By Tom Shales
Thursday, September 4, 2008
If the Republicans win the presidential election in November, it may well be said that they won it last night -- the night that John McCain's brilliantly screwy choice for a running mate changed from laughingstock to national star.
Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin's acceptance speech wasn't brilliant rhetoric, and she's not entirely accomplished as a public speaker, but she put herself over with slick, self-assured skill. To those in the hall and probably to millions watching at home, she came across as genuine and down-to-earth, a self-described "hockey mom" whose confidence and bravado were not exactly ingratiating but were somehow persuasive.
She even told a pretty good joke, with a slight hint of self-mockery: "The difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull? Lipstick."
"I think people will like her," said Chris Matthews on MSNBC, a fairly safe understatement. The crowd went wild for the speech, especially its nastier and more combative passages.
Palin is certainly no shy Little Miss Buttercup. In her more hostile moments, she went on the attack against Barack Obama, usually referred to as "our opponent," vice presidential nominee Joe Biden and all living Democrats with malicious zeal. Her use of sarcasm was, it must be admitted, crudely effective, as when she scoffed that "the American presidency is not supposed to be a journey of personal discovery," a mocking reference to the loftier oratory in which Obama specializes.
Commentators on more than one channel said the crowd in St. Paul's Xcel Energy Center wanted "red meat," and from last night's speakers, obviously including Palin, they got it -- blood red. Former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, who preceded Palin, in fact delivered a boorish attack full of cheap shots. Seemingly, Giuliani is intent on systematically destroying, with each public appearance, the goodwill he had built up after Sept. 11, an event that of course he never fails to mention.
His habit of cackling with laughter at his own remarks, and pausing repeatedly to point to people in the crowd, helped keep his speech raggedy and disjointed; he gave the impression of a naughty boy gleefully sticking his fingers in Mom's cookie dough and congratulating himself for his deed.
It's unfortunate considering the strong showing of Palin that the Republicans have again decided to run against "the media" as well as against the Democrats, and to portray themselves as poor, abused victims of media aggression. Giuliani, who has made a second career of courting the press, referred sneeringly to "the left-wing media." Mike Huckabee spoke of "the elite media." And a poorly made film about Ronald Reagan, shown to the delegates on Tuesday night, included the outright lie that "the media hated" Reagan, when just the opposite is closer to the truth.
Reagan's time in the White House was a virtual love affair with the press, whom he charmed as infectiously as he charmed the whole country.
Jeffrey Toobin, one of the most valuable of CNN's army of guest commentators, said last night that he found it "ironic and rather unbecoming" that John McCain, who has enjoyed "adoring" treatment from the news media, should choose to be part of this kind of demagoguery.
McCain appeared onstage with Palin after she finished her speech and as the crowd's roars grew. There had been ugly moments, and Republicans seemed quicker to launch a chorus of "boos" than the Democrats were. But maybe the Democrats played it all too gently and nicey-nicey.
Palin gave the impression of an entire party rolling up its sleeves and digging in, never mind whether some of its arguments were illogical or shot full of holes, or even blatantly ridiculous, as when she portrayed the party as pro-environment and Giuliani earlier portrayed it as feminist-minded.
She proved herself in the great arena; that's what counts politically. Nobody could watch that speech and still consider her a joke, no matter how flimsy her credentials and qualifications may seem on paper. The joke, it seems, is on those who'd been laughing at her. Last night the laughing ended -- and the cheering began.