Syncopated schmaltz seeking an audience

Chicago Diary
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The Independent Online
The Democrats served up lightly flavoured, low-calorie fare on the opening day of the party's 42nd national convention. To the bland strains of Kenny G's saxophone - "elevator music", one wag called it - there was a movingly restrained video tribute to the late commerce secretary, Ron Brown; Edward Olmos Jr, the Hispanic Hollywood actor, delivered a plea for "love and compassion in the 21st century"; and Christopher Reeve, the Superman star paralysed after a horse accident last year, stated from his wheelchair that "America is stronger when all of us take care of all of us". Showbiz schmaltz took precedence over partisan rhetoric, the idea being to attract a bigger prime-time television audience than the Republicans did at their convention in San Diego ago two weeks ago and to fix in the public mind an image of the Democrats as the party, in President Bill Clinton's phrase, that feels America's pain.

While most Americans seriously doubt whether it will make an iota of difference to their lives whether Mr Clinton or Bob Dole is in the White House next year, the mood music at the two conventions has served as a reminder that Republicans and Democrats are indeed two species of animal. The delegates at the Republican do were overwhelmingly red-meat, conservative white males, a fifth of whom happened to be millionaires. The Democratic delegates offered a more representative cross-section of America and the blacks and Hispanics present blended into the spirit of the event. When the official start of the Chicago convention was delayed by a few minutes, the music of "la Macarena", the dance craze from Spain which has set America alight in recent weeks, filled the amphitheatre of the United Centre, the basketball stadium of the Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls. Delegates of all shades from Arizona, Florida and Nebraska leapt to their feet, wiggled their hips, clapped their hands and clutched their buttocks with unchoreographed gusto.

Family values be damned was the mood on Sunday night at what was billed as "the convention's coolest party". The setting was a disco in Chicago's North Side called the Park West. Pointer Sister look-alikes exhorted the revellers to "do it one more time", an instruction a number of Democratic couples stopped just short of taking literally. One guest, wearing stilettos and a daring party dress, was taken away in a police van, apparently for stretching the bounds of drunken indecency.

Another study in contrasts has been provided by John Prescott, deputy leader of the Labour Party, who made three utterances which would never pass the lips of any serious contender for US political office. Once, at least, he stood on a public platform and used the word "comrades". He has also said Labour appeals to all people, "irrespective of race, gender or sexual orientation". And he has owned that Britain can learn lessons from other countries. Were, say, Vice-President Al Gore to venture such thoughts out aloud, the November election would be all but lost. The Republican spin-doctors would make hay, seizing the conservative centre ground of US politics by portraying the Democrats as Communist, anti-American perverts. Republicans and Democrats might belong to different species but, as these political conventions have a habit of reminding one, Americans and Europeans inhabit different planets.

One American who appears to be drifting farther and farther into outer space is Louis Farrakhan, a Chicago resident who told his audience at a convention of black journalists last week that they were a disgrace to their race, slaves of the white bosses who controlled the American media. This week it has emerged that the former nightclub singer - known as Calypso Gene before he discovered Islam - has gone on his knees before the US Treasury Department, begging to be allowed to pocket $1bn (pounds 660m) he says Muammar Gaddafi promised him on a "Friendship Tour" to Libya earlier this year. He needs the money in part because he wants to hold a political convention of his own. Let's hope he gets it. American politics could do with a bit of Kenny-G-free dissension and rage.

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