An empire requires an imperial city, and the Republicans turned New York into the backlot for Julius Caesar . They used the grand scale and took over the grand elegant spaces as backdrop. Their bridle-bit loafers passed softly over the worn marble and mosaic floors of high culture. Once everyone who lives here fled town, they took over. The city they occupied and remade wasn’t quite New York, it was more like Neo York. Grand but toneless, a little off.
“I am looking for the subway,” a reporter at the convention center asked a Republican guide.
“Do you mean the restaurant or the subterranean?”
“Take a right and then another right, then go downstairs-“
The subterranean. Such was the Neo York tone under Republican occupation-precise, bland, clean, and empty. Bland and grand.
There was to be nothing ideological or even conservative at the New York convention. They wanted the tone of New York’s liberalism to rub off on them too, the way cultural conservatives want their hair cut by a gay hairdresser or to hear a little Philip Glass in the middle of an all-Sousa concert. They needed it. New York’s sophistication. They wanted that to help their image. The Republicans do not want to seem narrow to America, beady-eyed and dangerous. They don’t want to feel that way about themselves either. They want the pleasure of thinking of themselves as New Yorkers are able to think of themselves: clued-in, toney, broad-minded, triumphant. They wanted to put on New York airs. And they have.
“Every place we’ve been has been fantastic,” said a corporate lobbyist inside Cipriani 42nd Street, the cavernous landmarked space of the old Bowery Savings Bank on 42d Street. “The locations have been great. When it comes to locations, the city has been great.”
Everyone else had cleared out of the location to allow the Republicans to shoot their picture. Yet there was something off about it, something synthesized.
On Monday night they took over both the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Central Building of the New York Public Library. Corporate lobbyists threw big parties for the congressional leadership under lemony light against old stone. The Met was the fancier event. Tom DeLay at the Temple of Dendur. Tom DeLay under glass, facing Fifth Avenue and the entrance to Central Park, acquiring international culture and the history of the ages at the Met, just south and west of the building from which Jacqueline K. Onassis used to stare down at the Park.
The word went out among the Republican wives to wear black to the Met. This is New York, you wear black. Black is the sophisticated color in New York.
So a procession of Republican women went up the great steps of the Metropolitan, almost all of them in black. Black pantsuits. A short black dress. Another black pantsuit. Yes, now and then a howler: pinstriped pants, as if she had gotten on half the Yankees’ home uniform. But most of the ladies had gotten the signal right and worn black. A cropped black jacket, gathered at the back, with the long dangling ends of the string, capped in silver, dancing naughtily against the lady’s pert black rump. Very empire.
Some ladies, under the black suits, had put on tangerine or sky-blue blouses. Tangerine. See, there was something off.
And sad, too-not chipper and conventiony, but sad. You walked through the city and it was no longer yours. Anybody with New York in the spirit had decamped, and now the Republicans were doing their best to imitate the departed, and not quite making it. The country singer Lee Greenwood had come into Cipriani 42d Street to sing his hit, “God Bless the U.S.A.,” with the Harlem Boys Choir behind him. The crowd sang along with him, and the boys and girls of the choir watched him with smiling befuddlement.
Lee Greenwood was a star out of his element. He wore a new New York jacket and fiddled nervously with the buttons. He’s from California. Usually he wears jeans and cowboy boots and a five-day growth. He had put on this stiff new jacket over a fine cotton shirt, a blue jacquard tie, and seemed a mannequin in the Italian-made clothes, the country star lost in New York. See, there was something off.
Bo Derek held forth at a press conference in a side room. Well, actually she doesn’t hold forth. She’s a demure sort, in pastel paisley. She carried a bone-colored purse and said with a bashful sweetness that she was voting for George Bush because of his courage.
A reporter baited her. “Are you the right wing’s answer to Susan Sarandon?”
Bo wasn’t built for New York sarcasm, and her self-esteem cratered.
“Absolutely not! She’s so smart, she’s so brilliant. Look at me, I’m blonde!” She sent her shoulder-length hair flying with a hapless fling of her hand. “No one should vote the way I vote!”
A blonde joke, on herself. See, there was something off. It wasn’t savvy, even as it tried to be. Bo Derek wasn’t a stand-in for Susan Sarandon, and Lee Greenwood wasn’t comfortable in a landmarked bank building across from Grand Central. It occurred to you that in Vichy Paris they still had croissants and coffee, baguettes and nightlife, but it wasn’t the same there either.
And meanwhile, unfamiliar flows of humanity oozed forth from the seams. Not the usual New York nut jobs, with whom you were familiar and even affectionate, but new ones. A Scientologist appeared on Madison Avenue: “Hi, I’d like to give this to you, it’s a tape about liberty.” Flee! While all up and down Park Avenue stood people in yellow T-shirts with red letters that said “Falun Gong” or “Falun Dafa,” the spiritual movement repressed by the Chinese. Not your good old New York weirdoes-but corner after corner of visiting cultists in yellow T-shirts, some of them practicing their quiet rituals.
“I’ve never seen the city so deserted,” said one of the Republican organizers, dejectedly. “We decided to come here as a way of saying thank you. That was the whole point.
“And it all backfired because of the people who are protesting. The anarchists. So New York is being hurt instead.”
She enjoyed saying that word, “anarchist.” All the Republicans did. But that was disingenuous. Whatever fears had sent New Yorkers out of town, the New Yorkers were gone, and that was the way the Republicans liked it. It fit in with their world view. It was like having Disney World open to just your family on a Sunday. They were free to use all the locations. If waiters at Butter, the boite next to the Public Theater on Lafayette, snickered at the guys in khakis who were ordering mojitos, so what? That was an inside joke among the passive resistance.
Meantime, the Republicans would use New York to make themselves seem worldly, broad-minded. It was funny and it was painful. And so a place that is the embodiment of intellectual life, the Central Building of the New York Public Library, had gone goofy. Lobbyists did mock tackles of one another on the steps and, setting out for the next party, chanted, “46th and Third, 46th and Third,” tomahawking the air in an easterly direction.
Republican ladies handed out shopping guides that listed 20 percent off at Village Leather. As if to say, We can make this New York better, cleaner. No more anarchists in the subterranean.
Probably they were cowed by New York. Isn’t everyone when they get off the boat? Of course they were, as scared as a New Yorker in Texas seeing a gunrack in the pickup. They didn’t feel right, even stepping up the Metropolitan steps in new Manolo Blahnik shoes, having heard about Manolos on Sex in the City . They did not feel hip even as they tried. But that’s not the point. Something was working for them in these locations, and they did what everyone does in New York, they imagined themselves in a new way. They imagined themselves open-minded and sophisticated.
They dashed off to Soho to buy $200 jeans and disavowed all ideology.
A pretty Senate operative from California had ordered Chinese at 2 in the morning from her hotel room- “because I could,” she announced triumphantly-and got an irritated look when you said the word abortion. “We come here as an exercise in patriotism and duty, not because of any ideology.”
In the spectacular space of Cipriani 42nd Street, Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina seemed layered. “If we go forward like we’re doing this week, the sky’s the limit for this party. We need to be a party where the social moderates feel comfortable, and have a home. If minorities choose out…we’re toast.”
So the Republican had pro-choicers give speeches on the opening night and their pro-choice group co-hosted a rock concert at the Beacon. And at a big gathering for women in the Waldorf-Astoria-“W Stands for Women”-Vice President Cheney’s straight daughter talked about her four kids and used the word “gender” 100 times, signaling to right and left, while Mr. Cheney’s wife said that women in Afghanistan no longer had their fingers amputated for wearing fingernail polish.
Fingernail polish in Islam. See, there was something a little off about that. A little tone-deaf, as a human rights message. A 20-year-old independent from Rochester named Diana Gonzalez, wide-set eyes, fiercely intelligent, in Capri pants: Diana felt cornered. “It’s really like they’re pushing the typical American family as a married woman where the husband is the breadwinner of the family. I don’t fit into that category.”
Still, Diana had a W sticker on her bag. Though she said she was going to take it off when she went downtown, so that her friends wouldn’t give her-“you’ll excuse the expression, shit.”
But Diana couldn’t win. The Bush girls were on stage, in pants, but tamed and docile. One of the ladies in the audience had on a Cat in the Hat hat. Again, something off. Another lady, from Orange County, Mary Young, wore a giant button saying Red Hot Republican.
“Mary, you know what that means in New York-” a reporter said, “you’re saying you’re sexy, you’re hot.”
Mary dissolved. “Oh no. That’s not why I bought it. I’m a dyed in the wool Republican, a red blooded Republican, hot blooded Republican.”
The dominating culture had reduced the few New Yorkers who had stuck around in the occupied territories to being provocative, or scatological. As the Republican climbed the steps of the Met to see Tom DeLay in new robes at the Temple of Dendur, a bunch of downtown girls in wigs and lingerie and giant silver strap-on dildos shaped like missiles sang Kurt Weill and Nancy Sinatra songs outside the museum.
A police officer at the party gate studied the Missile Dick Chicks from afar, warily, reporting on them to command as if they posed a threat.
“They’re very orderly right now. They’re just standing there,” he said into his cell phone.
“These bombs are made for dropping, and that’s just what they’ll do-” the girls sang, and bounced their strap-on dildos in the air in the direction of the Republicans.
“Why are you wearing those things?” a reporter asked.
“Because the whole meaning in our life is to please our husbands,” a girl who gave her name as Dolly Daily Bombings said with a lascivious smile.
Scatology was understandable. Along with anarchy, it was just about the only turf the Republicans didn’t want. Everything else they tried to make their own. The bland grand tone aimed to assimilate all differences. It was shrewd of the Republicans. How they even hugged the protesters. Just like the President hugging black kids.
“We saw a group of them at a bar on Sunday and sent a round of drinks over to their table, a pitcher of beer,” said the 35-ish corporate lobbyist. “Then we talked with them about why they opposed the president. They didn’t have a policy position on anything, other than the war.”
The convention’s position on the Iraq war was also shrewd. It was a position meant to play outside the New York Public Library. We all can disagree. Yes, George Bush has made some tactical mistakes. Rudy Giuliani said, None of us is always right. While Lindsey Graham said, George Bush has had to make decisions every day, day in and day out. Not everyone is going to like you.
But why question the President’s decisions? They came out of resolution, courage, firmness. Male virtues. When the fires of hell rose from New York. This great city that belongs to all of us.
“We live in times of peril,” Lynne Cheney said at the Waldorf-Astoria, “and it is such a comfort to all of us to have these good men who are so solid, so stable, leading our country. And both these men are surrounded by strong women.”
Yes and they have the worst judgment of any leaders since Vietnam, and all the world hates us, and our young men and women are dying by the handful for no good or clear reason. But an empire requires an imperial city, and there is only one. Ladies, when you go to the Temple of Dendur, wear black.
Elizabeth Widdicombe contributed reporting to this article.