New York Ain't Boston

There's something missing from this convention. Call it energy, spirit. Call it people.

| Tue Aug. 31, 2004 2:00 AM EDT

The Republican National Convention has an Olympic problem -- thousands of empty seats that shine blue, burgundy and toothpaste green out from the hall, draining away enthusiasm at first sight and making life hard for cameramen. Did the GOP not send out the tickets? Even the delegates appeared to be missing Monday night. Where was Vermont? What explained all the open real estate in South Carolina? Was Idaho having a party uptown?

There's an aura of weirdness about this convention. It's different from last month's Democratic show in Boston. Something's missing. The aging, cavernous Garden overwhelms everything and everyone in it. The energy seems sapped; the crowd roar dissipates too quickly. The stage seems much smaller, the light brighter, less flattering; the threat of a balloon avalanche less ominous. Even the podium looks out of place, a stacked sculpture of stained wood that reminded me of a synagogue bema or a Baptist pulpit. (The hidden crucifixes would suggest the latter.) As John McCain was telling us to vanquish the enemy and Rudy Giuliani was bragging about the girth of New York construction workers, one could move easily about the floor. Jerry Falwell was standing there all alone; he could have turned a cartwheel and hit nobody.

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On the first night in Boston, Bill Clinton had sucked every bit of air out of the FleetCenter. The journalists packed their risers; the nosebleed seats overflowed. You couldn't carry on a conversation. It was an early climax, not topped by either Kerry or Edwards, but it set the tone for the four days. Now in New York, we were offered a war rally, a steady stream of video montages, and September 11 remembrances and a standup routine by the former Mayor of New York. The only truly electric moment came when John McCain decried “a disingenuous filmmaker who would have us believe that Saddam’s Iraq was an oasis of peace.” The crowd erupted in jeers, forcing McCain to stop his speech. And then the crowd spotted him, Michael Moore -- Michael Moore! -- sitting in one of the press risers, a guest columnist for USA Today. Baseball-hatted, disheveled, he sucked in the derision, holding up his arms aloft like a conquering hero. I saw one elderly delegate extend Moore his middle finger. Moore responded in kind, forming an L with thumb and forefinger, calling the entire Republican Party a bunch of losers.

Until then, the only line that really got the crowd going came from Ron Silver, an actor who once consulted for the fake president on the West Wing. “The President is doing exactly the right thing,” he thundered, a defensive assertion but a powerful one. It didn’t seem to matter that it was most certainly not true, that the presidency is just too complicated, especially with an insurgency in Iraq, a ballooning deficit and unending terrorist chatter, for even the most masterful politician -- never mind this president -- to divine exactly the right thing. And then came Rudy Giuliani’s odd history lesson on terrorism. It went something like this. The world can either appease or attack terrorism. In 1974, in Munich, Palestinian terrorists killed Israeli athletes at the Olympics. The perpetrators were later set free, paving the way for the murder, on the Achille Lauro in 1985, of wheelchair-bound Leon Klinghoffer, a Nobel Peace prize for Yasser Arafat and—pay attention now— the attacks of September 11.

This is, apparently, a tragic chain of cause and effect that the sitting president has interrupted. “He dedicated America under his leadership to destroying global terrorism,” Giuliani said. When Giuliani was done, they played a video of Frank Sinatra, who’s still posthumously spreading the news. This gave Vice President Dick Cheney and his secret service armada time to exit through a staircase in the floor.