The consensus Wednesday morning was that while Chris Christie didn’t hit a home run with his keynote speech last night, it was a solid stand-up double. I’d agree with that, but the sport is slightly off for the analogy. Convention speeches aren’t like a regular baseball game; they’re like a home-run derby. If you don’t hit a home run, you’re out, forgotten, doomed to the mists of history along with Bill Bradley (1992) and Guy Vander Jagt (1980). An exception was Bill Clinton, whose 1988 keynote was so dreadful that it became memorable, especially after he joked about it on The Tonight Show.
Christie wasn’t as bad as all that. He was O.K. I missed his mouth. The big ol’ Jersey boy simply isn’t built for the spouting of platitudes like, “Our problems are big, and the solutions will not be painless.” I mean, tell me more: Painful how? For whom? This Republican trope of saying “We’re going to tell you the hard truths” and then not telling them underestimates the American public’s ability to discern blather when they hear it.
But there was a larger question about Christie’s speech: Why no red meat? The truly memorable keynotes, like Ann Richards’ in 1988, zing the opposition: “Poor George [Bush] … he was born with a silver foot in his mouth.” Rudy Giuliani’s disdainful attack on Barack Obama as a community organizer in 2008 was a notable, if less memorable, version of the same. (Obama’s soaring 2004 keynote was the exception that proves the rule.) Christie tried a modified-limited Obama, minus the poetry. Was it because he wanted to shed his lovely loudmouth image and appear … presidential? Or was this a conscious decision on the part of the Romney campaign that the public was sick of ugliness and ready for a high-road convention? If it were the former, it failed. If it were the latter, it didn’t succeed.
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Ann Romney’s effort was better. She seemed a palpable human being, especially when her cadence launched beyond standard teleprompter-speak into unscripted exclamations: “I love you, women!” and “I know a lot of you [convention delegates] myself!” Although about the time she got to the line, “I don’t think there’s a women in America who thinks life is going to be easy,” the THIS IS THE MESSAGE light was blinking as red as her dress. Message: Mitt likes women, even if his party has gone slightly loony on abortion and contraception.
Another quibble: Ann Romney said at several points in the speech that her husband makes her laugh. But she gave no examples. We didn’t hear a single Mitt Romney anecdote — at least, none that I recall. We had to take his humanity on faith. I’m willing to do that. I’m sure he’s a great husband and dad. But that tells you nothing about the kind of leader, the kind of national father figure, he might be … and delivering bad news, in a fatherly way, is one of the jobs of a President.
Finally, let me congratulate Wolf Blitzer for a fine bit of journalism last night. He was interviewing Rand Paul, who said, “If Obama is re-elected, I don’t know that this country survives.” It was the sort of apocalyptic trash that Republicans have been routinely slinging this year, and Wolf called him on it, saying, “Wait a minute. You don’t think the United States of America will be the United States of America in four years” if Obama is re-elected? Paul beat a hasty retreat into libertarian inflation and currency folderol.
It should be an easy thing for journalists to call out politicians on their rhetorical nonsense, but in the heat of the moment — and the mainstream desire for comity, and the flood of distracting instructions coming through the earpiece — American television journalists often let it slide. The great ones, like Bob Schieffer, do it effortlessly and ecumenically, with a puckish smile. It was good to see Wolf doing it too.