We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
The surliest and burliest rainmaker on the political scene brought his act to town over the weekend. Fresh from a stint at the Republican convention that included sharing a podium with Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert and inciting Tom Brokaw to utter “smackdown” on national television, the wrestler born Dwayne Glasteau—aka Dwayne Johnson, dba the Rock—returned to his element. That would be inside a steel cage at the MCI Center.
For those who tuned in to Survivor last week rather than the GOP soiree, as well as anybody otherwise unaware of the goings-on in Philadelphia: The Rock gaveled in Day 3 of the convention, then gave a short speech in support of—well, who knows. The 6-foot-5, 275-pounder currently wears the heavyweight championship belt for the WWF, and he is also the most charismatic figure in pro wrestling. Somebody inside the party may have also noticed that the Rock is a man of color.
Like nominee George W.’s, the Rock’s current vocation is in his blood. He is a third-generation laborer for Vince McMahon’s promotion, now known as the WWF. His grandfather, High Chief Peter Maivia, was the first Samoan professional wrestler. Father Rocky Johnson—real name: Drew Glasteau—spent much of his career as a prearranged loser, a role also known in ring parlance as a “jobber,” “fish,” or “ham-and-egger.” Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka and the members of the tag team called the Samoans were his uncles.
The Rock had hoped to follow another relative, uncle and brief Redskin Al Noga (one of the worst signings of former General Manager Charley Casserly’s career) into a pro football career. But after spending 1990 to 1994 as a defensive lineman on the University of Miami squad, and a cup of coffee in the CFL, he pulled on his first pair of wrestling tights.
It didn’t take the Rock, now 28, very long to outdo his elders. After assignments with regional promotional groups under an assortment of noms de rasslin’ (Flex Cavana, Lex Kavan, Dwayne Johnson), he was brought into the WWF as Rocky Maivia by McMahon, who put him on the fast track to a championship. McMahon eventually shortened the wrestler’s handle.
The Rock’s physical tools are indeed daunting; he never seems to have much trouble tossing around the 300-plus-pound Mankind, perhaps his most celebrated rival. His closing moves—a body splash known as the “People’s Elbow” and a choke-slam he calls the “Rockbottom”—appear suitably sadistic, and he’s as good with a chair as anybody.
But what separates the Rock from the rest of his bulky brethren is his ability to rile fans, or generate “heat,” during interviews. His cocked-eyebrow delivery of catch phrases that simply don’t translate well to paper—”Do you smell what the Rock is cooking?” and multiple uses of the word “ass” are his bread and butter; he’s now on a mission to bring “poontang” back to the national lexicon—make him the most hated bad guy, or “heel,” in the history of the sport, or whatever you want to call it.
In this era of the antihero, the most hated performer is also the most popular. In the billion-dollar biz that is pro wrestling, the Rock reigns. His autobiography, published by Regan Books, shot to the top of the New York Times best-seller list earlier this year. And proof of the popularity that attracted the interest of the Republicans was all over the MCI Center on Sunday.
Of the almost 20,000 fans who packed the arena for what is known in the business as a “house show,” meaning a minor event and not something intended for television or pay-per-view broadcast, it seemed as if more than half were wearing some sort of licensed WWF paraphernalia featuring the Rock’s likeness. Essentially all of the handmade signs brought in by attendees were aimed at the champ, as well.
The Republicans certainly needed help attracting anybody with star quality from outside the political arena. Ted Nugent, the has-been dirtball whose hateful diatribes (“If you don’t speak English, get the fuck out of the U.S.!” was just one of the nuggets the Nuge doled out during his D.C. area appearance last month) were recently deemed too politically incorrect for the Kiss tour, was one of the few celebrities, to use the word loosely, seen roaming the halls of the First Union Center during the caucus. But the Rock had never used his popularity for political purposes. It came out during the convention, in fact, that he wasn’t even registered to vote.
Right-wing stalwarts weren’t merely perplexed by the Rock’s invitation. They were pissed.
“The brain trust of the Republican Party never fails to disappoint me,” Brent Bozell, head of the Parents Television Council and noted reactionary, told the National Journal. “You can’t have a party walking around talking about family values while they feature a star from the most offensive program on television. Here you’ve got the Rock making comments about ‘poontang pies,’ and he’s going to open the Republican convention. Someone’s on drugs over there.”
As it turned out, the WWF star never gave Bozell or any other Republican reason to feel good about the invitation. The Rock never let go of his “heel” persona while on the podium, asking, “What’s the matter with you people?” in his opening comments. The Rock never cursed, but neither did he endorse the Republican candidate during his remarks, and later he refused to throw his support behind George W. when Brokaw gave him the opportunity. A spot on C-SPAN from the floor of the convention the night of his appearance was equally rough after interviewer Steve Scully admitted that he was unfamiliar with his interviewee. “I don’t know who you are, either,” shot back the Rock.
Though it was hard to discern exactly what the Rock was cooking—rumors began circulating immediately that he’d also be appearing before the Democrats in L.A.—it remains true that the whole tone of the convention changed after his appearance. The feel-good vibe that was the talk of the first two days was replaced by WWF-like smack. Both Dick Cheney and George W. generated plenty of heat during their acceptance speeches, with Cheney’s “It’s time for them to go!” riff and W.’s “They did not lead! We will!” refrain inciting the delegates to chant along, just as wrestling fans would.
That noise, however, still fell several dozen decibels short of the roar inside the MCI Center Sunday after the Rock delivered one last Rockbottom and pinned his challenger, HHH. The one or two George W. supporters drawn to the wrestling event as a result of the champ’s convention appearance may have realized that the vanquished wrestler shares his initials with the last sitting vice president to run for president on the Democratic ticket. Hubert H. Humphrey, of course, got Rockbottomed by his Republican challenger in the general election. Notwithstanding the new role wrestling seems to be playing in the presidential campaign, this was probably just coincidence…. —Dave McKenna