Peter Marks: Reviewing the political theater of the GOP convention

Was it a coincidence that, on the podium in Tampa, the ice blue in Paul Ryan’s tie and in the abstract background projection brought out a similar tone in his eyes? If so, it was a marvelous one. For whenever the candidate — with the “confidence and clarity” he ascribed to a Romney-Ryan administration — turned and stared right into the camera, his gaze was electric, a sexy look of youth and intensity that one suspects is going to be of high value this fall.

That sense of political ignition was not in oversupply this week, in a Republican production that, for a viewer at home, was at times excruciating: the singsong, under-rehearsed speeches of so many of the professional politicians who received air time were so stilted that sounds of rain slicking the streets of New Orleans on the Weather Channel showed more rhythm. Then again, you had to wonder: Might there have been method here, too? Was the rhetorical parade managed in such a way as to make a Wisconsin congressman with killer peepers and only middling vocal skills seem by comparison like Cicero?

Media commentators who’ve been parsing strategies and personalities for months are far better than I at revealing what was true and what was spurious in the tornado of words spinning out of the Tampa Bay Times Forum. What I tried to key on, as I sat through the hours of television coverage — mostly on the cable channel providing the purest filter, C-SPAN — was a different sort of impression, the one conveyed, by device or happenstance, by the unfolding convention pageantry. In the performance art of the convention, the machinery of stagecraft and spectacle were used to give folks in the cheap seats a decent show.

Recognizing, though, that entertainment was not priority No. 1 — and that many viewers were watching strictly through the prisms of their own peepholes on the political spectrum — I tried extra hard to distance myself from the rhetoric and concentrate on the relative theatrical value of what was transpiring. Because for some part of the wider audience, mannerism and visual appeal and style does play a role in gauging a ticket — in this case, to one of the most classically telegenic in modern campaign history.

For Republicans, the production was akin to an out-of-town tryout: A new team was being described and road-tested. (We’ll know how the Democrats look in revival mode next week in Charlotte.) And so the last night of the gathering was devoted to a lavish knighting of Romney, in film and testimonials — including a truly bizarre “surprise” appearance by actor and Oscar-winning movie director Clint Eastwood.

In a rambling monologue cheered by the delegates but rife with non sequiturs, he pretended in extemporaneous remarks to be debating an invisible President Obama, in a chair next to him. It was the week’s one truly surreal interlude, and so it was riveting — a bit like watching the famous scene in the ’80s film “Tootsie,” when Dustin Hoffman, disguised as Dorothy Michaels, delivers a long improvisatory speech on the set of a live TV soap opera. Here was Eastwood doing the same in real time. “What do you mean, shut up?” he said, talking to the empty chair. It left an odd taste, and more to the point, it upstaged the other proceedings as the night’s unchallenged water-cooler moment.

In purely television terms, convention programmers have not entirely overcome the challenge of scripting multiple nights of an event devoid of real drama, especially in the face of an alarming paucity of captivating speakers. (The unforgiving camera doesn’t help, when it pans the milling conventioneers and reveals that about eight people are paying attention.) On occasion, when someone at the mike manifested a woodenness that would not be out of place in Sequoia National Forest, I had to flip for relief to MSNBC or Fox News, where the convention’s floating Greek chorus — the panels of well-known political analysts — were ready to administer an infusion of some spontaneity and energy and even some context. Was there no one empowered backstage to inform former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty that his “tattoo president” joke would be lethally lame? Or to tell Sam Olens, the attorney general of Georgia, that in your one shot at national exposure you might not want to deliver your remarks in profile, reading directly off a prompter?

The ability to appear relaxed and in command of one’s audience is of course a signature attribute of leadership — and showmanship. It tells a spectator that there’s a connection between what you say and who you are (or are supposed to be). That’s partly why Ann Romney’s appearance on the first evening came across as a success. With her spirited mien — and even that nervous giggle — she turned the cavernous hall into a family room.

It’s also why, at least in theatrical terms, Chris Christie’s keynote speech was so disappointing. He was a victim of the expectations raised by his own past performances. On Tuesday night, he looked tight and, for a guy known for not pulling punches, couldn’t locate the juicy turns of phrase that would trigger the knockout oratory. You wonder if he might have been better served by tossing away the script at some point and just talking to us, in his own off-the-cuff style. How risky and magnetic that might have been. (Although Eastwood’s improv revealed how quickly such moments can go downhill.)

On the second evening, however, events unfolded with far more cohesion, all building to a sharp segue at about 10:30 p.m. when Ryan strode to the microphone. One came to the conclusion that the program — like the superb set of 13 asymmetrical projection screens by Eddie Knasiak and Jim Fenhagen — framed the star in the best possible way. The speakers who immediately preceded him offered up a balance of intellectual heft and earthy pragmatism: first was former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, delivering a sober speech about geopolitics and economics; the screens around her were filled effectively with a monochromatic montage of stills from her years in the George W. Bush White House. (The camera panned the conventioneers yet again: this time, they were motionless, eyes all fixed on Rice.)

Then came a live wire — and for me, the best supporting performance of the convention: New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez. After lackluster remarks by some of those who were considered for vice president, such as Pawlenty and Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, Martinez materialized as fresh and vivacious and funny. (And boy, after Pawlenty and Portman, would Ryan look good.) Martinez told of her hardworking adolescence, and her images were vivid: “I guarded the parking lot at the Catholic Church bingos,” she said, and when she added that her father had taught her at a tender age to use “a Smith and Wesson .357 Magnum,” you could either be shocked or laugh. Either way, she made her moment count.

And her human touch came at the optimal moment in the proceedings. Without the kind of protracted biographical throat-clearing we’ve come to expect at moments like this, Martinez was making the introduction and Ryan was out and talking. He’s not a great communicator; the voice could stand some more color, and despite (or maybe because of) his callowness, he tends to glare a bit too ferociously as he goes through his attack-dog litany. In Shakespearean terms, he’s more of a Hotspur than a Prince Hal — the former being the young soldier spoiling for a fight in “Henry IV, Part 1.”

Though his delivery was choppy, an effable sense of youthful defiance — and ambition — permeated Ryan’s appearance, and was underlined when he invoked Mitt Romney in a way that suggested a surrogate father. Ryan noted that his own dad died when he was a teenager, and in characterizing the generational difference between himself and Romney, the teasing example he chose was their differing tastes in music; Ryan favors AC/DC while his running mate, he said, has an ear for the kind of music you hear in elevators. In the run-up to Romney’s own moment in the convention spotlight, it was possibly the week’s warmest insight into the GOP standard-bearer. Planting the seeds of a comforting, traditional senior-junior partnership may not have been a bad way for Ryan to say hello.

It was Romney’s turn to offer greetings Thursday night, and he entered the hall shaking hands down the main aisle — the way sitting presidents do, in the House chamber, for the State of the Union address. His speaking style was anchorman-quality self-assured, and his avuncular demeanor reinforced an idea planted the evening before, of Romney as mature paterfamilias, prepared to shoulder burdens.

“I wish President Obama had succeeded, because I want America to succeed,” he declared. It was the most genial sort of putdown — the opposite of the clumsy attempts at insult humor engaged in by Eastwood. Romney was a man, he wanted us to know, who was ready to lead with magnanimity. And maybe to be a good dad to us all. “I love that he’s not afraid to show the world how much he loves his mom!” Romney said at another point, indicating Ryan, who smiled and waved back, serenely.

Peter Marks joined the Washington Post as its chief theater critic in 2002. Prior to that he worked for nine years at the New York Times, on the culture, metropolitan and national desks, and spent about four years as its off-Broadway drama critic.
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