Constricted on TV, a Political Convention Can Still Be Revealing

It has come to pass in the information-internet-youtube-social network-instant info-your phone-is-the-world world —that the major networks have practically given up on covering the Republican and Democratic conventions in an election year.

These days, with the nominations in hand and the vice presidential candidates chosen, the networks figure that they can only yield about an hour in the 10 p.m.-to-11 p.m. time slot to the conventions. So, Mitt Romney had better keep it short tonight.

It’s true that conventions have become scripted to a fare-thee-well, but that doesn’t mean they’ve somehow become uninteresting. They may not make news per se, but they offer an actual look at a whole party — not just the competitors on the primary trial (Romney and the mediocrities he vanquished), the Tea Party demonstrators or Newt Gingrich’s ego writ large — which now consists primarily of tea party members who don’t like to demonstrate but think along very conservative lines.

And speeches are, if not like a “WWF Raw” smack-down, or the Olympics for that matter, still pretty entertaining tests for those who are giving the speech. If you want to learn what each party really stands for, just read the Party Platform, adopted by each party at its convention.

We also listened to speeches sticking to the prime time way of doing things, which includes talking heads talking right through most of former Secretary of State Condoleeca Rice’s compelling speech. We heard Ann Romney, the candidate’s wife, attempt to put a more human face on her husband, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie give the keynote address, and freshly picked vice presidential candidate Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.), the GOP’s and the GOP right’s conservative and ideas man make a name for himself in his first opportunity to make an impression with the kind of national audience provided, oddly enough, by the networks.

Here’s something the media really ought to quit doing: they ought to stop telling us what each speechifier must do and accomplish in his or her speech. Let’s refrain from saying that Mitt Romney is about to make the most important speech in his life, which it clearly isn’t. An example of a much more important one and much shorter one was his “Will you marry me?” to his wife-to-be. Such faux expectations are either left unfulfilled or are greatly exaggerated. I will simply cite Peggy Noonan’s bubbling enthusiasm for Sarah Palin when she debated Joe Biden in 200—or, for that matter, the gentlemanly raves received by the candidate’s wife after having to meet such a high standard in the first place.

Ann Romney did not manage to make her husband any more human than he has appeared so far. It may in the end be an impossible task, given that the presidential candidate himself has pretty much indicated he is not Mr. Personality. She praised her husband exuberantly for his constant support during her illnesses, and for being the man he was when he returned her home from their first date. “He made me laugh then, and he still makes me laugh,” she said. This may be new—so far, jokes have not been Mitt’s forte given the response to the birth certificate joke.

“It’s all about love,” she said. In this, her love for her husband came through like a giant torch as genuine as can be. Did she connect to the women voters out there, the regular folks? That’s a debatable question. I think recognizing the difficulties single mothers or struggling stay-at-home mothers have making ends meet is not the same thing as empathy and imagination, the kind that says: you get it because you did it.

As for Christie—well, Romney was a wise man in not picking him to be his running mate. Christie, charismatic and big of girth and ego, managed to give a rousing look-what-I-did-in-New Jersey speech without mentioning Mitt Romney until the speech was nearly over.

Romney, it appears, also made a wise pick in choosing Ryan to be his running mate. Ryan made an effective—if also accompanied by devil-in-the-details moments—critique of President Obama’s battles or lack of battles in solving the jobs crisis and righting the economy from a persistent level of stagnation.

He did something else: he managed to give a sharp illustration of how to give a GOP convention speech. The speech, delivered with sharp jabs but without malice, laid out Obama’s apparent failures on such matters as health care—”We’ll repeal it”—jobs, the middle class, small businesses, the stimulus and so forth. Ryan paused to deliver heart-felt, deeply personal and touching anecdotes about his own life—the death of his father, a grandmother with Alzheimer’s disease, working his way through college, the love and support of his wife. He peppered the speech with praise for the man who’s on top of the ticket, including noting their differences. Check out their playlists, he urged us, noting that he appears to be a heavy metal rock fan, while Romney plays “the kind of music you hear on elevators.”

He also managed to give a speech that were full of “mistakes” or outright falsehoods, including an anecdotal tale about an auto plant in his hometown of Janesville, Wisc., which he said Obama had promised to keep open. The factory, he said, closed within a year, suggesting that this was another, more poignant in a long line of broken promises on the part of the president. In fact, the factory closed in 2008 during the Bush Administration. There was the usual battle over who’s taking money away from Medicaid—it appears both might be, but not according to Ryan. He also blamed Obama for the lowering of the country’s S&P rate, for not supporting the findings of the super committee on the economic and debt crisis. Ryan did not support the findings, either.

The factory story is potentially telling, because here Ryan took an event and made it a tool to tell a tale that wasn’t true. It’s one thing to make “mistakes” or even “mis-speak,” my favorite parsing for the word, “lie.” It’s another to say something knowing it’s not true, or knowing it’s a half-lie, or knowing it’s wrong. It’s, at best, not being able to resist a temptation when it presented itself.


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