By Justin Vogt
Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele has vexed GOPers ever since winning the post last year and promising that, as the first African-American chairman, he would be able to expand the GOP's appeal by introducing its principles to "hip-hop settings." This would be accomplished through an "off the hook" rebranding effort. Steele pledged that the PR campaign would be unlike anything either political party had done before. "It will be avant garde, technically," he explained to The Washington Times.
Indeed, his tenure has frequently seemed like an exercise in performance art—technically and otherwise. Perhaps Steele was aiming for a sort of Brechtian alienation effect when it was revealed that the RNC had funded a night out for young GOP donors at Voyeur West Hollywood, a bondage-themed nightclub in Los Angeles that bills itself as a "destination for provocative revelry."
Conservatives, at least, were provoked. The Family Research Council, an influential Christian-right organization, urged donors to give money to individual candidates instead of the RNC. Then Sarah Palin asked for her name to be removed from a list of participants in an RNC fundraiser scheduled to coincide with the Southern Republican Leadership Conference, a major GOP event taking place this week in New Orleans.
In addition to private meetings with top Republicans, an invitation to the RNC fundraiser obtained by Politico promised donors the chance to take part in a "second-line parade" from their hotel to Arnaud's, a popular restaurant in the French Quarter, where they would dine with chairman Steele himself. Second-lines are a cherished part of the traditional black culture of New Orleans. Organized by community groups known as Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs, the parades are massive, exuberant neighborhood processions in which virtually no one is simply a spectator. (The name derives from the term used to describe all the parade participants who are not in the band or members of the club—that is, everyone who is not in the "first line.")
Of course, mock second-line parades have long been staged for the benefit of tourists or conventioneers looking for a "real Nawlins" experience. But considering Steele's history of awkward attempts to link black culture to the GOP, a Republican second-line seemed like a bold move.
Alas, it was not to be. Last night, I arrived at the hotel at the appointed time only to find an empty lobby. No band, no paraders. Hotel staffers were unaware of the scheduled parade, as well as a pre-parade cocktail party that was also on the agenda. Arnaud's, the restaurant where the second-liners were supposed to dine with Steele after the parade said the RNC’s reservation had been pushed back by two hours and reduced from 50 people to 12. It seemed as though Steele’s troubles of late had, as it were, rained on his parade. (An RNC spokesman later said the events had been canceled because they conflicted with speeches at the conference. But he couldn’t explain why that conflict had not been obvious long ago, when the conference dates were announced.)
A second line comprised of 50 Republican donors would have been an interesting spectacle. But 12? Apparently, even Michael Steele realized that a “parade” that small might have been a bit too avant garde.
Vogt is a freelance journalist based in New Orleans.