Apolitical convention can be many things. For the dozen guys who actually run things, it’s a nimbus of steak houses and hotel conference rooms, with useful people floating in and out. For the next tier, it’s about proximity to that 12. There are regularly scheduled jujitsu matches between the people in charge of spinning things and the reporters trying desperately not to be spun. For the regulars, it is their equivalent of Westminster or Comicon, an opportunity to hang out with thousands of people whose obsession equals their own, right down to the funny hats.
But a political convention is also Coachella for rhetoric freaks: high-minded speeches wound out one after another until the oxygen in a given arena threatens to disappear, with rural legislators and small-city mayors, aldermen and committee chairs, military men and peace activists — well, not too many of those this year — and once-major party figures shoehorned into spots where they shouldn’t do much harm. If your tastes run one way or another, the speeches outside of prime time, at least at the Democratic National Convention, tend to be grouped into sets of Female Senators, Great Black Orators or Lifelong Republicans Alienated by Republican Policies (at the RNC, Joe Lieberman was the designated Benedict Arnold).
If you’re into this stuff, you can probably track a politician’s trajectory over the years from the equivalent of the tiny Mojave Tent to the second stage to the enormous main stage, and if an unknown speaker does unbelievably well, it can instantly make him a star. (I’ve watched the YouTube video of Barack Obama’s 2004 keynote address, delivered when he was still a second-term Illinois state senator, dozens of times in the past week, and it is the oratorical equivalent of Jimi Hendrix playing “The Star-Spangled Banner” at Woodstock, a speech that coiled meta moment into meta moment so artfully that you barely noticed he had set the entire idiom on its head.)
But mostly, the speeches are pretty bad, delivered by either nonprofessionals or political hacks accustomed to addressing Rotary breakfasts and halls of indifferent legislators. The speakers are further weighed down by the responsibility of hitting the prescribed Democratic talking points, so after a while, attendance becomes like sitting through a long, long round of gymnastics preliminaries; you get to the point where you can spot the imminence of a required element at least 30 seconds before it actually appears. (Do 373 mentions of global climate change mean that the Democrats are finally going to do something about it? I hope so. I was looking for some stuff on water policy or overfishing, but it may not be the year for it.)
So it couldn’t have been more surprising in Denver last week when Harry Reid delivered what was by far the best-written speech of the convention, at least before Barack Obama’s blockbuster at the football stadium. Reid’s talk was nuanced. It was thoughtful. It was funny. It traced the connection between blood and oil from Pearl Harbor to Darfur, touched on the oil-industry headlock on American politics, gracefully outlined the differences between Democratic and Republican energy policy, and pointed out why Senator Obama was an ideal agent of change. If the speech were an op-ed piece in The New York Times, or plumped-out slightly to become a front-of-the-book essay in The Atlantic, it would have made Reid a star. But for all the attention he was getting in the hall of the Pepsi Center, he might as well have been Rocky the Mountain Lion doing jumping jacks before the third quarter of a Nuggets game.
Senator Reid is considered an intellectual giant by absolutely no one, and his tenure as Senate Majority Leader has been marked by — well, nothing, really. Although he is the most powerful Democrat in the country at the moment, he seems to be utterly incapable of persuasion, which is a fairly important part of his job. It was not surprising that the convention organizers slotted him at a time when not even his wife and kids may have been paying attention, on an evening when he was outflanked by at least five other Democratic senators in the house: John Kerry, Evan Bayh, Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, Obama himself (with a surprise appearance at Biden’s side), not to mention Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and, of course, Ted Kennedy, whose brief appearance the evening before had been overwhelmingly received.
I was puzzled. Was Reid that good? Have we all been underestimating him? And then Bill Clinton came on — an hour or so later, anyway — and rocked the hall like Mick Jagger singing “Sympathy for the Devil,” a song we’ve all known by heart since 1968 but always enjoy hearing again.
In a way, evaluating the worth of a speech by what it actually says is like evaluating the worth of a pop song by looking at the lyrics — every DJ knows that when you want to pack the dance floor, what you want is Lionel Richie singing “Brick House.” Bill Clinton’s speeches are almost unbearable to read. You could be forgiven for assuming that his speechwriter was paid by the cliché, but Clinton is a master of implicit intimacy, speaking to large crowds as if he has his feet up on his kitchen table, dropping his G’s — Obama would become the first president since Reagan to actually pronounce the g at the end of gerund clauses — and playing off the echo of the arena the way Jimmy Page used to do. It didn’t even matter what he was saying — peace, prosperity, blah blah blah — because the music sounded right. When he said “Barack Obama is on the right side of history,” you actually believed it.