7.31.00 - 8.3.00 Republican Convention
Donna Minkowitz travels to Philadelphia
and gets stoned on compassionate conservatism.
Which of the incredibly beautiful experiences
of my four days in heaven shall I tell you about first?
Beautifulest was Chaka Khan leading thousands
of conservative delegates in an ecstatic dance to "I Feel for You."
Even more profoundly appealing was W's gorgeous Latino nephew, George
P. Bush, telling Americans that Republicans love them "no matter the
color of your skin or the accent of your speech," as nubile young Republicans
of both sexes blew soap bubbles and banged noisemakers. George P. soulfully
informed us that his uncle was "fearlessly inclusive" and uncontrollably
in love with "nuestra gente." "Qué viva W! Qué viva Bush!"
he ended militantly. The overwhelmingly white delegates, many of whom
have supported anti-immigrant legislation, appeared to tolerate the
bilingual speech because it was given by somebody so stunning.
My first feeling of wanting to kiss George W.
was when he used a female pronoun as a generic -- in a speech that used
gender-inclusive language a heartwarming six times. Could it be that
mouth wasn't disgusting? Bush used it to say, "How many of us held our
first child and saw a better self reflected in her eyes?"But this was not the most hashish-like moment at
the convention. That came when he talked about meeting a 15-year-old inmate
in one of his Texas prisons and imagining the jailed boy asking him, "Do
you, a white man in a suit, really care what happens to me?" Part of me
wanted to melt, and I knew that someone must have slipped me something,
because no Republican presidential candidate has ever used the phrase
white man in a suit, or suggested that white men in suits might
not really care what happens to the black and poor. Tenderness tried to
rise inside me. Could it be? Was George W. loving and progressive? Did
he have good politics despite his entire record?
Bush said there was a wall within our nation.
On one side are "wealth and technology, education and ambition;" on
the other are "poverty and prison, addiction and despair." "My fellow
Americans," he went on, "we must tear down that wall."
I couldn't take my eyes from him, despite his
refusal to support the Ryan White grant applications from his own state's
AIDS groups, his eager defense of sodomy laws. The number of children
in Texas without health insurance tried to come forward in my brain
and couldn't. The charm and warmth emanating from him made me want to
be stupid. As he spoke, rainbow flecks of love covered everything so
perfectly that I felt small-hearted and cynical questioning any aspect
Pat Ware, the AIDS speaker, dragged me back to
reality kicking and screaming. Curiously, AIDS was one issue where the
Republicans didn't hide their monster-selves within a radiant haze.
Fortunately for them, hardly anyone in the country noticed. Ware, a
violently conservative abstinence-educator with ties to the Family Research
Council, opposes contraception and safe-sex education. An African American
from Virginia, Ware is best known for her work with Americans for a
Sound AIDS Policy, one of the most reactionary groups in the history
of the epidemic, which, among other things, opposed the inclusion of
people with HIV in the Americans with Disabilities Act. (Bush's veep
pick, Dick Cheney, took the same position.) Ware called for the mandatory
testing of all pregnant women; she's also spoken out about the "dangers"
of mutual masturbation.
In her speech at the convention, she was only
a little more guarded. She thanked the Republicans for helping to ensure
that not one more American, "especially an innocent newborn baby," has
to live with HIV. She thanked "outstanding" right-wing Rep. Tom Coburn
(R-OK) for legislation that insists on "equitable distribution
of federal dollars, HIV care and treatment," a pointed reference to
the idea, backed by right-wingers, that gay-male-heavy cities like New
York and San Francisco are getting too much federal money. She said
that she was "here tonight to give credit where credit is due: the Republican
Congress," whom she praised for stressing "the virtues of personal responsibility
Not AIDS red meat perhaps, but "innocent newborn
baby" is the closest this convention got to red meat of any kind and
the crowd knew it. The 4,000 delegates could not bother themselves to
pay attention to the earlier part of Ware's speech about the millions
of AIDS dead -- so many of them were out of their seats networking and
chatting while she spoke that it was actually hard to hear her on the
convention floor. But "innocent newborn baby" made them take notice.
That and "personal responsibility and self-discipline" were the only
lines from Ware that made them cheer.
Even David Smith of the normally circumspect
Human Rights Campaign, a gay-lobby group denounced by many activists
as too conservative, called Ware "a right-wing Nazi." But all the gay
Republicans in evidence loved her, and their organization, the Log Cabin
Club, identified her as a sign of their party's daring commitment to
Carl Schmidt, a young, openly gay alternate from
the District of Columbia, praised Ware's speech as "right on the mark."
Though concern for the health issues of people of color is rarely in
evidence from Log Cabineers, Schmidt said, "It was really important
that the AIDS speaker be an African-American woman." Did the line about
"innocent" newborns really not bother him, I asked. "Well, innocent
newborn babies shouldn't get AIDS," he said. Doesn't that line
mean that adults who get AIDS are guilty? Schmidt waxed philosophical:
"Bush has concerns about people taking responsibility. We all should
take personal responsibility. That doesn't mean that we shouldn't care
for everyone, right?"
Left and right got even more mixed at the Human
Rights Campaign's fund-raiser, where the crowd shrieked for openly gay
Rep. Jim Kolbe (R-AZ) as if he were Madonna. He is best known for his
work trying to gut Social Security and establishing permanent, normal
trade relations with China, one of the worst human rights violators
on the planet. Among the smug, good-looking crowd, I met Jim Driscoll,
the Log Cabins' AIDS policy expert, a 50-ish man with the pleasantly
un-chic and nerdy look of a gay male leftist of the early '80s. Driscoll
said that the Bush campaign had asked him for advice on who to pick
as AIDS speaker, and he had suggested Ware. "I thought it was important
that it be an Afro-American [sic] speaker and also a Republican, and
only two names came up: Louis Sullivan and Pat Ware." In a series of
conversations with Ralph Reed, the Christian Coalition's former executive
director and now a top Bush advisor, Driscoll was asked for his advice
on building queer support for a right-wing ticket: "What would be accepted
by the Republican Party, and be good for the party, and yet also be
a plus with gay people and people with AIDS -- what common ground can
we find?" Because Louis Sullivan had a reputation as a boring speaker
and also serves on the board of Bristol-Myers Squibb, Driscoll decided
to recommend Ware.
First he interviewed her "to make sure she'd
never said or done anything homophobic," he says. "That would have been
an embarrassment to us."
Was he not bothered by her opposition to condoms?
"That, I think, is a viable message for the straight Afro-American [sic]
community," he said. "It's a good message to put out." Driscoll said
Reed told him that having an AIDS speaker would be good campaign strategy
because it showed that "George Bush is a uniter and not a divider."
Driscoll, who might make anyone feel political vertigo because he's
both been a longtime activist within the Republican party and (simultaneously,
for a period) a member of ACT UP/Golden Gate, says, "There were problems
with [asking] Mary Fisher [the HIV positive AIDS speaker at the two
previous Republican conventions] because she had been awfully associated
with, you know, the liberal policies."
"They wanted a conservative," Driscoll told me,
"and they really did want someone who was HIV positive, but I said,
'I don't think I can come up with anyone.'" Driscoll could not find
someone who was openly HIV positive, alive and a conservative Republican.
I had asked Kevin Ivers, the Log Cabins' press person, the names of
any openly HIV positive people among the 18 openly gay delegates attending
the convention. He couldn't come up with any.
I liked Driscoll for his earnest energy, but
his politics scared me. On the topic of AIDS in Africa, Driscoll, a
real-estate investor said, "We need to keep the African elites alive,
the people who run societies. There's no way we'll be able to keep the
general population alive."
I've always been in awe of Republicans because
they're capable of saying things that chill the blood like that. I've
gone to four Republican conventions because Republicans allow themselves
to be openly objectionable, unimaginably selfish. Unlike most of us,
they don't try to keep their cruelty under wraps. Writing about them
comforts me, because the danger is always exactly where I think it is.
So I never have to be afraid of being hurt unexpectedly.
Now George W. Bush is changing all that. His
cruelty hides in plain sight, for example, in his plan to "reform" Social
Security. Eric Laursen, a journalist who has covered Social Security
for many years, says that Bush's plan will be a horror for the old and
sick. "One estimate is that if you're 30 now and you have to go on disability
in 10 years, you would have to take a benefit cut of 54 percent." The
plan allows workers to invest a portion of their contributions in the
stock market, which would mean far less money coming into the system
overall. Says Laursen, "That's going to subtract about $60 billion a
year from the money that is used to pay disability recipients." Bush
has assured today's seniors that their benefits won't be cut; Laursen
says that means he'll have to reduce benefits for future disability
recipients and retirees. While investing Social Security monies in the
stock market is a chancy thing even in boom times, says Laursen, Bush's
plan depends on the risky idea that the stock market will continue to
perform outrageously well. In reality, the prospects for a 30-year-old
who gets sick 10 years after her initial investment are extremely dim.
But there were so many compelling entertainments
in Philadelphia that it was hard to keep your mind on something like
that. The Republicans unveiled a new campaign song celebrating waitresses,
sung by the man who sings "Achy, Breaky Heart." Then a punk band took
the podium, a group called the Interpreters, with indecipherable lyrics
and hair like Kurt Cobain's. The groovy feeling continued with the Christian
Coalition, who held a very sweet rally where they didn't mention homosexuals
Even the left got into the swing of things. I
got to hear the lovely Greek accent of Ariana Huffington, who still
managed to look like Catherine Deneuve after three days of the Shadow
Convention she organized to "bring right and left together." Her gray
suit was the nicest thing the left has ever seen, but what were her
politics like? Does she support national health care? "No, that's not
something I can get behind," she told me. Why did she invite John McCain
to speak at her convention, when he's made outrageously antigay statements,
and cast antigay votes all his life? "We don't all have to agree with
each other here," she chided me. Then she said brightly, "He didn't
say anything antigay in his speech today."
Yet lefties of all stripes flocked to the Shadow
Convention, even big names like Jesse Jackson. Was it the peace and
love vibe W had loosed in the air? Even Philadelphia's native left sometimes
seemed to be taking lessons from the Bush campaign. At the antipoverty
march, organized by the Kensington Welfare Rights Union, children were
asked to lead the demonstration, even though that put them first in
line for the hooves of police horses and a dangerous crush of TV cameras.
The kids looked terrified. But I'm sure it made a great visual.
The last night of the convention, when George
W. appeared, it was hard to enter the hall because so many people wanted
in. Young people filled every available cranny. There was a scent of
victory in the air, possibility, power; and also (finally) some of that
old Republican bloodlust. People fought for better spaces on the floor.
The Republicans had handed out enormous phalluses, red balloons like
vast Genoa salamis, and everyone was brandishing one. But people really
pushed and shoved over the boulder-sized beach balls, wanting to take
away the biggest thing on the floor, a symbol of the unreal pleasures
they'd been promised every night here. A disturbing rhythm of sex and
violence rocked the hall, and I began to think of the brutality at Woodstock
II. I grabbed my souvenir phallus and made it out of there as quickly
as I could.
Research assistance: Michelle Tan
While hordes of broadcasters whined about the
lack of red meat at the GOP's Velveeta
While hordes of broadcasters whined about the
lack of red meat at the GOP's Velveeta convention and feigned interest
as they interviewed relatives of former presidents, a battle unfolded
outside. Thousands of activists had invaded Philadelphia, marching and
blocking traffic to protest W's positions on the death penalty, the
environment, health care and AIDS -- and they weren't met with "compassionate
conservatism." Police pulled out nightsticks and pepper spray, raided
protest headquarters and made mass arrests. AIDS activists were deep
in the fray, marching for prisoners with HIV on "Criminal Injustice"
day, speaking about PWAs on welfare at the antipoverty demo and making
up more than 20 of the 420 arrests (police put the number at 391).
A curious response to overwhelmingly peaceful
protests. But curiouser still were the Most Wanted-sized bails levied
for traffic ticket-sized misdemeanors and fantastical felony charges.
Ten-year ACT UP/Philadelphia veteran Kate Sorensen, 38, topped the list
with a $1 million bail and 10 felonies, including "risking a public
catastrophe." Sorensen, a pink-haired electronic musician and health
union staffer, recalls snacking on an apple and talking into her cell
phone on the fringes of that Criminal Injustice demo when an undercover
officer tapped her on the shoulder and said, "You've done too much,
and I have to arrest you." Though other protesters were herded into
crowded cells, Sorensen was held in isolation, and she was alone in
an interrogation room two days later when she first heard about the
felony charges and seven-digit bail. "I almost threw up," Sorensen says
now, "and I didn't get to see a lawyer for two days." Though prosecutors
built up Sorensen as a lawless anarchist at her arraignment, the judge
tossed out all but four of her felony charges, and, calling Sorensen
a "good person," lowered her bail to $100,000. Once friends scraped
together loans to get her out, Sorensen discovered that another ACT
UPer, Paul Davis, had been singled out as a ringleader, too.
The long days in jail were characterized by little
water, less food and spotty medical care for the many injured protesters,
and for PWAs. Barry Norris, 43, of Louisville, Kentucky, was arrested
while volunteering as a legal observer. Norris says the first words
out of his mouth were "'I'm HIV positive. Let's not spill any blood.'"
He did escape police batons, but during five days in jail he was forbidden
to have a friend fetch his meds, a twice-a-day protease combo. Instead,
he was taken to an ER to get fresh meds, which his jailers dispensed
as they pleased, giving him only five of the eight doses he needed.
Two weeks after his release, he received a bill from Albert Einstein
Medical Center, the ER, for $1,299.
Police chief John Timoney called his officers
"cool" and "calm," but longtime ACT UPer Kate Krauss told POZ,
"I've never seen this kind of brutality or these preemptive strikes."
The chilling effects are unlikely to warm soon. According to Sorensen's
lawyer, Lawrence Krasner, the DA appears eager to prosecute her on felony
conspiracy charges and has subpoenaed records for cell phones used at
the demos. That kind of surveillance, along with legal fees and bail
debt, says Sorensen, means that the most effective ACT UP chapter in
the country "will have to spend a lot of energy mopping up." (To donate:
by Esther Kaplan