If Hurricane Gustav strikes with sound and fury against the Gulf states during the convention, the Republicans will have to step very lightly. The media have already broached the subject of how unseemly it would be if the RNC was celebrating while people in Louisiana or Texas are hurting. It’s a fair point, but it’s also opportunistic — an opportunity that some Democrats have seemed gleeful in exploiting.
Rather than respond to these pitiful political attacks, the Republican Party can act in a way that would singlehandedly change its perception among a large swath of the populace. Consider the following scenario, written from the perspective of (sympathetic) reporters covering the events.
Early Morning, Monday, September 1, 2008
St. Charles, Louisiana – In a chilling reprise of the Katrina disaster, Hurricane Gustav roared ashore seven miles east of Grand Chernier, Louisiana this morning. Packing 160 mph sustained winds and gusts of over 190 mph, the Category 5 storm drove a surge of ocean 10 feet high into a region of small towns and bayou, tossing boats into trees and flattening entire communities in a matter of minutes. Numerous tornadoes were spawned further inland, and an area from Shreveport to Houston remain under tornado watches.
Governor Bobby Jindal’s evacuation order on Saturday and the relatively-sparse population in the area have limited the potential for loss of life. But the remoteness of the impacted region has hampered relief efforts. Most roads through the area have been washed out or buried under several feet of mud. Evacuees are not expected to return to their homes before Saturday, and the extent of the damage will not be fully known for several weeks. Early estimates place the damage in the tens of millions of dollars.
11:30 PM, Monday, September 1, 2008
St. Paul, Minn. – When Republicans gathered for their quadrennial celebration today, they began to learn that this year’s convention would be unlike any other. Some haven’t even unpacked their luggage.
Since Hurricane Gustav began spinning toward the Gulf Coast, organizers have been agonizing about the impact of the potential disaster on the convention. With the Bush Administration’s bungled response to Hurricane Katrina still fresh in the minds of voters, Republicans can ill-afford to appear indifferent to the plight of Gustav’s victims. President Bush and other officials are likely to miss the convention entirely, and dozens of approaches were considered to show Senator McCain and his party as appropriately empathetic.
Now, Republicans appear to make history. Via satellite from Baton Rouge, Senator McCain and Governor Sarah Palin spoke to conventioneers after Cindy McCain’s opening address, informing them of some changes in plans. McCain, standing in shirtsleeves at a relief center, told Republicans that his campaign’s commitment “to improve the lives of every American” demands that he be with the victims of Gustav during this “emerging crisis.” Then, in a stunning move, McCain said that the convention would last only three days, and that he would address conventioneers on Wednesday via satellite. The Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas, Florida and Arkansas delegations — many of whom never left their states — will be present for the speech at a location that has not yet been disclosed.
But that wasn’t the most shocking news of the night. McCain went on to ask delegates, if they were able, to join him in Louisiana by boarding the Straight Talk Express buses that would be awaiting them outside the Xcel Energy Center at midnight on Tuesday. The Senator said he understood that delegates had lives and families that might preclude them from joining the relief efforts, but he implored everyone who could make that sacrifice to accept his invitation. The McCain campaign assured reporters that every delegate who wished to make the trip would be accommodated. Arrangements were being made to house the delegates at several locations in the region through Friday. Delegates who left on Tuesday would be assured of seeing McCain give his acceptance speech in person on Wednesday.
The convention erupted in cheering and applause at the news, and literally thousands of cell phone calls were made to bosses, loved ones, and airlines to change plans. The campaign had no estimate for the number of delegates who were expected to make the 18-hour trip, but it guaranteed that the next 48 hours would be unlike anything an American political party had ever attempted.
Just After Midnight, Wednesday, September 3, 2008
St. Paul, Minn. – The buses have been boarded, the convention hall emptied. And 3,782 Republican delegates, officials, and family members are headed down the Mississippi in a caravan of 79 buses to join ongoing relief efforts in the wake of Hurricane Gustav.
Tuesday was full of preparations. As it became clear that a solid majority of the 2,380 delegates would take Senator McCain up on his offer of transportation to the affected region, McCain staff scrambled to assemble the resources necessary to make it happen. Buses had to be found, refreshments packed for the 18-hour journey, hotels and other accommodations found in Louisiana, all while keeping the convention day moving ahead as planned.
But the old convention agenda has all but disappeared from the minds of the delegates and the media. Vice Presidential nominee Governor Sarah Palin spoke Tuesday night, but her biggest applause line was her announcement that she would board the buses with the delegates at midnight. Many Republican luminaries – former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, House Minority Leader John Boehner, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger – paraded past the podium this evening, but they were interspersed with clips of local Republicans in Texas and Louisiana working to help victims of the hurricane.
Not all of the convention-goers were able to make the trip south. While an exact count isn’t yet available, an estimated 400 delegates remain in St. Paul, along with all of the 2,227 alternate delegates. They will continue to participate in the convention tomorrow. To fill the arena, Minnesota Republicans have invited their members to join a “general admission” area tomorrow. Admission is free, but Republicans are asking for a recommended donation of $50.00 per person to support the Red Cross’ Gustav relief efforts. Republican officials say that they have already raised over $200,000 for the Red Cross in the last 24 hours from individuals already attending the convention. When asked about the risk of inviting demonstrations and hecklers in the Xcel Energy Center by opening it to the public, a McCain spokesman smiled and said, “If they want to heckle Senator McCain from 1200 miles away while he’s working to help Americans in need, that’s their choice.”
Around 9:00 AM, Wednesday, September 3, 2008
Near Cape Girardeau, Mo. – Delegates aboard Straight Talk Express 38 are filing out to grab a quick breakfast. They are approximately halfway on their journey to the first traveling political convention in history. Most slept through the night as the caravan of 78 vehicles were led through Minnesota, Iowa, and Missouri by a rolling police escort. McCain officials say the escort was not planned in advance, but rather developed overnight as cities and counties were informed that they were on the bus route.
Almost everyone on STE 38, as it is now called, woke before the bus reached St. Louis. There are 20 men, 24 women, and 6 children under 18 on the bus. Three of those children are members of the Southerland family. Bill Southerland, a delegate from Nevada, had never even seen the Mississippi River before he arrived in St. Paul on Sunday night. Now he’s taking his entire family on a trip down this spine of America, and he says “it’s like a fairy tale.” As the bus passed through Hannibal, Missouri around 7:00 this morning, he turned to his son Seth, 6, and told him about Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, and their own journey down the big river. Seth spent most of the trip with his face glued to the window, falling in and out of sleep, amazed by the nation racing by.
Breakfast is a rushed affair. Campaign advance teams have commandeered large parking lots and set out tables of snack cakes, granola bars, fruit, orange juice, and coffee. Delegates have been asked to grab what they want and reboard the bus. Travelers are lined up to use the portable facilities staged here, making the scene more akin to a rock concert than a political gathering. The caravan will be off again in less than 30 minutes. It will be the last stop for the delegates before they reach their destination.
But there is no grumbling, no frustration among these trailblazers. Even though many are accustomed to first-class air travel, they seem charmed by the moment. Their conversations are excited, and no one doubts whether moving the convention to Louisiana was the right move. “I’ve never been more proud of my party in my life,” said Deborah Cantwell, a lawyer from Florida. “It takes a strong man of real character to call off a party thrown in his honor. It takes a hero to convince the partiers to go volunteer in the mud with him instead. John McCain is my hero.”
9:00 pm, Wednesday, September 3, 2008
Baton Rouge, La. – The buses rolled into the parking lot, one after another, a political armada unlike any other. They had already visited their hotels or the homes of the local residents where they will be staying, but their faces showed the exhaustion of the 18-hour trek from Minnesota.
But they also beamed with excitement, part of a unique experiment in political strategy that was about to culminate in its ultimate moment. The delegations, who only marginally traveled together, found each other and found their seats in the stadium, LSU’s Tiger Stadium, which had been adapted for use by the McCain campaign. Not attempting to match the drama or spectacle of Senator Obama’s speech the week before, the campaign erected a simple stage with bunting for the Senator’s acceptance speech. It was the kind of stage you might see in a small Iowa town, but the essence of the evening was not stagecraft.
Rather, the energy flowing among the delegates — as well as the local citizens and evacuees, who were invited to watch for free from the bleachers — created its own electric atmosphere. Some delegates wore their outlandish hats and evening gowns. Others stood with their daughters in their arms, in the same jeans and t-shirts they would wear while assisting hurricane victims the next day. A throng of local supporters crowded the area where the buses unloaded, cheering and carrying signs thanking the delegates for their show of support. Delia Jordan, a waitress from Lake Charles, wept as she greeted the traveling party: “I just couldn’t stop watching CNN all day, just watching these amazing people drop everything and come to help us. I had to come out here and thank them. I’m so proud to be an American today.”
The delegates looked just as happy to be there, and many stopped to hug or shake hands with those waiting to meet them. Ken Russer, a delegate from New York, said that this is why he was involved in politics. “This is incredible. I know we’re here for a speech, and I can’t tell you how hard I am going to work for John McCain back in Syracuse now. But this is what’s important. And we can’t wait to start helping these people tomorrow.”
Red Cross representatives have been working with McCain campaign volunteers to design a series of relief activities. Volunteers and delegates from Gulf coast states, alongside John and Cindy McCain and other Republican officials, have been working in the affected area for the past two days. Many of those with whom McCain had worked in relief were in attendance at Tiger Stadium. John Devereaux, a fisherman from St. Bernard Parish, was “shocked at how hard he worked, how much he wanted to help. He wasn’t out there gladhanding or nothing. He was there to give us help, and he gave us hope.”
Once everyone was seated, a few Republican officials came on stage to explain how things would be coordinated with St. Paul. The St. Paul convention would control the evening until Cindy McCain came forward to introduce her husband. For an hour, convention business pressed forward, with the Louisiana contingent watching on the stadium scoreboard, cheering right along with those in Minnesota. Then, after the St. Paul speaker said he asked the delegates to draw their attention to the video screen, the Louisiana crowd knew it was their turn.
The lights went dim, and in the steamy Louisiana heat, a New Orleans jazz line started up a rendition of God Bless America. The entire stadium went quiet as they watched the spotlit ensemble weave the tune. Once done, the crowd burst into raucous applause, and the band struck up “Stars and Stripes Forever” Then the Senator walked in, through the same portal where the LSU Tigers run right before a football game. He acknowledged the crowd’s roar with a smile and a wave, took the podium, and waited until the band finished the song. Walking over to the band, comprised of four African American men, and he shook each of their hands as they smiled and thanked him. McCain returned to the podium, smiled once again, and started to speak.
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