Having burned out on political conventions long ago, I approached this year’s festival of Democrats with very low expectations and–surprise–found myself enjoying it a lot. Maybe this is because I wasn’t in Boston. Watching the spectacle from the deep quiet of the Vermont woods on satellite TV changes one’s perspective. I found suspense in a simple question: Can I actually watch the political talk-talk without experiencing deeper disgust, anger, boredom? Can I resist the temptation to step outdoors and listen to the owls.
The pols did well in these terms. They were entertaining–some of them, anyway–despite the low nutritional value of the rhetoric. In olden days, one covered a convention for the fights, the animated showdowns over substantive governing issues, and hoped the nominating roll calls might produce a few surprises. Today, we are all reduced to the roll of TV critics. We judge the performances from our own peculiar angles, since we do not expect to learn anything new or useful from the content. Political junkies have been consigned to cable so the rest of he country can continue to enjoy the real thing.
Yet I found myself informed in minor ways. Barack Obama is a natural star because he has mastered a new style for crossover politics–sounding cool and deliberate as you would expect from a Harvard Law School graduate, yet summoning tides of rising emotion with the biblical cadences of a black preacher. This is new and important. I expect a generation of aspiring politicians (white, black and otherwise) to emulate his technique.
Reverend Al Sharpton still does it the old-fashioned way and he is still great fun to watch. Yet his pungent perorations actively angered the learned pundits. MSNBC cut off Sharpton so Chris Matthews and sidekick Howard Fineman could indulge in a self-important (and borderline racist) rant about the Rev’s inappropriate remarks. Likewise commentators put down Teresa Heinz Kerry for not talking gooey about her husband. What country do these guys live in? I thought she was intriguingly real–herself and proud of it–which says something implicitly worthy about the man (he’s comfortable in the presence of a strong woman).
The point is, the political reporters are the ones who no longer understand the ritual they are covering. They keep searching for political meanings in the tepid events when a convention is now essentially a human drama and only that. Overproduced and not as compelling as it could be, but it is still mildly educational in those terms. My favorite performers were Vanessa and Alexandra Kerry. In a few warm moments, they gave us more genuine insight into their father than poor, old uptight Kerry could ever convey about himself. The man dove off the dock to rescue his daughter’s drowning hamster! How real is that? It makes me feel better about him.
Dreading Kerry’s potential for dragging down the high spirits generated by his daughters, I was actually exhilarated by his performance. Leave aside his militaristic theme, the occasional awkward smile. He delivered his strategic message–I’m no girlie-man liberal–with impressive energy and compelling one-liners. My wife and I were feeling good, optimistic about November, when the phone rang. A young friend called in anguish. She and her husband were appalled, actually devastated by watching Kerry. They were going to vote for him, of course, but she had no idea how terrible he was as a speaker, how wooden and empty is his agenda. No, no, no I insisted, the candidate’s speech was terrific. Our difference in perceptions was easily explained. I had seen and heard Kerry many times before, but this was her first experience.
Which John Kerry did Americans see? The answer is personal and idiosyncratic. Do not trust polls or professional analysis. They don’t know either.