A High Old Time
Attending a Bush rally and trying not to drink the Kool-Aid
By Steven Robert Allen and Gwyneth Doland
First impression: Heather Wilson should star in her own soap opera. It could be called "As The World Turns ... to Crap." Our Congresswoman is truly a miracle of modern science. We say bravo to the engineers who installed the WilsonBot's automatic tear-duct emptying function. And, thankfully, unlike the previous version of this monster—Tammy Faye Bakker—Wilson does not leak dark fluid from her eye holes during the performance.
Seriously, Wilson is only at the podium for 10 seconds before she starts choking up. This time it's supposed to be over how much she cares about veterans returning from Iraq. Of course, she's done this so many times in the past that it doesn't mean anything anymore; it's just plain creepy. How many times can you be so uniquely overcome with emotion before you become a Tammy Faye wannabe—or a robot.
Wilson is just one speaker in a long lineup of local Bush loyalists (John Sanchez and Darren White, most notably) who deliver quickie three-minute speeches to introduce the president. Among other notable amusements in this section of the program is the long invocation—that is, prayer—which ends with the crowd mumbling "Amen." The preacher leading the prayer, seemingly unpleased with his congregation's lack of enthusiasm, shouts, "God can't hear you!" and the crowd of 11,000 post-Clinton revivalists thunders back "Amen!" Indeed, a distinctly religious tint colors the whole event.
In a bold attempt, perhaps, to nab the hippie vote, long-haired Santa Fe City Councilor David Pfeffer takes the stand to testify to being a Democrat who'll be voting for Bush this year. As he says this, a platinum blonde woman calls out, "You know that's right, brother! Yeah!" Speakers repeatedly refer to faith and the church, and for good reason: These are some of the moments that get the biggest applause.
The event quickly goes downhill when Brooks and Dunn take to the stage for an interminable set of songs about finding Jesus and how working at a thankless, dead-end job is "what it's all about" in the United States of America. The lull provides an opportunity for crowd viewing. The majority look a lot like a Sunday crowd at Cracker Barrel—very white, very conformist. There are toddlers, teenagers, middle-aged couples and seniors, plus a lot of folks with ties to the military, judging from the number of crewcuts and Semper Fi t-shirts. Some of the children are in full partisan get-up, like the little girl with the star-spangled tank top, red, white and blue pigtails and "W '04" scrawled in eyeliner across her cheek.
Behind the podium where the president will speak sits a much more culturally diverse crowd, though—and one designed to mislead television viewers about the true character of the event. Our tickets came with an instruction sheet expressly forbidding us to bring in signs, yet in the section of seats behind the podium (for yellow ticketholders only) we see mostly homemade signs: Sportsmen for Bush, Cowgirls for Bush and I (heart) Bush. Very all-American. No suits and ties, just regular folks. Of course the Kerry camp probably keeps the nonconformists out of camera range too.
Compared to the recent “Ask President Bush” gathering, it was surprisingly easy for nonBush supporters like us to gain access to the rally. Unlike Vice President Dick Cheney's recent appearance in Rio Rancho, the organizers didn't force anyone to sign a pledge of allegiance to the Republican party. We just picked up the tickets, stepped through a metal detector, got a quick frisk and we were inside the Convention Center.
After a 10-minute wait that felt like an hour, two big video screens track the president's entrance into the hall as the crowd goes nuts. Rudolf Giuliani, the popular, pro-choice, pro-gay rights, pro-gun control and pro-stemcell research, former mayor of New York City, takes the mic for a couple minutes to introduce Bush. Then, finally ... ladies and gentlemen ... the president of the United States of America!
Bush, wearing a light blue Western style shirt, looks something like a younger Charlton Heston (bad spray-on tan, or was it the lights?), and these days, he acts like him, too.
Bush might be a disaster as president, but he's certainly an impressive campaigner, and he really shines in moments like these. He pulls our little heart strings by saying the main reason we should vote for him is so the lovable Laura can be first lady for another four years. He makes a joke about Cheney being bald. He's working his Everyman shtick brilliantly.
Most impressive of all, Bush knows how to deliver a dumbed-down message that resonates perfectly with the party faithful. Over and over he hits on the same basic themes, often using catch phrases that function as code for issues that his base is familiar with, while at the same time appealing to moderate swing voters.
For example, when Bush says he will always "support our military," he offers no meaningful context. What is he saying? He's not saying he will take responsibility for the prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib—instead of blaming soldiers who merely followed orders. He doesn't mention that, presently, Iraq is incapable of a transformation to democracy while U.S. troops remain mired in a shooting gallery and foreign insurgents pour through unsecured borders. He's certainly not talking about enlisted men and their families depending on food stamps and veterans struggling to obtain federal benefits. But absent any context, the audience loves it when the Commander-in-Chief talks about supporting the troops.
The crowd also roars for anything having to do with "faith," which is obvious code for evangelical Christian faith. If one analyzes Bush's policies alongside his faith-tinged rhetoric, the message seems to mean more federal money to church groups, preventing gays from achieving equal rights, taxpayer vouchers to fund religious school education, and support for policies that keep birth control and sex ed away from teens.
At least half the speech is an attack on Kerry, but the president still somehow comes across as uplifting, simply by throwing in lots of vague but stirring references to calling up the "armies of compassion" to lead our great nation "one soul at a time.” It sounds good, right? It definitely sounds spiritual in a vague, unthreatening sort of way. Bush's mantra is: "We're getting the job done." He just keeps saying it and the audience chants along with him.
Nonspecific code words work exceptionally well for Bush. They help him deliver his basic message: taxes bad, college good, lawyers bad, invading Islamic countries good, and so on. He's fond of recounting how we've "overcome obstacles" during his tenure. For instance, we've overcome what he calls an "inherited recession," which is factually false. The administration inherited a sputtering economy that economists did not label a recession until three months after he took office, according to www.factcheck.org. Nonetheless, how will audience members balance this perceived good news with the next day's announcement that poverty has risen dramatically over the past four years, or just weeks ago the federal deficit soared to a record $445 billion?
When the president puts on his serious face to recount how we've weathered "corporate scandals," the love fest continues despite the fact that the Bush administration awarded Halliburton no-bid contracts in Iraq and the company was later caught red-handed overcharging the taxpayers, and Enron's Ken Lay helped finance the president's 2000 campaign. The crowd cheers for Bush despite the irony.
And of course Bush still implausibly links the 9-11 terror attacks to his invasion of Iraq. Has anyone in this audience read the 9-11 Commission report? Has Bush read the report?
Staying on message, though, the president reminds the crowd that John Kerry is a flip flopper who has no real convictions. It's the Republican party's most successful strategy to date despite the fact Bush himself has flip flopped on numerous issues—fiscal conservatism, nation building, the 9-11 Commission, the Homeland Security Department, global warming and campaign finance reform, to name a few.
The crowd eats up every word. The president has done well for himself on this day in Albuquerque. We leave the event with the impression that the world is probably going to have to live with Bush for another four years, assuming our republic survives that long.
Kerry has his work cut out for him.
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