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A Quiet Riot

Yesterday, Hordes Marched Peacefully. Tonight, Rudy Puts On the Gloves.

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New York, people like to say, is a city of contrasts. And nowhere was that contrast more on display than yesterday, when hundreds of thousands of peaceful protesters (along with, yes, the occasional kooky left-of-Naderite and street-theater troupes mouthing double entendres on “Bush”) took to the streets to make what turned out to be a remarkably civilized case against the war and the president who is waging it. It was a sunny, cheerful festival day, with only 240 arrests, and a cop with a hyperextended elbow—not the 1,000 daily arrests the cops had predicted, and not the violent and uncouth display some more Machiavellian Republicans might have hoped for. On the other side, a safe distance away on Ellis Island, was Dick Cheney making some grim remarks, with a tiny cheering section that included Rudy Giuliani and George Pataki. Their boat ride was Tom DeLay’s proposed Republican-convention cruise ship writ small. Next to the demonstrations, it seemed claustrophobic and a little timid.

At first, New York was supposed to resonate with memories of 9/11 and the war on terror; now, with the Iraq war not polling so well, President George W. Bush must find other ways to show he’s steadfast in the face of danger. Some Republicans have argued that the wilder the demonstrators look on TV, the better off Bush will be, while others believed that if the protests were too wimpy, swing-staters wouldn’t notice them. But it seems New York, as it so often does, has found a third way. The lesson of yesterday’s demonstration—the way it appeared to those precious swing-state voters—is that New York is more than just a symbol of 9/11. We are aging Yippies and young stockbrokers, soccer moms and even (okay, a few) NASCAR dads. It’s that diversity—and the fact that fear of terrorism is only one of the city’s dominant emotions—that has the potential, over the next four days, to muffle and dilute W.’s single-minded message.

The real theme of Convention Week, between demonstrators and the potential for terrorists, is fear: By Thursday, if things turn ugly on the streets, Bush could be seen by swing-state TV viewers as air-dropping into a hostile city, an ersatz war hero, while John Kerry is seen as a windsurfer on vacation. “He does best when the stakes are the highest,” says pollster Frank Luntz. “It may have something to do with adrenaline.” Tonight’s star speakers, John McCain and Rudy Giuliani, are charged with refocusing the convention on Republican terms, at once evoking both fear and heroism. It’s lump-in-the-throat stuff. Take this chestnut from Giuliani’s speech, as advanced to the press last night: “In times of danger, as we are now in, Americans should put leadership at the core of their decision.”

Standing at the podium at the 2000 RNC, W. said that Al Gore “now leads the party of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. But the only thing he has to offer is fear itself.” Now Bush seems to have cornered that market. For the convention to work its magic, New York has to be an endless source of menacing extras where Bush can emerge as the hero. But as the curtain rises, the real New York is far from a simple symbol. It refuses to be upstaged.


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