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Campaign Dispatches

Great Expectations

Republicans in native dress, photographed at Madison Square Garden, August 30, 2004, by David Levi Strauss.

Watching Jimmy Carter last night, all white hair and teeth in the lights, I remembered his candidacy in 1976, when Hunter S. Thompson endorsed him in Rolling Stone right before the election, guaranteeing the youth vote. Without that, none of us would have gone to the polls, because we didn’t hate Ford enough. As Joan Didion says, the largest political party in the U.S. is that of nonvoters. I don’t recall exactly what Thompson said, but the gist of it was that this is an honest man with a good heart and we can trust him. Imagine.

Last night at the FleetCenter, Carter was best when he attacked the Bush administration’s ruinous policies in clear, ringing tones. It was only when he tried to say glowing things about the Democratic challenger that he wavered, showing his age. The thing that made us vote for him was the same thing that brought him down: the man has never been able to lie with a straight face.

Tonight we’ll see another old war horse—Ted Kennedy, whose best days do not include the 1980 campaign, when he mounted a bitter challenge to the weakened Carter for the Democratic nomination, helping to clear the way for the Reagan reign and the subsequent cacocracy.

Filed Tuesday, July 27, 2004, after the first night of the Democratic National Convention.

A Skinny Kid With a Funny Name

Three-quarters of the way through the second long night of oratory in Boston, it appeared that the Democrats had a serious, possibly insurmountable problem. The Bush administration has done very well with political nostalgia—resuscitating old rhetorics to great effect (fighting an axis of evil, Saddam as Hitler, antiterrorism as the new anti-Communism, etc.). But when Democrats fall back on old rhetorics rather than embracing change, they are running away from their base. Republican voters may be soothed by backward-looking rhetoric, but Democratic voters are bored by it. For the party, it’s a losing game—they gain a little in the center but lose a lot from their activated edges, where the energy is. Ted Kennedy, Dick Gephardt, and Tom Daschle are all solid legislators, but they haven’t had a new idea among them in years. As Gephardt said, “Words can be cheap in a political year,” and those three speeches combined wouldn’t get you back to your hotel. Howard Dean held up his end of the deal (“I sold my bicycle for democracy”) and left.

Then came Barack Obama, from out of nowhere. He told his story in a way that made it every American’s story. He talked about “the true genius of America” without irony or cant. He fiercely condemned “the slander that a black youth with a book is ‘acting white.’” When he said, “We have more work to do,” you knew he meant we have more work to do. And he spoke of “the audacity of hope” in a way that was audacious and fearless and new. Old but new. He made me think of Bobby Kennedy. He made every other speaker so far, including both Clintons, look like the past. And he made it seem like there could be life after John Kerry for the Democratic Party.

The problem is, he didn’t make a very strong case for life with John Kerry, now. The only point in Obama’s masterful speech that was unconvincing was when he said, “The best this country has to offer is…John Kerry.” And Teresa Heinz Kerry is obviously smart and well-informed, but her patrician arrogance will not be appreciated in the American heartland. Yes, the Democrats have a problem.

Filed Tuesday night, July 27, 2004, after the second night of the Democratic National Convention.

Riding the Donkey as Far as It Will Take Us

If oratory is the test, then John Edwards ought to get out of Al Sharpton’s way. Did that cornpone hokum really work in Carolina courtrooms, or is that all made up, too? That one set speech is getting awfully old. “Aren’t you just sick of it?” Thirty drafts, they say, to come up with “Lint in their hair and grease on their faces.”

Meanwhile, George McGovern gets a second and a half of air time in the losers’ circle. A war hero who never mentioned it in his antiwar campaign against Nixon, McGovern wanted Ted Kennedy to be his running mate. When Kennedy turned him down, he went with Thomas Eagleton and lost, 49 states to 1. I worked for him in Kansas, where we lost, I think, every precinct.

Since the Democrats seem to have accepted the Republicans’ terms for this election and are willing to let the campaign devolve into a pissing contest about who will be stronger, why not dispense with the oratory and have Kerry challenge Bush to a fistfight? Put the bunting in a circle and bring it on. They could do it right there in the “Free Speech” pit or at Ground Zero in Manhattan. No handlers, no surrogates, no spin. Winner take all. Kerry would kick Bush’s ass and it would be over. No October Surprise, no rigged or suspended election, and no more Edwards speeches.

Filed Wednesday night, July 28, 2004, after the third night of the Democratic National Convention.

One or Two Americas

Maya Strauss and Mick Taussig carry the banner, August 29, 2004. Photograph by David Levi Strauss.

Watching the whole first part of the last night of the Democratic National Convention, one felt a bit like Alice. Down was up and up was down. Beginning with Wesley Clark wrapping himself in the flag, one Democrat after another took the stage to give a rousing Republican speech: we need more spending on defense, a bigger Department of Homeland Security, and less dissent. Joe Lieberman spewed anti-Islamic rhetoric, and Madeleine Albright basked in nostalgic anti-Communism. Someone abducted Nancy Pelosi and sent out a grotesque automaton to speak in her place. Interviewed on the convention floor, chairman Bill Richardson said, “We don’t want any talk of gays or guns in here tonight.” Any mention of these “wedge issues” was to be replaced by endless paeans to patriotism, faith, and family values. It was beginning to look as though the two-faced effigy (Bush on one side, Kerry on the other) burned outside the FleetCenter by the Bl(A)ck Tea Society earlier in the day was prescient, and that the Democrats were determined to find a way to lose this election and push us closer toward the possibility of fascism over the next four years. How many swing voters were going to look at this blatant attempt to outflank the Bushites on defense and not conclude that, if they’re both saying the same thing, why switch now?

Finally, after a nifty propaganda film made by a Spielberg protégé and narrated by Morgan Freeman and buildups by Kerry’s daughters and veterans Jim Rassman and Max Cleland, John Kerry came up through the crowd and took the stage. After an entire convention that pointedly avoided criticizing George Bush directly (except for Jimmy Carter and Al Sharpton, who both rebelled), Kerry engaged him head-on. He talked about restoring pride in America and trust and credibility to the White House. He said he would appoint an attorney general “who will uphold the Constitution.” He said we needed to reclaim our democracy. He said that we need an energy policy that works for us, “not for the Saudi royal family.” And he said he didn’t want to claim that God is on our side, but, like Lincoln, he wanted to pray that we are on God’s side.

Maybe all that posturing in Republican drag that went on before his speech was intended just to lay down some cover and allow Kerry to seem less rigid in comparison. If so, it worked. This was by far the best speech he has ever given. He did what he needed to do, under tremendous pressure. He instilled confidence. He opened the door. He changed, even physically. His face softened. He relaxed his hands and arms out of that autistic pumping that we saw in previous appearances. He looked, well, presidential. He’s been preparing for this his entire life, and now he’s ready. That doesn’t mean he’ll win, but it means he can win.

Filed Thursday night, July 29, 2004, after the fourth night of the Democratic National Convention.

This Soldier Has News for You

Now the polls show Dem pols got nary a bounce from Boston, from dousing themselves in war juice and puffing up like Ubu, from cracking down on demonstrators and locking Ralph out. Mr. Gallup called it the smallest postconvention bounce since McGovern in ’72. When George Mc Too-Good-to-Govern lost, we got a Dick for president. If John too fails to carry it, we’ll get another Bush. Only our rage will save us now. Only our rage, and October’s surprise.

Filed August 3, 2004.

The Club for Growth

Bobdole’s back! Bobdole’s back! Wading into the fray on Wolf Blitzer, reeking of Grecian Formula and trailing Viagras, he collapsed 33 years of history into just two days: “I mean, one day he’s saying that we were shooting civilians, cutting off their ears, cutting off their heads, throwing away his medals or his ribbons. The next day he’s standing there, ‘I want to be president because I’m a Vietnam veteran.’ Well, let me tell you something, John-boy. Veterans are not bleeding-heart liberals, and bleeding-heart liberals are not really veterans. You can’t have it both ways, goddamnit! You’re either for us or you’re against us. You either cut off the ears and keep your mouth shut, or you cry about a few sand niggers being tortured to death. Those commie terrorists don’t care for your nuances or your sensitivities, and neither do I, you flip-flopping frog! I’ll swift-boat your ass all the way back to the Riviera!”

Filed August 22, 2004.

Early Warnings

There are some good signs, going in. Yesterday morning before I went to bed, the local New York news shows were covering the start of demonstrations in the city, and the images were impressive: a banner unfurled from the Plaza Hotel reading “Truth” (with an arrow pointing one way) over “Bush” (with an arrow pointing the other way); ACT-UP demonstrators stripping naked on Broadway and being gingerly hauled away; and the DNC-to-RNC marchers arriving in all their Paul Revere glory. The New York Post, of all organs, published the results of the well-respected Quinnipiac University Poll showing that 81% of New Yorkers approve of demonstrations during the convention and 71% think protesters should be able to demonstrate in Central Park. And we will, despite the court rulings upholding Mayor Bloomberg’s lawn-over-democracy stance. As the national coordinator of the Answer Coalition put it yesterday, the mayor “may well be creating Central Park as the free-speech center of New York City.” The Republicans can have Madison Square Garden, but as soon as they leave the protections of “the hardest target in the world,” they’re bound to run into us. There will be demonstrations of all kinds all week all over the city, despite pleas from some timid old-timers like Todd Gitlin that we not “play into the Republicans’ hands” by demonstrating. That’s the kind of lily-livered thinking that brought us “New Democrats.” We’ve had enough of that. It’s time for a cacerolazo.

Filed August 28, 2004.

The Candent Convention

The author, David Levi Strauss, inside the Republican convention hall. Photograph by John Winet.

The aims of a demonstration…are symbolic: it demonstrates a force that is scarcely used.… A demonstration, however much spontaneity it may contain, is a created event which arbitrarily separates itself from ordinary life. Its value is the result of its artificiality, for therein lies its prophetic, rehearsing possibilities.

—John Berger, “The Nature of Mass Demonstrations,” 1968

The real convention (coming together) happened today, outside of Madison Square Garden, and the major networks (ABC, CBS and NBC, even NPR!) all missed it entirely, running the same purposely errant script: “Tens of thousands of demonstrators marched past heavily armed police in a mostly peaceful protest, while anarchists set a dragon float on fire. There were several arrests.”

This is what really happened:

Our little group, marching under a banner with the Abu Ghraib man-on-a-box image before the words NOT IN OUR NAMES. NOT ANYMORE, arrived at 7th Avenue and 14th Street in advance of the announced step-off time of the march (12 noon). The crowd was abundant and remarkably mixed generationally, demographically, racially, and sexually. The mood was expectant and determined. Everyone carried homemade signs, banners, papier-mâché figures, musical instruments, in an astonishing profusion. The step-off time came and went as the crowd continued to grow. After an hour, a man with a bullhorn called up to the many people hanging out of windows high above the avenue to ask, “Are the police blocking us? Why aren’t we moving?” And the reply came back: “No, there are no police. But there are marchers as far as we can see, ahead and behind.” We tuned in WBAI on our portable radios, and they announced that people were coming in from all sides, filling all the east/west streets from 11th Street to near 34th Street. Everyone stood in the street and mingled. The mood continued to be buoyant.

Eventually, after two and a half hours, yellow-shirted monitors from United for Peace and Justice came through and announced that the crowds coming in exceeded everyone’s wildest expectations, probably over 500,000 people, so many that the march route was jammed. We couldn’t move because we were so many. There was a pause, and then the crowd erupted into cheers. From then on, it was a celebration, as well as a demonstration. People waited patiently, talking and cheering and moving to the side to let marchers with 1,000 flag-draped caskets enter from 14th Street. After three hours, the crowd began to move forward and the march began. It was slow going, but the mood remained upbeat. Everyone knew they were part of something big. All along the march route, people cheered from windows lining the avenue and from rooftops. It felt like the whole city was ours.

And the police? The police stood idly by, doing nothing. Some took off their hats and sat on stoops. Marchers posed for snapshots with cops. After the tremendous show of force in the weeks leading up to this—the heavily armed “Hercules” antiterror squads, the snipers and attack helicopters and dogs, the Long Range Acoustic Device for crowd control, including a “shrieking feature” for dispersing crowds with painful blasts of noise—the word had evidently come down from the mayor and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly: “We cannot have images of cops busting heads and otherwise clashing with protesters dominating the front pages of the newspapers on the first day of the convention. So back off.” It should not be forgotten as well that the police and firefighters have been locked in a bitter labor dispute with the mayor in the weeks leading up to the convention. So they were not keen to do the mayor’s bidding here.

In this, the police were perhaps more prescient than the march organizers. There were only 37,000 police (although they do have a budget larger than all but 19 of the world’s standing armies). Channel 4, which has a history of underestimating demonstration numbers, said there were 750,000 of us. At the end of the march, as we came into Union Square, the march organizers were estimating the total at 400,000. Even CBS News (after spending most of their precious airtime on the dragon fire and the nine arrests) said this was the largest demonstration at a convention in American history.

And all of these disparate individuals showed up in the August heat not because their bosses told them to, not because they were being paid or granted favors to be there, not because it was expected of them, but because they believed it was important to come together to say no to the Bush agenda and to say, How dare you come into our city and attempt to use it as a 9/11 backdrop for your convention? Did you think we would just stand by and let that happen?

The city has fortified Madison Square Garden as if it were in the middle of Baghdad. And the question now arises, Just who are they protecting this political convention from?

Filed August 29, 2004.

The People Under the Floor

Today Jon Winet took me through the looking glass, down the rabbit hole, and into the belly of the beast. The Republicans’ Mad Garden may be “the hardest target in the world,” but it turns out that with a little necklace of color-coded cards on a yellow lanyard, one can penetrate one layer of security after another, all the way to the main stage. This magical necklace apparently renders one invisible, even one like me, who felt like a porcupine in a room full of balloons. The balloons, in colors and shapes I never knew existed, bounced around me, oblivious and impenetrable. Jon encouraged me to speak to the balloons, but I was convinced this would break the spell, so I just wandered around trying not to stare, or at least remember to lift my Leica up to my face as a cover when I did.

As often happens in dreams, I revisited my childhood, and found myself among the Kansas delegation, where I saw a woman with sunflowers sprouting from her breasts, spelling out “Kansas is for W,” which I took as a stab at a new alphabet, and a man in a rumpled cowboy hat and vest, both so heavy with political buttons and pins that he could barely raise his head. He shuffled forward aggressively, ramming everyone who crossed his path and yelling “Alf Landon, you bet!” every time the top of his head struck an obstacle. I photographed an old man and a woman dressed in identical canary-yellow suits and wearing giant Uncle Sam hats. When they began to leer lasciviously into the camera, I backed away quickly and bumped into a woman dressed entirely in orange velvet and wearing a hat the size and shape of her home state of Solla Sollew. I looked around frantically for something familiar and found Ray Suarez of Jim Lehrer’s NewsHour, peering down on the stage from a raised platform just to the side. He looked different from the way he has all those years in my living room, though. He appeared to be in a great deal of pain. When our eyes met, I saw that he had been crying, and I turned away and ran for the exit.

Filed August 30, 2004.

A Kind of a Prayer Thing

We came into the hall tonight at the same time as Michael Moore, about 9:30, and sat in the press section. One of the first things we heard was Lindsey Graham saying, “There will be no class warfare in this hall tonight!” but a few minutes later when John McCain referred to “a disingenuous filmmaker,” I thought we might witness some. Moore is either awfully lucky, or a PR genius, or both. Tonight the most vociferous booing (Republicans boo a lot more than Democrats) came then—and when Giuliani decried Yasser Arafat winning the Nobel Peace Prize and when he said, “They ridiculed Winston Churchill, too,” referring to jokes about Bush being a few cards short of a full deck.

I couldn’t take my eyes off Wolf Blitzer, as he sat stone still in a chair cantilevered out over the convention floor with his back to the stage, staring at the roof girders, for two hours. After an hour, I thought maybe he’d died. Then I noticed a bald man in a green shirt, also with his back to the stage, scanning our section, the press section, for hours. Every time I looked down there, he was looking right at me. I mentioned this to Jon, who pointed out another bald man, in a dark suit, a little further back, who was looking at us and the guy in the green shirt. “That’s the one to be concerned about,” Jon said. “He’s Secret Service.” Neither the green-shirted security guy nor the dark-suited SS guy closed his eyes during the prayer.

John McCain looks much more fit from behind and in person than he does on TV. I didn’t hear about the purple-heart Band-Aids until after we left the hall.

New York City was called “the greatest city in the world” 104 times tonight. Ed Koch’s mother told him “Eddie, never fool around with a wild animal!” But he did it (with an elephant) this year, “for New York.” I read in the agenda that “Daytime service events on Tuesday, August 31, will include Ohio, Florida, and Michigan delegates painting and decorating playhouses for disadvantaged children in New York City.” I think most of the Republican delegates think of New York City as being kind of like Africa.

When I first came into the hall, I told Jon it looked a lot smaller than I remembered, and he told me that was because the Republicans had put in a false floor nine feet above the real floor. He said all the most important things happened under the floor.

To get through the secure perimeter, you need a purple, gray, blue, red, green, or orange badge. To get into the Media Expo Center, you need a purple, gray, or blue badge. But to get under the floor, you must possess the coveted purple badge. I have never even seen a purple badge.

Filed August 30, 2004.

One America, Under Arnold

Tonight I watched the Republican National Convention—not from inside the convention hall but as it was intended to be seen: as a TV show. And I have to say, it was great TV. Much better than anything the Democrats did. As the sage George Burns once said, “The key to acting is sincerity. If you can fake that, you can fake anything.” If I didn’t know anything outside of the bounds of that four-hour TV show, I would definitely vote for George W. Bush on November 2, no question about it. Michael Steele, the lieutenant governor of Maryland, spoke of an imaginary Republican party that stands for freedom and justice and diversity and invoked that great triumvirate of freedom fighters: Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King, and…Ronald Reagan. Arnold Schwarzenegger gave a speech to rival that of Barack Obama at the Democratic convention (muscle man vs. skinny guy), making his own story the story of the American Dream: “If you work hard and you play by the rules, this country is open to you; you can do anything here.” When he asked the question, “How do you know you are a Republican?” and listed six “If you believe…” answers, I came out Republican on three or four out of the six. Blood-red screen behind, blue suit, gold tie: Reagan on steroids.

The Bush daughters were OK (when exactly did it become de rigueur to pimp your teenage daughters to get elected?) and set up their father, shot in front of a softball game as if he were just taking a little breather to speak to us, looking more human than I’ve ever seen him, introducing his lovely wife Laura as “a friend to authors.” And Laura speaking sincerely about George’s agonizing over the choice to go to war, and losing their dog Spotty, and about how “most people in the world are good” but “some people hate us because we stand for liberty, religious freedom, and tolerance,” and when she was done you just wanted to curl up with her under a flag and have a nice cup of tea.

I was moved by this show. Not because I believed any of it, because I know too much about the real effects of the Bush administration’s ruinous policies, but because they built this elaborate edifice to convince someone. Who? It has been proved that almost no one is watching either convention. Maybe some PBS types. Certainly not the vaunted “undecideds,” who are all watching Fear Factor. The Republicans are not going to convince me. They don’t need to convince the people in the Mad Garden. But still they go through this tremendous charade in the belief that somewhere out there is someone who hasn’t been paying attention to anything that’s happened in the past four years and will tune in and say, “Wow, that sounds good. I’ll vote for that.” It moves me to know that someone under the floor still thinks this might work.

Filed August 31, 2004.


At the beginning of this convention, I asked who the convention hall was being so assiduously protected from, and now the answer is clear. It is being protected from the people it’s supposed to be all about: citizens. Nearly 1,800 citizens, exercising their constitutional right “peaceably to assemble and to petition the government for a redress of grievances” have been arrested so far and are being held in pens made of chain-link fence topped with razor wire at Pier 57 on the Hudson River. The massive police and military buildup in Manhattan over these past weeks didn’t have anything to do with protecting delegates from terrorists. It was to protect delegates and dignitaries from other Americans who don’t agree with them.

The Republicans have turned Madison Square Garden into a model of their political methodology. First, occupy an area to which you were not invited and in which you are not wanted. Build a security shell—heavily fortified, manned, and surveilled—to keep the previous inhabitants out. Then fill the center with warm, gooey sentiment and try to convince the ones on the outside that you are doing this all for them, for their own good, if they could only recognize it.

If you’ve got a political problem of such magnitude that more than half the population thinks your policies are a disaster, then you will not be able to solve that problem with military or police force unless you are willing to kill all the protester-insurgents. You cannot beat or scare everyone into agreeing with you. Can you?

At least this occupation ends tomorrow.

Filed September 1, 2004.

The Duvet of Rage: On Security and Insecurity

(Commenting on the fact that more people watched the Republican convention on Fox News than on CBS and ABC combined, The New York Times’s Alessandra Stanley wrote that Fox News commentators “express a righteous indignation…that envelops loyal viewers in a warm, cozy duvet of rage.” )

Here is the fundamental disagreement: People who support Bush believe that security derives from strength, that strength derives from brute force, and that the display of force is a significant part of the entire effect. The more brute force you bring to bear (or display), the more secure you will be. People who reject Bush believe that a reliance on brute force actually indicates insecurity, and that true security derives only from a complex web of interrelationships and alliances that make brute force unnecessary. Security comes from peace, not from permanent war.

This is an old American split that runs through our national mythology, and it is what will ultimately decide this election. Even though the first belief is simpler and easier, and despite the Republicans’ making a good case for it in the face of September 11 (“everything changed”), a clear majority of the U.S. electorate continues to hold the second, more complicated, belief.

The problem is that the Democrats have largely chosen to concede this argument to the Republicans, to accept their terms, and turn this campaign into a referendum on which candidate is stronger and who will use brute force more effectively. They based this strategy on what they considered to be a clear advantage for their candidate—that John Kerry is someone whose courage has been tested in battle and who is a legitimate war hero, while George Bush is a physical and moral coward who used his family’s wealth and privilege to avoid battle. They thought voters would find these truths to be self-evident.

This was a terrible miscalculation of the security-insecurity divide. Most of the people who want “security” (and there are certainly more of them after September 11) care more about the show of force than real strength. George Bush and his team have turned out to be experts in the show (business) of strength. It begins with George Bush’s swagger (“in Texas, we call this ‘walking’”) and smirk and extends to “shock and awe” over Baghdad and marshal law at Madison Square Garden. It has nothing to do with being strong. It has to do with looking strong. And in the public imagination, Bush looks stronger than Kerry.

Bill Clinton warned Democrats two years ago that “when people are insecure, they’d rather have somebody who’s strong and wrong than somebody who’s weak and right.” Unfortunately, the Democrats may have gotten even the second part of that equation wrong. The Iowa primary voters made the decision to select a candidate who they thought was “electable” over one they thought was right. Political observers on both sides agree that if John Kerry was against the war in Iraq, he’d be up by 10 points today and would almost certainly be elected in November.

In choosing to make this a battle over who will be stronger and use brute force (or display it) more effectively, I’m afraid the Democrats have essentially decided to lose. God help us.

These responses to the Democratic and Republican conventions were written for 2004—America & the Globe, a Margaret Crane/Jon Winet new media project focusing on the 2004 U.S. presidential elections and democratic practice in America. Many thanks to Jon Winet and Allen Spore for getting me inside, and then getting me out.


David Levi Strauss

DAVID LEVI STRAUSS is the author of Words Not Spent Today Buy Smaller Images Tomorrow (Aperture, 2014), From Head to Hand: Art and the Manual (Oxford University Press, 2010), Between the Eyes: Essays on Photography and Politics, with an introduction by John Berger (Aperture 2003, and in a new edition, 2012), and Between Dog & Wolf: Essays on Art and Politics (Autonomedia 1999, and a new edition, 2010). He is Chair of the graduate program in Art Writing at the School of Visual Arts in New York, and he is on the faculty of the Milton Avery Graduate School of the Arts at Bard College.


The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2004

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