GOP Drags Out Some Old Standbys for Improv Night

Newsweek editor Jon Meacham's exclusive interview with first lady Laura Bush and Cindy McCain about the nomination of Gov. Sarah Palin, their husbands, children and the toll of war.Video by Jonathan Groat/Newsweek
By David S. Broder
Wednesday, September 3, 2008

ST. PAUL, Minn., Sept. 2 The trash cartons in every passageway in the Xcel Energy Center here bore the injunction "Recycle Only," so it was natural enough that the organizers of the Republican National Convention -- forced to improvise their program because of the hurricane that cost them opening night -- did just that.

They decided to treat the delegates and a national television audience to speeches by three of the most familiar and weather-beaten figures in American politics -- recycled into roles they had never been asked to take on.

President Bush, accustomed for eight years to being the star attraction at any gathering of Republicans, contributed a satellite feed from the White House that was merely an hors d'oeuvre for the evening's oratory.

Fred Thompson, the former senator from Tennessee now best known for his TV role as a grizzled prosecutor, was dusted off from the wreckage of his own presidential campaign and commissioned to celebrate his friend John McCain.

And strangest of all, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, Al Gore's Democratic running mate eight years ago, made his debut at a Republican convention, praising McCain's country-above-party appeal.

The retreads delivered, drawing the most flattering portrait of the senator from Arizona. Bush called him "an independent man who thinks for himself." Thompson, after movingly retelling the story of McCain's imprisonment in North Vietnam, said the character that was forged in that extreme is so strong "we never have to ask, 'Who is this man? Can we trust this man with the presidency?' "

And Lieberman, urging independents and Democrats to give McCain their votes, said "the restless reformer" is a more authentic change agent than Barack Obama.

The originally scheduled convention keynoter, former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, another victim of McCain in the GOP primaries, was shuffled to a later date.

Anyone who wondered whether the GOP has any fresh blood to throw into the contest against Barack Obama and his new generation of Democrats was advised to wait until Wednesday night, when Sarah Palin, an Alaskan and the newly minted vice presidential hopeful, will make her much-anticipated debut here.

Palin is 44, but almost all the other GOP notables are in their 60s, with the exception of McCain, a hardy battler who just turned 72.

After Democrats paraded a platoon of 40-something men and women -- governors, mayors, senators and congressmen -- across the stage in Denver last week, it was hard to avoid the feeling that the GOP is not only trailing in the polls but running short of fresh faces. The youths who were inspired by Ronald Reagan's 1980 victory are middle-aged now. Many of them have labored for years in the administrations of Bush, both father and son, and their steps have slowed.

The ranks of Republican elected officials have been thinned by the Democratic victories in 2006, and many of those who abide in office decided it would be prudent to skip this conclave, rather than be photographed here.

That may explain why the opening oratory was consigned to three such normally pedestrian speakers. President Bush has rarely been celebrated for his delivery. Thompson was a ponderous figure in the winter's Republican debates. And Lieberman disappointed many Democrats by failing to challenge Dick Cheney when they met in 2000.

The reason Lieberman and Thompson were featured last night had nothing to do with their speaking ability and everything to do with their friendship with McCain. Lieberman has been his favorite companion on visits to Iraq and other international hot spots. Thompson, during President Bill Clinton's impeachment trial and other drawn-out Senate debates, would slide into a back-row seat next to McCain, where the two would exchange jokes like schoolboys.

Whatever the speakers' oratorical credentials, Republican delegates can be counted on to be polite. When I asked Thelma White of Minneapolis whether she was looking forward to the evening speeches, she voiced admiration for the president and said Lieberman and Thompson were individuals she could applaud. Lieberman would have been wholly satisfactory to her as McCain's vice presidential pick, White said, adding that she strongly disapproved of talk that such a choice would have triggered a rebellion among the delegates.

Asked what she thought of McCain instead turning to Palin, White said, "I think I'll let Senator McCain explain his decision."

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