August 30th, 2012
Last night there were three big speeches: Rice, Martinez, and Ryan. All three were above average, but my own sense was that Ryan’s was the weakest of the three. Quick thoughts:
1) Condi Rice had both the best speech and the best delivery.If you read it as an essay it hangs together with a beginning, middle, and end. It both an arc and a point and had just enough poetry sprinkled in (“America has a way of making the impossible seem inevitable”) to make me think that Peggy Noonan may have taken an editing pass on it. And she even challenged her audience slightly. “But today, today, when I can look at your zip code and I can tell whether you’re going to get a good education, can I honestly say it does not matter where you came from, it matters where you are going?”–that’s not just a rebuke of teachers’ unions. It’s a rebuke to Republicans who deny the problems we’re having with class mobility.
It wasn’t just her text, though. Rice seems to have gone to the Christopher Walken School of Speechifying. Her delivery was marked not by changes in register or dramatic pauses for applause lines. What she did was tinker ever so slightly with cadences (“we know it was never, in . . . evitable”) and even pronunciation (“a-lies” instead of “allies”). It was as though she went through the speech, took out all the punctuation, and then re-punctuated it on her own with an eye toward making the delivery just slightly unexpected.
Also–and this is a lesson every speaker ought to take from Zell Miller’s epic 2004 speech–she didn’t let the audience bog the speech down with applause. People kept clapping, but Rice pushed through these pauses. (See that “Today–today” example above.) That’s how you sustain tension in a speech. If you let the audience interrupt you with cheers throughout, it has the effect of deflating the balloon slightly each time. But if you power through, the pressure builds. And the release at the end of the speech is then cathartic. I doubt we’re going to see a better speech either here or in Charlotte.
2) Martinez did well not to be blown off the stage by following Rice. Her demeanor is pleasant and sunny, but tough. She was a conversational speaker and that’s hard to pull off.
3) Ryan’s speech was good enough; his presentation was good enough. I suspect it was just fine as a national introduction. But it seemed to me that there was no through-line to the speech. There were some great moments and very good lines. But the speech itself was just kind of an amorphous set of remarks. It didn’t really go anywhere and I don’t know that it accomplished any specific rhetorical or narrative goal. As a performance I’d say it ranked far below Sarah Palin’s 2008 convention speech.
One final note about Ann Romney’s Tuesday night speech. It didn’t really do anything for me, though people seemed to love it. But one question: When’s the last time we had a presidential candidate’s spouse gave a convention speech and people didn’t declare how fantastic her performance was? The general verdict on all spouses is that they’re amazing, attractive women who are so eloquent and appealing and they are (almost invariably) their husbands’ secret weapons. So in this sense, Ann Romney is no different from Michelle Obama, Cindy McCain, Laura Bush, Liddy Dole, Hillary Clinton, and Barbara Bush before her.
This isn’t to say that Ann Romney didn’t do a marvelous job–just to point out that we always say how wonderful these women speakers are.
(Funnily enough, the one spouse over the years who struck me as being genuinely attractive as a person was Theresa Kerry–because she was (a) not particularly into the election and (b) candid and emotionally accessible in a way I found utterly charming.)
That’s about how the night looked from the comfort of my living room, as well. I’d have thought Ryan’s national debut would have been the moment to hammer to the mast a line like “Obama’s raiding Medicare to finance his healthcare takeover; we will reform Medicare and save it for the long haul without depriving anyone 55 or over of any benefit they’ve been promised.” The first bit was there, but instead of the second, we got, “Medicare is a promise, and we will honor it. A Romney-Ryan administration will protect and strengthen Medicare, for my Mom’s generation, for my generation, and for my kids and yours.” Seems to me that tees R/R up for the expected Mediscare onslaught _and_ for the charge that they’ve been deceptive about their plans, while doing nothing to inoculate them.
The most interesting moment in Rice’s speech was when she said the word “ingenuity” and pronounced as though the root was “ingenue”. Lord knows what that signifies.
I’m sorry, but Cindy McCain was turrrrrible.
Your take is spot-on, JVL. Rice did an excellent job of pushing through the applause to keep the momentum building. (Christie also did a decent job of that the other night.) Sometimes speakers forget these things play much differently to the home audience than they do to the crowd in the hall (or in the House chamber during a SOTU). People watching on the tube get frustrated having to sit through applause breaks, and it kills momentum. Rice’s performance in this regard is even more astonishing when you consider she’s not a politico who’s used to giving this sort of speech.
Your critique of Ryan is also fair. It was a good showing, with several fine Matt Scully/John McConnell digs at Obama. (Best line of the night — the one about 20-somethings back in their childhood bedrooms staring at fading Obama posters, wondering when they can get their lives going.) But instead of making a sustained argument, it had a Janesville/introduce-Paul-Ryan-to-America section; a criticize-the-incumbent section; and a boost-Romney section. As you note, it lacked an overarching logic, and that’s a problem with too many American political speeches these days. Diana Schaub has written well about this in the Claremont Review of Books:
She notes that political speeches in the 18th and 19th centuries were much more logically driven:
“You know you’re in the presence of sustained dialectics because the paragraphs can’t be reshuffled without loss of meaning. By contrast, there is no logical sequence in the following all-too-typical passage from Lyndon Johnson:
“I want to be the President who educated young children to the wonders of their world. I want to be the President who helped to feed the hungry and to prepare them to be taxpayers instead of taxeaters.
“I want to be the President who helped the poor to find their own way and who protected the right of every citizen to vote in every election.
“I want to be the President who helped to end hatred among his fellow men and who promoted love among the people of all races and all regions and all parties.
“I want to be the President who helped to end war among the brothers of this earth.
“You could play pick-up-sticks with that collection of indistinguishable banalities. Ordered thought has a different structure. Listen to just the opening phrases of successive paragraphs from Lincoln’s First Inaugural:
I hold, that in contemplation of universal law, ….
Again, if the United States be not a government proper, ….
Descending from these general principles, we find the proposition ….
But if the destruction of the Union, ….
It follows from these views that no State, ….
I therefore consider that, ….
In doing this there needs to be no bloodshed or violence; ….
“Hierarchy may be antithetical to democracy, but it is essential to logic. The replacement of paragraphs with bullet-points indicates the democratization or leveling or atomization of logic. The equality of all sentences destroys the connectedness of thought. This scattershot technique of contemporary speechmaking can bowl you over, if the speaker has sufficient force of personality, but it can’t pierce your mind or heart, and it certainly can’t do it as written rather than spoken. Like Shakespeare’s plays, Lincoln’s speeches are as powerful in the study as on the stage.”
Too bad Lincoln was the first dictator of the United States.
Woodrow Wilson positively adored Lincoln for his usurpation, control and love of power.
Lincoln had no love of blacks. Lincoln wanted to keep the Union in order for him to codify power.
In short, Lincoln is over-rated in almost every way, and it is only recent history (1950s) that classical liberals have come to adore him.
The Ann Romney act is wearing thin. She could have continued playing the (dubious) down-to-earth domestic/photogenic persona with no shortage of praise from fawning hacks, but has instead become a mid-morning local TV host.
I love that you still have a crush on Teresa Kerry. : )