Pom-Poms and Platitudes in the Garden

RNC Night 2 was like a high school pep rally, complete with a star athlete and homecoming queen. The GOP may need more than that

By Ciro Scotti

Republican political strategist Ralph Reed, the caffeinated cajoler of the Religious Right, and Newt Gingrich, the granddaddy of GOP supremacy on Capitol Hill, are going around New York this week talking about Big Tent Republicanism. Asked whether evangelical Christians might be put off by the moderate masks Bush Republicans are wearing at their convention, Reed allowed that a party that narrowly defines itself is a party that fails.

"It would be pretty easy for us to go back and be a minority party. Everybody looks the same, everybody talks the same, and everybody thinks the same. If that's the kind of party you want, have at it," he said. "It meets in a phone booth."

Almost on cue, into the Big Tent of Madison Square Garden on the night of Aug. 31 strolled possibly the oddest political couple since...well since John McCain started hugging George W. Bush like he was his daddy coming home from work. If the tent is big enough for Conan the Barbarian and Betty Crocker, also known as California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and First Lady Laura Bush, then, gosh, who can't squeeze in under the flaps?

Politics -- especially the variety being practiced at the Presidential level this year -- is a lot like high school, and the 2003-04 yearbook might include a couple of entries that would go something like this:

Arnold Schwarzengger. Arnold, as he's universally known, is the steroidally macho, exhaustingly ebullient, toothy and frothy, Austrian-born former bodybuilder who built a monosyllabic screen career on a set of incredible deltoids. He married into the Kennedy clan (where groping has replaced touch football as the sport of choice), made millions playing The Terminator, and last October removed the cadaver of Gray Davis from the governorship of the Republic of California in a recall election.

Favorite old hangout: The gym. Favorite new hangout: A tent outside the governor's office where he holds court, smokes cigars, and talks sunny. Most embarrassing moments: Accidentally banging into well-endowed female strangers with both hands.

Laura Bush. Mrs. Bush, as she is often called, is the wife of the 43rd President of the United States, whom she married in 1977 when he was a two-fisted, hard-drinking son of a famous person and she was a librarian in Austin. Laura is widely thought to be calm, caring, smart, strong, decent, loyal, and wholly admirable in every possible way, shape, and form. If her hobby isn't making fudge, it should be.

Even sharp tongues like former First Lady Barbara Bush, her mother-in-law, and Lynne Cheney, wife of Vice-President Dick Cheney, can't find enough adjectival laurels to place on Laura's head. Favorite old hangout: the library. Favorite new hangout: the family quarters at the White House. Most embarrassing moment: Being introduced by the Duh Twins, Jenna and Barbara, a pair ditsy enough to make Jessica Simpson seem like Ayn Rand. The girls weren't kidding when they said: "You know all those times when your parents embarrass you? Well, it's payback time -- on live TV."

Tuesday night at the Garden the high school motif was in full flower as both Schwarzenegger and Mrs. Bush shook their rhetorical pom-poms at the homecoming audience. Good Lord, Arnold, don't you know cheerleading is for girlie-men? (Oh yeah, George W. was a cheerleader at Andover. Never mind.)


  For an actor with a usual range somewhere south of Mr. Ed, Arnold managed to stretch his craft to loud, one-dimensional, simplistic, and a bit smug. He boomed out all the usual boilerplate about being a proud immigrant. "Do you know how proud I was? I was so proud that I walked around with an American flag around my shoulders all day long." Judging by the tales told by some unsuspecting women before the California recall election, however, the flag may have been all he had on.

Arnold did thrill the crowd with stand-up-and-cheer lines and a power-packed delivery. And he showed courage when he disclosed that he was inspired to become a Republican after hearing Nixon talk about "free enterprise, getting government off your back, lowering taxes, and strengthening the military." There was precious little substance -- but surely that was no surprise to Californians.

If Arnold was the rah-rah football star pushing people under the Big Tent, Laura was the homespun homecoming queen gently inviting them in for milk and some of those "Cowboy Cookies" she makes. She politely ticked off all the reasons to give her husband George four more years and turned steely just once, when she talked about being a scared schoolkid growing up with the nuclear threat posed by the Soviets. "Because of strong American leadership in the past," she said, "we don't have to hide under our desks anymore."

No one expected Conan or Betty to come up with the answers to the questions that are bedeviling many of their countrymen. And maybe they did their job: Showing people outside the tent that all are welcome. But pom-poms and platitudes aren't going to win this election. To do that, someone in the Big Republican Tent is going to have to level with the American people.

Scotti is BusinessWeek senior editor for government and sports business and offers his views in A Not-So-Neutral Corner, only for BusinessWeek Online

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