In purely theatrical terms, you have to admit that the Republican National Convention's Night Of a Thousand Speeches was a pretty solid show. It was a well-orchestrated, craftily structured evening of variations on a theme. It had momentum and fire, but also didn't skimp on the emotion. It was a three-hanky event worthy of any crystal cathedral religious revival or soapy potboiler.
Well, it eventually got there, anyway. The beginning hour or so was shaky. This was mostly the slot before primetime (though, does C-SPAN, where we watched, really have "primetime"?), with erratic speeches by actress turned wide-eyed evangelist Janine Turner and a surprisingly unsteady Mia Love (she's the Utah congressional candidate many are buzzing about), and awkward musical performances like a seated man belting out a dinner theater-worthy "Proud To Be An American" and the Oak Ridge Boys huffing out "Amazing Grace," with very few in the audience taking them up on the band's suggestion that they sing along. These were the opening acts to the opening acts, the daytime shift strippers if you will, and the messiness was, I suppose, to be expected. Anyway, it was all soon forgotten as the night got more serious.
The overall success of the evening (again, we're talking showmanship wise, not substance wise) was largely owed to the sheer volume of voices we heard from. Over the course of a few hours we heard from Nikki Haley, from Artur "Alabama Switcheroo" Davis, from Bob McDonnell, from Texas senate hopeful Ted Cruz, who strutted around the stage like a preacher. There were women, men, black people, Latinos, and, in Janine Turner's case, literal aliens. It was a wide and reasonably diverse range of people and the cumulative effect was big and rumbling. Here is a broad spectrum of people uniting loudly over heavy principles! Tremble with joy and fear! If you atomize the evening, really only a few people gave effective speeches on their own, but when all rolled up into a chorus of talking points and slogan refrains, it got the desired job done.
There were softer, quieter moments to act as ballast to all that bombast. Rick Santorum decided to focus on social issues, as is his wont, and eventually got the audience a'sniffle when he talked about his daughter Bella, who was born with a severe genetic condition but who has defied all the prognoses that had her dying before her first birthday. The audience, though many were likely familiar with this oft-repeated story, responded as you'd think, hushing down and weepily clapping at the moments of uplift. Santorum has never been a terribly rousing speaker, but something about the storm-spared crowd last night got him into the speechifying sweet spot.
Of course the true highlights of the evening were the aspiring First Lady Ann Romney and New Jersey governor Chris Christie. The two played beautifully against each other, Romney acting the role of Everywoman, talking about love and sharing cute how-we-met stories about her and Mitt. That's a crucial bit of business for a politician who can often seem, well, a little less than human. On the other hand, Christie was the tough, wise-crackin' Jersey guy, as assured up on stage as most of the preceeding speakers combined. If Ann is Mitt's doting but strong wife, then Chris Christie is his enforcer sidekick, a decent-at-heart tough guy who is nice to his daughters and cutely threatening of their dates. It was a good homey dynamic they struck together, one that belied their candidate's jilted woodenness. Which was the whole point! And it was well made.
Much hay has been made of the RNC set, that series of LCD screens of varying size and position that are all framed to look like windows. It's your big tech-laden 21st century Great Room, America. And here are the people who will make sure it doesn't go into foreclosure. It was hard to see the set used to its full effect when watching on TV, but what we did see was only minimally inspiring. Mostly the screens projected a bright blast of an eerie cerulean blue, an effect that had some speakers looking like they were broadcasting from the bottom of a swimming pool. The many video packages that were rolled out last night probably looked impressive on the jumble of jumbotrons, but from home they looked pretty regular. Still, those packages were well produced, sympathetic, common-man rabble rousery that repetitively beat Obama's supposed "You didn't build that" line into the inner psyches of the audience. If political conventions are all about firmly establishing the party message before one last big push to the polls, last night's unending loop of that particular audio very likely got the job done.
The show shouldn't have closed, like it did, with Three Doors Down, and in fact the RNC should get rid of all musical acts until either some cooler musicians come out as Republicans or the delegates learn to dance better. (The dancing, oh god the dancing.) But all told, last night was a successful bit of theater. Some of the players were better than others, but all contributed to a larger-than-themselves sense of mounting momentum. The evening was, heh, well-built, with the more famous speakers meted out in measured fashion. Tonight's lead-up to Paul Ryan's big speech will be a little less diverse, with old standbys like John McCain, Mike Huckabee, and Tim Pawlenty delivering addresses. Folks are curious about Condoleezza Rice's next-to-last speech, as she's been quietly making moves towards more prominence of late, but really none of these speakers strike me as particularly gifted orators. Though, who knows! A convention is just the right place for a surprise or big splashy debut. Who will be queen debutante tonight? Well, it'll probably be Paul Ryan. Let's just hope someone told him to buy a suit that fits.