At last one man breaks the taboo and dishes some dirt

Sketch by Mary Dejevsky
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The Independent US

Even before they started converging on Philadelphia last weekend, the 5,000 or so Republican delegates were under strict instructions: they could don as outlandish a party hat as they wished, adorn themselves with as many elephants as they could find, and toss as many beachballs around the hall as they wanted.

Even before they started converging on Philadelphia last weekend, the 5,000 or so Republican delegates were under strict instructions: they could don as outlandish a party hat as they wished, adorn themselves with as many elephants as they could find, and toss as many beachballs around the hall as they wanted.

But organisers stressed that this was to be a nice, civil, and above all, positive, convention. Speakers were subject to a three-line whip: anger and hatred were out; say what we are for, they were told, not what we are against.

And so they did. For almost three nights, whether in the hall or the corridors, two words were taboo: two words that had been on every Republican's lips through the primaries, two words always pronounced in Republican circles with particular venom: Clinton and Gore.

Obvious risks were avoided. The "managers" who had led the impeachment of the President in the House of Representatives were left off the list of convention speakers. Even those seeking re-election were denied the usual leg-up of a convention speech.

But banishing Clinton and Gore only brought them back in other guises, and the code was quickly recognised. When Laura Bush told of parents imploring her husband: "I'm counting on you, I want my son or daughter to respect the President of the United States of America", every Republican in that vast hall knew exactly what she meant, and cheered.

Words such as "decency", "integrity", "respect", knowing what "the meaning of the word 'is' is", a phrased borrowed by Mr Bush from John McCain's rhetorically gifted lieutenant, Lindsey Graham, triggered a response that was almost as appreciative and excited as if the names themselves had been used.

The taboo held until 10.30pm on Wednesday. Then, just as delegates were starting to chafe in frustration, the aspiring Vice-President, Dick Cheney, gave them what they wanted. They were, as one commentator put it, "words of steel, wrapped in a velvet glove". The taboo was broken, ensuring the generally mild-mannered Cheney torrent upon torrent of applause. And he had a field-day, turning some of the more memorable lines of Bill Clinton - one of the best spontaneous wordsmiths in American politics - into barbs against him, and by implication against Mr Bush's Democratic opponent, Al Gore, the Vice-President.

"Bill Clinton vowed not long ago to hold on to power untilthe last hour of the last day," Mr Cheney said, throwing out the name as though it were food for the starving, which in a way it was. "But, my friends, that last hour is coming. That last day is near."

He followed the playbook in accentuating the positive - the "decency and integrity" Mr Bush would restore to the Oval Office, the respect he would command among the armed forces, the "honour" he would bring "to our Republic".

But - in a chain of arguments that surely foreshadows the direction of the Bush-Cheney campaign - he sought to dismiss the Clinton years as an aberration and dispatch Mr Gore at the same time.

"Mr Gore," he said, "tries to separate himself from his leader's shadow. But somehow we will never see one without thinking of the other ... They came in together. Now let us see them off together."

Al Gore will need all his considerable warrior's instincts - and an accomplished speech writer - to erase that.

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