The GOP loyalists come together to hear a protest-free speech from a bored vice president

Just before each round of predictable applause for Vice President Dick Cheney's predictable speech, his wife Lynne, standing beside him in Pima County Fairgrounds Thurber Hall, nodded her head in the manner of a bobblehead doll. The audience responded on cue: clapping, whistling and working itself into a frenzy over the possibility of a November Republican victory in Pima County.

Cheney was in Tucson last week as part of a tour of Western states designed to ensure that the slogan, "Like father, like son, four years and he's done," does not prove prophetic. But with a mix of dicey electronic voting, wild-card terrorists and soundbites substituting for substance, what happens between now and Nov. 2 is more likely to play out like a Tom Robbins novel in the guise of a presidential election. Which is to say: In the interest of maintaining a glimmer of sanity, it is crucial to view the next three months as an improvisational exercise of some motley cast's theatre of the absurd.

Better to assess the sententious speech assaulting your senses from the perspective of a detached and amused member of the audience, rather than as a participant in any national drama, lest you find yourself in a swivet having forsaken the sublime.

In order for a democratic political system to be worthy of the name, three components are required: an informed electorate, vigorous debate and a responsible press. Since there's about as much chance of having these in play for the upcoming presidential election as there is of achieving energy independence by running our vehicles on the methane generated by politicians' palaver, better to give up on the notion of political discourse as an element of electoral politics.

Given the schoolyard nature of the American political process, it is tempting to abandon reason and embrace the guiding principle of carpe diem to get us through this season of polls, pols and platitudes. When it's impossible to distinguish the scripts of "real" world candidates, their platforms and promises, from a skit on Saturday Night Live, why keep paying attention?

Cheney may have had that same problem as he addressed the crowd of sweating GOP supporters. He sounded bored--no surprise, since he'd been delivering substantially the same speech for days. In fact, the 2,000 people who stood in the Tucson sun for two or more hours, inching their way up to the security checkpoint, could have spared themselves the chance of heatstroke by reading what Cheney and crew said in Yakima, Wash. earlier in the week.

The economy ... blah blah ... strong ... blah blah ... our enemy ... blah blah ... strength ... blah blah ... freedom ... blah blah ... fear ... blah blah blah. And, of course, those dreadful Democrats ... always those damn Democrats who refuse to graciously slip away and simply let us assume the prerogatives of power on a permanent basis. No, he didn't make that last remark, but you can be sure someone, somewhere in the cabal that is the GOP has no doubt thought it.

When he concluded his speech, Secret Service agents surrounded him as he descended from the stage to shake hands with members of the audience on the other side of the barrier that separated him from his supporters: people who, through some remarkable feat of self-delusion, can ignore his connection to Halliburton, his secret energy meetings, his close ties to Enron's Ken Lay.

But even if there had been some supporters who wanted to clear things up for themselves, it would not have mattered: No questions were permitted, either from the press or from the public.

As Cheney left the building, we waited for the Secret Service to tell us we could leave. No one was permitted to be outdoors until Cheney had been safely whisked away from the site.

Half a mile away, at the side of the road near the intersection of Interstate 10 and Houghton Road, a group of protestors--cordoned off by a barricade of sheriff's cars--waved flags and signs as Cheney's motorcade sped past.

But before Cheney spoke, while an opening act worked the crowd, the strangest thing happened: It seemed that perhaps my fondest hope--that somehow a group of activists had infiltrated the venue by successfully making its way through the maze the GOP required before issuing tickets to the event--was manifesting itself.

As one of the handful of speakers preceding Cheney addressed the throng, a decidedly displeased murmur from the back of the room was gaining in volume. I was shocked. I could not believe my ears. What was I hearing? It seemed to be the beginning of some old rallying cry from the '60s. For the briefest moment I thought I was hearing the collective voice of a group of angry citizens as they started to demand power to the people.

And maybe I did; but only until I realized that the word the crowd was chanting was not "power." The word was "louder."