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Does New York owe a debt to Bush?

August 31, 2004 09:16 IST

There is this buzz about the beginning of an event -- a sense of electricity, excitement, a not knowing what is in store, but hoping it's going to be great fun.

Thus, delegates landed up at the Madison Square Garden by 8.30 am, dressed in their Monday best -- and the realities of conventioneering began to hit.

On one of the hottest (and easily, thus far, the most humid) days of the NY summer, you first went through the outer perimeter, where they merely made sure you had the right color-coded passes.

Then you had to walk through a sterilized zone, bordered in metal and patrolled by cops, till you came to the MSG entrance on 7th Avenue -- where a five-piece band belted out R&B and swing.

At that point you are still excited about what's coming up and seduced by the legendary New York
bonhomie -- manifest, here, in the lively greetings and questions of the dozens of volunteers -- into enjoying the music, and even dancing a few steps.

Then you hit the steps leading up to the Garden - and come to a dead halt. The first of the real security screens is right ahead, and thousands mill around on the steps, fanning themselves with their passes, beginning to feel the heat and muttering, 'I hope the insides are really well air-conditioned.'

At the first checkpoint, they run your pass through a gadget to make sure the embedded codes are the right ones and haven't been tampered with.

They then pass you on to checkpoint two -- where, again, you stand in line for an endless time, till you approach a barrage of cops and security personnel. Everything on you goes into a tray that passes through x-ray scanners.

You then pass through a metal detector, and it beeps.

It did, for me. So I was waved back -- and waved on through it again. Beep. Back up. Come back in. Beep. By then I have taken off my pass, with the metal loops. And my belt, with the metal hoop. The cop manning the barrier gives up and waves over a colleague, who runs a hand held scanner all over me -- while behind me, the long line watches in impatience and some bemusement.

Finally, I pass and glance at my watch -- which, with all the rest, has emerged through the x-ray machine. And realize that it has taken one hour, five minutes, to go from the entrance of the MSG to the lobby.

This is on day one, morning, with nothing of note happening inside. You want to get in say for the Wednesday evening session headlined by Vice-President Dick Cheney? Or the concluding session Thursday, when President George W Bush will star? Good luck!

Haves and Have no badges

There's a class system in effect in midtown Manhattan these days -- those with badges, and the others.

As you walk down one of the streets surrounding the Garden, you are surrounded by people going about their daily business -- and muttering in exasperation at the security measures in place.

For instance... this afternoon, taking a brief break from the convention floor, I was walking down 34th, from 6th to 7th, when I hit a security block around the entrance to the Long Island Rail Road. You can't go that way. So hey, I happen to live further down this same street, how in heck am I supposed to get home so I can get my pass and other paraphernalia and come back again?

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Cross the road, a helpful security guy tells me, walk the other side, then cut back onto 34th at the corner of 9th.

Weird -- this side of the road is a security bubble, the other is a mess of people going every which way at once.

And then there are those in-between areas. I was strolling along when this chap glances sideways at me, and sees the pass dangling from around my neck, and gives me a 'me liberal, you bigot' type sneer.

Mine's a working pass, but for New Yorkers who would rather the whole dog and pony show folded up and went someplace else, a pass is a pass is a token of being a Republican.

We walk about ten paces, in tandem, and then hit this security block -- the cops see my dogtags and wave me through; the guy who was sneering at me is told he has to go right back along the length of the street and cross over and come back the other side.

So I breeze through the barricade... and turn around to where he is still arguing with the security types, and I sneer right back. Hey, it's hot, I'm human, what can I say?

Flip Flops

Each election, the Republicans find a label to hang on the Democratic candidate. In 2000, Al Gore was a serial exaggerator; now, John Kerry is a flip-flopper.

Ironically, during the only morning session of this convention, today, the speaker who drew the loudest cheers was technically, a 'flip-flopper'. Edward 'Ed' I Koch -- a  lifelong Democrat, Congressman, Mayor of New York, urban legend.

Who took the stage and asked, what am I, a Democrat, doing here? Answering his own rhetorical question, Koch said he had seen the light, that he believed George W Bush's leadership had helped the city go through a time of intense trauma three years ago, and that he was here to say that for now, he had two missions -- One, to make visiting Republicans feel at home, and two, to announce that he was going to vote for President George W Bush for four more years.

An orgasm of applause, foot stomping, whistles. Koch, with the skill of the demagogue, rode it out and, just as it was threatening to ebb, triggered off another wave with his signature line 'How'm I doin?'

The world -- the world of the convention, that is -- loves an apostate. And will get more of the same, Wednesday, when no less than Democratic Senator Zell Miller of Georgia takes the stage to root for Bush.

Twelve years ago, he had taken the same stage -- Madison Square Garden, 1992 -- to blast George H W Bush, then seeking a second term, and root for Democratic challenger Bill Clinton.

Flip flops, anyone?

Tenderizing the message

The Democratic convention in Boston a month ago was about building momentum, energizing the rank and file. The Republican one now unfolding is about presenting an acceptable face of the party.

Thus, Monday is 'Courage of a Nation' day, and the evening's festivities will reflect that mood with tributes to victims and survivors of 9/11; nailing down the message here will be Senator John McCain of Arizona (who four years ago fought a virulent battle against Bush for the nomination) and former Mayor Rudy Giuliani, New York's 9/11 icon.

On Tuesday, the focus shifts to Bush's 'Compassionate Conservatism' -- and that message will be voiced by First Lady Laura Bush, Education Secretary Rod Paige, and California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

On Wednesday it is 'Land of Opportunity' day, with the platform trying to put an acceptable face on Bush's tax cuts, the outsourcing debate, and other economic policies -- Senator Zell Miller, known for his 'zingers' and Vice-President Dick Cheney are the star speakers.

All of that naturally leads to the convention's climax, Thursday, when New York Governor George Pataki is the only star speaker scheduled ahead of the marquee act, George W Bush.

Given that today, Monday, is 9/11 day here at the convention, Koch was lead in act for the star speaker of the morning, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who -- to a half empty Garden (the more experienced delegates and convention watchers know the morning session is a non-event, and prefer not to run the gamut of security in killing heat) -- set the tone for the evening.

Day one of the convention is officially 'reflect and remember' time. There is some -- actually, not some; considerable -- criticism that the Republicans picked New York, for the first time in 150 years, as venue for the convention only to cash in on the nearness of the 9/11 anniversary.

The GOP is taking that particular bull by the horns -- and using day one to legitimize its links to New York, and the terror attacks of 9/11.

Mayor Bloomberg did the groundwork, previewing a message that late tonight, former Mayor Rudi Giuliani is expected to hammer home. Bloomberg spoke of what New York had been through that Tuesday three years ago; he spoke of how shattered the city had been in the aftermath of that attack; of how the rest of the world had thought that the city was finished... and of how the convention, now, was proof that New York was back, better than before.

And for all this, he said, New York owes a debt to George Bush -- a debt it is repaying by hosting the mother of all conventions.

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