Clint Speaks — And Not To A Chair

Clint Eastwood has given an interview and discussed his legendary appearance at the Republican Convention, where he spoke to an empty chair representing President Obama.  Appearing in the Carmel Pine Cone — the local newspaper in the town where Eastwood once served as mayor — it’s an interesting read.

Among the highlights:  he had three broad points to make during the appearance; his remarks weren’t vetted beforehand because he hadn’t decided what to say; and the decision to use the empty chair as part of the presentation was a last-minute inspiration that occurred when he saw the chair backstage and a stagehand asked him if he wanted to sit down.  His remarks were intended to be impromptu and “a contrast with all the scripted speeches, because I’m Joe Citizen” and “have the same feelings as the average guy out there.”  Eastwood says he knew his presentation was “very unorthodox,” but he didn’t realize he had provoked a firestorm of comment — pro and con — until a day later.

The Pine Cone interview leaves no doubt — if there was any — about his political views.  He’s quoted as saying that “President Obama is the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people,”  and that “Romney and Ryan would do a much better job running the country, and that’s what everybody needs to know.”

Eastwood said his presentation “was aiming for people in the middle.”  It’s not entirely clear whether he hit that target, but one thing is certain — people still are talking about it and watching it.  If I read the YouTube data correctly, the various videos of Eastwood’s performance have been watched more than 2 million times.

Speech Saturation

After watching three days of Republican Convention, and now three days of the Democratic Convention, Kish and I are reaching the point of speech saturation.  I think I can make it through President Obama’s speech without suffering peroration poisoning — but it’s going to be close.

The sad fact is, there just aren’t many good speakers or speechwriters in either party.  Most of the speeches are hopelessly generic.  Everyone seems to talk about their families coming from nothing and their parents sacrificing.  Everyone relates some interaction with a generic American citizen — “in east Bejeebus, I met an ex-autoworker named Mel . . . .” — to illustrate some tired point.  Everyone tries to get the audience repeat some limp catch phrase, time and time again, until the viewer is ready to hurl a Coke can through the TV screen.  Except for Clint Eastwood, there’s not much originality out there.

The deliveries usually aren’t much better.  For every high-energy speaker like former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm, there are dozens of deadpan, monotone snore-inducers.  Most have no sense of timing and can’t deliver a punch line; they don’t know how to use facial expressions or gestures to accentuate the words.  They stand stiffly, turning their heads from side to side like a robot, reading off the teleprompters.  Even worse, however, are those people who think they are just about the most clever, entertaining personalities imaginable; their mugging and winking is intolerable.

Tonight, we’re seeing more of the same.  Sigh.  President Obama’s speech can’t get here soon enough.

The GOP’s Diversity Conundrum

Many commentators made fun of the Republican Party at its convention last week, lampooning the fact that the diversity of the speakers really doesn’t match the diversity of party membership.  The parade of African-Americans, Latinos, and women, they argued, was like a Potemkin Village designed to mask a party that lacks meaningful diversity.

GOP congressional candidate Mia Love

The diversity issue is an obvious challenge for the GOP.  It’s hard to imagine any party having long-term success if it must begin each election by writing off large, growing segments of the American populace because those segments think the party has no interest in them and nothing to offer them.  The only way for Republicans to overcome that perception, I think, is to show that there are diverse members of the party who have been successful.  It’s a lot easier to convince people to check out your tent if they can peek inside and see a few friendly faces.

And it’s not as if the convention speakers weren’t accomplished in their own right.  The Republicans don’t have to reach down to the county level to find successful Latinos, African-Americans, and women; the diverse speakers at last week’s convention included sitting governors and Senators, a former Secretary of State, and current candidates for the Senate and the House of Representatives.  They were an impressive bunch — and if, like me, you were unaware of people like Susana Martinez, the governor of New Mexico, Brian Sandoval, the governor of Nevada, Nikki Haley, the governor of South Carolina, or Mia Love, a congressional candidate from Utah, it was a bit of a revelation.

The stories these folks told about their families, and the opportunities that they were able to enjoy in America through hard work and sacrifice, were compelling — and might actually cause wavering diverse voters to pause and question whether the Republican Party is worth a look. The themes of sacrifice, and hard work, and America as the land of opportunity run deep in families that have immigrated to this country during the last few generations.  I’m guessing that Latinos and other recent immigrants who watched any of the convention learned to their surprise that they had a lot in common with the speakers behind the podium.

New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez

I don’t think Democrats are in danger of losing their stranglehold on African-American and, to a lesser extent, Latino voters this year, but if I were a Democrat I’d be wondering how my party lost a member like Susana Martinez.  Martinez had the tough assignment of following Condoleezza Rice and preceding Paul Ryan on Wednesday night, and she rose to the occasion and gave a terrific, memorable speech.  She began her political life as a Democrat, like her parents before her, and one day she and her husband were invited to lunch by two Republicans whom she suspected would raise the issue of joining the GOP.  The Martinezes went to the lunch out of politeness and talked with the two Republicans about issues like welfare and the size of government.  After the lunch ended, an astonished Martinez turned to her husband and said:  “I’ll be damned, we’re Republicans!”

The GOP is hoping that, if it continues to produce and then feature office-holders and candidates of the quality of Susana Martinez and the other people who stood before the Republican convention, it won’t be long before many more diverse Americans realize, with a start, that they also should be Republicans.  Based on what I saw last week, that strategy just might work.

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?

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.

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.

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?