My friend and colleague Ralph Adamo went to the Republican Leadership Conference held recently in New Orleans. Here's his eyewitness account:
On day one of the Republican Leadership conference in New Orleans, I walked the Hilton to see what true-believing Republicans look like in larger groups. New Orleans is a Democratic stronghold – or has been – by virtue of its African-American majority, its giant underclass, its general history of Laissez-faire attitudes, its (historic) Catholicism. While Uptown has, increasingly, a Republican bent, you still just don’t see that many gathered together. Their work is done quietly here, in boardrooms, law and insurance offices. While there has been a Tea Party presence, it has been mostly generated in the suburbs, among the middle-middle class, those very folks who rarely ever venture into their host city any more for fear of crime and bad odors. Our radio, like everyone’s, is mostly dominated by dimwit right-wingers, but that has little or nothing to do with the character of the city.
So, I walked around. I looked at the exhibitors tables, the NRA table womaned by a slight, downy female with glasses, who looked as if she would not know one bore from another or the value of rapidly repeating riflery. But you never know and making judgments based on looks or gender is foolish on its face. Take Governor Huckabee, whose short entourage I follow toward his book-signing table. If ever a man looked friendly and harmless, it’s Mike, the guy you just have to like because, damn-it, he’s going to like you.
I skipped the first evening’s main event, a 40-minute oration by Newt Gingrich, amply and even lovingly covered by The Times Picayune the next morning. The paper wrote a friendly story, about Newt trading on his years as a Tulane grad student and on the birth here of his first daughter; the word ‘meandering’ was the only unkind note in the story, which essentially noted that he could make the faithful go crazy with his command of paranoia. Well, that would be my interpretation, based on his extraordinary references to Nazis and other enemies during the CNN debate, as well as that literally devilish inversion of his eyebrows (he’d be a natural for a revival of “Damned Yankees”) when he believes he has scored a point.
The second day, with many speakers and much activity, belonged to Michelle Bachman, or that is my reading of the crowd. It is axiomatic, however, to note that the largest and most enthusiastic personal posse belongs to Ron Paul. Paul’s young supporters are genuine enthusiasts, a bit of a mystery in that Paul’s appeal, deep and serious, is to inaction and resignation, however bright a face he paints on the results he foresees. Paul’s young supporters seem to be drawn by two realities: reasonable and laudable dislike of the increasingly remote military adventures in unpleasant foreign lands, and the fact that they have never personally known anyone who really, really needed the government all that much. That is, unless some of its more intricate and occult activities, like protecting food and water supplies and workplace safety, were to be considered. But that brings us back to Bachman, who wants nothing more (after the annihilation of ‘Obamacare’) than the dismantling of the EPA.
A reporter waiting for the ten-minute press conference after her speech discussed and then abandoned the idea of asking her what she might replace the EPA with, to continue the protection of the public and the environment from the natural tendency of the free market to consume and abandon. Finally, the reporter who considered asking the question shrugged and decided not to, as “she wouldn’t answer anyway.”
Bachman, in the ten press-minutes, was on a short leash, only once slipping into unacceptably nutty mode when she advocated teaching Intelligent Design as an equal theory with evolution. Her leash was longer in the big room, where RLC folks and lots of press crowded in to hear her articulate alternative universe ideas, in which the enemies of peace and prosperity are Planned Parenthood, NPR, the EPA of course, and the Cowboy Poetry Festival. She bragged about introducing her Lightbulb Freedom of Choice bill.
Chris Matthews has predicted that Bachman beats Romney (whether that means she wins the nomination was less clear), and indeed, even compared to the receptions given other slingers of red meat, Bachman is the clear favorite through the second day. (I write this before the results of the straw poll are announced.) The RLC crowd stood to applaud on numerous occasions, and nodded vigorously for most of her litany of zingers. She does have a sort of mad glint in her eye, but as the whole process is madness, what’s the harm? They loved her. In person she seems smaller, more fragile than she appears on TV, possessed of a vulnerability that, at this stage, must be adding to her charm, or at least as long as her tough talk belies it. When her speech ended and she went off to meet the press directly, more than half of the press corps got up and walked out on Rick Santorum, as did a noticeable percentage of the crowd.
Santorum has got to stop conflating things, unless he wants to be mistaken for a poet. As he did in his announcement speech, linking U.S. soldiers fighting at Normandy to the Republican urgency to kill off Obama’s health care initiatives, Santorum overdid it today. Working himself up to a nearly teary emotional state, he evoked the immigrant who came to this country to find “a government that believed in us.” Huh? The crowd seemed to share my reaction, but gave him a hand anyway because he was obviously trying so hard. But they loved Bachman.
Let me return to Ron Paul a moment, having been there myself, like Hillary in the mid-sixties, desperate for Goldwater’s clear, uncompromising, thrillingly unrealistic vision to be given a chance. In fact, my whole sojourn to this alien RLC meeting is in some ways a search for a lost self, me, the political idealist of more than a generation ago. So smitten was I that I even volunteered to help in the campaign of the suburban oil industry types who were plotting the over throw of Rep. Hale Boggs (disposed of not long after by the mechanical failure of an airplane in Alaska) and the beginnings of a modern Republican Party in Louisiana. This was the Louisiana of the ‘solid south,’ in which all eight congressmen and both senators (and everybody else) were Democrats. The Republicans, who would lose and lose again before their man Dave Treen finally got to congress, didn’t know how to use me, a high school boy volunteer, so they put me to work tending bar at a fundraiser in one of their homes, a job I did enthusiastically at Jack and Pat Black’s place, watching the erstwhile Republican revolutionaries get normally soused and begin pecking harmlessly at one another’s wives. This did not disillusion me, while other things began to. And when a Democratic activist invited me (from where I stood in a parking lot handing out fliers) to her house to meet Hale Boggs, I went to the Rubio home, was charmed, did not make anything of the fact that the drinking was about the same. Anyway, I can say President Paul without wincing because in fact he is likeable in a way that the more transparent Huckabee can’t be. And, of course, he is the epitome of the lost cause, therefore not a threat.
Is Michelle Bachman likeable, I mean, is she a threat? To me, I mean, as an observer. She worries me only because that degree of wrong seems motivated by genuinely sinister factors and agendas. Certainly all these folks speak, in their coded ways, for the unleashing of the market, by which they seem to mean ungoverned activity by entities whose only reason for being is to make a profit. They can disguise it ten ways from Sunday, and then shroud it in social concerns and theocratic mumbo jumbo, but bottom line -- they are the arguers for the corporations and the corporate state, and they know it. Our own governor, proudly swaggering from having vetoed (and then overridden an attempted override) continuation of a 4-cent sales tax on tobacco, was introduced to the crowd (grown notably thinner) finally by the CEO of Entergy, a corporation that sucked down huge amounts of public money after Katrina, but raised rates none-the-less . They love Bobby, almost as much as Bobby loves himself, as difficult as that might be to imagine. This is a governor by whom no taxes will be raised, no matter how many disabled people have their institutions padlocked, just to reference one of his notable accomplishments. The crowd loved him a little, warily, like maybe – despite it all – being Indian-American and a Rhodes Scholar and all, he might just be pretending to be stupid.
But Bachman, yes, what is it about her appearance? Maybe that she moves her arms awkwardly, uncertainly. I didn’t really get to see her walk, but from her stage presence, I got the idea she might be one of those people who walks without swinging their arms at all. Nothing wrong with that, of course, just saying…
Even walking out into the late afternoon, one is slammed hard by the high heat (95 degrees at 6 PM) joined with the daunting humidity – one temperature and one dew-point married, creating a hell on earth that should win us natives some points in the afterlife. Mere steps from the cool, crisp Hilton and its crisp, sincere guests, I begin to sweat for natural causes.
Tomorrow, Rick Perry enters the arena, as does my sentimental favorite for the nomination, old Buddy Roemer, once a Democratic reform governor of Louisiana, still the smoothest talker in the room. Will they love Buddy? I’m betting they might.
Ralph Adamo on the RLC’s third day
On the final day of the RLC’s New Orleans meeting, the most anticipated speaker was Texas Governor Rick Perry, a man who looks the part of a feckless president in a government noir film, and who in real life is not afraid to press really hard on the right wing’s sorest spots. His biggest applause line came when he decried illegal immigration, and his bragging was focused on Texas’ new tort ‘reform’ measure that says “loser pays,” on the new law requiring voters to produce a photo ID, and the new requirement that any woman considering an abortion be shown a sonogram of her womb. He also claimed to be saddened by Republicans who “duck and cover at pressure from the left” when social issues are under discussion. Perry’s oration had the rehearsed polish the audience might have craved, but the accent in which it was delivered had an uncomfortably familiar ring.
The afternoon saw mostly the same notes being played over and over, except for the discordant one struck by the hired Obama impersonator, who mocked aspiring Republican candidates as much as the president and was finally shut down by RLC organizers. The other discordant note was struck by Buddy Roemer, who told the uncomfortable truth about money and politics, and did not exempt his fellow Republicans from blame in turning the country’s interests over to lobbyists and corporate money. The attendees listened a bit nervously, but Buddy has a way of carrying on with his train of thought in a quiet, persuasive way. The danger he presents to the party is one he’d never overcome even if miraculous numbers of $100 and less contributions flowed in: his narrative puts the party out of business. Got to love his crazy truth-telling, no matter how wrong he might be issue by issue.
When Ron Paul won the straw vote by more than 300 votes more than his nearest rival (Jon Huntsman, himself well ahead of Bachman and Cain, the only other aspirants to reach a hundred votes), a big portion of the crowd in the hall booed loudly. Later, in the halls, one could hear many people telling their companions that Paul’s organized dominance of the vote, which he won four years ago too, rendered the vote itself meaningless.
All in all, hearing the candidates and their supporting casts (like Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council) talk was dispiriting; the negative cast of mind in which these RLC attendees dwell cannot be good for their health, or anything else. The country they dream about would scare many of them to death if it existed, a sort of sentimental police state with plenty of ‘exceptionalism’ for the ambitions of the morally righteous. The battle for this nomination promises to become uglier, and to reveal much of the republic’s scar tissue in the process.