Thursday, September 4, 2008

Paging Mr. Serling? Mr. Serling, Call Holding Line 1

As we all know, the last genuinely unscripted convention was the Democratic Party's nightmarish implosion in Chicago in 1968. It was a circus, it was a fiasco, it was (given what has come since) nothing short of a national tragedy. In the intervening forty years, not one Democratic candidate for President has won a two-way, asterisk-free campaign for the office of President of the United States. Only three times, in 1976 (when most ficus plants could have won against The Man Who Pardoned Nixon), and in 1992 and 1996, when H. Ross Perot was splitting the opposition, has a gentleman with a "D" beside his name received the late-evening telephone call in his hotel room, instead of placing it.

In the wreckage of that convention there emerged a new scheme for choosing candidates--as much for the diminished uncertainty of the big summertime show, as anything--and for better and for worse, these days all of the major decisions that used to be made at a convention are instead decided by seventy-nine pig farmers in a bingo hall in Ankeney, Iowa. Over the last forty years, if you were looking for drama in a national convention, you were in for a long wait.

Until this week.

You wouldn't be reading these words if you didn't already know that just about everything that could happen to the Republicans in Minneapolis this year, has happened. From that surreal and profoundly soporific Monday-night hurricane telethon, to the nationally-televised death of Joe Lieberman's political career on Tuesday, to history's consensus-winner as the nastiest, most bitter, and least engaging personal introduction to the nation, on Wednesday.

For many of us, killing time earlier this evening with flabby posts while Cindy McCain stumbled through her puff-piece (in which she seemed to feel it was necessary to introduce each and every member of her family by his or her first and last name), the preceding three days had lain no obvious template against which to form our expectations as to just how the grand finale might go. At least while we were waiting we didn't have to endure the agony of hearing Ms. McCain repeat her self-congratulatory and sumptuously ignorant line about Palin's foreign policy credentials arising because Alaska is close to Russia. I try not to be petty. Really, I do. Honest. And hey, it's not like Ms. McCain came on-stage this evening wearing a three-hundred-thousand-dollar dress, now, is it.

Finally, at perhaps 9:45PM Eastern time, Ms. McCain trailed off, giving way to an introductory video that managed to praise McCain by calling him a Moma's Boy, followed at last by the man of the hour himself. Drumroll please, and all that noise. The hour had finally arrived.

And the flavor of the hour? Weird.

For starters, it would be a sucker bet to assume that the speech won't play on Main Street. That's the mistake that many pundits (including The Key Grip himself) made last night, when our own instinct to recoil from that font of WalMart-outfitted vitriol blinded us to the innate joy that Americans always have when cheering for a bully. No one can tell you, as these words are being written -- NO ONE can tell you -- how this speech will be received. Analysts simply aren't capable of that kind of 250,000,000-facet empathy. As ever, analysts can only afford remarks on what they, themselves, took away from the speech, and hope that they're not too far off the mark in their meager attempts to take the general temperature of public opinion.

Here then, are mine:

First, for all of its trappings as a completely unconventional message for a Republican, the basic strategy of the speech was classic Lee Attwater / Karl Rove cynicism. Specifically, the McCain/Palin team apparently realized even before it was a team that there was no way it could defeat a change ticket without also being about change. Human beings with human decency would, of course, figure out what they stand for that people can agree with and run on that--but American Republicans, instead, manipulate the dialogue until they can exact their victory on the rest of us with whichever calculated dishonesty is the message of the quadrennial.

So tomorrow you'll hear a lot about how unconventional the speech was, both in delivery and in tone, but in fact the only thing unconventional was that the calculated dishonesty of the quadrennial has turned out to be to try somehow to run a reform-and-change campaign on the record of one of the biggest pork-barrel Senators in the history of Washington, and a woman who five years ago was the Treasurer of the Wasilla PTA. So don't let anyone tell you how profoundly mold-breaking--how, dare I say it, maverick--the speech was. In its content, perhaps it was. But not in its strategy.

Second, it's very difficult to imagine precisely what the Republicans were thinking with the combination of the three nights. Any one would perhaps have been a defensible strategy, multiplied by three, but taken together they form a tangled picture to say the least: from placards marked "SERVICE!" on Tuesday, to a double-barreled, base-rallying attack-ad on Wednesday, to the message this evening that McCain's opponent is an honorable man and that the very base that was supposed to be rallied stands for an assortment of things that are broken and need to be fixed. There simply seemed to be no clear takeaway, no clear message. Policy is always in short supply at Republican conventions (how can you plug your policy suggestions when your party identification is borne of a psychopathic hatred for your own government?), but over the past three nights there didn't appear even to be an easily portable thematic message. What, exactly, do these two people want to do with the next four years, other than to ensure that Mr. Obama keeps his distance from the Oval Office?

Third, when McCain sought to re-assert his credential as independently minded and willing to buck his party, he seemed, to this analyst at least, to do it using all the wrong issues. The idea of standing before a crowd of mouth-frothing, cowboy-hat-wearing, can-cooler owning bullies, and then taking credit for your votes against party dogma, well, that was always going to be risky -- it is indeed the reason that Mr. McCain needed Sarah Palin in the first place -- but surely the campaign could've done a better job of choosing which things to talk about. "I hate war"? The man who wants us to choose him for his sound judgment thought it would be a good idea to appear before a couple of hundred mad-dog Republicans and say, "I hate war"???

Fourth, forget the protests. No one gives a shit. If anything they made McCain look magnanimous and gave the cowboy crowd a few extra chances to parrot their seig-heils to the flag--indeed if anything the protestors helped McCain to warm up the crowd. At all events, dumb.

Fifth, I was bent on my desire to hang on this guy's every word so that I could write about them -- and even I lost interest halfway through. Heaven knows what Main Street America was thinking, or for that matter if they were even watching. I've heard Senator McCain on many occasions in the past, and I've never heard him quite this affectless and seemingly disinterested. Granted, I listened over the radio and not via television, and we all know what happens when a person listening by radio tries to analyze a speech designed for television. But still: I can't remember the last time I've heard a nomination acceptance speech that did this little to elevate my blood pressure, for one reason or the other. Well, yes I can: Jimmy Carter's acceptance speech in 1980. I suppose. (And by the way, that couldn't be worse news for Mr. McCain, considering that they are both Navymen who ran under the banner of the incumbent party, against persons with no foreign policy experience, in a slumping economy. Didn't turn out so well the last time for the Navyman, now, did it.)

But the most interesting thing about tonight is the thing we will probably never know: whether this strange and almost un-cheerable mishmash of bungled lines, unfortunate contradictions, and nose-tweaks at the ideals of the very people in the room at the time, was a product of choice, or of necessity. The McCain people will no doubt fan their way across the weekend news shows, claiming that tonight's performance (or lack thereof?) proves once again that Mr. McCain certainly isn't "more of the same" of anything. They will say that he had almost no help writing the speech, and they will say that he demurred on repeated suggestions that he vet the early drafts through his increasingly incompetent-seeming handlers. True or not, it will be the best possible spin to put on the thing; personally I'm not so sure.

The rival explanation, of course, is that the McCain campaign, having access to far more lavish and far-flung polling data than we poor sots trying to write about all of this, knows that it is in a terrible bind in this election. Surely they must be keenly aware, even in Minneapolis this evening, that a Sarah Palin call-to-arms will net them about a hundred and fifty-five electoral votes. This country has changed a great deal in the time it has taken Mr. McCain to anoint himself a champion of change, with self-identified Democrats outnumbering self-identified Republicans by a 9-7 margin, and independents trending steadily and bounce-resistantly to the new kid. My guess is that the McCain camp figured it had no choice. They could make some lemonade out of this ham-fisted reach across the aisle, claiming that it would lay to rest the charge that McCain's maverick label is fictitious, but they would have to make the reach if they wanted to win the election. ...Which begs only the question, where does Sarah Palin fit, exactly, in that calculus?

We'll know in about eight weeks. Now go to bed.

Dave O'Gorman
("The Key Grip")
Gainesville, Florida

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