NEW YORK -- In the same week that one Man in Black, the late singer Johnny Cash, was the focus of a showdown of sorts in New York City, another, comedian Lewis Black, who calls himself "the man in black named Black," was trying to tape his spot for the Daily Show segment that would play on Thursday night of the Republican National Convention. That same night, interested viewers would earlier have seen President George W. Bush make the speech-in-the-round accepting his renomination.
One bit was to be spoken by Black over a montage of the signs carried by protesters during the week. His lead-in built to an image of a black woman reclining in the grass alongside a picket sign advising Bush and the Republican masses visiting the city to "kiss my black ass." But, as Black waited for the sign to show and long seconds passed with only blue screen on the monitor, he threw up his hands and said, "Well, that joke is fucked!" Another bit featured an interview with a Republican delegate wearing a purple-heart Band-Aid -- one of several so adorned, in obvious evocation of the swift-boats controversy and in mockery of Democratic nominee John Kerry -- and called for Black to suggest an alternate award for the delegate: a middle finger, wrapped with yellow ribbon.
In the retaping of the segment made necessary by the earlier fluff, Black is prevailed upon to substitute the phrase "Congressional Medal of Idiot," an echo of one of the comic's familiar schticks. All things considered, it was a less provocative choice, consistent with a week in which New Yorkers -- who normally vote Democratic in presidential elections by margins as much as 4 to 1 -- were pushed close to but not over the edge.
"I wish I'd gone with it," Black would say later on about the discarded middle-finger image. But the show, which included a sassy but partly reverential interview with Senator John McCain conducted by host Jon Stewart, managed to hit some sort of rhetorical middle between outright disdain for the GOP invasion and the demands of hospitality.
New York is, like the song says, a wonderful town, a place where you can spend yourself crazy but you can also get a $10 haircut, a $1 pretzel, and a $5 "Rolex" -- all right off the sidewalk. It has also, over the years, been the venue for too many big-time events to even think about counting, although, until late August 2004 it had never been the site of a convention of the Republican National Committee.
"I've never seen so many Republicans in New York," grinned the city's ex-mayor, Rudy Giuliani, as he began his barn-burning stemwinder to a few thousand delegates and alternates at Madison Square Garden on Monday night of last week.
Nor had many of Rudy's partymates, or, for that matter, his fellow New Yorkers, and they reacted in a variety of ways. There was, for example, the experience that befell Tennessee's senior Senator Bill Frist, now the Senate majority leader but an all-but-declared aspirant for the presidency in 2008.
When the history of his race is written, a large part of the early chronology may be devoted to Frist's preparations during the week of the GOP convention, when he was virtually anywhere and everywhere a contender would aim to be.
There were the delegation breakfasts at which he spoke: California, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, South Carolina -- and, almost needless to say, New Hampshire.
There was the partisan Frist who gave a major speech on the floor on the well-watched, star-studded Tuesday night when California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger also spoke. That version of Frist pitched for medical malpractice reform, condemned Democratic vice presidential candidate John Edwards, a trial lawyer, and, a la Ibsen's Enemy of the People, intoned, "You can no longer be both pro-patient and pro-trial lawyer."
There was the nonpartisan Frist, who hung with Bono, his AIDS-awareness buddy, and held a well-hyped press conference at Rockefeller Center on Wednesday. There, surrounded by the heads of eleemosynary organizations, the erstwhile Nashville heart-transplant surgeon, who annually does pro bono work in Africa, awarded some $6 million in funds he had raised for HIV outreach programs.
On that occasion, speaking to members of the press afterward, Frist made nice about Edwards, expressing respect and calling him a "friend." He also regaled reporters with a fresh item in the Capitol Hill insider's publication Roll Call, one pointing out that the senator was inviting members of the Fourth Estate to join him in morning runs in Central Park, beginning at 6:15.
What was the senator's pace, he was asked. "Oh, I'm not running that fast," he answered diffidently. "Ten minutes?" came another question. Frist shrugged in acceptance of the figure but added, "Aw,but don't write that. I can run faster than that!"
The mood of pleasant harmony was suddenly interrupted by a passer-by who leaned over from street level and shouted down to the rink level below where Frist was holding forth with such ease.
"Mr. Frist!" the man bellowed, in a voice that, in its clarity and volume, surely reached into some of New York's outlying boroughs, "We don't want your war! Fuck off and go home. We don't want you " and, for the pro-life Dr. Frist, this had to be a telling thrust " killing babies. We don't want you bringing us your dangers!"
As the voice continued on with further imprecations, the senator, whose somewhat nonplused wife, Karen, was standing nearby, did a good job of seeming not to notice. But he'd had practice. He seemed indeed to be a target of such outbursts from demonstrators in the city and had been similarly interrupted at various other Manhattan venues.
All of which was confirmation that he was rising to the fore of general consciousness as a symbol of national Republicanism, and for a man known to be coveting his party's 2008 nomination, that wasn't all bad.
Frist wasn't the only Tennessean of prominence at the convention, of course, nor the only one whose experience during the week was somehow typical. There was his Senate colleague, Lamar Alexander, who was an honoree on Tuesday at an event at the venerable Sotheby's Auction House on Manhattan's Upper East Side.
The occasion was a reception for Alexander, co-sponsored by the American Gas Association and Nissan, centered around an exhibit of Johnny Cash memorabilia which will be auctioned off by the late singer's estate later this month.
In a conversation with Tennessee reporters several hours before the reception, Alexander had been moderation itself, acknowledging that while he was a "loyal team player" for the President Bush, he did not mind taking issue with the administration on issues of consequence. One such matter was that of taxing the Internet -- which Alexander, on behalf of revenue-starved Tennessee, favored. Another was the senator's support of stem cell research. "It doesn't make any more sense to throw away an unborn embryo than to use it in research that could end up saving lives," Alexander said. "That one is easy."
It was in a similar vein that the former governor spoke to the issue of his involvement with the Cash reception. "I've always honored Johnny Cash as the poet of the working man, and that's all we intend to do today," he said.
But what greeted Alexander and the Tennesseans and other Republicans who came to Sotheby's was only slightly less tumultuous than the hurricane winds that were just then heading for the Florida coastline.
Hundreds of protesters, mostly youthful and evenly gendered, were gathered outside the auction house, enraged that the GOP, as they saw it, would attempt to exploit the name of Cash, whom they regarded, on the basis of his populist lyrics, as having been a troubadour for the downtrodden.
"Johnny Cash was for the poor/ Johnny Cash was anti-war," went a relatively printable couplet, as they chanted and heckled the arriving delegates and were seemingly held in check only by several uniformed batteries of New York's finest.
Not that there weren't GOP sympathizers around, at Sotheby's as elsewhere in New York. There was, for example, Elena Acosta, a 30-ish resident of the Upper East Side who had ridden her bicycle to the corner of York and 72nd streets. She watched as the demonstration raged.
Acosta sat astride her 10-speed, talking on her cell phone to an unidentified friend in tones audible enough to be heard above the din: "You won't believe these low-lifes!" she was saying. "This will guarantee our victory. When this gets out, everybody will be voting for our party. We've won!" And she repeated variations of the message, hoping to be overheard by the demonstrators and using the term "low-lifes" and various synonyms as mantras of her opposition to the ongoing protest.
Though her accent was authentically urban New York, stamping her as a native, she occasionally slid, for whatever reason, into heavily accented Spanish, either for her unseen conversational partner's sake or perhaps because she suspected that the crowd of protesters contained Hispanic ethnics like herself.
Indeed it did. One such, who later identified herself as Esperanza Garcia, came over later, as Acosta was explaining her position to a reporter, and said, among other things, "You're a disgrace! You're exploiting the poor."
"Officer!" responded Acosta to one of the nearby policemen. "She's interfering with my conversation. Would you arrest her?"
The cop shrugged as the two women shrilled at each other in heated English, though it was clear that they could escalate the argument into Spanish if they chose.
In between exchanges, Acosta explained that she was from a Cuban exile family, was adamantly anti-Castro, and had become staunchly Republican as some sort of corollary to that. The demonstrators offended her, she said, not just because of their opposition to the GOP but because, she said, they represented in their massed protest the spectacle of collectivity. She described herself as an employee of a "media company" and took pride in what others might see as a kind of arch individualism. "I am a believer in capitalism and free enterprise, not like these -- low-lifes here!" she said, making sure to raise her voice.
Meanwhile, the people she so described, several hundred of them, continued to hurl abuse at the people entering or leaving Sotheby's, as the phalanxes of police stood their ground between the two discordant populations.
Several of the protesters, perhaps in tribute to a famous vintage photograph of an exasperated Cash in performance, raised a middle finger in the general direction of the invited visitors. One young man -- dressed in black -- extended single digits from both hands, raised upward in a double Johnny Cash-salute. "Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you!" he shouted, over and over.
The F-word was getting a stout workout all week -- virtually everywhere but in Madison Square Garden itself, site of official convention events. What, one might have asked, hath Dick Cheney wrought?
Yet a third Tennessean loomed large at the convention. This was Fred Thompson, Alexander's predecessor in the Senate and once again, as he had been before his election to the Senate in 1994, a professional actor. Indeed, the tall Tennessean was the only United States senator ever to leave that venerable chamber for an acting career -- though as Thompson, also a well-known lawyer and lobbyist, pointed out, "Many have come to politics from acting."
Thompson was attending to two distinct roles in New York last week. He was filming an episode (to be entitled "Undercover") of Law & Order, the NBC prime-time series on which he portrays District Attorney Arthur Branch. Thompson was also getting ready to introduce Bush on Thursday night via the medium of a hagiographic short film which he presented both in person and as voice-over in the narration.
Thompson was also a delegate, and when he was on the floor, he liked to stand out in the aisles by the Tennessee delegation's seats, where, looming like some potentate, he received the tribute due a crossover celebrity and took endless requests from passers-by that he pose with them for pictures.
At one point Thompson was asked: Was he thereby letting himself in for unnecessary trouble, or, au contraire, courting the attention? He smiled -- serenely and mayhap a big smugly. "Just letting nature take its course," he said.
And the convention itself was taking its course too. As the week wore on, it got to be fairly obvious what the Republicans' strategy was. Like the Democrats in their convention a month previous, the GOP-ers were going after the swing vote in the middle of the political spectrum. But, while the Democrats' way of doing so was to avoid attacking Bush directly, or even mentioning him by name, the Republicans managed to keep turning John Kerry on the spit all week.
The prime-time speakers on the first three nights included Senator John McCain, former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, Senator Zell Miller, and California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Three of them were generally classified as "moderates," while the fourth, Miller, was a renegade Democrat from Georgia. All four extolled George W. Bush; all mocked Democratic nominee John Kerry (or convenient Democratic surrogates, in the case of McCain, who was a Kerry friend and fellow Vietnam vet).
Miller was a special case. In serving as the convention's "keynoter" (a role he had performed for the Democrats in this very city in 1992), he delivered the event's most rabid, red-meat speech, an extended phillipic in which, eyes bulging and voice shrilling, he declared, "For more than 20 years, on every one of the great issues of freedom and security, John Kerry has been more wrong, more weak, and more wobbly than any other national figure." And that was one of the milder statements.
But those commentators -- and they were many, including McCain himself -- who would later take Miller to task for his ferocity may have forgotten that Miller was equally zealous on the attack against George H.W. Bush eight years before. And the delegates and alternates on the floor were as delighted with Miller as the pundits and mainstream pols were squeamish. Ultimately his role was the same as that of the other prime-time speakers: to include Bush in the mainstream and to include Kerry out.
That, in a way, was also the function of first lady Laura Bush, whose winsome Tuesday night appearance championing her husband as a thoughtful man of sober judgment contrasted both as medium and as message with the verbal and visual asymmetries of her Mozambique-born counterpart, Teresa Heinz Kerry. Not for nothing was the first lady dispatched to campaign in half a dozen states the week after the convention. (One of the low blows of the convention, incidentally, was Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney's straight-out suggestion, in a speech to the New Hampshire delegation, that Senator Kerry had married both his wives, each an heiress, for their money.)
Then there was Vice President Cheney, whose scorn for Kerry's use of the word "sensitive" in relation to foreign policy was a complement to Schwarzenegger's employment of the term "girlie men." Cheney was one of many speakers to conflate the tragic events of 9/11 with the war in Iraq: "From the beginning, the president made clear that the terrorists would be dealt with and that anyone who supports, protects, or harbors them would be held to account. In a campaign that has reached around the world, we have captured or killed hundreds of al-Qaeda. In Afghanistan, the camps where terrorists trained to kill Americans have been shut down, and the Taliban driven from power. In Iraq, we dealt with a gathering threat and removed the regime of Saddam Hussein."
Never mind the plethora of postwar evidence that no connection existed between al-Qaeda and Saddam and that no "threat," immediate or gathering, emanated from prewar Iraq. And never mind the several credible contentions, including those of Bush's own counterterrorism czar, Richard Clarke, that the vendetta against Saddam was on the president's drawing board long before that fateful day in New York three years earlier. The polls tell us that upwards of 50 percent of Americans still express a conviction that Saddam and Osama bin Laden (whose name, strangely, never passed the lips of a prime-time speaker in New York) were in cahoots concerning 9/11.
The polls tell us also that Bush, whose intimate-looking Thursday night appearance in the round at Madison Square Garden was the result of his campaign team's careful study of various rock acts, opened up -- at least, temporarily -- a double-digit lead over Kerry, whose image as heroic Vietnam War veteran took enough hits during a month-long siege by the so-called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth to qualify for several more Purple Hearts.
On 53rd Street, around the corner from the Ed Sullivan Theater on Broadway, is Hello Deli, the little shop made famous by talk-show host David Letterman, who employs the establishment and its proprietor, Rupert Jee, for a variety of Late Night routines.
It's a typical New York deli, with soft-drink cases stacked up on the floor next to the two small tables you can sit at to munch your meal. On the wall behind the corner is a chalkboard listing the usual specialties -- meat loaf, Reuben, and the like -- along with the prices, competitive and reasonable. And Rupert, who takes your order and may even make your sandwich, is like any other deli guy. He'll even talk politics with you -- sort of.
"You know, I was a little worried when I heard the Republicans were coming here. I was afraid they would be -- you know, too conservative." Meaning, presumably, unfamiliar with him and Dave. But they came to Hello Deli in significant numbers. "And you know what, they were actually fun people, most of them!"
Jee, an American-born son of Chinese parents, didn't know Letterman until the talk-show host, reestablished at CBS in 1993, began exploring his new Times Square neighborhood and found the man who would became a frequent foil ("two or three times a week; Dave always gives me a few hours' notice"). But Jee had established his deli location a year or so earlier. He was there, in fact, the last time a major political convention was held in town -- by the Democrats in 1992, Bill Clinton's launch year and George H.W. Bush's last one as president.
"You know, it's funny. I don't remember much about them. I guess some of them came by, but I don't have any memory of it. I seem to recall that the economy was in trouble back then, and maybe that was it. People came to town, but they didn't want to spend much money."
By some testimonies, the economy isn't in great shape now, either -- though vague and generalized claims of an upturn were posited all week by the fun people who spoke at Madison Square Garden -- notably President Bush himself, who held out the promise of an "ownership" society even further revamped in its internal governmental structures, notably in its tax system, than during his first four years.
In any case, the hard-working, amiable Rupert Jee seemed to be doing well.
And there is Raphael's, an all-services grooming shop, dealing in everything from haircuts to pedicures to makeovers, that hustles business by sending its cadres -- mostly foreign-born Jews -- out on the streets of Midtown Manhattan to pass out cards to potential customers.
Inside, there is both quality service and a good deal of unabridged conversation amongst the shop's workers. Given that most of the personnel are but recently arrived to these shores -- from Russia, Israel, Iran, or wherever -- there is a surprising lack of reticence in dealing out opinions on politics.
"Bush is man. There is too much terror and Kerry is weak. This is time for strong!" says the Russian-born Raphael himself during a roundtable conversation.
"You be quiet! Is too much politics. People don't agree with you," says a stout middle-aged woman -- Raphael's contemporary and, apparently, his wife -- who is doing a customer's nails.
Sure enough, a woman getting her nails done after a pedicure, pops in with a reference to "the pigs in town right now" and the danger that may have come in with them.
That is the one subject that unites the shop's denizens, customer and worker alike. New York has been relatively placid, but in Russia, homeland of many of Raphael's employees, a school is under occupation by Islamic terrorists, with hundreds of young students trapped in a siege and a jeopardy that, for many of them, will prove fatal.
"Can't we do something to punish these people? It must stop!" says Raphael's wife.
"You see, I tell you. Bush!" says Raphael, as if this is the ultimate Q.E.D. for his position.
George W. Bush would surely have smiled had he been listening, for, on the evidence of the convention just ended, some sentiment like that is close to being the rationale for the president's reelection campaign, and, if the current polls are to be believed, Raphael is by no means alone in his view.