Rather than put its correspondents at the Republican convention up in a hotel, the FT chose to rent a house in the suburbs of Tampa. This has several advantages. It saves money. It allows middle-aged journalists to relive their student days: the piles of unwashed dishes, the struggles over who gets the best room. And it also reminded me of the sheer affluence of much of American suburbia.
The highway up to the Temple Terrace area, northeast of Tampa, is none too picturesque – lined, as it is, by pawn shops, strip-clubs and advertising hoardings for ambulance-chasing lawyers. But the houses in the posher suburbs of Tampa are enormous, as are the cars and boats that sit outside them.
On our first evening, our landlady dropped by to discuss how we would cope should Hurricane Isaac strike Tampa. I had surmised from the number of American flags dotting the property that she might well be a Republican and certainly her attitude to hurricanes emphasised robust self-reliance.
She said that the locals had cleared up themselves, without any government help, after a hurricane had hit the Florida Keys. “But you haven’t heard of that, right? All you have heard of is Katrina – because they just waited for the federal government to help them.”
This seemed to me a slightly harsh reading of events. As I recall, more than 1,800 people died after Katrina flooded New Orleans. But I chose not to dispute the point – and instead asked for instructions on how to use the coffee machine.
The television in our suburban mansion was pre-tuned to Fox News, which was offering wall-to-wall coverage of the Republican convention. Reflecting conservative America’s fascination with gold, every second advertisement on Fox seems to be for bullion dealers.
My favourite was an offer for a 24-carat gold coin, commemorating the killing of Osama bin Laden – which seems neatly to combine two of the major preoccupations of Fox viewers.
Still, I am in no position to scoff, since I am something of a “gold bug” myself. A couple of years ago, I used part of a book advance to buy a (disappointingly titchy) gold bar. I have hidden it away and am awaiting a surge in the gold price.
I know that hoarding gold might strike some as unsophisticated. John Maynard Keynes dismissed the gold standard as a “barbarous relic”, and I’m prepared to accept that it makes for bad monetary policy. But I still like the yellow metal. It appeals to my inner barbarian.
The start of the convention was delayed for a day because of the threat of the hurricane. This turned out to be unnecessary, since all it amounted to, in Tampa, was a series of nasty cloud-bursts and some high winds. On Tuesday, however, they were finally able to stage the roll-call, in which each state casts its votes for the Republican nominee for the presidency. No party nomination has required a second ballot since the 1950s. But still, I thought the Republicans might be able to make something dramatic out of the roll-call vote. After all, this was the precise moment when the GOP declared that Mitt Romney was their man. But it was all surprisingly desultory.
The public galleries in the Tampa forum were almost empty. People were wandering around and chatting on the convention floor. The only delegates who seemed really fired up were those supporting the maverick gold-bug Ron Paul – who roared every time their man nicked a couple of votes off Romney. In the event, much of the entertainment was provided by the slightly wacky ways in which state delegations chose to introduce themselves. The spokesman for Nebraska declared that he came from “the state with the top-ranked women’s volleyball team in the country” – which struck me as a bit desperate. Rhode Island announced that, among other things, it is “the home of Del’s Lemonade”. South Dakota declared that it is the “pheasant-hunting capital of the world” – which was news to me.
I could have done with some pheasant at the food outlets in the convention. The grub was disgusting: bags of peanuts, giant salty pretzels, foul-smelling hot-dogs. In the corridors, we came across the pitiful sight of a heavily-pregnant journalist from New York, who was weeping as she complained – “I have to eat. But the food here is so disgusting”.
Much of the convention was devoted to introducing Mitt Romney to the American people. But, in many ways, he remains a remote and elusive figure. One of the things that I find oddest about him is how good he looks for a man of 65: the perfect hair, just slightly tinged with grey; the unlined visage. Damn it, the man looks better than me – and he is 16 years my senior.
o what is his secret? Some suggest that it is the healthy Mormon lifestyle: no booze, no fags, no coffee. (The traditional question about which candidate the voters would prefer to have a beer with is redundant when it comes to Romney.) But I don’t think Romney’s Mormonism can be the complete explanation for his fantastically well-preserved appearance. There were some pretty ropey-looking Mormons wandering around the convention centre, and I assume they also don’t smoke or take artificial stimulants.
Maybe Romney just has good genes? Or maybe he has “had work done” – although I assume that would also be against his religion. Either way, Romney’s appearance makes one forget that he would actually be past most people’s retirement age, if and when he enters the White House.
Paul Ryan, the vice-presidential candidate, also looks good. He works out regularly and is, as the Americans say, “ripped”. But not all of the stars of the Republican convention were in great shape. Two of the headliners on the first night were spectacularly fat. Neal Boyd, a former winner of America’s Got Talent, who sang for the convention, is a vast man-mountain. The sight of a morbidly obese man belting out “America the Beautiful” struck me as the kind of image you might get in a snarky European film about the US. But it didn’t seem to strike anyone at the convention as particularly odd.
As for Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey, who was the keynote speaker on the first night; he looks, in the words of my colleague, Anna Fifield, like “Tony Soprano, plus 200lb”. His appearance was, I thought, slightly at odds with the theme of his speech, which was all about the need for government to be put on a diet.
Gideon Rachman is the FT’s chief foreign affairs columnist