A Candle Burning at Both Ends

Participation Pachyderm Style

Since Alexis de Tocqueville trumpeted the virtue and necessity of political participation, Americans have been, well, participating, albeit in somewhat contrived fashion. Involvement in the political process rejuvenates the individual and strengthens the country. With a zeal even Tocqueville might have underestimated, the elephants trundled to the Motor City last week to climax long months of participation--or, as one clever delegate with an ear for language said, "participaction."

What hath all the hoopla and brouhaha wrought? Not much. The convention merely reaffirmed several predictable phenomena.

First, it nominated a man named Reagan almost a given since the New Hampshire primary. Remember how Mr. Reagan became stern one night back before the "Live Free or Die" state went to the polls? "Mr. Green, I paid for that microphone!" Reagan thundered during a Nashua debate. As the defender of America's sacred property rights, he captured the hearts if not the minds of many citizens.

That incident has not faded from the impeccable momories of several elephants. One delegate from the state of Florida circulated the lyrics to a song entitled, "Mr. Green, I Paid for that Microphone," despite its implications for party unity. After all, George Bush came out the villain in that unseemly Republican incident. The circulation of the xeroxed song, by the way, was suppressed by a representative of the Reagan task force for unity.

The second thing last week's Republican convention reaffirmed was the age-old adage of oratory. Add one ounce of optimism to every sentence, mix with several grams of virulence directed at the opposing party or the third party candidate--especially, if applicable, at the incumbent--wave hands in frenetic form, pound the microphone with Churchillian grandeur to show strength, ask rhetorical questions the answers to which are either a resounding "No" or the name of the nominee, and you get a pleasant and predictable melange, certain to excite and incite the conventioneers--and to bore everyone else.


Third, this convention showed once again that the media is the paramount consideration. The permanent chairman warned the delegates that prime time was running short on an embarrassing number of occasions. It worked, and the delegates kept quiet. The convention officials made sure the "important" media types (the press was arranged in a convenient caste system with t.v. at the top and college publications roughly on the bottom) got on the floor, and that lesser lights stayed off. The media operations center run by the Republican National Committee fed the journalists an endless series of press releases. Other "publications," like "The Dick Lugar News" and "News about Bob Dole" mysteriously appeared alongside prepared texts of speeches. Thrilling reading, these.

Convention officials made the atmosphere of the arena conducive to panoramic t.v. shots in the comforting tones of red, white and blue. Make that Red, White and Blue--especially the balloons, although they got stuck for a while. The lighting allowed professional photographers and the paparazzi to snap good shots. There was plenty of coffee, donuts, and above all, beer.

The fourth thing this convention confirmed was the euphemistic meaning of the word "involvement." Put simply, everyone was on the make. "Let's compare notes" was a favorite phrase among journalists. Rumor--the highest form of convention participation--had it that Detroit loved more than a good party. But those gathered in the city for the convention conducted their affairs with a modicum of judiciousness; they made sure that, given the convention's short life, they didn't get too deeply "involved."

Finally, there were the more conventional forms of participation. The delegates sported colorful attire, New Jersey folk being the most original, California and Texas representatives wearing the most prominent cowboy hats. Conventioneers joined in general merriment, singing along to old favorites like "Dixie" and "I'm a Yankee Doodle Dandy."

Perhaps the best example of grass roots participation came from an obscure group known as the Pachyderms, who in one week expanded their operation to 29 states. Just who are the Pachyderms? "A sort of Kiwanis club for Republicans," one delegate from Missouri said, as Mr. Reagan was accepting the nomination. Then, sotta voce, he added, "If this catches on, the Democrats will copy us, and it will be good for the country." But the delegate didn't stay to hear the conclusion of the acceptance speech; a week of incessant participation, he said, had tired him out. And most people agreed it was a good thing conventions only come along once every four years.