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Notes on the RNC #5: Out of the Box

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Notes on the RNC #5: Out of the Box

Now that the RNC is over, my feelings about the Republican’s chances in November remain unchanged. While I’m still a John McCain man, it’s hard to see him overcoming the Obama juggernaut.

Sure, the Sarah Palin selection has jolted many Republicans back to life. Instead of slamming McCain, as they have been for months (hell, years), Conservative talk radio types like Rush Limbaugh and Laura Ingraham are now singing his praises. One could argue that this was bound to happen anyway. But, trust me, there was a good chance that without the “Palin effect,” many of those in the GOP intelligentsia were poised to throw McCain under the bus after November and then say “I told you so.”

The current vibe among the elated hardcore is that Palin will excite the general public and present the Obama campaign with a challenge they were unprepared for.

But, I’d just advise my fellow McCain supporters to heed the advice of Winston Wolfe and “not start sucking each other’s dicks quite yet.”

Ben Stein (of Ferris Bueller fame) was present at the RNC, and still dumbfounded by the Palin pick. He said to CNN that she will have to get up to speed on important issues like the economy very quickly. He hilariously suggested that Palin might need to seclude herself in a spaceship like baby Kal-El (Superman) listening to hours and hours of training tapes (see below).

Speaking of CNN, I bounced around quite a bit between the big three cable news networks (CNN, MSNBC, Fox) and, for pure news analysis, CNN did the best job. They pack their high tech set with a dozen or so talking heads that are equally divided between party lines, each armed with their own laptop. The discourse is civil and informative. My only complaint is that sometimes the set gets so crowded that it looks like the stateroom scene from A Night At the Opera. Wolf Blizter does his best to stay in control, but much of time he ends up herding cats.

My main problem with MSNBC is Keith Olbermann. I know he has a large following, but I’ve never quite understood his appeal. And this isn’t about his politics. I thought Olbermann was an overrated mediocrity YEARS AGO when he was doing his bits on ESPN. Chris Matthews tries too hard, but I just can’t help but be attracted by his sincerity. Who else would admit to having a “thrill” run down his leg after an Obama speech? Tom Brokaw again brought a seasoned professional’s touch to the dais that was much needed after the loss of Tim Russert.

Of course, I readily admit that Fox News leans to the right (duh). In fact that’s their raison d’être. That said, Fox is no worse in their partisanship for Conservatives than MSNBC is toward Liberals. Brit Hume and Chris Wallace are solid newsmen and the thought-provoking give and take between the regulars flows nicely. However, Fox tends to run regular programming such as The Factor and Hannity and Colmes over the less important floor proceedings. So you end up missing a lot. I guess they assume that’s what C-Span is for.

The RNC festivities put military veterans front and center. I’m sure it plays well with the base, but I get a bit cynical whenever that card is played too strongly. It brought back memories for me of John Kerry’s failed “Reporting for Duty” approach from 2004.

When Lindsey Graham proclaimed that the “Barack Obama campaign is built around losing in Iraq,” I was taken aback. Egads man. It’s fair to question Obama’s qualifications (I certainly do), but I cringe when Republicans go into “wear da ribbon” mode. As Graham finished by telling the audience that it was okay to utter the word “Victory at THIS convention,” I was mentally queuing up the anthem from 1984 (okay, we all get ONE Orwell moment).

Given the criticism rightfully leveled at Obama’s Greek columns in Denver, I found the staging of McCain’s entrance a bit ironic. In fact, much of the aesthetics of McCain’s acceptance speech left something to be desired.

Before McCain came out, the voice of Fred Thompson boomed eerily across the hall saying “When you live in a box, you spend your life trying to make sure that other people don’t have to.”

The big screen was all black save for the sunburst of white light from which McCain emerged. He could have been “The Rock” making his way into a WWF event.

The stages at nominating conventions are now lower to the ground and more integrated into the audience then the older style podiums that were set up higher and separated from the delegates by a thick bench. This played into McCain’s strength as a speaker. He’s always better at townhalls than more static, scripted events. It’s worth mentioning that one of the factors Jay Leno cites as a reason for his success in the late night wars with David Letterman was having his Tonight Show set redesigned to be more intimate after seeing the stage layout on SNL.

In “It’s Wonk-a Vision,” I talked about the problems inherent in packaging a message for two types of audiences (one in the hall and the other on television).

This resulted in a “green screen” moment. At the start of McCain’s speech, the screen behind him began projecting a slide show of random Americana (families at play, people at work, cityscapes, etc). While delegates on the convention floor could appreciate the images, the television audience could only see that part of the photo visible in the head and shoulder shot of McCain. This sometimes resulted in a color scheme that, for the home viewer, seemed less than perfect. At one point, a big screen photo of a lush lawn created a television image of McCain standing in front of an unappealing green background. It’s amazing to me that no one noticed this during rehearsal. The dry run for McCain’s speech might have gone like that classic Bob Newhart routine where he played a frustrated television director talking to his camera people during a practice staging of Nikita Khrushchev’s visit to the United States in September of 1959:

Okay Charlie, have the plane taxi forward…I’m getting a lot of glare of the plane…make a note Charlie, we’re going to have to spray the plan. Now have Khrushchev come out…make a note…we’re going to have to spray his head…

When Barry Goldwater, McCain’s mentor, gave his acceptance speech at the 1964 RNC and uttered the famous phrase “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. Moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue,” his panicky aids exclaimed, “Oh my god, he’s running as Goldwater.”

Likewise, there was nothing phony about McCain’s demeanor during the powerful description of his “Hanoi Hilton” experience. It’s not often you hear a political candidate speak so movingly about such a low point in their life. I’m familiar with the details of his captivity and was somewhat surprised to hear him candidly admit that he had been “broken” into signing a “confession.” I was even more surprised to hear him loosely refer to his later suicide attempt brought on by signing that confession. We seem to have come a long way since Ed Muske cried.

There were a couple of sporadic interruptions by protesters in the audience. I don’t have much to say on that except I thought McCain handled it well and I’m not sure what, if anything, gets accomplished by that sort of thing. It only preaches to the choir and puts off those you’re trying to reach.

For all its flaws, McCain’s speech had a strong closing. His repeated urgings to the crowd to “stand up,” over the sound of their cheers, was certainly a very theatrical, but nevertheless dramatic finish.

The RNC concluded with the prerequisite dropping of the balloons as the prospective first couples came on stage. The Palin element was again stressed by having the song “Barracuda” (Palin’s nickname) playing in the background.

It’s worth mentioning that the rock group Heart has since sent a message to the McCain campaign asking them to quit using their 1977 hit.

And away we go…

Stein’s reaction to Sarah Palin:

Matt Maul is author of the blog Maul of America.