NEW YORK -- What you take away with you is the attacks. Not Arnold Schwarzenegger's sunny tribute to his adopted land. Certainly not John McCain's opening night assertions that both parties and their presidential nominees genuinely seek to protect the nation -- a statement so patently true that it found no echo anywhere else in last week's Republican convention.
And not President Bush's hour-long acceptance speech on Thursday night, which, but for its strongly written concluding section, had the gravitas and zip of aging oatmeal. Bush himself seemed a bit bored with the first half of his speech, during which he ran through a litany of domestic proposals, none elaborated, none defended, with all the passion of the guy reading the station stops for the train departing on Track 5.
No, what sticks from this convention is Wednesday night's public mugging of John Kerry. Zell Miller's ferocious and largely fictitious diatribe was the convention's -- and indeed the Bush campaign's -- keynote address in spirit as well as in name. Miller referred to the bipartisan support for early Cold War policies, but the Cold War politico after whom he modeled himself was Sen. Joseph McCarthy. To McCarthy, Dean Acheson -- President Harry S. Truman's secretary of state and a prime architect of the successful policy of containment -- was an appeaser.
To Miller, John Kerry is so indifferent to the security needs of the United States that he would entrust our foreign policy decisions to France, or the United Nations, or is it the League of Nations?
Miller's rant, delivered with the monomaniacal intensity of an ancient prelate condemning heretics to the stake, was a huge hit inside Madison Square Garden; the hall so shook with his maledictions that Dick Cheney's more low-key falsifications of Kerry's record seemed mere footnotes to the text. Miller's crazed sermon was in every way the apotheosis of the real Bush campaign, surpassing in its malice and mendacity even the Swift boat ads.
In his Thursday night acceptance speech, President Bush paid tribute to Ronald Reagan, noting that "his spirit of optimism and goodwill and decency are in this hall." That may rank as the most Orwellian line of the entire convention; whatever it was that was inside the hall, where delegates gleefully affixed Band-Aids to mock Kerry's war wounds, would be hard to construe as decency, much less goodwill.
Besides, it's not Reagan's spirit that suffuses the Bush Republican Party; it's Richard Nixon's. The old Trickster tarred his opponents -- Jerry Voorhis, Helen Gahagan Douglas -- as closet commies when he knew full well they weren't; that was his central contribution to the practice of electoral politics. The Bush family studied and learned from the Nixon playbooks; the hallmarks of their campaigns against Michael Dukakis, John McCain and now John Kerry have been slander and lies. The current president might be a lot closer in ideology to Reagan than he is to Nixon, but when it comes to the way he seeks to cling to power, he is Nixonian to a fault.
Nor is he alone. House Speaker Dennis Hastert has suggested that Democratic mega-donor George Soros, whose funding of the efforts to build civil societies in Eastern Europe contributed to the demise of communism and the rise of democracy there, may be getting his money from drug cartels -- an assertion, offered without so much as a dot of documentation (because there is none). Bob Dole, after seven years of playing the wry graybeard on talk shows, has reverted to his old hatchet-man form, noting that the sheer volume of Swift boat veteran allegations must mean there's some truth to them.
What's happening here is indeed reminiscent of the early years of the Cold War, but not the bipartisan consensus part of it. For George Bush and Karl Rove, the attacks of Sept. 11 and the war on terrorism offer an opportunity to depict the Democrats and John Kerry in particular as soft on terror, much as Nixon and McCarthy saw the Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe as an invitation to accuse their Democratic contemporaries of being soft on communism. To do so, Nixon and McCarthy had to overlook the fact that it had been the Democrats who first moved to contain the Soviet sphere, just as today, the Republicans pretend that the Democrats' support for the Afghanistan war and the Homeland Security Department, which was initially a Democratic proposal, never happened.
The Democrats will leave us to the mercy of our enemies; they are not patriots; they have allegiances to foreign interests and ideologies -- 50 years after the Senate censured McCarthy for the recklessness of his allegations, those allegations are back, at the very center of the president's campaign. Forget Lincoln, Ike and Teddy Roosevelt: The party of George W. Bush has chosen a different set of mentors.