The ticket that might have been

Colin Powell makes Republicans regret and Democrats rejoice that he turned down the role of Bush running mate.

By Anthony York
Published August 1, 2000 6:30PM (EDT)

The Republican National Convention opened as advertised Monday -- a multi-culti soft sell, stripped of most of the partisan rancor and focused strongly on education. It was the day that George Bush's wife Laura went prime time, and Gen. Colin Powell reminded everybody why there's all that Colin Powell hype every election year.

During the first three hours of the confab, a series of teachers, students and single mothers all touted the virtues of education reform experiments, and of Gov. Bush's campaign commitment to education. But most of those presentations ended as quickly as a Dick Cheney stump speech.

Bush himself checked in via satellite after his wife gave the first major address of the evening, just after 10 p.m. EDT. "I can't wait to stand before you Thursday night and tell America how I want to use these great times for great purposes," Bush said. He then went on to introduce Powell, dropping another less-than-subtle hint that Powell might serve as his secretary of state: "I hope his greatest service to America might still lie ahead."

True, the crowd didn't seem to know what to do with the likes of R&B artist Brian McKnight and his pelvis-thrusting troupe of dancers, but they gave sustained applause to Bush's parents -- the former president and first lady -- as well as Bush's running mate Dick Cheney and Cheney's wife Lynne, and of course the reluctant speaker, Laura Bush.

For a woman who'd been promised, early in her marriage, that she'd never have to give a political speech, Bush did a professional job. She gave a softball, first lady-like speech that focused on education and made much of her history as a teacher and librarian. "I feel very at home in this classroom setting," she told the crowd, and she even made a slightly risqui -- for the GOP -- joke at Al Gore's expense.

"George's opponent has been visiting schools lately. And sometimes when he does, he spends the night before at the home of a teacher. Well, George spends every night with a teacher." Ba-da-boom.

But she got the loudest applause with a thinly veiled jab at President Clinton. Talking about all the parents and grandparents the Bushes meet on the campaign trail, she said "They hold out pictures of their children and they say to George, 'I'm counting on you.' I want my son or daughter to respect the President of the United States of America."

The problem with the touchy-feely tone of the first three hours is that the old, partisan stuff stood out like a sore thumb. When House Speaker Dennis Hastert gave his short rah-rah speech bashing House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt and President Clinton, it simply felt out of place.

But the difference between the people in the audience and the people on stage -- at least half of who were Latinos or African Americans -- was obvious to anyone who scanned the crowd. As the New York Times pointed out Monday, despite the emphasis on women and minorities during prime time, the delegates to this convention are overwhelming white -- more than 90 percent, according to the Times -- and mostly middle-aged men.

"That's something that we'd like to change, obviously," said Margita Thompson, spokeswoman for the Republican National Convention and a former press aide for the Bush campaign. "And it is happening under Gov. Bush. He's showing that he is a different kind of Republican."

That was one of the major points of the speech by Powell, who once again gave a speech that no other Republican seems willing or capable of delivering. He delivered the most compelling speech of the evening, and just like 1996, he was not shy about taking his fellow Republicans to task.

At the last GOP convention, Powell, who briefly flirted with a possible independent presidential run, thrilled the crowd with the words "my fellow Republicans." But in that speech, he spoke honestly about his support of abortion rights and affirmative action, and at times received boos from some of the hard-liners on the convention floor.

This time around, Powell once again showed that he is the most compelling public speaker on the GOP bench, fusing traditional Republican themes with his own brand of social liberalism. He spoke movingly about children in poverty and in adult prisons. Gov. Bush certainly tries, but he does not come close to Powell's power. Who else could get a crowd of GOP delegates in a frenzy calling for the construction of fewer jails?

And Powell spoke directly about race, in language that made some of the convention delegates seem uneasy at times, judging by their tepid applause. "I've seen kids in utter despair. I've visited kids in jail doing adult time for crimes they've committed. They are part of a growing population of over 2 million Americans behind bars ..." Powell said.

"Most of them are men and the majority of those men are minorities. The issue of race still casts a shadow over our society. We have much more work to do and a long way to go to bring the promise of American to every single American."

Powell spoke of moral issues without pontificating -- addressing the need to stop drug abuse among America's children, and calling on Americans to "place into the heart of every child growing up in America the moral strength never to fall for the destructive lure of drugs."

He also reprimanded his own party, particularly on the issue of affirmative action, which Powell supports. "We must understand the cynicism that exists in the black community. The kind of cynicism that is created when some in our party miss no opportunity to roundly and loudly condemn affirmative action that helped a few thousand black kids get an education, but hardly a whimper is heard from them over affirmative action for lobbyists who load our tax codes with preferences for special interests."

He talked about the problem of too many fatherless families in minority communities, as well as the importance of increasing accessibility to health care. "Every child must have quality healthcare," Powell implored to tepid applause. But he brought the house down in his plea for school vouchers: "What are we afraid of?"

Powell's speech brought power and meaning to Bush's stump speech sound bites of "leaving no child behind" -- borrowed, ironically, from the liberal Children's Defense Fund -- and "compassionate conservatism," but said he is convinced Bush is serious about bringing the Republican Party back to the party of Abraham Lincoln. "Gov. Bush welcomes the challenge. He wants the Republican Party to wear that mantle again," Powell said.

But if and when it does, a lot of people on that floor of the First Union Center Monday are going to have to give up their credentials next time around.

"You liked that speech, didn't you?" a black convention security guard teased his white colleague after Powell left the stage. The white guard only squinted an I-don't-know kind of squint, and his buddy laughed. "You guys picked the wrong guy for president."

Anthony York

Anthony York is Salon's Washington correspondent.

MORE FROM Anthony York

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Dick Cheney George W. Bush