To use her own words, Mrs Bush's oratorical effort a few minutes earlier had certainly been 'no great speech'. In private she may be a dozen times tougher than she looks; her public performances in fact are a study in preplanned saccharine. That, though, is not the point. The Republicans will fight this election under the banner of 'family values' and Barbara Bush, with her silver hair, trademark artificial pearls, and astronomic poll ratings, has patented the issue.
This week's festival has been assiduously orchestrated. Pat Buchanan's thunderings against gays, lesbians, 'abortion on demand' and the 'raw sewage' of pornography, his summons to 'take back our culture' on behalf of traditional Judaeo-Christian values, pressed all the subconscious fear buttons of white suburban America that has been the bedrock of the Republicans' quarter-century dominance of presidential elections. But almost as he was speaking, a small army of Texas police was clubbing demonstrating gays and Aids victims a stone's throw from the Astrodome. Was not the Republican party supposed to be a broad church - and what of the 'kinder, gentler America' promised by one George Bush four years ago?
To correct the balance, Mary Fisher was allowed to speak. She comes from a great Republican dynasty in Michigan, she is wealthy, white, heterosexual - and HIV positive. 'We have killed each other with our prejudice and our silence,' she implicitly rebuked the Buchanans of this world, in the one speech here which shamed the hall to silence. But it was Barbara Bush they really wanted to hear.
No debate exercises political savants here more than the exact definition of 'family values'. But the beauty for the image-makers lies in the very imprecision of the term. 'Family values' may be used positively or negatively. On the one hand, it is shorthand for a crusade to take back America from those modern plagues of crime, drugs, abortion, Aids, alternative lifestyles and the rest, and return it to the traditions of family, God and country which made America great. Equally conveniently, it is a cat-o'-nine-tails to lash Bill Clinton and the Democrats. Not a reference to 'family values' here has gone by without a dig at the very different views allegedly espoused by the challenger and his wife, Hillary.
As everyone knows, this is the year of the 'baby-boomer' Democratic ticket. But in the turbulent 1960s which shaped that generation, argued Marilyn Quayle, wife of the Vice-President and fulfilled mother of three, in her Wednesday night warm-up act for Mrs Bush, 'not everyone demonstrated, took drugs, joined the sexual revolution, or dodged the draft'. Not everyone, in other words, is Bill Clinton.
On the distaff side, too, family values instantly conjures up the contrast between Barbara and Hillary, on which Republicans are banking so much. What chasm could be deeper than that between the grandmother who devoted her life to bringing up her picture-book family, and the career lawyer and 'radical feminist' who mocks the cookie-baking mothers of America?
All this may be a travesty of the facts. But in conventions, the broad-brush image is what counts. And the abiding image from the Astrodome will be that podium ensemble of a happy First Family, whose inherited Christian beliefs shaped George Bush, Second World War hero, and which helped him conquer Saddam Hussein.
Whether 'family values' alone will be enough to keep Mr Bush in the White House is another matter. Despite the best efforts of his wife, the party runs every risk of scaring off two voters of the moderate centre for every one it gains on the right. And in Buchanan-speak at least, the phrase has a near-racist undertone. Most important, the old linkage between apple-pie American behaviour and economic reward has largely vanished.
The country is mired in recession. In breach of his 1988 promise, Mr Bush has raised taxes on the virtuous as well. It will be far harder for the Republicans to sell the message that high moral standards hold the key to material prosperity. If they can fashion a come-from-behind win from 'family values', then Houston can truly claim to be historic.
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