The first official night of the Republican Convention was one for contradictions. Party stalwarts gathered to celebrate both members of their ticket for bucking their party. The man who waged one of the most desultory campaigns for president in recent memory gave the most rousing speech. And the night ended with a call for loyalty from a member of the opposition party.
John McCain was celebrated for bucking entrenched interests, even in his own party. He was praised for standing up to Republican icon Ronald Reagan just after Reagan had been heralded with a video. Sarah Palin was also cheered for bucking her party. The crowd roared to hear that McCain would change Washington, D.C.—even though that same crowd had just cheered loudly for George Bush, the leader of their party and the person most responsible for the situation that needs changing.
Contradictions aside, the actual theme of the first night was “putting country first.” At times in the hall, it felt as if we were all in a Discovery Channel special. In video tributes to pilots George H.W. Bush and McCain, there was lots of black-and-white footage of explosions and planes in formation. In the audience, crowd members waved signs with “Service” written on one side and “Country First” written on the other.
Fred Thompson offered the emotional centerpiece of the evening. First he told McCain’s story, speaking of character and honor. Then he went after Obama for his lack of experience and accomplishment. He was loose and energetic in a way that he never was on the campaign trail, proving that he never really did have fire in his belly. In Denver last week, Democrats worried that if the campaign became about Obama’s character, he could lose, and Thompson went right for that target. “We will never ask ourselves,” said Thompson, referring to McCain, “Who is this man, and can we trust him with the presidency?” Unsaid, but understood, was that those are the big questions about Obama.
Thompson’s other target was the media. A strong undercurrent of this convention is that if you want to annoy the media, clap for Palin. (If there’s not a bumper sticker to that effect, I’d be shocked.) “Some Washington pundits and media big shots are in a frenzy over the selection of a woman who has actually governed rather than just talked a good game on the Sunday talk shows and hit the Washington cocktail circuit,” he said. “Well, give me a tough Alaskan governor who has taken on the political establishment in the largest state in the union—and won—over the Beltway business-as-usual crowd any day of the week.” (This pundit-bashing was slightly undermined by a picture of McCain and late pundit Tim Russert that flashed behind Thompson while he delivered one of his strongest lines.)
The enthusiasm for Palin, and the anger at the media, should make the Alaska governor’s big night an easy one despite the high stakes. It is her real national debut, and she’s facing stiff criticism—but, boy, is the crowd with her. One of tonight’s subsidiary themes was talk (Obama/Biden) vs. action (McCain/Palin), and the Republican running mate will frame her career in this same context. In her speech, she’s likely to use her biography to stress her toughness in taking on her party. She’s also likely to emphasize her quirky and regular-Jane life: She fights corruption by day, cooks dinner at night, and shoots moose on the weekend. The campaign hopes women will see their own struggles, and the difficulties and frustrations they face balancing their many roles, in Palin’s life story.
Joe Lieberman ended the evening. He didn’t spare Obama, either, suggesting the junior senator from Illinois was not a bipartisan consensus-builder and arguing that eloquence is no substitute for a record. In a direct appeal to Democratic voters, he didn’t talk about issues on which McCain might find common ground with Democrats, as Barack Obama did in his appeal to Republicans in his acceptance speech. Instead, he returned to the night’s theme of values, telling Democrats they had a chance to vote for a true American patriot. The Republicans roared for the Democrat, capping the night of contradiction.