As Bush likes it

Posted: Sep 01, 2004 12:00 AM

NEW YORK - It is hard to ignore Shakespeare most any day, especially here in the theater nexus of civilization. All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players, indeed.

But the Bard's words are particularly wounding - cutting deeply into one's pride and sense of human purpose - during Republican convention week as thousands play their assigned roles to an audience composed mostly of one another.

Act I: The Mammoth Protest in which either 100,000 or 500,000 people, depending on whose version one prefers, march down Seventh Avenue to rage against the Bush machine. Supporting actors include the world's eighth-largest army (the combined forces of New York City's finest and various other security forces), the media horde, and 5,000 Republican delegates.

Watching events from the comfort of one's own La-Z-Boy rather than from a city sidewalk in sweltering heat, one might assume that the city is consumed by rage, protest and great event. In reality, the protest and participants, though large in number and impressive in passion, are specks of dust on life's wide-angle lens.

Just another colorful incident in the city that spawned flash mobs. Strangers brought together to perform a pointless act. Performance art on a grand scale signifying - not much. After clogging streets and taxing the patience of cab drivers for a few hours, the crowd disperses, rage dissipates and stagehands sweep up the litter.

It's hard to make a splash in a city of 8 million people who have seen it all.

A person could, for instance, drop his trousers in the middle of Eighth Avenue, as several members of Act Up did a few days ago, but it's possible no one would care. New York, after all, is home to "The Naked Cowboy," who plays guitar in Times Square bereft of britches.

Act II: The Extreme Protest, in which one could rappel from the top of a building and hang an anti-Bush banner, as a couple of men did from The Plaza hotel. Or offer sex in exchange for votes against Bush. "F--- The Vote," is a campaign that invites liberals to take back the government "from the sexually repressed, right-wing zealots in control."

Young women on street corners this week were handing out red-hot tickets that advertised this political strategy: "By stripping conservatives out of their clothes, we can also strip them of their power."

Cute. After your nap, we'll have sugar cookies and punch.

I realize we're all supposed to be celebrating the glory of democracy at this point, but my inner adult can't stop rolling her eyes. Republicans in town to seal President George W. Bush's nomination seem similarly immune to the din of mass tantrums within the grave context of terrorism and a shaky future that likely involves nuclear suitcases. One can't help but wonder whether the liberal cause would have been better served by a few serious adults engaged in earnest conversation.

There is an ambient sense that the grown-ups will take care of business while the young 'uns, though many of them sport gray ponytails, vent steam. Somehow I don't think conservative libidos are at risk of seduction.

If Democrats want to elect Anybody But Bush, then Republicans, Undecideds and at least 15 percent of Democrats may tilt toward whomever these protesters don't want. If Democrats want to elect Anybody But Bush, then Republicans, Undecideds and at least 15 percent of Democrats may tilt toward whomever these protesters don't want. Their vote won't be so much For Bush or Against Kerry as it will be for Anybody But That Crowd.

Finally, Act III: A mini-drama outside The Plaza on Sunday offered in microcosm the week's larger narrative. Stretched across the Fifth Street entrance were a half-dozen police officers and wired security agents blocking access to all but guests. Off to one side of the carpeted steps, a lone protester hectored any Republicans within earshot.

"Harry" declined to give his last name because "they're so powerful and I'm so weak." He's John Q. Public, he said, and he selected The Plaza, landmark symbol of luxury, to make his stand against Bush. He ranted about greed and war and hypocrisy, demanding that Republicans declare themselves.

A few steps away, a cluster of new arrivals were chatting. In a telling instant, one of the men, well dressed in navy blazer and fedora, turned to see who was causing all the ruckus. Spotting Harry, now wiping away tears amid loud lament, he flicked his wrist as if to ward off an insect, and looked disinterestedly away.