17 JULY 1976, Page 7

Unconventional convention

George Gale

New York One of the great things to understand about American democracy and probably about everybody else's is its infinite capacity for b. YPocrisy. Thus, a few months ago, before It began to look to some clever observers that this ludicrous peanut chap, Carter, might begin to be a serious candidate, the former Republican and former Governor of New York and ever-present member of the Eastern seaboard establishment, Averell Harriman, said : 'How could he be nominated? I don't know him, and neither do any of my friends.'

Well, then, the more things change, the More they are the same, which is to say, the more chaps like Harriman are around, the More they are around. On Monday, on the first night of the Democratic Convention, Who is among those summoned to the platform to deliver ritual niceties ? Right. ExGovernor Harriman, who loftily observed: We are going on to victory.' Nice, neat applause.

It is odd being in New York for the Oemocratic Convention. None of the democratic conventions are observed. The last time they were in New York they went O n for 103 sessions and then picked the Wrong guy to oppose Calvin Coolidge. More recently, when they were in Chicago in 1968, Mayor Daly's police started beating uP Senator Eugene McCarthy's hippies; then in Miami Beach in 1972 they were split and hopelessly confused, none of them dreaming that salvation, in the shape of Nixon and Watergate, was to hand.

This time it is all different. The most unconventional convention of all takes place. There is no crisis. There is no argument. There is no understanding question—unless You count a bit of a tizzy between the women and the men about the position of the women in 1980, or unless you are bothered excessively about abortion and think that Jimmy Carter may have unnecessarily irritated the Catholic vote with his Baptist brand of happy humanism.

These are marginal trivia. What has been taking place in New York this week is not a Conventional Convention at all, but a kind of coronation. Remember the good old days 'hen the corruption of Vietnam was taking °14:1, and everybody spoke of Camelot? when the orders to send the troops out bellond the perimeters of Da Nang were mingled with summonses to the artistic and Cultured to perform in front of Jack and Jackie's court ? In those days, we first 'Doke of a court in Washington. Now', there Is a new court and a powerful one. It has nothing to do with culture at all, and everything to do with power. The court is that of

Jimmy Carter. The new courtiers are not all the old hands of the Democratic establishment. Even so the once high and mighty politician Harriman, son of the railroad king, crawls back and is happy to pay allegiance.

Carter's heir-apparency makes, unhappily, for a dull business. He sits back in the Americana Hotel allowing people to kiss his hand. He is about to speak to the faithful (and will have done, by the time you read this). He will tell them who is to be his running mate (my bet has been on Muskie, but it could be Mondale: again, you will know by the time you read this). Carter, like God, disposes. All that is proposed is rhetoric : the good old stuff.

Says Robert Strauss from Texas, the Democratic Party's national chairman and the man very much in charge of this week's goings-on, `The "Democratic Union" is ready to end eight years of Nixon-Ford, eight long years of Kissinger, Simon, Morton and Butz.' This litany of 'Kissinger, Simon, Morton and Butz' sounds fine. It refers, apart from the Secretary of State, to Agriculture Minister Earl Butz, Treasury Secretary William E. Simon, and President Ford's campaign manager, the former Commerce Secretary, Roger C. B. Morton. What the Democrats are doing is trying to hang Ford with Nixon's albatross; the Ford administration with that of Nixon's. They are presenting' the eight years of Nixon-Ford as eight years of cheating and corruption, ending with Watergate, of course.

That this is monstrously unfair on poor little stumbling Gerald Ford is neither here nor there. As Harry S. Truman (the nearest, in Democratic history, to Jimmy Carter) used to say, apropos of nothing very much, 'If you don't like the heat, keep out of the kitchen.' The Democrats are shoving all the Republicans into that filthy kitchen run by Nixon where greasy Joan doth keel the pot.

It is good political fun and filth. But there is also plenty of good political uplift. On Monday, on the convention's opening session (at 8 p.m., to suit the television companies' requirements and politicians' desire for 'prime time'), after some extremely dreary speeches, of which easily the dreariest was spaceman Senator John Glenn's (killing, everybody thought for good, whatever hopes he may have had of being Carter's running mate—`zero chemistry', as one wag put it), the delegates who remained were set excitedly ablaze by Representative Barbara Jordan.

She had much going for her. She is, to begin with, a Ms. Then, on top of that, she is black, or getting on that way—more than sufficiently so to count. She is also, which is more to the point, extremely clever and quite honest. She is the woman who, back in July 1974, when the House Judiciary Committee was deliberating whether or not to impeach President Nixon, leant forward and addressed the nation, through its television sets, as follows: 'My faith in the Constitution is whole, it is complete, it is total; and I am not going to sit here and be an idle spectator to the diminution, the subversion, the destruction of the Constitution.' She has a Baptist, biblical background, like Jimmy Carter, and phrases like this roll off them all, black and white, as easily and unembarrassedly as water off dozens of black and white ducks' backs.

Now up to the time that Representative Barbara Jordan appeared on the rostrum, everything had been exceedingly dull. The best thing to watch was the expertise with which the resident band regaled each new speaker with an appropriate snatch of tune: beautifully organised, this. Blackpool could take a lesson. But there had been no tension, no excitement : everything was due and in its place, excellent.

Then Ms Jordan spoke. She is forty and plain. But, by God she possesses the gift of tongues. Her very presence on the podium, she said, sharing the keynote speech with the exceptionally white John Glenn, demonstrated that 'the American dream need not for ever be deferred'. It could have been argued, alternatively, that her very presence was an exceptional kind of example, and meant quite the reverse; but let me not quibble. 'She was superb. She got away with quoting the Democratic Party's chief historical enemy, the original old Republican Abe Lincoln himself: 'As I would not be a slave so I would not be a master. Thus accept my idea of democracy. Whatever differs from this, to the extent of the difference, is not democracy.' The Americans have this over us, among much else. They can speak such rhetoric freely and openly, without wincing.

They are vigorous in many other ways besides. You are pressed all around with lapel badges. My favourites, this far, are two, one of which says 'I'm working for peanuts'; the other says nothing, but consists simply of a set of teeth. It silently speaks words, and words, and words, and its vendor is justifiably proud of it. We possess no such wit in England, alas.

Nor, mind you, have we men and women who would have the bloody face to stand up on a platform 'with the eyes of the world upon them', as Mayor Abe Beame, like all other mayors everywhere but with more truth than most, says, 'We are hoping to witness not a spectacle but a miracle', and mean it. 'Grant to us, heed our prayer and give us this wisdom . . . we need that gift of wisdom now', said someone else.

This is all in Madison Square Garden's vast oval. The feeling here has been of triumph about to descend, from the gods, like a gift. Mr Jimmy Carter has waited in the wings back at the Americana. People continually mill around, looking and some times being lost; but 'fortunately, God created us Americans in such a way that we can get ourselves out of here', as a delegate said to me after listening in to too many speeches.

The huge stadium is glowered over by three great boxes, each pointed towards the diminutive podium. There is a box for ABC, another for CBS, the third for NBC. Each box has a gaping window, revealing two floors. On the lower floor are dozens of technicians. On the upper floor are the television pundits, looking down on the mob, filled with a sense both astonishing and dispiriting of their own importance. Not only are these commentators humourless; they think that they themselves are the gods of all that they survey. I may wince when Americans on the platform display their turgid faith in gruesome rhetoric; but the Americans on the platform, in all their hypocritical wheeling and dealing and God spelling are not, I think, as inglorious as the Brinkleys and Cronkites in their elevated rooms or heavens, regarding the miserable mortals below.

I prefer Mayor Beame, British-born of a Cockney strain, saying of New York (which has been behaving itself remarkably well, these last few days, to everybody's including its own astonishment) 'to paraphrase Mark Twain, the reports of the death of this city have been grossly exaggerated'.

Now that is a very corny remark indeed. But America is corny. How corny we will find out in Kansas in August. Meanwhile, not long after the Fourth of July, I report that you can walk out of Madison Square Garden on a hot summer night and proceed through groups of quiet whores, without it even occurring to you that you might be mugged, waylaid or otherwise than most politely propositioned.