So the GOP convention passed off, to use the bland, blinding bureaucratic phraseology, without major incident. There were many arrests, sure, and on the Sunday before a march involving hundreds of thousands of demonstrators, but these are part of the regular theater, or in the case of some of the protests, the pantomime, of American politics in our age of unease and unusual rancor. But the other possibility, the possibility about which we murmured, we whispered, we speculated and in anticipation of which not a few folk fled town, did not, thank God and, I suspect, good security, come to pass.
But the fear, the unease that has never really left, not here, not in this city, since that beautiful, horrible September morning was all too real. How could it not be? There is the dread of the future, triggered by alerts, color-coded warnings and plain commonsense, and then there are the still raw memories of the past, prompted by that hole in the sky at the southern end of our island, or in endless, countless, smaller ways, the postcards that still sell pictures of those two doomed towers, the fire truck I saw parked near Rockefeller Center on Tuesday with its small metal plaque honoring the “brothers of Ladder 4″ who died at Ground Zero: Angelini, Brennan, Haub, Lynch, O’Callaghan, Oitice, Tipping, Wooley….
The convention site itself, ugly, clunky Madison Square Garden, and the faded Beaux-Arts Farley building, together with the streets that surrounded them, were a ring-fenced fortress of foreboding, oddly quiet for Manhattan, cut off from the shove and the push of the streets of Midtown by the still makeshift barricades of our savage new era–vast concrete blocks here, a sand-filled city truck there. In part they were designed to ensure that New York City did not suffer a rerun of Chicago 1968, but as with the barriers outside the Central Synagogue on 55th Street, or those that crowd the Vanderbilt entrance to Grand Central Station, there can be no doubt about what or who they were really intended to deter. In time, as extreme Islam’s war against the West endures (and George W. Bush is right, it will) such barriers will be prettied up, will be made to blend, will become just another part of our urban and psychological landscape, but for now they are an open scar, yet another reminder of the price our civilization is being made to pay for its survival.
Access to the convention was, like so much else these days, color-coded. Different colored cards gave admission to different parts of the convention complex, to the media center to some, to the floor to others. We strolled through the security zone that enveloped us, cards hanging from our necks, evidence that we all somehow belonged. We had been checked, approved, authorized, our papers were in order. In this, the land of the First Amendment, these portents of a garrison state were a little spooky, and not a little sad, but the far more significant tragedy is that, in this conflict of sneak attack and mass atrocity, they were indeed necessary.
Needless to say, smiling, unsmiling, friendly, withdrawn, beneath their helmets and their caps, New York’s Finest were everywhere, pulled, it seemed from every unit the city had to spare, mounted, on foot, in patrol car, on motorbikes, courteous and watchful, checking out those inside the zone, monitoring those outside, and waiting, waiting, waiting.
By night the drama–and the tension–was, quite literally, highlighted by the searchlights of helicopters hovering above and of the klieg lights rooted below. Between them they seemed to illuminate every sinister nook and each questionable cranny. Elsewhere, looking out from the zone, there were signs that life went on as usual. Broadway shone, as it always shines, the high-rises glittered and shimmered as far as one could see. To the east, the Empire State Building, once again, but tragically now, New York’s tallest, was bathed in red, white, and blue. The disconcerting sense of normality–of once what was–was emphasized by the white stars and posters of red white and blue bunting that bedecked Macy’s, and the cheery flashing sign over the Garden: Welcome delegates!
Some time, it must have been after midnight on Wednesday, there were a few demonstrators out in the streets beyond the zone. Bush is a murderer! Bush is a liar! Bush will kill for oil! Peace now! Three or four ladies, tackily glamorous in showgirl costume, ran by laughing and giggling, cardboard missiles strapped–How should I put this?–in the place where Hedwig still had that angry inch.
Someone shouts expletive-sodden abuse at a delegate, something about blood-spattered hands and Halliburton, but the delegate walks on, oblivious or unconcerned, protected by the cops who are everywhere, many with glow-sticks that cut red swathes through the air as they point where to go. And where not to. Even here, in the vicinity of the zone, but outside it, we are carefully controlled, move along, move along, allowed to cross the streets only at designated points, not here, no sir, not here, and herded behind red plastic netting until it is the moment to cross.
From time to time, large buses swept by, ferrying delegates to their hotels. Behind darkened windows, they could look out. No one could see in. Later came the vice-presidential cavalcade, motorbikes, a couple of limos, police cars, an SUV bristling with odd-looking antennae. I thought I caught a glimpse of Lynne Cheney through a partly opened window. The speeches had gone well, but she was staring out, pensive, a little anxious it seemed.
Back home, I pulled out Theodore White’s history of the 1960 campaign for his description of the conventions that year. Here he is with the Democrats: “Through the Biltmore lobby paraded two rival Puerto Rican delegations, with their steel drums and guitars, making music and dancing in Latin costume. Here floated the pretty girls, almost indistinguishable from one another in their official red-white-and-blue-dresses and skimmer hats, soliciting delegates, giggling, jiggling, pinning badges on anyone who lingered….”
That’s all gone now. Ancient history. What a shame.