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updated 8/2/00

Calvin Prof at the RNC
 

EDITOR'S NOTE: Calvin College's Doug Koopman (left) teaches political science and is program director for the Paul B Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity and Politics at Calvin. He is in Philadelphia where he is teaching a class on presidential conventions and will attend the RNC. He agreed to keep an on-line diary for the office of media relations while in Philadelphia. His missives follow below.

8/4/00 -- Last night the convention ended with George W. Bush's acceptance speech. I wanted to be in the auditorium to compare his "live" delivery with what I was sure to see later on television. And I was especially interested in his use of religious language and symbol. His speech was, of course, well received, and he looked to the conventioneers the way I'm sure his advisors wanted to look -- serious, authoritative, and articulate.

In person he performed well, and media commentators also seemed to give him good marks for his television appearance. My impression was that he used religious symbolism in a different way. One usually expects from Republican presidents a fairly clear assertion that America is God's chosen, righteous, nation. That chosen nature usually has two major policy consequences that come quite soon after in the speech -- a strong defense that preserves "the American way of life" for its citizens, and (at least for the last twenty years) opposition to abortion and pledges to restrict its practice.

George W. Bush's speech was different. Certainly there were proposals to strengthen defense and limit abortions. But these were placed in the policy section of the speech, devoid of religious reference. The religious language came later. It was far more personal, expressing his own need of grace and experience of peace. And it had only one consequence that could at all be tied to policy - tolerance and love of neighbor. To the best of my recollection, this seems a strong departure from the prior practice of Republican presidents and presidential candidates.

My two weeks in Philadelphia are now at an end. It was a tremendous opportunity to directly experience how modern presidential nominating conventions are organized, carried out, and reported. And it was great to begin new friendships and renew old ones.

8/2/00 -- A raucous crowd is no stranger to Calvin College, at least during basketball season. A charismatic religious revival, on the other hand, has probably never shown its face on campus for our theology and praxis is not much of the "enthusiastic" kind.

But I observed something of each experience last night at the Republican National Convention. Previously restricted to positive speeches and light entertainment, Wednesday night's convention featured vice-presidential nominee Dick Cheney delivering a comparatively pointed and partisan acceptance speech. Clinton was "the man from Hope going home to… New York" and Gore the man with "a thousand promises, a thousand attacks."

The crowd loved this little attack of its own. Cheney's speech seemed to release two days of pent-up emotions by the crowd. Relatively mild jabs brought howls of delight, rounds of cheers, and even some prolonged chants of "no more Gore." The happy little gathering at last had permission to celebrate (what they hope will be) the pending demise of folks they love to hate. All this seemed to start in good fun, much like most home Calvin basketball games this year in which we happily trounced the opposition, especially if their name begins with Clinton's hometown.

But more intellectually troubling was the unbounded patriotism of the lesser-known convention speakers, a patriotism that bred an uncomfortable (to me) feeling in the crowd. America is a great nation and I'm grateful to live here, mostly because of its opportunities and freedoms, especially that I'm allowed to worship and believe as I wish without much interference. But at times last night's message was beyond appreciation, even beyond civil religion, touching on idolatry of a particular idea of America.

And the idea expressed last night was essentially that America is great because it allows one to accumulate wealth without placing any demands on its use. I kept listening and watching for a hint of a higher purpose or ethical limit. And if one was there, I missed it. To be fair, the other party is prey to a similar idolatrous idea that one's ideas and behaviors are completely one's own without any responsibility to the greater good or higher truths.

The question is whether this mood was merely the temporary mass consciousness of a highly charged political event, or something at the root of partisan political activists. I hope and think its temporary. Indeed, my conversations with individual delegates and other conventioneers almost universally reveal folks with financial and time priorities in good balance between work, family, and faith. But there is something unsettling about any "mob," Republican or Democrat, Calvin (or Hope) that even at the height of enthusiasm does not recognize the limits of its goodness, importance and sovereignty.

8/1/00 -- Sponsored spontaneity seems to be the best phrase to describe both the protest demonstrations and the Bush campaign events of the last few days. News reports have highlighted the protests in Philadelphia, but in fact few participants in the convention have been disrupted in any way, and I suspect many delegates are only even aware of the demonstrations through what they might pick up on the news.

The protesters are well organized, almost too much so. There are four or five main protest organizing centers, including one on the University of Pennsylvania campus where my students and I are staying. Each protest center seems to have its own following, diluting the effects that a combined protest might provide. And the strategies of most of these protest groups are also well planned. Yesterday, traffic was disrupted by small groups of protesters tying themselves together and stopping major intersections. Once police rushed to one area to clear things out, a new small band of protesters would "spontaneously" do the same thing in another part of the city. Police would rush to the new place, protesters would take action at a third location, and the cycle repeated itself most of the day. Apparently this strategy was coordinated by e-mails, cell phones, and beepers - yet another (apparently unredeemed) use for our high-tech communications equipment. So far the demonstrations have been disruptive but peaceful. According to media reports late Tuesday night, the injury list includes four police and no protestors.

The Bush rallies in Harrisburg on Tuesday and at a Philadelphia Airport and a downtown park Wednesday morning are equally contrived. Bush staffers called our students Monday morning and offered to pick up in busses as many students as possible at 5:30 a.m. Wednesday to greet Bush in Philadelphia. Those signing up, of course, would have to go through a "training session" on Tuesday evening, presumably to learn how to look excited upon seeing the Texas governor the next day. Apparently most state delegations were also called, soliciting attendance at the Bush rallies by anyone willing to get up that early and show some spontaneous enthusiasm for "W."

Meanwhile in convention hall, the unruffled delegates enjoyed a combination of "defense night" and a pleasant walk down memory lane. Major foreign and defense policy speeches were given by African-American advisor Condoleeza Rice, maverick Republican John McCain, and openly gay U.S. Representative Jim Kolbe of Arizona. The well-orchestrated combination of the traditional Republican message with untraditional messengers earned rave reviews from delegates, if not from all of the assembled media.

Last night also brough a tribute to living former Republican presidents, with George Bush and Jerry Ford in attendance, and Nancy Reagan filling in for her husband. All in all, a pleasant night of nostalgia for the older generation of Republicans.

7/31/00 -- Day one of the convention. I wanted to attend the opening of the convention in person, so that I could form my own impressions of the ambiance of the First Union Center, the attitude of the assembled Republicans, and the tone and success of the multi-media presentation masquerading as the convention's order of business.

The first session was Monday from 10 in the morning until 2 in the afternoon, the only morning session of the four day convention and the only day in which two sessions are scheduled. Through a friend of a friend I was able to attain a pass to the "nosebleed" section of Center, about three lines of security between my seat and the convention floor. But through meeting old and new friends, by 1 in the afternoon I had made it on the floor as if I were a full delegate or privileged member of the media.

The image that kept coming to mind was the fourth quarter of a well-planned homecoming game at a national football powerhouse. There are a lot of people milling around, but few are watching the title event. Most are catching up with old friends, buying hotdogs to eat or trinkets emblazoned with their favorite team (in this case Bush/Cheney). The home team (in this case the GOP) moves with precision to score time and time again, and the losers (Democrats, of course) are humiliated.

The analogy only breaks down in that few Democrats are inside (and none of them will admit it). They're waiting for their own homecoming game in Los Angeles a few weeks hence. My impression of the 2,066 delegates and same number of alternates is that they are a very democratic (small "D") bunch - from every state and congressional district in the nation in almost perfect proportion to the population at large. And they are very much a cross section of middle-class America, although a bit older, whiter, and more educated. They also hold the ultimate power in this convention, their votes for president and vice president. At the same time, they have no discretion in deciding for whom to cast those votes. So while most delegates are powerful political leaders in the cities, states, and Washington, D.C., here they are virtually impotent in the official business of the meeting.

Rather, their two functions seem to be to look entertaining and to be entertained. Entertained they were Monday night - effective speeches by Laura Bush and Colin Powell, extended sound bites by the best of the Republican farm team running in local and congressional elections, and the most diverse (musically and ethnically) variety show I've ever seen at a GOP convention. For a moment, I almost thought I was at the other party's convention.

And entertaining as well. I rode home on the bus with someone I first thought was a "crazy lady" who wore a foam red, white, and blue star on her head and covered her clothes with Republican buttons. But she turned out to be quite normal, at least in a relative sense. A state senator and party from a Rocky Mountain state (further details withheld for obvious reasons), she and I had a nice conversation over term limits, grazing fees, and water rights. All fascinating stuff, if you're here in Philadelphia. .

7/30/00 -- The bulk of delegates to the Republican National Convention began arriving Saturday, in plenty of time to take in some tours and parties before the convention officially starts on Monday. Almost every state has a separate area hotel, although a few large hotels may hold more than one smaller state delegation. There is also a separate hotel for Bush/Cheney headquarters and another for RNC staff.

The hotel distribution is not coincidental, but allocated by a mysterious combination of a lottery and national party leaders. Most state delegations are in downtown Philadelphia hotels about a ten minute drive from the First Union Center. Michigan, however, is approximately twice as far away from First Union, on the northern boundary of the city of Philadelphia. The unconfirmed but widely repeated rumor is that Michigan owes its lowly site to McCain's Republican primary victory.

The Michigan delegation, as with most state delegations, tends to keep to itself and stick together. Busses shuttle the group to receptions or luncheons usually hosted by state politicians or interests important to the state. The same busses take delegates to and from each convention session. So the opportunity to drift off individually is limited.

Michigan has a moderately large delegation of 58 persons (and the same number of alternates). Three delegates come from each of our sixteen congressional districts, and ten are chosen "at large." And it makes no difference whether a district is represented by a Republican or Democrat -- the most Democratic district in Detroit gets the same number of delegates as districts in Republican west Michigan.

Visiting with the delegation at a reception Saturday evening, it seems composed of fairly typical Michiganians. Middle class lifestyles with middle class values, except for a far higher interest in political issues and power than most of us. No "crazies" in the group, but certainly no Democrats either.

7/29/00 -- It is an interesting assemblage of faculty and students gathered for our two-week course on the Republican convention and presidential politics. There are a total of fourteen faculty, only about half who teach political science. The other half are in communications, either electronic media or journalism. This makes sense, for like all modern presidential conventions this one is a made-for-media event.

Whereas conventions of yesteryear actually picked the presidential ticket, today their chief function is to boost election prospects by energizing delegates and presenting a favorable media image. While there are only about 4,000 delegates and alternates combined here in Philadelphia, there are more than five times as many media with convention credentials. Even reporters from college newspapers and tiny dot-coms get virtually unchecked access to the floor. So there is much here for my colleagues interested in communications.

The ideological diversity of the faculty is interesting as well. Surveys of political scientists have revealed that about 95 percent of them vote Democratic and few have extensive practical experience in the field. But here about two-thirds of my colleagues are Republicans (or at least sound like it in their lectures and in our private conversations), and many have practical political or media experience, including former office holders and a former original anchor of CNN news.

The students are less diverse than the faculty. About 90 percent are pretty sure they are Republicans, although few would be comfortable describing themselves are consistently conservative. Most are from small private schools, such as Grove City, Adrian, or Harvey Mudd, and active in either college Republicans or campus student government. And most are incredibly bright and motivated, making my class sessions simultaneously the easiest and most difficult I have taught with eager learners often asking questions the answers to which I have to go back and research.

Our days this past week consisted of morning speakers or tours, a two-hour early afternoon class session that discusses the morning sessions, and then student field placements in the later afternoon and evening. Convention week the morning sessions will be shorter, and the student field placements longer. The special challenge with these students is to make them critical listeners and evaluators -- to be aware of the various speakers' use of language, jargon, statistics, and characterization of their friends and enemies, and, even, "worldviews."

That challenge reinforces the wisdom of attempting, as we do at Calvin, to teach understanding of the Christian and competing worldviews.

7/27/00 -- I've been in Philadelphia since late Friday, July 21, teaching a class on presidential conventions at the Republican National Convention. At first blush, the city bears a resemblence to Grand Rapids, with a river running right down the center dividing a newly rebuilt downtown from older parts of the city to the west. Along the river, in this case the Schuylkill, runs an expressway from north and south. But Philadelphia is far larger than Grand Rapids, and this city has large and compact ethnic neighborhoods, especially Italian and Irish, which must look much the way they did fifty and perhaps even one hundred years ago.

The site of the Republican Convention is the First Union Center, a nearly new sports complex in which the Philadelphia Flyers play. And First Union looks much like an overgrown VanAndel Arena, inside and out, in this case holding about 22,000 spectators for an average sporting event. It's also well south of the center city, approximately three miles from downtown and sharing an old and now well-secured industrial area with Veterans Stadium and the Spectrum Arena.

The parking lot that surrounds First Union is covered with more than a dozen media tents the size of at least two football fields each, looking like rows of greenhouses growing who knows what. Inside, the arena is a long way from finished, with at least three hundred workers constructing the stage and floor, and laying computer, light, and media cables.

As part of the students' orientation to Philadelphia, we toured the historic distict that includes Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell, and other landmarks of the nation's struggle for independence and stability. The significance of the upcoming convention was magnified by recalling the history of this city, the home of the ealiest "political conventions" which produced the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution.

More than two hundred years later we still govern ourselves under the principles of self-government outlined in these two documents. Even modern political conventions, as influenced as they are by the media and large financial interests, are still at the core means by which average citizens can choose their own leaders.

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