Last week I had planned to write about Barack Obama’s acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention, but by the time I sat down to do it, much bigger news had (strategically) broken: John McCain chose a woman, first-term Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, as his running mate. Today I planned to sound off on Palin’s first major national address at the Republican National Convention last night, but there was a very different kind of introduction, one that occurred just seconds before Palin took the stage, that I can’t seem to get off my mind. Palin proved she could deliver a punch, and she was plenty sarcastic and condescending when referring to the Democratic nominee for president, but her remarks paled in comparison to those of keynote speaker Rudy Giuliani.
Americans were introduced to the Giuliani that New Yorkers have known and loathed for years. During the Republican primary, the former mayor rarely showed his true colors, biting his tongue so hard and so often that, at several debates, it seemed like he might choke on it. There was speculation about what the general public’s reaction would be if he showed even a glimmer of his famous temper and disposition, and what impact that would have on his campaign—a campaign that, of course, didn’t last long enough for us to find out. During his keynote address, Giuliani was at turns vicious, condescending, inaccurate, unoriginal and downright contemptible.
Giuliani deliberately, generously and predictably took from Hillary Clinton’s primary playbook verbatim, evoking her “3 a.m.” television ad and asking Americans to think about choosing a president as if they are “hiring someone to do a job.” Of course, he took that opportunity to compare Obama’s experience to McCain’s, saying, “[Obama] worked as a community organizer,” and then pausing for seemingly cued-up jeers, laughter and chants of “Zer-o!” (Get it? He has “zero” experience. Republicans like their little slogans, only this time budget constraints probably prevented the RNC from distributing clever props like those flip-flops in 2004. More obscene, however, was “Drill, baby, drill!,” which sounded disturbingly close to “Kill, baby, kill!”) Giuliani then compared Obama to Palin: “She’s already had more executive experience than the entire Democratic ticket combined.” And, by that logic, more experience than the Republican presidential nominee too. Ironic, since many party mouthpieces have been quipping wittily about the Obama-Joe Biden ticket being “inverted.”
Giuliani attempted to paint Obama’s compromise on the FIZA bill, which many supporters passionately disagreed with but which signals a candidate willing to reach across party lines despite upsetting his base, as indecision. He belittled Obama for voting “present” on bills in the Illinois General Assembly, saying it too was tantamount to indecision and that a president must be more than just “present.” But McCain now ranks as the #1 most absent senator of the 110th Congress, ahead of both Obama and Clinton, who endured a much longer, tougher battle, and Sen. Tim Johnson of South Dakota, who suffered a brain hemorrhage.
During his speech, Giuliani chastised Democrats for claiming that the war in Iraq was lost, a fair criticism depending on your definition of success, failure, surge and awakening. But his following statement, conflating Iraq with 9/11, is indicative of a party that doesn’t understand the fundamentals of terrorism or the war they’ve waged on it. “If America lost, who won? Al Qaeda? Bin Laden?” he asked, apparently befuddled. Giuliani aimed to solidify the fraudulent Rove talking point that Obama is an “elitist” by suggesting that the Democratic nominee thinks Palin’s hometown isn’t “cosmopolitan” or “flashy” enough. Giuliani seemed to relish this particularly disingenuous line of attack, practically foaming at the mouth and spitting out the words like some grade-school mean girl on the gossip rag. He blatantly misspoke about Obama’s policies: “Tax us more, increase the size of government, increase tariffs, hurt jobs, send jobs elsewhere.” Who knew jobs had feelings?
Most troubling, however, were the false claims about his own party, the revisionist approach of which are not novel to Giuliani’s speech but which were expressed so summarily. “We’re at our best when we are expanding freedom,” he said. “We’re the party that has expanded freedom from the very beginning, from ending slavery to making certain that people have freedom here and abroad. We’re the party that believes in giving workers the right to work. We’re the party that believes that parents should choose where their children go to school. And we’re the party that unapologetically believes in America’s success, a shining city on a hill, a beacon of freedom that inspires the world.” He’s apparently unaware that the party in question is the one whose leaders routinely support the dissolution of our civil rights in the name of national security and seek to add an amendment to the Constitution limiting the rights of gay and lesbian citizens, and the party that has tarnished America’s image abroad. He continued: “Like Ronald Reagan, John McCain will enlarge our party, open it up to lots of new people.” Not with divisive rhetoric like this speech. And not with a vice presidential pick like Palin.
Giuiliani’s speech can’t possibly be good for McCain or his party. Republicans show no bones about baring their teeth, playing dirty or kicking Democrats where it counts, and the public never seems to be turned off by it (at least when it comes time to enter the voting booth), but their rhetoric has become increasingly transparent, even desperate. The mocking tenor of Giuiliani’s speech carried over into Palin’s, and suddenly I found myself looking forward to hearing McCain speak. There’s one area, however, where Giuliani and I can agree; it came at the very beginning of his speech and echoed sentiments that have been repeated throughout the convention—sentiments I can’t help but think will ultimately help Democrats win in November: “2008 is the most important election of our lifetime and we better get it right.”
This blog entry was originally published on Slant Magazine on the date above.