Ben-Hur upstages Cheney

At a convention of conservative activists, the vice president doesn't serve up the partisan red meat -- Charlton Heston does.

Published February 16, 2001 4:02PM (EST)

Vice President Dick Cheney was supposed to be the big star for the opening night dinner of the Conservative Political Action Conference's 28th annual convention. He was the one who kept attendees by the hundreds queued up outside the ballroom at the Crystal City Marriott Hotel while the Secret Service and its dogs made sure the room was clear of danger.

But Cheney's keynote speech at the banquet turned out to be something of an anticlimax . By the time the vice president crossed the dais to the podium and received his standing ovation, it was the fifth such greeting of the night. The first went to Wayne LaPierre Jr., executive vice president of the National Rifle Association, who served as the evening's emcee. He took over the podium to rousing applause, punctuated by hoots and hollers. Perhaps it left him somewhat deaf, because he spent the rest of the event practically shouting into the mike. Other conservatives who got the crowd to its feet were Rep. Bob Barr, R-Ga., Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., and NRA president and Hollywood legend Charlton Heston, who turned out to be the evening's scene stealer.

When LaPierre introduced Cheney as one of the men who had helped "restore honor and righteousness to high office," he had to do so over the persistent clinking of cutlery as attendees finished up their salad and started their steak. Cheney also had to compete with the background noise as he delivered a no-nonsense speech conspicuously free of ideological red meat. Yet the vice president did serve up a few tasty rhetorical ironies.

"At events like this, we always think of President Reagan and everything he did for America," Cheney said. "Tonight I bring greetings from another former Western governor who came to Washington with big changes in mind, President George W. Bush."

The elder Western governor, however, usually rode his own horse to CPAC events. Reagan first spoke at the 1974 convention as California governor, and missed exactly one CPAC convention from then until he left office. He certainly didn't miss the event held during the first year of his presidency, when he swept Jimmy Carter out of office in a landslide. Bush, who won the White House with less than a majority of the popular vote, and who was revived during the early struggles in his campaign by the solid support of family-values conservatives, couldn't make it. He was getting ready to go to Mexico for a meeting with its new president, Vicente Fox.

The CPAC convention's organizers had hoped for something different. The group extended its invitation to Bush on Dec. 12, 2000, the same date the Supreme Court rejected Gore's final attempts to continue the Florida recount, and a day before Gore gave up the ghost, allowing the Texas governor to finally earn the title "president elect." CPAC held onto hope that Bush would come through for several weeks -- the glossy event program handed out to attendees had tentatively listed Bush as the night's main attraction. Cheney was supposed to speak at Friday evening's Ronald Reagan Banquet. But then Cheney was moved up to be the keynoter, and taking his place Friday -- a few notches down in star power -- is Bush's senior advisor and campaign architect, Karl Rove.

Cheney spent a lot of time crediting Reagan's policies for the nation's spiritual and fiscal renewal. "Thanks to his leadership, the world we live in is much as he envisioned it," Cheney declared, "with Americans enjoying the fruits of a long economic expansion, and freedom expanding all over the globe."

Mention of this 20-year period of Reagan triumph conveniently smoothed over an inconvenient detail of recent history. Bill Clinton, whose name was on the sneering lips of many a convention speaker, was predictably omitted from discussion of the economic expansion, though it was his hand on the wheel during the past eight years of American prosperity. Still, this bias didn't cut strictly across party lines: President George H.W. Bush, whose mishandling of the economy helped put Clinton into office, went completely unmentioned in Cheney's speech.

Cheney did mention, however, that the bloom is off the rose, warning that the days of American prosperity may be numbered. "In the economy, we see indications of a slowdown." Use of the word "slowdown" is a subtle act of revisionism by Cheney, who declared famously on Dec. 3, 2000, that "we may well be on the front edge of a recession here."

It was no surprise that Cheney's most well-received line of the evening was about his administration's solution to economic malaise, a big retroactive tax cut. "If you can reach back in time to raise taxes, you can reach back in time to reduce them," Cheney said, his voice drowned out by thunderous applause. In Bush's Inauguration speech, tax cuts got big applause, too, while his words about healing and civility were greeted with polite silence.

Cheney had a little bit to say about the administration's desire to "change the tone in the city of Washington." He had more to say about reinvigorating the nation's armed services, a missile defense system and, of course, taxes.

What were absent from his speech were the pet issues of social conservatives. For example, between LaPierre and Heston there was plenty of well-received rhetoric about preserving the Second Amendment, but none of it came from Cheney. The vice president also failed to mention Bush's faith-based charity initiative, education or abortion. Not a single "family value" was highlighted in Cheney's speech.

When the vice president was done, he stepped off the platform to another standing ovation, though it was more tentatively given than the one that greeted his entrance. He left it to Heston to bring it all home.

After Barr introduced the Oscar-winning actor, the lights were lowered on a video montage of his career as an activist. In keeping with the Republican Party's newfound love of Martin Luther King Jr., clips of the civil rights leader flashed on the screen as an ominous-sounding narrator repeatedly congratulated Heston for marching with him.

Subsequent frames were filled with Heston's speeches touting the virtues of firearms. They included a snippet of an NRA ad Heston filmed last year, in which he asked, "So does Bill Clinton tolerate a level of gun deaths to further his political agenda? You decide." That brought the house down; the ovation the audience gave Heston -- hoots and hollers and all of them on their feet -- made those that had come before look stingy by comparison. Some young people scrambled on top of chairs to get a better view or a better angle for their snapshots.

Heston's speech was sprinkled with self-deprecating humor and jokes about his movie star past, but most of it was taken up by a bizarre gimmick in which Heston slipped in and out of the voices of several of the characters he had portrayed as an actor, who "lined up" to give Bush their words of wisdom.

Col. George Taylor, hero of "Planet of the Apes," joked, "Please, no monkeying around, Mr. President. We had enough of that during the last administration." Ben-Hur told Bush not to get too big for his britches: "Don't be misled by the grandeur of fame, Mr. Bush," Heston said. Then: "I won an Oscar for this damned thing, and people still get me confused with Spartacus." Moses advised, "Don't let the snarling growls of those who scrap for political bones deceive you. Together we will find our destiny, our promised land."

Most of Heston's cinematic bons mots fell along these lines -- paternal life lessons delivered with a dose of humor. But Heston, Long John Silver in the 1990 film "Treasure Island," struck some darker notes in welcoming the conservatives' new captain to Washington. "Treacherous waters lie ahead. But we'll serve ye well, good sir," he said. "But let down your mates, sir, and you'll face the plank."

By Alicia Montgomery

Alicia Montgomery is an associate editor in Salon's Washington bureau.

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