washingtonpost.com  > Columns > Tom Shales

Man of Steel Flies Into Gotham

By Tom Shales
Wednesday, September 1, 2004; Page C01

People don't commonly associate adjectives like "cool" and "hip" with the Republican Party, but the first broadcast television coverage of this year's convention, from Madison Square Garden in New York last night, revealed the GOP to be more media-hip and glitzy than the Democrats were earlier this summer.

The event, a giant rubber stamp convened nominally to renominate George W. Bush for president and -- unless Rudolph Giuliani comes riding out from the wings on a white horse -- Dick Cheney for vice president, was put together by people who seemed determined to make it entertaining for TV viewers at home. Today's viewer is, of course, tomorrow's voter -- or November's, at any rate.


First lady Laura Bush took the podium after Schwarzenegger's rousing address, and wisely was matched with a backdrop that seemed to give her an aura of her own. (Jonathan Newton -- The Washington Post)

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Thus the centerpiece of the evening, the equivalent of the "feature attraction" at the movies -- framed by such short subjects as first lady Laura Bush and the entertainingly embarrassing Bush Twins (who seem to be starring in a Paris Hilton-style reality show of their own) -- was onetime Hollywood leading man Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Massive mangler of the English language though he be, Schwarzenegger is a star, and proved it with a rousingly partisan, old-timey political speech that was refreshingly combative and filled with bravado. It made the Democrats look like Clark Kent, "mild-mannered reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper," while Arnold came bursting through as Superman, the guy who gets the job done and punches do-badders in the snoot.

His performance could be dismissed as absurdly retro and old-hat by intellectuals and the politically correct but in a time ruled largely by fear, it came off as brave, rough and tough, as if John Wayne had come back to life to take one more whack at "bad guys" in an outdated western. Arnold even obliged the crowd by using the term "girlie man" when referring to anyone who is an economic pessimist, sending the audience into bombastic cathartic cheers.

"Girlie man" was invented by writers and performers on "Saturday Night Live" as part of their lampoon of Schwarzenegger. Now the parodied adopts the parody and uses it as a weapon. Schwarzenegger was also saying implicitly that it's okay to impugn the courage and even the virility of one's rivals in the heat of political campaigning.

The message of the Tuesday Night Follies was that Democrats are wimps and Republicans are symbolically still down in Texas fending off the invading army that's trying to take over the Alamo. Remember it, hell! They're still fighting.

Laura Bush isn't much of a speechmaker and hardly can be said to command the camera. But wisely the convention planners put her against a backdrop that seemed to separate her from the physical space in which she spoke, giving her an artificial aura of her own. Schwarzenegger, for his part, spoke against a strikingly designed three-part electronic mural treatment of the American flag that looked good from many angles.

Arnold looked good from many angles as long as cameras didn't get in too close. The Teutonic superhero who used to chase predators from outer space through the woods and scare them right off the face of the planet is looking a trifle otherworldly himself these days, proving that even if you lift weights and eat wheat germ, your fifties are still a one-way ticket to Palookaville. But if Arnold can't be a star on the big screen any more, he can be one on the small screen of television, which he dominated last night with no trouble whatsoever.

He even led a rhetorical chorus session keyed to the theme of how to tell you're a Republican that was very similar in concept to hillbilly comic Jeff Foxworthy's routine "You know you're a redneck when . . . . "

At the Fox network, the Republican convention is being covered like a happy birthday party for God, with the channel's right-leaning commentators and anchors hanging on for the joyride of their lives, all but turning cartwheels. Even Dan Rather of CBS News, whom conservatives have been persecuting for years as being "liberal," was taken with Schwarzenegger's very combative speech, saying he "slapped Kerry around like a hockey puck."

George W. Bush may be one of the worst public speakers to hold the job of president since the invention of radio, but Madison Square Garden will be primed by all the advance hoopla to greet him as a conquering hero when he flies into the hall on invisible wings of gold Thursday night. The Grand Old Party is giving a grand new kind of convention.


© 2004 The Washington Post Company