Four days of Barnum and Bailey meets George Orwell

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The Independent US

As the balloons fell, the music struck up and the fireworks went off to acclaim George W Bush on Thursday night, it was hard to think of the Republican convention in Philadelphia as anything other than the Greatest Show On Earth.

As the balloons fell, the music struck up and the fireworks went off to acclaim George W Bush on Thursday night, it was hard to think of the Republican convention in Philadelphia as anything other than the Greatest Show On Earth.

Music, dancing, videos, ceaseless parties, and a parade of characters from grandmothers in New Jersey through to the Hollywood star Bo Derek had been brought in for our lavish entertainment, creating that great fusion of showbusiness and sport that is American politics.

But there was another side to the week, the hidden face of the Republican machine, which designed and steered every second, every minute, every smile and whoop. A convention is also about political control: it is Barnum and Bailey meets George Orwell.

The convention's last day was a time for pulling out all the stops. Country act Brooks and Dunn were brought on, the latest in a line of musical entertainment that had included a Philadelphia gospel choir, the Delfonics, Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, the Cuban-born singer Joe Secada, Hank Williams Jnr and a dozen more. The audience sang along, cheered, clapped, waved their hats and danced.

And if they did not, there were always people there to make sure that they lived it up just a little bit harder. Even if most of the networks chose not to show more than a few minutes each day, this was a show made for television and nothing was left to chance.

From high in the rafters of the First Union Center, a team of Republican controllers watched the proceedings on television sets and, with the aid of binoculars, scanned the arena for signs of trouble or a lacklustre response.

They communicated instantly with the whips on the floor, most wearing orange baseball caps and spread among the different delegations. Only once was there trouble, when some delegates objected to the presence of a gay speaker. The rest of the time the whips were more involved in making sure that the fun was as ostentatious as possible, acting more like Butlin's Red Coats than the Gestapo.

But it was emblematic of the very precise control exerted over every aspect of life at the Republican convention. Every speech, badge and T-shirt was vetted, every speaker carefully chosen to make a point.

You could have been forgiven for believing that this was a predominantly black and Hispanic party. It is not. And the schedulers would never choose a white male politician to make a point if they could find a minority spokesperson: the blind mountaineer who opened the convention, the first deaf Miss America, a Hispanic girl to represent the state of Texas or Mr Bush's own black preacher.

Control was all-pervasive. Ask a delegate what they thought, and the replies would be surprisingly similar. The reason: a set of speaking points each of the party faithful had been issued with, telling them that Mr Bush was a uniter not a divider, and so on. The message was hammered home, over and over again. By the end of the week, you could repeat it in your sleep.

But if this all gave the impression of vacuity, it was not true. Pushing home the message was a disciplined and precise task. It has been guided by a vast team of hundreds of communications professionals.

They designed the podium. (The press release read: "Materials such as lumber, wood-grained laminates in mahogany and maple finishes, jade-green slate tiles and fresh flowers were used to give the podium a warm and natural look.") They designed the speeches. And in the end, they also designed the people.

The impression of politics without the politics was deliberate. Mr Bush has campaigned as a man who is more concerned with the real world than with Washington. But it certainly did not mean thatthe politicians were idle in Philadelphia.

It was elsewhere that the real business was taking place, the conversations that make politics in America work.

Up at the level of the suites, far above the thronging crowds, the odour of expensive cologne mingled with the whiff of hors-d'oeuvres as businessmen entertained their politician friends with shrimp, lobster, scotch, champagne and a little cold, hard cash.

At this rarefied altitude, it became clearer how the convention really worked. For a donation of $15,000 (£10,300) you could gain access to the luxury box of the Republican chairman Jim Nicholson, and a number of companies had thrown in their cash to buy a little space for their favourite Congressman or official; United Distillers and Vintners, for instance, was sponsoring a box for Dennis Hastert, the Speaker of the House.

At one end of the stadium a discreet door led to the Victors' Club, a haven for the really high rollers. And fenced off from the rest of the convention, exclusive parties were staged for contributors in a line of vintage railway cars hosted by Tom DeLay the House majority whip. While the good times rolled in the stadium, the money kept on flowing: reporters from The Philadelphia Inquirer found a $5,000 cheque made out to one Congressman lying on the ground, apparently forgotten amid the merry exchange of cash for favours.

It is too easy to say that the money men run the show; after all, if the party cannot convince the people seated at the top of the stadium, the "nosebleed seats," to vote for them, then all the shrimp in the world will not matter.

For a convention to work, money, media and political control must be brought together in a perfect fusion; from that point of view, the Republicans will have been well pleased with their week in the City of Brotherly Love.