What a hoot Dick Cheney is on the campaign trail. He is adopting the hilarious habit of confusing the names of John Kerry and Ted Kennedy, that arch-lefty every Republican likes to hate. "I listened to what Senator Kennedy - excuse me, I get them confused sometimes," Dick ad libbed to an audience in Pennsylvania. "I listened to what Senator Kerry had to say in Boston." And in Nevada, on gutting the intelligence budget: "Not even Senator Kerry - excuse me - not even Senator Kennedy would vote for it. Sometimes I get them confused." Loveable grin from Cheney, predictably loud laughter from the party faithful.
But, occasionally, the likes of Cheney will say something revealing at one of these election meetings - and so it proved a few days before the Republican convention opened in New York. Taking questions from the audience at a campaign stop in Davenport, Iowa - all of them carefully screened beforehand - Cheney was asked to speak "from the heart" about "homosexual marriage".
He clearly knew the question was coming and was prepared: "Lynne and I have a gay daughter, so it's an issue that our family is very familiar with," he replied. "We have two daughters and we have enormous pride in both of them."
His daughter Mary, who has short hair and fits some of the stereotypes of gay women, was listening in the audience; she has become perhaps her father's closest aide in this year's election campaign. "My general view is that freedom means freedom for everybody," Cheney went on. "People ought to be free to enter into any kind of relationship they want to." States should be allowed to define marriage, said Cheney, in what was clearly meant as a repudiation of George W Bush's policy to pass a constitutional amendment defining marriage as being between a man and a woman. "At this point my own preference is as I've stated," said Cheney. "But the president makes basic policy for this administration, and he makes it clear that he does in fact support an amendment on this issue."
It was hardly a bombshell, given that it has been well known for years that Cheney has a gay daughter. Nor does it show that Cheney and his colleagues have suddenly become compassionate, perhaps to tie in with one of the major themes at the New York convention. But I believe it is a very revealing indicator of how the Bush administration - Bush himself, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice, Ashcroft - think and do not think.
There is no doubt in my mind that, had he not had a gay daughter, Cheney would have spouted the party line on gay marriage - the equivalent of lazy, saloon-bar opinion. But this issue is different for him. Because he has a gay daughter - and only because he has a gay daughter - he has been forced to think about policy. He became, uniquely for himself and his colleagues, enlightened on the issue. He saw it from all points of view, in this case from the perspective of gay people. And by thinking about it, his opinion on the issue changed.
This dichotomy, I suspect, says it all about how Bush et al arrive at decisions. They do not think about the issues and they do not educate themselves about them. They merely deliver knee-jerk judgements that fit in with the narrow ideological stances in which they revel.
The invasion of Iraq, the so-called war on terror, the Patriot Act, the economy, international relations: little or no thought or fact-gathering is expended before decisions are made. Donald Rumsfeld, for example, clearly failed to read even a summary of the report by the former defence secretary James Schlesinger into the Abu Ghraib abuses. He announced that the report showed that no such mistreatment had occurred during interrogations; he was simply wrong, and a correction had to be issued by the Pentagon.
I thought of all this when the Republican convention got under way last Monday night. The words that brought the biggest applause on the opening night was when Rudolph Giuliani, the former mayor of New York, repeated the line "Either you're with us or you're with the terrorists" - surely one of the most divisive statements ever uttered by a US president. We watched a Soviet-style Republican video of aircraft carriers cutting gloriously through the waves, of Stealth aircraft swooping and rotating in midair: all working, somehow, towards the greater glory of George W Bush. Short-haired men whistled and hooted for patriotic warfare and the selfless sacrifice of others.
Looking out of place, I thought, was George Herbert Walker Bush - now 80 and in a specially visible box in Madison Square Garden with his wife, Barbara. The sight of him, I know, made many of the festive Republicans uneasy, for there is now a clear splintering between father and son on policies. Neither has voiced it publicly, but surrogates such as Brent Scowcroft - national security adviser to the father, and a man I know to be a very decent fellow - have spoken up against the younger Bush's Iraq policy.
Why? For all his faults, the elder Bush sought to educate himself on issues. He brought with him to the White House extensive experience as director of both the FBI and the CIA, as well as that of US ambassador to the UN and to China. His mind was not wilfully shut to education and enlightenment. Thus there is a yawning gap between the working practices of the two Bush presidencies.
Turn to the incumbency of the younger Bush, and we find a Republican Party now more right-wing than at any time since Barry Goldwater ran for the presidency in 1964. But Lyndon Johnson beat Goldwater by a landslide.
An influential speaker during Goldwater's campaign that year was Ronald Reagan, then planning to run for the governorship of California. It was thus easy to see at this year's convention a continuum from Goldwater to Reagan to George W Bush - one that in effect leapfrogs over the era of George H W Bush. George W is the ideological heir of Goldwater and Reagan, not his father.
Meanwhile my own personal election poll has tightened from the two-point lead John Kerry had over Bush in midsummer to a statistical dead heat. The dirty tricks aimed at deflating Kerry's Vietnam record have paid off; everyone dutifully repudiates negative campaigning, but the dirty little secret of American politics is that it almost always works. No compunction was felt by George W Bush in using it to further his ends and - as we saw at the convention a few days ago - he will not hesitate to
exploit the tragedies of 11 September 2001.
I found the uniforms and the militarism of the convention to be rather chilling, in a way I have never felt before. Naked power, emphasised by the militaristic film produced by the Republican National Committee, was being pursued for its own sake. No thought-out policies tempered by facts were put before the people. Cheney's one concession to the practice of actually thinking out issues was an aberration, made unavoidable by personal pressures. And, come Labour Day on 6 September, we still have
another 57 days of all this to go.