The 2004 Republican Convention, during which George W. Bush was nominated for a second term as president, deep in enemy territory [R1], stands as a small but stark example of how 9/11 “changed everything.” In the 150-year history of the party, the GOP had never once held its convention here. But then came 9/11. If you were seeking reelection as a “war president,” as Bush was, New York—the scene of the crime—was the bold, obvious choice.
In terms of stagecraft, the convention was probably Bush’s high-water mark. The official theme, “Fulfilling America’s Promise by Building a Safer World and a More Hopeful America,” may have been murkily messaged and grammatically obtuse, but as front man, Bush was the singular straight-shooter, the John Wayne for the new and even scarier millennium. New York City, often the target of red-state moral opprobrium, was his range to ride.
Listening to the speeches inside Madison Square Garden wore on the hometown ear. Arnold Schwarzenegger, then the ascendant governor of California, said his hearty welcome from the delegates was like “winning an Oskah.” Dick Cheney equated Al Qaeda with the Nazis and Soviet Communism. Bernard Kerik, his nomination to head the Department of Homeland Security not yet derailed by allegations that would lead eventually to his stint in federal prison, attested to President Bush’s “inspirational” leadership three years earlier. This was topped by Rudy Giuliani’s personal revelation. Rudy told the conventioneers how he was staring into “the flames of hell” on 9/11, and “without really thinking, based just on emotion,” he suddenly grabbed Kerik’s arm and said, “Thank God, George Bush is our president.”
But such cravenness is standard at political conventions. What isn’t is what happened outside the arena. As Michael Bloomberg welcomed delegates by extolling New York as a beacon of freedom, his police chief, Ray Kelly, was deploying about 10,000 cops—one-third of the NYPD—to secure the Garden, protect the convention, and lock down the city, often at the expense of its citizens’ civil rights. To make sure Republican delegates heard nary a discouraging word, riot cops in full body armor arrayed about the Garden. Groups of lawfully assembled individuals found themselves surrounded by NYPD Hercules units wielding plastic orange netting; those ensnared were hauled off to West Side holding pens dubbed “Guantánamo-on-the-Hudson.”
From the archives
• The Elephant In The Room (New York Magazine, May 21, 2005)
• The Republicans Picked Our Pockets (New York Magazine, May 21, 2005)
• George and the Jungle (New York Magazine, September 2, 2004)
• The Conventioneer (New York Magazine, December 8, 2003)