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CONVENTION 2000 / THE DEMOCRATIC CONVENTION

And Now for Some Real Perspective . . .

In the melting pot that central Orange County has become, life is far less 'conventional.'

August 18, 2000|TERRY McDERMOTT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When politics matters, which it can, it matters a lot. It can break hearts and heads, or mend them. In it, the stuff of nations is made and undone.

Where the 2000 Democratic National Convention will eventually be slotted on the tote board of important stuff isn't yet entirely certain, but in a quick first take on its significance, you didn't have to go very far for it to matter not very much.

Down here on the ground, in the cinder-block subdivisions of central Orange County, in the run-on towns of Orange and Anaheim, Garden Grove and Westminster, folks weren't overwhelmed.

Asked what importance the activities might hold for him, Jorge Baca stopped rolling water bottles off a truck along Beach Boulevard. "Don't know," he said. "You know something I don't?" Then he moved on to the next rack of bottles.

In scattered conversations across the county Thursday, the week's big doings at the Democratic National Convention and its attendant protests were greeted mostly with a big shrug.

This isn't because of any special antipathy toward Democrats. Orange County is no longer the home of an archetypal Republican monopoly as it was a generation ago.

It is at the forefront of huge demographic shifts occurring throughout Southern California. Waves of immigration first felt in Los Angeles have spread far beyond, erasing in fact, if not in myth, the notion of the lily-white suburb.

This central portion of Orange County, represented in Congress by Democrat Loretta Sanchez, has compressed a century's worth of change into a couple of decades. One indication of the scope of that change is Sanchez. That the same district sent her to Washington after previously electing "B-1 Bob" Dornan is a measure of tumult itself.

In Orange County overall, the Latino and Asian populations have each increased by 50% in the last decade, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates.

Sanchez's district, formerly a collection of white enclaves, is now majority minority--half Latino, one-eighth Asian--with a sprinkling of everybody else thrown in.

The streets are lined with taquerias and pho houses, including what must be the world's first drive-through noodle house.

The houses are arranged not much differently than the fruit trees they replaced, neat row upon row, each like the last, fenced off by low walls, like orchards.

If you ever wondered when politics matters, look at a place in the midst of big change. Orange County in the last five years has been the site of fierce battles, especially regarding immigration and schools.

So why don't people care now about national political conventions?

In the first place, they don't have to--there's nothing at stake. It's just a show, and not a very compelling one at that.

Neal Gabler, author of "Life: The Movie," says that entertainment has taken over life. "We are a society driven by entertainment, so much so that our news, our politics, our religion, our education, you name it, have all become entertainments," he said in an interview with the online magazine Bold Type.

If Gabler's right, politics matters when it's either important or entertaining. Right now, it's neither. The problem isn't that politics is scripted. The problem is the scripts are lousy. At both conventions this year, every facet of every act was scripted.

Tony Lam, of Westminster, is an expert on what makes politics matter, both on the large scale and the very small. Three times in his life, Lam has been a refugee--a victim of sweeping political change. He fled first the French, then imposition of Communist rule in North Vietnam and finally the North's occupation of South Vietnam.

He's a nimble fellow and weathered the changes. When he first left Haiphong as a 10-year-old, he became a minstrel, entertaining the resistance forces in the jungle. He can still do a mean version of "Stepmother Raises Good Soldiers for the Resistance."

Through it all, Lam and his family prospered. His first job in America was pumping gas, but he built a life that gave all six of his children college educations. They now include two dentists, a marine biologist, an electrical engineer and a rising star chef.

Last year, Lam was at the center of a political fight. Unlike the seismic political shifts of his earlier life, this one was on an intimate scale. A merchant insisted on displaying a North Vietnamese flag, and Lam, a city councilman, refused to condemn him. The result was an onslaught against Lam.

He and his wife ran a small restaurant in Garden Grove. People began to picket the restaurant. Lam eventually lost his lease and was forced to move. Through it all he refused to yield.

The man with the flag eventually went away, and so did the protests. Lam's life retreated to the normal affairs of a city politician--water mains and potholes.

Lam's an ardent Republican but can't see huge differences between George W. Bush and Al Gore. "Each one has a quality, a very nice quality. But day to day?" he said and shrugged. "It doesn't matter which."

Having experienced political pressure from the great to the small, he said he'd place this election somewhere between a broken water main and a lost war, much nearer the former than the latter.

Then, like a good pol sensing a missed opportunity, he added: "I hope my thoughts have not disappointed you."

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