After placating religious conservatives with a party platform he’ll ignore, Bob Dole began his lunge for the political middle Monday night by showcasing Colin Powell, an enormously popular Republican moderate with whom he disagrees on incendiary issues.
“You all know I believe in a woman’s right to choose and I strongly support affirmative action,” the retired general told the mostly antiabortion, antiaffirmative action delegates in Monday’s electrifying speech at the Republican National Convention in San Diego.
“I was invited here by my party to share my views with you because we are a big enough party - and a big enough people - to disagree on individual issues and still work together for our common goal: restoring the American dream.”
Overpowering a smattering of hisses and boos, most of the delegates, who earlier in the day had adopted a platform contradicting those very principles, cheered, whistled and roared their approval.
Powell’s powerful praise of Republican principles, coupled with arch-conservative Patrick Buchanan’s belated endorsement of Dole earlier in the day, underscored Dole’s strategic decision: to surrender the platform to his party’s right wing and run on his own terms as a mainstream, economic conservative.
With Powell as the prime-time centerpiece, Day One of the Republican National Convention was designed to put a moderate face on a party platform that - on abortion, immigration, gun control and other issues - is even more conservative than the one adopted by the ill-fated 1992 convention in Houston.
“If our party will run on these issues, we can win,” the defeated Buchanan said Monday, announcing his rationale for endorsing Dole and his running mate, Jack Kemp.
But instead of Buchanan, whose declaration of a “cultural war for America’s soul” at the 1992 convention scared off millions of voters, Dole and his forces put forth Powell as the face of Republicanism.
“We are the party committed to lessening the burden of taxes, cutting government regulations and reducing spending, all for the purpose of generating higher economic growth that will bring better jobs, wages and living standards to all our people,” he said.
“At the same time,” he added pointedly, “let us never step back from compassion.”
Powell’s mission - even if it conflicted with Dole’s positions on affirmative action and abortion - was to convey a Republican Party with a hard head and a soft heart.
Speaking to a hall in which millionaires far outnumbered minorities, Powell spoke of Hispanics and descendants of slaves and declared: “It is our diversity that has made this nation strong. Yet our diversity has, sadly, throughout our history, been a source of discrimination.
“Discrimination that we, as guardians of the American dream, must rip out branch and root. It is our party, the party of Lincoln, that must always stand for equal rights and fair opportunity for all,” he said.
Like Daniel in the lion’s den, Powell outlined his commitment to affirmative action, though without ever using the “a” words.
“Where discrimination still exists or where the scars of past discrimination still contaminate the present, we must not close our eyes to it, declare a level playing field and hope it will go away by itself,” he said. “It did not in the past. It will not in the future.
“Let the party of Lincoln be in the forefront, leading the crusade, not only to cut off and kill discrimination, but to open every avenue of educational and economic opportunity to those who are still denied access because of their race, ethnic background or gender.”
The line brought huge cheers from delegates who, earlier in the day, had adopted a platform endorsing California’s anti-affirmative-action ballot measure Proposition 209.
Despite their failure to alter the platform itself, Gov. Pete Wilson and other pro-choice leaders declared “victory” Monday by having added their views as an addendum.
“Our purpose was to secure for the majority of pro-choice Republicans outside the hall, those all across America, the opportunity to have their views exposed, even if it be as minority views within this hall,” Wilson said at an impromptu news conference with Massachusetts Gov. William Weld, Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine and Susan Cullman of the Republican Coalition for Choice.
But demonstrating the continuing rift within the GOP, the four could barely be heard above the enraged screams of Oakly McEachren, a delegate from Denver, sporting a T-shirt that said “Intolerance is a beautiful thing” and shouting “You guys are libertines, get out of the Republican Party!”
The pro-choice capitulation and Dole’s own failure to insert “tolerance” language into the platform were key elements in Buchanan’s claim that his Pitchfork Brigade had won the day by controlling the platform. But for Dole, Powell’s appearance was what mattered. It was a TV moment.
Mark Iles, a delegate from south-central Los Angeles, said the symbolism of Powell’s prime-time appearance was almost as important as the speech itself.
“It says that we are slowly making steps in the right direction of being a party of inclusion,” said Iles. “Powell’s message is a potent and powerful statement for those of us Americans who have been overlooked.”
The Republicans also sought to reach beyond partisan politics with appearances by ordinary Americans, and one not-so-ordinary man, Capt. Scott O’Grady, the Air Force F-16 pilot whose downing over Bosnia and rescue captivated the nation.
In a night that could have been titled, “Heroes,” O’Grady, a Spokane native, was introduced by another man known for bravery, Sen. John McCain of Arizona. McCain, who was on the short-list to be Dole’s running mate, was a prisoner of war for years in the Vietnam War.
Nancy Reagan provided the day’s most poignant moment with her tearful tribute to former President Reagan, who has Alzheimer’s disease and was too ill to attend. As she spoke, the audience - many of them in tears - sat riveted and silent as the former first lady recounted the pain and victories of the Reagan years following a video tribute to her husband.
Reagan recalled her husband’s last speech to a national audience in 1992. “He told you then that that speech would be his last speech at a Republican convention,” she said, apologizing for her tears. “His words were too prophetic.”
Graphic: Race tightens
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: GOP on-line Text of key speeches during the Republican Convention will be posted, as it becomes available, on Virtually Northwest, The Spokesman-Review’s on-line service at http://www.VirtuallyNW.com.