Tuned In

RNC Wrapup: Bush Escapes Custody

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Due, I assume, to unforeseen technical problems, millions of Americans inadvertently saw President George W. Bush endorse John McCain last night at the Republican National Convention. The President’s brief remarks had been slated in the 9:30 hour, which would have ended them before the major broadcast networks picked up coverage at 10 p.m. E.T. Instead, Bush’s speech ran just past 10 p.m., giving a wider audience at least a glimpse of an address that seemed part generous praise for a former rival, part house-arrest video.

The President, of course, had a legitimate reason to deliver his speech by satellite to St. Paul, having stayed behind in Washington after Hurricane Gustav made landfall. Still, the device was a literal reminder of the convention’s figurative efforts to keep him at arm’s length. Bush’s speech, as a text, was actually well-targeted under the circumstances. He had to address a convention that was essentially trying to argue that America needs a change from himself, but he did so with good spirits and by focusing on the character of the candidate he had a bitter campaign against in 2000.

Still, the satellite presentation was jarringly distancing. This was partly an unavoidable effect of the remote hookup, which meant that the President didn’t have a live crowd to feed off of and build a dynamic with, and ended up stepping on a few of his own applause lines. But the staging was also odd: standing at a White House podium flanked by flags, he seemed set up more for a primetime address than a convention speech—speaking to, rather than with, his audience. A tighter framing of the President or a less formal setting might have created more intimacy with the convention delegates.

With Bush’s approval rating in the neighborhood of 30%, that may have been exactly what they wanted to avoid. But the tradeoff is that, in comparison with the DNC last week, the room last night seemed relatively listless. (Fair or not, remember, TV viewers’ last memory of the DNC is the cheering crowd at Mile High Stadium.) The energy level, however, will likely change with Sarah Palin’s much-anticipated speech tonight, with the Alaska governor getting credit for the gear shift. President Bush’s loss may be her gain.

The RNC’s primetime hour basically took the famous Zell Miller speech of 2004—in which the Georgia Democrat flayed John Kerry alive—and split it in half. Fred Thompson, formerly of Law & Order, delivered a Southern-lawyer summation of the case for John McCain’s character and against Barack Obama’s politics, chopped into short declarative sentences and accentuated by throat clearings. (He also made an ingenious argument for Sarah Palin, praising her as governor of “the largest state in the union.” That’s in area and volume!)

Meanwhile, Democrat-turned-Independent Joe Lieberman—having apparently been denied the VP nod at the last minute—made the case for crossing party lines to support his old friend McCain, but in far less fiery terms than Miller. (To my ear, that would seem like a better tone for reaching independents, but then again, I underestimated how effective Miller’s tubthumping speech would be in 2004.)

I should give my usual disclaimer, that I’m an Obama supporter, so that you know that—while I’m focusing on the telegenics of the convention, not its ideology—I’m not exactly the intended audience. I’m especially curious to hear from some of the redder regions of Tuned Inland on this one.