of Reagan’s bull-roarers was punctuated with little bleeps and high squirts of sound from the President’s horns. Hilaire Belloc talked of French armies returning defeated, “having accomplished nothing but an epic.” The Republicans accomplished little at their convention but the liveliest farting contest since Aristophanes. The length and intensity of the losers’ cheers proved that, though the party’s small slow brain stayed with the President, its big dumb heart was Ron’s. Republicans are always giving up their real candidate in order to win—and then they lose. They surrender their ideals, but not enough.
This dumb-out at the O-K Corral crawled to its tortoise vs. tortoise dead-heat conclusion inconclusively. Ford contrived to find, for his vice-presidential candidate, another Ford, plus meanness. It was a slow learner’s late and bad imitation of the John Sears strategy: the choice looked so bad it must be brilliant. It was bad enough, in fact, to silence Reaganites, without satisfying them. They were not even allowed the comfort of real contempt at the end. They felt obliged to keep kicking Ford, but affectionately. He had defeated them by refusing to fight. Even when these delegates tried to blow their brains out down long thin kazoos, the only thing they could freight the air with was sound. They left Kansas City disconsolate, knowing that Carter had not only stolen the South from them (Clarke Reed could not really play Strom Thurmond to this convention—all he had were delegates, not electoral votes); Carter had also pocketed God and taken Him away for November use. Republicans have always thought that at least they were losing in good company—God’s.
Some people talk not only of the Republicans losing in November, but of their disappearing. I can’t believe it. The Republicans are as impossible, and indispensable, as the national anthem. One of them, at that party for aged adolescents called together as a “Citizens’ Congress,” told me, “Jimmy Carter will defeat himself. He doesn’t look like a president. Imagine him conducting a formal state funeral.” Republicans have to be kept around for occasions like state funerals. They preserve our memory of an America that never was. We need them. We all need our illusions. Who else can give us lines like this, from Robert (“Bob”) Dole’s acceptance speech?—“Wherever tyranny reigns in the world, it reigns through the instruments of government.” That is on a par with: “Wherever men tell lies, it is through the instrument of language.” Still, there is a good deal to be said for not having a president. It is typical of the Republicans’ lack of acquaintance with reality that, having long called for that state of affairs, they refuse to appreciate it when Ford gives it to them.
September 16, 1976