CLEVELAND — For a fleeting moment, Tiffany Trump started to show people the character of her father. A friend of hers had passed away and “the first call I got, as I knew I would, came from my father,” the 22-year-old said in her Tuesday night address here to the Republican National Convention.
But her story cut off right there. What Donald Trump said to comfort her, she did not say. She took the audience right up to the edge of intimacy — and then backed away, depriving viewers of the kind of memorable, humanizing anecdote that helps round out a candidate.
Like how one of Mitt Romney’s partners told of the time he shut down his firm to lead a search for a co-worker’s missing daughter. Or how George W. Bush’s wife talked about him reading Dr. Seuss’s “Hop on Pop” to his young twin daughters.
There haven’t been any of those endearing tales here in Cleveland. Only a few speakers have talked at length about the Republican presidential nominee. And the friends and family members who have said they want the country to know the Donald Trump they know so well have mostly spoken in generalities and bromides.
For Trump, a historically unpopular candidate who is deeply polarizing to a broad cross-section of the general electorate, the absence of tales that might make the incendiary candidate appear more compassionate or likable is a missed opportunity, many Republican strategists said.
“The core of communicating is not just using a bunch of adjectives,” said Matt Latimer, a speechwriter in George W. Bush’s White House who co-founded Javelin, a communications firm. “It’s not just saying ‘make America great again’ 10 times. It’s telling a story about what this man has done in the past to show that he can do this.”
The woman who knows Trump best, his wife, Melania, described her husband with a litany of adjectives — patriotic, determined, tough, kind, loyal — but no stories.
In her Monday night speech, Melania could have told the nation how she and Donald fell in love. Or how he acts at home with their 10-year-old son, Barron. Or whether he wears a crisp, white dress shirt and red tie every waking hour or if there might be another side to the business mogul.
But she did none of that.
The next night, Donald Trump Jr., 38, the candidate’s first-born son, tried to open a window on his dad by describing his comfort with blue-collar workers and facility with construction equipment. But he, too, did not share a specific story that voters might remember on Election Day four months from now.
“I’ve certainly been expecting those stories — and have missed hearing them,” Fred Davis, a Hollywood-based Republican admaker who worked for a super PAC that supported the presidential campaign of Ohio Gov. John Kasich, wrote in an email.
Davis went on: “Wonder if The Donald has worked so hard to hone his image as a hard ass, as a tough businessman, that he simply won’t allow any of the ‘real’ to be presented? I think the fact that he loves to eat McDonald’s hamburgers on his $100 million jet is a VERY warm and fuzzy touch, but no mention of anything like that so far.”
The closest anyone came to sharing a personal story was Dana White, president of the Ultimate Fighting Championship. He talked about how in the early 2000s, when athletic commissions and arenas didn’t take his sport seriously, Trump did. Trump leveraged his celebrity to promote UFC fights. And in 2011, when UFC signed a network television deal with Fox, White said Trump sent him a newspaper article about the deal.
“Congratulations Dana,” Trump wrote on the clipping, “I always knew you would do it.”
For viewers, White’s tale served as an example of Trump’s marketing instincts and determination to turn a profit. But it did little to change the perception many Americans have of Trump as a racially insensitive, unnecessarily combative bully.
Also missing in the speeches delivered from Quicken Loans Arena have been self-effacing details about Trump. Over and over again, Trump has been described as the greatest, the strongest, the most successful — but no speaker has raised a failing.
Nor has any speaker directly confronted some of the negative episodes that the Democrats are pummeling him over in television ads, such as his mocking of a disabled reporter.
“This is a ‘Mr. Trump, Yes’ convention,” said Stuart Stevens, a longtime GOP image-maker who helped run Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign. “It’s an exercise in vanity. . . . It’s not about a serious effort to win an election.”
Before gaveling the convention to order, Reince Priebus, the Republican National Committee chairman, said a measure of its success would be whether the four-day infomercial enhances Trump’s image.
“I think as people get to see the person that some of us have gotten to know, that’s going to help him in the general election,” Priebus said in an interview. “. . . Him becoming likable will make him unstoppable.”
But the question midway through the Cleveland festivities is whether the nation has gotten to see that version of Donald Trump.
During the 2008 Democratic National Convention, Michelle Obama talked about husband Barack Obama driving her and their new baby girl home from the hospital, peering anxiously at them in the rearview mirror as he contemplated life as a father.
When Republicans convened in Tampa four years ago, Ann Romney spoke of her and Mitt’s love story, begun when they met at a high school dance. She described the basement apartment they shared as newlyweds — she said they subsisted on pasta and tuna fish and used an ironing board as a dining table — and their shared struggles with her breast cancer and multiple sclerosis.
Other speakers used anecdotes to testify to Mitt Romney’s character, trying to wash away Democrats’ caricature of him as a heartless plutocrat. For instance, a couple Romney knew from church, Ted and Pat Oparowski, described how Romney regularly visited their son in the hospital as he was dying of cancer.
“You want detail and specificity,” Stevens said. “You want stories. Every writer does. Why? Because that’s what relates to people. It makes it relevant to their lives.”
Stevens drew a comparison to hit television shows: “Why do we love ‘Downton Abbey’? Because it gives you behind the scenes of what people’s lives are like. . . . Why do we love ‘The Wire’? Because it shows what cops are really like. You don’t want to just have generic versions of this stuff.”