Friday, May 1, 2009

What I (Almost) Saw at the RNC (2004)

(As published in the Times of Acadiana... )

It was too good to be true, but true it was: I’d been chosen to oversee the selection of the musical entertainment for the 2004 Republican National Convention at Madison Square Garden.

In retrospect it shouldn’t have come as a surprise. As the only rock critic in the entire country to have voted Republican since 1980, I was something of an obvious choice.

The call came from Melvin O’Leary, my editor at the conservative newsweekly Whirled and the Bush advisor credited with coining the phrase “compassionate conservatism.” “I put in a good word for you with the President,” he told me. Thanks, I said, trying not to sound unprofessionally giddy. Was there, I wanted to know, a convention theme that the music was to reinforce? “George wants to stress his leadership and commitment to the American people, the unity and momentum of the Republican Party, and the diversity and strength of our nation,” he said. “That ought to give you some leeway.” It did. Themes that vague could mean just about anything.

After telling me who would be in touch with me next and what I should do in the meantime, Melvin rang off, leaving me to savor not only my good luck but also the fact that I had been spoken for by a man who calls the president “George.” You’re only one handshake away from anyone you want to meet, I’d always heard. Now I believed it.

What followed in the subsequent weeks felt like a whirlwind. Phone calls followed upon faxes followed upon e-mails. I even broke down and bought a cell phone. I was supplied with official Convention 2004 stationery and a dozen-or-so different kinds of impossible-to-counterfeit government IDs. When the dust began to settle, all I knew for sure was that I needed to land four big-name acts (one for each night), none of whom should be has-beens (like Jon Secada, who once regaled a GOP convention but who hadn’t had a hit for years), and all of whom taken together should convey “diversity.”

One thing the diversity-requirement meant, I soon learned, was no more than one country singer. Republicans already had the country-slash-NASCAR vote in the bag, I was told. Something in the way of demographic outreach was what was wanted this time. O.K., I thought, only one country singer. There had been many country performers who’d either recorded songs sympathetic to the War on Terror or who’d simply expressed support for the president: which one to choose?

I chose Darryl Worley. He’d gone over huge at Sean Hannity’s Freedom Concerts, and having him sing “Have You Forgotten?,” his wildly popular 9/11-themed song, would no doubt bring down the house.

His people were thrilled. They assured me that Darryl would be too. Certainly I was: I’d just filled 20 percent of my quota. The thrill lasted about 10 minutes, when it was shattered by a phone call from Martina McBride’s people. Why hadn’t she been chosen? they wanted to know. She was a Hannity favorite too, sang his radio show’s theme song even. She’d already rearranged some dates on her current tour to be in New York during Convention Week, sure that she’d get the nod. She would, they told me, be crushed. She’d been planning to vote for Bush; now she might not vote at all. All I could think to tell them was that if Darryl Worley’s tour bus ran off a cliff between now and the last week of August, she’d be next in line. Given the circumstances, they were as placated as they could be.

As soon as I hung up, I got a call from Toby Keith’s people. They were mad enough that he hadn’t been my first choice. Now they’d found out he wasn’t even my second. (News travels fast in Nashville.) Had I thought, they wanted to know, that he’d sing his smoking-dope-with-Willie-Nelson song? How stupid did I think he was? He’d been planning to vote for Bush; now he might even vote for Kerry. I was about to mention the crashing of Worley’s and McBride’s tour busses when Keith’s people cut me off. Both musicians had already beefed up tour-bus security, they said, and had hired former members of Dale Earnhardt, Sr.’s pit crew to perform frequent maintenance.

After getting the same call from the people of Alan Jackson, I turned on the answering machine. Just in time too: Charlie Daniels called next.

I called Melvin and told him of my travails. By the next morning I’d been assigned several plainclothes Secret Service bodyguards. I called him again. Were they, I wanted to know, Darryl Worley fans? He said he didn’t know. Why did I think it was called “secret” service?

Increasingly paranoid, I proceeded to try to fill the other three performance slots. I thought the Irish tenor Ronan Tynan would be a natural. He’d sung at President Reagan’s funeral and regularly performed “God Bless America” during the seventh-inning stretches of Yankee home games since 9/11. Easy.

Only it wasn’t. The Yankees had a weeklong home-stand the same week as the Convention. And even though both the home-stand and the Convention were taking place in the same city, “Mr. Steinbrenner” had an iron-clad policy against sharing his employees when they were “on the clock.” I was warned in no uncertain terms not to try to negotiate — he might think I was questioning his patriotism; he was, after all, born on the 4th of July. He might, in fact, be so offended that he’d send a slumping player in the direction of my kneecaps with instructions to “work on his swing.”

I began running into such dead-ends at every turn. No sooner had I gotten an enthusiastic Yes from Ted Nugent than Ed Gillespie, the Chairman of the Republican National Committee, called to inform me that Michael Powell, the head of the Federal Communications Committee, felt that Nugent’s predilection for creative profanity made him too great a risk. Judging from Nugent’s impromptu response to my giving him the bad news a few minutes later, Powell may have been right.

With Tynan, Nugent, multiple country singers, and has-beens off limits (Pat Boone and Anita Bryant would’ve leapt at the invite, I’m sure), I came to two unpleasant realizations. First, trolling for Republicans among the popular-music community is like looking for truth in a Michael Moore film. Second, I hadn’t gotten this job because somebody thought I was qualified;
I’d gotten it because I was too dumb to say no.

I called Melvin. I was quitting, I said. The job was impossible. There was a long silence. Suddenly, he spoke. “Spanish!” Spanish? “Yes, Spanish! Of course! George and the Hispanic vote are like this!”

I knew that he was holding his hand to the receiver, extending his index and middle fingers side by side. “Didn’t Linda Ronstadt record some albums in Spanish?”

Yes, I said. She did.

“I always liked her,” he said. “A real all-American, girl-next-door type. And who’s that blind black guy who does that killer version of ‘America the Beautiful’ they’re always playing?”
Ray Charles? “Yeah, yeah. We could get him.”

“Melvin, I don’t — ”

“Don’t worry, don’t worry. I have connections. Arsenio, I accept your resignation. I think I can take things from here.” I thanked him and wished him good luck.

He would need it.

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