Tuesday, June 17, 2008

TWTWTW, Part 1

(That Was The Weekend That Was, part 1)

I sometimes wonder if my life resembles others': nothing happening for a long while, then everything happening at once. Two of the very few things I do, outside of home, work, and sports, are judge the Houston Chronicle spelling bee and attend the English Composition CCCC Conference out of town, usually in some city I'm dying to explore: chicago one year, New York another, (hopefully) San Francisco in 2009. What is truly exasperating is how the spelling bee and the first day of the conference usually fall on precisely the same day in March, during a four-month span in which nothing else much happens. So I always miss the first day of the conference, a Wednesday. Then on Thursday, Astro-Girl and I catch an 8 am flight out of town and race off to the conference. Then we come home from the conference and watch re-runs of Will and Grace until the baseball season starts three weeks later.

So it was this past weekend, during which I was confronted with two, three, maybe four events overlaying one another: the State GOP Convention, the Celtics-Lakers NBA finals, the US Open on TV, and (oh yeah) the New York Yankees in town to play the Astros.

Thursday morning: GOP convention opens, stretched across two enormous auditoriums (auditoria?) in the ground floor of the George R. Brown Convention center downtown. Maybe it's me; I've always found the GRB, supposedly the chief selling point for conentioneering, a rather gloomy place, certainly gloomier than its analogue in Phoenix, the Civic Center. Already the mood of the conventioneers might be desribed as . . . muted. The lights are down, to aid trhe television cameras. The usual functionaries parade out, the usual songs are sung. People come to their feet out of a sense of obligation.

There is a brief spasm of excitement for Paul Bettencourt, a gifted speaker and the one Harris County official everyone knows by name.

Who is Paul Bettencourt? The Harris County Clerk. It is a quirk of Texas law that, upon paying for your car registration renewal or property tax, you make the check out to the county clerk personally. That's right: your check reads, "Pay to the order of . . . Paul Bettencourt." Until two months ago, I had never seen him in person, never known much about him but his name, certainly not expected the large Yogi Bear of a man who bounded onstage at our Senate District meeting and brought the crowd to its feet. The same happens this time: glasses shining in the lights, sweaty hair plastered to his scalp, the man explodes onto stage. His rhetoric is as corny as Bird's Eye ("the Dems had a choice: Obama or Chelsea's Mama!"), but his enthusiasm is infectious. He simply refuses a desultory audience to affect him.

Next, Governor Rick Perry. And here things get interesting.

As everyone in Texas knows, the Texas Governor's Mansion was torched, almost certainly by an arsonist, the Sunday before Rick Perry was due to appear here. That's right: the man lost his house (or residence, anyway) some hundred hours before his appearance on the podium. As if to emphasize the circumstances, a quirky little film about the Perry family (one boy, one girl) starts and ends with a shot of the mansion in its former, pristine state.

Mrs. Perry introduces the Governor. Again, muted applause. The plain truth is that there is a segment of GOPers who dislike the Governor, perhaps even loathe him, not least because of the business tax he pushed through the legislature as a means of funding schools. If one were to spend a lifetime searching for--by GOP lights--the most horrifying conjunction of two English words, one could hardly do better than combine the word "business" with the word "tax."

Beyond his positions, there has always been the image of Perry as a place-holder, as his Lieutenant Governor's beneficiary of W's ascension to the White House, as a tool of Bush, Rove and DeLay who has kept his job thanks to the Dems' incompetence in recruiting a worthwhile foe. (By contrast, John Cornyn, who entered the US Senate to catcalls of "Bush Machine," has distinguished himself, especially in matters of energy. About which, more anon.)

Perry does what he does with what he has . . . and then, ten minutes in, starts winning the crowd over. The plain fact is that there are several positions the GOP holds that are widely popular (not that voters, this time 'round, may be swayed--another story). Among these are voter picture ID, gay marriage, increased border security; Perry hits all of these hard, and well. He also goes on at length about Texas's 10 billion-dollar surplus, at a time when California and New York (the two biggest Texas bugabooes, after Massachusetss) are deep in the red.

Then, the finish: Perry's call for party unity, at a time when Perry finds himself the potential target of party disunity. (In the following days, volunteers will materialize on the skyway between the GRB and the Hilton Hotel and hand out stickers: Kay Bailey Hutchison for Governor.)

And, now, the Really Weird Moment.

Perry says something about one instrument playing a tune. Behind him on the podium, a uniformed buglist appears, and begins playing "Yellow Rose of Texas." Seven thousand people stand, anticipating . But no: no song, not yet. Perry resumes talking: one instrument, one tune. Trumpet player appears, plays the first few bars of "The Eyes of Texas." Half the crowd stands up. Perry continues talking; the two thousand people sit again, finally on the same page: "Oh, now I see where this is headed." And sure enough: a dozen-piece band appears to play "Deep in the Heart of Texas."

The effect, to say the least, is underwhelming. For such a build-up, Perry needed to trot out a hundred-piece band that would march up the aisles to thunderous applause. I once saw a high school production of The Music Man whose climax played to bigger effect in front of six hundred people. Instead I found myself with seven thousand Republican fanatics cheering the titular leader of the state party out of politeness.

Is it too much of a stretch to link this moment with the current McCain-Obama tussle? When I was seven years old I wore a NIXON NOW button to school on election day. In the intervening thirty six years, the full extent of my political activity has been conducted in the interior of a voting booth--that wonderful, wonderful place. I was pulled back into political activism--first my district caucus, then as a district delegate, then finally a state delegate--for one reason: because we are at war with an enemy who wishes to destroy us, and I can't find sufficient seriousness from the other side.

Want to save the polar bears? Easy: let's everyone stop shooting at them. Gas too high? Drill here, drill now, pay less (and yes, given a substantial, public American commitment to more drilling and refining, prices would come down. That's why they're called oil futures.) The only thing that matters to me is the vigorous pursuit of those who would do us harm, and the reduction of our enemy's assets to basketball courts. Right now, only side seems to have the requisite commitment--or rather, as they say on NPR, This, I believe.

Mornings like Thursday, however, fill me with a kind of gloom. Sometimes I wonder: does any of the above mean anything, even to me? Days I watch McCain speak, I feel like throwing my show at the TV and shouting, "No, no, you're saying it wrong"? However right McCain be right on the issues (I have my opinions, others have theirs), rhetorically, he's playing Salieri to Obama's Mozart. This will be a problem.

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