Just Workin’ Stiffs: Bush, Gore, Buchanan

PHILADELPHIA-Have you read enough of these datelines? Hang in there, friends: It won’t take long, and then you and I shall be finished with this business.

Allow, please, for two observations before your devoted correspondent packs his bags:

1) Ralph Nader is beginning to sound better to this dyspeptic observer, if only because he is the lone candidate in the four-person field who doesn’t feel obliged to leave off the “g” when speakin’ about the pressin’ issues that affect the workin’ man. Al Gore, George W. Bush and Patrick Buchanan were educated at three of the finest institutions of higher learning in this great land (Harvard, Yale and Georgetown universities), and two of the three (Mr. Buchanan being the exception here) hail from ruling-class backgrounds. Yet all three would sooner be caught in top hat and tails than make that hard “g” sound.

Mr. Nader-what a surprise-had no time for such faux populism. He prefers the genuine article: He defends the rights of workers without resorting to linguistic condescension. This is no small act of courage in an age when a candidate like Mr. Bush can give an autobiographical acceptance speech and not mention that he continued his education beyond elementary school.

Maybe it’s because of, rather than in spite of, their education that Messrs. Gore, Bush and Buchanan insist on comin’ to the defense of the workin’ families of this country. Knowin’ that they have very little in common with common people, well, at least they can try to sound like somebody who once worked for a livin’. Then again, maybe “g” isn’t polling very well this year.

As near as I can tell, based on memory of newsreel tapes, even Al Smith, who spoke like he spent his leisure hours at Ebbets Field, never missed a “g.” And you can bet that when Ronald Reagan read Peggy Noonan’s words, he pronounced every syllable-as well he might. Perhaps those who wish to restore the dignity, honor, etc., of the Oval Office will have a word with Mr. Bush about this troublesome letter “g.” And perhaps some good son or daughter of the working class will explain to candidates other than Mr. Nader that salt-of-the-earth types may not be blessed with an abundance of the world’s goods, but on matters political, they possess a radar system that the Strategic Air Command can only envy.

2) The Republican effort to show a less-white, less-male face to the country inspired no shortage of ribaldry, some of it quite good, indeed. But the guess here is that middle-class and upper-middle-class African-Americans and Latinos were not quite so dismissive as the media were.

At around noon the day after opening night, during which waves of brown and black faces talked about traditional Republican themes, I talked with two young African-American sisters about the proceedings. Shelby and Sheila Lewis were happily planning Shelby’s upcoming wedding as they ate lunch together in an Irish pub on Walnut Street when I intruded on them to talk politics. With great charm and patience, they agreed to do so. They confessed that they had not followed every line of every speech, which confirmed their sanity, but they also said they noticed what the Republicans were doing, and were willing to hear more.

“My first thought was, ‘O.K., it’s the new millennium, and they’re trying to do something different,'” said Sheila, the more vocal of the two. “So I didn’t just dismiss it.” Shelby nodded her head in agreement. I asked her: “So your stomach didn’t turn?” “No,” she said, quietly.

“But hold on,” Sheila said. “I’m a college student, and I’m concerned about affirmative action. I think we have to keep giving people a chance. There may be some kid out in the streets who needs a chance, and he or she might come up with a cure for cancer.”

So they have not been sold, not entirely, anyway. But these middle-class women also did not react with the revulsion of those upper-middle-class commentators who dismissed it all as mere theater.

The greatest fear Democrats ought to have is that Republicans have stolen one from their playbook. When the loyalties of European immigrants in the mid-19th century were up for grabs, the Democrats and their machines-run by professionals who knew how to count-scored points with all kinds of “symbolic” gestures. Eventually, those symbols were acted upon, and a new electoral coalition came into being.

In August of the year 2000, more than 80 percent of the Republican Convention was white, while the speakers and, yes, entertainers seemed 80 percent minority. If that’s still true in a decade or so, then, but only then, can anybody write a damning epitaph for this convention.