At their convention in New York last night, the Republicans went bipolar on us. With coverage limited to a tight and tidy hour, the time was basically divided between two speakers with wildly contrasting styles: Sen. Zell Miller (D-Ga.), a turncoat who did a whoop-and-holler assault on the Democratic opposition candidates, and Vice President Cheney, a shoo-in for a second nomination and not in the least worried about it.
Unfortunately for the Republicans, two very different men could speak in succession, but the crowd was the same for both, and to a large degree, the Republicans behaved like a bunch of yahoos who'd been bused in expecting "The Jerry Springer Show." Nothing makes a worse case for the Republican Party than seeing a mob of them congregating.
This crowd makes your average suburban tailgate party look like a black-tie State Dinner.
Those who are producing the convention, though, are doing a smart and slick job, and they're not giving anybody enough time to bore the folks at home, at least the folks at home who bothered to tune in at all. The roar of approval for Miller's zellbinder of a speech had barely subsided when Lynne Cheney took the podium to introduce her husband, Dick, thereby interrupting Fox News anchor Brit Hume as he commented from the booth.
"Very little room for pundit talk on this schedule," Hume said good-naturedly -- and that was probably the idea, or part of it. The organizers must have reasoned that if they gave the networks few opportunities to interpret or challenge anything said or done by the "official" participants, that gave the propaganda a longer shelf life. Viewers would be unlikely to hear any rebuttal or analysis until the next morning.
Miller not only livened up the convention -- to an almost rabid state -- but he also brought a little zip to the otherwise funereal CNN booth near the end of the hour. At CNN, the boothpersons are more like pontificators than commentators, with the dullest of the lot being windy Jeff Greenfield, who likes to imagine that he talks in think pieces. Someone should tell him that television, for better or worse, just isn't a think-piece medium.
Anyway, Zell Miller was invited in for what had otherwise resembled a seance and loudly defended the veracity of all the claims he made in his speech -- mainly that Democratic nominee John Kerry had, as a senator, voted against every defense bill and weapons program the Pentagon had floated down the Potomac and was therefore unfit to lead America's armed forces. "Armed with what -- spitballs?" Miller scoffed. He also bellowed "against, against, against" to summarize Kerry's alleged record on measures to promote national defense.
When Miller wasn't being the party pit bull, he was singing in dulcet tones the praises of President Bush. In one of the speechwriter's most laughable bits of imagery, Miller said of Bush, "I have knocked on the door of this man's soul," which may qualify as the neatest trick of the week. Miller also said Bush has a spine made of tempered steel, which suggests medical science may have advanced much further than we the poor old public have been led to believe.
After a speech like that, the usually chilly Cheney seemed warmer than a bowl of oatmeal at grandma's house. In fact he spoke, touchingly, about his own grandfather who grew up in poverty so severe that for a time the family lived in an abandoned railroad car. When little Dick was born on Franklin D. Roosevelt's birthday in 1941, the vice president recalled, grandpa wanted to send a birth announcement to FDR himself.
In one of the evening's few touches of dignity and propriety, Cheney mentioned Kerry's Vietnam combat and said, "We honor him for it." And it didn't sound like there were any snide boos from overzealous delegates in the house. The besmirching of Kerry's service to his country is not over, however; Fox continues to air the unseemly commercial by a right-wing "527" group, claiming Kerry does not deserve the Purple Hearts or the other medals he won in Vietnam.
This commercial may be doing more harm than good, as viewers obviously will associate it with Bush and Cheney and, in many cases, consider it an unseemly dirty trick. It seems unnecessary, too, because if Kerry keeps posing for silly photographs gamboling in the water off Nantucket and looking like a frivolous rich white guy, his chances of winning will plunge ever lower.
There were common themes to both the nutty and the natty speeches, though naturally expressed differently. Wild-man Miller said of Bush -- steel spine or not -- that "he is not a slick talker." Cheney followed up by gently referring to Bush as "a man who speaks plainly." Both men were helping to lower expectations for the speech Bush is scheduled to give tonight. It's unlikely to be the most memorable of the convention, but then, miracles do happen.