Keeping fat cats behind the scenes

Posted: Tuesday, August 08, 2000

Now that it's over, let's hear it for the casting director. The Republican variety show featured more women and minorities in the acts than in the delegations. If America actually looked like the convention stage, every dot-com would be run by a woman or Hispanic.

By the time Dick Cheney and George Bush made their appearances, it was something of a shock to see that the headliners were two middle-aged white guys. But, hey, that's entertainment.

Even more bewildering were the cameo appearances of working-class folks and the utter disappearance of Grand Old Plutocrats.

Where oh where were the 739 contributors who provided two-thirds of the party's $137 million of soft money? You could find some sipping soup out of fake Faberge eggs at Tiffany's, but behind closed fund-raising doors. But the only ``Billionaires for Bush'' in public were the members of a street comedy troupe trying to sell ads on the Liberty Bell.

By 2004, the Republican Party will have to invent an affirmative action program for the Fat Cat-egory. Though I suppose they've already done that.

Among the delegates, one in five had a net worth of $1 million. But on the night touting ``Prosperity with a Purpose,'' the chorus line consisted of a former welfare mom, a farmer, and a single mother.

Even the party honchos sprinkled their speeches with repeated nods to the poor, or at least those left out of the boom. It wasn't just Colin Powell and Elizabeth Dole. Dick Cheney talked about how ``poor and disadvantaged children fall further and further behind'' in school. The irascible John Kasich made a case for party of the people: ``We believe America should be run from the bottom up, not the top down.''

At the risk of seeming like a crabby drama critic, nary a word was said about how well the top was doing. At the First Union Center - named for a bank, not a revolution - there was polite silence about the growing gap between rich and poor. It must have been out of respect for the party sponsors.

To find just a teeny mention of the class divide, you had to escape the spotlight to the Shadow Convention, an alternative gathering of class-conscious preachers and the converted at a nearby hall. There, in a room marked by placards reading ``Not a PAC Donor,'' folks from author Jonathan Kozol to evangelist Ron Sider were impolitic enough to mention that the real wages of 60 percent of Americans are the same as they were when Nixon was president, that 20 percent of American kids live in poverty, and that 44 million of all of us are without health insurance. As convener Jim Wallis quipped, ``a rising tide has raised all the yachts.''

I'm not surprised by the party's corporate shyness or its desire to put on a proletariat face. The argument of this campaign is about whether we do have a ``purpose'' for the ``prosperity.'' What do we do, for example, with the surplus while the good times roll?

Bush has the job of selling $1.9 trillion in tax cuts. More to the point, he's got to sell tax cuts that will favor the rich, to working Americans. On Wednesday night when single mom and student Kim Jennings cheerily explained how tax breaks would pay for her school loans, her health care and her daughter's college, I wanted to send her back to math class.

But the decision to highlight ``real Americans'' and keep the corporate folks invisible isn't just a matter of hypocrisy. As a party, the GOP appeal isn't just a composite of workers and donors, plain folks and rich ones. It's a composite of small town values and corporate interests.

It's the small town values that were extolled on stage: self-reliance, individualism, family, community. But today, global corporate interests conflict with small town values as surely as ``The Rock,'' who flexed his World Wrestling Federation muscles here, conflicts with the call for civility.

You don't have to live in the Shadow Convention to figure out how globalization can affect a local living wage. Or to figure out that corporate self-interests can undermine democratic elections as surely as the commercial culture can undermine what we teach kids at home.

This week, one of the casting directors, party chair Jim Nicholson, actually described the GOP as, ``the party of small donors who represent grass-roots America.'' But for the folks behind the closed doors, that grass was very green.

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for the Boston Globe.

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