United in disgust

The only common ground among GOP Convention protests was disdain for Dubya

Protesters did not gather in New York. They seethed.

But, though nearly unanimous in their rancor toward the president, demonstrators like Linda Mazilli mostly skipped applause for Sen. John Kerry and went straight to excoriating President George Bush. One in a pack of women clad in pink slips and urging the nation to give Bush one of his own, Mazilli was pro-Kerry but with a qualifier: "There's no option. I'm for Kerry all the way."

A transplanted New Yorker living in L.A. and in town to protest, her most ringing endorsement for the Massachusetts senator was that he "is not intrinsically evil" — and that's a healthy enough reason to support him.

Angst over Bush seemed to be the only consensus among the protesters, an estimated 500,000 men, women and children who thronged the New York streets. They reprised, in gentler articulation, Chicago in the summer of 1968, when the burgeoning counterculture movement marched their discontent with the status quo through the Windy City. As was the case then, the passion of the 2004 Republican National Convention detractors did not flow in zero-sum fashion between the two presidential candidates.

With the prestigious Zogby Poll indicating a surge in undecided voters, many protesters failed to unite behind Kerry, their only hope for overcoming the subject of their derision. On the streets outside Madison Square Garden, demonstrators revived rhetoric from the last election, confounding those eager to paint a clear division between Kerry and Bush.

There was Adam Trott, a New York labor organizer holding a sign at a Sept. 1 labor rally decrying the AFL-CIO's backing of the Kerry-Edwards ticket. "The issues I care about, [Bush and Kerry] are the same on: the war, labor, gay marriage," Trott said. He vowed to vote for Socialist candidate Walter Brown, though he wasn't certain Brown would be on New York's ballot.

At the same rally, Lucas Keturi, a New York University sophomore, was sporting the pin of the dark prince of diversion. "I'm voting for [Ralph] Nader because I think the difference between Kerry and Bush is pretty much rhetorical," he said. "On an actual policy level, there's really no difference."

Rounding out the rally's points of view was Teamsters spokesman Gary LaBarbera, part of a more traditional, brawnier wing of the labor movement. Standing yards from the more anti-establishment types, LaBarbera, in a tailored suit and flanked by other union officials, swore labor is behind Kerry with one voice.

As for the dissenters — Socialists, Naderites, the ubiquitous Falun Gong demonstrators — LaBarbera said, "I don't think anybody really links them to John Kerry."

Amid it all, the Grand Old Party was having a grand old time.

On Sept. 1, Harold Green, public affairs director for a Dallas company that "owns and operates and builds electric power plants," was jaunting through Times Square, white Stetson gleaming and sports coat slung over his shoulder, the very picture of a Texan enjoying his New York stay. "I'm not sure what they think they're accomplishing," he said of the protesters.

Green, who counts Bush as a personal friend, theorized the more outlandish protesters would in fact taint Kerry's image. "They won't play well in Middle America or the South at all. And, fairly or unfairly, they will be linked with Kerry."

Green suggested that the right doesn't bother with protesting the way the left does, as evidenced by the weak protest showing at the Democratic National Convention a month earlier. "I think a lot of people on the left, that's what they do, they protest," he said with a smile, suggesting that the right wing is punch-pleased to spend time on bigger projects, such as building power plants.

As Charles P. Pierce noted in a pre-9/11 Esquire article, Republicans have "grown comfortable with their political id. They set it up right there in the parlor." To hear Arnold Schwarzenegger's thunderously received exhumation of Richard Nixon at the convention was to witness a party embrace its fallen angels — grime, scandal, deception and all — and do so with impunity. Even in a year when fissures in the GOP monolith have materialized, the Dems still long for such prideful party discipline.

Through their singularly unifying detestation of the president, Democrats have been able to enjoy some measure of ad hoc togetherness, a practice that in recent decades belonged solely to Republicans. But the Democratic Party remains a freewheeling circus, with Kerry its tightrope walker. And scampering about on the outskirts of the big top last week was one of the Democrats' biggest challenges: the protesters, oscillating between presidential loathing and an obdurate refusal to settle for someone they deem to be Dubya's doppelganger.

"Bush as an individual is not the problem," said Terry Coggan, who flew from New Zealand to complain at the corner of 11th Avenue and West 28th Street. "It's the system that he and Kerry represent."

Labor organizer Trott asked: "Look around this week. Where are all the pro-Kerry rallies?"

For all the cynical stagecraft of the two conventions and all the leeringly calculated maneuvers on the campaign trail, November's decision ultimately could break over which way America feels about a concept emblazoned in blue letters on a sign toted along Seventh Avenue shortly before Bush's Sept. 2 address: "Kerry Sucks Less."