August 04, 2004,
Democrats contorted into all kinds of interesting shapes last week to keep from publicly saying too many bad things about President Bush. Seeing them playing so nice made me wonder: What is the nicest thing I could get someone at the Democratic National Convention to say about President Bush? So I asked around.
The first notable name I had the chance to question was former Clinton administration Labor Secretary Robert Reich, who responded quite enthusiastically when asked if he had anything nice to say about the president.
"Oh yes," he said. "He is not a divider; he is a uniter. He has united Democrats like nobody I've ever seen. He has united Europeans. They've been divided for 1,000 years. That's quite an accomplishment."
Newsweek's Eleanor Clift also attempted humor.
"He's very kind to animals, which I appreciate," she said. "He is concerned about his health. He exercises." Apparently sensing that this was not actually kind, she got more serious. "He has a very nice anti-elitist streak, even though he's a member of the elite."
Michael Dukakis, whom I caught as he was about to step on the escalator that rose to both the VIP boxes and the nosebleed seats (I don't know in which section he wound up), cut off my question with a sneer that, had he deployed it during the 1988 campaign, he might have won an eleventh state.
"Why do you want us to say something nice about President Bush? This is the worst administration I've ever lived in," he said. Worse than Reagan? Coming from Dukakis, I think we can count that as a compliment.
Janet Reno, posing for photographs with the rabble, responded succinctly. "I have no comment."
More gracious was NAACP President and CEO Kweisi Mfume.
"I think he's a man who believes what he is doing is the right thing. He has a certain sense of dignity and honor. We have to concede the fact that he believes what he believes. It doesn't make him a bad person."
And that's from the man who early last month likened Bush's treatment of the NAACP to a john seeking a prostitute.
Some other black leaders were equally kind.
"He's an engaging man. He's charming," said U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D., Ga.) "He's a fellow southerner. He's always very friendly to me. I believe in the policy of nonviolence, so I will not speak ill of him. I do not believe in the politics of personal destruction."
"I think the important thing is that what our party stands for is not opposition to a human being from Texas," Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee (D., Tex.), said. "This is about policy. I can appreciate President Bush and his family. He's a fellow Texan. But I don't appreciate his policies."
Sen. Barbara Boxer of California was, like, totally caught off guard by my question.
"Oh my God!" she said. "I haven't been focused on him. That's the nicest thing I can say."
Fortunately, the next politician I happened upon was Louisiana Sen. John Breaux.
"I think he's an honest and decent person, and I hope that this campaign on both sides stays positive and does not degenerate into a negative food fight," Breaux said. I don't think Sen. Boxer heard him, though.
Al Franken I happened to catch late in the week, and the partying apparently had taken its toll. He actually apologized to me for being so tired that he couldn't immediately come up with a pithy line.
"Well, let me see," he said. "I don't have much nice to say about him. There's all kinds of things that I'm mad at him for. Executing as many people as he could when he was governor of Texas. The Iraq war.... But I don't want to write your story for you.... I'm looking for something good to say about him. I'm really tired.... He seems fit."
I didn't have the heart to tell him that Eleanor Clift had beaten him to that joke.
Actor Fred Willard topped both Franken and Clift, though, when he gave President Bush kudos for doing something after 9/11, even if it involved a war Willard did not like.
"It's always good to punch someone in the nose, even if it's the wrong person," he said. "If it was me, I'd have punched everyone."
I caught a few mayors who disapprove of Bush's policies but were glad he visited their cities. Kwame Kilpatrick, the charismatic mayor of Detroit, said, "Yeah, President Bush was in Detroit last week for the Urban League conference. What I can say about him is, he's a real personable guy."
"President Bush has come to Georgia to announce some of his initiatives," said Shirley Franklin, mayor of Atlanta. "I appreciate that he hasn't ignored Atlanta. I appreciate that I've been included when they're making major national announcements."
Less politic answers could easily be found among the average delegates. They usually would not give their names after saying what they did, from which you can draw your own conclusions.
"Keep looking. Good luck," said one man.
"He married well," said a Rhode Island delegate.
"His finest hour was his first speech after 9/11," a Texan said. "It's been all f***ing downhill after that."
"We're from Ireland; you've no hope" said one of a pair of international observers.
I did manage to find one man who was not a politician and yet had something kind to say about the president.
"I think he's very patriotic in his own way," delegate Mike Smith of Colorado told me. "He really believes that what he's doing is right for the country. It's just that half the country doesn't agree with him."
Smith's words boosted my mood. If Democrats really felt this way, then there was hope for peace, love, and understanding between the parties after all. Next I stopped Cleveland delegate Charlene Coates, who frankly belonged on stage. She could have followed Al Sharpton.
"I have nothing good to say about President Bush because I believe that he and his administration are turning this country into an imperialist state. It's just hearsay, I don't know, but he's got a 90 IQ. He's a C student who obviously got into Yale only because of his name," Coates said, dashing my spirits upon the well-trodden walkway.
Dennis Kucinich himself did nothing to lift them.
"I think we should thank him for his service to this country and wish him well in his new job after January."
He wasn't the only one telling that joke.
"The nicest thing I can say is that he has a place to go after the election," said Rep. Sanford Bishop (D., Ga.).
I spotted two women wearing red, white, and blue, so I asked them. "Wrong ladies," said Nina Ritchie, one of women. They were from Oklahoma. But her friend, Judy Goad, piped in. "He usually wears a good brand of cowboy boot," she said. "It's a good boot."
Nice to know that people notice these things about a president.
Of all the people I interviewed, Kweisi Mfume, John Breaux, and delegate Mike Smith of Colorado clearly said the nicest things about the president. They proved that even at a national political convention, partisanship does not always cloud the vision of those who are capable of seeing clearly. But still, I wasn't satisfied. I wanted to find someone who truly enjoyed President Bush, someone who might disagree with him, but who actually liked him. So I stepped out of the building and strolled over to chat with some members of the good ole Boston P.D.
I found a group of police officers surrounding a golf cart configured to look like a police car. Three leaned on the vehicle, while two sat in it, pretending to chase bad guys. I posed the question.
"Can't say anything in uniform, pal," the most senior-looking one said. The one "driving" the cart reached into his pocket and pulled out a deck of cards with the president's face on each card.
"I got a deck of Go-Bush playing cards!" he beamed.
Ladies and gentlemen, we have a winner.
Andrew Cline is editorial-page editor of the Union Leader and New Hampshire Sunday News in Manchester, N.H.