Scenes from the 2004 Republican convention.
Originally published in Indy Week.
The most important men in town would come to fawn on me!
They would ask me to advise them…
And it won’t make one bit of difference if I answer right or wrong.
When you’re rich, they think you really know!
—Tevye, “If I Were A Rich Man”
As soon as the curtain goes down on Act 1 of Fiddler on the Roof, Judy Steed stands up to stretch her legs. As an unofficial member of the North Carolina delegation to the Republican National Convention—and a significant financial donor—the Charlotte businesswoman is an honored guest this week, to be feted by party officials and corporate sponsors alike. Her ticket to this Broadway musical, underwritten by The New York Times, is the first of many perks she will receive as the GOP takes Manhattan.
Steed’s an old-fashioned Republican: a believer in volunteerism and individual liberties (including abortion rights) who grew up in a prominent family in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. Her father, who owned a livestock market and processing plant, distributed meat to the needy at holidays. “He always insisted we help the poor,” she says. In North Carolina, she became politically energized around public education: Although Charlotte’s schools had become a national model of desegregation in the 1970s, when black and whites came together to embrace busing, Steed didn’t appreciate how her sons were assigned to “eight schools in eight years.” She ran for the Board of Education in 1990 on an anti-busing platform, and lost. Her kids finished their educations in private schools.
Though she considers herself a moderate, Steed is nonetheless a partisan. She has met President Bush twice and thinks he’s “a lot smarter than the media gives him credit for.” Her disdain for Bush’s predecessor is bottomless. “President Clinton and I were raised with entirely different values and character,” she says. “His behaviors certainly clarify his background.” For all her party loyalty, though, Steed has become disenchanted with the direction of electoral politics. “Gosh, I don’t want to incriminate anybody,” she says. “But you really have to have a core of well-heeled and wealthy backers even to be able to get on the ticket today. We ought to stop million-dollar campaigns. It’s a disgrace to spend what they’re spending now.” Still, Steed knows the rules of the game, so she gives generously. The National Federation of Republican Women has awarded her Regent status, which means she’ll be able to watch part of the convention from First Lady Laura Bush’s skybox.
At New York’s Minskoff Theater, where the cast of Fiddler has just finished “Sunrise, Sunset,” Steed stands up for the 15-minute intermission. She looks out from an upper-floor window onto the hubbub of Times Square. On the street below, police officers are standing shoulder to shoulder, prepared for the anti-Bush protesters who plan to confront delegates as they emerge from their Broadway matinees. Steed turns to a friend. “It’s a shame,” she says, “that we have to pay salaries and pay the expense for protection just to go to the theater.”
From her position in the mezzanine, she cannot see the actual protesters.
In particular, she can’t see her son, Ashby.
Ashby Steed, dressed in khaki shorts and a blue-gray polo shirt, emerges from the Times Square subway station into a throng of kindred spirits, many of them angry about the temporary Republican takeover of their city. In front of the New Amsterdam Theater, where delegates from four states are watching The Lion King, a protester carries a sign that says, “The W Stands for Liar.” Another placard reads, “John Kerry: Decorated War Hero! George Bush: AWOL Coke Head! You Decide.” Steed takes out his camera. He turns to his two buddies, both North Carolinians. “This is insane,” he says, all smiles.
Before today, 27-year-old Steed had never attended a protest. Growing up, he was the shy one at the dinner table, letting his older brother argue the liberal stance against their Republican mother. He shared his brother’s views; in high school he found himself disgusted by his classmates’ bigotries. But in the past few years—since his graduation from N.C. State and his move to New York to pursue an advertising career—Steed has developed a growing animosity toward the Bush administration. The invasion of Iraq, accompanied by Bush’s contempt for America’s allies, finally energized him to act. “I’m traveling a lot for work now and see the global viewpoint,” he says. “When you make fun of the French before attacking somebody, you’re putting yourself in a position to have the world hate you.”
So today, Steed joined 500,000 others in the week’s largest protest, the United for Peace and Justice March. Parading peacefully past Madison Square Garden, he felt grateful the GOP had come to town: “I think the Republicans need to see there are people that are against President Bush.” Now, with the big event over, he’s making one more pass through the city, half-protester, half-tourist.
Times Square is relatively quiet, but it feels like it could ignite at any moment. The weather is certainly hot enough for spontaneous combustion. Outside Thoroughly Modern Millie, a phalanx of officers stands 25 feet from the theater entrance, blocking any activist who tries to approach the exiting delegates. One man stands outside a police van, his hands in white plastic cuffs; observers from the National Lawyers Guild shout, “What’s your name?” Steed walks past Fiddler on the Roof, where his mother is watching from the mezzanine window, and then to the end of the block. Lines of police are moving as a unit, a human bulldozer, confining the crowd to a smaller and smaller space. “Soon we’re all going to be huddled somewhere,” Ashby says, “and they’ll come in and arrest us all.”
Tonight’s session of the Republican convention will open with a prayer from a Muslim clergyman, but apparently the GOP’s message of ecumenism hasn’t filtered down to North Carolina. “…In Jesus’ name we pray,” says state party vice chair Linda Daves, opening the delegation’s first meeting at New York’s Warwick Hotel.
This morning, at a breakfast funded by Wachovia, Sprint and Voyager Pharmaceutical Corp., North Carolina’s delegates receive their marching orders for the week. Unlike other convention cities, where dissent has been confined to insulated protest areas, New York’s urban geography makes it impossible to shield Republican visitors from their critics. “Here’s the thing,” announces state party chief of staff Bill Peaslee. “Protesters, they tend to live off the press and media attention. We don’t want to give the protesters any more spectacle than they’re already creating. Walk on by. Smile and say, ‘I love New York.’ There’s no point in engaging them.”
Judy Steed listens a bit groggily. She had stayed up late in the hotel bar, drinking “North Carolina iced teas” and talking about her protester son. “Ashby and I had our argument before he went,” she says. “I said, ‘Ashby, don’t take part in it.'” But Steed’s pride in the young man is also evident. “It meant a lot to me that I raised two sons who developed their own opinions,” she says. “I raised them to be independent—and heavens, how I succeeded.”
Today, Steed is excited about an event she plans to attend: an afternoon-long seminar called “W Stands for Women.” Held at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel, the gathering will feature many of the women with whom President Bush surrounds himself: his wife, Laura; mother, Barbara; twin daughters, Jenna and Barbara; Lynn Cheney, the vice-president’s wife; Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman; Interior Secretary Gale Norton; and Labor Secretary Elaine Chao. Steed, a 12-year breast cancer survivor who bicycled 200 miles to raise money for research and treatment, is most interested in the discussions that will take place on medical issues.
“I was so sorry that Hillary Clinton was not able to initiate something about health care for all Americans,” Steed says, taking a break from partisanship. “If there’s one thing I can fault the Bush administration for, it’s that they’ve done nothing for health care. I’ve had friends who have lost their homes, lost their vehicles, lost their personal possessions, and their bill is still a half-million dollars. If you can’t get to a specialist, you’re not going to live, and that’s what so many people can’t afford. We’ve got some of the best medical care, but so many people don’t have access.”
Sitting amid 1,000 women in a ballroom at the Waldorf, 30-year-old Charona Remillard of Winston-Salem also wants to hear about medical care today. But Remillard, a delegate, isn’t interested in the type of policies that might be proposed by her fellow North Carolinian Judy Steed. She thinks the solution is deregulation. “Health care is not a government responsibility,” she says. “It is a private individual’s responsibility to take care of their own health care. That’s why we have the greatest system in the world.” What about those, like Steed’s friends, who face devastating costs for diseases like cancer? “People who are ambitious and want to work are going to find a way,” she says. The poor, she adds, can always go to emergency rooms.
In fact, Remillard would protect only two groups in the health-care system: physicians and insurance companies, whom she says need legislation limiting the damages injured patients can collect from malpractice claims. “It’s not government intervention” to pass such laws, Remillard explains, “because you have lawyers taking advantage of people who don’t know any better and using them. That’s driving up the cost of health care.”
Remillard, the retail manager of a pharmacy, is one of the most enthusiastic members of the delegation. Wearing a cowboy hat adorned with a red, white and blue scarf—in fact, sometimes wearing American-flag colors from head to toe—she’s the Tar Heel most likely to be standing on a chair during convention sessions, letting out long calls of woooooooo! during speeches and wiggling her hips during musical breaks. A member of an Independent Baptist church that informs her political beliefs, she’s used to talking back during sermons, and this week she carries her worship style onto the floor of Madison Square Garden.
The more conservative the pronouncement, the greater her enthusiasm. Remillard wants federal money out of education. She’d like abortion outlawed. She wants to maintain an aggressive military operation in Iraq. And she definitely favors a constitutional amendment barring states from legalizing same-sex marriage. “The gay lifestyle is morally wrong,” she says. “Sodom and Gomorrah proved that. God destroyed the entire city for that. As a Christian, I believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible. It’s not that I don’t have very good friends who are lesbian and homosexual. My maid-of-honor at my wedding was a homosexual. At the time I didn’t know that, but we had known one another since grade school.”
If Remillard—or any of the 999 other women in the Waldorf ballroom—expected a serious discussion of issues facing American women, they certainly weren’t going to hear much at the two-hour opening session. “We want to empower you to be more effective advocates for the president,” the afternoon’s emcee told the room, suggesting that the gathering’s real goal was to harness women’s energy to serve a man. Likewise, Barbara Bush announced, “I’m not here to talk about policy.” The former First Lady did find a way to criticize the Democrats, albeit in a ladylike fashion: “Imagine what it’s like when these terrible, untrue things are said on national TV. Sometimes, I want to give people a piece of my mind. But you know I’d never do that. As George would say, ‘Wouldn’t be prudent.'”
Charona Remillard is none too excited about the decision to open the first night’s convention session with a Muslim invocation. “It was all right,” she says. “Diversity is our country.” Then she rolls her eyeballs.
Tonight’s podium stars are Sen. John McCain and former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. The off-stage celebrity who gets the biggest reaction from delegates, though, is documentary filmmaker Michael Moore, who has scored a press pass from USA Today and is seated in the media section, surrounded by Secret Service agents and distinguishable at a distance by his red baseball cap. In McCain’s convention address, the Arizona lawmaker takes direct aim at the director of Fahrenheit 9/11, calling him a “disingenuous filmmaker who would have us believe that Saddam’s Iraq was an oasis of peace.” McCain’s exaggerations notwithstanding, Madison Square Garden erupts in boos at Moore, who returns the attention with an L-for-loser hand gesture.
For Remillard, booing Moore is cathartic. “I think he’s a liar and he’s spreading mistruths for his own benefit,” she says. Has she seen Fahrenheit 9/11 ? “Absolutely not. I will not pay money for that. I’ve just heard what Rush Limbaugh’s talking about.”
Back at the Waldorf, a group of hawkish and observant Jews—a mostly male crowd wearing black business suits, yarmulkes and occasional Hasidic sidecurls—are receiving a pep talk from U.S. Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas. “We are reshaping the Middle East,” the ultra-conservative senator preaches. “It is tough; it is hard; it is the right thing to do. We’ve lost a lot of lives, but you have to go at terrorists… We are draining the swamp. We are opening up a region to democracy.” The next step, Brownback says, is to stop negotiating with Palestinians about the role of Jerusalem, which three religions hold dear. “Jerusalem is the undivided capital of Israel,” he says. “It’s central to Judaism.”
Brownback receives a standing ovation. As he walks down the center aisle toward the exit, the lone African American in the room—a large, freckled woman in a maroon pantsuit—stands up and intercepts the legislator. “I’m Dr. Ada Fisher,” she tells him. “I’m running in the 12th District of North Carolina against Mel Watt, and we know where he stands.”
A Durham-born physician, the daughter of a Hebrew scholar and herself a relentless self-promoter, Fisher has been attending every event she can squeeze into her schedule, talking up her long-shot candidacy to whomever will listen. She says that African-American Democrats have short historical memories, noting that her own grandfather, at 10 years old, was freed from slavery by the pen of a Republican president. “Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation and that slave became a free boy,” she says. “We’ve been a Republican family ever since.” Today, she says, the GOP is the party of “individual choice and individual freedom”—a sure path, she believes, to black empowerment.
When the Democratic Party is in, they create make-work jobs to keep the Negro quiet,” she says. “We need true economic development, where we can build our own businesses. The Democrats say, ‘You need food? We’ll give you food stamps. You need housing? We’ll give you public housing.'”
Fisher will have a tough time convincing voters that the party of less government will serve their interests best. The 12th District, which runs along much of Interstate 85 from Greensboro to Charlotte, is solidly Democratic. Watt, a former civil-rights attorney, is a popular six-term representative who won 65 percent of the vote in the last election. He’s a staunch opponent of the Iraqi invasion and an advocate for affordable housing and consumer protection, stances with which his constituents agree.
Nonetheless, Fisher insists she can beat the incumbent—if only the media would stop protecting him. “Mel Watt’s record—if the newspapers would tell the truth, no one in North Carolina would vote for him,” she says. “We have someone in Congress who doesn’t believe in health-care reform, who didn’t vote for the patients’ bill of rights. Mel Watt voted against the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. He voted against funding for soldiers’ pay increase and benefits.”
In fact, Fisher’s spiel distorts the incumbent’s record. Watt strongly supports health-care reform, though he voted against President Bush’s Medicare bill, explaining it would raise prescription-drug costs for more than 6 million Americans while creating a $6 billion tax shelter for the wealthy. He joined many Democrats in voting against a Republican revamp of the disabilities act, which stripped parents of legal rights and gave schools more power to expel handicapped students. He opposes the GOP’s modest patients’ bill of rights, preferring a tougher Democratic version that allows consumers to sue their HMOs. And he opposed additional funding for the Iraqi war, which happened to include money for soldier benefits.
Here at the Waldorf, though, no one disputes Fisher’s claims. As she approaches one man after another—avoiding the Hasidim, who don’t shake women’s hands—they accept her card, listen to her introduction, then return to their conversations with one another. Fisher makes her way to the front of the room, where Tevi Troy, the Bush campaign’s deputy director of policy, is chatting. “I’m Dr. Ada Fisher,” she tells him. “I could use some Jewish support. Maybe you can tell me how to get some.”
A few minutes later
“Dr. Fisher! How are you?” As the Jewish Republicans file out of the Waldorf meeting, they briefly intermingle with a younger, more casual set. Across the hallway, a gathering of Students for Bush is about to begin, and one of the students recognizes Fisher from their shared political work in North Carolina.
Matthew Vail is the president of the Students for Bush chapter at UNC-Chapel Hill, where he studies political science. He’s 25 and tousle-haired, with Elvis Costello glasses and a disarming politeness. He’s a guest of the North Carolina delegation, which picked up his $300 convention fee, and he’s been making his way from event to event, meeting such conservative celebrities as Watergate co-conspirator G. Gordon Liddy. It’s quite a different atmosphere from Chapel Hill, where “sometimes I feel a little outnumbered,” he says.
Vail grew up in Huntsville, Ala., with churchgoing parents who encouraged their three children to “seriously think about [voting] the Republican ticket.” When they were out driving, his mother would point out a certain pink office building and say, “That’s where they kill babies.” She also told him about acquaintances who had had abortions. “It destroyed their lives,” he says. “They went through a separation depression and it left a scar on those ladies my mom knows in Huntsville.” Vail says he’s not “an extreme right-wing anti-abortion guy,” but he does believe the procedure should be outlawed. “There’s been more people killed through abortion than the Holocaust,” he says.
He’d also like to see a constitutional amendment outlawing same-sex marriage. Growing up, Vail says, his parents frequently reminded him that homosexuality was wrong. “And I believed them,” he says. “A child does.” When he reached high school, Vail started questioning his parents’ perspective, but in the end he decided they were right. “It’s done me well so far,” he concluded. “I might as well go on.” Vail has gay friends at UNC, and he respects their “choice,” he says. “I know homosexual activity happened in ancient Greece. The philosophers, that’s what they used to do for intellectual stimulation. But it doesn’t line up with the Bible.”
As Vail shares his story, the room is filling up with Students for Bush, who hear first from a pair of professional wrestlers, Shawn Michaels and 7-foot-2, 500-pound Paul Wight, better known as The Big Show. (It seems as if all of World Wrestling Entertainment has been dispatched to entertain Republican youth at various events.) “I’m a born-again Christian and I wear it like a badge of honor,” announces Michaels, wearing a slicked-back ponytail and looking petite at 230 pounds. The celebrity speeches inspire a GOP official to tell the students, “I met with Big Show last night. We’re in negotiations for a caged match with Michael Moore and Janeane Garofalo.”
The wrestling theme continues with Terry Holt, press secretary to the Bush campaign. Blond, well-groomed and blunt, Holt imagines a new role for Shawn Michaels and Big Show—keeping reporters in line. “I deal with the scum of the earth,” he says. “I think if we took these guys down to the briefing room, we’d have better manners.”
Holt confides that he was actually a liberal in college. “A lot of the professors—I don’t want to say brainwashed—but brainwashed us,” he explains. “But then I started getting a paycheck and started saying, ‘Who’s FICA? And why is she making so much money?'” (FICA, of course, is the payroll tax for Social Security, which Bush wants to partially privatize.) Now, he says, the choice is clear: The Democrats are represented by a bunch of “inebriated movie stars” like Whoopi Goldberg, who made an off-color remark about President Bush at a New York fundraiser in July. “Kerry called these people the heart and soul of America, which is ludicrous,” Holt says. “We’re the heart and soul of America.”
And that’s why it’s so crucial, he says, for college Republicans to register their classmates to vote. “If you want to think you’re important,” he says, “e-mail me, and I’ll blow wet kisses in your ear.”
It’s been a busy week for North Carolina’s Republicans: four days on the convention floor, briefings by national officials, and numerous parties and receptions to choose from. Today’s reception for the delegation, paid for by Duke Power and Altria (parent of the Philip Morris tobacco company), featured a $50-a-head Tuscan table with delicacies like seared tuna, beef carpaccio, lentils with calamari, and roasted artichokes. The tranquillity of the Rainbow Room, a 64th-story banquet hall with commanding city views, offered a distinct contrast to an earlier reception sponsored by BellSouth. There, a handful of protesters chanted and held homemade placards. “I hope you choke, GOP scum,” said one sign.
Now that’s history. Tonight, President Bush will address the convention, and the North Carolina delegation is stoked. Outside the Rainbow Room, Ada Fisher had announced that she won’t share her floor pass with alternates. “Tonight’s my night,” she said. “I’m not giving up my floor tonight.”
In the first hours of the convention, there’s voluminous video footage of the Bush family, periodic jabs at John Kerry, and no end of sentimental references to Sept. 11. In the hallway, security is growing tighter. The floor is packed. With some assistance from a Raleigh journalist, Charona Remillard stands on her chair. Her blouse today looks like a crazy quilt of American flags.
“Hope has arrived!” she shouts as Bush approaches the podium. “Woooooooo!”
The truth is, most of the president’s speech—at least the first half, which is about domestic policy—is vague and wonkish. That doesn’t stop Remillard from whooping at every new pronouncement:
“I am fortunate to have a superb Vice President.”
“Government should help people improve their lives, not try to run their lives.”
“No dejaremos a ningún niño atrás. We will leave no child behind.”
Remillard reserves a double-whoop for Bush’s promise to “protect small business owners and workers from the explosion of frivolous lawsuits.” And when the president promises “a bipartisan effort to reform and simplify the federal tax code,” the Winston-Salem delegate starts a chant of her own: “Scrap the code! Scrap the code! Woooooooo!”
One row in front of Remillard, Ada Fisher has sat quietly through most of the speech. But at Bush’s mention of the tax code, Fisher, ever the campaigner, grabs her handbills and turns around to Remillard. “I got it! Right here!” she cries, pointing to her own support for a flat tax. “I got every one of them!”
“Because a caring society will value its weakest members, we must make a place for the unborn child,” the president continues. “Because religious charities provide a safety net of mercy and compassion, our government must never discriminate against them. Because the union of a man and woman deserves an honored place in our society, I support the protection of marriage against activist judges.”
Up in the nosebleed section, Matthew Vail doesn’t whoop. At the mentions of abortion and marriage, he jumps to his feet about a half-second faster than everyone else and waves his American flag in silence. He does so again when Bush pays tribute to New York City in the wake of Sept. 11: “Here buildings fell, and here a nation rose.” Finally, when Bush finishes his speech—”we go forward grateful for our freedom, faithful to our cause, and confident in the future of the greatest nation on earth”—the UNC student quietly folds his flag and places it in his shirt pocket for posterity.
“I have such a tremendous respect for the man,” he says. “I’m just humbled to be here. I’m gonna take some of this excitement to the college campus.” The balloons start to fall, followed by confetti, as the Bush and Cheney families pour onto the stage below. “Just look at this,” Vail says. “It’s awesome.”