I’ve decided to call tonight On the Waterfront Night at the Republican National Convention. While Governor Palin was the highlighted speaker of the evening, the hours leading up to her address were filled with speeches from several men who had campaigned for the 2008 Republican nomination. And lost. Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee and Rudy Giuliani all took the stage to talk about the campaign, the candidates, money, terrorism, Barack Obama, and most of all change. When I saw these three names in order on the night’s speakers’ schedule I immediately added a fourth: Marlon Brando. In my head I imagined each one of these politicians doing their version of Brando’s Academy Award-winning speech:
You don’t understand! I could have had class, I could have been a contender. I could have been somebody. Instead of a bum, which is what I am.
I snagged a credential to get me into the hall for Romney and Huckabee’s speeches. I crouched behind our journalists in the daily press writing press stands to the left of the stage and looked out over the crowd of delegates. The atmosphere inside the hall during these speeches was powerful. The speakers were playing to a partisan crowd, to be sure. And the messages sent were intentionally crafted to be incendiary– firing up the base of the political party. That I did not mind; that effect is a function of these conventions. And I did not particularly mind the difference of political opinions being expressed when compared to my own. There were two particular elements I did mind: the appeal to fear and the the broad disparity between what was said to motivate and the subsequent policies enacted once in power. Mitt Romney’s attacks on liberal government were crystalline examples of the latter. Rudy Guiliani’s incessant waving of the bloody shirt the epitome of the former.
Things had not picked up at the bureau in the morning and I began to suspect that tonight might be the big night of the convention. It was the air of anticipation around the newsroom: what is she going to say? It added particular pinnacle to the convention in my mind. Moreso than tomorrow’s speech by John McCain.
Sarah Palin was here in the very early hours preparing for her speech tonight. She came in before the sun came up but was not fast enough to escape without having a mob of about 20 reporters and photographers surround her on the platform and start pressing her with questions. Her goal: energize the base of the Republican party. Tom Kole and I talked some this morning about how Palin’s speech might play. He said, “Not how it plays in there [that’s important], but how it plays to a wider audience.” Compare 38 million who tuned into Barack Obama’s speech and the numbers for Palin tonight.
I watched Palin’s speech from back in the bureau and overheard tidbits of the news coverage as it flowed through the room. I’ll share this particular note from the floor back to the bureau:
When [Palin] mentioned the media and how they think she’s unqualified– dozens in the crowd stood and pointed at the rows of reporters, booing and giving thumbs down. Some also shouted NBC; not clear why.
I remained in the hall long enough to see security surround the Alaska delegation and keep all press at bay.
My own observation about Palin’s speech concerned her rhetorical choice to anonymize her opponents. About ten minutes into listening to her I began to realize that she had not mentioned Barack Obama or Joe Biden by name. This was in sharp contrast to all the other speakers tonight. For Palin, they were nameless: our opponents. The only name she’s said is John McCain. I thought it a powerful move. Rhetorically speaking. I kept listening, waiting to see if and when she might break this approach. Late, in the last minutes of her speech she finally mentioned the two of them. She did so only once. And she did so to once more underline John McCain’s military service. She won an explosively supportive reaction for doing so.
I spent most of the evening sitting across from Clarence Page. Page is a regular columnist for the Chicago Tribune and also a member of the editorial board of the paper. He gave me this quote from Bill Clinton regarding the difference in the political parties: “Democrats fall in love; Republicans fall in line.” Looking back to my experiences at both conventions, I can see some truth to that description. I also learned that Page is a huge deadhead. I noticed a cool Grateful Dead sticker on his sleek black laptop and asked him about it. That’s when he told me he was a big fan and told me a little about how he had interviewed Jerry Garcia in 1976. Page was a junior in college at the time.
While troubleshooting a minor printing problem for John Kass and Mark Jacob, Kass made an off-hand comment to me about the difficulty in writing about something that hasn’t happened yet. He claimed sports reporters do it all the time, rejoining. “I can’t do that.” It was a funny moment as the two of them looked over Kass’ column on Sarah Palin. I think Kass may have been referencing the sort of quick, turnaround journalism his colleagues were doing from the press stands. From speech to blog to story.
“Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once and a while, you could miss it.”