The major American political conventions have become like the party conferences of the conservative Tory and liberal Labour parties in England. The point is to showcase the party’s reigning and rising stars. There’s some arguing and maneuvering in the background but it’s in smoke-free green rooms, and it’s not between politicians but media consultants, and it’s over things like whether the spermatozoa-esque pictures of John Kerry crawling in a dust free space suit should be a) laughed off, or b) responded to with dark suggestions of leaks by NASA operatives. They went with plan b, and a fluke became a story. Sometimes candidates must think like the king in Shakespeare: “First thing, let’s kill all the consultants.”
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Unlike most Americans I have been watching it all on TV. I am enjoying it because I love politics and speeches. Some observations.
So far, a lot of the speeches have seemed to be an expression of the Democratic Party’s persistent problem, which is that it can’t seem to decide on a message. The speeches have been about everything—health care, technology, minimum wage—but a speech about everything is a speech about nothing. You have to decide.
Some of the speeches had a stale, canned and fulsome quality. Ted Kennedy seemed ponderous and heavy. With his new round glasses he looks like old pictures of his father if his father had grown corpulent. He brought out old chestnuts, quoted JFK, tried mightily to rouse. “John Kerry offers hope, not fear.” “An economy that works for everyone.” “That’s the kind of America we’ll have with John Kerry in the White House.” He has outlived his rhetorical age. It was the speech of someone desperate to move you. Speeches like this never do.
When Barack Obama began his speech everyone watching thought: A star is born. Talk about famous overnight. His Bill Cosby-esque line—”the slander that a black youth with a book is acting white”—was right for the times, which is to say in line with common wisdom, and when he spoke of blue states where “we worship an awesome God,” he was not just hitting a note but using the authentic language of American evangelism. When you first see him he is a plain man of irregular features and jug ears. But when he begins to speak his features blend into harmony and handsomeness. This kind of thing only happens if you have magic. At one point the C-Span cameras went to an unhappy looking Jesse Jackson in the stands. He looked like he was thinking, “I don’t remember passing a torch.” But it was passed.
Teresa Heinz Kerry’s speech was an odd and interesting mix, just like Teresa Heinz Kerry. She is such a distinctive personality, so unusual as a presidential candidate’s wife, that when she began to thank the delegates in five languages a friend asked me with some alarm if she was speaking in tongues. It was weird that she didn’t talk much about her husband—if she doesn’t have special insights or stories to share on him who does?—but it was fun when she dealt with her verbal indiscretions by breezily calling herself “opinionated.” What saves Mrs. Heinz Kerry is a singularity, an individualism, and a retained femininity. She seems like someone who’d come to your house with homeopathic medicine if you had a sinus infection. But there’s a disconnect. There is about her too an air of grievance—the sighs, the resigned shrugs—as if she feels she has been a victim of unusual suffering. She seems not to have noticed that all her life she has been a child of privilege. It’s odd. I wonder sometimes if some liberals have somehow never been told that bad things happen in life, and who are constantly perplexed by whatever misfortunes befall them.
Hillary Clinton was in comparison cold, robotic and too heavily botoxed. At a certain point Botox can become a problem for those in public life. Mrs. Clinton now has to pop her eyes out to show excitement. Worry lines are honorable, and in Mr. Clinton’s wife they are understandable. She should keep them. She has obviously been practicing public speaking—her voice was lower, more modulated and less screechy than usual. Her speech was full of assertion—”I know a thing or two about health care”—but lacking in wit or grace. As always she seemed full of certitude and lacking in sincerity.
Ron Reagan is too coached in media. He has the smooth round tones of a game show host. He patronized his audience. “Let me paint as simple a picture as I can,” he said of stem cell research. This is how liberals say, “I’ll talk slowly, stupid.” When he began with “I am not here to make a political speech,” he seemed like a salesman on the lot: “This is not a used car, it is a pre-owned car.” By the end he seemed to me like Ron Popeil of the late night pocket-fisherman infomercials: And by the way, no fetal tissue is used in this process! He seemed a nicer person years ago when he was dancing in his underpants on Saturday Night Live. He is that unusual person who seems less authentic when not in a tutu.
As in conventions past, some of the best and most revealing moments came away from the podium and in interviews. A sleek Caroline Kennedy hit all the anchor booths, and with Tom Brokaw seemed to leave open the idea that she will be running for office. So will, one senses, Ben Affleck. “You have to enervate the base,” he told Chris Matthews, who introduced him on “Hardball” as “a great writer.” (He must have been thinking of Jayson Blair.) What Mr. Affleck has going for him in terms of politics, besides moviestardom, is, the above notwithstanding, a quick intelligence. Going against him will be this: When he’s watching himself on the monitor and doesn’t know he’s on camera his bright boyish eyes become clever, sensual and vain. He has Clinton eyes.
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While watching the convention this week I have been reading the early 20th century novels of Indiana’s Booth Tarkington, the once wildly popular chronicler of American mores and social arrangements as our great rise began. I had a hunch I’d find things pertinent to our times. Sure enough, in the short story collection “In the Arena,” Tarkington gives this description of a political ward heeler. “He was a pock-pitted, damp looking soiled little fungus of a man who had . . . through the operation of a befitting ingenuity, forced a recognition of his leadership.” This of course reminded me of Michael Moore, a modern sort of ward heeler, who was seated in the presidential booth with Jimmy Carter and who early in the week became the face of the convention. It would be good for Mr. Kerry if he seizes the stage from Mr. Moore, and Mr. Affleck, et al., tonight. It is time he came to dominate the proceedings with focus, and a message. He should not let this convention speak for him. He should speak for him.