Tuesday Night at the RNC; or, Why Fred Thompson was always my Favorite

Tuesday night was the first full night of convention events. The headliners were Thompson and Lieberman. For the sake of brevity, I’ll only comment on the most salient components of their two speeches.

Thompson:

Fred Thompson was slated to give the traditional biographical refresher speech tonight. As he said, “My role is to help remind you of the man behind to vision.”

One might reasonably expect this to be a dreadful assignment, and an even worse speech. After all, we all know the whole McCain story. Yes, it was an exciting story the first time I heard it, but now it’s gotten so overused.

Well, no. Thompson did cover some well-trod ground, following McCain from his Academy days, to his jet school days, to the first mission during which he was shot down, to his decision to return to battle, to his eventual capture, and through the solitary confinement, beatings, cracked ribs, broken teeth, legs and arms of his POW days. But, Thompson’s retelling of the story featured anecdotes and other aspects that even I, an early McCain supporter, had never heard. Some were amusing, such as the fact that, “When his captors wanted the names of other pilots in his squadron, John gave them the names of the offensive line of the Green Bay Packers.” Others were more gruesome, such as the detail that while in solitary confinement, “the oppressive heat” caused “boils the size of baseballs under his arms.”

The vividly detailed story crescendoed to one of the best lines I’ve heard in a while: “My friends, that is character you can believe in.” So far, that is my favorite line of the convention.

Taking a step back, let’s compare Thompson’s speech to Hillary’s. Both were onetime-opponents-turned-endorsers who gave headlining Tuesday night speeches. Whereas Hillary seemed as if she only attended the DNC and endorsed Obama because she would have been blamed for his loss (if he went on to lose), Thompson seemed to be re-introducing us to a close, personal friend of his. Hillary’s endorsement seemed forced, and her speech was very sparse with approbation for Obama’s character; Thompson’s entire speech was a moving character witness. It should be telling that, all speeches considered, there really were no “Let me tell you about this man, Barack Obama” speeches at the DNC. It should be equally telling that the designated “Let me tell you about this man, John McCain” speech at the RNC was so compelling.

[The speech did include some policy specifics, making some subtle and some not-so-subtle jabs at Obama. But those messages will surely be repeated often this week. As I said, in the interest of brevity, I will only cover the character message, the most singular aspect of Thompson’s speech]

Lieberman:

It would be easy to think that the sole purpose of Liebernman’s speech was proving that Republican talking points sound more impressive when said by Democrats (and that is manifestly true, at least when that Democrat is Lieberman). The speech also served another, very important role, one for which Lieberman is uniquely suited: repudiating the idea that McCain= Bush’s third term. This message, which I’ve said is of utmost importance (see below), was (I think persuasively) conveyed in the middle of his speech:

“My Democratic friends know all about John’s record of independence and accomplishment. Maybe that’s why some of them are spending so much time and so much money trying to convince voters that John is someone else. I’m here, as a Democrat myself, to tell you: Don’t be fooled. God made only one John McCain, and he is his own man.”

If Thompson’s speech was important for revealing who McCain is, Lieberman’s was critical for dealing with who McCain isn’t. Even if these were the only lines of the speech, it would have been a good, effective one. As it was (even with its paragraph in adoration of Clinton’s presidency, apparently included either to prove that Lieberman is a Democrat or to test whether the delegates were really listening), Lieberman’s whole speech provided a powerful witness to McCain’s maverick/reformer (in other words, anti-Bush) side.

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