Be proud, New York. You were crucial to the re-election of President George W. Bush.
Not in the voting booth, of course. But the importance of holding the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York was never related to any Republican hope of actually winning the state’s 31 Electoral College votes. This was about symbolism and media attention from the beginning. And we played our role perfectly. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say we got played perfectly.
Remember all that journalistic hand-wringing, after New York was selected to host the convention, about whether the Bush team would “exploit” the tragedy of the World Trade Center attack?
C’mon! Of course they were going to exploit September 11. But give Karl Rove some credit. He never intended to do anything so gauche as staging some kind of photo op at ground zero. Especially when Rove could craft a much more easily controlled, heart-tuggingly sentimental 9/11 pageant—complete with video, strings, firefighters, Rudy, and grieving widows endorsing Bush—inside Madison Square Garden. Rove didn’t need to show ground zero when the networks would do it for him, allowing the GOP to use the city as a whole, from the Statue of Liberty to a midtown firehouse, as the soundstage for the Bush industrial film.
“The essential issue in this race was the war on terror,” says Stuart Stevens, one of Bush’s top media strategists. “New York evoked tremendous emotion; it gave you a context and a subtext to talk about the war on terror. Setting the convention there was a no-brainer. I was baffled why the Democrats didn’t do it too.”
And the city’s supposedly left-wing media-entertainment complex? It did its part for the Republican cause, never more so than in the frantic three days leading up to Bush’s triumphant Thursday-night entrance onto the Garden stage. When the Republicans’ planned introductory film turned up late and lame, Bush’s consultants crashed a new eight-minute panegyric, complete with climactic footage of Bush tossing a strike from the Yankee Stadium pitcher’s mound. “We decided to do the film at the last minute, and we used this production house called Dogmatic in Chelsea, then we took over three editing rooms at Broadway Video, Lorne Michaels’s shop,” Stevens says. His business partner, Russ Schriefer, is a New Yorker and was the convention’s programming director. “Peggy Noonan wrote the thing,” Stevens says. “We got it scored, everything. This is the kind of production that should take you a month to do. But you can’t beat the mechanics and the work ethic in New York. The city totally saved our ass. And I don’t think Lorne Michaels is the president’s largest contributor.”
Heck, even the protests played to Bush’s advantage. When United for Peace and Justice hit the streets, 400,000 people strong, it was a dignified, uplifting display of democracy in action. So a few unlucky bicyclists spent a night locked up in an oily former bus garage. Nobody in Ohio saw that. The larger image communicated to the nation was that George Bush and the Republicans were tough enough and confident enough to walk right into their enemies’ backyard and endure some dissent. And if there had been bloody riots? Well, the Bushies would have said, “What do you expect from godless, liberal, unpatriotic New York? Don’t vote with those people; they’re nuts.” Either way, they had us.
Besides an alleged economic bonanza—City Hall claims a $225 million Republican boost; hundreds of restaurant and bar owners claim gigantic losses for convention week—Mayor Bloomberg also promised that hosting the convention would accrue the city new political influence in Washington. Talk about quick payoff: Two weeks ago, Bernie Kerik was tapped as the new head of Homeland Security. Back in August, it seemed slightly odd that Giuliani’s third, shortest-tenured police chief was given a prime speaking slot at the convention. But of course one of Kerik’s sixteen months as top cop was September 2001. Based on the Bushies’ largesse since then, the city should start seeing the benefits from Kerik’s new post as soon as January, when his book publisher, Judy Regan, gets better seats at the inauguration.
So walk tall, New York. Whether you scheduled your vacation to coincide with the convention and thereby reduced traffic; whether you shelled out tens of thousands of the company’s money for a table at a lobbyist’s breakfast honoring Bush’s campaign manager; or whether you were one of those naked, ain’t-New-York-nutty? protesters, you made the convention a grand success for the GOP. So be proud. If nothing else, it helps suppress the nagging feeling that we were used.