Clint’s Stint

No one who watched Clint Eastwood’s short appearance at last night’s Republican National Convention, where he talked to an empty chair supposedly occupied by President Obama, will ever forget it.

It was a high-wire act, an incredibly bizarre performance that obviously was a radical departure in tone and style from every other speech at the convention, an apparently improvised stunt by a haggard looking Eastwood in a kind of Christopher Walken hairdo — but it was memorable, and I would bet that today more people have talked about Eastwood’s appearance than anything else.  Was it carefully scripted and intentional, or just ad libbing gone awry by an aging, forgetful American icon?  Was it an unforgivably vulgar effort that crudely diminished the office of the Presidency, or just an edgy lampooning of a very-full-of-himself President?  Is Eastwood losing it and on the edge of senility, or was he in character and portraying an average American reacting to what he considers to be a record of arrogance and failure?

Who knows?  I watched it again today — it’s only about 11 minutes long, although watching it last night it seemed longer — and I’m convinced that it was a highly intentional, controlled performance by Eastwood.  But, whatever its intent, the presentation was, as Kish observed, incredibly creative . . . and it got people talking about some of Eastwood’s plain-spoken criticisms and judgments.  The internet today was full of discussion of it, and of the points Eastwood was trying to make.  Don’t you think that was exactly what Eastwood was hoping for?  What are people going to remember from the 2012 Republican convention:  John Thune’s address, Rick Santorum’s remarks, or Clint Eastwood’s pungent, rambling star turn with an empty bar stool?

Twinkie Converts

When you feel that you have made a significant difference in a person’s life, it’s a wonderful day.  Tonight, I’ve got that happy feeling.

A few days ago, I was talking to a colleague who was describing the school lunches she packed for her young children.  When I innocently asked how often they got a Twinkie — a staple of my school lunches — my friend was aghast.  Of course not!  I was astonished by that response, and chided her for depriving her kids of the quintessentially American childhood joy of golden sponge cake and creamy filling, dipped in milk.  I also mentioned my views to some others, and one day this week I found two Twinkies in their original packaging on my desk.  Rather than snarfing them down myself, I donated them to my colleague and told her, in no uncertain terms, that I expected her to let her kids at least have a taste.

When I arrived for work this morning, she somewhat abashedly delivered this note to me.  It reads:  Dear Mr. Wedner, We would like more twinkies we love them.  Love Bryn [and] Coen.  As further evidence that the kids actually got to try the Twinkies, the blue paper on which the note appears is marked with some small fingerprint-sized remnants of the Twinkies’ yummy goodness.

Welcome to Twinkie World, Bryn and Coen!  You really made my day!

Mitt’s Speech, And Some Big Election Themes

Mitt Romney finally got his chance to speak last night.  I thought he gave a good speech that sketched out who he is, what he believes, and where he wants us to go and also sounded themes that are likely to appeal to many Americans who are disappointed in their circumstances and our country’s current condition.

It’s got to be tough to be the nominee at one of these conventions.  You must sit there for days while the podium is occupied by others, hoping that no one commits a crippling blunder and the message you want your party to deliver is getting through.  Yet at the same time every viewer is moving inexorably toward a “convention fatigue” threshold.  You must hope that, by the time you step behind that podium, Americans aren’t so sick to death of speeches that they can’t bear to listen to yours — and you also must hope that you can meet the hour and live up to the accolades that you’ve been receiving over the past three days.

I thought Romney did so, and I think part of the reason for that was that he gave a speech that was true to his character.  Romney doesn’t seem like an angry person or a bitter partisan, and his speech wasn’t sprinkled with inflammatory rhetoric or snide jokes about the President.  Instead, the tone was more of sorrow than anger, more of disappointment than diatribe.  Romney doesn’t want to assume the unnecessary burden of trying to convince people that President Obama is a bad person with evil intent, he just wants to help people understand that the President’s course has been misguided and unsuccessful — and that a different course will be more productive and also, incidentally, more consistent with the America we all have known and cherished.

Some of the themes Romney touched on run deep.  Americans are inveterate optimists who traditionally expect a better future for their kids and will work to make that happen — but how can you hold to that belief these days, where you can’t find that job that will allow you to move your family upward?  Americans are proud of their country’s accomplishments and heroes like Neil Armstrong — but what does it say when so many of those accomplishments are now decades old, and few new genuine accomplishments are being added to the ledger?  America is a land of many freedoms that its citizens hold dear — but how can we hope to continue to enjoy those freedoms when we are yoked to an increasingly insurmountable debt burden financed by foreign governments?

Time will tell, of course, if these themes find a receptive audience among the American people, or whether the themes that President Obama and the Democratic party sound next week win out.  That’s what elections are all about.

Average Folks, Talking About Someone They Admire

Tonight (so far, at least) the Republican National Convention has been largely devoted to average folks talking about Mitt Romney — as a member of his church, as a friend and neighbor, and as an executive with Bain Capital.

It’s a bit jarring to hear people defending a venture capital firm — the kind of educated risk-taking business that is crucial in a capitalist economy, but which is so easily depicted as a blood-sucking, money-grubbing blight on society — and speaking so openly about the Mormon faith, because these aren’t the kind of things you normally see on TV.   I think it’s been refreshing, and effective, to hear from these average folks, talking about a man they know and like and appreciate.

We see enough of the airbrushed crowd, with their permatans and carefully coiffed hairdos, their carefully scripted remarks and rehearsed moves.  Seeing Joe and Jane America walking onto a political convention stage, speaking from the heart about someone who helped them, and whom they admire, is corny — but it’s a nice change of pace.

Jack’s, In The Alley

In the alley behind the State Office Building in downtown Columbus, you will find Jack’s — a small diner serves one of the best lunches in central Ohio.

This is one of those places that is frozen in time.  I’ve been going there for more than 25 years, and it hasn’t changed in that time.  It still has the slowly spinning disco ball on the ceiling, the ’50s vintage signage, the lights strung from wall to wall, and the bright aluminum backsplashes behind the grill.  The friendly wait staff has been there for years, too, and the menu hasn’t changed much, either.

When I go to Jack’s, I get the same order every time:  the double cheeseburger special, with the two hamburger patties cooked on the open grill so that they have a slight crust, crinkle-cut french fries, and a chocolate milkshake made with real milk and real ice cream, mixed in a large blender in huge steel glasses.  It’s the best milkshake in Columbus, so thick you have to work hard to suck it through your straw, and one of the best cheeseburgers, too.  I have mine with a raw onion, melted American cheese, and ketchup, and it goes down easy.

I know we’re supposed to eat healthy these days, but there is nothing — nothing! — like a good cheeseburger, fries, and a chocolate shake for lunch.

The Hitler Brand

What is it about Adolf Hitler that causes businesses in foreign countries to use his name to market their products?

First it was “Fuhrerwein” being sold in northern Italy, now it’s a Hitler clothing store — complete with a circular swastiska dotting the “i” — that has opened in a city in western India.  The owner says that he didn’t know that Hitler was the name of a Nazi dictator who gave the order to kill millions of innocent Jews.  Instead, he claims, “Hitler” was just a nickname given to the “very strict” grandfather of a friend.  Really?  And the very strict grandpa dotted the “i” with a swastika?  Give me a break!

It turns out that Hitler is popular in certain parts of India, because he is viewed as giving “dignity and prestige” to Germany.  Apparently Indian schoolbooks don’t teach people that he was a mass murderer whose bloody dictatorial reign made Germany a pariah state that, even now, 70 years later, is still trying to to live down the inexplicable horror of the Nazi years.

But hey . . . if using the name Hitler and the swastika brings curious people into the store and results in a few purchases that might not have occurred otherwise, what’s the harm of trading on the name of one of history’s most evil figures?


Hearing From The Boy Scout

Paul Ryan gave his much-anticipated speech at the Republican National Convention last night.  After a somewhat hesitant start, Ryan successfully introduced himself to the American public and gave a speech that suggests that he will be an effective running mate.

My first reaction to Ryan was:  he looks like a Boy Scout.  Squint at him long enough, and you won’t see a guy in a suit but a Scout in a crisp uniform and tie, displaying merit badges galore.  Ryan has retained not only boyish looks but also boyish mannerisms, looking at you sheepishly from under his eyebrows, with his head tilted forward and a lopsided grin.  It’s as if he were apologizing to you for taking a short cut of his own devising when he ties a perfect slip knot.

Ryan’s earnest, “aw shucks” demeanor should go a long way to combating the effort to portray him as an evil, mean-spirited shill for the super-rich who will happily throw senior citizens to the wolves as part of the bargain.  He got choked up when he talked about his Mom getting beyond the loss of his father at an early age and how she was his role model.  And when he spoke of teaming up with his Mom to respectfully and tenderly care for an elderly relative with dementia, I believed him.   He seems like the Scout who will help granny across the street, not steal her Medicare check and shove her off the cliff.

This doesn’t mean that Ryan is right on policy — it just means that it probably will be hard for the Democrats to demonize or marginalize him.  His speech last night showed that he could well be an effective advocate for the Republican approach and critic of the President’s record.  He’s obviously knowledgeable about economic and budget issues and comfortable with math, and he displayed a knack for framing the issues in a way that brings them home.  His remark about recent college graduates being forced to live in their parents’ homes, peering up at faded 2008 Obama posters, rather than getting on with their lives, probably resonated with some of those recent graduates (not to mention their parents).  And his willingness to poke gentle fun at Mitt Romney’s elevator-music tastes was refreshing and, again, consistent with that Boy Scout persona.

We shouldn’t get too excited about vice presidential candidates.  They shouldn’t be the focus — and when they are, as was the case in 2008 with the last GOP vice presidential candidate, it’s usually not a good thing.  But if the phony caricatures aren’t plausible, vice presidential candidates can help to frame the the substantive debate.  If he can successfully dodge claims that he’s Mephistopheles in disguise, Paul Ryan may be able to actually address some of the important issues in this election on their merits and allow us to judge for ourselves.  Wouldn’t that be a refreshing development?

Condoleezza Rice Hits It Out Of The Park

Condoleezza Rice has always impressed me as a thoughtful, accomplished woman who had brainpower to spare.  Who knew she also could give a really good speech?

Her remarks tonight cut through the standard political noise and presented a compelling overview of the world and America’s role in it — how American leadership makes a difference in staving off the forces of chaos and repression, how America serves as an inspiration for the oppressed, and how America must stand up for free people and free markets  And, she pointed out, America can only lead the world, as it must lead the world, if it is strong at home, economically and educationally, and true to its ideals of freedom and opportunity.

Rice delivers her remarks in measured tones, letting the force of her ideas and carefully chosen words have an increasingly powerful impact.  Her speech, available here, is well worth reading.

“Rocking” The Convention

Mitch McConnell’s flaccid remarks at the open have set the tone so far tonight; it’s been a series of dull speeches — so dull that I’ve actually contemplated the less-than-crucial issue of political convention music.

Has there ever been any political convention musical performance that wasn’t instantly forgettable?  Earlier tonight, some aging rocker with an ’80s haircut and a leather jacket actually tried to perform something that sounded like a rock song.  Imagine, trying to perform a rock song under such circumstances!  An outsider, bad boy, anti-establishment musical form gets awkwardly transplanted into an event that is the essence of the establishment — it is called a convention, after all — and photos of some prancing rocker, jazz combo or hip hop band are intercut with the spastic swaying and fitful dance moves of the conventioneers.  And we learn that, however convention delegates are selected, it’s not for their dancing prowess.

It’s bad enough for those of us watching . . . imagine how unpleasant it must be for the performers.

Paul Ryan, Extremist

The big speech at the Republican Convention tonight will come from Paul Ryan, the Wisconsin Congressman who is Mitt Romney’s running mate.  For many people — including Kish and me — it will be the first time we get to see Ryan make a speech.

The speech will be important, because President Obama’s supporters are doing what they can to convince us that Ryan is a dangerous extremist, a fringe politician who wants to scalp the poor and enrich the wealthy, push granny off the cliff, eviscerate the social safety net, and  hurl the nation back into the dark ages.  Of course, that’s what modern politics is like — we can’t just respectfully disagree with someone, we have to try to depict them as the devil incarnate.

I’m skeptical about Ryan’s supposed extremism.  He’s fiscally conservative, sure, but no nut job Republican is going to elected repeatedly from a blue-collar district that favored President Obama over John McCain in 2008 — and that is exactly what Ryan has done, and in 2010 he got 68 percent of the vote.  I think we can trust the voters in Wisconsin congressional district number 1 to not repeatedly reelect a bomb-throwing nutcase.

Still, many Americans will form their first impression of Ryan tonight, which means he’ll never have a better opportunity to try to shrug off the extremist label.  As we all know, first impressions often can be lasting ones.

Incompetence, Squared

Think of every can-you-top-this story of bureaucratic incompetence that you have ever heard — and I read a story today that almost certainly beats it.

It happened in Cleveland, and it happened to a little boy getting ready to start kindergarten.  A letter from the Cleveland public school system told him to show up at an address four miles from his home on a particular date for the first day of school.  When he appeared at the designated time and location, he learned that it was the wrong day — in fact, school didn’t start until a week later.  What’s more, the school that formerly was found at the location wasn’t there any more — it had been demolished two years ago, leaving the little boy looking forlornly at a construction site.  And to top it all off, a telephone number provided in the letter for boy’s parents to call in case of a problem didn’t work.  The little boy was one of a number of students who received the same, inexcusable treatment.

The man who is CEO (CEO?) of the Cleveland public schools called the little boy’s family to apologize.  That’s to his credit, but he now should be spending his time trying to figure out how such a ludicrous combination of errors could possibly have occurred.  How could a notice letter have included the wrong date, the wrong address, a non-existent school, and a non-functional telephone number?  Doesn’t anyone in the Cleveland school system proofread important correspondence?  What does that tell you about their careful attention to their jobs?

Government types often wonder why so many people are so skeptical of government bureaucracies, their competence, and their responsiveness.  This story is one powerful reason.

Mitch Mush Mouth

We’re back in front of the TV and tuned in to C-SPAN for day two of the Republican National Convention.  We turned on the set and who is speaking?  Mitch McConnell.

Is there any more mush-mouthed, uninspiring speaker in national politics than Mitch McConnell?  Okay, I’ll give you Harry Reid — but short of that dreary measuring stick, McConnell is unparalleled.  Wooden, colorless, with mechanical gestures and monotone inflection, stale lines and lame jibes, McConnell can’t even get a rise out of the silly hat-wearing crowd in the convention facility.  He may well be a great tactical leader and parliamentarian who fits in well in the Senate club rooms, but he doesn’t belong on a podium speaking to a crowd, much less giving an address at a national political convention.

Mitch McConnell on the screen when we turn on the convention?  The Republicans are lucky we didn’t immediately turn the channel.

A Big Man Holds The Stage

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie gave the keynote speech at the Republican National Convention last night.  I’ve read about Christie, and seen some snippets of him on the stump, but this was the first time I’ve watched him give a speech from beginning to end.  Kish and I both thought he did a fine job.

Christie really commands the stage — and not just because he is a big man, physically.  He uses hand gestures and facial expressions to good effect, and he also brings some force and emotion to his remarks.  When he talked about his parents, his family, his New Jersey roots, his pride in being elected governor of the state of his birth, and the promise of America, you sensed barely controlled passions lurking deep within that mighty frame.

In the speech we learned about Chris Christie, the person, and he touched the expected bases.  He’s proud of his parents and what they achieved through hard work.  He learned to be plain-spoken from his mother, who was the disciplinarian in the family.  He loves his kids, has coached their sports teams — there was a great moment when the camera captured one of his daughters as her Dad mentioned her name on national TV, and her face lit up with pleasure — and wants to give them an even better life than he has had.  To Kish and me, he came across as authentic, whether you agreed with him or not.

Christie’s speech then addressed big concepts, all tied to the theme of leadership.  He submits that leaders should seek respect, not love.  Being a leader is not a popularity contest.  We need someone who will make the hard decisions and face the hard truths — because the country can’t afford anything else. The math of federal spending doesn’t add up, and there’s plenty of blame to go around.  What matters is what we do now — and to make progress we need politicians who care more about doing something, and less about being something.  And leaders, he advised the President, don’t follow the polls, they change the polls.

Christie is confident that Americans will respond to such a leader.  They want honesty and truth and will endure shared sacrifice.  They will reward politicians who lead, not politicians who pander.  They want a better future for their families and a second American century where real American exceptionalism is not an empty political punch line.   He emphasized that the solutions to our current predicament will not be painless:  we all must share in the sacrifice, and anyone who says differently isn’t telling the truth.  Christie believes Mitt Romney will lead — tell the truth, confront the problems rather than passing them off to the next generation, and work to solve them in a bipartisan way.

After the speech was over, we heard pundit criticism that Christie didn’t mention Romney until well into his speech, or throw “red meat” to the partisan crowd by criticizing President Obama by name.  I disagree on both counts.  Christie was giving the keynote speech at the Republican National Convention, not the Mitt Romney National Convention.  Such a speech should say what a political party stands for, not just tout the candidate.  Christie wanted to highlight his work and the work of other GOP governors (many of whom preceded him on the stage) who have balanced budgets and positioned their states for economic growth.  He wanted to convey that what Republicans have done at the state level can be done at the federal level, too.  As for the “red meat,” much of the speech was obviously directed at President Obama’s performance, whether Christie named him or not.  I, for one, appreciated that Christie refrained from cheap humor and cheap shots, and instead talked about Americans, our character, and what we must do to right the ship.

The risk for the GOP in Christie’s speech, I think, is precisely the fact that it addressed the big themes and, in so doing, made some big promises.  If you assume the mantle of hard truth-teller, and hard decision-maker, and purveyor of shared sacrifice, you’d better do your best to deliver on all counts.  If you don’t, you’re going to end up with voters who are as disillusioned and disappointed as many of those trusting folks who went all in for “hope and change” in 2008.

Artur Davis Raises The Speech Bar

The speeches at the Republican National Convention have gotten more compelling as the evening has worn on.

The story line behind the speech of Artur Davis is particularly interesting.  Davis is a Harvard-educated lawyer who served as a Democratic Congressman from Alabama for four terms.  He was one of the first significant politicians to endorse Barack Obama for the presidency, and he made one of the nominating speeches at the 2008 Democratic convention.  But Davis, a moderate, became concerned about the direction of the country under the President.  He voted against the Affordable Care Act — the only member of the Congressional Black Caucus to do so — and then ran, unsuccessfully, for the Democratic nomination for the governorship of Alabama.

Davis later moved to Virginia, and began rethinking his political affiliations.  Tonight he came to the Republican convention and declared that he is a Republican . . . and then gave a speech about why he has changed his mind about who to support for the presidency.  With practiced cadence and strong imagery, Davis sought to rise above what he called the cacophony of angry voices and speak directly to those who are undecided, or wavering in their support for President Obama, and convince them to join him.

I’m not sure whether the comments of a person who has so recently changed parties will be persuasive — time will tell, I suppose — but Kish and I both thought it was the most interesting speech so far.

Watching The Convention On C-SPAN

Kish and I are watching the Republican Convention tonight, on C-SPAN.  It’s great TV, largely because it’s completely unfiltered — just the convention feed itself, with no talking heads to interpret or spin things for us.

What do you learn if you watch a political convention in real time?  For one thing, the United States is still a regional country.  Every speaker we’ve seen tonight has displayed their own unique accent, from the tongues of New England, to those of the Midwest, to the those of the rolling Plains states.  And, even with the continuing growth of the federal government, we’re still a country of individual states.  Every political speaker so far tonight has boasted of the accomplishments of their state and cited the stories of individuals and businesses from their states to illustrate their criticisms of the Obama Administration.

We’ve heard a number of speeches so far, and we also can attest to one other thing:  there aren’t that many great political orators out there — or for that matter, many great speechwriters.  Still, it’s an interesting exercise.  If you want to learn about what Republicans and Democrats really think is important, what better way to do so than watch the conventions those parties have scripted so carefully, seeing those conventions as the delegates themselves do?