I’ve been watching Republican conventions since 1984, when I was a 15 year old political junkie who wanted nothing more than to be old enough to vote. In that time, a handful of speeches have made it into my pantheon of all-time greats (I am loathe to rank them, because each one was great in its own way): Everything by Ronald Reagan, Jeane Kirkpatrick in 1984, Bush 41 in 1988, Pat Buchanan in 1992, Elizabeth Dole in 1996, Zell Miller in 2004…and now Sarah Palin in 2008. Last night’s performance was quite simply one of the best, and most effective, political speeches I’ve ever seen.
A few thoughts as to what made it so:
1) In a political world filled with “thems,” Palin firmly connected as an “us”. An “us” who has had a full and rich life both in the public arena and out of it, and whose character and decision-making ability have been shaped by those experiences. She’s spent years governing and making difficult decisions, which is a different world from that of the legislator. And she showed very clearly that one doesn’t need advanced degrees, or an ivy league education, to govern effectively — or to play on this stage with the best of them.
2) She was extremely effective in drawing contrasts with the Democratic ticket, particularly Barack Obama’s resume. I watched much of the Democratic convention last week (quite a penance), and heard considerable praise for his ideas, policies, intelligence, and curiosity. But I heard very little about any concrete accomplishments. Palin was excellent in detailing not only her own accomplishments, but also in the way she so starkly contrasted them with Obama’s. Not only the line about a mayor being “like a community organizer, but with actual responsibilities,” but particularly the line about Obama having had time to write two memoirs — but no significant legislation or reforms, either in the US or state senate. That she was able to deliver these withering lines with a smile was part of what made them so effective.
3) The brief reference to the recent family controversy, at the beginning, was nicely done. It needed some kind of acknowledgment, but nothing more. Had she said nothing, it would’ve been an elephant in the room hanging over the speech. Mentioning it early helped listeners “turn the page” and direct their attention to the substance of her remarks.
4) One line has not been widely remarked-upon in post-speech coverage, I think in part because it was a “dog whistle” that went under the mainstream media’s radar, directly to the ears of the great religious middle of the country: “But we are expected to govern with integrity, good will, clear convictions, and … a servant’s heart.” The phrase “servant’s heart” will not be repeated on the highlight reels, but those in middle America who heard it will remember it. And they know what it means.
5) Her comment about being a friend and ally in the White House for parents of special-needs children was quite powerful, I think. It was not only an oblique reminder of her own compassion and selfless love for her youngest son, but will resonate with the many families who struggle with similar situations and sometimes wonder if (in a world where 90% of Down syndrome babies are exterminated in the womb) they are all alone, or considered freaks, or looked down upon, for choosing to embrace children who are different — but no less perfect.
6) The Palin kids were great. I’ve loved watching the youngest daughter (Piper) wave to the crowd with her toothless smile. And it was really something when the baby opened his eyes at the very end, in his mother’s arms, and we got a good look at his face. He really is perfect.
7) I’m glad we didn’t hear any more of that “glass ceiling” stuff. It’s unnecessary, and a distraction.
8) My only complaint about her delivery is that she stepped on or talked through several natural applause lines. But I suppose that is a skill that will be cultivated and honed with time.
9) This is the only political address in my memory where the post-speech commentators fell all over themselves pointing out that “it was delivered well, but someone else wrote it.” Sheesh! Give me a break! Does any major political figure write his or her own speeches? The key is taking a speechwriter’s work, and then making it one’s own. In that, she was excellent. I fully expect that today, Rush Limbaugh will put together one of his famous “montages”, compiling all the comments about the speech having been written by someone else.
10) I’m getting tired of hearing the word “poised” to describe her delivery. She did indeed exhibit great poise. But I started to wonder…is “poised” the female equivalent back-handed compliment that “articulate” is for blacks? (“That was really poised, for a woman. Women are such bundles of emotion, we weren’t expecting you to hold up to the pressure and seem so composed.”) Mrs. Yeoman Farmer, who is both black and female, disagrees on this point. She agrees that “articulate” is insulting when used to describe blacks who speak well, but doesn’t think “poised” is inappropriate for women candidates. Still…has anyone heard “poised” used to describe a man’s performance?
11) My sense is that the swirl of nasty media coverage leading up the speech only served to heighten interest and viewership. Will be interesting to see what the rating numbers turn out to be like, and what impact this has on Palin’s personal favorability.
12) I do think it remains to be seen how she’ll perform when questioned one-on-one by reporters, particularly about the details of John McCain’s policies. But she’s certainly proved over these last several days that she’s a fighter and in the arena to stay; she didn’t get to this place with lofty speeches, and I don’t think she needs them going forward.
Bottom line: we are tremendously excited now on the Republican side. For many of us, who were supporting McCain reluctantly or to block the alternative, we are now juiced about supporting this ticket — and helping Sarah Palin move ahead on the national stage.
We’ve seen the future, and it’s Sarah Palin. (And Bobby Jindal, on the jumbo screen from Louisiana, doing the hard work of governing in crisis this week. But that’s a separate post.)