YOU'D THINK DENNY HASTERT would be pretty good with a gavel by now. But when the Speaker of the House steps up to the podium, he seems as giddy as the president of the College Republicans. He's in Madison Square Garden on Monday to perform his duties as Permanent Convention Chairman of the 2004 Republican National Convention. And a large part of his task, apparently, is to bang the podium so hard and so close to the microphone, that every delegate and the entire fourth estate leap out of their collective skin.
Hastert doesn't hesitate to use his forceful gavel style early and often, causing the same jarring horror every time. The first session of the convention comes to order at 10 a.m. Monday, and for the next four and a half hours the Republican party takes care of business and simultaneously gets its up-and-comers a little floor time.
Early in the day's program we hear a few words each from a gaggle of House candidates. Usually, when politicians claim they are about to "say a few words," it's code for "a few thousand." But at the RNC, a few is all they're allowed. Like the von Trapp children lining up to introduce themselves to their new governess, they step up, speak, and then step back sharply.
Congressional hopefuls from Colorado, Kansas, Pennsylvania, Texas, etc., manage to squeeze in, by my estimate, about 5 percent more substance than did their Democratic counterparts in Boston. At the very least, there is more variety in their choice of proper nouns. At the DNC, it was John Kerry this or John Kerry that. At the RNC, we get the American Dream Downpayment Initiative, No Child Left Behind, the Death Tax, the Marriage Penalty, and much, much more.
Ted Poe is running for Congress in Texas's second district, and he knows how to win a crowd in two minutes flat. "Good mornin' y'all," he hollers. "Especially you folks from Texas." Then he gets to the red meat.
"It is not enough to sit in the stands, to complain and criticize as the French did in the war in Iraq. Sitting on the sidelines is not an option. Now is not the time to be a French Republican!" Elephant hats fly as the crowd expresses its appreciation for these sentiments.
But the speeches aren't all that's going on. The rest of the proceedings ricochet between stuffy parliamentary procedure and perky cable morning show. Between approving the rules and voting on resolutions thanking convention volunteers, the program cuts to chipper interviewers on the floor chatting with delegates whose common characteristic is higher than average melanin levels.
"Can you tell us a phrase, en español, that describes the president's character?" asks one interviewer. Her victim delegate, the improbably named Gaston, plays along, though he looks uncomfortable. Doubly so since the interviewer seems to have missed that the point of a microphone is to make it unnecessary to shout, and his right ear is being screeched into. Other delegates are equally game; one paraphrases a McDonald's ad, declaring "I'm lovin' this." At least she doesn't sign off as does one of her colleagues-"We're going to throw it to some music for your enjoyment"-who seems to be an aspiring GOP MTV VJ.At one point, Dick Cheney sneaks in the back way and waves to the crowd. The usual convention music plays as delegates dance, and forgettable senatorial candidates follow hard on one another's heels. The Roll Call of the States is begun, and each state gives a tiny infomercial for itself and then hands off all of its delegates to George W. Bush.
But this tomfoolery is forgotten when Hastert's gavel bangs. Hastert's own remarks are brief, but memorable. It may have been the sound system, or he may have been reliving puberty right there in Madison Square Garden. His voice, at any rate, cracks like a 13-year-old boy's on the word "tool" as in "give law enforcement the tools" to fight terror.
As the afternoon winds up, it's clear that a Democrat, one of the first speakers, has stolen the show-perhaps not for the only time this week. Former New York mayor Ed Koch thoroughly charms the crowd, joshing with them: "I know what you're thinking," he says. "What's Ed Koch doing at the Republican Convention? . . . Why am I here? I'm here to convert you. But that's for the next election. This year I'm voting for the reelection of President George W. Bush."
It was the biggest applause line of the opening session.
At some point during the confusion, Hastert has handed the hammer to Governor Linda Lingle of Hawaii. This fact comes to the crowd's attention for the first time when she brings the gavel down on the first session of the 2004 Republican national convention-quietly.
Katherine Mangu-Ward is a reporter at The Weekly Standard.