Every session of the Republican Convention opened with an invocation (after the presentation of the flag and the singing of the anthem), and closed with a benediction. A different man of God was called upon on each occasion. The benediction at the very end, after the acceptance speech by Mr. Reagan, was spoken by Dr. W. A. Criswell.
Dr. Criswell is the pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dallas, and in Dallas he is famous, not only because he is a powerful preacher, but also because his church and church buildings, which are in a cluster in downtown Dallas, are now—with the boom—valued at $200 million. Money is revered everywhere but in Dallas it is holy; and something like grace—a reward for faith in God’s land—attaches to real-estate success. Every day in Dallas (since journalists are obedient people, and also want to do what other journalists do) I read an article about, or an interview with, Trammell Crow, the local real-estate king, who has built many of the glass skyscrapers and hotels. Again and again I read that Trammell Crow was worth about a billion dollars. Dr. Criswell wasn’t in that class, but—offering benediction to the Republicans where Trammell Crow could offer only welcome and money—he trailed his own double glory.
On the Sunday after the convention, when most of the delegates and press had gone away, and the congregation was nearly pure Dallas again, Dr. Criswell preached on “The White Throne Judgment.” The title of his sermon was displayed in movable letters—like the title of a film or play—outside his redbrick auditorium. The auditorium—big, square, plain except for the colored glass—was packed.
People like myself, arriving late, or without reserved places, stood at the back. The time came when we all had to kneel; and it was hard for me then, kneeling with the others, heads bowed in prayer all around me, to continue making notes on my own Sheraton-Dallas Hotel bedside pad.
The choir wore dark red gowns. Dr. Criswell, like Mrs. Reagan at her first appearance in the convention hall, wore white or cream or a very pale color. The color contrast would have helped the television picture. There was a television camera in the aisle between the pews of Dr. Criswell’s church. The service was being televised live, and a note in the program sheet (which also contained a “decision card”) said that video cassettes of the service could be obtained from the “Communications Department” of the church.
Dr. Criswell, working up to his Judgment theme, spoke of homosexuality. His language was direct. No euphemisms; no irony; no humor. He was earnest from beginning to end. He moved about on the platform and sometimes for a second or so he turned (in his white suit) to face his red-gowned choir.
“In our lifetime we are scoffing at the word of God…and opening up society and culture to the lesbian and sodomite and homosexual…and now we have this disastrous judgment…the disease and sin of AIDS….”
AIDS, on the first Sunday after the Republican Convention, and in that voice of thunder! But if you thought about it the topic wasn’t so unsuitable. There was something oddly Biblical (though Dr. Criswell didn’t make this particular point) about AIDS, which struck down buggers and a special kind of black and spared everybody else.
“God is like his LAWS!” Dr. Criswell thundered. “There are laws everywhere. Laws of fire, laws of gravity.”
From this idea of Judgment and the laws (two distinct senses of “laws” run together) Dr. Criswell moved on to Karl Marx. A bugger? Only metaphorically. Karl Marx had his place in this sermon as a nineteenth-century atheist. Dr. Criswell gave Marx’s dates but said little about the heresies: in this auditorium Karl Marx was just his demonic name, and it was enough. Karl Marx wasn’t dead, Dr. Criswell said (or so I understood him to say: the theology was a little difficult for me). Karl Marx was still alive; Karl Marx would die only on the great Judgment Day.
“The great Judgment Day comes at the end of time, history, civilization…. The whole universe shall be turned to conflagration…. The caverns beneath this earth, the whole thing, shall be turned to dreadful fire and fury when the Lord cleanses this earth and purges this earth…when God comes to the end of the world.”
A wonderful cosmic idea, God coming to the end of the world: barely imaginable. But even less imaginable was the idea that many of the people in the auditorium were to be saved in some way from the cosmic nothingness; and that it was open to anyone to be saved. You could make a start by filling in the decision card in the program sheet; and, as in a hotel breakfast card where you put a tick beside the chosen hour of your breakfast service, so on the decision card you could put a tick beside the hour of the service that had awakened you. So commonplace and everyday was the idea of religious salvation and decision here.
Many people, like myself, had come only for the Criswell sermon. We didn’t wait for the hymn or the reception of new members.
To leave the air-conditioned auditorium and go outside was to appreciate anew the extent of the church’s properties, many of them named after Dr. Criswell. It was also—though the shadows of tall buildings made the street look cool—to be reminded of the one-hundred-degree heat of Dallas.
Most of the time you were protected from the heat, and were aware of it only as a quality of the light or in the color of the sky. But from time to time the heat came upon you like this, a passing sensation, not unpleasant, a contrast with the general air-conditioning, a reminder of the bubble in which you lived.
Dallas was air-conditioned—hotels, shops, houses, cars. The convention center was more than air-conditioned; it was positively cool, more than thirty degrees cooler than the temperature outside. Air-conditioned Dallas seemed to me a stupendous achievement, the product of a large vision, American in the best and most humane way: money and applied science creating an elegant city where life had previously been brutish.
Yet in this city created by high science Dr. Criswell preached of hellfire and was a figure. And the message of convention week was that there was no contradiction, that American endeavor and success were contained within old American faith and pieties. Karl Marx and homosexuality were on the other side of these pieties and could be lumped together.
The fundamentalism that the Republicans had embraced went beyond religion. It simplified the world in general; it rolled together many different kinds of anxieties—schools, drugs, race, buggery, Russia, to give just a few; and it offered the simplest, the vaguest solution: Americanism, the assertion of the American self. Practical matters were in the party’s printed platform and remained locked up there. Apart from Jeane Kirkpatrick’s speech about foreign affairs, there had been very little of purely political discussion. Americanism had been the theme of the convention, now defiant, now sentimental, as in Mr. Reagan’s acceptance speech. Fundamentalism, in its Republican political interpretation, was not just a grim business; it was as stylish as Mr. Reagan himself. The Republicans were “pro-life.” That meant anti-abortion; but during the week another, metaphorical, meaning began to be attached to the word. To be pro-life was to be vigorous, joyful, and optimistic; it was to turn away from the gloom and misery of the other side, who talked of problems and taxes.
Not all the Republicans at the convention were Christian. There was an Asian group. There are said to be twenty thousand Asian Indians in the Dallas–Fort Worth area; and the Hindu interpretation of Americanism and Republicanism, as recorded in the Asian-American caucus booklet, was illuminating of both immigrants and hosts.
Indians immigrated to USA to pursue their”dream” achieve fully their potentials in this land of “Opportunities.” They came in pursuit of their dreams, visions, happiness and to achieve excellence…. During the last few years most of the people have changed from “Green card holder” status to that of “citizens,”thus enabling themselves to be full participants in socioeconomic and political processes. They have chosen, by their free will, the USA as the “karmabhumi”—the land of Karma or action.
Texas as the theater of karma—what would Trammell Crow have made of that? But it was, really, no more than a Hindu version of Dr. Criswell’s fundamentalism, and in this Hindu version certain things could be seen fresh. To embrace one’s economic opportunity and good fortune was more than a political act; it was also an act of religion, the embracing of one’s karma. Religion, as a political attitude, in this setting, could be a form of self-love, and applauded.
A reporter, one of the many thousands present, said to me: “A convention is like a smorgasbord.” There were any number of events outside the convention hall. The press office, the Media Operations Center, issued a calendar every day, four pages listing about fifty events—press conferences, delegate meetings, breakfasts, lunches, parties, distinguished names, fashionable names, crankish organizations, special-interest groups, all competing for attention.
On the first morning, for instance, what was the best thing to do? Wasn’t there talk of a magazine-sponsored tour of smart Dallas houses? Or was one to go to the convention center and go through the security there, to hear Miss Texas sing the national anthem and to listen to an address by the overworked Trammell Crow? Or—and this was right in my own Sheraton-Dallas Hotel:
11:00 AM. Press conference, Richard Viguerie and Howard Phillips, Populist Conservative Tax Coalition. Subject: “Are Liberals Soft on Communism?” Guest speaker: Eldridge Cleaver, former Black Panther.
Eldridge Cleaver! One of the famous names of the late 1960s: the self-confessed rapist of white women, the man who had spent years in jail, the Black Muslim, the author of Soul on Ice (1968), not really a book, more an assemblage of jottings, but a work of extraordinary violence, answering the mood of that time. In 1969, when for a few weeks I had been in the United States, I had heard it said of Cleaver that he was going to die one day in a shoot-out with the FBI. That hadn’t happened. Cleaver had found asylum in Algeria and then in France; he had become homesick there and had returned, a born-again Christian, to the United States.
In Paris earlier this year I had met a man who had made an important film about Cleaver during the revolutionary days of the late 1960s. The film man now regarded that time, which had its glory, as a time of delusion. And now Cleaver himself was part of a side-show—or so I thought of it—at the Republican convention.
It seemed a big comedown. And it was even sadder, when I got to the conference room, to find that there was no crowd; that Cleaver was not the most important person there, that he was sitting on the far right of the second row, that some people didn’t seem to know who he was; that the few journalists asking questions were more interested in the other people of the Populist Conservative Tax Coalition.
So ordinary now, so safe, this black man for whom a revolutionary’s desperate death had been prophesied. I had known him only from his younger photographs. He was now forty-nine and almost bald; what hair he had was gray. There was something Chinese, placid, about his eyes and cheekbones; he looked very patient. His eyebrows were thin, like penciled arcs, and his hooded eyes were quiet.
The speaker at the lectern was winding up on the theme of liberals. “They’re not soft on communism…. They’ve been softened up by communism.” The speaker was a big man in a dark blue suit; there was a suggestion of flabbiness, loose flesh, below the waist. The lectern was stamped “Sheraton-Dallas Hotel & Towers,” in case someone took a photograph: everyone, after all, had something to sell. To the speaker’s right was a US flag, hanging down from a pole; beside that was a portable film screen.
Then the speaker asked for some words from a colleague—a former CIA man, of small stature, who more or less repeated what had been said before—and from “Eldridge.” And at last Cleaver stood up. He was tall beside the CIA man. He was paunchy now, even a little soft-bellied. His blue shirt had a white collar and his dark red tie hung down long. The touch of style was reassuring.
Somebody asked about his political ambitions. He said he wanted to get on the Berkeley city council. And then, inevitably, someone asked about his attitude to welfare. His reply was tired; he gave the impression of having spoken the words many times before. “I’m passionately opposed to the welfare system because it’s made people a parasitic dependency on the federal system…. I want to see black people plugged into the economic system…. Welfare is a stepping-stone to socialism because it teaches people the government is going to solve our problems.”
That was more or less it. It seemed to be all that was required of “Eldridge,” that statement about socialism and welfare. And soon the session was declared closed. A repeat began to be prepared. As in a fair, shows were done over and over again, and in between business was drummed up.
The film Whose Side Are You On? started once more, on the screen next to the flag. It was a film about American postwar decline and muddle: a modern voice over old newsreel footage from 1945: MacArthur, Shigemitsu, the Japanese surrender. Away from the dark corner, Cleaver, placid, gray-haired, leaned against a wall. Two or three journalists went to him. But the very simplicity of the man on display made the journalists ask only the obvious questions, questions that had already been asked.
There was a many-layered personality there. But that personality couldn’t be unraveled now, with simple questions in a formal public gathering. To find that man, it was necessary to go to his book, the book of 1968, Soul on Ice. And there—in a book more moving and richer than I had remembered—that many-layered man was: with his abiding feeling for religion and his concern with salvation (as a Roman Catholic, then as a Black Muslim, then as a revolutionary); his need for community constantly leading him to simple solutions; his awareness of his changing self; his political shrewdness.
I was very familiar with the Eldridge who came to prison, but that Eldridge no longer exists. And the one I am now is in some ways a stranger to me. You may find this difficult to understand but it is very easy for one in prison to lose his sense of self. And if he has been undergoing all kinds of extreme, involved, and unregulated changes, then he ends up not knowing who he is….
In this land of dichotomies and disunited opposites, those truly concerned with the resurrection of black Americans have had eternally to deal with black intellectuals who have become their own opposites….
In a sense, both the new left and the new right are the spawn of the Negro revolution. A broad national consensus was developed over the civil rights struggle, and it had the sophistication and morality to repudiate the right wing. This consensus, which stands between a violent nation and chaos, is America’s most precious possession. But there are those who despise it.
The task which the new right has feverishly undertaken is to erode and break up this consensus, something that is a distinct possibility since the precise issues and conditions which gave birth to the consensus no longer exist.
The “new right” of 1968 had become the New Right of 1984, to which Cleaver belonged. Of this New Right I knew nothing until I got to Dallas; and what I learned was bewildering. The New Right seemed to be as much a creation of modern technology as air-conditioned Dallas was; and the creator, Richard Viguerie, seemed to be as extraordinary and bigvisioned a Texan as Trammell Crow.
Viguerie was in the business of raising money by direct mail. He served a number of conservative clients—Conservative Books for Christian Leaders, No Amnesty for Deserters, the National Rifle Association (Frances FitzGerald gave this client sample in The New York Review of November 19, 1981). Then it occurred to him that people who contributed to one narrow or quaint conservative cause might be encouraged to contribute to other conservative causes, might be presented in the end with a larger and more satisfying conservatism. He used his mailing lists and computer and his flair; he discovered, and his computer could name, the conservative core of the country. And just as oil can be made to gush from the minute porosities of rock or even heavy green Texan marble, so, at Viguerie’s bidding, money gushed from the conservative American bedrock. He raised millions. He was in demand; he was a man politicians had to court.
Viguerie was the star of the press conference (“Are Liberals Soft on Communism?”) in the Sheraton-Dallas room. It was Viguerie, rather than Cleaver, whom the journalists wanted to see and hear. But I did not know his glory. I came away only with my mental picture of Cleaver and a copy of the Conservative Digest for June 1984. This was Viguerie’s paper. I found no substance in it. It was like a missionary magazine; it repeated and repeated a single idea, and was tedious (and intellectually embarrassing) for that reason. And in that paper the name of Viguerie seemed at least as important as the conservative message.
It was hard, in fact, to avoid the name. The name was given as the publisher; the magazine was “a publication of Viguerie Communications, a division of the Viguerie Company, Richard A. Viguerie, President.” The verso of the front cover advertised—with a photograph—“A Daily Radio Commentary featuring Richard A. Viguerie,” and Viguerie’s name was mentioned seven times. In the body of the paper itself there was a two-page article by Richard Viguerie as well as a two-page letter from the publisher, Richard Viguerie; and the back cover advertised a book by Richard Viguerie predicting a revolution against “the elite establishment” and prophesying a new “populist” party. One advertised theme of the book, The Establishment vs the People, was “How to take liberal rhetoric and merge it with conservative ideas.”
That, I suppose, was where Eldridge came in.
You could get a “press kit”—with a story or stories already written up—about almost everything at the convention: about the Southwestern Bell Mobile telephone systems; about the AT&T operations (“more than 60 miles of cable and more than 5,000 telephones within the 2 million square feet of the convention center to meet the voice and data needs of the 4,470 delegates and alternates, 10–15,000 guests and 13,000 journalists”); and even about Morrow’s Nut House (“since 1866”), suppliers of a “shuttle mix” of nuts and dried fruit to the delegates, a “shuttle” mix because it had been previously supplied to astronauts on the space shuttle.
On the Saturday before the convention opened, no less a person than Carol Morrow, vice-president of Morrow’s Nut House (“over 260 nationwide outlets”), was pushing a trolley with the shuttle mix (and the press kits) somewhere near the press entrance. It was extraordinary—so casual the meeting, so grand the lady. It was like running into the owner of Dunkin’ Donuts (if such a person does exist) carrying sample bags of his doughnuts.
The man who gave me my accreditation cards (to be hung around the neck: everybody in the convention hall and press areas had things around their necks) said, in response to an inquiry, “Upstairs there’s more information than you can carry away.” And indeed, in the Media Operations Center there must have been tons of paper on narrow long tables: biographies about everybody who was anybody, stories about everything, and, starting on the Monday, copies of convention speeches that hadn’t yet been delivered. On the television monitors you could see what was going on in the convention hall itself: there was no need to witness the actual event. The energetic reporter, with his ready-written information and the AT&T facilities, could telephone back stories to his paper all day.
But neither photographs nor television screen could give a true feel of the convention hall. The scale was staggering. The deep crisscrossings of the steel girders of the ceiling made me think of the iron-framed railway stations of London, Paddington, and Waterloo (and somewhere in Dallas, beside a highway, someone was building a replica of the 1851 Crystal Palace). But the scale was too big: I couldn’t trust my sense of size.
The figure on the podium was small. But above the podium, and at the back of the hall, was a big screen; and on this screen there was a cropped or partial image (head and shoulders, perhaps), many times larger than life, of the figure on the podium. Smaller screens attached to the steel girders of the ceiling frame multiplied this image; loudspeakers amplified the voice. To enter the hall for the first time was to have one’s sense of actuality unsettled; it was to be in the middle of a scene replicating and magnifying itself, making itself very important: as though here time, the passing moment, could be stretched.
The invocation was being spoken, by a rabbi; and the piety seemed correct. The occasion, with its magnification of man, had a feel of religion. Not religion as contemplation or a private experience of divinity; but religion as the essence of a culture, the binding, brotherhood transcending material need. That, rather than political debate, was what people had come to Dallas for. The scale and the mood, and the surreal setting, made me think of a Muslim missionary gathering I had seen five years before in a vast canopied settlement of bamboo and cotton in the Pakistan Punjab. And I felt it would not have been surprising, in Dallas, to see busy, pious helpers going around giving out sweets or some kind of symbolic sacramental food.
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.
In the other direction, away from the red crane and the television camera, the gala and the white tent, was the ranch house. It was on a slight rise in the ground and it was surrounded by trees. It looked a modest house. From this modest-looking house Nelson Bunker Hunt and his wife were now coming, preceded by a television crew and onlookers—perhaps more than gala guests, perhaps political associates, perhaps people admitted to social intimacy. The television team—cameraman, soundman, and reporter walking backward, like crabs—imposed measure and stateliness on the procession. And when the people at the gala saw what was happening there was an involuntary gasp, as at the appearance of a saint or royalty. And really, his family, his wealth, and his adventures made Nelson Bunker Hunt a figure of fable; there was no one else quite like him in our world. And here he was, in his own setting, for a cause he considered good and pious, half our host.
It was hard to hear what he was saying to the television reporter. He was speaking softly; he seemed to be chewing up some of his words; I could only catch the word “conservative” two or three times. He seemed to be expressing his pleasure at the spread of the cause.
In the “Self-Portrait” questionnaire he had answered for the Dallas Morning News that day he had given “overeating” as his worst habit (he adored ice cream, apparently); but he was a good deal less fat than the photographs the London papers had printed of him at the time of his silver “caper.” He had said that blue was his favorite color; and now indeed he was wearing a pale blue shirt, with a leather-thong tie, no thicker than a shoelace, but at the top button, instead of a knot, the leather thong somehow supported a silver dollar—a joking allusion, perhaps, to the silver caper. He was half smiling while he spoke. His wife, very small beside him, was smiling all the time; she seemed to be smiling out of pure pleasure at the occasion—the gala, the guests, the cause. She wore a diamond horseshoe brooch—just the one little touch of extravagance, almost like a little joke (matching her husband’s silver dollar), and it seemed, with her smile, to be an offering to us, her guests.
And so they moved on with their media train, past the Oklahoman Indian warriors in their bright feathers (Chief Blue Hail and his band), past the reproduction stagecoach and the tame longhorn: Mr. and Mrs. Bunker Hunt, benign and public-spirited in this manifestation, standing for money and luck and oil and the land and work and reward and God and the old-fashioned way, incarnating and appearing to make very simple the complex American virtue that the barbecue and gala were intended to exalt and defend.
The call came to dinner. Bells? Whipcracks? I cannot remember: the call was western, unusual, part of the folk theater of the expensive occasion. The enormous tent with nearly two thousand people was—incredibly—air-conditioned (with the help of five hundred tons of equipment specially brought in by Mobile Air of Houston, coolers of oil refineries). The 1700 or so dinners (“designed by Dallas food stylist Dorothy Berry”) were deftly served.
The benediction was spoken by Jerry Falwell, the fundamentalist Baptist preacher, the religious star of the right, who was to speak the benediction next day at the convention itself, after the introduction of Mrs. Reagan. Earlier in the evening Falwell had sat astride the Texas longhorn for the cameras. Now, with the lights playing on him on the platform in the tent, and with the TV cameras working, he, who had entered into the Americanist spirit of the gala, cast his own religious spirit over the occasion. He addressed God directly: “This evening is dedicated to Thee.” Texan whoops followed the “amens.” No sacrilege was intended by those whoops. These men, with true humility (the grand humility of the achiever, rather than the worthless humility of the defeated) were putting themselves on the side of God, and striking a blow at all that was ungodly, at all that threatened occasions like this one.
And virtue was its own reward. When Bunker Hunt was given a hand up to the platform it was to announce that the gala had attracted 1,650 paying guests, and not the four hundred or so he and NCPAC had been hoping for in the beginning. After clearing expenses, more than a million dollars had been raised from that tentful of people that evening for NCPAC’s American Heroes for Reagan project.
It was a staggering figure. A middle-aged photographer at our press table became very excited. He had no friend or colleague with him, and he needed to talk to someone. He said across the dark table, “I got a picture of Jerry Falwell on the longhorn. I never thought I would get a picture like that. Got a picture of Bunker too. Bunker was walking and he saw a fork on the grass. He bent down. He bent down and picked that fork up and put it in his pocket and he said, ‘That’s the way you save money.’ ”
A brush with the great, a story that was already a fable.
And it was in that atmosphere of success and communal self-congratulation that the NCPAC film “Ronald Reagan’s America” was screened. We at our press table saw it back to front. The screen had been put up in front of us, separating us from the million-dollar nobs.
The film opened with shots of John Wayne. It made him a great American figure, a figure of history almost, rather than a mere modern actor. The message was that all Americans who were positive and did jobs and served the land were like Wayne, were heroes. The subliminal message was that Wayne had been reincarnated in Mr. Reagan. The acting career that might have been an embarrassment in Mr. Reagan’s early political days now worked to his advantage. Americanism had become the conservative cause; and Americanism was most easily grasped, most ideal, and most sentimental (sentimentality being important to any cause of the right), in comic books (“The Justice Society of America”) and the lesser cinema.
Such wealth and power; such science and organization, so prodigally used even for the one-night theater of the Texas Gala. Such glitter, on the drive back to Dallas. But the greater the success and the greater the promise, the more painful the idea that it might all somehow go. And it was of this idea of threat—the other side of conservative sentimentality—that Ed Jenkins spoke the next morning in the NCPAC room at the Sheraton-Dallas Hotel.
Andrew and I went together. We spoke to Ed Jenkins because at that early hour he was the only senior person there. He was immediately warm, open, anxious to help. He left his literature-stacked counter and sat with us at a round table. He even, at my nervous request, turned down the sound of “Ronald Reagan’s America”—that film seemed to be running all the time near the front desk, perhaps to draw the crowds in.
Ed Jenkins was thirty-two. He worked full-time for the Conservative Alliance, one of the groups within NCPAC. The NCPAC chairman was also the National Director of the Conservative Alliance. The Conservative Alliance (CALL) had a project, the National Coalition for America’s Survival (NCAS), and this was running a Human Rights and National Survival Program (HRNSP). It was on HRNSP that Ed Jenkins was concentrating; and a press kit gave the “basic concept”: “The United States government must stop giving the Soviets and other Communist governments the technology, credit, money and security to violate human rights and commit other acts against God and mankind.”
Ed Jenkins said of CALL, “Our first aim is to stop communism. And turn it back. We feel it shouldn’t exist. We feel all the world should be as free as we are.” They were particularly concerned about the transfer of high technology to Russia.
And yet the movement had had simpler, even domestic, beginnings. “It was founded seven years ago. It used to be called ‘Conservatives Against Liberal Legislation.’ The name was changed this year. It was founded to fight the ramming-through of liberal legislation.” And by that Ed Jenkins meant busing, mainly. “The people of the United States did not want busing.” Busing brought misery to many families; Ed Jenkins had a sister who—though she had moved an hour-and-a-half’s drive away from the town where her husband worked—was still tormented by busing.
“There was this group in the country who were fleeing from their own government. Unknown to themselves, they were starting this movement. I know that I was going to private school at the time and I can remember the desperation of parents—they were trying to get away from something.”
I don’t think Andrew was a conservative. But as Ed Jenkins spoke about busing—so far from the subject of HRNSP and the Russians, and yet it was possible to see the logic of the political journey, especially to an idealist who might be unwilling to beat a racial drum or even acknowledge racial passions—as Ed Jenkins spoke, I saw that Andrew, for all his writer’s coolness, and even with his academic background, was sympathetic, and responding. Andrew, from New Jersey, understood perfectly what Ed Jenkins was talking about.
It was because of busing that people began sending their children to church schools, Ed Jenkins went on. It was because of busing that religious fundamentalism became respectable.
So here, sixteen years later, was unexpected confirmation of what Eldridge Cleaver had written in Soul on Ice: “A broad national consensus was developed over the civil rights struggle…. The task which the new right has feverishly undertaken is to erode and break up this consensus, something that is a distinct possibility since the precise issues and conditions which gave birth to the consensus no longer exist.”
Ed Jenkins said: “I should say that before this, fundamentalists were not political. The idea people had of them was that they were not an important force in this country. But you must also understand that the New Right is not just a fundamentalist movement. It’s all people. But the fundamentalist movement is a very important part of it. I’m not a fundamentalist, but I have a lot of respect for it.
“I belong to the Episcopalian Church myself. It’s one of the mainline churches in the United States, but I left it. I left it because when I went there I did not hear religion. I heard our priest rail against our government and the injustices of our society and Vietnam. He would tell us that the United States was an imperialist power and that our soldiers were killing women and children. At this point I had three brothers-in-law in Vietnam—two of them didn’t come back.
“The change was so dramatic, so subtle. I think that the liberalism that America embraced in the late Sixties and early Seventies created the power base of the right today.
“I left the church, as I told you, because my priest had decided that religion had to become a social movement. These mainline churches—like the Episcopalians—were actually becoming a part of the government. And to them if a fundamentalist church became involved with something political they were a bunch of nuts. But as long as it was a mainline church sending priests—on our money—down to Selma, Alabama, to be involved in violence, that was a social cause, and not a political cause.”
And now, without any prompting from Andrew or me, Ed Jenkins began to talk about his family history. It was part of his openness. It was also his response to our interest in him.
“My father was very conservative. He grew up in Akron, Ohio. He was the son of a very poor family. Irish and Welsh. On my mother’s side there is some German and Dutch. My father was probably the stereotypical American. He worked his way through high school, college. He usually had three jobs. He graduated in journalism because he couldn’t afford medical school. But he went back and he eventually became a doctor. When he was 27–28–29. He started with nothing. He died at the age of fifty-seven from overwork. But he had done the two things he had set out to do. Not just become a doctor, but the best doctor he could be. And, two, make sure his children would never have to go through what he had to go through. He would tell me stories, with his mother there, how when he was growing up they would have meat maybe once a week—and he was an only child. Because they were poor my father wasn’t—I wouldn’t say malnutritioned—but he didn’t get the vitamins, the food he needed, and because of that he was very frail and very small all his life.”
Ed Jenkins was not frail; but he had inherited something of his father’s small stature.
Andrew, who was partly Russian, asked: “Your grandfather?”
“He was a factory worker. When he could get work. My grandfather played on the first football team in America. He died very poor. Those people on the early teams made no money. My grandmother could remember being so ecstatic—it was very early on—because there was a championship game, and each member of the winning team was going to get five dollars.”
From one point of view, this was a story of deprivation in a land of plenty; in many countries it might have provoked anger. But from another point of view the story was of a rise: grandfather a factory worker, father a doctor. That was how Ed Jenkins looked on it. “It was instilled from birth that anybody could do anything in the world they wished, that if they had the desire and the will there was nothing to stop them. That was the beauty of America. I can remember other neighbors’ kids getting in trouble for different things and getting spanked. The worst thing anyone in our family could do was not doing our best, whether it was cutting the grass or studying at school.”
Andrew said, “You got spanked for that?”
I asked, “When did your father die?”
“In 1967, just before I turned sixteen. My father was opposed to what the government was doing. He felt our government was creating a welfare state, which he said is a mild way of saying ‘socialistic.’ On top of that he felt our government was backing down to the communists. He believed that the communists fully planned to take over the entire world. He was a Goldwater Republican until he went to the convention. I went with him. I was twelve.”
So Ed Jenkins was introduced at an early age not only to formal politics, but also—in the middle of his family’s success—to the idea of threat, instability (new horrors replacing the old), the idea of a world barely mastered being taken away again.
“I felt the government was destroying the fabric of America, destroying what made America great.”
But when was that good time, that secure period?
“People sometimes ask me who was the last great president. Some say Kennedy. I don’t think so. At the risk of appearing narrow-minded, I say Teddy Roosevelt. He was a fighter, he was stubborn. He was almost a salesman for America. America was the greatest country in the world and he was willing to go to any lengths to prove it. And he had the qualities I was brought up on—that you do the best you can, whatever it is—and the one thing you can say about Teddy is that when he took on a job he did it with a gusto, a love of life. He loved life. And he loved America.”
Ed Jenkins had gone to work for the Conservative Alliance for one year, and stayed for four. It was a financial sacrifice, but he considered it good and necessary. “Just as my father was worried about his children, I am worried about mine.”
Andrew, who was more impressed by Ed Jenkins than he thought he would be, said later, “That story of poverty and struggle is something many people of the right tell.”
Andrew was right. Early poverty was the theme of two of the convention speeches that evening. Senator Domenici told of his poor grocer father in New Mexico. Mr. Hill, a black Baptist pastor, told of sleeping in a pigpen in Dallas in 1947. It caused some heartburn that the pigpen speech wasn’t taken by the networks. It would have been politically very powerful.
During the convention one of the publications distributed was the Presidential Biblical Scoreboard. This purported to give (from various sources) the presidential and vice-presidential candidates’ attitudes to a variety of issues—abortion, homosexuality, women’s rights, pedophilia, pornography, the nuclear freeze, prayers in schools. Just as all these issues were seen as “Biblical” issues, so they all appeared to be aspects of one big issue of right and wrong, requiring only a particular kind of faith.
Mr. Reagan didn’t come out too badly in the Scoreboard. Once, before he became president, he was asked by a reporter, “Governor, whom are you patterning your life after?” Mr. Reagan said, “Oh, that’s very easy. The man from—“ After all the shots of John Wayne in “Ronald Reagan’s America,” and the emphasis on Mr. Reagan’s own film past, one might have expected Mr. Reagan to say, “The man from Laramie.” But what he said was, “The man from Galilee.” And, oddly, during the convention week, the two did not seem dissimilar. The pervading sentimentality—about old America, the old faith, the West (or the western), old films, old stars—had brought the two ideas together, and almost without blasphemy. Mr. Reagan, running together his three roles—actor, politician, old-fashioned Christian—had made himself into a formidable political personality. He answered many needs; many people of the many-featured right could read their fantasies in him. He was an actor: an actor could say very little, and still stand for a lot.
On Wednesday, at the convention center, after the pigpen speech (delivered in a hectoring, Baptist way), there was a film about Mrs. Reagan. She was shown unveiling a plaque to her surgeon father and appearing to sob. There was something about her acting career. Frank Sinatra sang the song about Nancy. Mr. Reagan said with emotion, “I don’t know what I’d do without her.” And in the end they walked off down a slope into a wood.
The lights went on and there was applause. We had a surprise. The film was not a substitute for Mrs. Reagan’s presence. Mrs. Reagan had been brought in during the screening of the film and was now on the podium, in white. We had a further surprise: on the big screen at the back there wasn’t a big picture of Mrs. Reagan, but a live view of Mr. Reagan in his room at Trammell Crow’s Anatole Hotel. Mrs. Reagan waved at the big screen. For a second or so Mr. Reagan seemed bemused, but then he started waving back. It was a great moment of family theater. And it was enough. It was what the delegates needed. All that was required of Mr. Reagan now was his presence. And that was what we got on the last day.
The political part of his speech repeated what had been said by others. The poetical part at the end, about the “springtime of hope,” was less a speech, less a matter of poetry and language, than a scenario for a short documentary about multiracial, many-landscaped America. So that at the climax of the great occasion, as at the center of so many of the speeches, there was nothing. It was as if, in summation, the sentimentality, about religion and Americanism, had betrayed only an intellectual vacancy; as if the computer language of the convention had revealed the imaginative poverty of these political lives. It was “as if”—in spite of the invocations and benedictions (the last benediction to be spoken by Dr. Criswell)—“as if inspiration had ceased, as if no vast hope, no religion, no song of joy, no wisdom, no analogy, existed any more.”
The words are by Emerson; they were written about England. English Traits, published in 1856, was about Emerson’s two visits to England, in 1833 and 1847, when he felt that English power, awesome and supreme as it still was, was on the turn, and that English intellectual life was being choked by the great consciousness of power and money and rightness. “They exert every variety of talent on a lower ground.” Emerson wrote, “and may be said to live and act in a submind.” Something like this I felt in the glitter of Dallas. Power was the theme of the convention, and this power seemed too easy—national power, personal power, the power of the New Right. Like Emerson in England, I seemed in the convention hall of Dallas “to walk on a marble floor, where nothing will grow.”
October 25, 1984