I didn’t have a hall pass for Tuesday night, so I don’t really have a sufficient sample size, but I thought last night was by far the best night of the convention and a thoroughly effective bit of political theatre. Again, this is impressionistic and I think had I been a Clinton die-hard I may have felt differently, but the first two days and nights of the convention felt oddly muted and somewhat low-energy.
First, up until last night, there’s been a strange, near-total absence of red meat. I understand there’s three audiences for a convention speech: the hall, the media, and people watching on TV and it’s hard to align a speech to work for all three. The people in the hall, understandably want politicians to “give em hell!” In fact, when Bill Clinton launched into an attack at one point in his speech, a guy sitting near me yelled “Give ’em hell, Bill,” and everyone around me applauded. But the media tends to tsk-tsk, and due to the campaign’s obsession with “independents,” the speeches in 2008 have been rhetorically more centrist, on average, than those at 2004, even though the platform is substantively pretty further left than 2004. As a general rule I prefer centrist rhetoric and progressive policy to progressive rhetoric with centrist policy, but I digress.
Interestingly, Bill Clinton gave the most liberal speech, I thought, of the convention thus far. The first prime-time mention of Katrina, numerous invocations of the word “inequality,” and even a brief disquisition on the wage/productivity gap!
Then came John Kerry, who started out tepid and then delivered a phenomenally righteous and appropriately angry denunciation of what candidate McCain has become. Based on my conversations on the party circuit last night, the speech was the hit of the night. Incidentally, I think Kerry was part of the reason the convention felt more animated in 2004. Most of the enthusiasm in 2004 wasn’t about John Kerry, it was about defeating Bush. So Kerry’s absence from the first three days of the convention didn’t matter for the level of enthusiasm. But this year people really are excited about the candidate himself, which is why I thought Obama’s surprise appearance last night was a great call.
What immediately struck me after it was all over was just how incredible a political talent Bill Clinton is. A speech-writing friend said it was like he was making love to every person in the audience. Clinton has the rare ability to appear as though there’s nowhere he’s more comfortable than in front of thousands of people. And there’s only one other politician I’ve ever seen who has that same preternatural calm and ease. He showed up last night and he’ll be giving a speech tonight. Should be pretty good.