The Breakfast Table

Cheney’s Speech, Deconstructed


I’m still processing my responses to Cheney’s speech. On the simplest, most practical level–that of effectiveness–it’s hard for me to know how to assess it. Did it change any minds? Tip over any fence-straddlers? I doubt it, but I just don’t know. On the whole, I suppose I’d give it a B at best; granted its content, it was reasonably well-written, and Cheney himself is a competent albeit uninspiring public speaker. (I do find that sneer a little off-putting; the current Republican ticket consists of one smirker and one sneerer.) As a supplier of red meat, he seems adequate but hardly spectacular.

On the other hand–this is why, speaking as a former speechwriter, I think it must have been a very tough speech to write–it was almost devoid of content. I know, I know, convention speeches aren’t supposed to be major policy pronouncements, and traditionally, the mission of the No. 2 guy on the ticket is mainly to jump ugly and inflict some damage. But I’m including that knowledge in my observation. When I say the speech was devoid of content, I mean that even the nasty attacks on Gore were essentially vacuous. All Cheney could do was talk, euphemistically and allusively, about Clinton’s sex scandals (“restore honor and dignity to the White House” is the phrase of art), and then assert that Gore is just like Clinton. He even made the strategy overt: “We will never see one without thinking of the other.” He just forgot to add, “Please God.”

The challenge for Republicans is, except for the sex scandals, they really don’t have anything to run against. By any objective standard, the country’s in great shape, and the only honest answer to Ronald Reagan’s famous question from 1980 is, “Unbelievably! What planet are you from that you have to ask?” So despite its length, the actual pith of Cheney’s speech could be rendered thus: “More military spending, no blow jobs.” The rest was window dressing.

The interesting thing is that it might work. The Clinton administration got most of the policy stuff right, and we’re all the beneficiaries. But Clinton himself got a lot of the rest wrong, and in the process did inestimable damage to his party as well as to his own reputation. Gore’s presidential prospects may be among the collateral damage. And as for Clinton’s legacy, fuhgedaboudit.

I have one prediction about Bush’s speech tonight, and I’m prepared to back it up with money if I can find a taker: I predict that when it’s over, at least one commentator will say, “He did what he had to do.”