Philadelphia-conventions these days are all show, of course, but what they show is not necessarily what the television cameras see. They show how soon fame disappears. The new faces that emerged just three conventions ago, Michael Dukakis and Dan Quayle, are already forgotten. (Democrats actually tossed Mr. Dukakis aside within a few days of his disastrous defeat in 1988.)
One antidote for those desiring political glory might be a visit to the Mutter Museum of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. Founded in the mid-19th century, this weird but popular attraction includes a display of over 150 skulls in big wall cabinets, face out. Their empty sockets don't allow them to make eye contact with voters, but their teeth are generally regular enough to produce a Jimmy Carter effect. (Remember him?)
Conventions show how politicians often try to burnish a skull. New Jersey Governor Christy Todd Whitman threw a big shindig for GOP poobahs on Sunday night of convention week. Her venue was the Camden, N.J., waterfront with its aquarium and music center, lovely palaces so accessible to Philadelphia across the river that there was no need for delegates to see up close and personal Camden's despairing reality just a silver dollar's throw away: housing projects and crack houses.
The Mutter Museum is named after the doctor who collected skulls and much else, and not the guttural noises made by shocked onlookers. But I wish the Republicans for Choice at the convention, and others who do not see the battle against abortion as an integral part of compassionate conservatism, would see the stillborn and aborted children preserved in bottles at the museum. They look a lot like human beings to me.
Conventions these days, unless they get out of control, show smiling unity and an optimistic sense that all problems can and will be solved. This GOP convention schedule gave speaking time to realistic problem-solvers such as foster care reformer Conna Craig (see WORLD, June 6, 1998), school innovator Michael Feinberg, and others from prison ministries and welfare-to-work programs.
But the Mutter Museum exhibits over 1,000 items that a throat specialist removed from people who had accidentally swallowed them: buttons, safety pins, jewelry, nails, and "perfect attendance" mementos. What if, as with Pinocchio's nose, convention speakers who promised easy victories ended up with their hype and tripe stuck in their throats? What a Mutter Museum exhibit that would be!
Philadelphia this week is a three-ring circus, with the middle but least-interesting ring the official convention proceedings inside the First Union Center. On the schedule for other rings: rallies against police brutality, abortion, capital punishment, immigration, globalization, and various concerns. None of these protests is likely to have great success, but their muttering amid convention happy talk shows the challenges faced by presidential contestants.
The Mutter Museum displays its own exhibits of life's troubles: body parts of Siamese twins, a diseased colon six feet long and as thick as an anaconda, and a skeleton of a probably bedridden 7'6" man next to that of a 3'9" dwarf woman who died in a brothel just before the Civil War. But those rows of smiling skulls and skulking skeletons are an unforgettable exclamation point. If that's all that remains of us after death, should we eat, drink, and be merry while we can, or should we gloomily conclude that we have no reason to party on at a convention?
On the Sunday before the convention began, some delegates ran up the steps to Philadelphia's art museum, imitating Rocky. They then went inside to see the treasures of man's creativity. That's all the immortality the best of us will have, they said, throwing their arms in the air.
On that Sunday some compassionate conservatives went to a forum at the Greater Exodus Baptist Church just up Broad St. from Philadelphia's city hall. There they learned about the power of faith, hearing of a new, scholarly study that shows religious low-income urban teens much less likely to take illicit drugs than their non-religious counterparts. Attendees learned that the degree to which religious commitment reduces a youth's probability of using illicit drugs increases the older a teenager becomes.
But from hundreds of pulpits on that day came a message even more important. Those who heard it gained an understanding vital not just during a convention week when smiles are as omnipresent as Styrofoam skimmer hats, but during a later week when they will face imminent transformation into skulls and skeletons.
"I am the Resurrection and the Life...."