BLOOMINGTON, MN -- Several kickoff events that should have formed the preamble to a week-long celebration went ahead as scheduled on Sunday, but the thousands of attendees gathered here for the 2008 Republican National Convention suddenly faced the prospect that their quadrennial showcase could be washed out, quite literally, by dire events elsewhere.
The Mississippi River has its source in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, and way down at the other end of it, 1300 miles away, a Katrina-sized storm was blowing nobody any good - with one possible exception (q.v., below). Hurricane Gustav had already caused the evacuation of New Orleans, a city facing a second and potentially final ruin, and the rest of the Gulf area was on notice of catastrophe, as well.
The situation has left the RNC's big party on hold, with the normal Monday keynote events already suspended amid a very real threat that the convention, previously expected to draw 45,000 visitors and the attention of political junkies everywhere, could suffer a de facto cancellation, something that goes beyond comprehension.
After the suspension of Monday's opening-day events was announced, party chairman Rick Davis offered this cold consolation: 'At some point between Monday and Thursday evening, we will convene once again to complete the activities needed to qualify Senator McCain and Governor Palin for the ballot in all 50 states. Beyond that, all we can say is that we will monitor what is happening and make decisions about other convention business as details become available."
With worst-case scenarios playing in everybody's head, the Republicans gathered here had a chance to make such merry as they could. Sunday night saw several hundred of them witnessing a made-to-order Hollywood-style movie sending up one of the GOP's bête noires, filmmaker Michael Moore.
As the picture, entitled American Carol and scheduled for release in October, was about to get its screening at the Minneapolis Convention Center auditorium, I happened to find myself sitting next to a wiry, youngish man named Keith Appell, proprietor of something called CRC Public Relations. Appell's company had at one time been called Creative Response Concept, a name which aptly characterized its function as a self-defense group of the political right.
"We decided to go with CRC, though, now that we're an all-purpose P.R. company," Appell explained.
All-purpose or not, CRC Public Relations was very much in the business of pushing the new movie, which, as Appell explained, was about how one Michael Malone, a Michael Moore clone played by the actor Kevin Hartley (brother of the late Chris, and a near-ringer for Moore), "starts out anti-American and turns out pro-American." The story frame parallels Dickens' A Christmas Carol, wherein the Moore/Malone character, who makes documentaries with names like Die, American Pig and is campaigning to abolish the July 4th national holiday, is transported by Kelsey Grammer as General George S. Patton across time and space (his own and that of history at large) until he sees the light.
Besides Grammer, some other name actors in the movie are James Woods, Leslie Nielsen, and Jon Voigt (the latter all dolled up as George Washington). Oh, and Paris Hilton does a cameo.
As the picture developed, Appell's description of the anti-American/pro-American transformation was an accurate capsule, if you accept the premise that anything associated with liberal politicians is "anti-American" (one pejorative example being a Jimmy Carter impressionist telling a crowd, "Higher taxes are good for you") and that Islamophobia per se, among other credos of the right, is ipso facto pro-American.
The movie does feature some decent slapstick (in a retro sequence, a banjo-playing Hitler, Mussolini, and Tojo rock out a song medley while Neville Chamberlain shines their shoes) and a good joke or two ("These Mexicans will do the jobs that the Taliban won't do," laments a jihadist about one slave-labor operation.)
As for the film's political content, the crowd seemed to eat it up. Two hours worth of an alternate reality might have been the closest thing to ecstasy some of them have realized for a while.
The pampering of the delegates and other attendees turned really high-class after that as the party moved through a set of doors into the cavernous CivicFest area, roughly the size of a Super WalMart, where a lavish feed was set out on what looked to be two score serving tables.
Now this was a treat for anybody, regardless of ideology. Some of the dishes were: carved roast whole steamship beef, tataki salmon platter, duck spring rolls, scallops skewer, filled profiteroes, asparagus canapé, wild mushroom tarts....Multiply all that about thirty times, and you get the idea. A true feast.
Surrounding the tables in the large hall were any number of historical exhibits imported for the occasion - a model of Air Force One, with people queued up to go inside and check out the cabin, intricate scale models of the Oval Offices maintained by every president since Taft, a false front representing the White House, and artifacts galore.
The latter included period portraits of the founding fathers, impressive panel exhibits of Americana, and apparently genuine documents covering the span to date of the nation's history.
Republican activists from all over were dressed up in guides' uniforms and were unfailingly helpful. One, a young woman from California, pointed out, "We have a lot of things on loan from the Smithsonian, and over there is the Treaty of Paris." Stuff you don't see every day. The Treaty of Paris?
A good time was had by all, but as news was disseminated of Gustav's progress across the gulf and of John McCain's response to it, doubt began to spread about whether this 2008 convention would be a true convention at all. The pending Monday-night appearances of President Bush and Vice President Cheney were canceled, and delegates were put on notice that convention schedules would be contracted and/or eliminated in tandem with the ravages wrought by the hurricane.
A party-pooper, to be sure, but soon the gathered Republicans were grasping an emerging point. Their nominee-to-be, McCain, was pledged to be in the danger zone along with his vice-presidential choice, Governor Sarah Palin of Alaska, organizing responses and relief efforts as long as the emergency existed, even if it meant he never made it to Minneapolis-St. Paul at all.
McCain was, in effect, serving as an acting president of sorts, consulting with FEMA and with Homeland Security director Michael Chertoff and engaging in conversations with the governors of the affected states, who just happened to be Republicans themselves.
Give the Arizona senator full credit for acting in good faith and for rolling up his sleeves in a good cause. But it could hardly be denied that this ill wind had blown his way an opportunity neither he nor anyone else could have foreseen earlier. And a rhetorical question that many had been asking at the end of last week - how can you follow or hope to top an act like that of Obama at Invesco Field? - had found a possible real-world answer.