“Gondola, signore. Gondola…”
The familiar basso from a thousand Italian (and American) films boomed out across the painted cloudy sky and ersatz canals at Las Vegas’ Venetian Tuesday night as the faithful streamed into yet another Republican debate at the hotel’s theatre that looks built for a roadshow version of La Traviata.
As we all know, the Venetian’s gondolas are phonies. But what about the originals? La Serenissima may be among the most beautiful cities in the world but everything there seems to be done “for affect” as well. It’s all a stage set.
As was the debate Tuesday night, because, for all the back and forth, the chills and semi-thrills, the Rubio-Cruz-Paul contretemps, the desperate pleadings of Jeb Bush, the reminder by Chris Christie of what might have been if he hadn’t kowtowed to Lord Obama, Carly Fiorina telling us again that she has met Putin, Frank Luntz and all his focus groups and all the thumb-sucking wise men and women in all the ships at sea and CNBC, as they say about a mile up the Strip from the Venetian at the Monte Carlo, “les jeux sont faits.”
No more bets, ladies and gentlemen. The game is over. Donald Trump has won the nomination.
Everyone acknowledged as much, heads nodding around me in the press room, when, nearly at the end of the debate, Hugh Hewitt served up by far the most serious, in the sense of fateful, question of the night by asking Trump to answer finally whether he will support the Republican candidate under any circumstances.
The Donald smiled, stared straight into the camera with the practiced skill of a Cronkite or a Murrow, though more playful and, one reluctantly admits, winning, and acknowledged that, yes, he will. He has been treated well by all concerned and even come to like and admire many of the candidates on the stage with him. Murmurs of approval all around.
And then he administered the coup de television. Looking square into the lens at America he promised to beat Hillary Clinton in November. And he did so in full recognition by all concerned, barring force majeure, he already was the nominee and everybody knew it. He was taking a graceful bow.
Game, set, match, tournament and whatever they say in bocce.
The final statements, including and especially Donald’s, were irrelevant. Everyone was headed for the Spin Room – where it went Full Fellini.
Well, not at first. For five or ten minutes there was the usual milling around with various porte paroles or spox, as they’re called on Twitter and the NY Post, standing around under vertical signs for their candidates, answering questions for them. These guys and gals seem to be chosen in the manner of replacement talk show hosts, so that they don’t upstage their masters. Enough said.
But finally the actual candidates started to straggle in. It was then that it went Full Federico Fellini. As in the maestro’s La Dolce Vita, when there was a purported sighting of La Madonna, everyone, normal folk and paparazzi, started rushing to the far corner of the large room.
Cue Nino Rota — The Donald had entered in the company of his wife Melania, indeed a vision out of Fellini. Anita Ekberg, Anouk Aimée, one of them.
People were practically falling over each other for a view, pushing cellphones skyward, jumping up and down craning their necks for a view. Was I at a Republican debate or the Cannes Film Festival? This wasn’t American politics anymore. It was Roman politics. Caesar’s Palace come to the Venetian.
All hail, Caesar! All hail, Trump! Was history moving forward, backwards, sideways — it was hard to tell. But we were all on a boat going somewhere, a gondola, and The Donald was our gondolier.
Yes, I know issues were discussed at the debate — the NSA, immigration, etc. But they have been fleshed out far more interestingly in print. Oh, and yes, Donald mumbled something about killing the family members of terrorists — another pronouncement that will never happen unless things become a lot worse than they already are. And then, who knows?
But these points, facts and factoids were not what caught my attention at Tuesday night’s debate. They pass like the wind. What I saw was an event orchestrated by one of the master filmmakers of all time with meanings far more interesting and complex than superficial arguments, the great human parade taking yet another turn.
Is this reading because I have done so much time as a screenwriter? Perhaps, but I don’t think so. I’m not the only one to miss Fellini or to have learned to see with his eyes. Or to understand that American presidential politics will never be the same again.