Still regularly seeking refuge from the present in the past, I found myself thinking about the roots of today’s GOP again, and a time when it seemed that Republicans were already beginning to get a little wacky and out of touch with the American people, the 1992 Republican National Convention in Houston, Texas.
Who better to cover that convention than Molly Ivins, who had an unparalleled way with words regarding the endlessly entertaining politics of Texas, which has often been said to be like America, but on steroids.
No journalist ever covered the Bush family with such joy and tender loving care as Ivins. Read her coverage of the ’92 RNC below, first in the September 4, 1992 Texas Observer, and then in the September 14, 1992 Nation magazine.
For more on Molly Ivins, check out the 2019 film, Raise Hell: the Life and Times of Molly Ivins.
Moral Cleansing in Houston
by Molly Ivins
September 4, 1992
I thought Patrick Buchanan’s speech was chock-full o’ dandy ideas. Religious warfare, for example. Due to the unfortunate historical luck of our nation having been founded well after the Reformation and the Inquisition and all that good stuff, we’ve never had religious warfare in this country, and just think of all we’ve missed.
Mass slaughter in the name of God, killing for Christ, pogroms, the ambience of Northern Ireland and Lebanon, tons of fun. Cultural cleansing. There’s another knacky notion. Why should the Bosnians have all the fun? We could have a cleansing of our very own right here at home.
I especially liked Buchanan’s program for the inner cities – M16s. That was the Battle of Stalingrad portion of the speech, you recall, in which we retake our cities block by block from these people who have somehow infiltrated their own country.
That Buchanan’s story of the young National Guardsmen who saved the home for the elderly from mob menace turned out not to be true is of no importance to me.
We here at the Republican convention approach truth in a larky spirit, with imagination, flexibility and insouciance. We never consider hypocrisy at all. That is why Patrick Buchanan was able to call Bill Clinton, who suffered an acute crisis of conscience over the war in Vietnam and then signed up for the draft lottery anyway, a draft dodger.
So what? If that doesn’t trouble Pat Buchanan, who was himself an ardent supporter of the war in Vietnam but was excused from the draft after he explained to his board how terribly a knee was bothering him, then what-the-hell, why should it bother us? Who cares that the same knee that bothered him so awful bad at the age of 20 is the one he still jogs on today at the age of 53?
We’re into an antic spirit here at the Astrodome. Anything goes.
Hate-mongering, you say? Hate-mongering against gays? O pish. Tush. Why not claim that gays are seeking special protection and special preferences under the law? Just because they pay taxes and die in wars (military regulations against them notwithstanding) like everyone else is no reason to assume they should be given equality under law, is it?
Just because no gay group has ever demanded preferential treatment at the national, state, or local level – never asked for hiring quotas or affirmative action or special preference of any kind – is that any reason not to claim they have?
They have, after all, asked that they not be discriminated against because of their sexual orientation. Where is your good Republican spirit of laissez faire?
I would be totally bummed by this convention if I didn’t think I was looking at a lot of dead political meat here. How many things can one party do wrong? The Republicans deliberately stacked this convention with fundamentalist right-to-lifers when they thought Ross Perot was going to be in the race. Assuming the vote would split 30-30-30 and all they needed was a few more points from a small war or some such handy event, the Rs went out to nail down their far right-wing base.
And now they’re nailed over there, far from the mainstream, pretending it’s a big tent while the delegates boo and charge the podium at any mention of choice on abortion.
For a wonderfully gleeful demolition of the new Republican claim that Clinton raised taxes in Arkansas “128 times,” see Michael Kinsley’s merry abolition of this novel thesis in the August 31 edition of the New Republic or his syndicated column.
Notes from Another Country
September 14, 1992
Nothing like a Republican convention to drive you screaming back into the arms of the Democrats. Especially this convention. The elders of the press corps kept muttering that they haven’t seen anything like it since the Goldwater convention in ‘64. True, the Republicans spent much of their time peddling fear and loathing, but it was more silly than scary, like watching people dressed in bad Halloween werewolf costumes. During the buildup to the convention, the most cockeyed optimists among the Democrats were in hopes the Republicans would tear themselves apart over abortion. No need. The party was dead meat on arrival.
I am a cautious political bettor. It’s silly to put money down any closer than six weeks out from Election Day, and one should never underestimate the ability of the Democrats to screw up. But the Republicans have nothing going for them, and nothing they can try works. They got a three-point bounce out of their convention. The in-depth polling shows the great majority of the public didn’t care for the gay-bashing, didn’t care for the feminist-bashing, didn’t care for the Hillary-bashing, and thought the whole exercise was too negative. It was.
The most surprising aspect of the convention was George Bush, and the surprise was – no surprises, not even a mini-idea. His own advisers were pushing the line that his big speech would finally, at long last, answer all the questions – how to get out of the recession, what the domestic agenda should be, and what his vision thing actually is. They even promised that after four long years we would learn who the hell he is and what he really believes. We got nothing.
On the economy, one more time, he pushed a capital-gains tax cut. There is little historical evidence that a cap-gains cut stimulates the economy, and recent studies by academic economists (as opposed to the political kind) show that half of realized capital gains go straight into consumption. It’s the dumbest kind of tax subsidy to conspicuous consumption you can try.
You can argue, as both Paul Tsongas and Bill Clinton do, that a targeted capital-gains cut would be beneficial. Bush not only wants the cut with no strings, he’s arguing for a cut on past investments, which is nothing but a windfall for richies.
The confabulation in Houston was not, however, without its charms. I loved Ronald Reagan’s speech – especially the line about Thomas Jefferson. Until it occurred to me to wonder what would have happened if Jefferson, surely the finest intellect this soil has ever produced, actually did meet Reagan. Imagine the conversation:
“Ignorance is preferable to error; and he is less remote from the truth who believes nothing, than he who believes what is wrong.”
“Well. Make my day.”
(Such ruminations may be a consequence of the brain damage caused by listening to Republicans bloviate for hours on end. In the line of journalistic duty, I attended the God and Country Rally featuring Phyllis Schlafly, Pat Robertson, and Pat Boone, and am filing a worker’s compensation claim against The Nation.)
Many people did not care for Pat Buchanan’s speech; it probably sounded better in the original German.
No one could decide whether Phil Gramm or Pat Robertson made the worst speech of the convention, perhaps because no one listened to them.
In trying to determine just how far to the right the G.O.P.’s loony wing will go, it’s worth noting how Pat Robertson, past and possibly future G.O.P. presidential candidate, is fighting Iowa’s proposed equal-rights amendment. Pat says feminism “encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism, and become lesbians.”
Listening to George Bush, toward the end of his speech, read the poetry written by Ray Price with the gestures scripted by speech coach Roger Ailes, I was struck anew by the elaborate charade of emperor’s clothing in which the American press is so supinely complicit. Bush has no more sense of poetry than he does of grammar. After the speech there was much division in the pundit corps over whether Bush had just “hit it out of the park” (both war and sports metaphors were much in vogue) or whether we had just heard a load of nasty political drivel without a single redeeming idea. But all hands were solemnly pretending we had just heard George Bush, the nation’s most incoherent speaker, stand up and make a fifty-eight minute political address.
George Bush without a TelePrompTer can scarcely produce an intelligible sentence. I’ve been listening to him since 1966 and must confess to a secret fondness for his verbal dyslexia. Hearing him has the charm and suspense of those old adventure-movie serials: Will this man ever fight his way out of this sentence alive? As he flops from one syntactical Waterloo to the next, ever in the verbless mode, in search of the long-lost predicate, or even a subject, you find yourself struggling with him, rooting for him. What is this man actually trying to say? What could he possibly mean? Hold it, I think I see it!
Imagine for a mad moment, George Bush in the British Parliament, where the members are not only fluent in English but expected to think on their feet as well. I am told that public policy is often hammered out in the exchange of thought there. How would anyone ever figure out what Bush thinks? This is not a matter of grammar; Anyone who has ever heard some canny country legislator fracture the language while making his point knows clarity is not synonymous with syntax. The fact is that unless someone else writes a speech for him, the president of the United States sounds like a borderline moron. But the media sit around pretending that he can actually talk – can convince, inspire, and lead us.
We have long been accustomed to hearing Republicans exploit racial fears, usually by talking about crime. The “family-values” issue is a more subtle exploitation of the doubt, confusion, and guilt felt by American women. Women are receiving so many conflicting messages from this society that no matter what choices we make, or more often, what roles necessity forces on us – work, family, or the difficult combination of both – we all feel guilty about what we are doing. It’s quite like Hillary Clinton’s “What did you expect me to do, stay home and bake cookies?” But this is a society in which people’s worth is judged by how much money they make, and the esteem in which our society holds wives and mothers is reflected in their salaries.
For a political party that has consistently opposed every effort to build a support network for working mothers to then condemn and guilt-trip them is despicable. Natal leave, parental leave, day care – the whole complex of programs that exist in other industrialized nations to help working mothers does not exist here, thanks to the Republican party. Most women in this country work because they have to. Most are still stuck in the pink collar ghettos of sales personnel, clerical personnel, and waitressing. Clerical workers are in a particular bind as more and more corporations replace them with “temporary workers” in order to avoid having to pay health and retirement benefits.
The gay-bashing at the convention would have been offensive even without the AIDS epidemic. Have they no shame, at long last, have they no shame? I watched delegates who are the mothers of gay sons sit there and listen without protest. I don’t know what it says about their family values.
I’m not even sure why any of this was discussed at the political convention, except that the R’s clearly see political gain in it. The Constitution says the purpose of our government is “to form a more perfect Union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our prosperity.” The president is nowhere designated in the Constitution as arbiter of our sexual morals.
Trying to figure out from whence and why came the nastiness at that convention, I found two sources.
There are lots of nice Republicans in this world, perfectly decent, quite bright people. When Peggy Noonan, Reagan’s speech writer, covered the Democratic convention for Newsweek, she wrote: “There was much talk of unity, but what I saw was the pretty homogenized gathering of one of the great parties of an increasingly homogenized country – a country that has been ironed out, no lumps and wrinkles and grass stains, a country in which we are becoming all alike, sophisticated, Gapped, linen and Lancômed.” It occurred to me that Noonan not only did not attend the same Democratic convention I did, she does not live in the same country I do.
Turns out she lives in East Hampton, Long Island, which may account for it. Despite having lost her job at the White House a few years ago, she does not seem to have spent any time in the unemployment line. In her country, people aren’t worried about their jobs, they aren’t caught in hideous health-insurance binds, they aren’t watching their standard of living slip slowly down, their hopes for a home slip slowly away, their dreams for the future dwindle. It’s another country, the country of those who are Doing Well.
The second source of the nastiness is cynical political professionals pushing divisiveness for political reasons, exploiting fear and bigotry because it still works. Old dog. Still hunts.
The professionals around Bush seem, like the man himself, not to believe in much of anything except their own entitlement to power. They are not the true believers of the Reagan years, nor even like the angry lower-middle-class Nixonites feeling snubbed by the Eastern Establishment. Too many years, too many limousines. They’re out of touch with the country and fighting like piranhas not for ideas of any vision of a better America – they’re fighting to keep their limousines.