When it came time for New Yorkers to vote, the decision was overwhelming. By a 3-to-1 margin they rejected the incumbent President of the United States, George W. Bush, and his vision for America. If the Republicans held their National Convention in New York in order to persuade the city’s residents to join their cause, they had failed terribly.
Of course, the Republicans did not select the city because of a like-minded citizenry. They didn’t want the actual New York, with all its diversity and creative energy. They came because of 9/11. They came to take the memory of the city’s public grieving and to project it on screen as the backdrop for their political ambition.
Doing this was not altogether easy. It required them, first, to conceal some of their own feelings. Just months before the attacks that destroyed the World Trade Center, The New York Times reported, “Mr. Bush has been heard to say privately that he cannot stand New York.” After 9/11, televangelist Jerry Falwell said, “I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People For the American Way, all of them who have tried to secularize America. I point the finger in their face and say ‘you helped this happen.'”
It’s no secret where many such people live. In the view of the cultural right, New York City, a haven of liberalism and immigration, is a corrupted place.
The Republicans, then, had to keep out of the camera eye all those who weren’t convinced of the sincerity of Falwell’s later apology. When 5,000 delegates arrived in the city, they were greeted by more than 400,000 protesters, who marched as part of the largest demonstration in American history ever to confront a national political convention. The New York that presented itself — the two men who embraced near 34th Street, their lips pressed together; the woman at Ground Zero whose tank top expressed her views with characteristic directness: “Fuck Bush” — this city was not suitable. The Republicans would need to create their own New York.
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Over 10,000 police officers were put in service for the convention, a large number of them charged with making Madison Square Garden a sealed fortress. Like photographer Steve Simon, I was among the journalists who passed from the protests into the rarefied space inside the arena. I showed my press badge, walked under the metal detector, and entered a different land. The Republicans I spoke with there were unfailingly polite and friendly, eager to talk with me even when I expressed disagreement with their militarism and their moralism. When prime-time speakers took the stage, I saw the delegates beam with enthusiasm and joy.
I see these delegates again in Steve Simon’s images. Their faces are hopeful and often serene. They look into a future of common purpose and values. They are sympathetic: The three boys, dressed in their suits, standing with their prayerful mother. I could be the one in the middle, and that could be my younger brother on the right.
Yet you can also see something troubling in the photos. Something about the young people celebrating — maybe it is their haircuts, or their cuff links — makes the arena start to feel less welcoming. You look at them again and consider that these are the next generation of Republican leaders. You grow more aware that underneath the civility of the gathering, there is power.
Then you see: almost out of view, above the Presidential Seal, sits Bob Dole and, next to him, George H.W. Bush, the father. You glance to a different part of the arena and see another white-haired man in a suit. You realize it is Jerry Falwell himself, seated casually amidst an almost-empty row of chairs in Section 104.
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One of Simon’s photographs shows a procession of demonstrators carrying 1,000 flag-draped caskets through the streets of New York. On the sunny afternoon of that protest, I, too, was struck by the sight of those iconic coffins. The march moved slowly, and it stretched block after block. For over twenty minutes, I sat on the curb at 17th and Broadway and watched the pallbearers pace by.
The photo is a reminder, not only of the ultimate consequences of the convention’s grandstanding, but also, in a time when media coverage of soldiers’ coffins returning to U. S. military bases is banned, of the limits on what scenes are allowed to be a part of our political lives.
While some 15,000 journalists came to cover the Republicans, convention organizers took great pains to control “the message” these interpreters would take from the assembly. Operatives transcribed even the most ostensibly heartfelt sentiments onto jumbo teleprompters (“Almighty God… Together we laud and magnify your holy name…”). Most of the reporters, in turn, dutifully framed their dispatches around the key words posted on the walls of the auditorium (“A Safer World,” “A Nation of Courage”).
Steve Simon behaves differently. He shows us the staging off-camera and television personalities before they compose their august on-air expressions. He gives us the blur of the secret service removing an unwanted dissident from the arena; he shows the police scrutinizing the credentials of a father whose placard says something very different from the evening’s preferred theme, “People of Compassion.” It says, “Bush Lied. My Son Died.”
Inside that arena, Simon is an unusual type of spy, one who records information others regard as irrelevant. He sneaks behind the broadcast booths, stepping over thick cables, and from the shadowy, quiet hollow he frames a shot of the wiring pinned to the news anchors’ backs. Instead of jostling with other photographers for position on the convention floor, he lets himself get elbowed behind, adjusts his focus, and includes the throng as his subject. In the stands, when everyone rises, eyes fixed on the stage, Steve Simon looks the other way, observing how deep rows of captivated faces fade into the dark recesses of the auditorium.
The photos that result do not recall the event as it was presented and understood. The medium allows a different story. Simon’s art takes those instants of excitement and fear that marked the convention and holds them in place. Looking at his photos, I remember the intensity surrounding the jubilant Republicans, as well as the playfulness and despair that commingled in the demonstrations. I feel these things again. But now I have the opportunity to linger in the sensations without feeling self-conscious that I stay seated as the delegates jump up and pound their hands in applause, and without worrying about the police down the block who approach with plastic handcuffs. I realize how confined I felt during that week, which all the while we were told was a celebration of our freedoms.
The delegates now are elsewhere. The election is over. Yet we live still in an age when public debate is carefully choreographed, under a government that prizes control. In this setting, in these times, Simon’s remain renegade images.