Observing US:
A column about America,
by Marylaine Block
originally published by
Fox News Online, 1998-2000

#99, August 8, 2000


by Marylaine Block

I've been listening to speeches this week. Many people find speeches boring -- cable ratings have undoubtedly skyrocketed while the networks broadcast the Republican convention - but I think of them as one of the oldest form of entertainment: storytelling. American politics are about powerful ideas, but the way we argue our ideas is by telling stories. The party that wins is almost always the party that tells the most appealing story.

In 1992, the Republicans told the story of the "evil other" -- babykillers and flagburners; drug-doing, draft-dodging baby boomers; unqualified minorities taking OUR jobs; illegal immigrants draining our tax dollars. Their story was of an America torn apart, by people competing ruthlessly because there wasn't enough opportunity to go around.

The same year, the Democrats told the story of America as a "place called Hope," a place that couldn't afford to waste a single person, a place where anybody who "worked hard and played by the rules" would get "a hand up, not a handout."

The story that matched our fondest beliefs about America won.

In 1996, the Republicans still talked about the "evil other" - the man and woman who, through some appalling error, lived in the White House. In the last days of the campaign, as polls persisted in showing Dole behind, Republicans complained that voters, corrupted by good times, had become too fat and happy to care that the man in the White House was a sleazebag.

It's never a good idea to insult your customers.

The Democrats didn't have a feel-good story to tell that year, but they had their own "evil other" -- the Republican House that couldn't do its basic job of funding the government, and preferred closing it down to making a deal. Americans didn't like the new meanness in political rhetoric, which they blamed on Newt Gingrich.

Neither story was worth voting FOR, only AGAINST.

In the Republican convention this year, you can see an absolute determination to avoid the mistakes that cost them the White House. You see it in the people given prime time slots for their speeches: a distinguished black general; a black female foreign policy advisor; a gay white Congressman; the charming half-Mexican son of Jeb Bush. Look at the people on the podium, not the people in the audience (which continued to be overwhelmingly white). When George W.'s triumphal speech was followed by a rousing rendition of "La Vida Loca," the message was clear: This is NOT your father's Republican Party. EVERYBODY's invited to THIS party.

One of the stories being told at the convention was about Dr. Spock's spoiled children of the sixties -- Bill Clinton's generation, and George W's. "My generation tested limits, and in some ways our country is better for it," he said. But not always. "At times we lost our way," he said, "but we're coming home." The speech was an assurance that THIS sixties kid at least, was a grownup, ready to assume leadership of "the responsibility era."

Just as Bill Clinton stole Republican issues and made them his own, Bush shamelessly stole Bill Clinton's rhetoric. "No child should be left behind" was one of the biggest applause lines. Bush's home town of Midland, Texas, with its motto, "The sky's the limit," was the rhetorical twin of that place called Hope.

Al Gore was cast as the bastard son of the usurper who stole the throne, George W. as the brave true son of the rightful king.

The biggest applause lines of all were about the inevitable departure of Clinton and Gore, and about honor and dignity being restored to the White House. The guiding story of this convention is Republicans as Israelites, wandering in the desert so long, needing the promised land so badly that this time they won't worry too much about the ideological purity of their Moses.

Al Gore, portrayed as the man who "has nothing to offer but fear itself," can only win if he tells an even more appealing story about himself and his vision for America. Not an easy trick, because George W. hit this ball out of the park.

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