Republicans, including “just joking” about birth certificates Mitt Romney, love to chide President Obama about his alleged foreign roots, but couldn’t stop getting misty-eyed over their hard-working immigrant forebears. Government programs equal the devil, but hey, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), didn’t I hear you mention the G.I. Bill that helped your dad attend college? Ann Romney declared that all you need is love, but then Christie – him, again – said respect, not love is the answer.
That’s the way it went when the Republican National Convention finally revved up in Tampa on Tuesday night after a storm delay. It didn’t seem as though these folks talked among themselves, much less to Americans who may disagree with them politically, but still believe in America as a land of promise and opportunity.
Of course, the biggest contradiction involved the presidential candidate the country is still getting to know. On a night that was supposed to reveal the creamy center inside the stiff shell of Mitt Romney, he played supporting player at his own party, appearing only briefly for an awkward hug. After Christie’s keynote speech, I knew more about his mom than the GOP ticket he’s supporting. Apparently she was a tough cookie.
The speakers’ stories were touching, except when they placed Democratic narratives outside an all-American mainstream. Former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum’s tale was all about hands: his immigrant grandfather’s, calloused by hard work; those of farmers and ranchers he met on the campaign trail; the tiny ones of his daughter, born with a life-threatening illness. Only one party believes in “life and liberty” in his telling, though; the other’s mission is “dependency.” Americans across the political spectrum join him in the tough and loving job of raising children with disabilities; I know quite a few of them.
I also know a lot of mothers, fathers and grandparents, including my own, who worked two and three back-breaking jobs hampered by the added crush of racial discrimination, something not acknowledged in the onstage set pieces. Most of their ancestors didn’t come here by choice and built the country for generations without pay – no credit asked for or given. Yet they didn’t make excuses, telling their children and grandchildren to work twice as hard if they wanted to get half as far because that, too, was “the American way.”
“He made me laugh,” was Ann Romney’s testimony about her lasting love story with Mitt. Considering his off-the-cuff jokes, that statement made me wonder about her sense of humor. I was going with it, though. But all her sympathy for sacrificing wives and mothers didn’t include the notion that some in desperate times might need a helping hand or safety net that church or neighbors or family cannot provide. No one raises a child to be “afraid of success”; success at any costs, perhaps.
Christie’s combativeness got the crowd on its feet – though, to be honest, he kind of cheated when he ordered everybody to stand up and who would disobey – but he always has to add a bit of the bully to the bully pulpit. This time, it was a dig at teachers’ unions that only made me think of my niece, a union teacher in an urban district who could not be any more dedicated.
Then, there was South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who I’ve seen close up from my home in next-door North Carolina. The daughter of Indian immigrants defended her state’s tough immigration laws and a voter-ID plan that the Department of Justice is reviewing because of South Carolina’s sad history of discrimination. You have to have a picture ID “to buy a Sudafed, set foot on a plane,” Haley said. Many elderly residents there were born at home and have trouble tracking down birth certificates if they exist; they’ve never driven a car, much less boarded a jet. But they well remember a time when they could not vote and are heartbroken at what they see as a return to a dark past. “We’re fighters,” she said, though she doesn’t have to teach them about hard battles. But is she fighting for these South Carolinians?
It was an evening of inspirational talk of what it means to be “an American” that hit a discordant note when it sought to limit the stories that qualify. Maybe that’s what blurred the red, white and blue so proudly we all hail.
Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C., has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter: @mcurtisnc3