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5 September 2008

Inside the Republican convention

Our man in St Paul penetrates the perimeter fence and bumps into Jon Voigt, again, and other luminar

By Matt Kennard

I got through the heavily fortified perimeter around the Excel Convention Centre for the first time yesterday. There are two passes – one gets you into the actual auditorium where the magic happens, and one is just for the sprawling media metropolis next door. I just had the media pass, but hanging around there long enough I was able to talk to an interesting range of Republican bigwigs and smaller-time delegates and talking heads.

The first floor is dedicated to talk radio and I spotted John Bolton, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and an extremist even within the neoconservative movement. The Guardian columnist, George Monbiot, attempted a citizens arrest on Bolton when he came to speak to the Hay-on-Wye festival in May. As he walked to the Convention entrance I asked him about the controversy during his visit to UK. “What was the controversy?” he asked incredulous so I told him what I was talking about. “I thought it was immature at best and really kind of threatening in some respects,” he replied, “because it respects an unwillingness to tolerate other points of view and I think it’s very disturbing to see it in Britain, and I was happy he was not able to arrest me because the whole thing was a sort of juvenile exercise.”

Next I talked to Alaska delegate, Ralph Seekins. He is from the state which has given us Sarah Palin, the much debated Republican VP choice. “I think the choice is exciting,” he said. What about her family history? “It’s a history of the American family,” he said, talking of her 17-year-old daughters pregnancy. “I think they handled the challenges to their family pretty well; I raised four children and eleven grandchildren and they didn’t always do exactly what I wanted them to do, and my mother shouldn’t be made accountable for what I did when I was a kid. So I think Sarah has an exemplary background; she represents Middle America very well and I think people will learn to trust her and I think they are going to be surprised.”

Seekins said he wasn’t a McCain fan from the start. “I was a Romney man early on, but I certainly will support McCain, I respect the man, you can’t question his patriotism, it’s a stronger ticket now with Sarah on there.”

The ever-present, ever-visible Republican apparition that has been actor Jon Voigt then showed up and was surrounded by the press corps. “We need an America that is going to be strong and safe,” he said, and I switched off involuntarily. Up popped then to give him a hug and kiss the Congresswoman from Minnesota’s 6th district, Michele Bachmann. It was all very lovely dovey. “Minnesota loves Jon Voight,” she beamed into the cameras.

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The local channel 5 Eyewitness News was asking the normal round of boilerplate questions which she seemed happy answering. “She’s a strong, independent woman,” she said, talking about guess who. Then this: “We are really showcasing our state well, people will come back because they are wowed by Minneapolis-St. Paul.” I couldn’t let that go, so I barged in on the interviewed and asked her what she thought of the police behaviour vis-à-vis the protesters.

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Her face dropped. “The police behaviour?” she said. “Well, I hope they bought law and order to the situation, because it was criminal what was going on downtown, not called for, certainly not representative of local Minnesotans.” I mentioned that journalists were being arrested for covering the protests. “Well, I don’t know anything about that,” she said, and moved on quickly.

I wanted to speak to a local journalist to get their perspective on the heavy-handed police behaviour. It emerged yesterday that 8 leaders of the RNC Welcoming Committee – an activist group trying to disrupt the RNC – have been charged with Conspiracy to Riot in Furtherance of Terrorism under the first use of the 2002 Minnesota version of the Federal Patriot Act.

Doug Grove works for the online publication “The hope of the Police Department was that they could handle everything with smiles and warmth and friendliness and obviously that quickly went away. And many of have been surprised that the reaction has been as strong as it’s been… Certainly it’s not the image that Minnesota was looking for.”

There has been much talk about the law-and-order sheriff amongst journalists and the protesters. “Well, the Sheriff of Ramsey Country, which is the county in which St. Paul is located, is a guy called Bob Fletcher,” said Grove. “Fletcher is an egomaniac with a dark side. And he has frequently put his foot in his mouth leading up to the convention.”

Going back inside, I spotted a young guy with a beard and a trendy hat; he looked like he should be a famous indie musician so I was curious how he had ended up at the RNC media circus. It turned out he was a guest Republican blogger and a serious ‘winger’. He supported Rudy Guliani because he “would be further to right than Bush on the Bush Doctrine. I want to take the terrorists and kill every single one of them,” he assured me.

He laid into the Iranian President who he called “Armaggedonijan” and said the time for a military strike on the “Islamo-fascist state” was imminent. He was firmly for John McCain, which gives an indication of what the Republican Presidential Candidate is expected to do by some of his fans should he win in November.

In the evening we went to a party in a hotel in Minneapolis hosted by the Creative Coalition, a lobbying groups for artists. Slated to turn up was Quentin Tarantino and Spike Lee, amongst other luminaries. Again, a no-show, and instead there was two hours of live country music from a Father Christmas lookalike. He proudly told us he was a “Redneck, like the rest of you”, and then proceeded to play tracks about tying a noose around criminal’s necks and hanging them from the tree.

It was all very posh except they served the drinks in plastic cups and the garlic-mash-potato in fancy Martini glasses. Didn’t understand that.