April 27 - May 3, 1995

Grand Old Party

Those Right-Wing Republicans Throw A White House Jamboree.

I'VE ONLY BEEN in the ballroom at the Arizona Republican Assembly for five minutes when I hear the page: Gov. Mecham, will you come to front of the room?

Sure enough, there he is, the deposed former governor, Ev Mecham, making his way to the stage. In this crowd, Mecham is a hero--the man who wouldn't take it anymore, who stood up to the corrupt behind-the-scene powers and paid the price with his political life.

Welcome to the annual convention of Arizona Republican Assembly, 600 God-fearing, paranoid members of the state's Republican Party--leftover Birchers who believe abortion is murder and the United Nations is the home of Satan himself.

Dressed in everything from their Sunday best to red, white and blue polyester blouses, they came together last weekend-- everyone from oddball perennial candidate Joe Sweeney to state Rep. Jean McGrath, the Glendale granny who pushed that Freon legislation through the statehouse this year, all here to listen to some big guns: presidential hopefuls Pat Buchanan, Phil Gramm and Alan Keyes.

Mecham is here to introduce Keyes, the only black man seeking the Republican nomination. An ambassador to the United Nations during the Reagan years who is currently vice-president of the Ronald Reagan Alumni Association, Keyes has a Ph.D. in government from Harvard, but his campaign manager asks the crowd not to hold it against him as he extols Keyes' virtues:

Alan Keyes is an articulate Republican pro-life spokesman...This is a movement for the future of this nation...When it comes to crime, he doesn't think you should have three strikes and you're out, he thinks you should have one strike and you're in...When it comes to the moral issues of our time, the epitome of those issues is abortion! This is greater than an issue, it is a, a, it is an abomination in our time...He commits to overturn Roe V. Wade if he is elected president of the United States...There is indeed a right and wrong, and if you look back to our founding Declaration of Independence you'll see all authority comes from one source, not from the bureaucrats in Washington, not from educrats who want to take things from you, but from the Lord God Almighty....

Then Keyes is in the room. He's easy to spot--he's the only black man there. Mecham invites him onstage even though he's running late and the convention leadership is getting antsy about getting the show on the road.

In a booming voice, Keyes launches into a raging speech:

The American people are very interested in making sure we get to the root causes of this country's problems and they understand that the root causes are the collapse of our moral fabric which has been aided by government policy since the 1960s...Our freedom is ours because it comes from the hand of God and because each and everyone of us is bound to respect the authority of God Almighty. That is not a religious statement, that is a statement of civic and political principles...If we exercise our rights in a way that contravenes God's authority, then we are destroying the foundations of our freedom....

But suddenly there's a problem. Elderly, white-haired Leo Mahoney, the assembly's outgoing president, needs to move things along. The group has an important matter to vote on, and this intruder is taking up valuable time.

So he approaches the podium and begins trying to wrest the microphone away from Keyes, who doesn't even bat an eye as his message begins to mix with ear-shattering feedback:

We will not be turned away...My people have been in this position before! We've had the hoses turned on us and the dogs turned on us when we spoke for civil rights! And we will stand for the rights of the unborn! I will not be silenced!

Mahoney, at a loss, calls for back-up: "Floor guards, will you please come up and remove this man?"

Boos erupt from the audience as Keyes realizes he has to wrap it up. He closes on a high note as the feedback climbs, then strides off-stage to tremendous applause as Mahoney grabs the mike.

"Ladies and gentlemen, I'm terribly sorry, but Mr. Keyes was notified before he came up here that he was not allowed to make a speech..."

"That is not a true statement!" Keyes shoots back on his way out of the hall. "I have been abused before, sir, and I have fought back every time, and I will fight back now!"

Then he's gone.

"He's mad," one spectator notes.

Those important matters the group needed to drive Keyes off the stage for: the opening prayer, the pledge and a vote on how many vice-presidents the group should have.

AFTER THE GROUP votes to create more vice-president posts, Pat Buchanan takes the stage. He gets a full half-hour to make his speech--nobody calls the floor guards to remove him.

Buchanan knows how to work this crowd. He starts out with a slamdunk against his Crossfire co-host.

"It's good to be here, but then, it's good to be anywhere other than sitting across from Michael Kinsley..."

His stand-up routine has them laughing, clapping, even rising to their feet:

My friends, we won a magnificent victory in 1994...It was a victory over big government and social radicalism...No abortionist is morally qualified to sit in the bully pulpit as surgeon general...We are going to have a pro-life campaign and a pro-life convention...blah blah blah...I think we are in danger of losing our sovereignty to something called the New World Order...I opposed this $50 million bailout...blah blah blah...We stood up against NAFTA...

A nation that has lost control of its borders isn't really a nation...California is being bankrupted...Our society is being torn apart by ethnic and racial tensions...My friends, if we can send an army halfway around the world to defend the borders and Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, and halfway around the other side of the world to defend the people of South Korea, why can't we defend the borders of the United States? Blah blah blah...We have had a judicial tyranny of sorts operating in this country...They said pornography couldn't be controlled under the First Amendment and the floodgates were wide open...They then declared abortion to be a Constitutional right in the United States of America...blah blah blah...

They're the same themes that carried Buchanan in 1992, minus one major ingredient: Pat doesn't have George Bush to run against. In New Hampshire three years ago, he raged about cutting through the lines of King George like butter, bringing a revolutionary zeal to his Buchanan Brigades.

But he does have plenty of other targets: Bill, Hillary, the GATT treaty, the Department of Education, the United Nations... He directs that anti-government sentiment in the room with toned-downed versions of the arguments advanced by the militia movement, words that seem especially dangerous as bodies are still being pulled from the shattered remains of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. But there's not much soul-searching today about any links between the actions of angry white men in the heartland and Buchanan's rabid battle plans for a cultural war.

Instead, folks are on their feet, chanting: Go Pat Go!

BUCHANAN IS A tough act to follow, but Texas Sen. Phil Gramm takes the stage accompanied by a heavy hitter: our own senior senator, John McCain.

McCain was at Gramm's side when Gramm announced he was running for office a few months back, and McCain's been working hard on the campaign since. He even helped lobby the Arizona Legislature to create a presidential primary in February of next year hoping to give the Gramm candidacy an early boost, despite the fact that National Democratic Party rules prohibit Democrats from participating in a primary before the first week of March. In other words, Arizona taxpayers are shelling out $2.5 million for an election that only Republicans will be able vote in.

And here we have the first big economic boom from that new primary: a couple of banquet rooms rented out at the Quality Inn on Oracle and Drachman.

But for Gramm to benefit from the primary, he's going to have to win the hearts and souls of local Republicans, which might not be so easy. In his peculiar slow drawl, he painstakingly addresses these folks the same way he probably did his economic students during those years at Texas A&M:

We will stop the spending and stop the taxing and stop the regulating...We are one election away from getting our money back and our freedom back and our country back...We are going to change the way our country does business or we're going to lose the American dream...Blah blah blah...The Clinton health care bill is deader than Elvis...I will make balancing the budget my No. 1 priority, and if I don't balance the budget by the end of my first term as president, I will not run for re-election...I want to eliminate the Department of Education...

These are all ideas that go over well with the crowd, but it's clear Gramm's not reaching these folks like Buchanan did. He lacks the energy of an Irishman who's spent his life developing his rhetorical skills on the opinion page and the TV screen.

After Gramm wraps up his speech, I approach McCain and ask him what he thinks about the new presidential primary. He reckons it's about time the people of Arizona have a say in who's going to be our next president.

Asked if he has any qualms about not waiting a week so Democrats could participate, McCain gets feisty.

"I don't think the National Democratic Party should be telling Arizona what to do," he says, eager to move on. "If the Democrats don't want to participate, let 'em take a hike!"

Then he's gone, heading off into the crowd, schmoozing his constituents and trying to pump things up for Phil.

But that presidential primary may still come back to haunt McCain and his liege-lord. In the end, the assembly voted overwhelmingly to support Buchanan, who picked up 76 percent of the 126 votes cast. Gramm got less than five percent--a mere six votes--and 11 percent of the group was still undecided.

If Pat continues running strong among the conservatives and Kansas Sen. Bob Dole picks up the moderates, Gramm could come in third--or even worse--in Arizona. That's not going to give the Gramm campaign the big boost McCain and fellow Gramm supporter Gov. J. Fife Symington III are planning on. In fact, it could be the start of a string of upsets that could derail the Gramm candidacy.

We can dream, can't we?

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April 27 - May 3, 1995

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