Bush Sr: an Oedipal intervention

How we all wept, once the Republican convention finally got under way in Philadelphia: a blind man recited the Pledge of Allegiance; a black girl sang "The Star-Spangled Banner"; a gay Congressman spoke; lots of black and brown faces of bright-eyed children and mums beamed at us. "The diversity of our nation is reflected in this platform," pronounced the bumph handed out to hacks. There was even Colin Powell, tut-tutting over the party's apparent lack of concern for black people.

And everybody was so damned nice about everyone else, even old rivals. What a heartfelt transformation the Republican Party has undergone, so soon after the ugly spectacle of impeachment and all its hate rhetoric of the past decade; in so short a time, it has truly become the party of inclusiveness and compassion.

Not, as American children like to say. The transformation, in the 1990s, of the Democratic and Labour parties into new Democrats and new Labour was cynical enough, but, for supreme audacity, the 2000 convention - and the attempted transmogrification of the old, divisive party members into cuddly, loving, caring new Republicans - broke new ground in choreographed political fraudulence.

It was children and mums on Monday (31 July), strong defence on Tuesday. Then four war heroes stirred our blood: first Norman Schwarzkopf, the John Wayne-like Gulf war supremo, spoke live via satellite from the deck of the USS New Jersey, conveniently anchored across the Delaware River from Philadelphia. Then Bob Dole (badly injured in the Second World War) evoked further notions of personal selflessness, while John McCain (Vietnam POW) overcame his personal hatred of Dubbya to endorse him. Never mind that, while contemporaries were dying in Vietnam, the presidential candidate Dubbya never went near risking ack-ack from the Vietcong, preferring to joyride over the skies of Texas as a pilot in the National Guard; while his running-mate, Dick Cheney, avoided even the most token military service. It's the image that counts, stupid.

Or does it? It will prove an interesting litmus test of the political sophistication of this country to see whether voters fall for all this. I doubted that Americans would be seduced by Clinton's bubba rhetoric in 1992 or that Britons could ever be taken in by Blair in 1997: yet the history of ad campaigns (and this is basically what the Republican convention was) shows that you can rarely underestimate the judgement of consumers.

The Bushies, as I first revealed in the NS, have always planned to employ the same tactics used by Clinton in 1992 to vanquish Bush Sr; and they firmly believe that the outrageously meretricious, feelgood front presented by their platform during convention week will win them the White House in November.

But you have only to look at the composition of the delegates to see the falsity of the message that Dubbya sought to present. Of the 2,066 delegates, only 85 - just over 4.1 per cent - were black; of the remaining whites, the overwhelming majority were middle-aged and male. No fewer than 30 per cent of them were worth more than $1m. There were just 18 declared gays. And so frequent were the comings and goings of corporate bosses in their company jets that Philadelphia airport ran out of landing and take-off slots.

Dubbya left the city with a predictable fillip in the polls. However, on 14 August, it will be the turn of the Democrats to be flavour of the month - and at the end of that week, almost certainly, the two parties will be more or less neck-and-neck. The announcement by Al Gore of his running-mate on 8 August will be crucial (he now favours the glam, rich Vietnam hero Senator John Kerry over the safe, avuncular George Mitchell, but there's still time to change his mind); then it will be even more important for Gore, after Dubbya's performance in Philadelphia, to come over not just as competent and tough, but also as likeable - an altogether more challenging proposition for single-minded, ruthless Al.

The most revealing moments in Philadelphia were the unscripted, positively Oedipal interventions by Boy George's dad. As the NS exclusively revealed months ago, Bill Clinton is to be chief attack-dog in Gore's campaign - and when Dubbya said that Cheney "knows what the meaning of 'is' is" (a snide reference to Clinton's evasive legal testimony on Monica Lewinsky), Clinton immediately lashed out that Boy George is just a daddy's boy.

Dubbya himself is prepared to take all that on the chin, but it was too much for his 76-year-old dad. "If he continues that," raged Bush Sr, "then I'm going to tell the nation what I think of him as a human being and as a person." (Are they different things or was this vintage Bush-speak?)

It was a moment of pure noblesse oblige: an assumption that, if Bush Sr starts weighing in with attacks on Clinton, a stunned nation would heed his word, rather than that of the popular two-term president who so soundly thrashed him in 1992. You could almost hear the Republican apparatchiks groaning, "Get the old men outta here" - and Democrats chortling with glee, because the image of daddy's boy is now Dubbya's most serious Achilles heel. Having his embittered old dad riding to his rescue is the last thing Boy George needs.

However, our Al certainly has his work cut out to overturn the ridiculously faux image that the Republicans presented in Philadelphia.

So on to LA. God Bless America, as countless speakers thundered in Philadelphia - and will in LA, too. May the best PR man win.

By Andrew Stephen

Andrew Stephen was appointed US Editor of the New Statesman in 2001, having been its Washington correspondent and weekly columnist since 1998. He is a regular contributor to BBC news programs and to The Sunday Times Magazine. He has also written for a variety of US newspapers including The New York Times Op-Ed pages. He came to the US in 1989 to be Washington Bureau Chief of The Observer and in 1992 was made Foreign Correspondent of the Year by the American Overseas Press Club for his coverage.