BLURT GOES TO THE REPUBLICAN NATIONAL CONVENTION

The armies of the night will prevail…
or will they?

 

BY BEN WESTHOFF

 

 

RNC Day
4: Spare some Change?

 

What do John Mellencamp, Bruce Springsteen and Heart have in
common? They all want the Republicans to stop using their goddamn songs at
rallies. Ann and Nancy Wilson reportedly sent a cease and desist letter to the
McCain campaign after the RNC rocked “Barracuda” at the Xcel center last night.
Depriving the candidate of this associate will hurt; after all, like your
typical barracuda McCain is a little less than six feet long, not very nimble, hunts
via ambush and possesses powerful jaws. (Another problem is that “All I Want To
Do Is Make Love To You,” while a powerful pro-life statement, just doesn’t get folks
fired up.)

 

So, ‘70s and ‘80s rockers don’t like McCain, but does anyone
else? No one hanging around the Minnesota State Capitol for the RNC final-day protests,
that’s for sure. Lacking the numbers of earlier rallies, they nonetheless
gamely fired themselves up around mid-afternoon, using songs, factually-inaccurate
diatribes, and free crumbly cookies and bananas, the latter of which came in
small, gooey segments. I ate one, and then twenty minutes later became
convinced I’d been dosed with LSD. Briefly I contemplated an alternate universe
tea party featuring Michele Bachman and that female protester over there (the
one calling the surrounding riot cops “cowards”); the ladies ate cucumber
sandwiches and discussed clean coal and wind power. (Matter of fact T. Boone
Pickens was there too!)

 

I soon realized my dizziness was probably due to lingering
tear gas in the atmosphere and not acid, and followed the now-moving protesters
towards downtown. The group was redirected almost immediately, however, by a
line of police aiming (tear gas?) guns directly at our brains. The mass swung
west and walked along St. Anthony
Avenue, before being cut off again by a dozen or
so cops on horses. The now-flummoxed protesters decided to plant their rear
ends in the road and wait the situation out. I wasn’t exactly clear to their
aims; perhaps this was a sit-in to protest Piper Palin’s spit-shining her
little brother’s hair?

 

Eventually the tear gas and concussion bombs came out again,
and everyone scattered. (You can read a more detailed account of the clash here,
which also reports on the assault of a pair of City Pages reporters.) That meant it was time those of us with
press passes — approximately 1/3 of the crowd — to head back to the
convention center, where Cindy McCain was holding court. She made it clear why
so many people are in awe of her husband; not because he was able to withstand
torture in a Vietnamese prison camp for five and a half years, but because he
was able to trade his old wife in for a new one who was not only much younger
and blonder, but whose pops hooked him up with a VP job at his mammoth beer
distributorship to boot.

 

I really dug the video montage introducing McCain, which
detailed his time spent in the camp and included a black and white video of him
smoking a cigarette with one of his broken arms. One of the main themes of the intro
and his speech was how his time in capture made him a less selfish person. When
Victor Charlie offered him early release because his father was an admiral he
said, “Hell no. I want four more years of torture!”

 

Although this, like many aspects of his story, is hard to
believe, it’s fair to say his reputation as a political iconoclast is well
deserved. He has succeeded in politics not despite, but because of, his ability
to piss off people in his own party and occasionally buck popular opinion. In
2000 he nearly captured the Republican nomination by dissing Christian
conservatives and championing campaign finance reform. In 2008 he won despite
being against drilling in ANWR. Once sympathetic to him, Democrats now complain
he’s fallen in line with the Bush tax cuts and taken on a real barracuda, I
mean pit bull, of a right-wing running mate, but it seems unlikely a McCain
presidency would resemble a Bush presidency. Schwarzenegger’s terms as governor
come more to mind; like Arnold, McCain would inherit a Democrat-controlled
congress, and, with his desire to be remembered trumping an already nebulous
party affiliation, would likely set his sites on historic change.

 

Ah, “change.” The key word in this election cycle, espoused
by everyone from dogmatic leftists (Barack Obama) to reactionary Mormons (Mitt
Romney) to members of the most powerful political families in America (Hillary
Clinton). McCain used the word repeatedly in his acceptance speech, though since
he was attempting to play to the crowd his proposed policies sounded like
Republican business as usual – school choice, loosening trade restrictions and strengthening
private health care. On the last issue McCain is surely on the wrong side of
history; Americans think the current system sucks, and unless you’re planning
to blow it up, no one really cares about your plans to tweak it.

 

Only when he looked the right-wing faithful in the eye and
told them things they didn’t want to hear – about campaign finance reform, about
environmentalism, about how the “Contract for America” Republicans lost their
way (“We let Washington change us”) — did he give hints as to why he’s been so
successful. But it was too little, too late. John McCain’s shtick plays best
when he’s ruffling feathers, but this speech felt like a Heart concert. Not like
an ass-kicking 1977 show where the Wilson
sisters get all “Crazy on You” at a small club, but like a sell-out, cash-in
comeback show decades later, where they play “Barracuda” for the thousandth
time, before a crowd that knows all the words.

 

 

 

RNC Day
3: A Palin In The Ass

 

 

Sarah Palin’s primetime speech last night was the most
anticipated of the convention. John McCain wanted a “game changer” as his Vice
Presidential pick, and, oh boy, did he get it. Since the minute he picked her,
juicy bits of gossip, innuendo, and scandal have surfaced — that her
17-year-old daughter Bristol, not she, birthed the down Syndrome newborn Trig (false);
that Bristol herself was pregnant (true); that the Palins would make lemonade
by marrying off Bristol hastily (true); and, finally, that the executive
director of Jews for Jesus spoke recently at Palin’s Wasilla Bible Church (also
true,
though the media has yet to really pounce on it).

 

That Palin looks unlike any politician we’ve seen fueled the
anticipation as well. Whereas Hillary Clinton played down any sex appeal she
may have, Palin plays it way up; for her speech she eschewed a pantsuit for a
relatively short black skirt, shiny earrings, and librarian glasses. Quoth
Jimmy Kimmel: “She looks like one of those women in the Van Halen videos who
takes off her glasses, shakes out her hair, and then all of a sudden, she’s in
high heels and a bikini. All of a sudden, I am for drilling in Alaska.”

 

Put it another way: There’s a reason everybody believes this
picture 
floating around the internet — the one of her clad in an American flag bikini
and holding a hunting rifle by a pool — is real. (Sorry fellas, it’s a
photoshop fake.)

 

But though obviously a “game changer,” it remained to be
seen if Palin would adrenalize or deflate McCain’s moribund campaign. Though wonks
like Politico’s Charles Mahtesian believe her family’s red-neck affinities (snowmobiling, underage pregnancies,
DUIs) will endear her to red and swing state voters, most everyone agreed she
needs substance behind her image. After all, McCain has hammered Obama for his
lack of experience, and Palin has even less than he does. And there have
already been grumbles about her among the Republican base — former Nixon speechwriter
and Ferris Bueller educator Ben Stein, for one, isn’t pleased.
Meanwhile, Minnesota Governor/spurned VP pick Tim Pawlenty didn’t even stick
around
for her speech. 

 

So, would she deliver? After an introduction by Rudolph Giuliani
— in which he somehow compared running New
York City to running Wasilla but didn’t, to his
credit, say “9/11” — Palin took the stage to a warm, but not ecstatic, reception.
She trotted out her already well-trod “You know the difference between a hockey
mom and a pit pull? Lipstick!” line, and went on to list her accomplishments in
elective office. Some of her points were salient, like canceling the “bridge to
nowhere” and taking on the waste and cronyism of entrenched Alaskan politicians
like the Murkowskis. Others, however, not so much. Though she spoke of being a
deficit hawk, for example, folks like James Love have responded that her operating budget actually rose during her tenure. Others
have noted that, should the price of oil slide, the state will be up shit
creek. (Up shit fjord?)

 

Most of the Bud Ice drinking masses won’t care about those
details, of course — just like they won’t care about Obama’s overwhelmingly
leftist policies so long as they find him “genuine.” But more than Obama has
had to, Palin needed to appear presidential – not so much because she’s a
woman, but because she’s backing up a guy that, what with his melanoma and
inability to raise his arms above his head, could seemingly croak at any
moment.

 

My gut feeling is that, in this regard, she didn’t hack it.
The applause she received was never particularly loud or fervent, and didn’t
approach anything McCain received upon his brief appearance after her speech.
(And this is a guy right-wingers like Rush Limbaugh loathe.) If she couldn’t sell herself completely to this friendly crowd,
it seems doubtful her shtick played well across the country.

 

But this race is far from over, and Palin remains at the
center of it. Republicans are hellbent on creating a backlash in her favor,
predicting (probably correctly) that voters will rush to her defense if they
feel the media is unfairly piling up on her or Democrats are taking cheap
shots. (Much like Americans gave Bill Clinton sky-high poll numbers in the
midst of his impeachment trial.) It now appears that even some former Hillary Clinton
aides  are joining
the “sexism” chorus.

 

So trying to make predictions at this point is dubious.
After all, a million more “game changing” events could still occur. Bristol’s baby could come
early. The Jews for Jesus story could bubble up. And, who knows – real Palin gun/bikini photos could surface,
or even nude ones along the lines of those of German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Lord
knows that would lock down the key Celebrity
Skin
demographic.

 

 

 

RNC Day
2: Zack de la Rocha vs. Marge Gunderson

 

This week we have our man Westoff firmly embedded in the ground forces digging trenches at
Minneapolis-St. Paul.

 

So much rage in downtown St. Paul, and yet not nearly enough Rage. In
town to perform at the Target
Center on Wednesday, Rage
Against The Machine was to play a free, unannounced show at the State Capitol on
Tuesday evening – at least according to teenagers on Twitter, in any case.

 

The day after the convention’s riotous opening ceremonies,
folks who didn’t have to go back to work (students, hippies and anarchist punks,
joined by about 500 police officers) gathered on the capitol lawn for something
called Ripple Effect. Most would call it a “free concert” featuring acts like
Michael Franti, Dead Prez, Anti-Flag and the unfortunately named Wookie Foot, but
organizers preferred “events” “embracing the core values of the environmental
and social justice movements, with a collective understanding that the
solutions to these problems will require us to break down issue and
generational barriers.” 

 

I’m not sure if any issue barriers were broken down that
day, but the great unwashed chillaxed as hard as they could, playing with those
green “floating” orb things, attempting (unsuccessfully) to double dutch and
meditating in a giant rectangle. Phone numbers were exchanged, utopian
alternate universes were contemplated, and the world’s only “Nader/Gonzales
‘08” sticker was applied to a backpack.

 

It seemed that everybody was still exhausted from the previous
day’s protest marches, window smashing and urine stockpiling. You know leftists
are tired when they can’t even get pumped up by a Medea Benjamin speech. But
when word of Rage’s imminent arrival began to leak across the internet, the
assembled (or at least those who could afford an iPhone) began to perk up. The
crowd began to balloon around 6, when folks got off from their jobs at the
skate shop and the juice bar and made their way downtown.

 

Anti-Flag had taken the stage in a flurry of black and pink,
and were now working the crowd into a frenzy with brief bits of inspiration
like, “The world sucks. So let’s party!” 
Folks moshed like it was 1999, and bassist/hype man Chris #2 dropped
hint after hint that something big was about to happen. When they departed the
stage they left all their instruments; the idea was that Rage would pick them
up and play four songs.

 

Though you wouldn’t think too many of St. Paul’s finest would have copies of Evil Empire (or be Twitter savvy), the
cops were wise to the plan, and — since they didn’t have the manpower to
accommodate such a hugely-popular act – moved to halt the proceedings. Upon Rage’s
backstage arrival at 6:30, they were detained by a group of Minnesota State
Troopers, of all people. As riot guard police and bike cops surrounded the
premises, a trooper wearing one of those sweet flying saucer hats (she looked
something like Marge Gunderson in Fargo) kindly informed Zack de la Rocha, Tom
Morello and the like that they didn’t have the necessary permit to go on stage.

 

Rocha didn’t get worked up about it – dude must meditate his
ass off – and instead, while the chanting crowd screamed for blood (or at least
for “Testify”), he plotted with his mates a way to keep the crowd from killing
anyone while simultaneously creating a sense of, um, collective understanding about
breaking down generational barriers.

 

The band exited past the police behind the stage and weaved
out to the front of the crowd, where they implored their delighted minions to
take a seat. Most everyone immediately sat; one suspects if Rocha had asked them
to poop in their pants they would have done it. Next, bullhorn in hand, the
group led those within ear shot in a short set of acapella sing-a-longs. Call
it Rage karaoke — sans machine, of course.

 

After twenty minutes or so of this, the band implored the
assembled to rise, and they lead them in a march towards the Xcel center, where
former lazy-presidential-candidate  Fred
Thompson was preparing to address another group of dogmatic people. The bike
cops pedaled nervously alongside the marchers (I’m going to suggest there were
about 3000 people), and guards wearing pads and gas masks stood nervously along
the route. No windows were smashed — that I saw anyways — but when they
reached the perimeter of the buffer zone in front of the convention center, folks
began shaking and rattling the fences. The police gave them a few warnings and
then, according to reports from the front line, began firing off tear gas and
those little bombs that make a lot of noise.

 

So, party over. Everybody hopped aboard their fixed-gear bikes
or skateboards and headed back home, just in time to catch Big Brother 10.

 

In conclusion, it’s fair to say that the day two protests
felt less like a post-apocalyptic movie and more like a professional wrestling
match. Though bloodlust was in the air, no one really got injured, and
observers couldn’t help feeling as if the whole thing was just a little bit
scripted.

 

 

RNC DAY 1:
Protesters, Palin, and Paranoia

 

 

 Let’s get one thing straight: I did
not get Sarah Palin’s daughter pregnant. Although I have been to Alaska and enjoy the
occasional Mooseburger, I did not have sex with that woman. Girl.

 

I will admit, however, to being wild and on the prowl on the first day of
the Republican National Convention, held in downtown St. Paul. The atmosphere was almost exactly
like that of a post-apocalyptic movie, with giant fences separating the
privileged controlling elite from the screaming masses, some so poor they
apparently can’t afford deodorant and even rummage through dumpsters for bits
of tofu burgers. (Red eyed folks in tattered clothes stumbled around as well,
although they were less “infected” than “sprayed with tear
gas.”)  

 

‘Twas a different scene entirely inside the Xcel Energy Center, where the
Minnesota Wild normally play hockey, and which adjoins the hall where my high
school graduation ceremony was held. The convention floor was as quiet as a
mouse, or perhaps a rat, as President Bush and VP Cheney had opted out of their
speeches to go battle Hurricane Gustav. (To quote The Church Lady: “How
conveeeenient.”).This left us only with Cindy McCain, who spoke about the
relief effort, and Laura Bush, who spoke about her battle fighting an addiction
to Capri Menthol Lights cigarettes (just kidding).

 

The, um, elephant in the room that the 17-year-old unmarried daughter of
McCain’s unvetted VP pick, Alaska
governor babe Sarah Palin, was preggo. This was the third game-changer of the
week, following the hurricane and the initial announcement that the VP slot was
going to a creationist nut job who until recently was the mayor of Cicely, Alaska
or some such. (Speaking of which, somebody really needs to get John Corbett off
of those Applebee’s commercials and back in the DJ booth where he belongs.)
Word from nearby adjoining red states was that the baby bump could spark a poll
numbers bounce, leaving the mainstream media liberal elite scratching their
bald spots.

 

Outside, anarchists busted a few windows and declined my interview requests.
(They think they’re so cool.) The rest of the 10,000 protesters marched in
well-behaved and confusing fashion. I for one never did understand what running
your car on vegetable oil, universal health care and medical marijuana have to
do with “Israel out of Palestine” and the war in Iraq, but whatever. Riot-geared up
police lined the streets; most of them were apparently from out of town because
no one could tell me how to get to Harriet
Island, where the Service Employees
International Union protest concert was being held across the Mississippi
river.

 

I eventually made it over there, though, only to find that the performer I
was most looking forward to seeing had canceled. (Someone speculated that Lupe
Fiasco is a disenchanted Hillary supporter won over to McCain by the Palin
pick, but that’s probably not accurate). Though fairly subdued, the crowd seemed
to enjoy political ramblings and occasional guitar strumming of folks like Tom
“The Nightwatchman” Morello, Billy “why couldn’t I have been
born 80 years ago goddammit” Bragg, the delicate, beautiful Allison Moorer
and her hideous beast of a husband, Steve Earle. (Apparently Mos Def and The
Pharcyde came on later, but I was too busy leaving comments on the Stuff White
People Like blog to pay attention.)  

 

Morello tells me beforehand that he’s not there to support Barack so much as
to support the union and fuck with Republicans. “I feel much more
comfortable on the other side of the barbed wire fence lobbing musical Molotov
cocktails in,” he says. “The only candidate that I’ve publicly
endorsed in my life is Cindy Sheehan when she was running against Nancy
Pelosi.”

 

He and Earle became buddies about five years ago on the “Tell Us the
Truth Tour” (something about media consolidation, abolishing the death
penalty and organic arugula, probably). They bonded over their mutual love of Lord
Of The Rings
, annoying Billy Bragg by watching the six hour extended
version of The Two Towers over and over on the tour bus. Since then
the pair have continued their activist ways, although their actions have not
always been appreciated.

 

“I witnessed Al and Tipper Gore practically levitate to avoid having
their picture taken with me,” remembers Earle. “[Al] was speaking at
a place called The Belcourt Theatre in Nashville, and a couple friends of mine
tried to drag me into this photo op. You should have seen the look of terror on
their faces. They were horrified. I’m sure the camera was tracked down
immediately after I left.”

 

Recalls Morello: “At the SEIU mayday rally in Chicago, Mayor Daley was on stage waiting to
speak after I finished a rousing version of Woody Guthrie’s ‘This Land Is Your
Land,’ complete with all the censored verses. It turns into a real class-war
anthem, and at the end of it I asked everybody up on stage to jump up in down
in solidarity with workers’ rights. I think the mayor was kind of caught of guard,
but he did jump up and down, to his credit.”

 

The pair certainly seemed a bit more committed than, say, Atmosphere emcee
Slug, who like the protesters downtown has a tendency to stray a bit off
message. “I don’t rock their name in interviews or anything like
that,” he says of the union, “but I’m not necessarily against what
they stand for.” That’s quite an endorsement. He goes on: “Quite
honestly, it didn’t have to be this cause, it could have been fucking Haagen
Dazs. If they were out there throwing a festival across the river from the RNC,
and they had Tom Morello, I still would have done it.”

 

After the show, I ghostwalked a bit more around the perimeter of the
convention center, 28 Weeks Later-style, and then went back inside.
Bill O’Reilly announced on one of the overhead screens that Obama’s convention
bounce had all but evaporated, and the race was now neck and neck. I think it’s
fair to say Sarah Palin’s grandfetus is holding all the cards right now.
  

 

 

 

 

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