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Kusnet: A Schizophrenic Night In St. Paul

David Kusnet was chief speechwriter for former President Bill Clinton from 1992 through 1994. He is the author of Love the Work, Hate the Job: Why America's Best Workers Are Unhappier than Ever.


John McCain canceled most events on the first night of the Republican National Convention and promised no partisan political rhetoric.

He didn’t say anything about the second night.

For a disliked party with a despised president but a widely admired nominee, the Republicans took the only realistic rhetorical avenue: Reduce the entire presidential campaign to biography (see Jonathan Cohn for more on this), run away from partisan labels, and bludgeon the opposing candidate with ... patriotism and nonpartisanship.

So it was that President Bush, speaking in the slot that the Democrats usually reserve for Dennis Kucinich, praised McCain not only for his heroism but also for having disagreed with him. Speaking by satellite for eight minutes, the President mostly sounded presidential, with the glaring exception of one of the most demagogically divisive lines ever spoken by a chief executive from a White House podium: “If the Hanoi Hilton could not break John McCain's resolve to do what is best for his country, you can be sure the angry left never will.” Somewhere in the executive mansion, a portrait of Richard Nixon was smiling.

Then came Fred Thompson delivering something closer to an old-fashioned nominating speech than the traditional sportsmanlike oration by a defeated candidate for the presidential nomination.

Thompson’s speech reminded Americans what even those of us who intend to vote against McCain must never forget: He is a hero who willingly accepted suffering on a scale that we could never imagine, much less endure.

But, as Thompson acknowledged, “Being a POW doesn’t qualify anyone to be president.” So what, then, is the case for electing McCain, eight years after his own party rejected him in favor of a man they would rather not host in person and in prime time?

From the start of his speech, Thompson described McCain as displaying a consistency of character in every season of his life, from his rowdy youth to his heroic military service and his lengthy political career. At the Naval Academy, McCain, “although loaded with demerits ... was principled even in rebellion,” Thompson said.
“He never violated the honor code.”

In the midst of describing his youthful indiscretions, including dating an “exotic dancer .... named Marie, the Flame of Florida,” Thompson shrewdly defined McCain’s character--“this mixture of rebellion and honor”--in a way that made the case that he really is a “maverick,” that he will not continue Bush’s policies, and that he has a kinship with Sarah Palin beyond the expedience of having a conservative woman as his running mate.

With this entertainingly irreverent introduction, Thompson then sounded predictable themes. McCain’s ordeal tested, strengthened, and revealed his character. He has upheld his slogan--“Country first”--not only through service and sacrifice but also by reaching out across party lines in the U.S. Senate. And Barack Obama is not his equal either in patriotism or bipartisanship.

As for Thompson, however, when he extended his hand across the aisle, it was only to sucker punch Obama. After praising McCain’s character yet again, Thompson declared: “It's pretty clear there are two questions we will never have to ask ourselves, ‘Who is this man?’ and "Can we trust this man with the Presidency?’" Without missing a beat, he went from extolling his own candidate to summoning up every subliminal doubt about Obama.

Then came the Republicans’ favorite former Democrat, Joe Lieberman. If ever again, any orator anywhere other than Lieberman himself sings Lieberman’s praises, it will not be in the endearingly entertaining manner that Thompson saluted McCain. “Honor” Lieberman may have--although one wonders whether he really believes that Sarah Palin is better suited for the vice presidency than Joe Biden. But “rebellion” appears utterly alien to Lieberman--he seems capable of rage only against rebels such as those who denied him re-nomination in 2006.

So, while Thompson, who still has some bad-boy swagger himself, portrayed McCain and Palin as mavericks who would shake up Washington, Lieberman presented them less plausibly as post-partisan healers whom centrist Democrats like himself could support. Instead of smearing Obama, he patronized him as “a gifted and eloquent young man who can do great things for our country in the years ahead.” But, unlike McCain, and, for good measure, Bill Clinton, Obama “has not reached across party lines to get anything significant done, nor has he been willing to take on powerful interest groups in the Democratic Party,” Lieberman warned.

Thus, an evening that began with speakers reassuring the Republican loyalists within the convention hall that McCain really is one of their own concluded with an apostate Democrat reassuring the television audience that McCain really isn’t a partisan or an ideologue at all. Most likely, the party faithful found the evening’s oratory more persuasive than those who have lost faith in the party.

--David Kusnet